Nick Carroll: How are the Boardmakers Coping?

25 Mar 2020 3 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer




THE PLAGUE DESCENDS – An Ongoing Series on How the Pandemic Affects Our Coastal Surfing Lives

They’re Small Businesses, and They’re as Grass-Roots as It Gets

“Things WERE going amazing.”

Darren Handley exudes a dark chuckle. The owner of DHD and his team had just got through the hard work of resurrecting their operation from the fire that took out Handley’s main factory building three months ago.

They were feeling a bounce-back. Until. “It was really good up till Friday or Saturday,” Darren tells CW. “Then it just changed.” All their international orders went on hold, and Rip Curl — a significant board retailer — cancelled their pending order as well.

“At the moment it’s day by day,” says Darren. “But we’ll get through this, no problem. At least now everyone can take a holiday, there’s a lot of annual leave accrued (from the fire effort).”

By the sounds of it, he’s in a better spot than a lot of Australia’s boardmakers right now. CW talked with a number of well known, long term shapers and retailers. All seemed wary of the current climate, uncertain of how to cope with the massive uncertainties ahead.

Rex Marechal is in a very different situation to DHD. Rex, owner of RMShapes, is one of Australia’s best designers, a long term ex-pat Californian with a serious international rep. A couple of years back he won the prestigious Shaper’s Challenge at the US based Boardroom show. Yet he says that for him, “This (virus recession) might be the final nail in the coffin.”

“It’s not good,” he says. “It’s been not good for a while now. There’s a wide variety of reasons, but over the past six months, if you’re a local shaper in a community, the pie has been getting smaller. The surfboard market is dominated by big names. People don’t want to buy from a small retailer.”

Rex let his last worker go two months ago. Now he does the whole thing from his Central Coast factory. “I’m fortunate in that I have assets, I own my building, I own my (cutting) machine. Not everyone has that.

“I feel like this could push smaller boardmakers out of the market.” But then he turns optimistic: “Though possibly it might be a wake-up call. People might come back around to supporting local shapers. They might not want to buy stuff from China so much.”

Both Darren and Rex have had to cancel travel plans to Indonesia in recent times. As we’ll all know, they’re not Robinson Crusoe on that one. The collapse of the Indo surf travel ritual for 2020 is having a real effect on custom board orders. In WA, Yallingup Surf Co’s Boyd Purdy says he’s had a number of cancellations on that score, though “we have had a spike in people getting boards repaired — everyone is still surfing locally, so until that is shut down, repairs will go on”.

Boyd has had at least one materials supplier begin to ration sales to their clients, including him. He says as a sole trader, he feels able to absorb a downturn to some extent, “though it is going to be tough for quite a while.”


Several thousand kilometres away in Lennox Head, Wayne Webster’s felt the same downturn in Indo-trip orders.

Wayne usually listens to music while he shapes. Late last year he began listening to ABC radio, mainly to stay in touch with the bushfires. Then the reporting turned toward the virus in Wuhan, and its effects on the Chinese population. “It meant I was informed about this really early. I started thinking we’d better order a lot of extra fin plugs, because the supply might run dry. Now I’m just trying to wind up orders.”

Wayne’s clientele is pretty hardcore. Aside from skilled North Coast surfers, there’s the whole big wave posse, both here in from California and elsewhere, who line up for his gun designs. “A few weeks ago the Indo orders kicked in. Guys were thinking about their annual boat trips and ordering ahead. We were coming out of a different sort of Christmas, with a lot more people buying online. But everything was going along as normal.

“But as (the virus) went on, it started drying up. Guys were saying, 'What’s the point, we won’t be able to go anyway.' US guys were ordering guns for Fiji, and I was having to say to them, ‘Look maybe hold off for a while.' Now, all that’s done.”

His interstate business has been stalled by the shutdown of the east coast’s fabled Surf Freight delivery service, which has closed for the time being.

Wayne will concentrate on his family. His wife is self-isolating after a trip to the UK, and he has two kids to home school. He has a system operating for online orders and fulfilment, and good backup from a glassing shop. “I’ve got what I do under control. For me it’s more looking after the family and helping the kids understand what’s going on.”

Speaking of online: while there are specialised sites for online surfboard sales, they haven’t been a major earner for anyone in the Australian board industry. Maybe this is because surfboards are so, I dunno, physical. As Rex Marechal puts it: “People like to pick ‘em up and feel ‘em, even if they’re not sure what they’re looking at.”

And while the larger board retail stores are still open for business, in the near future boardmakers may have to rely on online sales more than ever.

This would make Rob Cribb’s timing somewhat impeccable. Cribby is biz development manager for Akewatu, an online surfboard sales platform originally devised in France, which arrived in the Australian market just last week.

Akewatu is designed for surfboard retailers to post their inventories online, where they can be accessed by anyone. It opens up a surf shop’s board rack to the online shopper anywhere in Australia. The site also allows collectors and unique used board owners to feature their boards for sale, and includes a checking system run by its surf shop clients to certify those boards.

Cribby says the site already has 2000 Australia-based boards listed, with more down the track. “It’s helping shops and brands work together,” he told CW.

Of one thing we’re pretty sure: it’ll be quite a while and a lot of boards before any of this begins to feel normal.

More Coastalwatch COVID-19 Coverage

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