Nole Cossart’s journey into the arduous and the arcane
By Ethan Stewart
Light / Dark
Nole Cossart lays the materials out in the driveway. One-inch by four-inch pine planks and some deck screws he found in the junk shop. Gorilla Glue and finger clamps. A jug of mead and some hand tools that belong to his father. He’s tired. Overworked and under-surfed. No surf at all, in fact.
Inspiration has taken hold. Blueprints from a 1939 issue of Popular Mechanics stirred something inside him. They are instructions on building a surfboard patented by Wisconsin-born surfing pioneer Tom Blake. The magazine calls it a hollow surfboard. Everyone else called it a “cigar box” or “kook box.” For Cossart, this auspicious bit of surf history offers an irresistible invitation.
The early evening light of summer shines gold and warm through the oak trees. Cossart has long since transcribed Blake’s blueprint into his own notebook, tinkering with the dimensions, organizing a list of materials, and daydreaming about bottom vee. It’s time for action. He thumbs open the book and plops it down on a weathered sawhorse. He studies the plans and pauses, caught in a moment of reflection.
Life is good these days. Real good. He can hear his daughter Saeja’s voice singsonging from the side yard. His lovely life-and-business partner, Rachna Hailey, is sitting on the steps just a few feet away, sipping a crisp cider from the brewery they run together. Blessings, all of it. But it didn’t come easy. It came at the expense of his hopes and dreams. It came at the expense of surfing.
He smiles, returning to the moment at hand and wondering if he will even have the courage to surf this thing. Then he marks off 24 inches on a stick of pine with his pencil and scribes a slight curve across the short end of the wood. Without further hesitation, he picks up his saw and sets to work.
Cossart is dark featured and handsome, somewhere in his early 30s, with a dad bod reminiscent of an athletic past and domestic present. Don’t be fooled, though. He’s very strong. Regular yoga and hard work. He’s comfortable with the tools and the process of building wooden boards. But it’s been awhile. And this ten-foot by two-foot hollow coffin might just bury him.
Cossart hasn’t been a serious surfer in quite some time. But even before the kook box is finished, he can feel it coming back. All those years. All those dreams. He’ll name the board Sharks.
The Western Gate
Nole Cossart was born into a surfing Shangri-la. His parents, Kit and Beverly, were part of the original development at the famed Hollister Ranch along California’s Central Coast. Far from the gated and gilded fortress of affluence that it is today, The Ranch of the 1970s was a more middle-class affair comprised of surfers, cowboys, and forward-thinking families who fancied a back-to-the-land way of life. Beverly worked as a secretary in The Ranch’s main office, while Kit hung his
shingle as a carpenter with a reputation as both an essential builder and top surfer around Hollister. In time, they built themselves a one-bedroom cabin up a sleepy canyon and planted a small orchard to make ends meet.
When Cossart’s sister Elise was born in 1985, they added a room. And then, with Cossart on the way three years later, they added another. “It was simple living,” says Kit about the Cossart clan’s early years at Hollister. “We were all set with work, surf, and friends right outside the front door.”
Ancient oak trees and gnarled sycamores, meandering dirt roads, steelhead trout in flowing creeks, bear, big cats, cattle, avocado groves, sweet-scented chaparral, and sprawling green pastures flanked by the Pacific Ocean—these were the touchstones of Cossart’s youth. Isolated and idyllic, the area was the last unpaved vestige of the Southern California dream. World class breaks like Razor Blades, Little Drakes, and Rights and Lefts were Cossart’s birthright. To Cossart and his buddies, it was just the beach.
“The beach was our babysitter,” says Cossart. “It was a bunch of paddling, floating, flopping, and boogie boarding on whatever we could find in the garage. We didn’t know any better.”
The surf bug bit in middle school. With pubescent dreams of professional surfing, Cossart was riding high-quality waves daily and improving rapidly as his body matured. He began filming with his buddies on The Ranch and edited the clips himself. The Malloy brothers were a regular presence at The Ranch and Cossart knew them well. Kelly Slater and other assorted top-level surfers would visit as well. Cossart was walking amongst his heroes and sharing waves with them. It was a heady ferment.
Of course, growing up in a private paradise has certain side effects. Certain pitfalls. By 9th grade, Cossart had been in the same school with the same ten kids for his entire life. High school offered a newfound bigness. New friends. New surf buddies. He joined the surf team and started competing in NSSA contests, picking up sponsorships from Billabong and Patagonia. His world was expanding fast.
With all this evolving an hour’s drive from his parents, it was easy for Cossart to start making bad decisions on his own. Drinking, smoking weed, and partying with college kids became the norm. “I was definitely getting my wiggles out,” admits Cossart. “Pro surfing was what I wanted more than anything, and the partying just seemed to be a part of it.”
