Building Stoke: Neil Toracinta - Tora Surfboards
Story and photos by Rachel McCarty
The warm glow of shop lights spills out of an open garage bay, starkly contrasting with the cloudy grey skies above. Nestled on a quiet street, just blocks from the extravagant, finely crafted Newport mansions on Ruggles Avenue, Neil Toracinta crafts perfection of his own.
Some kid in a garage is at the heart of surfing’s history. It wasn’t that long ago that shortboards were the Frankenstein craft of backyard shapers who hacked up longboards to start a revolution. Everyone has to begin somewhere, and this garage is the beginning of Tora Surfboards.
Neil started surfing around the age of 13, going out with a couple of friends whenever there were waves and just messing around until it started to stick. “Born and raised” in Newport, he quickly ingratiated himself into the local lineup, which included Water Brothers owner Sid Abruzzi. “We started surfing with them, me and a couple friends, when we were young, and a lot of the guys kind of took us under their wing” says Neil. “Sid has always been really good to me. He’s always been really supportive ever since I started shaping. I just basically grew up with them, the whole Water Brothers crew.”
Newport fosters a tightly knit community of surfers. It would be hard not to share the water with legends like Sid when you grow up around there. The garage Neil shapes in, which belongs to his grandparents, is a mile from Ruggles. From the driveway he pointed out a house across the street: the house his parents lived in when he was born, before they moved just a little farther down the road.
When I stopped by the garage, Neil was grinding down the laps of a board he was helping a local high school kid shape as part of a senior project, allowing the process to come full circle. “[Shaping] started as a senior project we had to do in high school where we had to find a mentor and produce a “final product” to present at the end of the year, so I chose shaping surfboards, which was becoming my main interest at the time,” he said. “My mentor was a local guy, Bill Slaby, who taught me a lot about how to glass a board. I taught myself to shape mostly, and this ended up being good because I was able to learn the techniques and what worked and what didn’t work through trial and error.”
The addiction started with that first experiment. Much like catching your first wave, shaping your first surfboard is thrilling and terrifying at the same time. Materials are expensive, and just a few mistakes can turn a potential wave riding vehicle into a landfill-bound mess of foam and fiberglass. “My first 10 boards or so weren’t very good. I still have the first two hidden in a closet,” laughs Neil. Getting every detail right can feel like forcing the stars to align, but Neil has certainly come a long way since he started shaping in 2007.
It was influence from shapers like Bob Pearson and Matt Biolos that helped to push Neil in the right direction. “Bob Pearson from Pearson Arrow shapes boards for a lot of local guys. [Pearson is] from Santa Cruz, and some of their breaks are similar to the ones we have around here, so I definitely feel comfortable using his boards as a reference when I’m shaping,” says Neil, who shapes in a Pearson Arrow sweatshirt that still has foam dust in every nook and cranny after three washings. “Also a company like … Lost, to see how big they’ve become starting the same way I did, just making boards out of a garage.”
The smell of polyester resin wafts around the garage and I breathe in deep, soaking up all the chemical goodness that sends surfers to dreaming of empty barrels and tropical islands. For mind-surfing hallucinations, epoxy doesn't do it for me and I don’t blame Neil for sticking with the classics. “All my boards to date have been made with polyurethane blanks and polyester resin,” he says. “I’ve never tried making epoxy boards. [The polyurethane/polyester] combo has just been the easiest for me to work with, and proven throughout the industry to perform the best.”
The common complaint about funboards is that they do everything okay, but nothing well. What a shaper can take from this is that it’s important that you do at least one thing well, and Neil certainly has been following that mantra. “I generally keep most of my focus on shaping shortboards and all the components that go into making a good shortboard,” says Neil. “I shape funboards and fishes and all that too, but shortboards have definitely been my main focus. I have been getting some interesting orders, including everything from 5-foot small wave boards to 7-foot single fins and I enjoy shaping those too.” His main customers are local surfers in the Newport area, but he is branching out. “I have a few boards in the works for some big hitters over on Maui.”
Most professional shapers will agree it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of boards shaped to master the craft. However, to just feel like a shaper, to have an innate feel for compound curves and forms, can happen quickly. Neil, with only 40 boards under his belt, realized that moment “once my boards started to sell and I was getting some good feedback from guys who were riding them.” He still considers himself to be learning, but I think even the heavyweight greats of the world believe they'll always be learning too.
