Stepping into liquid with Glass Tiger Surfboards

Since I started to understand a bit more about myself, about the people and the different environments around me, I developed some new skills and worked on some old ones in order to try and embrace even more the impermanence of the world we live in. Although I am aware this is only another stage of what I feel will be a lifelong inner journey, I can already see and feel some interesting changes. For instance, I am now fully aware that I don’t have many certainties in my life anymore and I often wonder whether I ever had any! A few years ago, after going through major changes of direction in my personal and work life, desperately trying to follow my inner compass, I suddenly found myself in a new place where comfort only appeared a disguise for discomfort and reference points just an illusion for what I could not understand back then, will always change.

For several years, one of my “alleged” certainties was that I could live 12 months a year in the mountains – just think about the title of this blog – without missing the water too much. Well, it turns out that it’s not actually true or at least not any more. Although I have always knew that water was my element, and that since I was a small child I have always felt I had a special connection with it, a couple of decades ago when I was in my teens and discovered snowboarding and the magical vertical world of the high mountains, I became obsessed with it and with the thought of living full time in the hills.

Woolacombe, North Devon

Surfing definitely helped me reconnecting with the sea and with water in its liquid format in general. If I think about it I find it rather odd that a skilled all around slider like me temporarily lost his connection with the water, the perfect element to slide on! I have hugely enjoyed sliding on frozen water for years but for a very long time my little voice has been telling me I was missing a different way of sliding. When the time was right, a few years ago, surfing opened up to me a complete new world of sliding. I discovered how many different ways we have to access the amazing Ocean environment, using whatever shape or sized equipment it might take to have a more connected ride. The simple and purposeless act of sliding across the water because the wave is shaped and gravity takes its course – that is why I surf. It puts a very big smile on my face. I don’t usually surf big waves, I don’t look for a challenge when I am out in the water but rather I try to be in harmony with the sea. I am sure it goes without saying that it’s a lot easier to connect to the Ocean when surfing 2-3 foot waves when it’s calm and glassy than when surfing 10 foot ones in strong winds!

I spent the southern hemisphere winter of 2008 in Australia, teaching in a ski resort, Mt Buller, in the state of Victoria, about 3 hours’ drive north east of Melbourne. After the season which was an absolute blast, I decided to drive to the Sunshine Coast and spend some time in Noosa, a mecca for longboarding. Its multiple surf breaks are some of the best ones on the planet and as a result of that some of the finest longboarders in the world chose to live there. Tom Wegener, Belinda Baggs, Dan Peterson.. just to mention a few. One day I was out on my own surfing having great time catching super long waves and sharing them with a couple of dolphins when all of a sudden I see this guy standing on a board with a strange looking paddle in his hands paddling away. My first reaction was – what is he doing paddling on a surfboard?! For only the second time in my life I had somebody in front of me using equipment I wasn’t familiar with. At the same time though, it was one of the most inspiring moments of my life, certainly a pivotal moment which had a very big impact on my relationship with surfing and the sea. I had just discovered a new way to slide on water which at that time I could only imagine how perfectly would have suit my nature.

I am not just an outdoors enthusiast, I am also a thinker and because of my contemplative nature I always try to find new ways to be out there enjoying the fresh air possibly doing physical exercise at a slow pace. It doesn’t matter whether I am climbing a mountain or paddling in the sea, the destination is not the reason I am out there. It’s all about the journey for me. I like having the time to look around and immerse myself, mind and body, in the surroundings as much as possible. Watching this guy paddling away floating almost effortless on the pristine calm water of Tea Tree Bay, looking around and ahead of him towards the horizon it looked like the most stylish meditative endeavor I had ever seen. What I felt reminded me a lot what happened when I saw somebody on a snowboard for the first time. It was 1988, I was 13 years old and although I didn’t even know if that was a sport and how to call it, I knew that I wanted to slide sideways on what it looked like a skateboard without the wheels just like the guy in front of me was doing.

What really helps in Stand Up Paddle boarding (SUP) is that, at least for the first few times, it’s a lot easier than surfing. Provided you can achieve a reasonable balance standing up right on the board, the least amount of fitness would give you an almost instant success in terms of standing up and paddle, which to keep things simple and not too philosophical is what it’s all about! Then from there to feel a bit more confident and stable you obviously need time and a very good fitness level to be able to paddle longer than 15 minutes but at least it’s easy to start, heaps easier comparatively to surfing. If performed correctly keeping a good posture, SUP is an amazing full body work out: ankles, calf muscles, quadriceps, abs, core, arms, shoulders.. almost every single muscle of the body is engaged. The aspect that makes it such a special way of exercising is that the paddling motion must be performed while you try to balance yourself on the board which, especially at the beginning, it’s already a fairly challenging task on its own!

Paddling on a glorious summer sunny morning in front of one my favorite places in the whole world – Saunton Sands, North Devon.

