Australia's Best Shapers Series: Who Is Kirk Bierke?
COASTALWATCH | AUSTRALIA'S BEST SHAPERS SERIES
If there's a name in board shaping you should know about, it's Kirk Bierke. Father to big wave surfer and 2016 Red Bull Cape Fear champion Russell and rising star Claire, Kirk designs and shapes boards out of Ulladulla on the NSW South Coast.
Over the last 41 years he has shaped thousands of boards right across the globe including; California, Hawaii, Japan, and Australia, with trips to Indo, Mexico, Costa Rica, and New Zealand, which he says have been important to try out his designs in the different surf conditions.
Shaping started for him in the mid 70s’ at Torrance Beach in the South Bay of Los Angeles. Riding as many different boards as possible and then eventually trying his hand at making them himself, designing them for the local beach as well as for the nearby reefs when the big winter swells rolled through during his high school years. Relocating to sunny Santa Barbara after turning 18, he began working at the local glassing shop where a number of the area's top shapers boards were being made. His own designs were being influenced by the long lines of the local point breaks which were so different than the waves he was used to and the speed required for the smaller waves and the sometimes challenging conditions, “I was creating boards that were really fast, I wanted to make something that was exciting to ride on small days and still enabled more vertical surfing on those waves.” Said Bierke of those early days.
The 500-meter long rides of Santa Barbara had nothing on what was to come for Bierke. He set his eyes on the islands of Hawaii where he would soon become intertwined with the culture and the progression of surfboard design and big wave surfing.
What is one experience from living in Hawaii that changed the way you were shaping? In the mid 80s’ the outer reefs weren’t getting surfed much, there weren’t any jetskis around at that time so it was hard to explore, it was a real mission to get out there and catch waves and there were a lot of spook stories regarding the bad experiences people had trying to do so. It was a very mysterious adventure, you didn’t know what you were really going to find and it became a focus to experiment with board designs to be able to surf those reefs and get back to the beach safely.
During that time in Hawaii I spent a lot of time in amongst the winter swells and shaping through the surf season, but once summer came along and the waves stopped the North Shore was very, very quiet and shaping work non-existent so I found work shaping 10’,11’, and 12-foot hire boards in Waikiki. It was a complete head spin going from shaping performance boards to big boat like boards for mainland tourists, but looking back it was instrumental in learning to deal with volumes of foam that big wave guns are made of, after a summer of shaping those things a 9’0” gun was like shaping a sports car, fine tuned for performance!
What is the difference between the Hawaiian big wave boards and Australian big wave boards? I haven’t surfed every big wave in Australia, but certainly on the east coast rocker is a factor because the waves have shorter intervals which makes them differ significantly from the long range high interval swells of Hawaii. Obviously there are so many rocker options, but in general Hawaiian boards can be a bit flatter up the front because you’re paddling into swell that’s rolling through the ocean over a huge distance, you need to have the speed and paddle power to catch them.
What are the kinds of questions you ask people when they come in looking for a custom semi-gun or gun? It really varies from person to person. Generally, I run through how and where they will be surfing the board, what they want to achieve with it and look at their existing quiver. There are so many variables.
What would your ideal quiver look like on the east coast of Australia? If you’re going to get three boards you need a groveler, a performance board and a step up for those bigger days when the swell is pushing more water. Outside that there are so many options to explore for different surfing experiences and different conditions.
I have a groveler; some people like the wider, rounder shapes for the knee - waist high waves in summer. You’ve got to have a board like that or you’ll wish you did. For myself I’ll then go to my shortboard groveler, it’s a 5’8 and it will handle a seriously good wave as well as waist-high and scrappy conditions. I’ve got a performance shortboard for when the waves are good, then a step-up once the swell picks up and the waves are harder to catch, in that situation and I’ll go to a roundtail for my step up. I'll go something past that for when it’s pushing a lot more water I’ll go to a 6’7 or even a 7’+ for certain local reefs, but then there are different specifications for all the different kinds of reefs. When conditions hit 10 feet plus, that’s when you start to get serious with the guns.
Tell us about Russ’s board for Cape Fear? The board that he won that on was his mega gun from when he was 12-years-old to surf the bombie. As he grew he ended up surfing it on the big days when he didn’t want to break his good boards. For some reason it’s a freak of a survivor and has bounced it off nearly every reef and ledge on the south coast. He got towed into a wave out behind one of the points down here, came unstuck and it got washed up on the rocks, over the headland and came out at the base of the cove... and it came out with one little chip in it. So it was named the destroyer.
When Cape Fear ran in those huge conditions in June, I said to him, ‘you know that board inside out in every different direction so don’t even think about taking your other one.’ It’s 5’11 and just over 17 inches wide so he’d have a hard time paddling into it these days as a 19-year-old but it’s become the perfect tow board for him.
How did the bright colours of your sprays originate? I’d spend most sessions trying to spot him from the lineup instead of being focused on trying to catch waves, when the rest of the guys figured out I wasn’t paying attention they all paddled around me and my wave count went way down. So I sprayed his board bright orange, after that I could spot him a mile off and focus on getting a couple more waves for myself! A white board disappears in big ocean and you’re just not going to see it, I feel a bright board is an important part of a big wave board, it can make it a lot easier to know which way to swim when your leggie snaps.
Has having Russ chase big waves inspired or changed your big wave board designs? Yes definitely, because Russell is part of the new generation of big wave surfers that rides a shorter board very successfully. I would never have taken a 6’2 out at some of the waves he’s surfed at spots like Shipstern’s and big Pipeline, it just wouldn’t have been conceivable in my day. Russell gives me a lot of feedback from the feel and aspects of the board too, so we work really closely to keep pushing the limits, it’s a great learning curve seeing what we can get away with out there.
Kirk continues to help his son defy big waves and is shaping a wide range of boards from Ulladulla. Check out his models available or contact him for custom shapes
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