Saving the Planet with Spirare Surfboards

Rhode Islander Kevin Cunningham builds surfboards out of sustainable materials.
Kevin Cunningham, spirare surfboards
Photography courtesy of spirare surfboards/Meghan Dove.

Like most surfers, Kevin Cunningham is secretive about his favorite surf spots — he’ll only say that Newport is a favorite destination — but he’s positively effusive about his passion for handcrafting custom, environmentally friendly surfboards from his unlikely shop in Lincoln.

Cunningham launched Spirare Surfboards thirteen years ago, fresh out of Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in architecture. An avid surfer but a cash-poor student, he decided to use some of the skills he learned at the famously hands-on school to build himself a surfboard.

Early attempts involved conventional material like polyurethane foam and fiberglass, “but I quickly realized that was extremely toxic for me and for the environment,” says Cunningham. So he started experimenting with greener materials, eventually settling on a core of recycled EPS — the stuff used to make Styrofoam cups and coolers — covered by rot- and seawater-resistant paulownia wood, sourced from a fast-growing and sustainable tree found in southeast Asia, Korea and Japan and the southern United States.

Spirare’s beautiful creations are something of a throwback to the early days of surfing, when all surfboards were made of wood. Even the colorful fins on the boards serve a deeper purpose: They’re made of what Cunningham dubs “sea resin,” composed of discarded fishing nets, rope and plastics scavenged from the shoreline and encased in an eco-friendly matrix.

Cunningham has sold more than 1,000 surfboards over the years, priced at $900 and up. Some surfers buy his boards for the retro looks — they’re basically functional works of art — others for the planet-friendly design. But the surfboards are also individually customized to match each surfer’s ability, size and performance needs. “If the surfboard doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how green it is,” says Cunningham.

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