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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa

Thu, 16 February 2017

Iconic shaper Spider Murphy is regarded as a pioneer of surfboard design who has been integral to the evolution of surfing. He tells Mark Muller how it all came about. Part 1 of 2. 


LASER EYE: Machines are precise, but there's nothing like the human eye. Photo Pat Flanagan

spider-portraitDescribe your job in 10 words.

Surf, test, research, design, shape, innovate, coach, motivate, train, travel

How did you get into shaping surfboards?

I needed a board for myself so I made it. Tony Cerff used to make a few boards here in Durban in the 1950s. Tony was a lifesaver and he used to shape behind the flats on the beachfront; he had about ten to fifteen boards around, mainly in the South Beach to Addington area. But there weren't really boards available and if there were, they were too expensive. I was a sea cadet at Dolphin Surf Club on Brighton Beach, which was where I learnt to surf. There weren't leashes and when the lifesavers' boards rolled in we'd grab them, catch a few waves quickly in the foamies, then paddle them back out to them. Sometimes the boards would be damaged or broken, and I learnt to fix dings. The boards were so big and heavy then, and I wanted a smaller board: that was what inspired me to make my own.

‘It was 1963, I was 16, and I used fridge foam and kitchen tools.’

So I just took it on. It was 1963, I was sixteen, and I used fridge foam and kitchen tools. I set up in my Mom's garage in Brighton Beach, bought three blocks of styrofoam, placed a wooden stringer down the middle and glued it all together with cascamite, a water-based glue. I used my Mom's bread knife to cut out the plan shape, a cheese grater to do the rails, and sandpaper to finish it off. I used to get epoxy resin from Dura products on the corner near the Butterworth Hotel: then I glassed it with the epoxy, and two days later I was surfing. My first board was 9 foot long and 21.5” wide. From that day I learnt that you can always make a plan.

The guys started asking me to make them surfboards. My Mom insisted that I finish my trade as a carpenter, where I learnt about the tools, while making boards at night and weekends. Eventually I couldn't keep up, and so I had to tell my boss I was leaving.


OLD SCHOOL: The original Spider signature from back in the day. Photo Supplied

Then in 1969, I started War Surfboards with Lynton Ryan. This was when the light surfboards started coming in and we were making stringerlesses with single fins, and twin fins, and also the three fins, with a single box in the middle and two small side fins. It bounced all around and eventually it went back to the single. Even though I hadn't made a lot of boards, I started making boards for guys like Mike Esposito and Willy Sills. Lynton lost interest and decided he wanted out so we only went for three years at War Surfboards.

In 1972, I went in with Graham and Lorraine Hynes at Safari Surfboards. Max Wetteland and Baron Stander used to own Safari; Tony Cerff shaped for them. Max quit to start Wetteland Surfboards, but Baron stayed on when Graham came in with Joe Moore. Baron and Joe also left later, then it was only Graham. There was competition between Wetteland and Safari as Max was quite a hard competitor.

I'd only been at Safari about six months, and didn't really know that much about shaping yet, when all of a sudden the cousins Shaun and Michael Tomson won contests in the Natal Championships, and their prizes were Safari surfboards. I made them their prizes, they tested them, were impressed with their performance, and that's how they started with me, becoming my team riders.

When did you start using polyurethane blanks?

Tony Cerff used that brown foam for a long time, which was horrible. Max Wetteland and Baron started making F-types out of styrofoam in about 1962 at Safari. Graham Hynes was blowing Foss foam and then started buying Walker Blanks from Max, but then there was a disagreement and he stopped. Graham had to go to Australia to find a foam supplier, Bennett, and then he started Bennett foam in South Africa. Polyurethane blanks were being made in the USA but we couldn't really get them here. John Whitmore was blowing Clark foam in Cape Town, so we used to buy his foam: some of his blanks were used to make Shaun's early boards.


PIPELINE PRO: Shaun Tomson on a banana. He and Spider go way back. Photo Dan Merkel

When you went in with Graham, was he paying you as a shaper or did you have shares in the business?

When I started off I was basically working for him shaping, and then I helped out with all the different parts of the business, the glassing and the colour, as a team-player. The shaping was the main thing, and when I joined the business it expanded as well, and started to take off. Orders multiplied and with Shaun coming on the business kept growing the whole time. Eventually they gave me shares. Together we became the biggest surfboard manufacturer in South Africa.

Shaun won the Gunston 500 for the first time in 1973 on your board, when he was 17, and went on to win it another five times on your boards. He won twelve other events around the world on your boards, and won the world title on your boards. How did your relationship with Shaun progress?

‘... with their feedback I fine-tuned them, helping to take their surfing to the next level.’

We had amazing surf in Durban during the winters of 1974 and 1975. I was shaping boards for Shaun and Michael, and with their feedback I fine-tuned them, helping to take their surfing to the next level. The cousins were able to develop their tube riding and rode barrels at the Bay of Plenty like never before. In Hawaii in 1975 they made their mark on the surfing world and Shaun won the Pipeline Masters, and in 1976 became the first South African World Champion. He's still a surfing icon the world over. This paved the way for us to start shaping surfboards for most of the top surfers in the world.

