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Jamie Murray and the craft of the North Coast surfboard



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For all their graceful lines and high-gloss finishes, surfboards begin life as an unremarkable plank of polyurethane foam called a blank. It's a shaper's job to artfully saw, plane and sand away the blank to reveal a surfboard shape within. Once the blank is shaped to the shaper or client's specifications, colors, decals and fin boxes are added, then it's layered with resin and sheets of fiberglass. Before it's ready to be surfed, it gets sanded and polished.

There are mass-produced, computer-cut surfboards, but since surfing's rise in popularity in the 1950s, there has always been demand for handmade surfboards. Other than custom bicycles, there are few sports where you can work with a designer and craftsman to create a piece of equipment built to your specs.

Back home in Connecticut, Murray's dad, like many Yankee dads, had a basement workshop that kept him busy through the long winters. As a kid, Murray made his own skateboards because his father wouldn't buy something he could make himself.

"If you wanted it, you were going to have to make it," Murray says. "That was his philosophy."

And it became his philosophy, too. So Murray got a blank and set to work making his first board.

"It was totally shitty and came out terrible," he remembers.

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But he learned from his mistakes, and the next one was better. So was the next. These were the early days of the internet, and there wasn't much information available on surfboard shaping. To expand his knowledge, he spent time observing a few master shapers and asking questions. After making 30 or so boards, he started to get the hang of it.

By this time, Murray had moved to Santa Rosa and taken a job at Sonoma Academy. During the day he taught literature and writing, and at night and on weekends he continued to make boards and surf them in the heavy waters of the Sonoma and Marin coasts. Eventually, someone saw one of his boards and asked if he'd make one for him.

"I was loath to take orders," he remembers. "I really didn't know what I was doing."

But his boards got better, and soon he had a growing list of customers. Paddle out at Salmon Creek or Dillon Beach, and chances are you'll see a board with a dragonfly decal, Murray's logo.

It turns out his fondness for the retro boards of his youth—wide, thick ones designed for easy paddling and their wave-catching ability rather than aerial maneuvers and competition—fit right in with the North Coast's surfing demographic. Murray sums up the area's surfers with one word: "Old."

Most surfers here have been around for a while. The area is challenging and doesn't offer many beginner-friendly spots, so there aren't many first-timers or young kids in the water. Old guys—and girls—rule.

Whether it's nostalgia for old designs or simply the desire for a board that will help surfers paddle through the North Coast's notoriously heavy currents and surf, Murray's designs are tailor-made for the region.

"It's a big playing field out there," says Sebastopol surfer Neil Ramussen, 62.

He ought to know. He's been surfing the North Coast since 1966. "You want something to get you around. Bigger boards are better."

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