Taking shape

Counting the real cost of a surfboard with Aotearoa’s most inland board builder.

It’s as far from the coast as you can get. Yet, thirty minutes’ drive west from the country’s most inland town, Cromwell, there’s a persistent noise that is often mistaken by neighbours for an out-of-tune weed-whacka. It’s the sound of Paul Roach’s planer chewing through foam. He is rendering his wildest dreams.

Based in the Otago hinterland at Hāwea Flat, Paul (or “Roachy”, of course) makes surfboards  ̶  hand-shaped surfboards to be precise. Entering Paul’s shed is like walking into a mad scientist’s mind. Psychedelic swirls made by his artist son, Noah, plaster the walls, intertwined with manic scribblings showing calculations and curves. It’s a dizzying mix. Or maybe that’s the resin fumes.

When you put an order in for one of Paul’s boards, it’s not a simple matter. You have just opened a door to the world of curves that comprise a surfboard, and the endless ways to combine them. You’re as much of a part of the process as he is.  Every piece of the puzzle must be considered, from rocker to rails, colour to concave, foil to fins, and how all those variables relate to you; it’s almost like commissioning a portrait of yourself. You have to be there for part of it.

Typically, on arrival at his shed I catch Paul mid-flight, sandpaper in hand, problems and solutions arising simultaneously. It’s clear that a compulsion to design impregnates every inch of his world; a hand-made electric guitar leaning against the landscaping tools he designed himself is a giveaway. Topics of conversation range from music, to surfing, to how much work sucks, to what it’s like for a life-long surfer to age, all interrupted by periodic profanities when Paul mis-places something.

Much like the surfboards he is drawn to, and his geographical location so far from the sea, Paul’s path to shaping was unconventional. Wayne Roach, Paul’s older brother, has been a professional shaper since the sixties and is still shaving surfboard blanks more often than he shaves his face. Like a lot of younger brothers, Paul thought of Wayne’s hobby as Wayne’s thing. Paul does credit growing up in and around Wayne’s workshop for learning through what he calls “osmosis”, but it wasn’t until this wilful grom turned 50 that the allure of doing things his own way got the better of him. He picked up the tools and started shaping for himself.

In the interim, Paul had learned the nuances of design and technical drawing through training as a draughtsman and honed his muscle memory and control of tools working as a tradesman, all while remaining a committed surfer. Mastering each of the disparate skill strands required to create a surfboard made weaving them together natural. In a radically short space of time Paul was building boards of a stubbornly high quality.

It often takes serving an apprenticeship to learn the technical aspects of a skill. This process can be “shortcut-ed” by honing parts of that skill in other domains and cross-crediting, like Paul’s work in draughting and trades. Ironically, though, this kind of “shortcutting” can end up being the long way around. But it can also leave a learner with a broader comprehension of the skills at hand, and the chance to soak up other knowledge along the way. These, in turn, may be a catalyst for a new way of thinking.

Once a level of technical mastery is achieved in a pursuit like board shaping, the “technician” becomes the “artist”. With the keys to the technical castle, the artist is free to draw from the well of emotion and experience within them, and the traveller of the longer road will have a deeper well. Anyone can learn how to build a surfboard if they have the patience. From there, though, everyone will create a different board, each one reflecting a unique view of the world. It’s hard to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (especially under the metric system), but you can ride their surfboard.

A hand-made board like Paul’s will cost you more than a factory one mass produced from a mould. But what are you buying when you buy a surfboard? This isn’t just a random story about a random dude in a shed conquering convention. It’s about the value of human hands over that of the indifferent, cookie-cutter computer. The physical materials are going to be part of the cost (approximately a third to two-thirds, depending), then there’s the hours of labour involved in turning a hunk of foam into a hydrodynamically-geared Formula 1 vehicle. But beyond the “actual costs” of building a board, a negative space remains. And to me, the most valuable part of a hand-shape is the invisible part: its soul. A surfboard’s soul is its shaper’s soul, and it blossoms from the decisions made at each design intersection, decisions that draw on a lifetime of experience in and out of the ocean.

Paul Roach didn’t become an excellent surfboard builder in spite of starting at 50, he became one because he started at 50. New Zealand’s most inland board builder spent much of a lifetime learning the lessons to answer the questions that the design process would inevitably ask of him. And the hours upon salty hours that inform these answers are thrown in free of charge. When you consider that, a hand-shaped surfboard is cheap.

It’s like buying a piece of art for hardly more than the price of the paint.