If you live on the Gold Coast, all roads lead to surfing.
It’s little surprise then, that playing around on zippy boards and skimboards as a youngster would lead Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew to trying his hand at surfing in the 1960s.
“For years I would just hang around the beach, I would just bum surfboards off the guys, and the board I used to drag across the road – that wasn’t mine, but it was such a heavy board it actually left a mark in the road,” he said of his early days.
“We used to repair dings so the water didn’t get in it, we used to repair them with mosquito wire and industrial resin. It would weigh a tonne, just to keep the water out. These things were so primitive, right?”
Bartholomew is surfing royalty not just in Australia but worldwide; his name written in the history books as the 1978 world champion. And I’m standing next to him in a surfboard shaping lab, right next to an exact replica of his board from the 70s. That’s the beauty of technology these days – you can recreate a champion surfer’s board for yourself.
Bartholomew is an ambassador at S-Lab, where you can shape and build your own surfboard using 3D software, allowing you to customise every aspect of the design from the shape to colour and the fins. You don’t even have to be a surfer to enjoy the process – you’ll have expert shapers on hand to guide you through the design process.
As well as advice – and some epic yarns – from Rabbit, I’m guided through the design process with Dave Verrall, who has been shaping boards for over 25 years, for amateurs to the pros. Verrall shows us the unique software used to customise the board, and guides us step by step to make a round nose board with a fish tail, a fun summer board for everyday use. Once the design is finalised – which can be fine-tuned down to the very last 0.1mm – it’s time to take the foam block to the laser cutter.
“Let’s make a surfboard then,” says Rabbit.
I watch the machine go to work, cutting the board exactly as we designed it, shaving off bits of foam, white dust covering the floor like snow. Once it’s been cut, that’s when it’s time to get my hands dirty and start sanding down the ridges.
Verrall shows me the best techniques to smooth the board, and I get stuck in with a sandpaper block. Once the shaping is done, I get to write the board’s measurements on the back with a pencil, the date, and add my signature. It’s a pretty cool feeling.
I wasn’t keeping the board we made, but customers would at that point have theirs sent off to be fiberglassed, with the finished product shipped out to them ready for use in the surf, or just to be hung up on the living room wall at home, awaiting a smug ‘I made that’ to anyone who walks past.
It costs around A$1800 (NZ$1968) for the whole experience, with a board you get to keep, or, you can pay for the star treatment and be guided by Rabbit himself. He still surfs, but after shoulder surgery last year, he hasn’t quite been able to catch the same waves that he used to.
“It’s true it is a bit of a young man’s sport. You just get a bit more humble as you get older. I’m not looking for big waves.”
During the process Rabbit shares tidbits about his early surfing life, including how they used to find old surfboards “thrown out into the tipster”, cut them down, strip the fibreglass to reshape it into a shortboard, blissfully unaware of the risks from the “very toxic chemicals”.
“We used to do this in a garage underneath a house, and my friend’s mum was upstairs in her nightie, having a cup of tea and underneath her house was a bomb. We were just experimenting…fuming and bubbling drums of resin and she was sitting on top of a bomb. She was unaware completely, having a nice cup of tea, watching Days of Our Lives.”
After all this surfboard chat, I’m itching to get into the water myself. I have a surf lesson lined up with Go Ride A Wave in Surfers Paradise.
Our two instructors are Theo from Réunion Island, and fellow Kiwi, Damian, a Wellington boy who, like many New Zealanders, have traded the cooler climes for the surf life on the Gold Coast.
Starting on the beach, Theo and Damo guide us through the process required to go from lying flat on the board, to standing and – hopefully – riding a wave. This isn’t my first time surfing, as I learnt when I was around 18 years old, but the last time I jumped on a surfboard was a good 15 years ago. We practise the move over and over again, so when it comes to the real deal on the ocean, we have the process ingrained as much as possible.
Out on the water, Theo and Damo grab the tips of our surfboards to get us in position for our wave. The first one I try to catch is, unsurprisingly, a disaster and I fall off immediately, water and snot everywhere. But, my introduction to the sport at 18 taught me one important thing – persistence is key.
After another couple of false starts, finally the moment arrives – I can feel the surfboard catch the wave and I’m being propelled towards the beach. This is my moment; I go through the steps we practised on land, get into a crouch on the board, and there it is – I am surfing a wave!
It lasts only a few seconds as we’re in the whitewash, but I can’t wipe the grin off my face. The elation of catching a wave is unlike any other activity; it feels like you’re flying. The thrill of it is addictive, and I want to go again. Theo and Damo look just as excited, clapping and smiling when each of our group gets their moment.
When it’s time to pack up, I don’t want to get out of the water. I feel like a real bona fide surfer and I remember why I did it all those years ago. Now I just need my own board. If only I knew a place…
Surfboard shaping experiences, from A$1800, including the board. Learn to surf with Go Ride A Wave from A$79 for a one-hour group session. See: s-lab.com.au; gorideawave.com.au
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to the Gold Coast from Auckland and Christchurch. See: airnewzealand.co.nz
Carbon footprint: Flying generates carbon emissions. To reduce your impact, consider other ways of travelling, amalgamate your trips, and when you need to fly, consider offsetting emissions.
The writer was hosted by Destination Gold Coast.