Australia's Best Shapers Series: Who Is Gunther Rohn?
COASTALWATCH | AUSTRALIA'S BEST SHAPERS SERIES
GUNTHER ROHN / GR SURFBOARDS
Gunther Rohn talked with a precise and vivid tone as he recounted his history as a surfer and shaper to me. His craftsmanship, experience and knowledge is a combination of his South African and Australian life. As a 63-year-old, Rohn worked under some revolutionary shapers and worked closely with the best professional surfers in the world to create boards that really had some go to them. He now resides in Ballina under GR Surfboards but has admitted that his Local Motion retro boards are making a surprising comeback.
Rohn’s story starts in Vienna in 1953, where he was born and raised until he was four, and his family moved to Cape Town in South Africa. His life as a surfer began when he jumped on a longboard in 1966, just a few years before he got his hands dusty and dirty for the first time as a 19-yearo-old, in 1972. He says of those early years “I gravitated to the beach pretty quickly and surfing became a big part of our peer group as well other sports like rugby union and football (soccer), which also played a big part of my life over in South Africa. I was shocked when I got to Australia that hardly anyone was interested in football, and remember distinctly, when I asked about it – as an avid Arsenal supported –that people were very racist. ‘Only the Wogs play football’ they said.” So after his move to the great southern land, surfing became front-and-centre for Rohn.
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On arrival to Australia in 1973, he spent his time in Sydney working with Geoff McCoy who gave him his start as a pin-liner and finish coater in the industry that lead him to a life as a shaper and as a legend in board making – a master craftsman. Learning a lot about the finer details of shaping under his guidance. “Geoff gave me a good grounding and was instrumental in my direction.” Said Rohn. “He was really revolutionary with his designs and I learned a lot from working directly with him. At the time he was at the cutting edge of surfboard design in the years before Simon Anderson brought out the thruster. Geoff had me shaping a lot of boards, I was working hard and taking it all in.”
A brief stint working in California under Geoff in the late ‘70s, got Rohn involved with production shaping off the blank and in his time abroad, he spent was working alongside Rick James at the Lost shop in San Clemente, that he says still remains today. In California, Rohn held two jobs that he picked up from friends who had recently started Quiksilver in Cali, before travelling to Hawaii where he worked for lightning Bolt, shaping boards and pin-lining and finish coating. His stint in Hawaii was brief, just a couple of months before returning to Australia to his wife. “I had to get back to Australia as I was living away from my wife, but I went back to the islands more times than I can remember, and my relationship with Hawaii has developed despite not living there.”
Were there any early designs that have inspired the way your designs have ended up today? Yes, we are always learning and evolving when working with others. Working with Geoff, one of the things we did with the bottoms of the boards, was shaping the concave into a V, just 18 inches long, just up from the fin, this gave boards good lift and acceleration. You could really feel it significantly as part of the design. A lot of my boards focus on the double concave into concave V. I favour the design because it gives the board speed, loosens up the bottom and makes it more responsive.”
How did you transition between working for Geoff and Local Motion? After moving to Lennox Head in 1974, I worked at Warren Cornish’s in Byron Bay before moving over to John McKeag at SOL Surfboards. I was surfing and working on all aspects of producing a surfboard at this time. The boards I was producing were improving with time and experience. In 1975/76, I started FreeFlight Surfboards with Lindsey Grant, before embarking on a trip through Bali and Europe and onto California. (FreeFlight Surfboards is still in operation today thanks to Phil Myers.)
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On return to Australia in 1980, I worked for Brothers Neilson and Burleigh Surf Company and then Jet Surfboards for a year. Town & Country offered me a job and I stayed around there for nine years between 1983-92. In ‘92 I was with Local Motion and was the owner of the board label. It was moving forward with the designs as surfboards continued their evolution. These days, I still operate Local Motion but hardly make any boards, although with the demand of retro boards coming back, it is being resurrected and there is an increased interest in the stingers and single fin round pins from the late ‘80s and ‘90s, before the reverse V Thrusters by Morris Cole came in.
