All The Curves Belong To Each Other
All The Curves Belong To Each Other
Wednesday November 1st marked the end of a special era in Australian surfboard manufacturing, with the closing down of a modest factory up the top of Angourie Road, Yamba. This driveway-flanking row of shaping, glassing, spraying, and repair bays has been a hive for an all-star cast of shapers, glassers, and artists over the years including Albert Fox, Nick Pope, Greg and Will Webber, Thornton Fallander, Woody Jack, Luke Short, Nav Fox, Dave Earp, Col Wall, Gordon Knight, Ryan Chelman, Adrian Wiseman and the late, much-loved Geoff 'Jiver' Walters.
Over the course of 35 years, thousands of beaming customers have returned to their cars, past the row of roller doors, with fresh shooters tucked under their arms, while walking on air. Given none of us will ever take this particular stroll again, it seemed like a good time to catch up with Rod Dahlberg, who you’d regard as the factory’s unofficial mayor.
Rod, 70, has been thinking aloud about winding down his shaping output for a few years now, an utterance which sends devotees of his ridiculously pure shooters into an existential panic, so it’s with trepidation that I follow Rod around the corner of his modest two storey house – tucked a minute’s stroll back from the perpetually busy Angourie Point carpark – past wife Adrienne’s immaculate veggie plots, and around to the grassy backyard overlooking the back beach.
Tucked in the lee of the house lies a neat, olive-coloured Colorbond dwelling on new concrete footings. We step inside and all trepidation evaporates as I take in Rod’s non-retirement plan: pristine blue walls and downlights, half a dozen machined blanks in the corner awaiting Rod’s ministry, a window that opens up to check the back beach, surf posters hung on the wall like a grommet’s bedroom, templates here and there, and a brand spanking new shaping rack in the middle. There’s still a few boxes yet to be unpacked and sorted, but essentially it’s ready to rock.
I ask Rod – given he’s just spent three weeks up the other end of Angourie Road sifting through the detritus of four decades’ manufacturing – when he’s going to start shaping in his new backyard bay. “This arvo I reckon,” he shoots back.
We better get cracking then. Rod – chipper, grinning, and in fine health – takes a lean on one rack, I the other, and the chinwag begins.
To begin, Rod and I discuss the sadly familiar chain of events that led to the factory’s demise:
The overheads per board were growing for all of us. A big chunk of the board profit was going into just being there. Rent-wise, we were on a pretty good wicket for what the landlord could be getting, and the insurance he was paying because of the nature of our business was ridiculous. It got to the point where it wasn’t viable for him to carry on unless he doubled the rent, which wasn’t going to work for anyone, so he didn’t renew the lease, and it was see you later.
We talk about how the crew will adapt to the new circumstances:
We’re all going to miss it: the cups of tea, a few beers after work with each other. I'm going to miss that. For some it’s gonna be more of an adjustment: Like Popey [Nick Pope] was doing all the glassing, so it’s ripped away his income, but he wasn't loving glassing anyway, so he’s shaping more, which is what he loves doing. He’s taken the Aku machine and relocated it to a new place a few sheds away. He’ll set up a few new shaping rooms, one for him, and the guys - Thornton, Will and Nav - can rent the other one when they’ve got some boards to do. Popey’ll take his boards back to his property out near Tucabia, and glass and sand them out there, so he's not paying out too much rent every month.
Dave Earp, the Tombstone Ding repair guy, he's gone too. He’s a greenkeeper by trade so he's gone back to that. Mark Ramsey’s going to set up a little ding fixing setup at his place, out the back of Maclean. Popey’ll act like an agent for him I think. So you should still be able to drop your boards off up the top of Angas Road.
And what about Rod’s new set-up?
It’s gone full circle. I used to have a little shaping bay in the garage in this house, forty years ago, before we bought it, back when we were renting. I used to shape here and then drive my boards to Byron to get glassed – I’d take the back seat out of my old HR Holden and I could fit six shaped blanks in there. I’d run them up to Byron, drop them off and pick up the glassed boards from the previous run. And that’s how it’s gonna be again: I’ve got a mate in Byron with a factory so that’s how it’ll work.
With this backyard set up, I can just chill, and if I'm not working, it's not costing me money.
As I was coming to this point, I slowed down my order intake just for the fact that people were waiting too long. During Covid it got so busy that people were waiting five or six months - and I don't like that. If someone orders the board, they should have it within six weeks.
My rhythm now: if I can do three to five a week, that'll be fine. I'll spend a day designing and cutting up the road, bring them back here and shape them, then take them up the coast to get glassed.
Actually, it might only be four or five every fortnight! The priority for me is I want to get back in the water. I haven't surfed much lately, and my years of being able to do it are running out.
I got a pretty sore back a couple of years ago to the point of not being able to surf. The paddling position wasn't good at all. I ended up getting a couple of cortisone shots between L four and L five. It's basically TMB syndrome: Too Many Birthdays. Sixty years of surfing, paddling, crabbing around shaping racks and probably not stretching enough.
