Mitchell Rae To Be Inducted Into Surfboard Builders Hall Of Fame
In a week or so from now, Mitchell Rae is gonna shake the foam dust off, pack two sticks into a board bag, and hop a lift to the city. First leg in a big trip where he'll come home carrying more than he took.
Swellnet recently chatted to the quiet fella from Urunga, who has over a half-century of shaping experience, about his coming travel plans.
Swellnet: Word is, you’ve got a big trip to California coming up. Can you explain to the readers what’s happening?
Mitchell Rae: It's an award that runs out of California called the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame.
And you’re being inducted, is that correct?
Yep. The process is that each year, a new group of board builders are inducted.
So who nominated you, Mitchell?
My dear old mate Dick Van Straalen kindly did.
That's a touching tribute.
It is. Dick and I go way back and I was pretty chuffed. There's a lot of good people around and the fact that he chose me was very humbling. I’m honoured!
Did you and Dick ever work together? Ever share ideas?
The first time I ever met Dick, it was a surf trip with my mentor Glynn Ritchie back in about '68. We’d been surfing a lot of Angourie and Lennox, and there was a particularly tasty swell that looked promising for further north.
So we ventured off and got as far as Burleigh. It was five or six feet running from the Cove way up to the beach and it continued to get better and bigger day by day. This was well before leg ropes and after a couple of days surfing, even when you're surfing at your best, you're going to come unstuck every now and then. I can remember losing my board and bodysurfing the wave after it, chasing it, only to hear the loudest crack, the sound you only hear when a solid glass board hits a boulder. You just know that extreme damage has been done.
After a few days of that, our boards were pretty trashed and we went out to Dick's farm and did some repair work on them to get back in the water. That was the first time I actually met Dick and his crew of guys who were riding his boards. A lot of long friendships were formed on that particular swell.
Do you see similarities between your boards, say the quintessential Outer Island spear, and Dick's shapes?
Yeah, I think particularly back in the day. Dick was shaping beautiful boards. He was doing some real nice pintails. I think, because of living there and surfing those point breaks all the time, pintails were a natural choice.
He would've still had his Spirit of the Sea label going then?
Yeah, it was the very beginnings of it and it was out of a farm at the back and that was the days of full on country style. Dick was shaping some nice boards. At the time, surfing was going through a stage where boards were very straight with a little bit of nose flip and an S deck.
Pretty primitive really, whereas what we were shaping had a continuous curve through the bottom and an extremely deep concave. I recall Dick's boards were some of the only ones I had seen, apart from what we were doing, where he was using a nice continuous curve right through the board. Low rails on flat bottoms, maybe a little bit of V with those pintails, but having that particular continuous curve bottom rocker continuous through the board.
There weren't many people that were onto it.
You’ve been shaping for 55 years, and as well-known as your boards are, you've always been a niche shaper. Would you agree with that assessment?
Yeah, look, at different times I've had bigger operations, but I've always been fairly purist in my approach. I had some bigger factories. At one point I had maybe six guys working for me and we were supplying a bunch of surf shops, plus customs, plus stints of shaping in Japan, and that was as big as what I ever got or wanted to be. At the end of the day I’d scratch me head going, "Hey, I'm just getting consumed by this." Like, there was a really good day's surf at Forresters yesterday, and I didn't get there because I’d become a hamster in the wheel.
So, I’ve had a taste of production shaping and I've found that the bigger the numbers got, the less of my actual soul I could put into each one; the less connected to the designs I was. So by staying small and pure, it works a lot better for me.
Yet now you're getting critical acclaim from, what I guess you’d call, the shaping establishment. Are you comfortable with that?
Yeah, look, it's a really fabulous accolade. I'd be crazy if I wasn't happy and humbled to be receiving it. I look at the honour roll of people that are already inducted: from the Duke to Dick Brewer, all the famous Hawaiians and Californians - it really is a stellar list. So, I’m thrilled for my name to be added.
