Sean Doherty: How Surfboards – Not Dunny Paper – Became the Most Essential Items of the Corona Lockdown
COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY
The great truism of the corona lockdown: “Instead, there’d just be… surfing.”
Nick Carroll summed up the realisation that dawned on surfers back in March as the rest of the world ground to a halt. With no jobs, no school and no travel, all that would remain is the Unholy Trinity of surf, surfer… and surfboard.
While it makes sense now, few people back then foresaw the fact that surfboards would soon become far more essential than the 12-packs of toilet paper people were fighting over in supermarket aisles at the time.
Jason Stevenson certainly didn’t. Owner of JS Surfboards, and one Australia’s highest profile shapers, he was no different to any other business owner at the time as the pandemic lockdown loomed. He was scrambling for survival like everyone else, unsure about how any of this was going play out.
“As soon as it broke out in China and started moving around the world I was definitely preparing for the worst,” recalls JS. “I was having conversations with people in the surf industry and they were all holding crisis meetings, so I thought to myself I better have a crisis meeting too! That’s all I was hearing about. Me and the boys, Scatty and Pauly (Craig Pitchers and Paul Stacey) got together and we started preparing for it.”
Early on, JS caught a lucky break, having shipped all his Northern Hemisphere orders just before borders closed. “That just left us then with the domestic market.”
What that would look like, nobody at that stage could predict. With most of their business wholesale, the closing of surf stores around the country soon stopped JS sales almost dead. “We knew the numbers were going to drop and they soon enough did.”
Hard decisions needed to be made, quickly, as they were around all parts of the economy. “It was scary,” recalls JS. “I was thinking of shutting the factory for a month and just sitting it out. Wait for the stimulus packages to kick in. I thought I’d shut the factory and we’ll reassess.” In the end he chose instead to downsize, tighten the business and scale back production. This involved the grim reality of having to let 13 staff –mainly casuals – go. “That was one of the worst days of my life, having to say to guys, ‘Look sorry, but at the end of the day that’s it.’ Saying goodbye to your mates. It was pretty heavy. The guys I let go, they were good guys. That was heavy on the heart.”
Initially, with lockdowns kicking in and production at his Tweed Heads factory scaled back by two-thirds, JS – like pretty much everyone else on the Gold Coast – went surfing. “It was a strange time. We were all living a grom’s life again. After the initial shock and dealing with downsizing the business, we lived a grom’s life. Everyone was cruising with time on their hands. I surfed a lot; heaps of waves plus a lot of fishing. Parkinson, Benny and myself went out fishing a lot.”
With production wound back and time on his hands for the first time in years, JS’s shaping instincts kicked back in and he headed back into the shaping bay, but not to shape orders. “I kept shaping boards but doing a lot of R & D stuff. The daily thought process wasn’t business; it was making myself and my mates surfboards we could ride. I definitely spent some good mornings in the bay playing around with new designs. There was a freedom to it that you don’t normally get as a shaper who has orders to fill.” For one of Australia’s busiest production shapers, the change of pace was refreshing. “Mate, I actually liked that work lifestyle better. Way less complicated.” He laughs, “Not much of a long term strategy but a nice breath of fresh air while it lasted.”
At this point, JS was still expecting sales to fall off a cliff, which they were… however a strange thing soon happened.
His phone started ringing.
“All the retailers whose doors were still open, we’d said to those guys when we wound back, ‘Sorry, if you want boards you’ll need to pay us upfront for us to build them.’ But they were like, ‘No worries.’ Three quarters of our retailers were straight up like, ‘No worries… because right now everyone’s coming in here buying surfboards.’ That was the point it switched, and it literally didn’t stop from that point.”
JS describes what happened at this point in early April as “a perfect storm. The government was handing out money, nobody had a job and there was plenty of swell". He states the obvious. “It was suddenly very conducive to going surfing.”
