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Ryan Lovelace Remembers the First Surfboard He Ever Shaped

Jul 24, 2023

An 19-year-old Ryan Lovelace holding his first board, and then the board he reshaped it into years later. Photo: RL

Ryan Lovelace was 18 years old, sitting on his computer in a shitty little two-bedroom apartment, right below Santa Barbara City College, trying to figure out where to get a fish surfboard. The only problem was that he didn’t know what a fish was.

“Personality wise, if I get hooked on something and obsessed with it, it’s fucking over. Like there’s nothing else in my world,” Ryan tells me on the phone, as he drives out to his shop in Carpinteria. Now he channels that obsessive energy into his artfully designed, beautifully crafted alternative surfcraft, but the road to becoming a shaper was a rocky one at first.

He moved down to Santa Barbara a couple months after graduating high school. At first he was going to attend Brooks to study photography, but when he found out how expensive it was, he ended up at Santa Barbara City College. He’d also planned on living in a different apartment, but when he showed up with a moving truck full of his things, he found his future roommates had been evicted and disappeared, along with the three months of rent he’d paid in advance. So now he was living in a crappy townhouse with a German exchange student he’d met at a youth hostel.

It didn’t matter though, because really he was there to surf. When Ryan was five, his dad pushed him into waves on visits to his grandparents in Lahaina. Later on, they would take boards on family road trips and stop in Oregon on the way to Texas. He was obsessed, but surfing wasn’t really a part of his day-to-day life until he left Seattle. Now he had a body board, a used longboard and a Hobie egg, and he was in the water basically every waking minute. “I was the kid, like, middle of the winter, [in] boardshorts and a windsurfing rash guard, because I didn’t know any better, on a boogie board at Sandspit, having the time of my life,” says Ryan. “I did not know which way was up. Like, biggest barn’ in the county for sure.”

He’d also recently seen a trailer for Glass Love on Surfline, a soulful and reflective movie that spoke to him in a way other boozed up, hard partying surf videos hadn’t. More importantly, there was a clip in there of Mick Mackie gliding down the line on a waist-high New Zealand point, riding a fish. When he saw it, Ryan knew he had to have whatever board Mick was riding, because it was beautiful.

So there he was, staring at his computer, trying to find a fish. “That was 2004. It wasn’t like you could just see a fish anywhere. They weren’t around,” remembers Lovelace. “So I set out to try and find info about them and there was nothing that I could find online.” Without blogs or YouTube to guide him, he was at a dead end, so he took to searching thrift stores with a friend who also surfed.

After weeks of looking in vain for a board like Mick’s, his friend casually said “Oh, you could just make one,” and to this day Ryan vividly remembers the moment like it was a divine revelation. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he says. “I didn’t even consider building my own surfboard, even though that’s like what my life has been.”

A post shared by Ryan Lovelace Surf | Craft (@ryanlovelace)

So the mission changed, from finding a way to buy the board to learning how to make one. Ryan started by looking up where to get foam and wood for stringers. He used to build model RC airplanes by gluing and hot-wiring foam from Home Depot, so he figured he could start there. “I didn’t know that you could buy surfboard blanks,” says Ryan. “I literally had no fucking clue what I was doing.”

He spent hours a day on Swaylocks, a forum that has been a meeting place and guiding light for shapers since the early internet. Somewhere along the line, he saw a post offhandedly mention something called Fiberglass Hawaii. He didn’t know what it was, so he found a phonebook listing. It turned out to be a shaping supplier that had a location in Santa Barbara, literally three blocks from his house. The store closed at 5:00 p.m. He looked at the clock and it was 4:40.

“I was up and out of my seat so fast your head would spin,” remembers Lovelace. “I walked in there, and my head just fucking blew apart.” He’d only found out a day earlier that you could even buy a surfboard blank, and now there were 100 stacked up right in front of him. The store had all the things that, until now, had only existed to him intangibly, as words in an online forum. Not only that, but the whole time it had been just up the street from his house. “I wish I could see the look on my face,” says Lovelace.

On May 24, 2005, his 19th birthday, Ryan went back to Fiberglass Hawaii and bought himself a surfboard blank. He flipped through a binder with the models they had available and picked the 6’5” C. He was 6’2” and about 210, so he figured he needed enough foam to make a 6’4” fish. He had been surfing regularly for less than a year.

“I had a little 1986 Toyota truck, a red, small-cab thing. I rolled it up in front of Fiberglass Hawaii and wrapped up my blank like a newborn baby,” he tells me. It was only a three-block drive back to his apartment, but he wasn’t taking any chances. “The guys must’ve been just rolling their eyes at me, cause now, looking back, oh my God I throw those things around like candy. Needless to say, I was psyched.”