Cossart recalls an anxiety during this time. A growing self-doubt. It spiked around contests. The pressure was too much. He’d psyche himself out, then beat himself up. The dark moods would linger long after he’d tossed his jersey to the sand. “I hated competing,” he says. “I was too self-critical. Too sensitive.”
College didn’t help. He enrolled at San Diego State, lived in the dorms, surfed his brains out, and dropped out after one year. For his sophomore year, he transferred to the University of Hawaii. Then back to the mainland, where he enrolled at Santa Barbara City College. “I was just bouncing around,” says Cossart. “Nothing felt right. I didn’t want to be limited to one thing. I wanted to stay curious.”
With his 20th birthday approaching, Cossart was back home in Santa Barbara on a committed surf and party program. He was inseparable from his best friend at the time, Chad Koenig. The duo forged their friendship as freshmen at SDSU. Now they were both back in Santa Barbara, keen for action.
A touch older than Cossart, Koenig also entertained pro surfing aspirations, with the wave riding skills to get there. They started shaping alaias together, surfing them everywhere from The Ranch to Rincon. Cossart and Koenig found themselves on the frontlines of the fledgling finless fad, shaping boards in their backyards then running down to the nearest pointbreak to try them out immediately. “It was exciting to be exploring the limits of something so undefined.”
Then they added trespassing to their approach, building a driftwood hut on a beach west of Cojo and settling in for the summer. “We got pretty cavalier,” recalls Cossart. “I think we stayed in that thing for every south swell that season.”
They eventually got arrested and ended up in court, but they were already on to the next adventure. Inspired by a multi-day paddle that Dan Malloy had run down the Gaviota Coast, Cossart and Koening decided to give it a try. Their first go at open-ocean paddling was an ambitious four-day, three-night upwind slog from Hammond’s Beach in Montecito to the sand at San Augustine Beach, some 40 miles away. They camped covertly at places along the way, hoping to find rideable waves for the alaias lashed to their paddleboards. Their approach was minimalist and naive, but well subsidized by youthful bravado. They had dry bags, food, and water, but no tent or GPS. As the stars rose above their makeshift camp in the dunes that first night, they knew this wouldn’t be their last paddle adventure.
They continued to hone their paddle act with regular runs up and down the coast. The frequent one- or two-night getaways unknowingly prepared them for what was coming next—a paddle all the way to Mexico. There was a development planned for a special slice of land in Gaviota and folks were rallying to stop it. Cossart and Koenig decided to raise awareness around the issue with a lengthy paddle-campaign from Point Conception to Baja.
Somewhere during this time they both stopped wearing shoes, no matter what the activity was on shore. From an art gallery opening in Montecito to a grocery store in Malibu to a swanky party in LA to a supply run in La Jolla, Cossart and Koening never had rubber on their feet. California feral. The paddle adventures had synced them into a rhythm that oscillated dramatically between athletic feats and conscious living to hyper-social streaks and questionable decision-making. “It was my rewilding,” says Cossart.
They were young and invincible. They shunned the mainstream, shaping and riding finless wooden boards while gobbling up vast stretches of the Pacific for fun. The surf world took notice. “That feedback gave me confidence,” says Cossart. “For the first time ever, I felt like I had something unique to offer.”Shortly after the Mexico paddle, Nole got invited on a boat trip to Indonesia to film a segment for a movie called Lost Prophets. There, he bonded with fellow rising stars Hans Hagen and Reef McIntosh, and scored double-overhead HT’s with Brian Conley. On that trip, Cossart primarily rode his alaias. Minds were blown. His childhood dream was coming true.
Bouncing Off the Bottom
A few days before his 21st birthday, Cossart was arrested for DUI. He had followed the previous night’s keg party in San Luis Obispo with a solid round of day drinking before deciding it was a good idea to drive the 100 miles south to a buddy’s birthday party in Montecito. He was pulled over for speeding a little more than halfway there. The cop didn’t even have to do a field sobriety test.
A month later, he reconnected with an old high school flame. “Immediately, I was all in,” he says. Four months later, they were pregnant. And it wasn’t an accident. “She wanted a family and I needed someone to rely on me,” says Cossart. “I knew I needed to become responsible, but I also knew I wasn’t going to be able to do it for myself. So we went for it.”
Baby Saeja was born before his 22nd birthday. Her arrival stopped Cossart cold in his crooked tracks. He stared at her for over two-hours straight that first night, lost in her absolute innocence. She was perfect.