Feedback is key to the board building process, and unless your shaper took your brand new stick for a spin before handing it off to you, they would never know how well the board works until you crawled out of the water, shook off some sand and uttered a few concrete adjectives in between stoked shouts and hoots. If your shaper is smudging wax on the freshly polished deck of your new board, I suggest you invest in a thesaurus. Neil has no problem eliciting feedback from the guys who ride his boards, like local
he needs to fix anything, though he rarely has to fix them.”Our shaper/surfer relationship is a very close one for sure,” says Luke. “Whenever he is shaping a board or is done with one he likes to have me come over to look at it and tell him if I like the shape or not. I think that helps him a lot because he can have another surfer looking at it and telling him if
Neil has embraced the reactions he gets from surfers who try his boards. “Whether it’s what the board did well for the rider or what it didn’t do well,” says Neil, “it allows you to take that criticism and apply it to shaping so the boards just get better and better. Riding my own boards has helped me gain a good understanding of how a board works and what makes it perform well in the water too. All feedback is good feedback.”
As I walked out of the garage, leaving the radiating warmth of the shop lights and entering back into the dreary November dusk, I asked Neil what keeps him shaping surfboards when he could be making more money waiting tables.
“It’s a pretty simple concept, I have a lot more fun shaping boards and expanding the Tora brand then I would ever have at a 9-5 or waiting tables.”
You can’t argue with passion.
I started surfing Nantucket when I was fourteen. My childhood best friend, Sean McMahon, the person who’d first introduced me to surfing, had moved out there with his mother. I’d visit him on weekends during the offseason and for entire weeks during summers. Having grown up in a working class beachfront neighborhood on Boston’s South Shore, Nantucket was a completely alternate universe, especially from fall to spring. The vibe was laid back. Older dudes cruised around in old Broncos and F-150s, almost all of them with Grateful Dead stickers on the back windows. I hadn’t even heard of the Dead at the point. As a neurotic Catholic kid, the name itself, the Grateful Dead, scared the living Jesus out of me, but it seemed to fit the people who inhabited Nantucket, especially the surfers. Everybody had that crazed philosopher look, wide-eyed as if staring into the existential void, and they weren’t frightened by what they saw. They were kind of grateful for what they had, which was silence and solitude to the backdrop of absolutely thumping beachbreak. Nantucket surfers had that die-hard persona that comes with surfing big, currenty waves by yourself on a regular basis.
Gary Kohner has always had that wide-eyed edge. Gary grew up surfing on Nantucket but now resides in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica half the year surfing the heavy reef waves of Salsa Brava. To me, Gary epitomizes the Nantucket surfer. I first met him when I was fifteen through my friend Sean. He was a year or two older and often drove us around to various breaks. Gary’s intense passion for surfing rivals anyone I’ve ever met, even my own. He charges big waves and rips in the small stuff (he was one of the first people I’d ever seen ride a fish). Over the years, Gary has done the near impossible for a New England surfer. He’s found a way to make a living at it. Gary has always had extreme foresight in regards to the surfing lifestyle. He bought property in Costa Rica before most people had ever heard of the place. He’s produced an award-winning surf film recognized by the likes of Surfer Magazine. He also runs the biggest and most-successful surf school in New England, and has been doing it long before the idea struck current opportunists. Thankfully, Gary took some time from living the dream to answer a few mundane questions from a recovering neurotic. Thanks, Gary!
Volpe: I remember first meeting you in the mid ‘80s. I was a freshman in high school. I’d been to Nantucket before visiting Sean, but this was my first trip as a surfer. It was late fall and the thing that really hit me was the starkness of not only the beaches, but the entire island. I’d spent considerable time on the Cape, but Nantucket was something altogether different. Being out at Madequecham in November was profoundly raw. I found it both intimidating and awe-inspiring. What was it like growing up as a surfer on Nantucket, especially during the off-season? In what ways did it shape you as a surfer? And coincidentally, how long have you/your family lived out there?
