A Crossroads for Sur­fcraft

What does a glob­al­ized surf­board market mean for the fu­ture of our cul­ture?

Surfer - - Contents - By JUSTIN HOUSMAN

What does a glob­al­ized surf­board market mean for the fu­ture of our cul­ture?

The prov­ince of Non­thaburi, Thai­land, lies just north of Bangkok and for many years the area has mostly been known for pro­duc­ing durian, a thorny-rind-cov­ered fruit that tastes very good, but smells so much like rot­ten garbage that it’s banned from many ho­tels and forms of pub­lic tran­sit across South­east Asia. In re­cent decades, com­mer­cial sprawl spread­ing out from Bangkok has crept into Non­thaburi, with con­do­mini­ums, of­fice tow­ers and in­dus­trial parks sprout­ing everywhere. The city of Non­thaburi, the prov­ince’s ur­ban cen­ter, is re­ally just a sub­urb of Bangkok, and home to some 265,000 peo­ple liv­ing along the wind­ing Chao Phraya River as it snakes its way south, drain­ing into the Bay of Thai­land.

Ev­ery sin­gle day, some of those 265,000 peo­ple, who may have once worked har­vest­ing and pack­ag­ing smelly-but-de­li­cious durian, now head into the city’s in­dus­trial park to join a man­u­fac­tur­ing as­sem­bly line build­ing a prod­uct most of the work­ers know lit­tle about, save as­sem­bly in­struc­tions, and few, if any, will ever use. Those products are some of the world’s most tech­no­log­i­cally-ad­vanced surf­boards, built at Firewire’s Non­thaburi fac­tory.

Firewire’s Thai­land plant is a mas­sive, 98,000-square-foot fa­cil­ity com­posed of two sep­a­rate build­ings that sit some 100 me­ters apart. Work­ers, fork­lifts and load­ing trucks scram­ble everywhere. It’s loud. Six huge com­puter nu­mer­i­cal con­trol (CNC) ma­chines con­stantly whine as they saw their way through ex­panded poly­styrene foam blanks (the kind that looks like Sty­ro­foam) that will even­tu­ally be­come surf­boards un­der the Firewire, Slater De­signs, and Tomo De­signs la­bels. There is a sep­a­rate room for blank pro­duc­tion; Firewire doesn’t blow their own foam there but they do in­sist on as­sem­bling the con­stituent parts of what can some­times be very com­pli­cated and un­con­ven­tional blanks. An­other room houses the ma­chines for vacuum seal­ing fin­ished boards.

The state-of-the-art fac­tory em­ploys 300 Non­thaburi­ans, and they’d prob­a­bly be sur­prised to learn that the surf­boards they pro­duce are “Chi­nese popouts” (“popout,” of course, be­ing the deroga­tory term for surf­boards made in large quan­ti­ties over­seas, mostly through the aid of ma­chines). Or at least they are ac­cord­ing to many do­mes­ti­cally-pro­duced surf­board sup­port­ers in the U.S., dis­dain­ful of the mass-pro­duced im­ports shipped to Amer­i­can surf shops. For Amer­i­can work­ers whose liveli­hoods de­pend on a thriv­ing surf­board in­dus­try here in the States, im­ported surf­boards are per­ceived as an ex­is­ten­tial threat.

As this piece is be­ing writ­ten, in fact, Peter Schroff, a surf­board shaper/per­for­mance artist in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia is us­ing his so­cial me­dia ac­counts to play­fully mock Mark Price, CEO of Firewire, and Kelly Slater, part-owner of Firewire, as greedy cap­i­tal­ists for pro­duc­ing surf­boards in Thai­land, where they save huge amounts of money in la­bor costs. Schroff is cer­tainly not alone.

An In­sta­gram mu­sic video from a San Cle­mente-based surf­board com­pany called Edit Surf­boards is cur­rently be­ing shared thou­sands of times over. The video, backed by a catchy pop-punk theme song, curses surf­boards made by Firewire and Hay­den­shapes (also made in Thai­land), among other mass-man­u­fac­tured surf­board com­pa­nies, for be­ing “made in China.” A crude plea to draw at­ten­tion to the plight of do­mes­tic board­mak­ers.

Misat­tributed Asian coun­tries aside, many do­mes­tic surf­board mak­ers—and the cot­tage in­dus­try of glassers, san­ders, air­brush­ers and mom and pop surf shops they sup­port—are con­cerned about the in­tru­sion of im­ported surf­boards, es­pe­cially as those boards have in­creased in qual­ity and ac­cep­tance. Where it was once con­sid­ered the height of un­cool­ness to walk across the sand with a ma­chine-made board from over­seas, most surfers don’t think twice about own­ing a board like that to­day. Many in the do­mes­tic surf­board busi­ness feel the rug be­ing pulled from be­neath them. They don’t think surfers or the surf me­dia are pay­ing enough at­ten­tion. Over­seas board builders, mean­while, are excited about ex­pand­ing their busi­nesses, mak­ing surf­board shap­ing more ef­fi­cient, and bring­ing high-qual­ity boards to the surf­ing pub­lic at more af­ford­able prices.

The fu­ture of the surf­board in­dus­try in the U.S. is murky, to say the least, but what’s clear is that the market is rapidly chang­ing, and surfers are be­gin­ning to ask them­selves some hard ques­tions about what they value when it comes to buying a surf­board. Do we let market forces run their course and em­brace more-ef­fi­ciently-made craft at the low­est pos­si­ble price? Or do we value the cul­ture around do­mes­tic board build­ing enough to sup­port it into the fu­ture?

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