Adventure

Elemental waves

Words by James Otter
Photographs by Mat Arney

I’ve always felt a strong connection to wood and making things out of it.

Looking back, when I fell in love with surfing I suppose it was somewhat inevitable that I’d end up crafting surfboards out of wood. These days I’m lucky enough to be living by the ocean in Cornwall, making wooden surfboards full-time and sharing the making experience with many of the surfers who buy my boards.

People from ocean-going cultures all over the world have been riding waves on wooden surfboards for well over a thousand years; it is only in the last 70 years or so, since the proliferation of plastic foams, resins and fibreglass following World War II, that wood has been replaced as the material of choice. Foam can be shaped quickly and easily (more so than wood) and when wrapped in resin-soaked fibreglass, it creates a light and relatively strong surfboard. When surfing exploded in popularity in the 1950s, these new materials allowed surfboard shapers of the time to meet the demand for boards. Almost overnight, wooden surfboards fell out of fashion and out of the collective consciousness. Up until that point, however, every surfboard had been made from wood, using either a solid piece of timber (Olos and Alaias in ancient Polynesian culture, or surfboards made from redwood known as “planks” in California throughout the 1920s and 1930s) or a hollow skin-on-frame construction. This later type, pioneered by legendary waterman Tom Blake in 1929, had an internal framework (like the skeleton of a fish) covered with thin planks or sheets of wood and resulted in surfboards that were much lighter than their solid counterparts. It is this construction technique that inspires the way that I make my wooden surfboards.

Otter-Surfboards-James-Otter-Portrait-surf
Otter-wooden-Surfboards-surf-James-cutting
Otter-Surfboards-Coaster-wooden-surf

Making a surfboard out of wood was a personal choice for me because I had pursued a career in woodworking and loved surfing, but there was also a sustainability element to my desire to revive the wooden surfboard and then to see more of them in the line-up. I wanted a surfboard that would last longer, that could stand up to the inevitable knocks and bumps and that wasn’t made primarily from materials derived from petrochemicals. It turns out that I’m not the only surfer who wanted a surfboard that has a lighter impact on the planet. An increasing number of surfers are waking up to the contradiction of being immersed in and having a strong connection with the ocean, a delicate and pristine marine environment, all while using kit with a relatively short lifespan that is almost exclusively made from non-recyclable petrochemicals.

However, the question of what makes a surfboard sustainable is a difficult one. The straight answer is that no surfboard is sustainable, but that some materials and construction techniques have less impact than others. A surfboard that is designed and made to be extremely durable, that will last and perform for an incredibly long time without needing to be replaced only uses resources once, even if those resources aren’t particularly ‘green’. A surfboard made from the most eco-friendly materials available might not stand up to the rigours of hard use – it could break and need replacing, so the total material cost of a lifetime of surfing could be far higher.

As with so many things, it is a matter of balance and compromises. Over time, the materials and construction process that I have settled on create surfboards that I believe to have the lowest possible impact overall. I use locally grown timber and a process that creates a surfboard with a great strength-to-weight ratio, using the smallest amount of timber possible (to minimise wastage), laminated with fibreglass cloth and a bio-epoxy resin to make them as strong and durable as possible, so that they last and are loved through years of use.  The first wooden surfboard that I made turned ten last year, and when we stripped the wax off it (that covers the deck to aid grip) it looked as good as the day that it was made. It had a few small dents on the deck from my feet, but a foam surfboard making it to its tenth birthday without snapping is a rarity, and those that do are yellowing and delaminating.

otter-surfboards-coast-surf-cornwall
Otter-Surfboards-James-chisseling-surf-construction
Otter-Surfboards-Barrel-wave
Otter-Surfboards-Summer-clifftop-surf-check

Sadly, most surfers still don’t select a surfboard based upon environmental considerations. Performance is the dominant factor that guides most new surfboard purchases, with custom ‘made-to-measure’ shapes sitting alongside a huge range of different brands and models to cater for the breadth of surfers of all shapes, sizes, abilities, surfing style and surf locations. The range of wooden boards that we’ve developed at Otter Surfboards covers many bases and caters to our customers, and we also make custom surfboards to individual specifications, but I still get asked the question ‘aren’t they a bit heavy’ by the surfers that I speak with on the beach and in the water.  We estimate that most of our wooden surfboards finish up about 30% heavier than their foam and fibreglass equivalents. Because of this, the shapes and models in our range are designed to work with the additional weight or are based upon designs that are traditionally a little heavier, such as traditional fishes and longboards. These boards are all about momentum and flow – heavier boards cut through the surface wind chop that we get a lot of here in the UK. They’re not for everyone but no surfboard is, so we design boards that suit the material and construction method, hoping that we can tempt some of the surfers who ride those sorts of boards to try a wooden one.

I don’t believe that buying and owning a surfboard, whatever it is made out of, should require a binary choice between whether you’re reducing your environmental impact or  picking the best and most suitable board. But I hope that what we offer ticks both boxes. Not long after putting my name above the door and striking out to make wooden surfboards full-time I exhibited one of my boards as part of a local art and craft exhibition. A local surfer saw it and paid me a visit – he really wanted a wooden surfboard but what he really wanted was to make it himself.  He asked if he could make his own wooden surfboard under my tuition. I was hesitant about so readily sharing the skills and knowledge that I’d worked hard to develop, but said yes and that decision has totally transformed my business. Re-living the excitement of making that first surfboard is now something that I get to experience over and over again, as running ‘make your own’ wooden surfboard workshops is now the main focus for the business. After that first experience I realised that not only was it really fun and rewarding, but that I was sending pieces out into the world with owners who had a deep and meaningful connection to their new surfboard. In many cases the customer leaves with a huge sense of achievement and a boost to their self-confidence.  It isn’t just a purchase, it’s something that they’ve made themselves, something that they want to keep forever and pass on to future generations of surfers – wooden surfboards last so long that that will probably happen. The fact that these surfboards have a smaller impact on the planet and the environment that we so enjoy as surfers is a pleasant by-product for many of our customers, but it’s an important one for me. It means that we’re making surfboards both for surfers and for the planet.

__________

Unplug. Reconnect. 

#HowDoYouReadYours?

Photographs by Mat Arney

Related stories

Explore the current issue

Beautiful photography. Captivating storytelling.
Take a look inside the latest issue of Oceanographic Magazine.

Explore and PRE-ORDER

DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTIONS

Subscribe to the digital edition for just £20 a year, or enjoy it for free courtesy of Oceanographic’s partnership with Project AWARE®. No cost, no catch.

Read more

Beautiful ocean stories straight to your inbox. Join our community.