Used Magic

The first surfboard I ever bought on Craigslist was listed as an 8-foot “Magic Carpet.” I wanted to try out surfing again, midway in the journey of my life, so I met up with a Japanese graphic designer somewhere right off Bedford Avenue in hip Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He lived in a tiny two-room walk-up. In the main room, there was a futon, a sparsely appointed wooden desk, and nothing else. It was all very minimalist. The other room was for surfboards, a dozen or more, lined in rows. He’d set aside the 8-footer over by the lone micro-window. It was a lovely board, not only because of its sunny yellow-and-red pattern, but also because the graphic designer had carefully applied the surf wax in a series of concentric circles. It looked like the deck was covered in soap-bubbles. For a while, during that first difficult year of re-entry into the water, I tried to recreate his meticulous pattern each time I applied wax — my girlfriend (now wife) Emily insisted on it — but even she quickly recognized the impossibility of the task. The vast chaos of sea and sand and me all had their own ideas, and soon the wax was the same amorphous mess it is on every other board. In retrospect that graphic designer seems charmingly insane.

In retrospect, I seem insane too. I thought surfing was like riding a bike, but you don’t ride a bike on moving water. I hadn’t surfed since I was a teenager, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the pain. After those early sessions, my ribs felt like they’d been ground down by an orbital sander. My arms were overcooked noodles. And for what? To be knocked over by wave after wave, barely making it out, then to crash headfirst over the falls. Sometimes, amid the washing machine, my head slammed into the sandy bottom. Then my back. Then my feet. Once in Strathmere at nightfall, Emily was smacked in the face by another surfer’s board. Her tooth went through her lip. On a windy day in Long Beach, I was raked over a stone jetty, my leash wrapped around a ragged rock, my legs and feet bleeding.

I developed an irrational fear of dolphins.

If I didn’t realize, back when I bought that Magic Carpet, that surfing would become a difficult, often times brutal addiction, I certainly didn’t realize that used surfboards would become an addiction too. That first one was a steal, I now know. It’s hard to find any board for $150, nevermind a versatile, nicely shaped Funboard[1] in good condition, a board that is thick and flat enough to paddle fast and therefore good for catching little waves, yet narrow and sloped enough to turn into a bigger wave. I still ride that board often, and now the whole surreal experience of the Japanese graphic designer in Williamsburg seems like a dream. Perhaps he was some kind of surfing elf, sent forth to draw me into his Magic cult.

Emily and I knew immediately that one board wouldn’t cut it. It never does. We had obvious reasons at first: We were two people, in love, with a dream of sitting together in the deep, staring out at the horizon, not of meeting briefly on shore to take turns. At times we have achieved the dream, sitting together in the sublime. But surfing is a solitary sport, and often when you’re staring at the horizon, you’re waiting desperately for a wave you can call your own, a wave that will take you away to a private, transported state, and then drop you off, only partially satisfied. You need another. By the time you return to the horizon, your love is no longer there, and you think you need a new board, maybe something quicker.

We met the seller of a yellow 9’2” thruster on a seemingly random street in Clinton Hill. He was a beefy guy with lots of tattoos and a tough New York accent. He’d bought the board for his girlfriend, he said, but she’d never gotten into it. Now he had to unload it. He seemed to be in a hurry.  He put the board on a strip of grass by the sidewalk near a huge anonymous apartment block in which he did not live. It was a strange place to do the deal. “It’s got lots of nose-rocker,” the tattooed guy kept saying. “You’ll never nose-dive.” I looked at him skeptically. I knew just enough about surfboards by then to think this might not be the board for us. Sure, it was cool-looking, yellow with an elaborate black flower design across the whole deck, and it looked thick and stable, which was good for beginners. But it was fairly narrow with small glassed-in fins (strange), and then there was that nose rocker (the upward curve at the front), not exactly a selling point. It looked like a board built for big waves, a “gun.” We passed.

He dropped the price twice by the end of the day, and the gun was ours.

At some point in my return to the surf cult, I was seduced by a minor sect of nostalgics: loggers. These were surfers who tended to surf in the style that was popular in the 1960s and to ride boards that were popular then too, “logs” or thick, flat single-fin longboards with soft, rounded rails. The best loggers could turn small mushy waves into beautiful, complex melodies. They did not shred the waves aggressively like most modern surfers; instead they danced, slinking forward and backward on their boards, sometimes hanging off them and gliding above the waves. This was how the best locals surfed at my favorite spot in South Jersey, and it was how the stars of Thomas Campbell’s retro-cool films surfed in slow, sepia-toned 16-mm bliss. I was sold. But I was no logger. I bumbled across my board. I couldn’t cross-step. I couldn’t hang five. It was the board’s fault of course. It’s always the board’s fault.

