To the joy of East Coast surfers, the swell was up in September from Bill, the first hurricane of the season. As the big waves rolled in at rock-bound Point Judith, R.I., dozens of the faithful bobbed among them, vying for the thrill of the ride. Their surfboards were decorated with a wide range of motifs: flowers, lightning bolts, Goth skeletons, butterflies, palm trees, stylized waves and pure abstractions worthy of Ellsworth Kelly. You might have even spotted a “born again” surfer riding a surfboard emblazoned with Christian imagery.
My own new, custom-made, white surfboard, on the other hand, is unadorned except for two small symbols inscribed on its underside: Stars of David. One is next to my name. The other is next to the signature of David Levy, 58, New England’s premier, and perhaps only, full-time follower of the exacting craft of making custom surfboards. His one-man enterprise, LSD (Levy Surf Designs), is located in a shop behind his modest, Cape-style home in the nearby beach community of Narragansett.
Levy makes about 75 surfboards annually, each one hand-configured to the surfing requirements of its owner. Factory-molded versions are cheaper, but his boards are traditionally made from foam blanks, which are stiffened with a wood spine, or “stringer,” before being covered with Fiberglas cloth and a hard, buffed-down resin. The cost of an LSD surfboard averages $700, a price that does not allow for much profit margin. Levy makes more money repairing surfboards, which are easily damaged. Big wave days, like those from Hurricane Bill, bring Levy a surge of customers bearing battered surfboards. “The rocks are my friends,” he said. “But I also get boards that have been dropped on cement, or even fallen off the roofs of speeding cars.”
Most surfers prefer to buy their surfboards from a maker whose skills they admire, and Levy, with his dolphin-like proclivity for the waves, has been a local surfing icon for more than four decades. Several summers ago, standing safely on shore in the aftermath of a hurricane during which only the boldest surfers ventured out, I watched a 15-foot wave leap up from the deep water at Point Judith: a vertical green wall ready to crash down with sharp rocks lurking just below. Levy, perfectly positioned, shot down the face of that wave and was quickly enclosed by the lip it threw forward — what surfers call the “tube.” Long seconds later, he shot out the other side of the tube, unscathed.
“Sometimes,’ he admitted, “I just take off and pray.”
Levy grew up in Providence, son of a painting contractor. Oscar Levy’s faded business sign now hangs in his son’s workshop. The family summered in Narragansett, where, at age 11, David Levy first shared a rental surfboard with several friends. “We’d take turns riding it for half an hour,” he said. Two years later, he bought a used surfboard for $125. His college years were spent at the University of Rhode Island, near his beloved surfing spots. After graduating, he headed to California to surf Pacific waves. “They aren’t much different from East Coast waves, except a little faster and sometimes a lot bigger,” he said. By age 23, he was back in Narragansett, partnering with another expert surfer, Peter Panagiotis, in a local surf shop they named the Watershed. Levy didn’t care for the retail life. “Surfers don’t think ahead,” he explained. “They won’t buy what they need until a swell comes.” Too often, he was stuck in the store, serving those tardy surfers, when a swell came up. After the Watershed closed in 2001, Levy established LSD. “People say I’m not grumpy anymore,” he said. “I work when I want to and surf when I want.”
A few years ago, Levy introduced the computerized cutting of foam surfboard blanks to his specifications. Once that basic shape is made, the rest is still handwork. Two years ago, Levy traveled to China to oversee production of 150 surfboards for Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Costa Rica. “It was kind of nerve-racking, having to stand at a too-low workbench, using unfamiliar tools, not sharing a language with these workers who were staring at me,” he said. “But they learned my techniques how I learned — keeping their mouths shut and watching.”
You can see where Levy’s heart is — in his fifth decade of surfing, mending and making surfboards — just by peering into the coat closet in his front hall. Seventeen wetsuits of varying thicknesses for all seasons of surfing hang there, but no coats. The house is a few blocks away from a small synagogue, Beth David, built long ago to serve Narragansett’s summer colony. Levy doesn’t attend the synagogue, but Jewish pride is symbolized on his surfboards. What made him inscribe them with the Star of David? It was, he explained, his reaction to the Christian symbols he saw on the surfboards of “born again” surfers. They include the ichthus or fish, an early symbol of Jesus, or the white dove of peace.
“I figured, if they could put their identity on a surfboard,” Levy said, “why shouldn’t I?”
Peter Hellman, author of eight books, last wrote for the Forward on Simon Schama and Janie Cohen. His book in progress is called “Surfing on Social Security.”