Which Way Is Earth?
This story and more in the latest issue of Surfing World, on sale now surfingworld.com.au
The Alternative Universe of Geoff Mccoy and The Forgotten Place of The Lazor Zap In History.
By Tim Baker
In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Geoff McCoy ran the most happening surfboard factory in Australia, perhaps the world, providing groundbreaking equipment for a stellar crew of team riders.
“It was like Al Merrick with Slater, Machado and the Channel Island crew,” says four-time world champ, Mark Richards, who learnt his board-building skills as a grom hanging round McCoy’s Brookvale factory during school holidays. “He was really instrumental in a lot of things that shaped my life ... I doubt I would have got to where I got to without his help and guidance.”
Simon Anderson, inventor of the thruster, reckons it was McCoy’s “no nose” designs that inspired the planshape of his great three-fin breakthrough. “The no nose was the next step in the development of the modern shortboard,” says Simon. “He fully influenced me ... If it wasn’t for that development I probably wouldn’t have come up with the thruster.”
A pattern-maker by trade, McCoy brought a meticulous eye for detail and an intense focus to his surfboard design. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, the distinctive McCoy label was everywhere. He made boards for many of the country’s best surfers - MR, Mark Warren, Grant Oliver, Bruce Raymond, Cheyne Horan, Larry Blair, Pam Burridge, Damien Hardman and Nicky Wood, as well as signature models for international stars like Shaun Tomson, Jeff Hakman, Barry Kanaiapuni and Reno Abellira. He ferried his team of surfers to events in the McCoy bus, took extensive notes on every heat in exercise books. He took many young surfers on their first trips to Hawaii and put them up in the McCoy team house at Rocky Point. He even designed the ubiquitous Hanimex coolite, which legions of groms learnt to surf on.
Yet, by the mid-‘80s, McCoy’s empire, which extended to the US and Japan, had collapsed - the victim of too rapid expansion, mis-management, a messy divorce and growing resistance to his increasingly radical ideas. And his extreme, wide-tailed Lazor Zaps, developed for perennial world title runner-up Cheyne Horan, saw him typecast as the wild experimentalist who went too far.
“I don’t think we lost our way. It was like being in a space ship and, which way is earth?” remembers Cheyne Horan. “But we never looked back for it. It was like being an asteroid.”
But that asteroid had to come back to earth eventually. By 1990, while Al Merrick was crafting sleek, low volume, wafer-thin, highly rockered craft for Kelly Slater’s unstoppable sweep to glory, Geoff McCoy had vanished. All but broke, and broken, he toiled away in isolation in a tin shed in Woolgoolga, a sleepy back water on the NSW mid-north coast, completely removed from the surfing mainstream. “It wasn’t until I broke away from pro surfing that I learnt anything,” says McCoy today, from his Byron Bay home. “Then I spent 18 months in a tin shed in Woolgoolga on my own. I had to get away from everybody, and I then made huge advances. I was rebuilding. My confidence was shattered in design. I realized I knew nothing. And I realized everybody else knew nothing ... I was thought of as this guru, like many are still claimed to be, and the truth is we know fuck all. I didn’t, compared to what I know now. I knew nothing. It was embarrassing. That’s what made me want to learn more. I didn’t have a choice. I was left on my own, in isolation and I wondered, do I know anything?”
Toiling away in that tin shed, profoundly disillusioned with the direction of modern surfing, McCoy began to question the very foundations of conventional design wisdom. The board he came up with could not have been more different to the tiny fibreglass slippers of the time - a thick, wide, blunt instrument he labeled “the nugget,” with unvarnished honesty.
“I got frustrated trying to ride the modern shortboard, which is still the main design, right ‘til now, and I couldn’t ride it and I couldn’t deal with it,” he says. “I was talking to my sister about how the modern shortboard was a hoax, and she said, why don’t you come up with something better? That’s when I came up with the nugget.”
Twenty inches wide, three inches thick, with a round nose, wide rounded tail and domed bottom curve, the nugget looked like commercial suicide - more far-fetched madness from the man whose Lazor Zaps stood accused of costing Cheyne Horan a world title.
But McCoy was past caring, on his own trip, convinced the modern shortboard was hopelessly dysfunctional for the average surfer and certain he’d made a major breakthrough.
