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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa

Tue, 21 March 2017

Here is Part 2 of the special feature with iconic surfboard shaper Spider Murphy. He tells Mark Muller how his ethos helped shape the history of surfing in South Africa. Part 1 here


SPACE CRAFT: It's about the eye, and how it can scans shape and space. Photo Pat Flanagan


How did you help Martin Potter with his equipment when he was starting out in Durban and placed second in both the Gunston and Mainstay in July 1981? What were the main features of ‘The Saint’ quiver that he rode in the early 1980s?

For those competitions he was on a 5’5’’ or 5’7’’x 19” x 2 3/8’’. They had a vee right through, and little concaves either side of the outside of the fins, because there was quite a lot of space between the fin and the rail. He had to ride it on the one vee panel, do his bottom turn, then on the other panel to do the off the top. It had a little saint on it and had green rails. Pottz was only fifteen and was incredibly fast on those boards. He would catch a one foot wave on the outside and come flying through to the inside on it: one couldn’t believe this kid flying on waves that were so small. And then Simon brought up the thrusters and I made Martin two thrusters, and he beat guys overseas on those: that was the start of it all for Pottz internationally. He joined Town and Country and shifted to the thrusters more.

Who are the other surfers it’s been good working with?

Tom Carroll, Sunny Garcia, Michael Ho, The Bronzed Aussies, Greg Emslie, Paul Canning, Royden Bryson, Heather Clark, Rosy Hodge, Simon Nicholson, Pierre Tostee, and big wave rider Twiggy Baker.

Sunny Garcia was one of the guys who would be very involved and would always be here in the shaping bay when he was in town, giving feedback and working on getting the right board. Greg Emslie would come stay with me and we would develop three or four boards for him to take on the WCT tour with him: he made it through to a WCT final in France in 2007. I shaped boards for Paul Canning and Heather Clark at around the same time and went to Teahupoo with Heather. She would charge there harder than some of the guys.

I shaped some boards for Bianca Buitendach when she was younger, probably just before she went on tour. She is a supercool and classy surfer, who always has time for younger surfers and fans. Boards are much more accessible to surfers overseas than they are here, and if surfers travel they can always try out other boards, but it would be nice to have Bianca surfing on our boards again.


PASSION IS PRICELESS: Spider remains hands on in the factory ... at the age of 70. Photo Safari

How many boards have you shaped?

I lost count long ago. Probably around one hundred thousand.

What’s your idea of the perfect board? 

When the plan shape, curve, concaves, rails and volume all blend together to make a magic board, which only happens for team riders every now and again, despite all the computer technology. Top guys in the world can have twenty boards and out of those there may be only two magic boards. One’s trying to make that board that works best for surfers, that’s super-fast, and that they depend on in all variety of contest situations. When you see a top surfer in a contest on a board that may be turning a bit yellow, then you know that it’s one of those magic boards for them, and they may be battling to find a replacement as good.

Kelly had a board like that from Simon Anderson that he kept for three years, but no shapers could copy it, despite trying. I’ve done boards for a lot of guys who come back and tell me they work unbelievably for them. I tell them to return the board to me so I can make another one. I often keep those boards in my rafters, and every now and again I pull them out, and see the same things coming up time and again; we keep the references so that we can always get it back. Shaping is a lot about trying to create, and re-create, that board that is magic for surfers.


BOARD ROOM: From concept to review, Spider always tests his shapes. Photo Pat Flanagan

What are your shaping principles?

I’ve always made sure the customer gets the right board. When I’ve got my tools in my hands, I make decisions: Do I leave it on or take it off, do I make it wider or make it thicker? If I’m really passionate about it I’m going to give the surfer the right board, the board that he or she wants. It’s almost like a dance when we’re shaping: there’s music going on and we move with it, we flow with it. I have to keep my balance, and my body has to react to the tools, and guide the tools through the cutting process. We shapers know and love our music, and it inspires us every day, giving fresh rhythms while we’re shaping. I made some boards for the lead and bass guitarists of Metallica when they came here. They were stoked: we talked the same language.

I surf every day to test my shapes so that I can improve on them and understand how they go. I prefer to shape surfboards with clean curves and foiled rails. We use the computer to shape a lot of boards these days and you can get both sides really symmetrical. Then we apply the finishing touches by hand.

