The Perfect Wave

One writer’s experience with custom surfboard design

So Rhode Island Magazine ·

Surfing Rhode Island’s shore is a joy shared by thousands in a summer season, and by hundreds through the long, cold winter. Though small, Rhode Island is blessed to be the finest surfing state on the East Coast. Its point breaks, reef breaks and beach breaks welcome the soft and inviting waves found between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but also can carry the power of hurricane swell that can easily grow to twice the size of a man, “double overhead” in surfer’s parlance. One can rent a board to try Rhode Island waves, but any serious surfer has his or her own board, or a collection of various styles of boards known as “the quiver.”

When most people want to buy their own surfboard, they will check Craigslist for a used board or go to one of the numerous surf shops found in Westerly, Matunuck, Narragansett, Wakefield or Newport. There, they will select a board off the rack, trying to match the size, weight and shape that might help them perform at their best. Or, alternatively, they could take the time to visit and meet with a local craftsman who has the skill to create a custom-made surfboard specifically designed for the experience, skill, surfing style and dreams of each individual. The board makers who can take those elements and turn them into a three dimensional wave-riding machine, a dream machine, are known as shapers. If you want a board handcrafted by the godfather of surfboard production in all of Southern New England, you want a board from Dave Levy of Levy Surf Design in Narragansett.

This writer, who paddled into his first wave in 1964, recently turned to Dave Levy for a creation from his one-man operation. The first contact came during a mellow summer morning when I was catching thigh-high rollers in front of the wall at Narragansett. There too was Levy, enjoying himself on an SUP, a Stand Up Paddleboard of his own creation. Levy was lazily paddling along, picking up waves at his leisure, enjoying the sun, the warmth and quiet of an easy morning of surfing. When close enough to chat, I introduced myself, and we shared a little small talk about the conditions that morning and the chances of more exciting waves in the days to come. Later, I explained that I was interested in a Levy Surf Design board of my own. A few weeks later I called, and so began a relationship between myself, my dreams of the perfect surfboard and Dave Levy, the craftsman who could make those dreams tangible... and carry me across double overhead walls of green.

During that first phone conversation, I explained what my background in surfing was, essentially one of some length, but of only common skill. Levy heard that I preferred long boards, preferably something a bit over nine feet in length. He heard too that surfing in winter nor’easters, hurricane swells and those little bumps of a summer morning were all of interest to me. I needed a board that could float me, carry me down the face of a wave with speed and turn with ease.

It was a couple of weeks later when I found Congdon Street in Narragansett with the white LSD van parked out front. As I approached the oversized shed behind the house, I could hear the whine of a power-sander within. Stepping though the door, I found the first room full of the materials needed by a surfboard shaper and glasser. (Most larger custom shops have some staff who shape the boards while others deal with the fiberglass and resin that will give the board its shiny protective coat. Dave Levy is an expert at both processes.) A padded workbench held an SUP that was getting a repair to the tail, while the walls were lined with discarded cans of resin and hardener, along with rolls of fiberglass and board templates.

Stepping into the second room I saw the founder, president and sole employee of Levy Surf Design standing beside a surfboard blank that he’d been sanding. A respirator hid half of his face, while a T-shirt, jeans and work boots made up the rest of his ensemble. He, like the whole interior of this inner sanctum, was covered in the fine white dust of polyurethane that swirls out from the under the sander when he carefully moves the tool across the board he is shaping.

With words of welcome our conversation about what I wanted in a surfboard began in earnest. Dave’s questions probed deeper into what I could do on a wave, and what I dreamed of doing on a new, custom board. As we spoke we ran our hands along the rails of several boards nearby as we shared information about shape, volume and weight. Then it was into his house to spend time in front of his CAD system. While we chatted, he plugged in dimensions and before my eyes the image of a surfboard began to ap- pear. I asked what would happen if we changed the shape in a variety of ways – more rocker (the curve along the rail from nose to tail), less thickness and shaping a turned down rail (a hard edge where the side rail meets the board’s bottom). Levy explained exactly what the results of each design change would allow. By the time that third conversation had come to an end we were looking at my new surfboard on his computer screen.

Nothing more than a trusting handshake sealed the deal, and Dave placed an order for the “blank” of polyurethane that he would refine to become my board. Weeks later when that three dimensional rough draft of my board was delivered, Dave was displeased. Everything was fine except for the thickness of the tail. Turns out the guy who set the dimensions at the manufacturer hadn’t shown the care that Levy Surf Design demands. After some words, a new board was ordered, and eventually delivered. It was that board that Dave Levy took in hand, refined to meet our specific plan, shaped, sanded, fiber-glassed, sanded again, and again, and finally approved.

A phone call brought me back to world headquarters, and before me in that back room was the beautiful embodiment of this surfer’s dreams. I liked what I saw as I looked down its length, and especially liked the look on Dave Levy’s face. He smiled with satisfaction. The smile never changed as he spoke, and more importantly that smile never changed as he unconsciously ran his hand across his creation. From nose to tail, along the rails, and across the bottom his palm coursed. As that expert hand swept across each surface, he smiled. And as I watched that hand move, and approve, I knew that my dream machine lay before me. The rest would be up to me. As I drove home, I continued to dream; while on the car roof rode the vehicle that would give those dreams life. 

surfing, surf board, dave levy, levy surf design, water sports, so rhode island