The desire to build, learn new skills, and work hands-on is not a new craving for me. I loved shop class in middle school, and since then, became EPA-certified in HVAC, took welding classes, and built several benches and signs for my house and friends. A snowboard bench I crafted still sits in Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville. Three years ago, my grandfather passed away. He was skilled at building furniture. In his basement sat beautiful cuts of stacked lumber: cherry, walnut, mahogany, oak, and chestnut. I asked my family if I could have the lumber and brought it back to my friend Andrew’s woodshop in West Virginia. This sparked a new endeavor for me; soon I began creating pieces from wood.
My other desire is to surf. In 2008, I moved to Hong Kong and lived on an outlying island where I had my first taste of surfing. I wasn’t good, but I loved it. In 2010, I moved to the New River Gorge to be a whitewater rafting guide. I never dreamt that, a decade later, I would not only still be here, but that surfing would be my primary activity. Over the last six years, a small community of river surfers and I have been dialing in waves along the New and Gauley rivers.
My love of surfing found a new outlet during the pandemic, when, like many others throughout the world, I lost my job. I needed a pursuit to occupy my time until I could start working again, so I decided to dive into a project that had piqued my interest for many years but remained unexplored—building my own surfboard.
I spent a month obsessively watching YouTube videos on surfboard shaping and design. The first step was deciding what kind of surfboard I wanted to shape. One day, I stumbled upon the Mini Simmons design and fell in love with the retro look. Named after Bob Simmons, the shape was the first to bring hydrodynamic design into surfing. While a cool-looking surfboard is great, it has to be the right shape for the waves you are surfing. As Derek Dodds wrote in the book Keel Nation, “The waves aren’t always perfect bowls, and with a Mini Simmons you can turn an imperfect wave into a very fun adventure.” With that, my decision was made. I purchased a book about the design and ordered epoxy, fiberglass, and fins.
The more I learned, the more I became aware of how much I didn’t know or didn’t understand. Like many crafts, surfboard shaping is just as much of a science as an art. I dove into a world of planing hulls versus displacement hulls. Then onto rails (or the edges of the board): did I want 50/50, 60/40, round, down, rolled, or egg? There were so many choices for each minute detail, but they all affect the way your board will surf. At least the book gave me a chuckle and some confidence when, in the middle of rail design, Derek Dodds writes, “Dude, I know it’s confusing.” After all my research, I finally made up my mind. I would make a 62-inch by 21.5-inch Mini Simmons with a planing hull, 60/40 rails, and a flat tail.
I felt apprehensive when it was time to start building the board, but I told myself that it’s a learning experience. My board doesn’t have to be perfect, and even if I finish it without completely messing it up, the board might not even surf well, and that’s OK. Once I started the process, it moved swiftly. In one day, I turned a four-foot by eight-foot plank of foam insulation into a rough surfboard blank, which is the foam block before a surfboard is shaped. I did this by ripping the board into three-inch pieces and tracing a rocker design onto the side of each piece. I then cut out the rocker design on each piece and glued them all together. Once secured, I traced the outline of the Mini Simmons board and cut it out.
The next and most challenging step was shaping the board. Trying to get the board symmetrical, the rails just right, and the nose shaped perfectly was not achieved with perfection. Like trimming one’s own hair, I found myself taking more and more off the nose of the board to make it symmetrical. I ended up with a board that was an inch shorter than planned and a nose that was just a tad wonky, and that’s just fine. At the end of this step, my creation looked like a real surfboard. Seeing the project I dreamt about for years finally coming to fruition, filled me with excitement and motivation to move on to the final step: glassing the board and installing the fin box and leash plug.
First, I laid out the fiberglass and poured the epoxy on the bottom. Once dry, I sanded the edges and repeated the process on the top. Then I poured a topcoat on each side of the board to make a nice, even coat of epoxy and fill in any little gaps. Once the board was dry, I installed the fin boxes and leash plug by drilling holes and gluing the pieces in.