It’s one thing getting paid for it, another thing having a happy customer: the reward in that is far greater than getting paid. I get high on doing my passion and the more I try, the stronger my passion becomes. I could do a lot of other things to make money, but I don’t want to do that because the reward is so great in what I do.


NEW TRICKS: One can always learn new tricks from old boards. Photo Pat Flanagan

From which shapers have you learnt the most?

Of all the legendary shapers of my generation Dick Brewer and Mike Diffendefer were the two: they had different styles and we were always trying to see which was the best style to suit us. It ended up that Diffendefer was my real inspiration, but Dick Brewer is a Hawaiian, and his style spread through the whole world of surfboard shaping and a lot of people shape like him, with those flat, big, boxy rails and very clean lines. Mike Diffendefer was a real artist shaper whose shapes came from the heart: he could draw out a shape, sketch it free hand, cut it out with a saw. His boards were always more curvy and always had foiled rails and whenever I shape a board I always think of him and foil the rails like him.

Terry Fitzgerald really impressed me in how he could shape the rail on the one side, finish it totally, and then start on the other one.

Terry Fitzgerald really impressed me in how he could shape the rail on the one side, finish it totally, and then start on the other one. I couldn’t work out how he could do that, thought it was incredible. And he was doing concaves and double concaves and vees in those early days.

Another favourite of mine was Shawn Stussy, an unbelievable American artist and stylist, who made incredible boards that the whole world learnt from. One wondered where he got that from? Music, I’m sure, like ‘The Cure’ and ‘The Cars’ and that era. Shawn only shaped for about ten years and then he started his clothing brand, so obviously he needs to be doing new things the whole time - the surfboards weren’t enough.

I’ve learnt something from all the shapers in the world. I can be teaching someone to shape and they’ll do a little something that surprises me. Shapes are made up of a hundred little things and you’re always learning from somebody.

The Hawaiian surfers and surfing spirit have been a great inspiration: incredible people who are the kings of surfing as far as I’m concerned. Like the Ho family, the Kealohas, Larry Bertleman. Through them you learn what surfing really is: respect, hospitality, family orientation. We must always remember what they’ve done for surfing culture.


OLD MATES: It's important to take a break, even for passionate craftsman. Photo Pat Flanagan

Do you look to any current shapers for inspiration and ideas?

You’ve got to look at the boards shaped for the top guys in the world, see what they’re riding and pick up little things that you can add to your boards so that they improve. My favourite shaper is Jason Stephenson right now, with the foiled rails and clean curves through his boards.

I’m working on finless boards, which are good because they force surfers to surf low, giving more speed through compressing more. There’s still something missing though. There’s a lot of speed and glide but the bottom turn and off the top can still happen better, like we’ve seen with Deryk Hynd at J-Bay. The big thing is to get even more speed and to get it to hold, not slide out, and not be too stiff.

The guys have their serious boards, but there’s a time when they want to have some fun

A lot depends on the curve and I’ve put some channels and a deep vee in the bottom to hold it in. I’ve designed one on the computer and it’s looking good, but the hand-shaped one is going to be more critical, where I’ve got more control, and I can get more feel behind it. It’s a fun thing. The guys have their serious boards, but there’s a time when they want to have some fun. There’s nothing to touch the boards that Fanning, Medina, Slater and co. are surfing: those are the ultimate.

But Derek’s got something there and let’s see what happens. There’s a challenge for every shaper to design a bottom that can hold and even if the finless doesn’t work, something will come out of everybody putting all that effort into bottom design. It’s one of the steps design has taken from the single fins to twins to thrusters, and four fins even: shapers keep taking things forward which is a good thing.

 Are the boards you shape now using computer technology better than those you shaped in the past?

Yes, by far, critically. If look back to our day, like with Shaun’s boards, those blanks were so thick. You started off with a rough blank and it took you hours to get it into the shape you wanted. Today you can get your blank so close to the finished shape on computer and then you can still take it to another level once it’s been cut, so your consistency is so much better. The speed of the work is improved as well; you can do much more, probably two to four times as much in a day ... easily.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the shaping industry in South Africa and the wider world, and what are the challenges facing it at the moment?