Kohner: I moved out to Nantucket in 1976 when I was six. When I started surfing in 1984, there were not many year round surfers. There was a crew of us groms, like Sean McMahon, Dave Ozias, Kevin Huyser, and Jeff Walsh who all started around the same time and then there was the older crew with guys such as Chris Emery, Steve Erisman, Bill Davidson, Ben Murphy Rick Kotalack, and Freddy Linquist, to name a few. Also a kid named Eric Miller moved out to Nantucket from Hawaii and he talked pidgin and ripped for a teenager in Nantucket at that time. My summers revolved around Nobadeer for the most part. It was and still is the party beach and there were always lots of interesting things going on for a teenager...parties, girls etc.. However, as soon as summer was over, the crowds of teenagers disappeared and we'd be looking for people to surf with, driving around checking Nobadeer, Cisco, Madequecham, and Madaket. It was hard back then trying to find the right spot, well before cell phones. If we found a good peak, maybe we'd be on it all day with minimal peeps, and then hear about what another break was like later on when we connected with friends. I think growing up in a uncrowded environment, I certainly dislike crowds and have tried to travel to places that are a bit off the beaten track. I think the challenge of surfing beachbreak in the winter also made me really appreciate points and reefs as I got older and started to travel.
Volpe: That's exactly how I remember Nantucket in those early years. Since you bring up crowds, maybe you can talk about your purchase of land in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. For me, you were the first person I'd ever heard of who did such a thing. Back then, maybe Todd Holland and his mom were running that surf camp, but I feel like you were already there by then, if not shortly after. What year did you buy land, and in what ways has the place changed, if at all, especially in regards to crowds?
Kohner: I bought a piece of land in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, right near Salsa Brava (I have a nice view of second peak from my house). I had actually heard about Costa Rica from Chris Frame who had been there with Steve Erisman in 1989. Then a friend of mine from Florida said he wanted to do a surf trip over the winter to CR and I decided to join him. The town has changed considerably since I bought the land in 1993. I first went there in January of 1990. It was a pretty sleepy place back then and now it’s a popular tourist/party town. It’s more crowded than it was back then in large part due to that there were only a few locals that surfed Salsa when I first went there. Now the local crew is much bigger and the kids rip. Former Costa Rican National Champ Gilbert Brown is a local ripper and there are many good local surfers who charge Salsa as well as rip small waves. It gets crowded but I know the local crew well and like to imagine I have a place in the lineup and pecking order. Over 20 years of surfing there has given me some insight in reading the waves and knowing the lineup.
Volpe: I’ve seen pics of Salsa and the place looks like it gets super hollow and heavy. Maybe you can describe the wave for us. Did growing up on the fairly shallow sandbars of Nantucket help you acclimate at all?
Kohner: I've had the most epic tube rides of my life at Salsa. There’s been so many days, it's hard to single out any one in particular. It has so many different moods. It can be smaller and playful, big, stormy and gnarly and everything in between. It's usually less crowded when it's really big so I really like those days. I was super intimidated by the wave when I first went there so I would say growing up on Nantucket didn't really prepare me for Salsa. It's actually not a super shallow reef. Maybe 6-8ft deep at some parts and shallower at others. I've bounced really hard off of it years ago and broke a rib. I took off on a solid 6-8 foot bomb and spun out at the bottom. I remember being on my back, getting sucked up the face, and thinking how I’d just blown a perfect barrel. Then it sucked me up and over the falls twice. The second time, it just pounded me straight into the reef on my back. Fortunately, I was wearing a shortie so I didn't get that cut up. I came in and was spitting up blood for a while.
Volpe: That sounds pretty intense. Are there any other waves in the area?
Kohner: There are some other good reef breaks on the Caribbean side and the beachbreaks can get really good too. There are also some outer reefs that can get BIG. The Caribbean can be fickle and inconsistent but it can also pump for months.
Volpe: What’s it like spending a considerable portion of your year in Costa Rica? I am sure it’s paradisiacal. I am just asking because I really enjoy feeling shitty about my year round life here in New England.
Kohner: I bought my property because I just really loved being there and it was still cheap to buy at the time. In hindsight, I wish I bought a lot more property all over Costa Rica. I usually spend about four to six months a year in CR. I was certified as a yoga teacher by the Nosara Yoga Institute in November 2009 and since then I have been spending a lot of time on the Pacific side in Playa Guiones where I’m involved with the Institute as a student. I also work and assist various teacher training programs. I do miss Salsa when I'm on the Pacific side.
