Cunningham,_Meghan_PDov
ARTISAN Cunningham with two of his creations.
Surfing has been a Rhode Island fixture for decades now. But wander north of Second Beach and terms like "point break" and "south swell" fall out of the vernacular pretty quickly.

The Ocean State doesn't know much about those who ply its waves.

That owes something to Rhode Island's failure to produce a bona fide star; the surf, here, can be world-class, but it's not consistent enough to yield the elite talent of a Hawaii, California, or Florida.

To focus on tournament mettle alone, though, is to miss the story — the story of one of Rhode Island's most intriguing subcultures.

Last week, I set out in search of that culture and I found some remarkable characters: punk rockers, gangbangers, local legends. The eco-friendly board shaper. The Brazilian transplant. The 15-year-old kid on the make.

This is Rhode Island surfing, circa 2012.

Hold on tight.


THE SHAPER

Let's start somewhere unexpected: Providence. Allens Avenue, no less.

Here on industrial row, alongside a towering pile of scrap metal: a small studio. Blue walls, piles of curled wood shavings on the floor, and on the table at the center — a split arc tail mini Simm surf board, in media res.

The man hunched over the board — tortoise-shell glasses, trim beard, and mustache — is Kevin Cunningham, who has lately developed a national reputation for his environmentally friendly, handcrafted boards.

A Baltimore native, he grew up swimming and surfing in Ocean City, Maryland. Five or six hours in the water and he'd come out blue. "Of course, when you're eight years old," he says, "it doesn't faze you."

Cunningham came to Providence in 2000 to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied architecture and, for his thesis, designed a crematorium and chapel he called Spirare for "breath of life."

After school he worked in architecture and construction for a time, shaping boards nights and weekends. Now, Spirare Surfboards — designed to breathe life back into the industry, he says — is a full-time enterprise.

The mini Simm, one of his most popular boards, is made of recycled extruded polystyrene — think coffee cups and beer coolers — with a poplar ply skin and light, strong, and sustainable paulownia wood on the rails. The board will last 10 years. Most boards make it just one or two.

Cunningham has shaped three boards for Tom Carroll, an Aussie who was a two-time world champion in the '80s. And on a shelf above our heads sits a pair of boards he's made for Carissa Moore, the current women's world champion.

Cunningham pulls out his iPhone and scrolls through dozens and dozens of artful photographs of boards until he lands on a picture of Moore's manager holding a Spirare above his head in the Indonesian surf, grinning.


THE REDEEMED

Shayla Belanger and the father of her son were no longer a couple. But they were still close. They'd see each other at least once a year. And the pair was planning to meet at the Outer Banks in North Carolina in May 2009.

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