Monday, December 20, 2010

Going With the Grain – Surfer’s Path Article

The folks at Grain Surfboards are involved in an ecosystem of thought and action.
by Hef Martin (reprinted with permission of Surfer’s Path)

The metallic brown commuter jet began her descent to the New England coastline. Below, thick black river water twisted liberally and without intent amidst dense forests of peeling birch, Adirondack pine, curly white cedar, and crimson oak. Few towns, houses, or barns dare encroach on these northernmost stretches of the Appalachian Mountain range along which we now skidded. I folded an old Stephen King novel under the tuck of my peacoat pocket, slugged down the soupy dregs of my Irish coffee, and made to set heel to tarmac.

Portland International Jetport hosts 10 gates and stretches for maybe, generously, 150 yards. As a faded red windsock danced listlessly against a hemlock backdrop, half a dozen passengers and I embraced the bewildering smell of ocean and the unnatural silence on the runway. The most obtrusive element was the thick fog licking in off the Atlantic. Seagulls squakwed overhead; I could hear them crisply now without the engine growl and customary annoying sounds of an ‘international jetport’.

But the silence gave me vertigo. I felt off-balance. I went wall-eyed from confusion. Was this a dream? A different dimension? Was I back on that grass runway swath cut into the Bolivian Amazonian basin? I glanced back at the plane to see if it was a South American military envoy. No. I checked my pockets for remnants of coca and scribbled antics on cigarette rolling papers. None. Is this really America? How come I don’t feel a bleak and repressive malaise? Where are the fat people?

As I pondered my new place of being on this planet I watched an older gentleman welcome his family back to the Northeast. He wore a straw barbershop-quartet hat with a gray-and-navy Sunday suit, all highlighted with a bowlined red tie. The family seemed to be a father, uncle, and son. All groomed their facial hair in the same style as Kevin Costner, and when they noticed my neckbeard, they all grimaced like they were sniffing cheesy feet. All four of us forced smiles.

Portland proper is the focal burg of Southern Maine, but there didn’t seem to be any structures taller than four stories. The place is boatyards and lighthouses, connected with cobblestone and sloped antique brick single-lane motorways. Colonial architecture and interesting rooflines of cedar shake blend in with abandoned naval bases in blue blood tradition down the coast, as license plates whisper italically, “Vacationland…”

The smell of cedar
spread a smile wide
upon my face. I cackled
hideously, slurped at
some fire-roasted beans
and swilled moonshine
brew out of a glass jar,
thinking out loud, “This
place is f*cking perfect.

One hour south, I found the Grain Surfboards barn, a shaping, glassing, and boutique wooden surfboards operation situated in the foothills of smoky blue mountains, idyllic pastures of hobby farms, and pacifist communes turned artisan produce markets. The barn is not 20 minutes from a number of decent beachbreaks that swamp the coves, chasms, and open coastline all the way down to the Outer banks of the Carolinas.

I set up camp in the dark, loading resilient tree branches with mini-lanterns, pitching my tent under the starlight with the large north wall of the Grain barn beside me. Tall grass scratched the side of my canvassed domicile, which lay in a graveyard of mechanical skeletons. Trailer chassis and snowmobile hoods grew thick with weeds, cows lowed approvingly from beyond, and the moon shimmered without border, spreading a vagueness cloaked opaquely by wet mist and dewy foreground. The smell of cedar spread a smile wide upon my face. I cackled hideously and slurped at some fire-roasted beans, pausing to swill moonshine brew out of a glass jar, thinking out loud, “This place is fucking perfect.”

Peeling my eyes from my book and donning my flannel jacket, curiosity revealed itself to me. Would I be here right now if Clark foam hadn’t closed its doors and effectively changed the surfing industry on December 5, 2005? Would the general niceties and hopeful vagaries of surfing culture exist without companies like Grain? I doubt I would find this lasting peacefulness outside of a pop-out factory in Malaysia. Excited to meet the people beyond the name of the company, I clicked off my headlamp to get some sleep.



Above: Brad Anderson and Mike LaVecchia roll home after a Northeastern Seaboard tour with their custom boards.
The grumble and growl of an open throttle startled me awake. It was 7a.m., already hot, and sunny, I was sweating and wanted to barf. I hung my stinky head out of the tent and was greeted by two hoodlums on black motorcycles – a snaggle-toothed man grinning wildly on a hog and a large brute manhandling a decrepit World War II-era military bike and sidecar parked, on the grass adjacent to some unimpressed heffers. They were Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. They were butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the Argentinian altiplano. They had six surfboards strapped to their machinery and had driven through the night from an east Coast demo tour. They were Mike LaVecchia and Brad Anderson, owners and operators of Grain, and immediately I knew we would get along in splendid perversion.

I was still early for the course. Myself and five others were slated for attendance at Grain’s third weeklong surfboard-shaping workshop. The first had been done in collaboration with the Wooden Boatbuilding School of Brooklin, Maine; the second was held at their shop, just as ours would be. Neither Mike nor Brad showed any sort of hesitation in welcoming me to the barn and allowing me to put my hands to work. I was chomping at the bit to wrap my knuckles around machinery and make a surfboard. Japanese saw or a jack plane, I came to mow wood. After a few hours Mike, friends, and I went out to test some different products and prototypes at Long Sands beach.

