Last week the workshop doors here were flanked on a daily basis by two pairs of boots drying in the sun, and an enormous (yet beautifully docile) Great Dane named Huxley. Inside, James (Huxley’s human) and Will worked away at crafting their own wooden surfboards, an 8’0” Pieces of Eight and a 6’10” Jetty. James and Will were both staying down in Porthtowan and every morning they walked the steep path up the side of the valley and over the field to our workshop at the Eco Park. The days were bright and cold, and every morning they arrived with soaking wet shoes from trudging through the morning dew so joined James in working barefoot whilst their kicks dried in the sun.
Both of these guys, it turned out, are no strangers to getting places under their own steam: Will is a bike mechanic from Birmingham who gets to and from work every day by a combination of bike and train, whilst James’ life revolves almost entirely around cycling thanks to his and his wife’s two businesses Petalon (a flower delivery service in East London) and Kennedy City Bicycles (where he fabricates frames and makes up complete bikes). Will and James both took a week away from two wheels during their time with us, but it was refreshing to witness how normal a life without a car was for them. Will had travelled down by train and stayed within walking distance, whilst James had driven his work van down because of having Huxley with him, but once here they walked everywhere.
“It’s so beautiful around here, why wouldn’t you walk everywhere?”
Living in Cornwall where towns and villages are more spread out and public transport links aren’t as frequent as in metropolitan areas, most people rely on four wheels. And yet, there are great cycle paths, bridleways and footpaths that make it easy to ride or walk to places without going along the main roads and that don’t need to be reserved solely for leisure use. James and Will reminded us of this, and of how lucky we are that when we walk or ride to work it is across cliff tops and past fields, even if the hills are prohibitively steep.
Here are a few photos from their week with us, including their beautiful finished surfboards:
Peering through the half-light of dawn, filtered through the mist and spray hanging in the air, you see a speck fall in to a wave and suddenly betray the true size of the swell. With this perspective the wave now seems to be moving in slow motion, as though pushing through treacle, and the surfer drops, reaches the bottom, and sits back into a do-or-die backhand bottom turn. He holds his body position, frozen as everything else moves around him and whitewater explodes just feet away from the tail of his surfboard. This is the sustain; a somewhat counter-intuitive but totally critical element of manoeuvres on larger waves. Without holding both nerve and body positioning, it’s all too common to see surfers revert to twitchy small wave busy-ness and, in the case of bottom turns on bigger waves, unweight their inside rail in a doomed attempt to “hop to the top”. But the surfer that sits back and waits, quite literally in this situation, carries speed back up the wave face and arrives at the lip ready and prepared to make their next move. Before dropping down and doing it all over again.
Photo: Chris, mid-sustain riding The Riser at an undisclosed mid-winter spot.
Our “Make Your Own Wooden Surfboard” workshop courses have become a core part of what we do here, and as with every thing somebody had to be the first person to go through the process. Steve Iliffe is the Neil Armstrong of Otter Surfboards, having enquired about ordering a surfboard back in 2011 and asking James if, actually, there might be a chance for him to have a hand in making his surfboard. Just over five years later, Steve’s been back in the workshop for a second surfboard. We wanted to get his perspective on how things have changed since he spent ten consecutive wintery Wednesday afternoons in our old workshop at the farm.
The process has definitely been refined since I made my original surfboard with James. This time around has been more intense because it’s been over the course of five days, as opposed to me stopping by for an afternoon each week, but it’s been great being much more immersed in the process.
There are better clamps now, and more of them! That’s a great advancement! I recall James and I clamping the skins onto the framework using an a system of battens and nuts and bolts, which was really fiddly and a bit stressful when trying to get it all done before the glue kicked!
Being five years ago, my memories aren’t very specific. I just have really nice memories of going along and making.
I was learning, watching, computing things. This time around I’m doing less of that, although I’m still learning, but it’s pleasantly familiar territory. Whilst it’s intense, it’s super enjoyable and the familiarity makes it much more relaxing.
It’s just so much fun, isn’t it? That hasn’t changed. Five years on though, and apart from us being a bit older there also seems to be a great progression in confidence in the process. There’s also been a new logo, and a change in workshop. This isn’t pretend – it’s a realization of where James was talking about wanting to take Otter, and I really don’t think that where you guys are at today falls very far short of those dreams at all.
It’s about much more than just a surfboard. To have seen Otter grow and to have come back again, in fact to have been around for that growth and to have been able to stop by from time to time and keep in touch (Steve lives and works really nearby), it’s a real privilege. It’s so nice to have observed that. That’s what makes this so much more than just making a second surfboard.
We really hope that we’ll be able to persuade Steve back again in another few years time, perhaps for a family workshop week. Third time’s a charm, hey Steve?