I was lucky enough to meet Nick Naylor in high school, where we bonded quickly over a shared love of the ocean, his having a car, and me not yet having a driver license. Two years ahead of me, Nick was living an entire social universe away from a wide-eyed freshman but he was kind enough to adopt me as a sidekick social experiment. He’d pick me up for school and we’d start our day by throwing impromptu parking lot parties. We’d throw open every door of his rusty but trusty doodoo brown Subaru wagon and blast Sir Mix A Lot, b-boy dancing and not missing a syllable of the lyrics, all before heading off to class. We once had a contest to see who could wear at least one camouflage article of clothing for the most consecutive days in a row. During the holidays, he would put my mother’s decorative wicker Christmas deer in sexually compromising positions on my front lawn, all to the chagrin of my mother and delight of our neighborhood. It was our absurd and usually inappropriate sense of humor that cemented our bond as we sought new ways to keep the monotony of high school life entertaining.
Nick also exposed me to some of the finer things in life, like showing me the cult classic Big Wednesday for my first time and getting me to skip school and go surf down in the Outer Banks – which was both my first trip down there without my dad and my first surf in a wetsuit. The fun I had that day turned me into a year-round surfer, which on our stretch of the east coast, where water temps consistently dip into the 30s, separates the men from the boys. Looking back, I can see that was one of the most definitive sessions of my now lifelong relationship with the ocean.
After high school, Nick went on to front a mustache-mandatory Latin rock band called “Los Cabrones,” bought a Chevette and gave it a complete duct tape paint job with the explicit purpose of driving it like a jerk, taught English in China with a beautiful woman who has gone on to become his wife and the mother of his kids, and most recently, started his own business with Rock-It Surfboards.
I still look up to Nick because he’s still finding unique approaches to kill it at life and ensure he’s having a blast while doing so. Take his approach to fatherhood and a mortgage, for example. Nick moves his family from their home in Sandbridge every summer and crams them into a trailer, where they make some material sacrifices in creature comfort to create the feeling of an extended camping trip, spending more time on their boat or fishing from their backyard than they ever would inside a trailer. And this extended stay-cation just a few minutes down the street from their actual house enables Nick to pay their annual mortgage with summer rental income. It’s a win-win that has allowed them to reinvest in their property and travel more freely while forcing their kids to unplug and actually enjoy summer the way it’s meant to be – with family and friends, surfboards and fishing poles.
This is the type of creative thinking that Nick has brought to his latest endeavor at Rock-It Surfboards, where he’s approached business as usual, made some seemingly minor tweaks, and come up with a game-changing approach to create the world’s only recycled EPS soft-top surfboard.
In the run-up to the final screening of the 2017 Save The Waves Film Festival’s East Coast tour, which will be Saturday 9/30 at Wave Riding Vehicles in Virginia Beach, I caught up with that old high school buddy to learn more about his new mission to create an environmentally friendly soft-top.
Was there a life-changing moment or epiphany that led you to start your own surfboard company?
There was a combination of moments that came together at the same time. Of course, the biggest single inspiration was my son (five at the time) and wanting to get him a starter board. I looked at what was available at the time and recognized there was an opportunity. Then there was a desire to do something on my own, something I’d grow to be proud of–use recycled materials, donate to causes that make our world a better place, make a well designed product (in the US, if possible) that people will have a lot of fun using, and make it a great value. Combine that with growing confidence in my own business capabilities after living abroad and around 15 years of working for both start-ups and large US companies, and it was the right time for me to take a bit of a risk. It helps to have good friends who can help you along the way–give you valuable advice or feedback, design killer logos for you, help you get exposure, etc.
Rock-It Surfboards is the only recycled EPS soft surfboard in the world. What prompted you to have such a game-changing business model?
I’m not certain if I’m the only one or not. I know recycled EPS is used in some fiberglass boards for sure. That said, what prompted me was the pain of being a surfer and an environmentalist at heart, but also creating a product out of materials that are the antithesis of that. In other words, guilt. We still haven’t found a material that has cost and performance benefits of petrochemical-based foams, so what can be done to at least make that a bit better? When you start going down the rabbit hole and learn how something is made, you see the possibilities. In general, EPS at the factory level is highly recyclable. I learned from an EPS manufacturer that it was pretty easy to spec recycled foam from manufacturing waste, so why wouldn’t you? So I made an agreement with my factory to do so.
There are some traditionalists in the surfing world who are staunchly anti-soft-top, and moreover anti-China-made. What would you say to these people?
My favorite question(s). First, if you are anti-soft top today you’re just an old cranky bastard. Surfing is about having fun, riding a soft top into waist-high shorebreak is fun, watching your kids learn on their own is fun, and not having to take them to the hospital is fun. Regarding China, one of the things I wanted to do when starting Rock-It was in-shore production here to the USA. I personally look at the origin on nearly everything I buy, and always choose domestic if it’s an option–I’m practically obsessive on the subject. I hope I never am forced to buy a Chinese made fiberglass board. I still believe in the art of the local craftsman and a surfboard is one of the few places this still exists. However, the local craftsman doesn’t exist for soft boards. These are mass manufactured goods. I’ve tried both looking to make them here with a partner in Virginia Beach and outsourcing to a larger manufacturer that still has US operations. On both fronts the business case so far is dubious. There is no way I’ve found that doesn’t double my costs, if not more, and that translates to a lot more at retail. A business only survives if people buy its products. I haven’t found a viable domestic manufacturing option yet, although I’m always open to new options and ideas so I welcome any should they exist.
Every year we sponsor not only multiple local charity events but also larger organizations such as Waves for Water and of course Save the Waves. For 2018 we’re going to expand the lineup, continue exploring how to be better and grow this business, and of course, keep it fun!
Note: You can meet Nick Naylor at the Virginia Beach screening of the Save The Waves Film Festival on Saturday 9/30 at Wave Riding Vehicles. The STWFF is proudly presented by Parley, with support from Patagonia, Peak Design, Clif Bar, The Inertia, Escape Campervans, Poler, and Firewire Surfboards. This event is locally supported by Waterman’s Surfside Grille, Bottlecraft Brewery, 96X, and of course WRV. For more information and tickets, please visit savethewaves.org/filmfest