I am already a devout participant and chronicler of riding the wood variety of surfboards. I don’t think I could ever go back to foam, carbon fiber, epoxy-skinned, or kevlar boards. Squishy fun, they belong in Air Mall catalogs, right in between laser-guided electronic dog leashes and solar-paneled home-theatre cotton-candy dispensers – tacky, misguided relics that only made mass production and the overcrowding of surf lineups possible.

On the other hand, there are many talented riders and shapers out there who helped the sport progress through innovation due to the mass availability, forgiveness, and easy workability of foam. Many feel that they are right to lament the mysterious closure of Clark foam. But when examined in critical light, those blanks were soft, disposable, nonbiodegradable, overgrown boogie boards. Foam toys.

Wood has been used as the central tenet of surfboard construction for thousands of years. It is one of the basic proteins of our sport. So it is quite natural that some of Grain’s experimental projects have been focused on the recreation of ancient Hawaiian designs. In fact, Grain’s entire line is constructed using the same basic logic that waterman and surfboard visionary Tom Blake employed when he began building hollow wooden boards in Hawaii in the 1920s. Correspondingly, each product I was privy to rode with the grace and royalty of its ancestors. Long glide and infallible craftsmanship.

As they explained during our third day together, Brad and Mike both came to this job earnestly. LaVecchia was heavily involved with Burton Snowboards for a dozen years, when it was going through its ‘hoo-ha’ era as a change agent for the wintersports industry. He moved on to his predominant passion shortly thereafter, testing to become a US Coast Guard licensed captain, while operating and captaining the construction of large wooden sailing vessels. His collective knowledge shines through as a problem-solver, carpenter, designer, and benevolent owner.

Grain has managed to create, without external financial backing, a forum
for innovation, where people, ideas, and talents collide with dangerous
implications … an ecosystem of thought and action.


Brad has been a keen waterman for decades, sailing the globe and working in marine construction and carpentry since his teens. He and his lens-jockey girlfriend, Alex, have been winter caretakers of two islands – totally off the grid and off the New Hampshire coast – for the past 11 years. Brad has worked in numerous nonprofits; he says he nearly expatriated when Bush was re-elected. He had moved back from Scotland with a plan for real, definable positive change when LaVecchia and him were introduced.

Brad and Mike move with uncanny deliberation and reverent knowledge through woodshop or sea. Generous, hilarious, and full of terrific stories, they and their crew connect with the people around them. They openly share a personal, political, social, and environmental ethos that is transmitted throughout all aspects of the Grain operation.

I have a dossier of observations that would make any farmer John Canadian rightfully proud of this American company, but I’ll spare you the onslaught of a litany on their products, because it is peripheral to what amazed me most about their operation (and you’ve read it before): limiting electricity, using hand tools, eliminating waste, planting cedars, using low-VOC epoxy, using local and sustainable-yield wood sources.

Before I continue on in worship from a seemingly totally biased perspective, let me announce that I personally sell wood boards for a different company and consider Grain something of a lead competitor. So when I tell you that they seem like the kind of people to cut down their trees with axes and drag them out of the forest by oxen, I mean that they literally are the Paul fucking Bunyon of the surf industry. And they hold the affirmative power to let the cleancut, cold face of enterprise grow a big, ginger beard.

Grain’s greatest asset (and what impressed me the most) were the people making it work so naturally: John, the tobacco-spitting Colorado native and his two young skateboarding boys; Molly and her phenomenal vegetarian dishes; operations experts Sarah and Josh, Jill and Jack of all trades. Everyone had a symbiotic place in the embryonic consortium.

Grain has managed to create, without external financial backing, a forum for innovation, where people, ideas, and talents collide with dangerous implications. They are successfully bringing cedar-strip, canoe-style hand-crafted surfboards to the forefront of our industry. The people of Grain Surfboards are involved in an ecosystem of thought and action. The term is used too often (but not often enough correctly), but what Grain is set out to do is wholly ‘organic’ in design.

On our last evening we enjoyed a starlit and wine-soaked lobster dinner, as former employees and friends and families and farmers all came out in support of the Grain crew and of us, for our support of them. This is an experience I can’t recommend highly enough.

And so, rooted deeply in northeastern maritime heritage, I have taken one sapling away with me. I’ll feed her reeling pointbreak after pointbreak, spreading the seed of cedar, adventure, and knowledge for decades to come.

When I’m a gruff old man with a smile that smells of aluminum and gin, gliding on a wave at Jordan river on a wood board I built four decades earlier, I will proudly think that I was there that summer in 2008, in that movement that pulled the surf industry out of its narrow focus on destructible, polluting, and foul foam thrusters.

Jeff (aka Hef) Martin is a 24-year-old carpenter and freelance writer from Vancouver, Canada. He would like to thank his friends and family for helping to send him to the Grain workshop, saying,
“It was the most thoughtful thing that anyone has ever done for someone in the history of the planet.”
Original Surfer’s Path article
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