C U L T I V A T O R S : Volume 2 : Ryan Lovelace
by Dan Gullbongs·
The Middle Road to Surf Sled Nirvana: a Ryan Lovelace Profile
“I’m pretty good at pissing off old guys.” explains Ryan Lovelace with a laugh that feels loaded. He’s telling a story about his unique place in the surf universe; a kid from the suburbs of Seattle with near zero surf experience who has spent the last half of his life slowly turning himself into one of the most sought-after surfboard builders on the planet. Just then, a wave stacks offshore, a big, impossibly blue lump of energy preparing to crash along the north coast of Kauai, its curling lip feathered white by the wind. Lovelace falls silent as it peels across the bay. “Oooh. That’s a big, good one.” he observes as much to me as to himself. Then he laughs again, this one more of a genuine and personal chuckle, “I mean, it would probably kill me…but it’s good out there.”
Ryan Lovelace is a freshly minted 36 years-old. He and his wife, Katie, currently split time between a 1970’s psychedelic chic boathouse in California’s Santa Barbara Harbor and a small bungalow in the jungle near Tunnels Beach on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He makes surfboards for a living. Beautiful, genre-bending, handcrafted surfboards. Order one from him today and you will be lucky to have it within 18 months. His waitlist is the stuff of legend.
But this isn’t the story you think it is. This isn’t Rick Kane coming out of a wave pool in Arizona to become the lovable and successful new alpha of the North Shore surf scene. Nor is this a story about some ego-driven, achievement monster who worships at the altar of the almighty dollar. Far from it, actually. Lovelace grew up with dry gills, more into skiing and computers and tinkering with motorcycles than riding waves. His first surfboard didn’t come until his 18th birthday and he built it himself. Not because he had fancy dreams about being a shaper but more because he simply couldn’t afford to buy one off the racks at a surf shop. This might seem like a pretty big undertaking, especially for a saltwater newbie like Lovelace was at the time, but the more you get to know him the more you realize this sort of DIY leap of faith is par for the course. “I just like making shit. I get a lot of joy from the challenge of figuring something out.” explains the regular foot, “I don’t envision some finished thing and say, ‘Let's go for the goal!’ I just embark from my point of interest and follow it from there.”
And it’s not just surfboards. Its motorcycles and boats and surf shops and websites and films and a 1948 Chevy school bus with bullet holes in the door. (The latter is actively being used by the cannabis company, Old Pal, as their primary vibe mobile for events on the West Coast.) The list of Lovelace’s various adventures in elbow grease goes on and on. It’s not uncommon for him to have a half dead boat restoration project in the yard outside his shaping bay next to a couple motorcycles in various states of repair next to a pile of fishing tackle next to yet another pile of something that is mostly unidentifiable to the untrained eye. This is a person who openly admits that he “gets a real buzz” from taking an hour or two to jury-rig a busted taillight on his car to pass a DMV inspection. Call it the curse of an open-mind, but it seems Ryan can’t help but see the promise in even the shittiest of projects. As he puts it, “Taking something from being all fucked up and broken to being super sick and functional—that is so gratifying to me.”
Indeed, with habits like his, Lovelace rarely, if ever, suffers from boredom. Oddly, it is equally rare that his plate seems over burdened. He has an air of laid back chill about him that is as agreeable as it is hard to believe given his daily to-do list. Both his motivation and his ambition seem more pure than they should. And, to hear him tell it, this isn’t by accident. From early on in his career, the young shaper has aimed for the middle. He has walked away from business deals that would have likely made him more money for fear that they would have also cost him his peace and creative freedom. He also knows what it’s like to bite off more than you can chew and have to self-administer the Heimlich maneuver. “It’s hard, man, to stay in that sweet spot and not let other people’s ambition or definition of success move you.” says Ryan, “I’m always trying to figure out where the middle is and what it looks like. I don’t always get it right, but I’m always going to try. Any other way would be bullshit.”