And, it seemed, McCoy was not alone in his disillusionment with the modern shortboard. Its anorexic dimensions barely floated larger surfers and its hair trigger sensitivity proved too much for those with less than pro abilities.
“I just think most of what’s going on is a hoax. I’ve been seeking the truth. Without really realising it, I’ve been pursuing the purity of it,” says McCoy. “So many people get put down the wrong shoot on equipment.”
Slowly, by word of mouth, McCoy developed a small but loyal following for his nuggets. Older, larger surfers, beginners, average recreational surfers wanting to catch more waves and accomplished surfers looking for something new all migrated to the nugget’s beefed up dimensions and forgiving curves.
“It’s all done from word of mouth. A guy gets one. He’s got four mates. Sure enough, within two years they’ve all got one. It’s just kept growing and growing. I don’t reckon anyone in the world gets as many emails as I do directly regarding the product and praising it.” McCoy begins quoting emails: “‘It changed my life.’ ‘I never thought I’d be this good a surfer.’ ‘You’ve re-ignited my interest in surfing after many years in the doldrums.’ The reason no one can stop it is because it’s purely a practical common sense way to go surfing if you’re not trying to be a world champion.”
It’s years since I’ve seen Geoff, when I knock on the door of his modest timber home, surrounded by rainforest, on the outskirts of Byron Bay. When he answers the door, with his white hair and deep searching eyes, he reminds me immediately of another enigmatic design guru, Dick Brewer, as if they are somehow long, lost brothers. Geoff lives here with his Japanese wife Mieko, a keen surfer herself. He shapes in a backyard bay, surfs daily, drives the same ute he has for 28 years.
McCoy today is a straight-talking, slightly odd mix of Aussie working class and esoteric cosmic consciousness. He comes from a family of horse trainers, often got in fights as a young man, and has never been afraid to sing his own praises. His logo’s tagline reads, “Designs to free your mind,” and his website declares with near-religious awe: “The intensity has been transformed into a state of calmness, which emanates from this being. He has searched for his Grail and attained it. Today Geoff McCoy sits at the Pinnacle of his profession.”
McCoy has fallen out with many in the industry for his outspoken views and sometimes abrasive manner. “I really got at loggerheads with all the would-bes and I punched a couple. I was overly aggressive,” he admits. ‘I came from an aggressive background. I came out like a cannonball.” But he makes no apologies and quite happily calls out the entire industry, without blinking.
“The modern shortboard is a hoax. It is the biggest distraction to surfing that we’ve experienced in 20 years,” he claims. “It’s a dysfunctional object ... It doesn’t want to bottom turn, it doesn’t want to turn in general. What they’ve done to compensate is make smaller fins so it can skid and slide. They don’t know that the hard edges are making it release and skid as well. The balance is all wrong. Everyone is on their front foot because the only support is in the middle of the board, and you’ve got to be such an elite talent to get them going ... There’s a small percentage of people who can do it.”
McCoy’s nuggets, by contrast, are all about volume, heavy glass jobs and soft curves. “I try and take the over-reaction out of a board, neutralise it,” he says. “Surely the best way to surf is to go out there and feel like you have nothing under your feet and if you want to do a turn, do it. And if you want to pull in, PULL IN! If you want to cut back, CUT BACK!” This last statement is made with mounting urgency and volume, like a game show host bellowing, COME ON DOWN! “Don’t worry about whether the board’s going to be there or not, just do it. That’s got to be the ultimate way of surfing.”
The nuggest achieves this, he says, by being as neutral as possible in the water. “The principle of the nugget is to make it neutral, to make an object that has neutral reaction, so that when water flows on it and around it, it does it in the easiest way.” Geoff calls his bottom curve “the loaded dome,” a subtle convex curve rail to rail and nose to tail, unlike anything else in surfboards.
“It took five years to learn how to shape the dome. I’ve got this challenge. I’ll give anyone a hundred grand who can shape a nugget. I’ve had more than one person try to shape them but in the end I get frustrated. They can’t do it. I just go, I’ll do it myself. It took me five years to learn how to put the dome in, because I came out of straight flats and edges and I got into this curve, rolls, domes, and I didn’t know much about it. In the beginning people wrote it off.”
