By Charlotte Austin

Meet your new favorite surf couple: Al Ciske and Sandy Smith. If you haven’t met them in person, you’ve probably been lucky enough to bump into a couple like them. They’re glowing, vibrant, almost vibrating with love for what they do. They probably have weird tan lines, but you won’t notice that, because you’ll be too busy listening to their stories. They’ve surfed together in Panama, Puerto Rico, El Salvador. Al sang and played lead guitar in a number of different punk rock bands; Sandy grew up skiing and snowboarding with her rough-and-tumble brothers. They have an 8-year-old Australian Shepherd named Benny, who they love to walk on the beach while sipping a cold can of Updrift. And, above all else: they live and breathe saltwater.

The most charming story of all, though, is their morning ritual. “Every single day, we roll out of bed, start the coffee, and check the waves. Even though we only live 400 yards from the beach in Pacific City, Oregon, we still pull up the webcam before going down to look at the water. Whether we think it’s going to be surfable or not, it’s something that we just naturally do. It’s a totally ingrained habit, and I can’t imagine starting the day any other way,” shares Al.And it makes sense, because surfing — and adventure — is clearly in Al and Sandy’s blood. Sandy grew up in Packwood, Washington, while Al was raised in the midwest, and they both explored a number of other places before finding their home on Oregon’s rugged coast in 2016. “It was a very deliberate choice to move to the North Coast,” says Sandy. “Living the adventure lifestyle was incredibly important to us, so we set out goals, worked hard, and made it happen. We’ve never looked back.”

When he’s not actually in the water, Al is a specialty contractor for Seastack Construction and a full-time surfboard shaper at NME Shapes, a company he founded, owns and operates. “I got heavy into surfing right when I moved here. It hit me in the face! It’s amazing. But Oregon is gnarly in the winter — there’s a ton of rain and wind, and the ocean is huge and unsurfable most of the time. I was head-over-heels crazy about surfing, so I was trying to figure out how I could stay in touch with the soul of the sport without actually being in the water. So I decided to shape a surfboard, and that first board turned into ten. Then ten turned into a hundred, and a hundred turned into a thousand. It’s absolutely a labor of love. I see people get excited to ride something I’ve made, and that’s so special.”The process is fascinating. Working through a distributor, Al gets pre-molded blank foam cores — it’s a piece of material roughly in the shape of a surfboard, but wider and thicker. They’re designed for him to trace out an outline, then whittle it down to exactly what he and his customers have in mind. “I have a whole selection of tools, and I’ll carefully shave each blank down to a custom shortboard or longboard — mostly shortboards, but I do it all. Then, once it’s shaped, I send it off to get fiberglassed in Camas, Washington. That’s when the board gets fin boxes, the resin, the logo placements, the surface sanding, and color. The whole process usually takes 4-6 weeks.”

“It’s a huge, flooded market. There are tons of computer-made surfboards from overseas — mostly manufactured by robots in China. What I do, though, is entirely by hand: I make design decisions for the specific customer, I outline it, I cut it out, I sand it. A lot of companies are making thousands of boards a day, but there’s so much incredible value in a hand-shaped experience. Each customer can tell me exactly what they want, and we can create their exact vision. Plus, they’re buying a local, handmade product that’s totally customized to their needs.”

He primarily makes performance-oriented boards — mostly shortboards, which are designed for lots of tricks and aerial maneuvers. “I’ve recently been branching out to different kinds of board shapes, and I’m getting some really interesting new orders. It’s fascinating to try to build a board that I’ve never built before. Lots of people are pushing the limits by requesting fun, unique, one-off designs. It’s cool to try new things.”

Sandy, meanwhile, works as the guest services manager at Headlands Coastal Lodge & Spa, where she shares her love for the coast in different ways. Part of her job description is collaborating with the lodge’s “Adventure Coaches” program, which helps guests explore and enjoy the area. “It’s so fun to curate these experiences with them,” she says. “I especially love it when families reminisce about their first beach bonfire — that’s a memory they’ll share forever.”

She also sends her guests out on surfing lessons, and she’ll often share sage advice: “To have a good time, you have to be comfortable. You can rent a wetsuit, grab a board, and you’ll have a decent surf session. But to really enjoy the experience, you need proper gear and proper instruction. If you’re cold and miserable, you’re not going to fall in love with the sport. It’s absolutely worth investing in a thicker, warmer wetsuit — and make sure to get a hood. You have to be prepared mentally and physically.”

Al nods in agreement, beaming at Sandy. “It’s so unique that we share a passion for surfing these waters,” he says. “On most mornings, Sandy will beat me into the ocean. She absolutely slays.” Sandy’s humble, but it’s clear: this is a woman who charges hard, dreams big, and can’t resist the pull of a beautiful Oregon swell.

At the end of the day, it’s all part of the life they’ve built, so carefully and deliberately, in Pacific City. They value the ecosystem, the local trails, the ocean, the community. “After a good surf session, a lot of us will meet at Pelican for a beer,” Al says. ”I associate adventure with staying hydrated, so I especially love the crispness of Updrift, their new IPA. But I also just love sitting on the back deck of the brewery, sipping a beer and watching the waves.” And, Al sheepishly grins. “I’ve been getting their pub sandy for years.”



Charlotte Austin is an award-winning adventure writer and mountain guide living on Bainbridge Island, Washington. She works for International Mountain Guides, where she leads climbing and mountaineering expeditions around the world. She is a Wilderness-EMT, a Leave No Trace (LNT) Trainer, an extra class ham radio operator, and holds Level 2 certification with the American Institute for Avalanche Education and Training (AIARE). She has written for Outside Magazine, The New York Times, Seattle Met, and many more national and international print and online publications. She summited Mount Everest on May 22nd, 2019; since then, she has been icing her knees, drinking cold beer, and falling off her surfboard.

Alexandra Pallas is a freelance photographer based out of Pacific City, Oregon. A native Oregonian, she was skiing by the age of three and backpacking by the age of seven. Her life-long love of the outdoors and an adventurous spirit inspires her photographic work. When she isn’t behind the lens you can find her skiing, surfing with her husband, hiking, and playing with her Sheepadoodle Napoleon.

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