Talk drifts from shaping to family:
Both our daughters are here at the moment. It’s the first time in six years that we’ve all been together. My oldest daughter Kelly, her husband James and the kids have returned to Oz from Oregon. They’re renting the house next door for a couple of months as they work out their next move. The grandkids are awesome, Indigo and Sebastian. We play cricket and soccer in the backyard, we take them surfing. It's a lot of fun.
My youngest daughter, Rachel, who's 34, has been living in Berlin for the last three years. She came home for a friend's wedding and decided to stay with us for the summer. I'm just stoked they're back in Australia.
Rachel’s timing couldn’t be better. A massage therapist by trade and savvy in the ways of wellness, she’s been helping her old boy get on the program:
We get up and start with a meditation, we do twenty minutes. I’m not a good meditator but you’ve just got to bring your focus back to your breath. After that we do some full-on breathing exercises, go for a swim, then it’s breakfast time.
We did October sober and that’s continued. I’m feeling better for not drinking. I'd been thinking about it for a while, but Rachel encouraged us to do it. I'm not going to say I'm never going to have another beer in my life, but I was having my two a day pretty much, and now I don’t even think about it.
We’re getting to that age where you need to take control – otherwise you just end up buckled and stiff and hopeless. So I’m just trying to make these next few years better.
It’s just small steps. Start off with a mini mal at Spooky Beach, four waves one surf, six waves the next. And if I can get it to a point where I can ride a 6’9”, paddle out at The Point on a four or five foot day and catch a few waves, well that'd be good. But if it doesn't work out, it doesn't matter. I've had fifty-bloody-good years of it.
We talk golden-age swells for a bit, one day in June ’74 being the standout:
I had three surfs that day, riding a 7’1” swallow tail single fin. You'd go out for an hour, get three or four waves, come in before anything bad happened. It was huge, perfect, and fucking scary. And then you’d psyche yourself up, go out again and get some more.
Back to shaping. Rod’s a supremely humble fella, but he backs himself:
I still a hundred percent believe my best board is yet to come. I've always strived to make the best boards I can and that's not going to change. I'm not going to be the guy that ends up just shaping mini mals. I've got so many good designs on file already, but it's always a work in progress. I'm still trying to keep my mind open and see what other guys are doing, so I'm not locked in my own little bubble.
That said, I'm pretty trusting of my own idea of design and my ability to translate stuff into foam. It’s what I've done for the last fifty years.
I don't want to be the guy that makes two or three boards a month for a lot of money. I still want my boards to be affordable and good quality and go well. You acquire a lot of knowledge and experience, and the ability to interpret, along the way. It only comes with time, and because I've been primarily a custom shaper forever, I've shaped for every age and size and ability.
I think my designs are easy to ride. You don't have to spend a month to get used to the board, you can jump on and within a surf or two you should have it sussed out.
My boards don't look like anything out of the ordinary, but all the ingredients are right. And if the waves are half-good, the board will go well. I don’t know if I make the best grovel board though – I can make twinnies and quads – but I think my boards might just be a product of where I live and surf.
When you’re shaping, no matter what the shape is, or who it’s for, you get so focussed, so in the zone, that if you get an interruption at the end you sometimes forget to sign it or mark out the fin positions because the process was interrupted. For me, it’s a lot of looking, a lot of feeling, and I've got different techniques that I use with my lights when I'm finishing.
Obviously, a lot of the designing process now is on the computer. I hand-shaped for 35 years before using machines. When I first transitioned it was challenging, like, “Can I do this? I've got to learn this whole new thing!” But once it clicked in and I got to know the tricks of the trade, it became a lot of fun. And now, even though it's in a small scale, I can view the board on the screen and I can check out the curves exactly the way I would look at a board in here.
We talk about Rod’s fastidious approach to managing his files – how customers can order super-refined updates of previous shapes – which leads to yakking about your reporter’s best-ever shooter, a six-two swallow channel tucked quietly away in some Sumatran rafters, which leads us to the topic of channel bottoms. It’s a fitting tangent, seeing as Rod’s place in the channel bottom pantheon was somehow overlooked by Swellnet’s fearless editor Stu in a 2016 article (Editor's Note: Updated version coming shortly!)
My brother-in-Law used to live down at Nambucca. I’d go down to visit him and surf Scott’s Head. I ran into a guy called Phil Fraser who used to make boards in Brookvale. I'd only just come off single fins and gone to twins. Anyway, I saw this board that Phil had, this would have been ’77, a single fin with six straight channels and I was just blown away. I’d never seen a board like it before.
It came off the concept of the overlapping boards on marine craft to stop the water from coming over into the boat. It sort of spreads it away and gives it traction on the water as well. Anyway, that's why they called it the clinker, and I couldn't wait to get back to shape one, but I was riding twinnies so I applied the design to twin fins.