Geoff and I head into his shaping bay, a humble plywood construction tacked on to the back of his garage, and survey a freshly shaped blank. He takes a plastic ruler and lays it across the blank to illustrate the curve, first crossways and then along the stringer. The bottom is indeed domed subtly, like the base of a very shallow bowl. He then places the ruler diagonally across the tail, parallel to the rail line, and the ruler sits perfectly flat to the blank. I struggle to grasp how this is possible, given that the bottom curves in all directions. “It’s like a clinker bottom in boats, with flat sections joined together,” he explains. “I soften the low points and blend them together.”
Perhaps McCoy’s most contentious design theory is that soft, thick, curved rails provide more hold than hard edges. For decades, shapers have operated on the exact opposite principle - that hard edges create hold. Geoff says it was when he was shaping Cheyne’s boards for Hawaii that he studied Gerry Lopez’s designs and noticed their full, soft rails. At the time, Cheyne was complaining that he was falling off deep in the barrel because of a lack of hold. Lopez turned Geoff on to the idea of soft rails holding in the barrel. He tried it, Cheyne rode them and they worked. Hard edges, he argues, break water flow and so create release, rather than hold, causing boards to spin out. “How can a hard edge hold? You put a board on a rail, and a hard edge becomes a square corner. How can that hold? People ask me why I condemn modern design? I judge it by what I see and if that’s what they put out there, I’ve got to conclude a major portion of them have their head up their arse and they should be shot on the spot. They’re ripping people off. I won’t sell surfboards wholesale any more. I won’t sell them to surf shops any more. Why? Because I’m sick of some turkey in the surf shop who doesn’t know anything about surfboard design telling people what to ride.”
Geoff is not a fan of surf shops, in general, and confidently predicts their imminent demise. “Surf shops are going to eat shit in this next period. They are out the door and gone. Thank Christ for that. A lot of surfboard factories that survive will have the showroom out the front and the manufacturing out the back again. It’s going to get back to that for a while again.”
Geoff reserves his harshest criticism for the state of the modern surfing industry and the big surf companies. “Bunch of fucking immoral arseholes, the lot of the cunts. They forgot about surfing in the quest to make a lot of money. I got sucked into it in the early days until I realised, hey, we don’t go surfing any more, sitting around fucking bullshitting to each other, snorting coke, carrying on like fucking imbeciles. I was out of there, and I was out of there big time.”
Bruce Channon, former SW publisher and photographer, was McCoy’s first glasser and says Geoff was always an intense character. “He was a really straight guy, the alpha male of the pack, very influential over the people who came into contact with him, really strictly anti-drugs. He was a man’s man, a real scrapper,” says Bruce. “Cheyne was totally under Geoff’s spell. He’s a very overpowering person. If he gets his hooks into you he’ll convert you.”
Bruce says the Californian experience, and his subsequent business failure, profoundly changed Geoff. “Whatever happened to him in California ... he was a different guy when he came back.”
The way Geoff tells it, he was simply a surfer who was led astray by business success and its many distractions. “All I was doing was trying to lead a surfing life. Once I started to get all corporate there for a while when I was heavily in America and Japan and all over the place, and then it all blew up, that was the best thing that ever happened, because I didn’t want to be there anyway. McCoy just kept growing, and I was like, what’s happening? I didn’t have the knowledge or expertise to run it. All I wanted to do was run away from it.”
Eventually, the dilemma was solved for him, when a falling out with his business manager left him $400,000 in debt, and his business folded. By that time, McCoy and Horan had already become marginalised for taking their Lazor Zap concept to extremes that many considered absurd - reverse teardrop creations with needle noses and enormous, rounded, almost heart-shaped swallow tails.
The Lazor Zap was, at least in part, their response to Mark Richards’ twin fin, an attempt to create a single fin that could match the looseness of a twinny. History shows that Richards and his twin fins ultimately prevailed, as MR collected four world titles, while the Lazor Zap was widely condemned as a design aberration, and Cheyne had to settle for runner-up four times.