He spent the next seven days straight building the board start to finish. “I just worked feverishly on the thing. There was not a waking moment that I wasn’t trying to figure out what to do next or how to do it or doing it,” he recounts. “I got completely consumed.”

Ryan placed a huge piece of paper on the ground and drew out a rail outline, then folded it over and traced the other side to make it symmetrical. He took the paper and taped it to his wall to get a better look. “Fuck, that’s cool,” he thought to himself.

He shaped the blank on his deck, a second story balcony with another townhouse 20 feet away. He didn’t use a planer, because he’d read online you didn’t need one. Now he cringes at the thought.

“I remember pissing off the neighbors so bad because there was foam dust flying down all over their deck,” says Ryan. His neighbors were an old lady and her son. The son wasn’t allowed to listen to music at home, so whenever his mother left for work, he would blast Michael Jackson and sing and dance all around the house, inside and outside. “So while I was shaping my board, he was going off. It was a pretty interesting little atmosphere, there,” Ryan laughs.

When he was done, the board was 6’4” x 22” x 3”, with a pointy nose, basically the shape of the blank. “The thing was a chunk,” says Ryan. He signed the bottom, but in his excitement misspelled his own last name. “I put three L’s in it. I just kept looping on the Ls,” Ryan says over the phone. “I was pretty fired up.”

Photo: RL

Ryan glassed the board with opaque red resin. It was red, red, red – all pigment, no tints. He didn’t pull the fiberglass tight enough on the first side, so it came out wavy, but the deck came out better. “No cut laps or anything,” he explains, “because of course I didn’t even know what that was.” He sprayed black paint over the lamination on the rails and put a stripe down the middle, “like an idiot,” he says. “I’m sure that thing would have delammed in a number of months. Or at least the hot coat would have.”

When he put on the hot coat, it didn’t have surfacing agent in the resin, so it came out sticky. Ryan knew something was off, but couldn’t tell what. “Whatever,” he thought. The board was finished, and it was spectacular. “I was so convinced that it was a good surfboard,” says Ryan. “Now, looking back at photos I’ve got, my God. I mean, it was symmetrical, but like the wobbles were symmetrical.”

He took it to Ledbetter, dying for someone to ask about his board. Another surfer did in fact notice the giant, wobbly, red chunk under Ryan’s feet and paddled up to get a closer look. “Hey, how old is that board?” he asked.

“Oh, I just made it,” replied Ryan.

“You just made that?”, said the surfer.

“Yeah,” said Ryan, thinking about how cool it must look, for him to be riding a board he had just hand crafted in his apartment.

“God, it looks 40 years old,” said the surfer.

Ryan laughs at the memory, explaining, “To me I thought he was saying like, ‘Oh yeah, it looks 40 years old, like it’s a classic shape,’ but he definitely was saying, ‘It looks 40 years old, like that thing’s hammered.’”

Even still, the board worked. It turned, went straight, and could surf tiny waves. It did everything he wanted and Ryan surfed the hell out of it, until four months in he broke off one of the plywood glass-on keels. The fin had originally been crooked, so he put it back on straight and the board never surfed the same afterwards. It sat idle for for three, maybe four years. The board had lost its magic, but Ryan also knew he couldn’t sell it. It was special.

Photo: RL

Then one day, partly because of a breakup, partly because he was living in a garage at the time, Ryan decided to pare everything he owned down to one suitcase, a bed, and his boards. He looked at the giant red fish and thought, “Well, if it’s not being used and there’s enough foam in this thing to fucking float the royal navy, for sure I can shape a good board out of it.” He stripped off all the glass and reshaped it into a 5’10” fish. He thought this would be a better size for him, but it turned out too small. Like all good shapers do at some point, he overshot his own dimensions.

Finally, after all those years, he did end up selling the board. There was a surfer who came to Santa Barbara every year from Japan, who Ryan used to chat with in the water. When Ryan’s career started to take off, the man asked if he could buy one if his boards, excited that his American friend was making a name for himself.

“I’ve gotta buy one of your boards. I want a special one,” he said.

“I don’t really have anything… but you know what I do have is like my most special board,” replied Ryan.

He sold the board to the Japanese surfer for a few hundred dollars. Now, all Ryan has of the board is a chunk of red fiberglass with his misspelled signature, which he keeps in a little shrine along with his planer.

The last remaining piece of the first board Ryan Lovelace shaped. Photo: RL

Ryan Lovelace was 18 years old, sitting on his computer in a shitty little two-bedroom apartment, right below Santa Barbara City College, trying to figure out where to get a fish surfboard.