Joshua James: A newer kind of balance
Joshua James has been around.
It's been a journey from grommethood on the Gold Coast, to part of an extended surfing family in Yamba, to being a sponsored surfer living on the Northern Beaches and finally to the NSW south coast where he has established a reputation as an innovative and imaginative shaper specialising in asymmetricals.
The changes in geography have been matched by changes in focus. After loving art and wood work at school he felt the traditional pressures to study so he enrolled in an architecture degree. After realising it wasn’t for him, he switched to film school where he had a similar experience. He then worked as a cabinet maker for several years. Along the way he pursued the junior competition trail before realising that, for him, surfing was about the fun. Coming home after a day of competition unhappy with the result, did not fit that vision.
Yet he was still inspired by the high performance surfing he witnessed from competitive surfers like Richie Lovett who was on the Championship Tour at the time. While Joshua was still struggling with his own surfing, he witnessed Richie ripping Queenscliff on a big overcast day with power and flow. It was a reminder of his own ambition to surf at that standard.
An important aspect of the contest and sponsored surfer experience though was the realisation that he could not understand why, out of a quiver of twenty or thirty surfboards, there were only one or two that he really loved. Allied to that, and deepening the design confusion, was the fact that he had been experimenting, unsuccesfully, with his own shapes. His initial efforts were so bad that he would often only surf them for a couple of days and then would be too embarrassed to even sell them.
The turning point was a serious leg injury that occurred jumping, with youthful abandon, from a rock into the ocean. It kept him out of the water for a year. When he was ready to try to surf again, he thought he would progress more quickly on a twin fin, which he considered a beginner’s board. This led him to get a Mick Mackie keel fish. It changed everything and ultimately caused him to abandon all career ambition and take a job that would allow him to spend as much time as possible in the water while tinkering with his boards at night.
He worked managing a couple of different surf shops around the Manly area and focused his creativity on his designs. The vision was boards that would flow from rail to rail with power and speed. Already aware of the work of Derek Hynd and Ryan Burch in that area, asymmetricals became something of an obsession. He realised that he had a favourite toe side board and a favourite heel side board. This was fine as long as the waves were breaking in one direction only but was a source of difficulty when there were both lefts and rights.
The solution was asymmetry, with the features of his favourite toe side board matched to the features of his favourite heel side board in a single design. He observed that surfers did not stand with their feet parallel and most of the time the section of board in contact with the water was asymmetrical. From that he deduced that symmetry was unnecessary. The theory was simple but turning it into high performing designs was much more complex. By his own admission there were years when he sacrificed his surfing to the pursuit. A design that had performed well on Australia’s east coast could leave him spinning out in a bottom turn under 8 foot of heavy water on a shallow reef in Sumatra.
It was not until he had ridden sixty of his own shapes that he became confident. He could feel that they were now giving him that constant, flowing rail to rail surfing that had always been his goal. Although he had never had any shapers as mentors, he was fortunate in having some high-performing surfers as friends. Not trusting his own judgement, he asked them to try a couple of his designs. They were so impressed they suggested that he take up board making full time. He decided he had little to lose and went for it.
By this time his ideas had developed. His core idea was that the extra leverage provided by the toes enables that side of the board to have a straighter rail and a larger fin as they can be easily overpowered, enabling projection and flow, while the heel side can have a more traditional outline allowing critical smooth turns. Experiments with thickness had led him to add asymmetrical foil to some boards. So he had a range of functional high performance designs ranging from those whose asymmetry was barely visible to the casual onlooker to more extreme skewed designs with radical fin set ups.
He found, for example, that he could match a toe side twin fin to a heel side quad to create a three finned board that was nothing like a thruster. The fins had to be totally redesigned and their placement adjusted and this turned out to a long trial and error process which is continuing today as he has just worked with Greg Trotter to redesign his entire fin catalogue.
Allied to this whole process was his concept of craftsmanship. He wanted to shape by hand and was keen to demonstrate that hand shapes could not only be just as accurate as machine shapes but also that they could provide a degree of customisation difficult for digital designs to match. He remembered his own experiences standing in the shaping bay as craftsmen like Greg Clough shaped his boards and realised that being able to look at a surfer’s exact physical build could contribute significantly to the final design.
One of the most satisfying aspects of all this progress has been that, with years of Indonesian experience thrown into the design process, his boards now deliver high performance in the demanding quality waves of a major Indonesian swell. The cost was numerous coral cuts and bouts of fever, but the pay off has been substantial, not only in personal satisfaction but in a steadily increasing order book.
One of Joshua’s current concerns is durability. He wants his boards to last and hopes that customers will use that durability to build quivers that add variety to their surfing experience. The idea of surfing the same board everyday has never appealed to him and his concept of a quiver is as much about having boards to suit the mood as much as to suit the waves, be they performance twins or any of his asymmetrical designs.
// LAURIE MCGINNESS