Phil Fraser: Channel Pioneer
Six years ago Swellnet published a timeline history of the channel bottom, including the various changes to the design, and of course the major players; the various shapers responsible for the advancements.
It was always going to be a fraught exercise. Blowing the dust off history very often is. To cover ourselves, a disclaimer of sorts was included in the introduction:
We've done our best to speak to everyone involved and hope we've done justice to their stories, however we wouldn't be surprised if new information tweaks the story. History can be surprisingly fluid.
The origin story of channels is fascinating. Ostensibly, it involves three shapers - Erle Pedersen (with help from Jick Mebane), Mike Davies, and Jim Pollard - all working separately from each other, yet all experimenting with channels in the year 1975.
Coincidental, yes, but not implausible. Surf culture has always been small, the world of shapers even smaller, and those involved were absorbing the same stimuli before interpreting it with their own ideas.
Though it’s a world away from board design, the same dynamic explains punk music’s concurrent rise on at least three different continents, despite the bands involved being utterly unknown to each other. It was an idea whose time had come.
For the past three months, Newcastle surfer Terry Campbell, with the help of filmmaker Nick Cupelli, have been making a documentary on Redhead goofyfooter and channel surfer/shaper Col Smith. The doco, which has no title yet, is a labour of love, a way for Terry to give a much-loved yet often-overlooked surfer his due.
The project is at least six months away from completion, and rest assured you’ll hear more about it when it’s finished, yet already the work of Terry and Nick is turning up surprises. Some of which fit into the ‘new information that rewrites history’ category.
One such example is the story of Phil Fraser.
Phil Fraser was a Newcastle native and knew Col Smith from a young age, though he quickly became a surf industry gypsy. He travelled to wherever the work and waves would take him, including a stint at Shane’s in Sydney learning gloss coats and other backroom skills, time on the Sunny Coast with Jim Pollard, Sydney, New Zealand, back to Sydney, all the while crossing paths with the greatest shapers and surfers of the 70s era.
In 1974, Phil returned from a short stint in New Zealand. “I went over there to show ‘Morning of the Earth’ when it first was released,” said Phil, “I travelled all around the North Island, deciding that it was a very nice place with very good waves, so I stayed there for a couple of years. It was great.”
Phil worked at the San Michelle factory set up by Cronulla's Garry Birdsall, where he began experimenting with deep double concaves. Upon returning to Australia, Phil attempted to convert the same feelings the deep doubles gave him into a new design. At first he was doing backyard boards, small labels out of Newcastle for guys like Phil Pike and Mike Marshall, before starting his own label, Pure. On those early Pure boards, Phil experimented with curved channels around the mid-point of the board which he believed worked similar to double concaves.
Sometimes he’d do four channels instead of six, sometimes they’d be located through the mid-point of the board only while later ones had them running longer, but the thing all Phil’s channels had in common in those first years was the rail-centric curve - they ran parallel to the rail, not the stringer.
Of the aforementioned channel pioneers, Phil’s work most closely resembled that of Jim Pollard, and for a time they worked together, when in 1975 Phil went up to Maroochydore to work on Fluid Foils with Jim.
“There may have only been a few months in it,” explains Phil of the timing around those early channel bottoms. “The difference was that I did mine south while Jim did his north.”
Though they were both drinking from the same well of inspiration, Jim stuck with his ‘foils’, which appeared more as rolling undulations when viewed in cross-section. Phil, however, was using edges and faces. His early examples were channels in the literal sense. That is, they best resembled a two-faced gouge into the bottom contour. Later, Phil began to refine the design so that the outward-facing edge was sanded down in a shallow repose, with the inward-facing edge remaining steep.
“I will always call Jim’s boards foils,” says Phil. “They're not channels, because they don't have any direction. A channel is a gouge or a groove that directs water, which is what our hard edge channels do.”
In the following years, many features of channels would change, but that aspect always remained.
In early 1975, Shane Stedman saw some of Phil’s channel bottoms and approached with an offer to come and work for him, shaping channel bottoms, at his Sydney factory. “What a wonderful buzz it was to go back to Shane’s as a shaper,” gushes Phil. “The last time I was there I was sweeping floors!”
Phil ended up as head shaper at Shane’s getting $100 a board at a time when other shapers such as Vaughan Riley and a young Simon Anderson were getting half that. “$100 was a lot,” ventures Phil, “Shane was only selling them for $180, or up to $280 if they had channels.”
This was during Shane’s Brookvale heyday, when he was arguably Australia’s most high profile shaper, and his need for high output butted up against the creative requirements of shaping channel bottoms. “[Shane] would come in, and he'd say, ‘Can you do twenty of those this week?’ And I'd go, ‘Shane, they're not that easy to do, mate. It's still an experimental situation.’”
While at Shane, Phil was interviewed by Tracks about his multi-channel design. The interview, which ran in the June 1976 issue, was both a coup - it was the very first feature on channel bottoms - and a disaster. The copy editor at Tracks stuffed up the print and what should’ve been six columns of text ran as three. Each second column was missing, the design explanation made no sense. Thank goodness for the photos.
While he was getting more exposure through Shane, the working relationship didn’t last; Phil was dedicated to his labour-intensive design, Shane to his burgeoning empire. Shane did, however, take a number of Phil’s channel bottoms to Bells in ‘76, one of which exists to this day as a fine example of early channel experimentation.
After Shane, Phil went back to his Pure label, shaping out of Mona Vale, almost exclusively producing channel bottoms. By this time a small number of shapers had also picked up the scent. Among them were Phil Myers up in Ballina, Al Byrne on the Gold Coast, and the Novocastrian trio of Col Smith, Steve Butterworth, and Martin Littlewood.
In the Hawaiian winter of 1977/78 Col Smith famously won the Pro Class Trials at Sunset Beach during his very first visit to the North Shore. He was riding a quiver of Pollard channel bottoms, the likes of which the Hawaiians had never seen.
Though they’d each have subtle differences, that cadre of shapers co-operatively moved the channel project forward, merging the elements that worked while disregarding the bits that didn’t. By 1978 there was an agreed-upon notion that the channels had to be straight, they had to be sharp, and they had to flow out the tail, while other elements such as channel length, rocker, and fin size came down to shaper preference.
Shortly afterwards, Phil began a shaping relationship with a number of Hawaiians including Larry Bertleman, Michael Ho, and Dane Kealoha - Phil even named his son after Dane. Asked how this connection came about, the story again turns back towards Col Smith.
You see, if you know your surfing history you’ll also know Australian and Hawaiian surfers weren’t on great terms in the mid-70s. Though most of the ire was directed at Rabbit, the wrath was felt by all Aussies on the North Shore. “Col was instrumental in healing the rifts between them and us, because it was pretty heavy there for a while,” says Phil. “But Col, first trip there and he’s accepted as one of them, and he reintroduced all the other pros to each other again.”
These days, Phil is retired from the surf industry and, though less heralded than some of his shaping peers, content with his past achievements. “I lost a few early boards when I donated them to Scott Dillon’s museum,” says Phil. “However, Terry and Nick photographed everything here in my shed when we spoke. Some of it may appear in the documentary.”
To date, Terry Campbell and Nick Cupelli have interviewed seventeen people, including five world champions, for their documentary on Col Smith. “MR spoke for two-and-a-half hours and he even swore on camera!” Terry told me excitedly. “I think that’s a first.”
We’ll keep you up to date with progress.