When I'm at my house on the Caribbean side, I get into full surf junkie mode if the waves are good. Wake up early. Surf. Eat. Surf. Eat and sleep some more. I like hanging out with the crew on the beach and being part of the peanut gallery. I've known most of the local rippers since they were kids. I also like to stand up paddle board and hit the outer reefs and Salsa on my SUP. Lately, I have been trying to wean myself off the SUP tit. I had two years where I barely surfed prone...it was all SUP all the time, no matter what the conditions. I brought a bunch of SUPs down about four to five years ago and got a few of my friends hooked. Everyone has been breaking their SUPs so their back to surfing again. It’s a great place to paddle when the waves are flat with all the reefs and beautiful coastline. The Caribbean is pretty laid back so it's easy for me to get into a laid back groove. I'll take some of the local mini groms surfing and throw big barbeques on the beach...I guess that’s my way of contributing.
Volpe: Judging from your Facebook pics, you're clearly not the typical SUPer. You absolutely rip on that thing. You say you're weaning yourself off, what is it about SUPing that seems so shameful?
Kohner: To set the record straight, I still love SUPing and I'm not ashamed of it at all. I just want to be a complete, well-rounded surfer. Certain wave conditions are better for a surfboard than a SUP. I just noticed that if I didn't force myself to surf other boards I would tend towards the SUP. I tend to get obsessed with things for a while, like there was a period of time when I got super into longboarding and only rode longboards. Then I got super into riding a 5'6" fish and only rode that board. I love SUPing in big waves and I think there is a lot of potential for big-wave surfing on them. I think SUP's get a bad rap because you can be a total wave hog on them if you want to be and a lot of kooks ride them. I love riding different boards and I love the glide. Pulling into a double overhead barrel on a 9' SUP with a paddle is a serious rush!
Volpe: Shifting topics, in 1999 your surf video “Horny for Surf” got some serious attention from the surf industry. What was that experience like and any new films coming out soon?
Kohner: I edited “Horny for Surf” on a VCR. My friend Steve Tag helped me put music to it. As a joke, I sent it in to Surfer Magazine because they had reviewed a couple of homemade videos. It was reviewed in their big issue and got a great review. Then I got a phone call from Ben Marcus saying I should come out to the Surfer Poll Awards. It won Best Underground Surf Video at the Surfer Poll/Video awards. My friend Josh was also nominated for Best Performance by a Male Surfer for his goofy antics in the video. Occy ended up winning that year for his performance in the Occumentary. It was so classic because they announced all the nominees and then showed a little video montage. It was like Occy, Bruce Irons, and a couple other pros just killing it in epic surf, and then my friend Josh surfing all awkwardly in knee-high surf and throwing up. I flew out to LA for the ceremony...I was pretty star-struck by all the pros actually. I made a couple more and edited them on iMovie. I enjoy the creative process of editing the footage and putting music in. I haven't done much lately though.
Volpe: Aside from buying property in Costa Rica before it was popular, you also started running a surf school long before other surf schools here on the mainland started, at least to the size and scope you’re doing. How did you get started?
Kohner: I was actually in Santa Cruz with Chris Frame the winter of 1998/99 and we started talking about how a surf school could work on Nantucket in the summer. I decided to give it a shot. It was right when Soft-Top surfboards came out. So I went to the guys at Surftech (based in Santa Cruz) and ordered half a dozen boards and then got a dozen or so shorties from Rip Curl. I started giving surfing lessons in the summer of 1999. The first summer it started off as a part-time thing because I was also landscaping, but by the end of the summer I decided to sell the landscaping business and do the surf school full time the following summer. I now have about a half-dozen instructors. Most are local kids that have been surfing and hanging around the surf school since they were groms. We give hundreds of lessons a summer and do a weekly surf camp for kids. I also rent boards and SUP's and give SUP lessons.
Volpe: From buying land in CR, to producing surf films and teaching surf lessons, is it safe to say that you have found a way to make a living from surfing? Do you look upon your life in that way? And what if any do attribute to this success?
Kohner: I think I've been very lucky. I'm very grateful to be able to make a living from something I enjoy. I think being passionate about what I do has helped. I love surfing and it's had a huge impact on my life.