Vissla chats with legendary shaper Gunther Rohn about his early beginnings in Cape Town, how his boards have got 10 surfers on the World Championship Tour and why he loves shaping now more than ever.
Where did your love of surfboards begin? It started in South Africa when we began to make our own boards. We had a lot of influence from Midget Farrelly coming over as well as a few American’s who spent a lot of time in Cape Town. We all used to do our own boards and after I made some truly horrible boards I came to Australia and began to work for Geoff McCoy.
What was it about the actual craft that drew you in though?
I was just attracted to it as you could always still go surfing as long as you got the work done. In Cape Town that was quite something as everyone worked throughout the day and quite often it was hard to find people to go surfing with during working hours. It was quite unique back then.
What was the South African surf scene like back then? Was it the early 70s?
It was the early 70’s. 1972 was when I began making boards. It was much like Australia really. We were experimenting with boards and a lot of time we’d go from one extreme to the other. There wasn’t a lot of refinement back in those days. We just had ideas and did it. Everything stems from what we did in those days and a lot of what we did back then is still valid now.
Would it be fair to say there was a lot of trial and error?
Absolutely. Some boards just went like shit (laughs).
What prompted your move to Australia?
It was the travelling surfers who came through South Africa from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and America. It just dawned on me that I needed to start travelling as well. I made a lot of Australian friends and thought I’d come there. It was more of a travel thing at first, but I came and kinda got stuck here. I wouldn’t have got stuck here if I didn’t like it though. I thought it was great. When I arrived the first job I got was with Geoff McCoy.
Had you met Geoff prior to coming to Australia?
Can you tell us what it was like meeting him for the first time? Would it be fair to say he was one of the most prolific shapers in Australia at that time?
Absolutely. The person who looked after the place was a guy named Peter Lawrence. He was the head shaper and he interviewed me for the job, not Geoff. Geoff basically was the designer and he looked after the team and did that kinda of thing. I began to learn about shaping from there. Then they said they were going to move north to Avoca and when they asked me to go up there I said I wasn’t sure as I wanted to move around. It was around that time I went up towards Byron Bay and eventually settled in Lennox Head.
Did your move to Lennox spark your love for that area, especially because you’re still based there?
Yeah, there was so much good and perfect surf around at that time. It doesn’t seem to get perfect like it used to anymore… and I don’t think it’s my imagination either (laughs).
Was it a hard slog going out your own once you settled in Lennox Head?
No not at the time. It was a learning curve owning your own business, but it wasn’t a hard slog as far as work goes. The hard slog was more getting it done as a one-man band, especially when it began to grow. At one point I had four shapers working for me and now it’s gone full circle where I’m back on my own again.
With your method of working, do you prefer to have people working alongside you or do you prefer to do it on your own?
I prefer it the way it is, but I would definitely like more work. I think it’s become a little diluted and there’s six companies dominating at the moment, but we’re still sponsoring people and we’re maintaining everything. We’re mainly a retail operation with 20 percent of what we do going into shops as well as a lot of internet.
The list of surfers who have ridden your boards over the years aren’t always the guys who been hyped, but they’re powerful guys who have consistently wowed people. I’m thinking of guys like Darren O’Rafferty, Pancho, Anthony Walsh and Sunny Garcia. Are those the sort of surfers you think you gravitate towards?
Yeah, I mean if there was anyone who was enthused to ride my boards and I could see that they were going somewhere then I’d bring them onboard. At the moment Anthony Walsh is worth his weight in gold for me. Over the years I’ve put 10 people on the World Tour and granted they weren’t at the very top, but a few achieved quite a lot, I’m thinking of guys like Jake Patterson.
Do you still have as enjoyment shaping boards now as what you did back in Cape Town?
Absolutely. I like to do some things more than others at certain points. The thing I’m really enjoying at the moment is shaping boards for waves of consequence, boards that are 8’6 upwards. I enjoy those nice long lines. As a whole though, I still love it. My wife asks me when I’m thinking of retiring and I just say ‘I’m never retiring.’
Words and Images: Ethan Smith