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Building Pipe Dreams [Video]

By Dan O’Connor

Bob Carson has been chasing waves since the 1950s. A product of his California coastal environment, the Palos Verdes native has spent his life following his passion for surfing. It’s this same passion that has led the veteran beach bum from the shores of California and Florida to the Caribbean, where he eventually discovered the ultimate point break and career choice—both which he now enjoys from his Cane Garden Bay home and studio.

Cane Garden Bay point break. Photo by Paul Hubbard.

Bob first sailed into the Virgin Islands with his wife in 1994. They were in the middle of a surfing expedition that would take them down the island chain, and eventually back to this place that they now call home.

“We found Cane Garden Bay and we anchored right out there,” he said, pointing out to the mouth of bay. “It’s the best point break in all of the Caribbean; and it’s the place we decided to call home.”

I sat with Bob in his Cane Garden Bay studio—a lower-level extension of his bright, bayside bungalow nestled in the thick tropical foliage near the sea. From his workplace, large openings invite a salty breeze. We sipped frosty Amstel Lights and peered through waving palm fronds toward the famed point break. On the mild December day, the break curled quietly, emptily. It’s these enchanting environs that inspire the versed surfer to design and hand-manufacture surfboards, which he has been selling from his surf shop in Road Town and through distributors throughout the Caribbean and beyond.

Bob applies resin to a board, with the Bay in the background. Photo by Dan O’Connor

Bob recalled his earlier inspirations that led him to the BVI. Growing up a surfer, he said, the ultimate goal was not the typical American Dream, but what would soon be coined the surfer’s pipe dream.

“The goal back then was to be involved in surfing and building surfboards—whatever it took not to have a real job,” he recalled. “Weekends and after school we’d hang out at the surf shops, factories or wherever, and they pay us to clean up or this or that. And after a while they’d put us on their surf team—maybe giving us free wax now and again to sponsor us. … The goal was that you’d never have to work.”

As years passed, Bob pursued his goal of never working—or at least, never ending up behind a desk, at the mercy of an unruly boss. He went to college, where he studied art, soon realizing that the traditional canvas painting wouldn’t support a living for him. He tried his hand at board-making, and used them as his canvas. From California to Florida, the sun-soaked surfer and sailor eventually settled on the BVI, where he started Charterport BVI, a successful local clearinghouse. He continued to pursue his “hobby,” as he still calls it, designing and repairing boards for local surfers. He acquired a trade license in 2000 under the name Cane Garden Bay Surfboards, and in 2007 opened his surf shop in Road Town, below his clearinghouse business near Wickham’s Cay I. From his shop, customers can browse a selection of display boards, or call on Bob for a custom design.

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“I think there’s something psychological about ordering a [custom] board and participating with the artwork and the design, and having your name on it—it’s like they psychologically work better [on the water], because they had a part in it,” he said about the process.

Bob walked me through this process as we toured his studio. The labour-intensive exercise is unique in that it begins by hand and ends by hand—a rarity in a world today where boards are often mass-produced in factories.

“The formation of a surfboard, the shaping, is much like sculpting,” he said. “Today, the rest of the world is using machines or molds—and there’s some guys like myself who are hand-shaping … shaping is an art form because it’s like sculpting; the painting is obviously like art.”

Bob busy in the studio.

He handed me a mask and we headed into his back room, where I was introduced to the hand-shaping process. He steadied a bulky blank—or pre-sculpted foam board—on two supports and revved up a planer. Firmly locked into the edge of the board, he walked up and down each side, causing a snowstorm of foam flakes to fall as he shaped the board. After a few more rounds with the planer and the sander, Bob takes the board next door to apply a layer of ultra fine clear resin over the top of a fiberglass netting. This process, he explained, gives strength to the buoyant board. Too much “glassing,” as he described it, and the board will lose it’s buoyancy. This process can take a day or so, he explained. The board is then put up to rest for a period of one to two weeks, before it is painted and ready to ride.

While it’s probably more important to have a board that rides well rather than just looks good, Bob explained that many customers are more concerned with aesthetics.

“Most people walk in and say, ‘I want a six-four thruster … then they spend the next three days saying, ‘I want this graphic or that art,’” he said with a chuckle. “I say, ‘Hey, the graphics aren’t that important—it’s the board.’ “

Bob uses various techniques to decorate his boards. Nearly any design or logo can be catered to a customer’s liking by painting, airbrushing or attaching pre-designed logos to the board. Local artists have also been called upon to participate in this process, he noted, adding that the surfers themselves often participate in the design process.

Bob worked to a mix of classic rock and reggae jams as we chatted. I watched as he paid careful attention to each detail—each curve and contour—as he shaped and fiberglassed the custom board. Focused yet relaxed, he moved in a rhythm discovered after years of practice—both on the water and in the studio. It’s obvious he enjoys his work, and he loves where he lives.

“As I approach retirement age, with a rather hectic charter industry, I think my family will take over that end of work, and I’ll pursue this,” he said, contemplating his storied past to present. “There’s a need for this—there’s a need for someone building surfboards in the Caribbean.”

GALLERY PHOTOS BY DAN O’CONNOR

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