Geoff disputes all this still – argues the Lazor Zap remains a valid design, still in demand from customers, that Cheyne sometimes rode experimental designs in contests against his advice, that the industry set out to discredit them both. “How did he come second four times if the boards were so bad?” Geoff asks. He resents being labeled “radical,” considers himself conservative, old-fashioned even, and paints Cheyne as the extremist, pushing him for weirder and more experimental designs, which he then rode untested and in the wrong conditions. “I told him he was mad,” says Geoff. He went along with it all, he says, because Cheyne was, “the greatest surfer the world has seen.”
These days, Cheyne believes they did go too far. “I just wanted to jump up and surf from the one spot, jump up on to my feet and go,” Cheyne says. “We went extreme, too narrow in the nose, too wide in the tail, too thick, and came back. We had to find the edges. When we started, most noses were wider than the tail. It was all about reaction time. It’s just like being in a big dish. McCoys aren’t about sinking rails, it’s about floating and skimming.”
In the course of an animated hour-long conversation at Cheyne’s sushi restaurant in Palm Beach, on the Gold Coast, Cheyne uses a watermelon seed, a spoon, a Coke bottle, a chop stick, a bowl and the example of a stealth fighter jet to illustrate his points. Cheyne and Geoff once famously remarked that they saw surfboards as triangles - believing the wide tail and narrow nose made them faster and easier to turn.
“The further back you pull the wide point and the blunter you make the tail the quicker the reaction,” says Geoff.
“I still see boards as triangles. Look at stealth bombers. There’s something there,” says Cheyne. “I had faith in him. We probably got too far out there. If we’d just gone and made a normal board better we still would have been 1000 miles ahead of everybody. The designs were so far out they were too far out.”
But, Cheyne argues, that fundamental shift the Lazor Zap ushered in, putting the bulk of a surfboard’s volume under the rider’s feet, rather than in the front half of the board, influenced the template of the modern shortboard. “Surfing’s better because of it,” Cheyne says. “Surfing benefited more than we did. I guess we did too because we were enjoying it. We were surfing parts of the wave that had never been surfed, aiming for places on the wave ... deep, hard places back in the barrel, to have control in deep, hard places.”
MR and McCoy drifted apart when Richards discovered the great Hawaiian shapers of the day, Ben Aipa and Reno Abellira, who had a more direct influence on the evolution of MR’s own twin fins. “When Cheyne appeared on the scene, there was an unspoken wedge driven between the relationship,” says MR. Although they were bitter rivals at the time, Mark Richards today agrees with Cheyne’s assessment of the Lazor Zap’s place in design history. “There was a lot of feeling that they’d actually gone too far. I think they went too far,” says MR, from his Newcastle surf shop. “But I think Simon (Anderson) would be the first guy to tell you that the reason the thruster had a narrow nose and wide tail was because of the Lazor Zap. It put the volume under the back foot. I think that’s probably forgotten. Simon’s the first guy to say that Geoff influenced him.”
As a shaper, MR says he can understand why McCoy took the Lazor Zap to such an extreme. “If you get an idea, you keep diving and diving deeper into the idea and sometimes you get so far into it you can’t see the forest for the trees. I think he got overwhelmed by the direction he was going,” says MR. “The sad thing about the whole story, considering his ability as a shaper and the things he did for that whole generation of Narrabeen surfers ... the sad thing is, he went so deeply into the Lazor Zap that he alienated people and he detracted from his rightful place as one of the best shapers and designers in the world.”
Simon Anderson, perhaps the most celebrated Australian shaper of the modern era, agrees. “Geoff was the dominant force in board making at Narrabeen. All my friends at Narrabeen worked at McCoy. He fully influenced me,” says Simon, who worked just round the corner at Shane Stedman’s Brookvale factory. “The first board I made after Geoff brought out the no nose concept was a cracker of a board, in 1980, just prior to the thruster ... It balanced the board out. We were developing more modern rockers and rails. It made boards looser for sure, so they fitted more into the pocket. It was crucial in advancing surfing at that point. It paved the way for the thruster. I give Geoff credit for that innovation whenever I can.”