Though you've spent time in Indonesia, your pedigree is mostly Australian. How many Americans know of Mitchell Rae and Outer Island?
Good point. I've been to Hawaii four or five times. I loved Hawaii, but I never had any great need or necessity to go to the mainland, so I never opened a door with business there. Funny though, since the days of Facebook, and even with a new website I’ve just built, quite a bit of traffic comes from the US. I don't exactly know where they cottoned on to what I'm doing, but it happens.
Perhaps through Indonesia..?
Perhaps. I've been very well represented in Indonesia for a very long time. There were always crew traveling through there with surfboards that had the Spirit Eyes. It's a bit of a cult. I guess the adventurous Americans that have been going to Indonesia during that same period of time have been exposed to my work.
For some though, they’ll be encountering your boards for the first time. What boards are you taking with you?
I'm taking a very tight little group of boards. I built one flex tail in the original style, which is Greenough-inspired. That’s where I sculpt all the foam out of the deck of the board after glassing the bottom, and finish the build so the tail is transparent glass and fully flexible, like the fins and the tail flex. So that whole back end of the board is flexing. That was my original style of build.
Then in the mid-80s, I realised there was something going on with these boogie boards. I had a look at the materials and had a light bulb moment. I started to put boogie board foam in the back of my flex tail which restored the original foil, bringing the volume back to what it was. That was kind of a breakthrough when I started using those materials. The second board will have that, plus all the bells and whistles: three different types of carbon to control the variable flex, laminated with high-end vinylester resin - pointless using polyester resin on carbon - and it has the V2 Flex construction, where two stringers start at the nose and angle out to the rails roughly two-thirds of the way to the tail leaving the back third without a stringer.
So that one, the second board, it’s a model which I call the Zen Blade, that represents the sum total of everything I've learned and developed through the years.
So those two boards, with perhaps a little guidance and commentary, go a long way to explaining my whole journey of shaping and building all these years.
Concaves. If the boards are to be representative, the reality is that I have been at the forefront of concave innovation since 1968. In the early days of Outer Island, we went from hull shapes, which a lot of the crew were doing, but then we started to go down a completely different path, first with dead flat bottoms, and then we morphed into these super deep concaves and they were really revolutionary. There was nothing around like them, and this is '68, '69, when boards had roll bottoms and S decks. Meanwhile we were riding these space machines with super deep concaves.
It took a while, but it’s fair to say that the design has gone mainstream…
Concave is a staple in the bottom contour of any modern board.
And back in those early years, I played with spiral vees inside the concave and all sorts of different configurations.
I believe it was original thinking driving our innovation because, at the time, there was nowhere to look and no-one to reference. It was totally breaking new ground.
Before we go, I want to talk about the name of the award, it’s not just the shapers award, but builders award, which is apt considering the work you do on each board.
I cut the blanks, glue the stringers, shape the board, and occasionally, I still glass the whole board and do the sanding too - start to finish. I call them “two hands boards“ and they are going to become much more limited.
You see, going back about three years now, I had a battle with cancer of the bladder, and after the surgery I asked the doctor who was in charge of operating on me, "What causes this, doc?” And straight up he said, "Oh, toxic chemicals."
I've had better than 50 years closer to 55 years of exposure to it. I really have to remove myself from that part of the proceedings as much as I can.
But having said that, you asked a direct question, I'm designing and shaping them, and I'm pretty much locked in with some great people glassing the majority of my boards. They're doing really nice work for me and I'm really happy to hand that off over time, to solely focus on design and shape.
Righto. Well Mitchell, when will you be heading over to the US?
The induction ceremony is on the 14th of the month at Huntington Beach. I'm leaving on the 5th and hoping to have a poke around the boardroom show that they do. It's my first trip to California. They tell me that it's surf city with the biggest surf shops in the world and the trade show is off the scale, so it’ll be a bit of an eye opener for a country boy who’s used to a peak hour with kangaroos hopping across the road.
(Home page photo of Mitchell by Dick Hoole)