Coastal Towns help save Australian Surfboard Manufacturing

When the cost of manufacturing a surfboard in Australia became too high to compete with factories overseas, many independent workshops simply closed their doors.

But in coastal towns across regional Australia, a growing demand for locally made surfboards is helping board shapers bounce back in the face of a flood of imported products.

In Denmark, in WA’s Great Southern region, Ben Rufus has launched his own business after he began making boards for himself and a few mates.

Eight years later his handmade boards — complete with striking art work — are in high demand.

“The problem was the [imported] boards were bad shapes. People would buy them to save money, but they weren’t any good,” Mr Rufus said.

“I didn’t expect to be able to make surfboards for a living, I didn’t think there would be a future in it.”

Ben Rufus displays one of his custom made surfboards

Surfboard manufacturers across Australia are tailoring their services towards a niche market of surfers in their local towns and beaches.

Many workshops that continue to survive have had to downsize and relocate to regional towns with strong cultures of surfing.

“They come because people want good service and high quality work,” Albany surf shop owner Adrian Shepard said.

“People come to me because they want a custom board, they want to do something specific on a wave. They’re not walking into a shop and grabbing something generic off the wall.”

A surfer at Scarborough beach in 1977

West coast shapers

When it comes to the ebb and flow of surfing trends on the west coast of Australia, Wayne Winchester has seen it all.

He was once one of Perth’s sought-after board makers and has been making, collecting and restoring surfboards for more than 40 years.

Like many others, he turned his back on the industry amid the slump and relocated to the beaches of southern Western Australia to practise his craft alongside a smaller band of surfers.

“In the early 1970s, surfers were loyal to certain shapers. I had my surfers who would get all their boards from me, and there were others up and down the coast in WA, who had their loyal band of surfers as well,” Mr Winchester said.

Competition from factories overseas spelled doom for Australian surfboard manufacturing, but it would not be the end.

Wayne Winchester restores vintage surfboards on WA's south coast

Evolution of surfboard

Mr Winchester remains as passionate about the art and science of making a surfboard as he has ever been.

For him, the revival of the local surfboard making industry in regional WA is the latest chapter in the rich history of surfboard design.

From the early surfboards of western Polynesia more than 3,000 years ago to the legend of Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku and the interventions of Tom Blake, the surfboard of the 20th century evolved into a streamlined piece of wave riding technology following centuries of experimentation.

But it was during the 1960s that the art and science of surfboard making underwent its most dramatic shift.

“The mid 1960s to the early 1970s was called the transitional-psychedelic era of surfboard design,” Mr Winchester said.

“Basically, there was a massive revolution in what surfboards looked like. They went from being 10 feet long to less than 6 feet long in a very short space of time.”

Wayne Winchester has an impressive collection of rare and vintage surfboards

The shorter boards were easier to manoeuvre and change direction on waves, as surfers demanded more performance-orientated boards.

“Surfers were just doing very radical things and the design of the surfboard allowed them to do it,” Mr Winchester said.

Next came the addition of leg ropes, three-fin thrusters, and the rise of competition surfing.

By the early 2000s, the use of computer technology and weighted boards became so sophisticated that intrepid surfers could be towed into monster waves of serious consequence.

But competition from mass produced, imported surfboards forced many independent manufacturers in Australia out of business.

“The surfboard was rapidly becoming a commodity and the soul of surfing seemed destined to end,” Mr Winchester said.

Wayne Winchester in the shaping bay in 1981

Return to soul

Today, visitors to the many beaches along WA’s south coast can see a kaleidoscope of surfboard shapes, designs and artwork, many of them handcrafted by local board makers.

For Wayne Winchester the story of surfboard design evolution, a story that seemed doomed over a decade ago, now promises a bright future.

“What we see in the current era, is almost a return to the bohemian lifestyle of surfing. It was all about the journey, it wasn’t necessarily just about the act of riding the wave,” he said.

“It was about how you got there, and doing stuff with your mates, looking at designs and colours of boards — hat whole bohemian lifestyle of travel and freedom.”

It is that trinity between the surf, surfboard and surfer that Mr Winchester says is at the heart of the changing fortunes of Australia’s independent surfboard production industry.

“The feel and the lines of a surfboard as you run your hands down the rail, is just a beautiful thing. You actually feel the flow of the board and how it will fit in the water,” he said.

“I know they’re inanimate objects, but they’ve got a soul”.