For the second year in a row we built a pop-up shaping bay on the promenade above North Steyne Beach at Manly, NSW Australia during the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro. The idea behind the buildout being that while competitors pop off air reverses in the soft beachbreaks, shapers could work away in the shack, connect with other foam mowers and ground the event in true surf culture simply by working on their craft in a public space. From this, we bring you our Builders Q+A series: a series featuring questions answered by some of Australia's finest surfboard shapers while they were in the shaping bay working on their boards.
Vissla catches up with Gunther Rohn about the Australian resurgence of Town and Country and why it’s a good thing that surfers have quivers of boards.
What is the main change you've seen as far as consumer habits go, are people looking for something a bit different?
People are looking for something different. You can see with the hipster thing, what they're riding, and it's not just them, people are getting a bit jaded surfing the go-to shortboard and if you surf it for long enough, you tend to look for something different. But there's a lot that works - maybe to certain conditions it works better than others - but nowadays people don't just rely on one board like we did in the old days, they buy different boards, to suit the occasion, so there's definitely a market for that. Plus the feedback I'm getting is, the boards are fast, and they're maneuverable, they're loose and that's all you want and all you're looking for.
Yeah, for sure. And do you think that's why people are going back to the older sort of outlines and stuff?
Yeah. You discard the bad points and you keep the good points. With those retro boards you're talking about, we used to roll the bottoms, so you discard that and what you do is, you have a definite vee that's slightly concaved and that goes much faster and speed creates maneuverability. It's the same with Simon and his Heritage model, they don't look like the ones he first brought out when he brought out the Thruster, they’re refined quite a bit, because they didn't - to begin with - go that bloody well. And you find out, through development that you discard the bad points.
Meaning you learn from your mistakes?
Yeah. I mean, we're still learning. We're not going through the experimental stages we did when the longboard's era ended and we started surfing shorter boards. That took a long time to find out the bad points in boards. It took decades. And now we're going back, because we've come so far we're going, ‘Well where are we going to go with the shortboard from here?’ I think people have tended to go pretty wide, short and thick and I think what you see might happen is the trend's going to go to narrow boards, and maybe thicker still to make up that shortfall in volume, because the narrow board goes better rail-to-rail than a wide board, which gets in the way. So I think you might find that happens, maybe they'll go back to an inch longer, I don't know but I definitely think boards are going to go a bit narrower again.
So you think it'll be back to what people were riding in say mid '90s where it was your 6'1" x 18¼ x 2¼?
Not that extreme?
No, that wasn’t functional. No way. I can't see that happening. Kelly always chose the way and that's the way he went. It wasn't the right way, but we all followed it, because Kelly was being Kelly. The go-to shortboard or the board you'd be using in most conditions, that's what it's going to change to I think. A bit more thickness and a bit narrower.
You’re doing a lot of the stuff for Town and Country in Australia, Local motion, both iconic. What is it about a brand or an iconic label like that that really lends itself to you working with?
Well I was really fortunate that I got on board with Town and Country because really, it gave me my profile. I've done quite a few team boards when I worked for Brothers Neilsen before that, but it really started with Town and Country, shaping for Nicky Wood, and all the team riders, Sunny Garcia, people like that and the relationship with Sunny lasted a long time. He was one of my biggest supporters, him and Nick. So, it was very fortunate to get on board with Town and Country because it really gave me the kick-start.
When I spoke to you last time, I remember you mentioned probably one of the most memorable boards you'd ever shaped was actually for Sunny. Was that under the Town and Country? That was 7'6" I think you said it was?
No, that was under Local Motion, because he ended up surfing for Local Motion.
Has being able to do that Town and Country thing, in a bit more of a - for lack of a better term - in more of a new school way, allowed people to open their eyes to what's out there as well?
Yeah, a label like that will help it along, especially the people that are doing it; Onboard, are very good at marketing so it'll get it out there and it opens up another avenue.
Do you having it fine-tuned will allow people to become educated on the history of it all?
Sure, yeah. People start asking questions because there's a lot of the crew that don't remember that era when Town and Country was so strong. It was the strongest board label at one stage, but 30-year-olds wouldn't know. Once you get to the 40s, they remember it, but from 30 down, people not that aware of it because we started it in Australia in '83, that's 36 years ago.
And a lot of that demographic, the 30-year-olds down, they were brought up with Channel Islands, Lost, and that's all they really see, it's a different mindset now. A lot of them wouldn't know who the hell I am. They know the three-to-four surfboards and that's what you buy because that's the best board. It's not, but that's how they perceive it.
Do you think that having things like this Shaping Bay at the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro - and as you mentioned before, that hipster sort of movement - do you think that that people are opening their eyes a little bit more to what's out there, and driving them back to people who are custom board builders?
Well it's a bit of a rebellion against that high-performance thing, because they realise they're not that good and they go into a different avenue. Like Japan's really gone down that road, where they were the first ones to buy the labels because there was so much money in surfing. In the mid to late '80s early '90s in Japan, there was so much money in it, they had all the contests and they were following what the best were riding, just like is happening here now many years later, well most probably not to that degree, but I think it's changing where people buy more surfboards… I guess it’s changed, people have six boards now.
Yeah, even average people like me.
It makes sense, because you're just surfing boards to suit the occasion.
And it's still a relatively cheap sport as well by comparison.
Absolutely, you buy your board and you don't pay any more. You might pay less for a tennis racket but you got to hire the court, and this cost and that cost. Look at golf, every time you have a round it costs, so there's ongoing costs whereas surfing, you buy the board and the ocean's free. That's a big difference. I know from my grandkids how much sport costs for parents, so surfing's unique in that way. I'd hate to see them starting to charge to get on the beach.
Words: Ethan Smith
Images: Jeremiah Klein and Ethan Smith