We have many talented shapers in South Africa: the shaping industry is very good and there are lots of labels. The older shapers tend to be better but any shaper can rocket to the top if they work with talented surfers in their area. If a surfer’s going to get to the top he or she will need to take a shaper with them. South African shapers also need to travel and shape boards for the best surfers in the world or else they don’t progress: that’s their next challenge, and then go up from there. We need to get more South African surfers like Bianca and Jordy out there on the world tour. The economy is a challenge – the rand to dollar doesn’t favour us - but surfing is a continuously growing sport so people will always buy boards.


NOTHING CHANGES: Quality control at the Safari Surfboards factory in Durban. Photo Supplied

Have you had shaper apprentices who have gone on to establish themselves?

Yes, but what happens is you teach them, then they leave. Nearly every shaper in South Africa has worked with me or learnt from me at some time. Maybe one or two haven’t, but most of them have, and as you teach them, and they think they know everything, they start their own brand. That’s the way it is.

Younger shapers have got the ability, they’ve got everything, and like me, like any shaper, they can go from an average shaper to top of the world: just be passionate, work hard, remain focused, and create the opportunity to work with good surfers. It’s always a lot of hard work, and you don’t do it in a normal day: you’ve got to spend those early mornings and after hours working at it.

How did the South African Surfing Legends initiative come about and how is it going?


I am one of twenty-nine South African Surfing Legends. Those of us who were centrally involved in the period when South African surfing was very strong in the 1970s and 1980s have set up an organisational platform to see what we can do to lift South African surfing, to develop and strengthen it broadly so that more of our surfers can compete succesfully on the WQS and WCT. Some of the Legends met down in J-Bay intially and there was a lot of support, appreciation and respect shown for the initiative. Johnathan Paarman, Bruce Jackson, Marc Price, Tich Paul, were all there. The locals even let us take more than our share of waves. The experience of being with the Legends is powerful and you can feel the world class attitude and energy amongst us. We had a big gala evening in July 2015: Shaun was out as guest speaker and that really kicked things off. Shaun is very energetic and strong about developing and supporting South African surfing and the Legends. The core were Pat Flanagan and Graham Cormac, Bruce Jackson, Chris Knutson, Jason Ribbink and Carl Nielson, an accountant, and the CEO.

The coaching’s based in Durban and year round conditions here provide us with an excellent training ground. We’ve established a High Performance Surfing Academy in Durban. We helped prepare our Junior team for the ISSA games in California in October 2015. We had three events in 2016 and the highest scoring four under thirteen boys, four under 16 boys and four under sixteen girls attended an intensive four day coaching course which included surf coaching, video analysis, judging, diet, sports psychology and fitness.

We’ve had pro surfers going on the tour and when they come back they’re often not doing anything with their experience, after all that expense: that’s money wasted. It’s a business - you should be able to make money out of it by the time you come back. So if the Legends stand by them, then they know. Our surfers have to train hard and be ready for the tour, and get on the podium.

All the top surfers today have a team supporting them.

I coach the fresh youngsters regularly in Durban, teaching them to surf from the hips, like Tom Curren and Jordy: powerful and smooth. I’m also working with young South African surfers like Matt and Kirsty McGillivray. The McGillivrays are talented, clean-living and determined, and will go far. We have lots of other talented young surfers and they need to be prepared for international competition by a whole team to be winners. All the top surfers today have a team supporting them. Like Jordy Smith’s team is held together by his dad, Graham, and that’s been a big part of his success. If the Legends need to travel with our pro surfers maybe we can do that too.

The Brazilians are a good example. They have families and friends supporting them, travelling together and hanging together. They go to Hawaii and I’m sure they even have kick-boxers and heavy guys there in case they run into a little trouble– not that we’d need that. They’ve got good backing and they all support each other. If they lose they don’t leave, they stay to support each other to the very end, and it makes a big difference.

* For more on SA Surfing Legends see http://southafricansurfinglegends.com/archives/1657 

How are shapers involved?

While the Legends train and guide our young surfers, the shapers can learn from that, understand what the guys need. If a surfer has bad equipment, they need to get good equipment. Working with the best surfers can guide them in the right direction. Here’s the board in front of you: ‘Do you want more foam on here or must I take less off?’ We can see somebody who is surfing really fast, that a lot of it’s technique; but the equipment also plays a big part. It’s like Formula 1: like Mercedes is always out there leading, and the other teams have to adjust themselves to catch up. It’s a team thing: the glassing has to be good, the fin installation angles have to be good, the edges, the flex it all comes in - it’s all got to be 100%.


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