David Tiller. Photo: Walter Coker
David Tiller. Photo: Walter Coker

People Who Surf: David Tiller, MERA Surfboards

The former undercover narcotics officer found solace in the shaping bay. Now, he's sharing it with others

Inside the garage of a nondescript beach bungalow in Florida’s St. Augustine Beach, David Tiller is sizing up a fresh, sub-eight-foot chunk of foam from U.S. Blanks. After rummaging through his collection of tools, he digs out his handsaw and approaches the blank with a Zen-like calm. Although he cuts an intimidating figure at taller than 6'6" with broad shoulders, a full, red beard and a shock of combed-back red hair, Tiller's created a serene space here.

"This is my sanctuary, man," Tiller says. "It's mood-altering. Life-changing."

With just a few years of shaping, and a dozen or so custom orders under his belt, Tiller operates MERA surfboards from his garage here in Northeast Florida. He lives in a quiet neighborhood, just blocks from the beach, with his wife and four young children. Aside from inadvertent resin inhalation, the dangers are few and far between.

Yet, it's a life that just six years ago would seem dramatically out of character for Tiller, who, as an undercover police detective for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Narcotics Task Force, had embraced a variety of occupational hazards.

"I loved being undercover," says Tiller, who looked even more intimidating during his years working among drug dealers and informants, sporting a Mohawk and a long beard that stretched down past his chest. "If I'm being honest with myself, I absolutely loved the life."

Relishing his role as an undercover officer, Tiller served search warrants, cultivated informants, and carried out clandestine purchases of drugs and guns. But one day, while executing a rather routine mission, Tiller's life was upended.

A deal had been arranged in which Tiller and a colleague would purchase a few guns and an ounce of cocaine from a suspected black-market arms seller. On the surface, the assignment was fairly typical. But Tiller was unnerved from the start.

"The guy wanted to change the location," Tiller says of his suspect. "Law enforcement was already set on the original location. They'd scouted it and backup was all ready to go. It's important to be able to control the location in these situations. So we knew this wasn't ideal."

Tiller and another detective ended up in the woods near Palatka, FL, more than a mile from their reinforcements, where they met with the suspect, who had brought backup of his own. After exchanging greetings with the suspect, things escalated quickly.

Photo: Tiller

"He has his back to me and is saying to his other guy, ‘Listo, listo,‘ which is roughly ‘Are you ready?‘ in Spanish," Tiller recalls. "He turns back around with a MAC-10 machine gun, pointed sideways. He charges it and pulls the trigger."

Tiller then pulled his weapon – a nine-millimeter pistol – and started firing. When the smoke cleared, the suspect lay dead, and Tiller had taken a bullet to the upper-thigh.

"I've never been hit by a Roger Clemens fastball, but that's what I imagine it would feel like," he says of the wound. "When the backup team finally arrived, I told them the situation, then I called my wife and told her to meet me at the hospital. Within an hour, I was in surgery."

Tiller's broken femur was fused back together with the aid of a metal rod. He has pins in his knee. A piece of shrapnel that couldn't be extracted remains in his leg to this day.

The recovery, meanwhile, was long, arduous, and mentally taxing.

"I was bored out of my gourd," Tiller laughs. "Mentally, I was really struggling. I was checked out—distant from my wife and kids. I was walking around with a walker. I didn't have any use of my leg. There were talks of the gang members retaliating for what happened, threatening my wife and kids."

Photo: Tiller

Looking for a way to ease his mind, Tiller ordered a DIY surfboard building kit from Greenlight Surf Supply in New Jersey. Tiller had picked up surfing while he was in the military, stationed near Tybee Island in Georgia. Since joining the police force in St. Augustine, however, he hadn't had much time to surf. He estimates he spent $300 on the kit from Greenlight, which arrived shortly thereafter. He built some rudimentary shaping racks and then hobbled out to the garage with his rocker.

"As soon as I touched the foam, the world stopped," Tiller remembers. "I didn't have to worry about bills, my family, my leg. It was just me and a piece of foam and whatever I could create out of it."

Using surfboard design forums like Swaylocks, as well as videos on YouTube, Tiller was able to troubleshoot any issues that arose related to his lack of experience. He reached out to Northeast Florida master shapers like Mike Whisnant, soaking up whatever insight he could glean from their years mowing foam. He then started MERA Surfboards – deriving the name from the surnames of his children: Madison, Ethan, Riley, and Abigail.

He went old school initially, fulfilling custom orders only after spending weeks on each board, hand-sawing the outline, whittling away the foam with blocks of sandpaper, and glassing the boards himself. He's since invested in a jigsaw and an electric planer, but says he still prefers his rudimentary hand tools, as they inspire a more meditative practice.

“I think my customers are just as interested in my story as they are the boards,” Tiller says. “That’s what I love about surfboards, though. Every board has its own story. The story behind my boards is unique, but there are a lot of other interesting stories out there.”

Hoping to share both his newly-acquired board building knowledge and the coping skills the activity inspires, Tiller founded The Shaper’s Sanctuary. Through one-on-one and small group classes, he hopes that the art of shaping surfboards will have as profound an impact on others as it did on him.

"It's changed my life," Tiller says of shaping. "That's why I call it The Sanctuary. It was my sanctuary. I want people to come into that atmosphere and not feel intimidated. I want it to be relaxed. I want to show people how it changed my life and I want them to feel that, too, whether it's people with injuries, depression, or veterans. There are lots of people out there who could benefit from this practice."

David Tiller. Photo: Walter Coker