Building Surfboards A Dream Of Dedication

Skip "Andres" Kozminski lives to surf. He's been riding waves for the last half-century. But when the California native moved to the coast of Ecuador in 1972, there wasn't a surfboard to be found. Now, some 40 years later, Andres is one of the most accomplished balsa wood surfboard builders in the industry.

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Skip "Andres" Kozminski lives to surf. He's been riding waves for the last half-century. But when the California native moved to the coast of Ecuador in 1972, there wasn't a surfboard to be found. Now, some 40 years later, Andres is one of the most accomplished balsa wood surfboard builders in the industry.

From the coastal town of Playas in Ecuador, Sean Bowditch has this story.

SEAN BOWDITCH: Andres leads a decidedly spare, laid-back lifestyle. His house is a basic concrete block structure, which he shares with his rooster and three dogs. You won't find a TV, phone, car or computer anywhere. And his open-air workshop takes up the entire ground floor.

(Soundbite of wood shaving)

BOWDITCH: Wood shavings are strewn everywhere. In the middle of the room is an unfinished surfboard sitting on two homemade sawhorses. The idea of starting a line of balsa wood surfboards came about unexpectedly.

Mr. SKIP ANDRES KOZMINSKI (Surfboard Builder): My first surfboard was balsa wood. I knew that it came from down here someplace. So yeah, I sort of had an idea. But the big one was that I got here and it's a great place to surf, and there were no surfboards.

BOWDITCH: And that was part of the inspiration, was great surf…

Mr. KOZMINSKI: Yeah, not something as sublime and as subtle as inspiration. It was a kick in the butt.

BOWDITCH: Andres is a lean, athletic 60-year-old. He was raised in the wave-riding mecca of Redondo Beach. He started surfing at age 12 and immediately was hooked. But as his passion for riding waves grew, so too did his frustration with society.

Mr. KOZMINSKI: I knew as a pretty young person that the United States was not the kind of place I was going to be happy in. Too much regimentation. Your life isn't enough yours. Too many decision are pre-made.

BOWDITCH: So at 22, he joined the Peace Corps. As Andres puts it, he wanted to live in the slow lane. He was assigned to Playas, Ecuador, a sleepy fishing village with no electricity and empty beaches.

Mr. KOZMINSKI: I wouldn't even say it felt like home, but it felt so right.

BOWDITCH: When his Peace Corps stint was up, Andres decided to stick around, too content to leave the surf and the culture. That was almost four decades ago. Andres is one of a handful of shapers who's spent a lifetime perfecting the art of working with balsa wood.

(Soundbite of banging)

BOWDITCH: In his backyard, he unlocks the door to a long, bamboo shed filled with planks of balsa. The balsa tree is native to Ecuador and prized for being lightweight yet durable. Andres picks one up.

Mr. KOZMINSKI: This is a 2-by-8, 7 or 8 feet tall. It's still quite wet, and it probably weighs about 3 pounds.

BOWDITCH: He sticks his thumbnail into a plank.

Mr. KOZMINSKI: Softer.

(Soundbite of squeaking)

BOWDITCH: He says if you hear that squeak, the wood is well seasoned. Andres begins by building what's called a blank. A blank is essentially a template. Most shapers who work with polyurethane foam rely on blanks made from molds. That allows them to mass produce a specific kind of board.

But working with wood is different. Andres starts from scratch, meaning each board is individually crafted.

Mr. KOZMINSKI: I'd qualify myself as lunatic fringe. Because for me to make a surfboard, I have to first go through the process about designing the blank. Nobody else does that.

BOWDITCH: Andres makes about 50 surfboards a year, and they sell for about $900 apiece, which more than covers the $10 a day he needs to live. Most boards end up in the hands of Ecuadorian and American surfers.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BOWDITCH: The next morning, we head to the beach. Andres wants to test ride a board he's just built - an 8-foot semigun, as he calls it. As we walk through town, it's clear how much Playas has changed over the years. Fancy resorts and posh vacation homes now line the waterfront, and loud music spills onto the main street.

(Soundbite of music)

BOWDITCH: It's also clear how much of a local celebrity Andres has become. He is, after all, the only surfboard-building, wave-riding gringo in Ecuador.

Mr. KOZMINSKI: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWDITCH: We stop at a rocky point that juts out into the pale-green water. The waves are about chest-high. As he fasten his ankle leash, Andres looks over his new board one more time. I ask him what he hopes people will get out of his surfboards.

Mr. KOZMINSKI: What I hope they'll do with it is, they'll treat it as a friend and a vehicle and a tool, an artistic tool, like maybe a paintbrush for an artist or something like that.

BOWDITCH: A few hundred yards out, a decent swell is building and with that, Andres wades into the Pacific.

For NPR News, I'm Sean Bowditch.

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