Shaun always wanted me to surf with him to experience how important it is to feel and see the surfboard shape on the waves, which proved to be the best advice for my shaping career: I still do it to this day. My own level of surfing grew so fast that I won Natal and South African Masters Champs competitions, and went on to get my Springbok colours.
I remember one day when it must have been about eight to ten feet at the Bay of Plenty and Shaun said I must come out with him. I thought ‘I'm the shaper, I better get out there'. There were these ruler straight waves and we paddled out together. I was behind and got caught inside by some sets and then paddled through from right on the inside. As I paddled out, I remember him pulling into the barrel and coming past me, nearly touching me, going on and on.

The Bay was almost perfect in those days, like Supertubes at J-Bay, and it stayed open, which was amazing. I've had excellent waves at Tamarind Bay in Mauritius, but those Bay days were the most exciting ever for me. There were days when it would drop to four-six feet and it was still amazing, seeing Shaun perfecting the barrel. He'd pull into one that looked like a close out and you'd wonder where he was, and then he pops up alongside you like a submarine popping out the water: he's pushed under with that kick out through the back of the wave.


PINK AND BLUE: Shaun's Hawaii quiver circa 1975. Photo Jeff Divine

I'd make Shaun a set of boards for Hawaii but he would also get one or two boards from the guys there. I hadn't been to Hawaii yet and he explained to me about the conditions. Mostly, our boards worked there but for some of the very big conditions, like out at Sunset, he'd get boards from other guys, and he'd bring one or two back and get me to look at them, to refresh…he'd have my boards there and talk to other shapers and try to get as much out of them as possible, and then bring his knowledge back to me.

He liked his single fins but later did very well on twin fins too. He maybe stayed on the twins too long, but I made him some good thrusters and he won competitions on those too, like the Stubbies in Australia.

One wonders what would have happened if Shaun and Mark Richards and Simon Anderson hadn't have been around. Three key figures, with important developments that progressed surfing more than anything or anybody in the modern era. Where would we have been today? I'm sure the developments and progress we've made since wouldn't have been so rapid.

What happened to the famous ‘pink banana' that you shaped for Shaun for Hawaii? Shaun said that he never lost it once on take-off at Pipe on that board.

It's apparently buried somewhere in Haleiwa. The guys in those days had all these amazing boards but they would trade them in. We still make exact replicas of that board, which was 7'10" x 18.5" x 3.0". It had extra curve, a concave under the front foot, a vee in the back third and it had double concave inside the vee panel. It was actually quite a modern shape, even the curve. If you took the curve and placed the centre of a modern six foot board on that board's curve, it would fit – quite amazing.


JUST TESTING: It's useful when surfboard shapers know how to surf a bit. Photo Pat Flanagan

What was special about the blue and white boards he surfed so well in the tube at Off the Wall during the same period?

Those boards were also designed at the Bay of Plenty barrels. Shaun would use a 6'8" as a short board and then he'd use a 7'0" for the barrel days, and the really big days when it was ten foot plus, he'd use a 7'6". The 7'6" he'd take to Sunset and then the seven footer was used for Off the Wall. That was a pulled in pin tail. And then the same concept as the Pipe board: concave under the front foot, vee in the back third, also double-concaves as well. That concave under his front foot he used for driving though the barrel. That worked almost like a saucer and as he went you could see him weaving in the barrel. The single fin was there just to stop the tail from sliding out, but the rails and the concave were the big things. I also still make replicas of those today.

So this has really been a winning working relationship with Shaun, the key to your development as a shaper?

Shaun was very, very loyal to me. He inspired me more than anybody really, because of his interest. He was very on time with appointments with me: if it was three o clock he'd be there at three exactly, not five minutes after - on the dot. That's how he was. When we tried a new board out, either way, if the board worked or not, he'd come see me straight after and let me know how it went. It was such a professional way of doing it. I would get up at 3 o'clock in the morning for Shaun and do his boards while nobody was around. That attitude of trying your hardest and being kind and fair to everybody: that's the way Shaun is.

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

But he's a very tough competitor. When it comes to fighting for his position in the line-up, he stands his ground. Sometimes it gets a bit embarrassing and I've got to paddle away because I know the guy he's having a thing with. Like he came out to South Africa a few months ago, and I made him some boards: we went and did a training session with my team of youngsters - they were so stoked - and he surfed that little session just like a heat.

‘If this happens again, I think we're going to clash.’

He knew exactly where the waves were and he went and sat there and waited. A longboarder came along and he looked at the guy; the guy paddled on his inside, and Shaun looked at him some more, and of course the longboarder caught the wave easily and was back out there again, and Shaun says to him. ‘If this happens again, I think we're going to clash'. That was it. He pushed the longboarder out of position and when the next wave came he was on it: he got the best waves in that session out of everybody. And that's how he works – like clockwork. He goes to J-Bay, it's the same thing: he sits there and he waits. He'll surf all day and that's his routine: very professional, and when he's out there he means business.

I respect all the surfing champions and they were all very similar in ways. Kelly Slater is a normal guy, but incredible, and even little things are a challenge for him. I made him some boards and we were trying these Dean Geraghty swivel fins. I took the board out and when I wanted to put the fins in Kelly said he wanted to do it: he struggled with it and when I offered to help he insisted on doing it himself. He also wanted a Pottz twin fin, so I made him one and I had it ready for him at J-Bay. He pitched up one night where we were staying, clambering up the ballast to get into our place. He took it away and rode it unbelievably…you've never seen anyone ride a twin fin like that. He wanted to ride it in the J-Bay Pro but the waves were a little big for the board. He still has that board in California.

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