What It's Like To Build & Surf A Balsa Board In Papua New Guinea
COASTALWATCH | Feature
Building & Surfing Balsa Boards In Papua New Guinea
In 2012, Mark Riley from Riley Balsawood Surfboards had enough of the inconsistent supply of decent balsa wood from Ecuador and started searching for something better. There were whispers about Papua New Guinea (PNG) balsa; it was a mixture of good and bad news.
Mark set out to discover if the stories were true. To his pleasant surprise and amazement, the balsa quality was fantastic; the turnaround times were unbelievable, the people were trustworthy and honest. It was the beginning of an incredible story and a healthy relationship between him and his new supplier as well Papua New Guinea, its people and its waves.
Mark received his first container load of balsa in 2012 after dealing with Ecuador for 16 years. His business had grown two-fold in four years due to the quality and big section sizes of balsa, now sourced from PNG.
Balsa has a great history and a feeling like nothing else, in the water. It’s like a superfood; it’s strong for the weight, beautiful to look at, easy to work and the buoyancy capabilities are fantastic. They are the boards that actually last a lifetime and are now readily available anywhere in the world in large section sizes and super light. You only have to visit any surf museum in the world and there will be a majestic balsa board. Balsa is one of the most natural and environmentally friendly products you can find on the planet.
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In April 2016, it was time to visit the land and people that were such an integral part of his boards. “I thought it would be a great excuse for a holiday and to visit the balsa farms. I want to pass on some board building knowledge to the locals at Nusa Island Retreat.” Mark said. The good thing about heading for Northern PNG is that Air Niugini has connecting flights from Sydney to Kavieng in one day so we were surfing the next day.”
Mark was expecting tropical heat and small waves ‘shoulder season’ waves with a risk of not scoring epic waves, nonetheless was stoked to be heading out on an adventure. “Yes, it was hot and humid! He confirmed. “Building boards was hard work but the surf picked up to 4ft and we had some great sessions in some picturesque, uncrowded waves with the locals.”
"The feel of a balsa board in the water is like nothing else. The simple motion of paddling makes you feel so alive and then when a wave jacks and propels you down the face, the speed and life blows your mind."
There were no expectations regarding the crew who would be assisting with the building of the balsa boards. Mark was surprised with the enthusiasm and discipline in the learning process from the locals in the construction of the boards. It was a gratifying experience for Mark and a rewarding one for each of the crew. “When their names were written on the board the look of pride was priceless.” He said.
The shaping process differed slightly whilst in PNG. Mark was trying to have the locals integrated in the complete construction which included showing them the skills of using the power saw and planer to sanding the balsa blanks.
On the Island Mark stayed and build the boards at the Nusa Island Retreat. Set up out the back of the resort right on the harbour, just around the corner from the great surf spot, Long Longs. “We had enough balsa to build two longboards or three shorter boards. In discussion with resort owner, Shaun it was decided to build a 7’8” mini mal, a 7’2” fun board and a 6’ 2kilokilla short board as a quiver of good all-round boards for clients who wanted to have a fulfilling balsa experience in PNG on their surf trip.” The selection of boards would also suit the local breaks including Long Longs and the boat trip locations to a tee.
In the building of the high-performance board, Mark usually uses a recycled foam core followed by a 2.8mm thick balsa laminate to keep it light. Due to the lack of machinery available, he sourced the lightest balsa possible, (80kg/m3) and built a solid board, keeping it thin and narrow compared to a regular board. The weight came out at 4kgs for the finished 7’6” all glassed up.
“We surfed four different locations at four foot, most of the time we were totally on our own. We really only had the local boat drivers for a few sessions, then we invited Titima who is the PNG longboard and short board champion. He was amazing in the water and ripped it up at the secret spot and Long Longs.”
Mark also invited PU board rider Dylan Jeffery over to get him out in the PNG waves on the balsa boards. His transition between all the shapes, from short to fish, to mal, to mini mal was made to look effortless and beautiful.
Join Mark in 2017 on his trip to PNG. You have the opportunity to build your own board or have one built for you. An incredible experience and piece of surf craft to own forever.
Photos provided by Ian Hamilton, Limelight Creative Media
Surf trip by World Surfaris
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