A story of the first wooden surfboards

Looking down at the end of my garden this is what I see: a stack of the first wooden surfboards I made in 2007.

wooden surfboards
A collection of trial and error wooden surfboards made in 2007.

Time is a funny thing,  the way it goes by, just like that. My son was three years old. I was a salaried employee. Steve Jobs had just introduced the iPhone!

For a long time I was embarrassed by these surfboards.

Back then, I saw making wooden surfboards as a closing of the gap between the image of what the surfboards I wanted to make should look like, and what they actually turned out looking like when made. These early surfboards were so out of whack with the image in my mind that I considered them  complete failures, humbling displays of what I still had to learn.

wooden surfboards
From this to that...progress from the first wooden surfboard. Photo; Peter Beavis

It was easy for me to understand this in a linear, forgiving kind of way because I started out with no woodwork or practical experience; even as my harshest critic I could cut myself some slack in saying that it would take a little while to learn the skills that would enable me to make the surfboards of my imagination.

Still, these early boards seemed hopeless, a lost cause, and I consigned them to propping up a fence, garden decor at their best.

hollow wooden surfboard
Photo: Peter Beavis

And yet, time is a funny thing. How you see something can change. Memory is moving not static, what you think is one thing can turn out to  be something else. What you thought was the story can become a story, what you thought was a failure can become a success. It just takes time.

Take that first surfboard, the one second from the left. That was the first I ever made, and it barely looked like a surfboard. Driven by a wild idea I launched into making it, ignoring conventional wisdom that a smaller, more manageable project like a table might be a better way to learn woodworking skills, and that I had zero experience of working with my hands. The internet was in its infancy; there weren’t hundreds of videos on YouTube showing you how to make a wooden surfboard. You had to guess how to do something, make it up, surrender to trial and error.

wooden surfboard rail
Photo: Peter Beavis

What followed on that first surfboard was a hack job of hack jobs: shoelaces to tie pieces of wood together; using a kitchen knife to cut wood to size; guessing the outline of the shape without a template. An exhilarating Friday night in the garage shaping the rails with a borrowed belt sander, the wrong kind of tool for the job.

It weighed 30kg when done, and there was no way it would be surfable, I told myself. It was too heavy and it didn’t look anything like a normal surfboard. It would sink.  Curiosity got the better of me, and on a rainy, overcast day with a slight onshore blowing I took it to a secluded spot for sea trials. With the conditions I knew there was a good chance nobody else would be there; I was none to keen to showcase my ineptitude as a craftsman.

wooden surfboards
Photo: Peter Beavis

The waves were about four foot, ragged in the wind and broken up, but the period was deep and a few of them were holding some shape. I told myself I’d stay as far over on the shoulder as I could, but there’s a rip that runs across the break and in no time it had taken me deep and into the zone, where you’d want to be if you were on a normal surfboard.

A decent looking wave came through; there was no question of not going, but I had a resigned feeling about it.

There was no way I’d make the drop. What would follow was a nose dive, a good wave wasted. If only I was on my tried and tested  thruster.

I put my head down, paddled hard and found myself startled to still be on my feet as the wave bottomed out and I set the rail down the line. The board took under my feet, I could feel it bolting for the shoulder. I even managed a half cut back turn before straightening down the line again and seeing the wave flatten out and die. I was genuinely stoked. I had surfed something that I’d made and more than that even though I’d thought it would be impossible to ride a wave on, I’d just proved myself wrong. Just about every idea I’d ever had about what you could surf and how you could surf it was shattered in the space of a single wave.

Imagine, I thought, lugging my chunk of wood back to the car, imagine how something more refined, with clean lines, like what I could see in my mind, imagine how that would go.

The next board, the one next to it, that one started almost immediately after that, and it hasn’t stopped since.

When I look at those surfboards at the bottom of the garden, I’m not embarrassed by them any more. I think of them as great friends who taught me and took me along with them.

wooden surfboard sunset
Photo: Peter Beavis

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