JACKSONVILLE BEACH — Devan Kennedy liked to do his banking old-school style, even though his girlfriend, Cory Lewis, teased him: Just do it on the internet, she’d say. But he wanted to make everyone family, she says, so he preferred to go to the bank in person, so he could chat with his tellers.
And he wanted to wake up early, so he could see the sun come over the ocean as he checked the surf yet again.
“He was a freak about sunrises,” Lewis says. “So many times he would be shoving me out the door with coffee: ‘We’re going to miss it!’”
That was Devan ...
And before leaving on the Nicaraguan surf trip on which he would die, Devan Kennedy — at 28, a shaggy-haired free spirit, ever questing, ever eager to throw himself into something new — decided he wanted to make a surfboard of his own.
Todd Kirshenbaum, a Jacksonville Beach surfboard manufacturer, got him a foam blank and offered advice as Devan shaped his first board.
Kirshenbaum says it was the least he could do for him: After all, Kennedy, who didn’t even know his family, stepped forward the year before and offered six months of rehabilitative training, at no charge, to Kirshenbaum’s 12-year-old son, Kaleb, after the boy almost died in a horrific surfing accident at the pier.
Kennedy’s board turned out to be just over six feet long, with a rounded shape that would be good for a wide range of conditions. But it was left unfinished, still needing to be glassed, as he left for Nicaragua, heading south with his girlfriend to the Orlando airport
Lewis laughs now, remembering that drive. He was leaving on an international trip, and he was barefoot, as usual, with not even a pair of flip-flops in his possession. That was just like Devan, and it meant a quick stop at a friend’s house in St. Augustine to borrow some footwear — and a board.
On Sept. 8, 2016, on a big day at a left point called Punta Miramar, Kennedy caught one last wave in, riding all the way to the safety of the channel. He nodded to Lewis, who was up on a bluff, reading a book: He was coming in.
She returned to her book. When she looked up again, perhaps a minute later, he was off his board in the water. She thought he was helping someone: That would be just like Devan.
Instead, he was unmoving, unresponsive, as people rushed toward him to help. After some frantic attempts at CPR — she joined in — he was taken by truck to a nearby health clinic, where he was pronounced dead.
Later, back home, the Beaches surfing community gathered to honor Kennedy’s memory, much as it had rallied for Kaleb Kirshenbaum after his surfing accident.
At a memorial paddle-out at Hanna Park, on a rare day for perfect surf in North Florida, friends took turns riding the board he had shaped, which had since been finished.
Todd Kirshenbaum remembers his first wave on Devan’s board. It was lively, responsive, fun. It was, he says, magic.
He’s been working with surfboards for decades, and that doesn’t happen, he says, not with the first board you ever make. It’s a craft that takes many attempts to get right, and even when you get good, it’s still hard to get it right every time.
But that was Devan ...
“I’m looking at the sky, laughing,” Kirshenbaum says. “If you knew Devan — you know, forgetting his shoes — he’s a goofball. And I’m like, ‘You goofball. Your first time ever, and you make a freakin’ magic board?′ ”
THE DEV MODEL
Earlier this week, that magic board was in the office at Kirshenbaum’s business, the Dragon Factory, a surfboard shaping and glassing facility on Shetter Avenue. Plain white, coated with surf wax.
Below, in the shaping booth, was an almost-finished, fine-tuned replica. It’s called the DEV model, and its logo is a cartoon representation of Devan Kennedy: big bare feet, a trucker’s cap atop unruly bleached-out hair.
The replica is the first of the DEV models, and it will never be sold, Kirshenbaum says. But others, in various lengths, will go on sale, starting Saturday evening, at a gathering at the Dragon Factory from 6 to 9 p.m. There will be bands, artwork and a food truck, and orders for the board will be taken, then and later.
Kirshenbaum wanted to do something for Devan’s family, so half the profits of each DEV board sold from here on out will go to Airlie Jane Kennedy.
Airlie, at 14 months old, was born some eight months after her father died in the Nicaragua surf.
In the nightmarish days after Devan Kennedy’s death, while dealing with red tape in a foreign land, helping his family get his remains back to America, Cory Lewis discovered she was pregnant.
Airlie, she says, is so much like her father.
“Oh my god,” Lewis says, laughing again. “It’s terrifying. They look very, very similar. It’s ridiculous — they have that same mischievous grin right before they do something they’re not supposed to.”
Airlie is typically relaxed, happy and fearless. Trying to run into the ocean, though she can’t swim. Trying to jump off the couch, just for fun. That would be just like her father.
‘RAGING WITH HAPPINESS’
Devan Kennedy grew up in Tavares, near Orlando, and moved to the Beaches in his early 20s, taking up surfing, avidly, a couple of years later. He founded Endless Training, a personal training gym in Atlantic Beach, for surfers and non-surfers.
It was there that he and the Kirshenbaum family bonded during months of grueling therapy, as Kaleb recovered from having his pancreas split in half when he landed on the tail of his board, which had stuck nose-first into the sand. After emergency surgery for that and other injuries, two months of hospitalization and weeks of intense pain, Kaleb, now 15, came back to win a third East Coast surfing championship in his age group.
Kennedy had another gym on the Westside, dealing largely with riders from the nearby WW Ranch Motocross Park. Most places he went, he was accompanied by his loyal dog, Irie, who would wait patiently on the beach while his human surfed.
Kennedy went to Nicaragua, by invitation, to help train the instructors at a surf camp at Punta Miramar.
Lewis says Nicaraguan authorities listed his cause of death as drowning, though she suspects he might have had an aneurysm or a deadly blood clot; he had complained of pain on the left side of his neck, and when he was found in the surf his left eye had turned black.
She still gets calls and texts from friends who say they are thinking of Devan, even talking to him, though it’s been almost two years since he’s been gone.
The surfboard model that he shaped, that bears his nickname, seems, she says, like a direct link to him: “Now we can actually physically have him there too?”
He would be so pleased to know that it exists.
“He would be losing his mind, if he knew that anybody was going to ride his surfboard, first of all. Second of all, to have a model named after him?” Lewis says. “He would be absolutely raging with happiness.”
Lewis is 32 and didn’t grow up surfing. She began taking lessons from Beaches friends a few weeks ago, with a specific objective in mind.
“Now I have a goal,” she says. “I’m going to ride the DEV model in a year, OK?”
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082