Chris Garrett talks to Vissla about his transition into shaping despite his parents wanting him to follow other avenues and shares about the rise of non-conventional equipment and what keeps him happiest in 2018.
You started shaping in Kirra in the late 70's/ early 80’s. What was it like being a self taught shaper in that time and in that environment?
I was just hungry for knowledge to be honest and I found there weren’t a lot of chances to get in the bay and learn from people as it was pretty cliquey. I had only just moved to the Gold Coast as well at that point and I didn’t know a whole lot of people so I found it quite hard to fit in. I was just very fortunate that the old Goodtime factory was about five doors down from where I was living at the time, so I managed to hang around enough and start to get into it. But yeah, I found it quite difficult to get going.
Where were you from originally?
I originally came from Cronulla (southern Sydney) and I went to boarding school until I was 18 but my parents moved out to Cowra, which is in western NSW when I was 12 or so. I still have clear memories of standing up on a Midget Farrelly Coolite when I was really young though and the buzz I got. All through my schooling I was just hankering to get back to the ocean, so as soon as I finished Year 12, I bailed back to the coast and never really looked back.
Cronulla was one of those areas that has a really rich history with the likes of G & S and several others. Did you ever get in the bay when you were in Sydney or did it all begin on the Gold Coast?
No, the first board I actually shaped was in a garage at the back of Cronulla Point. We were living in a house there at the time. I would have been about 11 when I shaped my first board. My mate and I bought a ‘bonker’ off a guy named Mick Gage who lived down the road for $10.00. It would have been 1970 or 1971 from memory. My mate and I went halves and cut the board in half because it was so long and then stripped the fiberglass off and made two little shortboards out of them. I got the back half with the fin in it and he got the front half. They were very rudimentary, but we were just so keen to get on them. My parents weren’t very supportive of surfing at all and for me personally surfing had such a bad reputation and my parents wished I had of done something more creative.
Do you remember what they wanted you to do?
I went to University [Uni] but deferred doing Marine Biology and Ag Science. I was actually really turned off uni due to my experiences in boarding school and as a result I didn’t cope. My parents said ‘well if you’re not going to do anything, then you need to get a trade,’ so I became a carpenter. They just didn’t want me to shape surfboards basically. I did my trade and shaped surfboards on the side as it was what I wanted to do. As soon as I finished my trade I bought a surf shop in Main Beach in 1984 and have pretty much been shaping ever since. My parents were just looking out for me. I was the eldest of five and they didn’t want me to go off the track, but because my Dad was a doctor he didn’t want me – in his eyes – wasting my life. I never had a really close relationship with him and he never understood the life I wanted or surfboard shaping.
Did his perception change when you began to shape boards for some of the best surfers in the world (David Rastovich, Dean Morrison, Andy Irons)?
Not at all. He just thought I was wasting my time and that I was an artist and I should be doing something in that ‘art’ field. I’m not actually that good of an artist to be honest. I figure that my art medium is surfboards. I’ve always seen surfboards as art, but for a man of my father’s ilk - who came through the war - wanted me to do something for the country. I remember being like ‘Dad, I’m making a lot of people happy.’ It’s funny, now that I’ve been shaping for a while, a lot of the surf industry has become everything I hated about boarding school with bureaucracy and control and rules and regulations. That’s why I like doing alternative boards and crafts and it doesn’t follow these same rules…
You mentioned alternative boards there, which was something I was going to discuss later, but it’s a good segway into this topic. If you were a kid like me, growing up surfing in the mid-to-late 90’s, chances were you saw David Rastovich in magazines riding a lot of your boards, which seemed really obscure at the time. What was it that drew you towards doing something that was different from the 6’1 X 18’1/4” and 2’1/4” that everyone was riding at that time?
I found that those boards didn’t really work for me. I was just drawn to it I guess because A) I wasn’t a good surfer and B) I was an even worse shaper, it was just a learning curve and that’s the thing about learning, you need to keep an open mind and you know in your heart and head what works and what doesn’t. Being self taught, I think I almost had an advantage over some guys who were just taught everything as I could figure out what different rail shapes were like and get a feel for it all. But what drew me to doing boards that were shorter and wider, was in the 90’s I was working with guys named Nick Wallace and Andrew Murphy. Both those guys were punching airs and doing some pretty wild stuff at the time. When I was a kid in Cronulla – I wasn’t cool by any stretch – so two of my really good friends were kneeboarders who loved tubes. I couldn’t do much else, but I could ride a tube and both these kneeboarders were always hunting out these really hollow reefbreaks. I swapped my board with one of them one time and I could surf on it and I remember the feeling of doing turns on it. Fast forward 10 or 15 years later in the 90’s and everyone is riding these really skinny and narrow boards that was 6’4” X 17’ 3/4” X 2 3’/16” with a crazy rockered out nose and tail and they felt okay from memory, but then I remembered my experience on a kneeboard and how good it felt. Also, I was looking at a bunch of images where people were surfing with crazy flipped noses and I thought ‘ what do you need that much nose out of the water for?’ I began chopping the nose off around that time and began adding width around the same time. People like Murph and Nick needed a platform to accelerate and somewhere sturdy to land, so I began to experiment with tail width around that time and began to incorporated it into shapes. It was also around that time Tom Curren rode Tommy Peterson’s Fireball fish in Indo, so a lot of people were beginning to pay more attention, even if everyone in Burleigh thought I was a weirdo (laughs). In the late 90’s Dave began to gravitate towards me and I didn’t actually know who he was because I had buried my head in the sand at that point. I actually just began talking to him at Burleigh one day and he said he couldn’t put his boards on rail or get drive out of them. I was like ‘F—k, that’s easily fixed, I can help you there.’ It wasn’t until he showed me a photo of himself that I realized who he was.
Do you still manage to get in the water as much as you once did?
I don’t really. I used to live four houses from the beach at Tugan for 20 years and through sponsoring a lot of guys, I ended up losing a lot of money because I didn’t manage my business very well. At the time it felt like I was shaping boards for everyone. I did Layne Beachley some, did some for Andy Irons, one or two for Parko as well as Serena Brooke and Neridah Falconer… at the time I was handshaping everything and I had no time to focus on what was happening with the money. I got a guy to manage it and I pretty much lost 100K in 18-months because I wasn’t paying attention. At the end of the day all I wanted to do was shape surfboards and I get off on making them. Not just shaping, but making boards from start to finish. Going big time with a lot of those surfers meant that it was more about managing a business, using ghost-shapers and losing control of the thing that I love doing. I couldn’t let it go and I ran myself into the ground. I ended up selling my house and then moved into the hills just to escape everything. And I’m happy right now because of it all. Consequently, I’m not surfing as much because I’m 10 minutes drive from the beach instead of being four doors from the beach. Now, I’d say I’m surfing only once a day instead of the two or three times a day that I used to surf.
That’s still a lot compared to a lot of people.
Yeah well, I was the master of the 10 or 15-minute surf. I could run down the beach, catch three waves, run home, have a shower and be back in clothes in 10 minutes. I used to that two or three times a day. You just mentioned how happy you are. What is motivating that happiness and spurring your onto the next thing? Wow, good question. I suppose it’s the connection with the elements and the land and the environment. That’s what I love about surfing. It was everything society wasn’t. My mate Tim Baker (renowned surf journalist and former Tracks editor) once said in a book, what he loves about the ocean and he said ‘that it’s that great salty pulpous that sucks the poison of the land from you.’ I guess that’s right. It’s the thing that keeps me the happiest. My wife even says to me that I’m so happier once I’ve had a dip in the brine.
Words and Images: Ethan Smith