Mike LaVecchia is a Maine surfer/shaper who is the co-founder of Grain Surfboards. Utilizing the latest technology, LaVecchia creates hollow wooden boards that possess both beauty and function, attracting surfers like Kassia Meador and Dave Rastovich. We caught up with Mike to learn more.
What was life like growing up in Maine?
I actually grew up in New Jersey, and only came to Maine about five years ago by way of Vermont. We lived in a suburban town not far outside of NYC. It was a good place to grow up, lots of friends around, plenty to do. We spent most of our time either riding around on BMX bikes or skating little rickety quarter pipes that we built. As we got older, we spent more time in the summer down at the shore, and lots of time in the winter in Vermont. So, we really learned to enjoy every season for what it had to offer.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were younger?
I guess that would depend on which time of my life we’re talking about. I’m sure the list would include Hulk Hogan, Craig Kelly, Tony Hawk, Bjorn Borg, Uncle Jimmy, my dad, Jake Burton and John Candy.
When did you get your first surfboard?
About nine years ago. It was a used Yater Spoon.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
Pretty indescribable really—not so much when I first stood on a surfboard, but the first time I actually felt myself picking up speed and going down the line. I always had a feeling that once I started surfing, it would change the course of my life. That first wave confirmed it.
Where did your interest in wood-based surfboards come from?
I’ve been sailing for most of my life and, in recent years, working on and around boats as a captain, boat builder and sail maker. I fell in love with wooden boats early on… maybe because they were the only things I could afford. To own a wooden boat, you either have to be handy or wealthy; I knew I could learn to be handy. One of my favorite things to do was to check out boats and how they were constructed.
One day, while I was replacing the deck of a boat, I began thinking about how I could take some of the different techniques used in building boats and transfer them to surfboards. Boat styles, designs and constructions vary from region to region around the world. I thought, “How cool would it be to build surfboards in different regions of the world (or even just the US) using local woods and local techniques?” In the Northeast, we had Northern White Cedar, and what made it such a great wood for boats made it a great wood for surfboards.
What is your process when creating your boards?
Like most boards, they start as an idea. That’s pretty much where the similarities in the process end. We translate our ideas carefully into a 3D model. In the computer, we’re able to tweak the shapes, send images to our customer for their input or gather other surfers and board builders around to comment on all the design elements.
Our boards are hollow, and building them is very much like building a small (or at least thin) boat. Cedar is lightweight and strong, but is heavier then other common woods used in surfboards, such as balsa. We build our boards around an internal frame that comes from the 3D model and which defines just about the entire shape of the board, the outline, rocker, deck, bottom contours and most of the rail shape. Starting from the bottom up, we use a combination of techniques, many of which are derived from different boatbuilding methods. A combination of wide, book-matched planks go on the top and bottom of the board with special strips used around the rails to fill in the area where the top and bottom can’t meet.
We buy rough sawn lumber from mills here in Maine and mill out the planks, rail strips and blocking ourselves. Each step leaves an offcut, and that offcut is used to create the next part down the line. The whole method creates as little waste as possible—most of which goes to mulch or compost. Compared to a chambered balsa board, where the insides are completely turned to dust, our boards use about one-third of the material.
Aside from the design phase, each builder here at the shop (either John, Brad or myself) takes each board through the entire process of building, shaping, glassing and polishing. This helps to keep things interesting for all of us, plus allows us to get to know every little knot or grain change and how it might effect later steps.
Who are some of the people riding your boards?
For starters, all of us at Grain ride wood boards pretty much every session, but that might be obvious. Last autumn, we had Kassia Meador, Mikey DeTemple and Scotty Stopnik trying out our boards at our home break here in Maine. When they weren’t surfing, they hung around the shop for a week building their own boards— Kassia a 5’4” fish, Mikey a 5’0” Simmons-inspired twin fin and Scotty a 4’5” Paipo. We designed a slim little funshape with Layne Beachley specially for her home break in Australia and Dave Rastovich has a 6’9” mini-gun that he also helped us design. He and my business partner, Brad, built it together on the front lawn of the Billabong house on the beach at Pipeline during the Triple Crown. We recently heard that Donavan Frankenreiter surfed it not long ago at Sunset.
It’s funny that most of the pros that are riding our boards actually built them themselves. Helping people build their own boards is something that we’re really pumped on. So aside from everyone who is surfing the boards that we built here in the shop, there really are hundreds of people that are surfing Grain boards that they built with their own hands.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
Having only been surfing for a relatively short time, my surf travel is limited to most of the East and West Coasts, and Costa Rica (where a good friend used to live). I was lucky to have great job with Burton Snowboards back in the 80’s and 90’s, and that allowed me to travel around most of the mountainous regions of the U.S., Canada and some of Europe. I also did a bunch of traveling while working around boats, up and down the waterways of the East Coast (from Down East Maine to the Keys, the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Panama Canal). The places that stand out the most seem to be the more rugged landscapes where the mountains come down to the sea, places like the British Columbia and Ireland. Life seems simple, but everything has a purpose.
What is it that makes you such a nice person? What code do you live by?
Hmm, some people say I’m overly sympathetic. I’m the devil’s advocate. I come from a large family, have been lucky to be surrounded by the best friends one could have. I’m community-based. I love companionship; I do best when everyone around me is happiest. I don’t know really. I’m an idea guy. I thrive on enthusiasm.
Who/what inspires you?
I’m inspired by hope and optimism, I guess—the idea that things continually improve and evolve. I’m inspired by people who don’t set limits on their knowledge, and by my friends and brothers who are all so talented.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
To accept how people look at situations differently. To be tolerant of people that might not agree with your point of view.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
I wish I stood up for myself more in high school. My revenge is knowing that most of my classmates are still living in New Jersey selling insurance or analyzing computer data.
What are you most proud of?
That I knew when to say “when” with each transition in my life. That I never followed a path past the point of unhappiness.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Right now, surfing has filled a big void in my life. I’ve always been happiest when I’m close to the water. I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter what type of vehicle I’m on. Surfing has helped to confirm that life does not need to be filled with possessions, that the simpler I can exist, the happier I’ll be.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
An egg sandwich, coffee, and a view of the water.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
Anyone really who is thinking outside the box and trying new things: Tom and Jon Wegener, Tyler Hatzikian, Scotty Stopnik, the Malloys, Richard Kenvin and Cyrus Sutton are just a few that come to mind.
What is currently your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
My 12 footer on a chest high day in front of the Nevada at Long Sands.
What’s your favorite meal?
Depends on who makes it. If I’m making it, spaghetti with meat sauce. If it’s my mom, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas. If I’m going out, maybe pad thai or a burger with fries.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
My iPod mostly sits on a shelf collecting dust. You might say that technology frustrates me. If I were to put some music on, it might be Crosby Stills and Nash, The Doobie Brothers, The Shins, Nick Drake or Frank Sinatra.
What causes, projects, organizations do you support?
Most of the support I lend has always come in the form of action. That’s what led me to work with non-profits like the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and the Gundalow Company—encouraging boatbuilding and hands-on education, and teaching maritime history and ecology by way of traditional sailing vessels. Through Grain Surfboards, we’re able to promote and practice environmental awareness, sustainable forestry and full lifecycle thinking. I look up to and admire organizations as big as Sea Sheperd Society and as small as Vermont Family Forests.
What are you most grateful for?
The experiences we had as family growing up and how those experiences introduced me to the life and the friends that I now have.
What’s next for Mike LaVecchia?
Eating some lunch, answering some emails and hopefully going for a paddle.
Find out more about Mike LaVecchia’s company Grain Surfboards here. Photography courtesy of Nick LaVecchia.