A Portuguese surfboard maker clings to work as his life falls apart

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As we make our way into a small workshop by an empty skate park, we are greeted by the sprightly owner Mica, mildly suspicious of the two strangers walking in, in the baking afternoon heat. My friend Cornelius introduces himself as the surfer-photographer who made an appointment over email. And as for me, I met Cornelius at a hostel the night before and decided to tag along at the last minute. Mica nods and asks us to put on our masks. Later we would realize that it wasn’t because of the pandemic, but because of the chemical fumes lingering in the workshop.

Warmly, Mica introduces us into his Mecca – a shop building custom-designed surfboards in the hotbed of Portuguese surfing, the small fishing village of Ericeira. Surfers of all stripes – beginners, intermediates and professionals – throng Ericeira all year round, visiting from places as far away as Australia and Hawaii. Much of the local economy caters to these foreign surfers – lessons, equipment rentals, bars and restaurants for visiting athletes. You can gauge the influence of surfing in this town by visiting the most popular bar in town, Tubo, Portuguese for Tube riding, the exquisitely difficult art of riding inside the barrel of a wave.

The workshop is divided into a few small rooms – a dark room stores the finished products, a shaping room, considered the most essential step in board-making, the lamination room, and finally an office where Mica designs the boards.

Mica’s life is the epitome of inspirational quotes seen on tshirts. He has found an elegant way of turning his passion into a living. He works 14-15 hours a day and nothing can stop him – the pandemic, the poor weather from November to March, or flakey volunteers who don’t show up when they are supposed to. He remains holed up in his colorful workshop, churning out surfboards, no two of which are alike. Every single board is unique due to a combination of colors, shape and angles of the nose, tail and rails.

Having founded Mica’s Surfboards in 2005, his hard work has paid off. He has a diverse array of clients who are willing to pay top dollar to have boards made by him. A Mica Surfboard costs upwards of 500 Euros a pop. But it’s not been an easy journey for Mica as he freely admits. He lost his father during the pandemic, two of his sisters were diagnosed with cancer, and eventually his wife left him. Now more than ever, the surfboard shop has become his refuge.

I’ve been making boards for 34 years, he smiles proudly. He is hesitant to call himself an artist or a craftsman, but Mica has all the hallmarks of an artist. To hear him speak lovingly about his craft, even in his second language English, is to hear a novelist in love with the inner thoughts of their main character.

Despite his sense of idealism and commitment, Mica recognizes the negative impact surfboards have on the environment. If someone tells you their surfboard is green, they are talking bullshit. 90% of a board is all oil – whether it’s the foam, the polyurethane or the resins.

Mica obsesses over every single piece of the build and performance. He surfs with the finished boards in the Atlantic, carefully noting the board’s performance and correlating it to its dimensions. He gets feedback from the customer as well – and so the iterations continue.

At the end of the day, anything can be a board. If used well, even a wooden door can be a surfboard. But our surfboards, and other boards that you see in shops, are designed for ergonomics. It’s designed keeping in mind what surfers need. We take inspiration from fish because that’s what they do, day in and day out, floating through the ocean.

It’s his philosophy of being inspired by the natural world, and from other machines in the world, that keeps Mica on top of his game.

Every single moving machine that you see – whether it’s a car, a boat, a plane or a surfboard, they all work on the same principles. It’s a compromise between weight, flexibility and strength. It has to be the right balance between the 3. If you veer too much in any one direction, you’ll have a sinking ship.

After capturing a few candids and a portrait, Cornelius wants to document Mica signing a surfboard. We alter the lighting in the shaping room, Cornelius is ready on his haunches, taking a burst of pics, his camera going pop-pop-pop as Mica good-naturedly carves his signature onto a board after painstakingly shaping it.

Having got our pictures, we bid goodbye to Mica. He makes a joke about making sure the candids are beautiful and sharing pictures with him when we are done.

As we walk out, a group of young British tourists show off their pristine skateboard skills in the skate park. They are excited to be in Portugal, in the mecca of surfing.

Photography by Cornelius Tometten

Written by Tanmaya Shekhar