After fatherhood came marriage, which invoked a new sense of urgency. He reenrolled in college and started an EMT program with aspirations of becoming a wilderness firefighter. He worked shifts at a local hospital in the emergency room. His in-laws ran a small skincare company focused on wellness and organic living, and they needed help. Cossart started drawing logos, melting wax, and blending oils. He worked weekdays with the skincare job, attended class a few nights a week, and then worked weekends in the ER. Cossart figures he had about two days off a month during this time. They weren’t spent surfing.
“I’d been afraid of hard work all my life,” he admits. “Growing up, I saw how hard my dad worked and it scared me. I didn’t think I could do that. Learning that I could grind was huge. Learning that I liked it was even bigger.”
The hard work couldn’t save his marriage. After a few years, he and Saeja’s mom separated. That ended his career in skincare. Headed for divorce, he moved in with his elderly grandmother.
Cossart set about trying to launch his own business. His first two efforts, an organic surf wax company and then brewing jun (a mild honey tonic) both failed to gain traction. Helping nurse his grandmother during her final days was his main focus at the time.
She lived close to the beach, but he still wasn’t surfing. He met a girl. A beautiful chef with a love of botany, a strong handshake, and a smile that excites. She was doing the flowers at an event where he was pouring jun samples. Bees and flowers. He’d been too nervous to ask for her number, but later that night they found themselves at the same bar for a nightcap. Their first date was a beach walk at Fernald’s, a place many locals know simply as Sharks. Both fell fast and hard.
Together they founded The Apiary, a brewery and tasting room located a short distance from Rincon that serves mead, cider, and hard kombucha. A self-taught brewer, Cossart and his dad took over a small industrial space a few miles north of Rincon and decorated it with raw and reclaimed decor. Old bee boxes became backsplashes for taps. Shipping pallets became furniture. Live-edge wood slabs became table tops. A well-used shipping container became their walk-in cooler. The upstairs office became ground zero for adventures in brewing. Three years along, The Apiary began showing some profit. Cossart had taken the experiences of false starts and questionable decisions, and hammered them into the building blocks of a better life. The self-doubt was gone. But one ingredient was still missing.
The Kookbox Cure
It’s the first Saturday in June and Cossart is descending the steep wooden staircase at Rincon with a large, coffin-like contraption balanced atop his head. Eleven-feet long. Finless. Hollow-chambered wood. It looks more like an early Wright brothers airplane wing than a wave-riding device. Cossart smiles and nods as people stare, despite the 50-pound mass of lumber on his head. He enjoys their interest. That’s part of the thrill.
Sharks was a revelation. Pure involvement. Intense speed. A challenge to control and direct. A joy to let her slide free. It demanded he build another.
Drawing from his earlier finless experiences, his second cigar box board was just six-feet long, with an alaia-inspired outline. It was largely a failure on waves, but illuminated a new path forward.
The board on his head today is kook box #3. At 11-feet tall by 18-inches wide, it’s a foot longer, slightly lighter, and significantly narrower than Sharks, with a pulled-in tail and less volume. The name El Segundo is stenciled in white paint across the nose. Today marks its maiden voyage.
Reaching the tideline, he drops the board into the ocean as a nearby kid in the shorebreak gawks. Cossart splashes water and grits up the new wax job with a handful of wet sand. He tests the board’s buoyancy and inspects the water pulling along the edges. Then, with an ease that comes only after decades of water time, he paddles for the outside.
Cossart has ridden these boards in everything from ankle-high dribblers to moderately juicy, head-high reef surf.
In the year and a half since finishing Sharks, he has rarely ridden anything else. The feel is one of powerful trim, well suited for sloping, point-style waves. It can break your ribs on a wipeout, but will start a conversation in the lineup. “This is my ticket these days,” he says.
The ride goes on, of course. He’s currently scheming up box #4 in hopes of tapping into an unridden realm this winter: tube time on a kook box. It’s clear that he is trending back towards the curiosity and adventure of his youth.
“For years, nothing really ever clicked for me, in terms of a path,” says Cossart. “I used to feel guilty about it, like I’d wasted something. But now I see it all as something that helped me get where I am.”
Moments later, Cossart is up and riding. A thin-lipped, waist-high wall bends in front of him as the board locks effortlessly into trim. His eyes go wide as he gathers momentum, a ridiculous amount of speed for such a small, unassuming wave. He overflows with a private, boyish giggle as El Segundo finds an even higher gear and beams him 60 yards down the line, blazing through sections that experienced loggers are struggling to connect. Cossart grins as he kicks out over the back, both hands raised at head level, fingers spread wide as if to try and hold together his joy.