The main difference between traditional surfing and SUP is that with the addition of a paddle to your water equipment, you can travel, you can actually moving on the water, watching the landscape changing all around you from a very privileged point of view comparatively to other paddle sports like kayak for instance.

This is really the aspect of the paddling that really appeals to me the most on different levels – the freedom that gives me to wander around the sea having virtually no restrictions about where to go. Okay, a kayak would allow me a very similar type of freedom, true; but the kayak is not a board, and I am a board person. It just shows how well SUP truly combines the world of paddling and the one of surfing providing me with this immense liberating feeling, giving me a sense of peace and allowing me to be alone in the Ocean finding solitude when I need it. Going into the ocean will make you feel better. Even if it’s a bit cold or cloudy and grey or it’s you who feel cloudy and grey inside, go into the sea, it will make you feel better, guaranteed!

It’s time to introduce you to my SUP board.

It’s 10,6” long, 4” thick, 30” wide and yes, parts of it are made of different types of wood. The lighter top part is made of mahogany; the other darker smaller portion towards the tail is made with walnut and the rails of chestnut. They are obviously only veneers. The core of the board is made of recycled EPS, Expanded polystyrene. It is a rigid and tough, closed-cell foam usually white and made of pre-expanded polystyrene beads which is the typical material used to shape surfboards. The main issue with it is that no known microorganism has yet been shown to biodegrade polystyrene, and as a result it is often abundant as a form of pollution in the outdoor environment, particularly along beaches and waterways. Hence the need to try and recycle it.

When I started researching about different SUP boards, I knew since day one that there was no way I was going to buy an off the shelve factory board. I knew I wanted something special, something bespoke, made using non-toxic and more environmentally friendly materials that would last a lifetime. Remember my philosophy? buy less, buy better. I was lucky enough to come across Mark Roberts and his incredibly stylish boards. Mark lives in Falmouth, Cornwall and has been shaping surf boards for a few years. Calling him a shaper is a serious understatement. He is an artist. He is obviously a great shaper, but he is also a woodworker, a craftsman and a designer.

When we spoke for the first time he confessed that, although he was really interested in helping me, he had never shaped an SUP board before, which immediately made the whole project more interesting. I love going into a new project being aware that I don’t know much about it but at the same time being excited about learning along the way and having the confidence to trust the people I am sharing it with. It didn’t take me much to trust Mark. A good look at the boards he has been making so far was enough. So we both did some research on design and materials and about a week later after we spoke we had a plan.

The board and the shaper taking pride.

Mark buys all the wood he needs from local timber merchants that are supplied by sustainability managed forests, and if possible the wood is locally grown. A good example is the wood he usually uses for the rails, typically made from Cornish hard woods. Mark’s practical and sensible approach when tackling environmental issues doesn’t stop there.

His boards are constructed in such a way that they are strong enough without having to be glassed. A typical surfboard relies on a glass fiber laminated shell (which is toxic) to provide the strength and ding resistance it needs. The combination of woods Mark uses for the construction of his boards provides them the necessary strength which means that they don’t need to be glassed but simply treated with multiple coats of a very durable oil based varnish that penetrates the wood giving an extremely durable finish. Just a couple of examples.

This is the “Waltz”, the ultimate super cruiser modelled from the 1960’s traditional longboards.

and this is the “Rocket”, a classic fish board

Mark is one of the very few shapers I know of who decided not to compromise his “green” principles and follow the way everyone else out there has been shaping surf boards for decades, using toxic, non-biodegradable materials. Since he started shaping boards he put loads of time and effort in studying wood properties, researching and testing in order to find the best type of wood to use for the different portions of the board and the results are impressive. It’s so inspiring to see somebody like Mark who has been able to combine his passion, skills and principles and achieve such remarkable and amazingly inspiring results

Why wood? I could not agree more with the choice Mark made years ago about using wood. I think it makes perfect sense. I have always been fascinated by trees. I love skiing and walking through them, climbing them, finding shelter under their leaves when it’s hot in the summer or when it rains. I believe we depend on trees quite as much as rivers and the sea. Roger Deakin writes in Wildwood – A Journey through Trees: “Our intimate relationship with tress is physical, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, as well as cultural and spiritual. It is through trees that we see and hear the wind, that we notice the changing seasons and we can therefore tell the time of year by them. Nothing can compete with these remarkable organisms for signaling the changes in the natural world. The Chinese count wood as the fifth element and Jung considered tress an archetype.”

Although, sadly, like water even woods have been disappearing for years in order to make more room for roads, buildings and the modern world in general, I believe that the magic of the trees and wood remains and still touches most of us not far beneath the surface of our daily lives.

For more info about Mark and his amazing boards, please visit his website:

http://www.glass-tiger.com/index.php

And if you have been thinking about buying a surf board, I sincerely hope that after reading this post you will talk to Mark and ask him to shape one just for you!

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