Fine Art Surfboards. Made From Trash.

detail from photo by Tom Carroll

I've been surfing for about twenty years now, but it would be a big mistake to confuse longevity with ability.  No, instead of developing the skills to cross-step stylishly or even execute a proper cutback, what I've gained most while surfing has been an awareness of change in the ocean.  Sometimes those changes are good (“The terns are back!”), and sometimes they aren’t (“Why does the water smell?”).  It’s pretty tough to spend a lot of time in the surf zone, salt water in your mouth and god-knows-what underneath your board, without succumbing to surfing’s inherent sense of environmental activism.  Even those who've never stepped onto beach sand likely identify surfing’s rawness – untamed nature, waves, currents – with a sort of eco-purity.

But there’s another less, oh I don’t know, eco-warrior reality to the sport cum lifestyle.  The essential component – the surfboard – is highly toxic.  Most modern boards are composed of a nasty combination of foam, fiberglass and resin made possible by the toxic wonders of petrochemicals.

Paddling around on what essentially amounts to a slab of oil doesn’t quite fit the blue-green image.

But this long-known dirty little surfing secret has inspired enterprising members of the surfing industry to make more sustainable choices.  One such example is Rhode Island’s Spirare Surfboards, run by surfboard shaper Kevin Cunningham.  Far from the big-business surfboard companies of Southern California, Providence-based Cunningham combines his loves of art, design and surfing and is pushing the envelope of sustainable surfboard design.

A Baltimore native, Cunningham moved to Rhode Island in 2000 to attend the Rhode Island School of Design’s architecture program.  The move allowed Cunningham, once limited to summertime surf trips to Maryland’s beaches, to surf year-round in the Ocean State’s sometimes invitingly warm, sometimes ice-cream-headache-inducing waves.  By 2003, that surfing dedication had evolved to include surfboard shaping, his first attempts relying on standard-issue but toxic polyurethane foam and polyester resin.  While Cunningham still shapes polyurethane boards, he’s drawn on his architectural training and developed more sustainable wooden board designs.

For example, many of Cunnigham’s boards utilize recycled EPS (“Expandable Polystyrene”) foam in their core, enclosed by a wooden outer layer.  As he explains, “I use a wood skin on the top and bottom of the surfboards with wooden rails, which makes the surfboards extremely durable and strong and keeps them performing better and lasting longer, for 10 to 20 times as long as a standard polyurethane foam surfboard.”

There’s still a reliance on toxic foam, but using recycled materials is a big step in the right direction.  And because surfboards break (a lot), durability is a very big deal.  The fewer boards that need to be produced and the fewer that end up in landfills – or maybe even the ocean’s many garbage patches –  the better.  But for those who want to go one sustainable step further, Cunningham has designed a lightweight bamboo honeycomb to replace the foam core entirely.

While more environmentally-friendly surfboard design innovations are springing up worldwide – some legit, others undoubtedly greenwashing – Cunningham estimates that there are only about a dozen or so shapers really working towards making sustainable surfboards.  To stay out in front, he has decided to up the ante by raising money on Kickstarter to build and exhibit a series of surfboards made from…trash.

Increasingly fed up with the lack of concern for the amount of waste washing up on the shore, Cunningham will construct surfboards entirely out of debris he finds at the beach, like plentiful amounts of plastics – bottles, bags, parts of fishing buoys – as well as driftwood, fishing gear, bits of rope and whatever else he can get his hands on.  He'll then take the materials and laminate them together, construct fins out of different kinds of debris and experiment with combining fishing nets and plastic bags to make a strengthening cloth.

“I want the materials to still look like the trash and debris that washes up onto the shore,” Cunningham says.  “I want people to look at it and say ‘yeah, that looks like stuff I see on the beach.'  But I am going to have to manipulate it to make it work for what I need it to do.”

Asked if boards made from random materials, as opposed to easier-to-manipulate materials like wood and foam blanks, will actually be ridable, Cunningham responds, “They'll be fully functional.  One of the main things I emphasize in my business is the surfboards are functional fine art.  Not only are they high performance surfboards but I also want them to aesthetically be very beautiful.”  To point, you can find his current boards in galleries, museums, and yes, surf shops, in Rhode Island.

Cunningham will first shape six of his debris boards and take them for a tour of galleries on both the east and west coasts this summer, although he’s still working on the details of where and when. “But after that I'm going to offer a run of 100 boards for custom orders.  So if someone sees one in the gallery and they like it, they can order a custom one for their own dimensions and specifications.”

Most of Cunningham’s business is driven by custom orders, with customers who are very particular about board length, width and thickness.  One such recent client was surfing legend Tom Carroll, who originally met Cunningham at a California surfboard tradeshow last summer.  As he recalls, “He emailed me and put in an order for a custom board.  I sent it out to Hawaii for him and he’s been riding it off and on ever since.  He’s been giving me good feedback on it…he’s a good test pilot to have!”

Maybe he can test drive a trash board soon.  Walking across the beach with a board that could have been assembled from the same trash underfoot would make quite a splash…and maybe even help earn some of that eco-warrior cred back.