The Self-Made Champ

Will we ever see another pro shape their way to a World Title? Matt Warshaw says no

Mark Richards, 1986 Billabong Pro. Photo: Gilley

Mark Richards, from the shaping bay to the podium in 1986, winning the Billabong Pro. Photo: Gilley

It’s been 34 years since Mark Richards earned an unprecedented fourth consecutive title on a self-shaped twinnie, the last time a pro has won a World Title on a board they made with their own two hands. Nobody’s done it since, from Tom Carroll to John Florence. As pros continue to say that molecular changes under their feet can drastically alter a season, how has the dual role of champion surfer and shaper changed? We asked Matt Warshaw for his take, and whether or not we should expect to see a surfer who makes their own boards win a Title on one anytime soon.

Will a Tour pro ever ride a self-shaped board to a World Title again?

The short answer: no, I don't think we'll ever see another Tour surfer ride to a Title on one of their own boards.

How come?

Some pros are interested in the technical and mechanical details of their boards, but most just want great boards. If your shaper can anticipate your needs, that's good enough. Pick up a stack of new boards every few weeks, toss the ones that don't work, ride the good ones ’til they break. I almost think that geeking out too much about board design can mess with your head. The elements involved are so complicated and interrelated, and the smallest change has such a huge effect—a 32nd of an inch here, an ounce of redistributed volume there. That stuff will drive you crazy. Better to mind-meld with a great shaper, the way John has with Pyzel, the way Curren did with Merrick, and let them handle the boardmaking.

Who was the last surfer to win a Tour event on a board they made?

Pretty sure it was Richie Collins, the year he won Bells. in 1992.

MR’s skill-set used to be more common, right?

A lot of the original World Tour surfers shaped. Peter Townend, Simon Anderson, of course, BK, Michael Peterson, Wayne Lynch, Bertlemann, Reno, Terry Fitz. The first year or two, probably half the guys in the Top 16 made their own boards. The funny thing is, when Mark Richards first really blew up, during the Free Ride winter and right after, he wasn't riding his own boards. Those beautiful yellow and red Lightning Bolt guns were made by Reno Abellira, and the stingers he rode were made by Ben Aipa. Not sure when it was, maybe 1977, but Mark flew to Maui after the winter season and spent a few weeks with Dick Brewer, just to work full-time on his shaping game. Came home and started making the twin-fins.

What did that shaping-bay culture consist of?

Guys in dingy safety-code-violating shaping rooms with naked-girl pics on the walls.

You mention in The Encyclopedia Of Surfing that Richards' inspiration for his twin-fins was based on his effort to keep up with smaller surfers in smaller, gutless surf. But bigger surfers like JJF, Owen Wright, and Jordy Smith can ride practically anything—radical board experimentation probably wouldn’t help them much. Would MR’s approach to self-shaped surfcraft on Tour even be advantageous anymore?

The reasoning used to be, and we're going back now 40 years or so, that nobody really understood what they were doing in the shaping room. Just throw something out there and see where it lands. Before the Thruster, there were so many half-assed design ideas getting batted around, so little understanding of really basic principals—constant rocker, volume, foil, things like that—that it just made sense for great surfers to do it themselves. In the 1970s, you really had a shot at making a great board—not cause you're a design genius, but because shit boards were the standard. At some point in the mid-'90s, rocker finally got sorted out. A few years after that, volume came into play. For 20 years now, boards have been really good. Really consistent. Improvements now are incremental. A few people still want to get in there and move things along, and that's great, but the creative margins now are so tiny. And meanwhile, 10 out of 10 pros, give or take, just want to text their board order to their shaper and surf six hours a day.

How has the surfer-shaper distinction changed?

Shaping is a full-time job. Pro surfing is a full-time job. It's almost impossible to combine the two nowadays. You either build cars, or you race them. Not both.