Surfboard art #15 – The Beginning, the final chapter in this saga known as 15 Surfboards by 15 Shapers.
I stood looking down at the board that Bill McLean had just finished glassing and became emotional thinking back to how far this project had come. It didn’t start five years ago with the first surfboard, Firo’s Pipeline. No, it goes back much further. Back to when my father bought me a surfboard at the age of 13 and I fell in love with surfing. Back to when he gifted me my first camera, an amphibious Nikonis III, for graduating a two-year community college. I used that camera to take my first surfing pictures—one of those I’m staring at now—and with which I developed my second passion in life, surf photography. Those two events set in motion the universal wheel that eventually brought me to Australia.
It is here that I met Bob McTavish, one of the great innovator, designer, surfer and shapers of recent times. Bob and his experienced team of board builders brought closure to the project with the model Bob calls Genesis: Genesis, the surfboard that in 1967 gave birth to the Plastic Machine model that in turn revolutionized surfing and surfboard design; Genesis, a name that’s defined as ‘the beginning of something.’ And gracing the deck of this Genesis is The Beginning, one of my earliest surfing photographs taken in 1973 on Kodachrome II film. It is of a sunrise, signifying the beginning of the day, shot at Hollows, a surfing destination in Puerto Rico from where my first ever surf image was published (in Surfing Magazine) and set in motion the beginning of my surf photography career. How appropriate that I end in the beginning.
Bob was not my first choice in Australian shapers. Wayne Lynch was. As a young surfer I was drawn to Wayne’s underground surfing and the fact that, like me, he was a ‘goofy’ foot (stands with his right foot forward). Wayne, however, was not available to work on the project. There were also Simon Anderson, the originator of the ‘thruster,’ the surfboard with three fins that change surfing as it was and is still in used today, and Mark Richards, five time world champion and builder of the classic ‘stinger’ design that I love because of its unique look. Of course, I knew of Bob and had him in mind as well, though I imagined he’d be hard to get a hold of. Fortunately an email from Australian surf journalist John Witzig convinced me that Bob was reachable, accommodating and would be perfect for the project. John gave me Bob’s email address, I wrote, he responded and I bought my ticket to Australia.
Waiting at the showroom of the McTavish Surf Factory in Byron Bay, Australia to meet Bob, in he walks and immediately says to me, “I bet you weren’t expecting me to be so short.” To which I reply as I pulled off my hat, “I bet you didn’t know I was bald!” Inhibitions aside and with big smiles on our faces we began the journey of recreating Genesis.
It started with a stringerless foam blank for maximum flexibility. Stringers are thin pieces of wood that run the length of the board for added rigidity, weight and strength and are used on 95% of surfboards. It’s worth noting that in 1967 when Bob first imagined this board there was nothing remotely similar to it. For the most part surfboards were over nine feet long with one or multiple wooden stringers, had wide based fins with little rake, were relatively flat along the bottom plane and used very little, if any, V contour. Along comes Bob who saws nearly three feet off a standard longboard and creates a bottom hull that closely resembles the deep V-bottom of an off-shore fishing boat. He keeps the board’s thickness throughout the back of the board and bevels the tail. Finally he adds a mammoth 11 inch deep, narrow base, highly raked fin inspired by his mate, and equally legendary, George Greenough. To the first surfers that saw this it must have resembled a UFO (Unidentified Floating Object). Who knows where Bob got his inspiration but it’s worth noting that this was the ‘60s.
Photographing Bob in his shaping room was an honor, not because of who he is but because of his incredible craftsmanship. His experience, knowledge and creativity were obvious as was his enthusiasm, love and passion for his craft. All of this carried forward as the board went through the pipeline of being transformed into a work of art.
Add the years of experience from those that work at the McTavish Surf Factory and you have close to three centuries worth of valuable knowledge. The fact that most of that knowledge and experience has been garnished under the same roof and tutelage simply says that anything coming out of that factory will be, well, great!
Bob, Bill, “Wiz”, Alonzo, Kench, Mal & Matt, the names behind The Beginning and the names, along with the help of Ben, Dave and Wispy, that I will forever be grateful for their detail-oriented and inspirational craftsmanship, their openness in allowing me and my camera in their workspace, and for making the past five years worth the effort to get here.
Many times I asked myself why. Why spend the time, energy and life’s savings to pursue something that in the end may not interest anyone? Why subject two life-long passions to possible failure and criticism? The answers came every time I collaborated with a new shaper, watched him use his hands, his eyes and his knowledge to hand shape a functional piece of art and then have the honor to have my work grace their creation. Seeing the finished piece gave me the encouragement and motivation to move on to the next board and complete the project. Step by step, from the beginning to the end, or rather, to The Beginning. The circle of life.*
P.S. *It’s worth noting that the first board, Firo’s Pipeline, was inspired by a Bob McTavish surfboard I’d seen at a retail surf shop.