June 24, 2018
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Surf’s up north: Maine wave riders build their own boards

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

Josh Moody’s workshop, tucked in the woods of Monroe, appears commonplace, obscured by birch trees and piles of firewood. But step inside the bow-roof shed, and you may be surprised at what you find.


Surfboards — and tools to make them.


“I’m definitely the easternmost [surfboard] shaper in the entire U.S.,” said Moody, who builds and designs surfboards by hand for his small business, Monroe Surf Company.


Moody grew up riding boards — skateboards and snowboards. But he didn’t discover his true passion until 2001, when he stood on a surfboard for the first time while vacationing on the northeast coast of Oregon.


“I got in the water and caught some white-water rides, and I was immediately hooked. I decided this had to be a lifelong goal,” Moody said.


“Nothing feels like riding a wave. You know? Nothing,” he said. “The surface you’re riding is a moving surface … every wave is a gift, and none of them are the same.”


Surrounded by the vibrant blue walls of his workshop, Moody strapped on a facemask and connected his planer to a shop vac. To the high-pitched whine of the machine, Moody began a sort of dance, circling around a foam surfboard blank and whittling it down.


“Most shapers say you can eye up the lines and curves best against blue,” Moody explained as he worked.


“You know the movie ‘Surfs Up?’” he asked, referring to a Disney animation featuring surfing penguins. “They say something critical in that movie, and that is ‘long and smooth strokes,’ and it’s so true.”

Using a hand saw, planer and variety of sanders, Moody worked the polyurethane blank into a “fun board,” a versatile design that would go to a tall young man from Thomaston who had just started surfing.


Moody designs and constructs a variety of longboards, fish boards, eggs, shortboards and fun boards. He works with each customer to create a surfboard that will fit their ability, strength and size, as well as the location they’ll be surfing. Customers can even add their own artwork into the graphics of the board.


“It’s not like a baseball bat,” he said. “For a baseball bat, everyone wants a new Louisville Slugger.”


He became a surfboard shaper out of necessity.


After his first thrilling ride on the waves, Moody spent years trying to find the right board for his body type, his ability and Maine surf.


A “do-it-yourself” kind of guy, Moody lives with his wife in a log cabin he constructed out of recycled and reclaimed materials. He built the home when he couldn’t find a sustainable living space in his hometown. So naturally, when he couldn’t find the ideal surfboard, his first option was to make it himself.


At first, he learned the art by reading and through trial and error. Then he took the time to visit and observe renowned shapers and glassers in California and Hawaii.


“Four years ago, I made my first board, and once I made it, it just changed my surfing,” he said. “And then another guy wanted one, and it just went from there.


“It’s really just a labor of love,” he said. “It’s not at all about making money … There’s a little math that goes into it, and science and thought. But I put so much of myself into the boards.”


Moody keeps pretty good track of where his MSC boards go — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Hawaii and California — and the majority of the boards he’s built so far have stayed right in Maine.


To build the right boards for New England surfers, Moody studies surfing conditions, often by traveling to surf spots himself and testing the waves.


“Most of our waves are wind swells, and they don’t have a lot of power,” Moody said of Maine waves. “We have mushy waves … so on your average day, you need a thicker, floatier board. That’s just the recipe that works.”


Most days, he uses a fish or longboard, but when the surf really comes up, he takes out a shortboard or semi gun, he said.


“Surfing in New England is different than most places. Waves can be fickle and hard to predict.  Tides that range in excess of 15 feet require precise knowledge of each break. The temps, air and water; are often below freezing. But the things that make surfing here different and at times difficult are also what keep the surf community for the most part, honest, grateful and seriously stoked wave riders,” Moody states on his company website, monroesurfco.com, which includes photos of his surfboards, propped up in deep snow.


Boat building heritage expressed in Maine surfboards


The wooden surfboard company Grain Surfboards began eight years ago when Mike LeVecchia began building boards in the basement of his home, just minutes away from York Beach, a popular surf spot in southern Maine. Since then, the company has grown from a one-man operation to a team of about 10 people working in a 4,500 square-foot shop.


“We aren’t huge, but for a surfboard company, especially doing wooden surfboards, we’re probably the biggest wooden surfboard company in the world,” he said. “There are different methods people use to build wooden surfboards, but it’s a very small group.”


Grain Surfboard designs are a combination of LaVecchia’s love for board sports combined with a passion for traditional wooden boat-building techniques.


Among LaVecchia’s prior jobs, he operated a commercial sailing vessel on Lake Champlain and managed the construction of an 88-foot schooner being built by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, working side by side with some of the best shipbuilders in the country.


And Brad Anderson, who became co-owner of Grain Surfboards soon after the company’s inception, started his career as craftsman at the age of 16, building fiberglass boats in New Jersey industrial park.


“We all have boat-building and furniture-making backgrounds, so we’ve always been woodworkers,” he said. “No one who works here has ever even shaped a foam surfboard, which is kind of funny. For us, it was just kind of the natural way. It was what we knew and what we were comfortable with.”


The team is committed to building and promoting surfboards that have less impact on the environment.


They craft their boards one at a time, using locally harvested northern white cedar, with some wester red cedar thrown in for color, from sustainable forestry professionals. White cedar is light, rot-resistant and has dramatic grain patterns, lending to the natural beauty of the finished boards, which range from traditional skeg-finned longboards to modern quad fishes.


In addition to an impressive line of surfboards, they currently sell apparel, skateboards, belly boards and surfboard building kits all over the country, as well as Central America and Europe. The also offer surfboard building workshops, for which they’ve had students travel from places such as Japan, Singapore, Norway and Brazil to attend, LaVecchia said.


“We love building boards for people, and we do it regularly, but we’re definitely trying hard to put the experience back in people’s hands,” he said. “Prior to the 50s and 60s, you know, people made their own surfboards. If you wanted to surf, you needed to know how to do it.”


“And there’s a lot more you take away from this than just a surfboard,” he added.


The Grain Surfboard shop is located on a farm, where the wood shavings from making surfboards go to the cows and pigs. And on days when the surf is up, the shop is empty, LaVecchia said. All the employees are in the ocean.


“It wasn’t a business decision to start it in Maine instead of somewhere else; this is just where we are. There was really no question of doing it anywhere else,” he said. “It’s hard to say, but I think partially what makes us as successful as we’ve been is the fact that we’re in Maine and have this kind of unique story. If we were doing this in California, we’d be just another fish in a big pond and it’d be harder to do what we do.”


For information, visit grainsurfboards.com.


Maine’s surf scene builds momentum


“I think it’s bigger than what most people think,” said LaVecchia of the surfing community in Maine.


“Most of the people in Maine who surf have to take the good with the bad and fill their time with other things,” he said. “It’s not like California, where you can surf every day if you want to. There are stretches where there’s nothing to do in the water.”


Nevertheless, every surfer he talks to expresses how much more crowded the popular surf spots have become over the past couple of years, especially during the summer.


“In the past four years, there’ve been three more surf shops that have opened up [in Southern Maine],” he said. “Those are signs I think.”


Surfing conditions off Maine’s rocky coast can’t be generalized, LaVecchia said. While there are places where the waves are slow and mushy, there are other spots where waves are fast and hollow.


The rocky outcroppings, strong currents and cold water of the northeast coast can be dangerous. LaVecchia suggests that people learning to surf take lessons to learn basic techniques, as well as surfing safety and etiquette.


“Knowing the rules of the road is just as important as knowing how to paddle out and catch a wave,” he said.

Study up on northeast waves in “The Maine Surfers Guidebook” by the staff of MaineWaves, or by visiting mainewaves.com.

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