Surfer riding a wave in Cane Garden Bay, BVI

Long-time BVI resident Bob Carson has been crafting boards as a hobby for nearly a decade from his in-house workshop overlooking Cane Garden Bay. After spending time learning and practicing the art of board-making in California and Florida, Carson moved to the BVI, though he didn't have immediate intentions of making boards. But soon word spread of a guy on island able to repair boards, and business hasn't slowed down since. Production started in earnest in 2000 after his house was designed and built with a full workshop for the board-making process. When arriving at the workshop, lovable golden retriever watchdogs, Surfer Dude and Chubby, announce your arrival and will perhaps lumber out to greet you. The workshop itself is painted with vibrant colors and features a spectacular view of the bay. During a swell, Carson can watch his boards in action and even hear the surfers talking to each other while waiting for waves.

Bob Carson applies the finishing touches to one of his boards

Bob Carson in his studio. Photo by Jim Scheiner

The labor-intensive process of crafting a custom board begins by taking several factors into consideration, such as the surfer's ability and size, as well as the size of wave the board is intended for. You don't surf Hawaii's massive Pipeline break on the same board as Apple Bay's more modest waves. Inexperienced surfers start on a longboard (usually eight or nine feet in length), which is stable in the water so beginners can learn the basics. "But everyone seems to hold on to their longboard," Carson says, "they can bring it out and have fun on small days."

After the longboard is perfected, surfers move on to a shortboard, which is built for maneuvering. The options for shortboard design are seemingly endless – each detail can impact the ride on the wave, and many surfers have a quiver of different sizes and styles of boards. Variations include the overall width of the board, the shape of the tail, the degree of the rocker (the pointed-up nose) and the locations for fins on the bottom of the board.

Once a style is set, Carson can get to work. He chooses an appropriately sized blank piece of foam to start with and begins measuring. Generally he works from templates of past boards he has made, though many alterations are made to suit the order at hand. Rulers and tape measures appear and Carson starts marking off dozens of points on the blank before touching a saw. He seems to do the calculations in his head, envisioning where the cuts will be made and the shape the board will take. After some double-checking, the saw comes out and soon enough the telltale curves of a board appear.

Bob Carson applies the finishing touches to one of his boards

Bob Carson finishing a surfboard. Photo by Jim Scheiner

But now, the chunky blank will be filed down with a planer to produce the water-skimming shape necessary for speed and agility in the waves. "Holding a planer is like holding a pencil, to me," Carson says, though he stresses that it's a skill that's been years in the making. "To a certain extent the shaping process is like sculpture. You're not working on a block or marble, rather on a foam blank, but essentially, you're turning this into that." He welcomes anyone who wants to learn the art of board-making and will take them on as an apprentice.

After the shape is set, a layer of ultra fine clear resin is applied over the top of the fiberglass netting, giving the foam some much-needed strength. The board is sanded once more, then another clear coat is added and the board should then rest for up to two weeks, though the wait is pure torture for the new owner. The whole process can be done in one day, without any painting or design work. But who doesn't want a custom paint job, too?

Nearly anything you can dream up can be put on the board through airbrushing, painting or designs printed on rice paper. The customer can arrange to handle the artwork, but Carson, who attended art school, does much of the painting and designs. His daughter-in-law Debi, also an artist, has been known to take brush to board, creating abstract masterpieces that are more at home on a wall than on a wave.

One of Carson's goals is to get other BVI artists involved in painting the boards, which would be sold as gallery pieces available in his retail shop. He notes that Trellis Bay's Aragorn has done a board or two for his sons, and would love to have art boards by Aragorn, Quito, Nan and other artists to showcase different styles of BVI art through this unique medium.

Bob Carson shapes a board in his workshop
Above: Bob Carson shapes a board in his workshop.

Situated near Road Town's cruise ship pier, the Cane Garden Bay Surf Shop opened in April, 2007 and was recently remodeled. Inside you'll find surfboards (handmade stock models, not custom) and surfing accessories as well as unique souvenirs and clothes touting the BVI. The store not only attracts cruise ship passengers, but crew as well. "Ten crewmen on different ships have boards they use during their downtime," Carson says. "And three or four of those were custom made. They ordered it when they were in port, and when they came back it was ready."

Indeed the CGB surfboards have traveled the globe and can be found throughout the Caribbean, including St. Croix and Puerto Rico, the United States and as far as France and Venezuela, though surely some have traveled beyond that, unbeknownst to their creator. In surfing, as in much of life, it's often cool to have something that no one else has, such as a surfboard made on the tiny island of Tortola. Vacationing surfers try to blend in with the local crowd by riding a local board, and then stand out when they're back on their home breaks.

"Surfers spend a lot of time groping around for the perfect board," Carson explains, so it's understandable they jump at the chance to have a board made just for them, made to their exact specifications. It's a bonus for Carson as well.

"It's really rewarding having good surfers ride your boards and then give feedback, or come back with new ideas for shapes and styles. It keeps me young."

For more information on Bob Carson and his surfboards visit the Cane Garden Bay surfboard's website.