Review: Andrew Kidman's Big Sky Limited
As we age and our physical condition diminishes, perspectives on surfing - and life - change.
The knees complain more. The gut expands. Then folds. Then envelopes. Those cold early mornings get even colder. We surf less. Let the smaller ones pass under us, preferring quality over quantity. Except for the 6’1-or-death acolytes amongst us, the quiver expands in size, width and thickness.
We catch up with childhood friends and survey the passing of time in what’s looking back at us. “It’s in the eyes you can see it most,” we say as we wash down another schooner and try to pretend it's not.
And, for the more community-minded among us, who happen to care a buck or two about the future of this game we find ourselves so hopelessly chained to, we begin to look for other ways to commune our love of the craft. To pass on the generational baton.
At the risk of sounding too Chandler-esque, surfing is a process of constant learning. A lifetime can be dedicated to the pursuit and still there is no end point. No final boss. No award for completion. The more you know the more you don't know, as they say, and it's as true in surfing - and surfboard shaping - as with any other craft.
Plotted on the same graph against diminishing physicality and skill, the learning curve only ever heads up.
It's a theme Andrew Kidman explores in his latest triumvirate release (book, film, magazine), Big Sky Limited. Knowledge: both the pursuit, and imparting of. Even today, more than three decades into his own shaping journey, Kidman’s blown away by how much there still is to discover.
“The more time you spend doing something, the more you realise you don't know that much about it,” says Kidman.
“You get to these places with your shaping where you learn something new and you’re like, wow I can do that now, but then you go and apply it to trying to invent new designs or different ways and you realise you have to teach yourself another skill to make it work properly. The journey is the fascinating part.”
A never-ending game of give and take.
Does it end with the shaper, on their deathbed, gasping: “It needed more… tail rocker!” before the planer falls from their hand for the last time? Maybe not. But in a world of ChatGPT convenience and ‘lifehack’ shortcuts, there’s a beauty in the futility of the act. A lifetime spent chasing the perfect board, or at least the perfect balance, is not a lifetime wasted.
As a concept it makes for compelling viewing.
We follow the theme in Big Sky Limited through the evolution of Beau Foster. Beau, a precocious young talent in the mid 2000s, came into Kidman’s nexus through Ellis Ericsson. While working with Ellis on On the Edge of a Dream, Kidman recruited Foster to start shaping under the Big Sky label.
Unlike Kidman’s work with Ellis on edge designs, this was a no frills apprenticeship. Just a kid making his bones from the ground floor.
The film follows Beau as he works with the likes of Kidman, Simon Anderson, Maurice Cole, Dave Parmenter, George Greenough; both in the shaping bay and in the field, testing shapes alongside Creed McTaggert and Shaun Manners across a variety of reefs, beaches and points.
“It's a fascinating thing, watching a young person that has decided they want to become a shaper and then seeing the way they go about it and where they get to and how they do things,” says Kidman of Beau’s approach.
“It's also fascinating seeing the surfing that gets done. You're seeing a kid go after stuff that he thinks he can do - I'm gonna try and do this or that, but there's also failure in that. That’s life. To see that journey is an amazing thing.”
Beau’s performance on a wide range of equipment and waves is a beauty to watch - a testament to his own evolution from slick grommet into well-rounded surfer-shaper.
Big Sky tracks Beau’s hits and misses. The makes and the stacks. Watching Beau grapple with, and adjust to some of the designs underscored the importance of experimentation.
For Kidman it’s a repudiation of the standardised approach to shaping embodied in the machine pop out board. Only through that experimentation can you develop your skills, whether as a surfer or a shaper. I offer Kidman the counterpoint that many now opt for the safety of a mass produced board off the rack, because they know what they’re going to get.
“Yeah but the reality is that those boards were not made for you,” he retorts. “You go and speak to Mitchell Rae (the author recently moved to the mid-north coast of NSW) and tell him the waves you’re surfing and he will know exactly what type of board you need there. You’re not gonna get that from something off the rack.”
“Whether you get a surfboard off me or any local shaper you've developed a relationship with, that shaper is articulating everything he knows about you and the waves to give you back the best board.“
“That's all I'm trying to do in this film. I'm not saying come and buy boards off Big Sky, because we don't really make them. I would love to see local shapers supported, they all need it and I also think that local shapers have the best opportunity to make the best surfboard for people because they understand the area.”
Which circles back to that notion of knowledge sharing. For Kidman, it’s how we keep the culture alive.
“As you get older you have to think about what you can offer. Knowledge is something you can still pass down. I've been fortunate in my life that I’ve always been around people who want to share their knowledge with me.”
Kidman holds up Dave Parmenter as the embodiment of that cultural dialogue, the knowledge transfer.
“Having somebody like Parmenter involved, he’s the conduit. He connects it all. He’s been involved at every level, from pro surfing to shaping, he works with every design, he has so much ocean knowledge. In my opinion he’s the best all-round shaper in the world. Just because of his experiences in the ocean, who he’s been taught by and his time in Hawaii. His influence on current designs cannot be underestimated. It’s not something he would claim, as he would defer back to where his ideas came from, but as I said he’s been that link, that conduit that has stitched it together for people in my generation to reference, and then go after new things in our own way.”
Big Sky doesn’t only focus on Beau’s shaping journey. Through the film, book and Acetone mag there’s further explorations of design with Parmenter, Simon Anderson, Greenough, Noa and the late Wayne Deane, Leanne Curren, Shaun Manners, Simon Farrer, Adrien Toyon, cameos from Kidman’s son Gus and Lungi Slabb; as well as Kidman’s own musings on seminal boards, figures and sessions he’s encountered through his own career.
“Guys like George might not be the original guys, but they’re the original guys that are left,” says Kidman. “You can still talk to them about shaping, and how much it has given them in their lives. You can see how much they’re still in love with it. And they’re still trying to make a better surfboard.”
You can purchase it at BigSkyLimited.org