Q+A with Donald Brink

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They say if you find yourself to be the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room. Once you spend some time with Donny Brink, you realize you’re in the right place because you always walk away with a little more than you came in with. It might be a point of view, a new mindset or a completely different way of viewing the world – whatever it may be; it’s always an inspiring experience. Here’s a glimpse into the beautiful mind of a genuine artist.

Q. You’re heading to Australia soon! What’s the plan?
A: The plan is to control my breathing, slow my heart rate down and be mindful to take it all in. You only get first impressions once and being present in an ecstatic state is for gurus alone. I'm excited! I’ve been working towards coming since the turn of the millennium.

Q. How does travel inspire you? Does it influence your approach to shaping?
A: Travel has become part of who I am. It’s something I’m grateful for and know it’s been a big part of what has shaped my life and balanced my view on the world and all of humanity. The most beautiful thing is what you have no idea what you may learn. It’s in the strangest places, so often unrelated to the immediate task or mission where you see something or get exposed to a different way of understanding things. My approach to shaping and life are similar to a point, however a consistently teachable spirit and a willingness to learn fueled with a curious mindset is the best way to embrace any day.

Q. Give us an insight into your shaping philosophy.
A: Keep things simple; assemble a cohesive collection of elements in a design that together serve the crafts intention and envisioned parameters. That sounds vanilla alongside my boards I’m told, but the functional value of these brave designs is my biggest goal. It's easy to make weird looking, interesting stuff, but to understand conceptual elements and address the potentials of a craft with detailed design is a progressive work. It's not rocket science, but there is a little bit about rockets amongst it all.

Q. How far can surfboard shapes be pushed beyond convention before they stop being functional? Or is that just a naïve mindset?
A: No that’s a valid question and an important benchmark for what we know works and rely on. Depending on the flavor of board being discussed the margins may vary. Truth is, depending on an athletes ability the results may be either unnoticed or beyond their capabilities to enjoy. Pros often need less help due to stellar ability and yet be able to utilize the adjustment of certain elements to unlock dream lines or parts of their dance only imagined, yet not able to be depended on, is as interesting.

I look at things this way. What are you able to do on a wave and what do you want to do? These things set a scale from your basic growing ability to where you think you could next want to be on a wave or parts of a ride you want to improve in. Herein comes the question of what design can best suit your vision for progression and give you enough of what’s manageable to perform, whilst you progress and keep it fun and dependable along the way. The conversation of design is simply unbalanced until one honestly discusses technique too.

Boards certainly depend on manipulating water’s flow and gravity of course. These elements of naval architecture and fluid dynamics are certainly always in play, its simply natures laws. However addressing constant frustrations in a ride, through design, perhaps these elements creatively rearranged in harmony may allow for a more sensational glide. I’m personally only impressed by enhanced functionality and the development of the intuition of these changes at play.

Q. Your African roots run deep. Tell us a little more about them.
A: They run all the way to birth. I’m so proud of being African (as though that was my election) but it has made me see things in an honest light. From survival instincts and resourcefulness to equality and opportunity. The bush gets in you, the animals and sounds, the plants and fragrance of a seasons change. It’s the rhythms of life that give you comfort in the bigger picture, perhaps more quickly realized when they are gone. I think that’s why I always feel so at home in the sea. There are certain familiarities that it brings, being close to nature, from any coast around the globe that is like family.

Q. Describe how the perfect Southern Californian day looks for you?
A: With a good night sleep and few moments with the family in the morning I like to get to work. With the morning brew still hot as the headphones, playing a book or podcast in my ears drown the tools out, I sip the flavor till noon as the day heats up and the cup of coffee cools. I’ve always enjoyed working first when I’m fully alert and on point before the reward of surf and a balance of the mind. On the perfect days the wind lays low in the early afternoon and the tide flows quickly for the few hours before close. I’ll often ride multiple boards or test things in a session unless hunting a certain sensation from a style of craft.

Q. Where’s the best spot for a coffee in San Clemente?
A: For me familiarity so often tastes better than an establishment. I am pretty particular and seem to enjoy the beans at home and have it part of the daily grind.

Q. Can you see a more sustainable way of making surfboards in the future?
A: Absolutely, I’m constantly researching and trying to figure out the most rewarding options for performance and the operations of this industry. There are few hot topics on the table and it is important to seek out a solution for every part of surfboard manufacturing and make the change available and understandable for years to come. I’ll be careful here but to answer in broad strokes; the biggest changes are the easy ones because they apply to all industries so we can easily glean ways to better-offset manufacturing and distributions footprint. I feel that certain boards are easier to make in a more sustainable way than other styles of boards or sectors of the market that are simply overlooked or understudied. There doesn’t seem to be a silver bullet, just like there isn’t one kind of surfboard. I think its each brands responsibility to do the best they can in each sector of their offering. I’m held back by the availability of materials that I know or producible but not available. It’s a numbers game and sadly the biggest change will only be felt if adopted by the volume players.

Q. Wavepools or no wavepools?
A: Wavepools for sure. I’ll tell you how they may not work and yet why the ball is still ultimately in every surfers hands for their future. I think the ability to ride a perfect canvas, be filmed and feel difference in various boards is magnificent. It will quickly validate small wave board design nuances. Having a predictable testing arena and designs that have proven themselves puts the onus back on technique. To be able to surf a guaranteed number of waves filmed from a perfect vantage point and be instantly reviewed makes the breakdown of your session entirely about two things. Design and technique.

Any shaper could benefit from design feed back on that size wave but every surfer can benefit from the potential for improvement in technique if they are willing to listen and learn. If wavepools are a training ground for when things matter in a session or the decision in a board purchase, well everything moves forward. Could most people get into a mentally prepared place enough to be coachable in the moment and hope for lasting value in feedback for any wave? We’ll see. One reason I started surfing was because it was essentially free. Technical breakdown of any activity and the country club mentality proves itself in the amount of surfers fascinated with golf too. I’d enjoy getting coached and feeling a wave of course but only because I want to go back to the ocean.

Q. Is there anything else you do to satisfy your creative desires?
A: I grew up painting. I get lost in that world and simply love it. I enjoy the finished pieces too but the actual art of brush strokes or a palate knife bringing a piece together resonates with me. Perhaps that’s why I love shaping, it seems so wonderful to quickly go about sculpting a form with a vision for its desired results from a larger canvas.

Q. Anything new and spicy you might be working on in the shaping bay?
A: Always. Materials wise I’m exploring some sustainable options, just today I tried an experimental blank. When it comes to concepts and designs, there have been some elements I began unpacking early last year that I’m very excited about. It's very much in testing and understanding phase still but my confidence is growing everyday from testing and feedback from others, so slowly I’m releasing things. They are difficult to describe and poorly served doing so, but imagine reversed tail rockers and hexagonal like chined rails. Not the easiest boards to ride but certainly the most memorable sensations I have ever had surfing and an ability to get to parts on a wave I have been longing for. From gun to grovel testing continues. I shaped a small collection of boards that I’ll be bringing to Australia, including some of the elements discussed and others.

Interview by Brad Bricknell
Photography by Kevin Voegtlin Check out Kevin's project 'The Company We Keep'