One day my quest for a log took me down near the Gowanus Canal under the elevated F train. I’d never noticed the tiny aluminum-sided bungalows down there. I paused on the porch. There was a big sign on the door addressed to the UPS drivers, asking that they please leave any packages at the front door. Several times they had not left a package that was very important. The writer of the sign had just gone through radiation and chemotherapy, she explained, and the package contained her wig. She needed it ASAP. I rang the bell. The seller was a tall man who ushered me into the backyard where he had several boards stashed. The ill wife was upstairs, the seller told me. He had to sell most of his quiver (That’s the word surfers use for their array of boards). The longboard in question was sitting on sawhorses, covered in a thick coat of filthy wax. It was horribly ugly, but I felt like I had to buy it, maybe to make up for the UPS man. I looked up. The sun off the Gowanus was unbearable.The board wasn’t the right shape. I bolted.

Surfboards don’t have moving parts like, say, mountain bikes or drones. They are simple things, and yet (or… and so) it’s very easy to obsess about their details. Every little difference in their shape matters: the width of the tail, the degree of nose concave, the rake of the fin. Years after I bought that first Magic Carpet, I met its shaper in Hawaii, Eric Arakawa (At the time I didn’t realize he’d shaped my egg[2]). He told me how hard he worked (complete with advanced scientific R&D and a partnership with Salomon, the French sporting goods giant) to replicate his pro-surfer clients’ “magic” boards. “Magic” is the term of art that surfers use to describe a board that connects them especially well to the forces beneath.  But the exact same board was never exactly the same. Boards were irreducible.

A few years ago my search for a magic board on Craigslist took me to the nether regions of Newark, New Jersey. I remember asking Emily if she minded making a bit of a detour — it was really a huge detour — on our way from Brooklyn to South Jersey. “Just to look at a board,” I said, “it’s probably not worth it.” Maybe it was passive aggressive. I felt bad for asking. And yet excited. It was mid-morning on a sunny Saturday when we pulled up a hill in the Western part of the city. I started to back into a parking space, but there was a person lying in the way, passed out on the street. We pulled around the block and found another spot. No corpse.

We made our way inside to some kind of hotel or halfway house. In the lobby a group of strung-out looking characters were lined up in front of a caged-in desk. It looked like they were cashing checks or waiting for checks or wanting checks. In a few minutes, the seller appeared out of a side door. “Where did you park?” he asked. “Oh no,” he said quickly, “You can’t park on the street.” He hurried us back to our car and led us to a fenced in lot in the back of the hotel.

If we were scared shitless at first, the seller put as at ease. He was a small, balding man with a gray beard who had the demeanor of a happy monk. He told us a bit about himself. He had immigrated from Nicaragua where he’d learned to surf as a kid. Life’s fortunes had taken him away from the ocean and from his family, he told us. But now he had a good job as the super of the hotel, a bit of security, and some free time. He’d begun surfing again, and he loved it. He usually went out to Monmouth. It was a quick drive, especially at dawn. In the vast garage, he showed us a bunch of surfboards, not just the one for sale, but also his newest one, a brightly colored performance longboard. He was excited about how quickly it could get down the line, how responsive it was. I wasn’t sure his old board, a 9’ Hank Warner, was wide enough at the nose or thick enough through the middle for me. But I bought it anyway. The Nicaraguan super had loved it after all. He helped us strap it on top of the car and cheerfully watched us drive off. Then suddenly, a block away, he was running up to the car waving at us wildly. We screeched to a halt.

He handed us a small key. It was the tool to remove the fin. He’d forgotten.

I ride the Nicaraguan super’s board all the time. I’ve had many wonderful hours on it. And yet I still doubt that board in the same way I doubt myself. Always. I moved the fin forward a half-inch recently, and I was sure that the ride was totally different. “Looser,” as surfers say. But then maybe I’m just suggestible. Every day is different. Every wave is different. I still comb Craigslist all the time looking for the next best thing. Occasionally I contact the seller even when I know I don’t want to buy the board (The fact is, boards are expensive, and I’m cheap). I just want to reach out. “Cool board,” I write. “Can you ride it in steeper breaks?” Invariably the answer is yes, the board is “magic,” but the seller isn’t. His knees are going, or his back is shot, or he is off to some other life away from the ocean. It’s hard to keep surfing. Some sellers say they feel bad for their boards, sitting there unridden while waves crash somewhere in the distance. The magic flows both ways. The boards need us. From time to time, I think about boards that I’ve run across on Craigslist: a Steve Boehne Infinity NoseRider, a 9’2” pintail Takayama. Whither the board, I wonder, and its secret powers?  

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  1. [1]A Funboard is a general term for a board that’s bigger than a shortboard but not as big as a longboard, but there are so many terms for this kind of board: a mini-Mal (or mini-Malibu), a hybrid, an egg, or as the Japanese designer called it, a Magic Carpet, which I think is a generic term. The board was made by Island Classic and shaped by Eric Arakawa.
  2. [2]I only realized that Arakawa shaped my board when I was looking through my old Craigslist emails for this essay. Indeed, he was the Island Classics shaper when the board was made. Perhaps when I sought him out on the North Shore of Oahu, I knew it subconsciously.

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