From ’88 – ’91, I actually worked with Morris Cole in Europe, and after spending a lot of time there and meeting many new people I worked with Pukas Surfboards from ’91 (one of the biggest board manufacturers in Europe) in Spain; Pukas and I developed a relationship that has endured to this day.
Since 1984 I’ve been travelling to and from Japan often, to shape and export boards, continually expanding my experience.
What was surf culture like in South Africa in the early days? We had a lot of American influence over there to begin with. Before, Bali was THE surf destination, South Africa was the go-to place and I met a lot of people from Australia, the USA and Hawaii who would make the trip over to surf. To be blunt about it, at the time a lot of Aussies rubbed the locals up the wrong way, (as do South Africans with their arrogance), and as a result, a lot of South African surfers travelled to the US to surf and settle, instead of Australia. But the ones we hung out with like Paul Joske (he was a true craftsman worked for Midget Farrelly and stayed in Cape Town for a while teaching us about boards shaping), and Peter Connelly from Nambucca Heads, as well there were plenty from all over Australia, especially from the Central Coast like Allan Warne and others from Dave Wyllie (RIP); they knew how to behave and were a big part in my moving to Australia.
In South Africa, we drew most our inspiration from Australia once the shortboard revolution had arrived. Midget Farrelly was a big influence on us all. I feel for a big part, we drew a lot more board design from Australia than the US.
With the boards I’m making today, there’s a lot of refinement and drawing on old concepts and combining them with the new. We’ve got about 20 models with five different bottom shapes; everything is diverse. People realised about ten years ago that one size board doesn’t fit all, and these days there are people that order a lot of boards. You have to give people choice, but not so much that they get confused by all the options. That’s what we’ve tried to do.
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What’s your most popular model these days? It’s the Icycool, a shortened shortboard and a great go-to with a slightly wider nose, about two inches shorter than your regular board. It has a double concave to concave V in the last 12-18 inches. It’s great rail-to-rail and very fast, responsive and gets a lot of drive off the bottom.
Over the last 30 years you’ve shaped boards and worked along side the best surfers in the world. What was it like invoking your experience and skill with athletes? Sometimes I try to think about what they’ve learned from me, and in turn, what I’ve learned from the experience. We’ve put ten people on the world tour and had three to four on tour at the same time. On reflection with Simon Anderson one day, he didn’t think anyone else in Australia have achieved that. It has been a ride. Working with professionals, some know and understand boards and board design – they tell you what they want and come back to you with feedback and guidance to improve their ideal.
Others you’re coaching them into understanding their equipment and the dynamics of their boards. For a big part, the surfers are putting their success in your hands and with age on my side I’ve tried to guide them in the right direction. Some athletes can get lost in what’s happening all around them with contests, sponsor requirements and the mental side of it. There’s a lot of dealing with personalities, nearly as a psychologist. You need to learn their idiosyncrasies and what is lacking then apply that to their board. Both the positives and negatives; I helped Sunny Garcia to his world title with boards, but he had a lot more going on in the background then just competing.
I’ve worked with Anthony Walsh for a long time and he’s great with feedback on what’s working or not. He’s been around for a while now and understands what others are doing and what he needs from his boards to suit him.
A standout session for you? It would have to be G-Land, being a goofy footer. One particular day stands out in my mind. The thing about G-Land is that it isn’t as perfect as Desert Point or Restaurants in Fiji where on reflection I can remember a number of excellent days there too, but not as big. G-Land has it’s different moods that depend a lot on swell direction that make it special. It has wide open sections, there’s so much room in the barrel. It’s a complete wave that has everything. Sometimes it’s perfect, sometimes it not. I haven’t been there for five or six years now after a couple of injuries, but that wave still sticks with me.
What boards do you recommend for G-Land? When it’s maxed out, for young, average to good surfer, probably a 6’6 - 6’10. A lot of the time you just need to get onto the wave then you don’t need that bigger board to draw the line. When you get older it’s really up to you how long a board you need. In the end it’s not what you should be riding but what you’re capable of riding. You need to forego performance to catch waves easier.
He also specialises in step up boards, mini guns and guns, built for big waves.
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