Artist on Board

Dirk McCall brings his love for art and the water together to create “art you can surf.”

Paddleboarders take their marks during the 2019 “Damn the Torpedoes” race at Fairhope’s American Legion Beach. Photo by Pete Gleszer

Dirk McCall may be from California, but he’s a perfect fit for Fairhope — he’s got an adventurous spirit, a unique and creative skill set, a friendly personality and, of course, a deep love for Mobile Bay. All of these qualities intersect in Dirk’s newest venture: building high-quality custom surf and paddleboards that are sold all over the world.

Falling in Love with Paddleboarding

Dirk’s life plays out like a movie. He joined the Navy as a photojournalist just out of high school; painted sidewalk portraits in Hawaii and on Venice Beach; had a successful art career in Denmark (where he met his wife); and owned a house-painting business in California. In 2014, Dirk moved his family to Point Clear without knowing exactly what he’d do there. Soon after the move, he swapped surfing, which he’d done since childhood, for stand-up paddleboarding. 

“It’s fantastic fitness, but it’s really versatile,” Dirk says. “It can be a cardio workout, a morning Zen moment or a relaxed sunset paddle. It’s not a fad. This is going to be around for a while.”

Paddleboarding originated in Hawaii and came to the mainland about 15 years ago. In 2013, the sport had more first-time participants in the U.S. than any other outdoor sporting activity.

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“I think paddleboarding has taken off because everyone can participate, regardless of age,” Dirk says. “There’s a little bit of a learning curve, but everyone can do it. I’m 54. People do it into their 80s.”

Combining Art and Sport

Elisabeth McCall, Dirk’s daughter, shows off her one-of-a-kind board. Photo by Dirk McCall

Learning to build boards was a natural progression for Dirk after moving to Point Clear. 

“I’m an artist and a handcraftsman at heart,” he says. “It just all came together. I saw a market for the boards and decided to learn how to make them. There was about a year where I struggled — you can’t really learn how to do this on YouTube.”

Dirk traveled to South Florida to a paddleboard trade show and found a man who would allow him to intern in his factory. He returned and founded Dirk Boards. 

“It’s very complex work,” he says. “It’s a problem-solving thing. There’s always a new way to make a mistake.”

Making a profit from surfboards and paddleboards is difficult because each board costs at least $500 to make, Dirk says. His boards are different from the cheaper, mass-produced versions from China because of the craftsmanship and custom art on each board. 

“As soon as it started to become popular, the market was flooded with the cheapest boards possible,” Dirk says. “That’s why there aren’t a lot of custom board builders.”

Dirk, who speaks fluent Danish, sells most of his boards in Scandinavian countries, where paddleboarding is a major sport.

Boarding on the Bay

Paddleboarding is gaining popularity along the Gulf Coast, and Dirk is doing his part to continue to recruit new participants. 

“This area is perfect for paddleboarding,” he says. “You can get out in the Bay or on Fish River or down in the Gulf.” 

He founded the Fairhope Paddle League last year, and for the past three years, he’s hosted an annual paddleboarding race in the Bay. This year’s event, “Damn the Torpedoes,” is scheduled for August 8. 

Dirk says one huge misconception in the region is that Mobile Bay is too polluted for water sports. 

“People are afraid to get out on the Bay in anything that’s not a boat, and that’s a shame,” he says. “This is beautiful water.”

And what better way to see it than from a floating, functional work of art.

“Damn the Torpedoes” Paddleboard Race August 8, 2020 • 9 a.m. Races will include 200-meter sprints, 1.5 miles and 3 miles Registration:

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