Bert’s Back

The man who lit Firewire’s flame has some new plans

"This is what I've been doing all my life, man," says Bert Burger, "just cruising up and down the coast looking for waves and sleeping in my van."

It's an Australian spring afternoon and after a few hours' trying, Surfing magazine has tracked Burger down in the north coast town of Ballina - at a skatepark.

Bert - tall, gangly and just past 40 years of age - is wearing skate pads and a coat of sweat after three hours zooming round the park. This after a long surf in the morning, followed by a sleep in the back of his van.

It's an unconventional sort of day for a grown man; but Bert's an unconventional human. The bloke whose boardmaking techniques formed the basis for Firewire - and who left the company a year later - thinks different seemingly by habit.

Bert is on a brief holiday before heading back to Thailand, where he's been busy setting up a factory base for the second coming of his pre-Firewire brand, Sunova.

Back in 2005, Sunova was a home brand for custom orders. Now it seems Burger has learned some business lessons himself. He plans to take Sunova into the global market, manufacturing and selling stock models and custom orders worldwide out of the Thai factory, and projecting numbers of up to 20,000 down the track.

Burger's innovative approach to the craft has seen him painted as a "boardmaker's boardmaker", the little-man inventor who fell foul of Firewire's investors. Ironically his plan for Sunova involves large-scale production in Asia, a move that's been alternately sneered and groaned at by old school surfers and boardmakers both in the US and Australia.

"I've been told it's selling out," says Burger, "but I always say to people who tell me that: 'Have you tried to start a surfboard building company lately?' There's a no-man's-land now with boardmaking. You're either making {{{100}}} boards a week or 10 - if you're in between that, you fight to survive.

"I want to make these boards for surfers everywhere, not just at home."

The trend toward mass surfboard production is gathering pace, with ever-bigger profits being realised by mass operators - and by their name model designers, whose royalties are beginning to reach pro-surfer-salary status. Sunova's hopes of 20,000 are just a drop in the bucket when compared with figures of {{{300}}},000 and more coming out of Thailand's Cobra, who produce Surftech's and GSI's ranges.

Burger's vision for Sunova is being backed by some serious investors, including Australian shopping-center millionaire Peter Lowy - and by himself. "I've got everything I own in this," he says, "my house, the lot. And I've talked some good friends into putting everything they own into it too.

He sees the boards as being intricate, super-quality versions of the balsa rail stringered, foam sandwiched epoxy model that became Firewire. "These are going to be a {{{Ferrari}}} of boards...for guys who know what they want."

Firewire team rider Taj Burrow

He walks to his van, opens the back door and begins pulling out some recent equipment. There's a total balsa-veneer mini-mal: "My son started making this when he was 10 - he finished it at 12. It's actually two boards that he's fitted together."

Next to it is a fascinating combination board: a parabolic-railed, Corecell-decked roundtail with a bottom layer of thin balsa veneer. Bert demonstrates the flex by gently pushing it deck-down onto the grass - it snaps back into place with no apparent flaw. "The bottom and the deck layers have different flexes," he explains.

Who knows how many variants he'll end up offering through Sunova when its online ordering system is up and running. Bert figures that's still a few months off. By then he's hoping to have a number of other surfboard designers and pro surfers involved in the label, contributing model designs and custom work.

Meanwhile, in a couple of days it's back to Thailand - and no more surf-skate van trips for quite a while. "Oh well," he says hopefully, "Indo's not far off."