“I SAW GUYS I HADN’T SEEN IN THE SURF FOR 15 YEARS… AND LIKE MOST OF US THEY’RE 10 KILOS HEAVIER THAN THEY SHOULD BE, BUT THEY WERE STILL ON THE SAME BOARD FROM 15 YEARS AGO.”
The scale of what was happening dawned on him the morning the police closed the Duranbah car park. “They put the barriers out the front of my place at D-Bah to close it down and I’m thinking, 'Oh my god, I’m going to have D-Bah to myself! This is unbelievable!' And that first day they put them up I ran down the hill and there were 250 guys out! I’m like, 'Are you serious?' I didn’t expect that. My idea of what was going to happen was completely wrong.”
Suddenly, alongside toilet paper there was also a run on new surfboards.
“We had a bit of stock on hand, so initially the manufacturing slowed but the board sales themselves didn’t. They actually skyrocketed.” When asked if he saw it coming, JS replies, “No. No I didn’t expect it. I was expecting doom and gloom, but looking back on it now it makes sense. When the government hands out money and nobody has got a job what are you going to do? You’re going to go surfing.” The surfboard became the new flat screen TV. “But it wasn’t just surfboards… pushbike sales and fishing rods were doing a roaring trade. They were going off.”
Not only were board retailers doing a healthy trade, but just like everywhere else in the economy, online sales took off. “When it hit we went to all our retailers and said, ‘Guys, sorry, we have to do a push online,” which we never do.” Those sales soon took off, “especially in America, which was the biggest surprise. We don’t have a lot of doors over there because we get blocked by the big manufacturers. We’re just this Aussie brand, but because we didn’t have many doors over there, our online sales in America went through the roof. We were sending boards to Texas and all these places all over America.” America was surfing through the lockdown as well.
As for what was selling back at home in Australia, at first it was whatever was left in the factory. All stockies got cleaned out. “With the Black Box, retailers tend to buy meat and potato sizes with those, so we had a lot of odd 5’7”s, 5’8”s and 6’1”s lying around and they got snapped up in a couple of weeks. That was interesting. We thought the Black Box was at the end of its life cycle, but suddenly it became a hot property again.” The Black Box is pretty much a small-wave design, and the orders changed however as soon as autumn swells kicked in simultaneously across the east, south and west coasts of Australia. “When the swells were on it was Monsta Boxes. It was good wave boards.”
In terms of who was buying the boards, JS was taking notes. “At the start, I saw guys I hadn’t seen in the surf for 15 years… and like most of us they’re 10 kilos heavier than they should be, but they were still on the same board from 15 years ago. For whatever reason they’d lost the passion, the interest or the time to surf, then all of a sudden they were back. These guys bought new boards, new boards with more volume and they were reconnecting back with their surfing. It was like that for everyone. For most crew it’s hard to surf back-to-back sessions, day after day. Suddenly guys had the time to surf and reconnect with their surfing and with their boards.”
While punters around the coast surfed new boards, JS’s pro team riders were forced to surf old boards. “I told them at the start, ‘No one’s getting new boards because anything we built was for stores,’ so they had to surf what they had in their garage. They had to go back and go through some things they had laying around gathering dust. Sally Fitz did that. She went back through some of her older boards and tuned them in. She went back to boards she’d had for years and got a whole new perspective on them. They usually get so many boards, I think it was good for them to spend more time with the boards they had, feeling them out.”
The lockdown boom for board manufacturers however is being taken with a grain of salt by JS, who slowly ramped up production to deal with it. “Sales are good but we’ve been cautious. It’s not business as usual yet and we’ve still got no ideas when this corona thing is going to end. We’re slowly getting back into it. Guys who were doing half days in the factory are now doing full days as we get back into good numbers. It’s not over yet, but it’s definitely turned a corner.”
When asked how we’ll look back in 10 years’ time at this strange old point in time, JS laughs.
“We’ll probably just forget all about it! Everything moves so quickly, who’s going to remember a time when we stopped and just went surfing?” As for how JS himself, “I think I’ve got a new appreciation for the business and certainly a new appreciation for the boards.”
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