McCoy still believes that the surf industry was out to get him and sabotaged his career, warning team riders off his boards, because he became too powerful and influential. “The only billboard in surfing that matters is the surfboard, and they had their logo on my boards. It wasn’t until I asked them, could I put McCoy on their product that it all blew up,” he says. “McCoy became the most powerful thing they ever had to deal with. I said to Cheyne prior to it all blowing up, I said, we’re going to get eliminated here, because I was a guru by those standards then and he was the blonde bombshell from Bondi just blowing doors and I said, they’re not going to like this. There’s a lot of small-minded people in surfing ... I’m a survivor. I chose to go under the radar. If I tried to be somebody and compete with them I would have got flogged to death ... I was the leader of surfing world-wide and I ran away. They didn’t tell me to fuck off. I ran. I got out of there and I’m so glad that I did because here I am all these years later, and all I’m ready to do now is tell people what I know now and it’s 20 times greater than what I knew then. I just got sent away to learn. No one around me knows where I’m at with regard to design. I get frustrated talking to them.”
Today, Geoff’s shaping is all aimed at the average recreational punter. Does he ever miss the excitement of working with elite surfers, pushing the performance and design boundaries as part of a focused push for pro tour glory? “No, not at all. The worst thing that can happen to me now is to come across a hot young surfer who wants to tell me what they want. Please, leave me alone. Go away. If someone says, look, I’ve got a hot young kid, I say, good on ya’, go and see someone else. I just won’t go there. I don’t want to be part of the destruction ... That’s why I don’t deal with elite young surfers. You can’t get through their egos. I don’t care if they wallow for ever.”
Cheyne Horan remains a huge admirer of Geoff’s boards, riding his shapes almost exclusively, even in his big wave and tow boards. “His boards are such a complete package right now. He’s doing his master strokes. I tell guys, get as many as you can get and hang on to them because these are his master strokes,” says Cheyne.
McCoy today cuts a curious figure in surfing’s cultural landscape - a widely revered elder who remains staunchly underground, professing nothing but contempt for the modern surfing world, while still loudly claiming his many and varied achievements. He produces around 10 boards a week, almost exclusively for custom clients, a combination of hand and computer pre-shapes. A popular range of Surf-Tech epoxy models have paid off the mortgage, he says, even while he regrets the decision to embrace mass-production. “That’s the second worst thing I’ve ever done,” he claims.
He welcomes the wider range of surfcraft now in the water and claims to have started the trend, even while decrying the fadism of the modern fish and other retro models. “I take the credit for that. Honestly, I’ve been battling this thing for years, since 1994. And only just two months ago I was talking to George Greenough. He told me Al Merrick’s got a model out the same as the nugget, and that doesn’t surprise me because Cheyne was talking to Kelly about nuggets and wide tails.”
He doesn’t like to discuss age, but Geoff remains a fit and active surfer and shaper with more orders than he knows what to do with, wanting to slow it down to five a week, if he can train someone up to shape the dome.
“I’m only a simple person. I’ve only ever wanted to go surfing,” he says. “I surf nearly every day of my life. These other silly bastards are having heart attacks, hip operations, because they’ve been grinding away trying to make dollars. They go surfing in Indonesia for three weeks and still call themselves surfers. Fuck off. I know three people who qualify as true surfers - David Treloar, Chris Brock and George Greenough. They’re surfers. The rest of us lost our way. You talk to them about surfing ... They’ll tell you when the best swells hit in the last 10 years, what time of the day it was, what wind was blowing, how many people were in the water, what tide was best ... If it’s 10 foot tomorrow morning the first one out there will be Baddy (Treloar). He’ll be out there before the sun comes up. He will. He must be close to 60, and the same goes for Brocky. They’ve never worked. They’ve bummed around. The priority has been surfing ... There’s a lot of people who call themselves surfers but I only know three, and none of them drive flash cars. There’s nothing extravagant in any way about them.”
So, how should history record McCoy’s achievements? MR is in no doubt. “He deserves to be acknowledged as one of the best shapers in the world, along with Al Merrick, Rusty, Dick Brewer,” he says. “It’s true. It’s fact. There’s a lot of people who would call bullshit on that, but them’s the facts. I have the utmost admiration and respect for him and I’m incredibly grateful for everything he did for me in my shaping career. I get disappointed that he is not acknowledged as one of the greatest shapers the world has seen.”
Simon Anderson, a man who’s few, dry public utterances are generally accepted as lore, concurs. “He’s one of the, if not the, greatest designer shapers in Australian surfboard manufacturing - quite possibly the best ever.”
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