On December 4, 2020, I woke up to find that the leash plug epoxy was completely set. My board was finished. I went from staring at a board of foam insulation to holding a custom surfboard in just two weeks. I moved my hand along the board, feeling the finished product, turning it over in my arms and inspecting every bump, groove and imperfection. These imperfections were mine, each one attached to a memory of the process.
I needed to get it on the water immediately. I didn’t care what the weather was like, how good the wave was, or if anyone else wanted to come with me. It was 38 degrees and raining, the Perfect Wave, a prime surfing spot on the Gauley River, was at an iffy level, and no one wanted to go surfing with me in the cold rain—especially at a ho-hum level. I selected a fresh block of wax and started, for the first time, waxing a board that I created. I carefully and meticulously drew diagonal lines down the deck of my surfboard, then repeated the process in the opposite direction. Once the base coat was down, I rubbed wax in a circular motion over the surface of the board. The slow and deliberate process built up my anticipation as I began to accept that, very soon, I would find out how—or if—my board surfs.
I quickly shoved layers of neoprene into my gear bag and double checked that I had everything I needed for temperatures in the 30s. The last thing I wanted was to get to the wave and have to turn around because I forgot booties. I piled the surfboard and gear into my car, cranked some punk rock, and began my trek to the Gauley. I had to consciously tell myself to slow down. Singing along with Operation Ivy, combined with my eagerness to get to the wave, made my foot heavy on the gas pedal. Once parked, I hopped out into the frigid rain and quickly changed into my 5mm hooded wetsuit. I grabbed my board and made my way down the steep, muddy path to the river’s edge.
When I got to the bank of the Gauley, I took a moment to take in the sound of the rushing water and the pitter-patter of rain as I watched the wave in the middle of the river. I took quick steps to get to the water’s edge, knelt, and placed my surfboard in the river for the first time. I pressed down, putting pressure onto the board to get a feel for how well it floated. I felt resistance as the board bounded back to the surface of the water; the board seemed to have a lot of buoyancy.
I hopped into the water, grabbed the board and slid it underneath my chest. I reached my arms out in front of the board, paddling for the middle of the river. I felt the current catch me as I started flowing downstream faster and faster, steadily approaching the wave. I turned around to face upstream and paddled harder as I began dropping into the trough of the wave. I felt the foam pile of the wave crash against the tail of my board, momentarily pausing my downstream descent before icy water splashed up over my hood. My board slipped through the back of the wave and washed out downstream. I didn’t catch the wave.
I straightened the board under my body and paddled hard toward the eddy on the river-right bank. I wasn’t upset; that split second of a pause as the board collided with the foam pile was hope. I believed this board could catch this wave. I swam back to the bank and made my way back upstream to try again.
Once again, I dropped back into the trough and began ferociously paddling. I looked back and aimed for the center of the foam pile. This time, I struck the foam pile, went up toward the crest of the wave, and felt my momentum shift and rock back down into the trough. I was locked in place, laying on my board in the wave. My Mini Simmons had succeeded in catching the Perfect Wave.
Beaming with excitement, I laid my hands flat on the deck of the board, pushed down, straightened my arms, arched my back, and slung my feet under my hips like I had done so many times before. I felt the soles of my feet press onto the deck of the board as I stood up. I took a moment to get settled into the wave and then, with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, I threw my arms up in the air to scream “Woo-hoo” at the top of my lungs for only myself to hear.
Riding a board I designed and crafted has rekindled an excitement for surfing that I haven’t felt since my first time river surfing on the Gauley. The board, to my surprise, not only surfed, but it surfed well. I’ve had it out several times since that first outing, and it quickly became my favorite surfboard to ride. That is, of course, until the next board I create.
Meghan Fisher lives in Fayetteville, WV, where she owns and operates Mountain Surf Paddle Sports. When she’s not river surfing and paddleboarding in WV, she’s guiding paddleboard expeditions in Antarctica for Quark Expeditions.