Australia's Top Shapers: Gary McNeill & The World's Best Test Pilot
MCNEILL CONCEPTS & THE WORLD'S BEST TEST PILOT
Gary McNeill is a humble man who appreciates the incredible journey he’s travelled, under the wing of the country’s biggest surfboard designers and manufacturers. In 2017, he continues to explore and develop dynamic fusion boards with a collaborator who he says is one of the best test pilots in the world: Dave Rastovich.
Board shaping has been part of McNeill’s life since he was a grom in Wollongong. He spent time trying to suss out the intricacies of the boards he was riding and admits to a heavy frustration in thinking he could add a little something more to them and make them better.
The ‘Gong provided a solid community of incredible shapers: “Phil Byrne, Skipp, Carabine and Paul Nichol were great and made really good boards,” says McNeill, “but I just wanted to give it a go myself.”
At 12-years-old he got together what he needed to strip an old school longboard and re-shape it, he then passed it on to a friend to glass. Despite feeling proud of his first attempt, it was obvious after the first surf it wasn’t even half decent. The second attempt wasn’t much better and he passed that one off to a mate but the third? “I spent five and a half hours on that thing and that was it, I was off. I was in love with the craft.”
McNeill travelled the country throughout his teenage years in the late 80s and 90s, competing regularly in regional and national events. While competing, he was still focused on creating boards, developing and refining the craft. Everyone was on the hunt for a board that could do it all.
Unlike today, there were a number of top-ranked surfers who made their own boards and rode them in pro events. McNeill was sponsored by legendary shaper Phil Byrne and had boards supplied but always carried one of his own too. “When I was at the Australian Titles in 1992, I won the Title on my own board,” he remembers. “I had two boards in my bag. I looked at them and was just torn. In there was a Byrne - and my own that I made in my Grandfather’s shed. On the day of the final I just really wanted to ride my board. It tuned out to be a pretty good decision. It was the greatest feeling ever to win on my own equipment and made me feel like, yes, I can do this. It was a pinnacle moment for me.
“Not many professional athletes shape their own equipment anymore,” McNeill muses. “Kelly Slater shapes sometimes, but he’s more of a designer than a shaper with what he’s doing. A lot of guys, because of machines, call themselves designers more than shapers. Shapers to me are the guys that pick up a planer and rocker and create something from a block of foam.”
After moving to Queensland with his pregnant wife in 89, McNeill was officially put on the job by Nev Hyman of Firewire Surfboards. “The number one surfboard exporter in the country, at the time,” he says. Nev was one of the first shapers to embrace the pendergraph machine (CAD Computer Assisted Design) and that thrust his business forward. The machines, however, were producing a lot of errors, so McNeill got his hands on the reject blanks and shaped on the side of his full-time gig with Nev. “I had a whole shed full of rejects to play with, no one wanted them. It was really hard to fix up a board that was misshaped, but it taught me a lot and was a pretty unique opportunity.”
He continued as production manager at Firewire for six years, before Darren Handley of DHD poached him. All of a sudden the level of board manufacturing had been elevated and he was right there in the thick of it. It was a big jump from working with Nev to DHD where he went from producing 30 boards a week to 40-50 boards. “Darren was on the rise but the biggest growth of the DHD boards was still yet to come. Fanning was a 13-year-old grommet, Parko and Dingo Morrison, they were all still proving themselves, that generation and the Cooly Kids hadn’t even begun to make their move.”
His experience at DHD paved a new path, led by Handley who came from Murray Bourton’s tree. It was quite different to the way he’d been taught by Nev. McNeill talks of the challenges learning to work with DHD’s boards. “I think I got really lucky at this time because I learned to use a planer from Nev, and Handley taught me how to finish a board. It was a great combination, seeing the skills from both merge together and I feel really lucky to have learnt both specialties directly.”
Jason Stevens of JS Industries came along some years later and: “I all of a sudden found myself in the middle of this amazing melting pot of shapers and designers on the Gold Coast. Me, JS, Sparrow, Bruce Cade, Sam Egan and a whole lot of other guys.” McNeill says the crew were happy to bounce ideas off one another. The Gold Coast was a stark comparison to Wollongong in the fostering of board shapers and designers.
Enter Dave ‘Rasta’ Rastovich. While working away at JS, the now established craftsman was approached by a group of businessmen with a Japanese distributor. “They asked if I wanted to be the shaper for their label and have the boards surfed by the free-flowing pro, Rasta.” He accepted the challenge and stayed there for six years. “[Rasta and I] developed a really reciprocal understanding and viable relationship that has allowed us to work together in a pretty unique way.”
At the time Rasta, was riding for Dick Van Straalen and Akira Aipa. McNeill was on a quest to make something different. He knocked up some quads and Rasta was locked in. “He really liked them. They were fish quads, and a real fusion of Akira and Dick’s designs but involved a modern rocker, so not as flat.” That was ten years ago – and it’s a collaboration that’s flourished to formulate and produce some ridiculously fast and flowing boards today. “There’s no limit to what Rasta can do with the right board and that makes him an incredible surfer to work with,” enthuses McNeill.
“Rasta always wants the relationship with his shaper. He’s always stayed true to the guys that have made boards for him. He knows so much about boards and how they work. He’s so in tune to the way they move and is capable of pushing them to limits far beyond what they’re made for. He always gives new boards a few goes and he’s great with feedback.”
There’s no doubt the incredible waterman has been an integral part of the success of McNeill’s Taurus Twin, which he says is the Ferrari of his range. “It’s the fastest and easiest board I make. It’s a modern twin fin, meaning it is slightly more rocker than a traditional twinny.”
“When you watch Dave surf, he flows with the energy of the wave,” explains McNeill. “He loves boards that create effortless speed. The Taurus Twin we’ve developed is so fast and a really enjoyable board to ride. It’s designed for 1-5 feet but he takes it out in ten feet to find out how far it can really go.”
McNeill and Rasta have been working independently under the McNeill Concepts brand for six years and are continuing to release some of the most progressive fusion boards available. You can test one of his boards out for yourself at the Surfing World camp where Gary and a line-up of other top shapers will have their best quiver out for demo use.
GARY MCNEILL RECOMMENDS
- The ENTITY PIN TAIL, was designed over ten years ago and was one of the first hybrids McNeill made. “It’s been very reliable and these days I do step ups for guys going to indo. It’s a great all-rounder.”
- The CV 2 is a fish in a quad with a more modern rocker and is an all rounder, designed for 1-5ft but can handle 8 feet.
- The TAURUS TWIN is the Ferrari of McNeill Concepts. It’s the fastest and easiest board in the range. “The twin fin has been having a little revolution lately. Guys get excited about them and start researching them.
“The best twinnies I rode when I was a kid were the ones Byrne made. He used to put inch deep clinker channels in them giving you all this bite and control. They were the best ones. When I first started making twinnies for Rasta that was the first thing I did, I put the channels in them. In the Taurus Twin put them into one big channel they give you all the control over your front and back foot. You’re not pivoting off the tail anymore you’re surfing off the rails.
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