Instead of six channels, I did four because I had to allow for the wider base of the twin fin to fit in there. I worked out how to position it and the things went amazing. They were so good! And I rode those channel bottom twin fins probably for two to three years after Thrusters came about in 1981.
I made a Thruster but it just felt like a slow pig compared to these twinnies. I’d run little stabilizer fins or to little quad stabilizers, but eventually, because everyone was getting Thrusters, I made the transition. It wasn't until I put channels into a Thruster that I went, “Oh yeah, these things are good.”
I’d say I would've shaped as many channel bottoms as anyone in my career. I'm not a production shaper, but I was doing two a day for a long time. All my orders were six channels, either round pins or swallows.
It’s a real struggle to find someone who’ll glass channel bottoms. Dale Wilson was doing them for me and he's easily the best in the business, but he won't do them anymore for me. So I almost can't do them anymore.
Say it ain’t so, Rod! What about your new glassing crew in Byron?
I'm going to have to suss that one out. I think they should be able to because my channels aren't super deep, they're not extreme. I prefer the bottom of the channel curve to be still blended with the actual overall curve of the board. I don't want them to cut away from the rocker too abruptly. I see some people, do quite short ones, but they're really deep, so what they scoop out with the channel is really breaking away from the existing curve of the board. It can create all kinds of issues, so I try to blend mine in with the board as best I can.
In my own experience, deeper channels didn't work as well as the shallower ones, because they’d cavitate a little bit. By not having them as deep, they work in a broader range of conditions. Extreme channels will probably only work really well in rare, super perfect conditions.
Holding a Dahlberg six-channel underarm feels, for me at least, weirdly similar to marveling at a Formula One car. Even when they’re not moving, everything about ’em is so clearly in service to speed and flat-out performance. I venture this to Rod, who gently dismisses the analogy.
Yeah, there's so much technology and budget for all car design, not just Formula One. They've got wind tunnels and smoke tunnels and they can see what goes on. We can’t measure that – we're in the water, propelled by the energy in the ocean, our legs, pressure against the fins. We’re getting most of our inspiration from nature really, from fish or birds.
The thing is, the whole board…all the curves have got to belong to each other, because that's all it is, it's just a whole series of curves. There's no straight bits really.
“All the curves have to belong to each other.” I don’t think I’ve heard a more poetic, or succinct description of the boardmaker’s art.
I ask Rod about his longevity as a shaper. Something I admire greatly about shapers of a certain vintage is their ability to remain engaged and enthused. Is it the creative act that keeps him going? Working at the nexus where art meets physics? The mystery and the magic?
Nah, none of that. It's a way to put food on the table because it's what I do. It's not a job I've made a lot of money out of. I've never owned a new car, but I've done okay. When I was younger, it was a job that gave me the freedom to surf a lot. When everyone else was getting ahead money-wise, I wasn't, I was surfing a lot and having a good time, and I wouldn't change a thing.
And as far as the stoke of the job, Rod’s nothing if not completely self-aware.
When you have surfers loving the boards, it's very satisfying. It really strokes your ego when guys are going, “Mate, this board's amazing!” at whatever level, even if it's just the average punter. There’s probably not too many other trades or occupations where you get that kind of reaction, and I really enjoy that, it means I’m doing my job well.
You've created this thing for this person, it gives them a lot of joy. Even people with a lot of money will value a magic board over a Porsche. They're going to get more enjoyment from clicking with the board, going “Holy shit, I’m surfing better and faster than I ever have before,” or whatever.
You have your days when you're just going, “Geez, I don't know if I should be in this dust anymore. A lot of guys eventually get out because of the health side of it. You try to be diligent, but the dust is all around. I wear masks all the time when I'm in the bay, that's the first thing that goes on before I go in. Whichever bay you're in, whether it's spray or sanding or glassing, you need to have your mask on. There's just so much dust flying around that you can't see.
Any last thoughts, Rod?
I just spent last three and a half weeks getting out of the factory, cleaning it up and pulling it all down and getting rid of all the stuff – old surfing trophies, just the kind of stuff that gathers dust. Things I haven't seen for fifteen years. If I don't see them for the next fifteen, it won't matter anyway. It was freeing to get rid of a lot of clutter.
And for a while I was thinking about retirement, but I’ve gone, what am I going to do? I'm just going to go for a walk in the morning and sit around for the rest of the day, maybe go have a hit of golf or something. But I still feel like I'm at the top of my game, so why would I stop?
I know Owl Chapman's still shaping, he must be nudging 80. Sam Egan’d be the same. Renny Yater in the States, he's 90 and still at it apparently. They’re doing what they enjoy and they’re still good at it.
I mean, if you're a brickies labourer, you'd probably want to retire at about 65, you don’t want to be laying bricks at 80. But you can still shape a board.
// Interview by GRA MURDOCH