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bc_logoUnpublished interview with our man Bob – over in the UK a couple of years ago to shape some boards at Laminations in St Agnes…

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of meeting legendary tribal elder, shaper and surfer, Bob Cooper, who was in the UK to shape some custom surfboards at the Beach Beat factory in St Agnes. It was his first time over here since a brief stint at Bilbo surfboards in 1968. He sported a fine beard and a stylish trim back in the day (I can’t vouch for how often his beard was groomed, but he sure could hang ten) – shaping and surfing with such luminaries as Skip Frye, George Greenough, Miki Dora and Bob McTavish. While the waves failed to deliver during his stay, he continues to surf and churn out an alarming number of boards. The following interview was conducted for Stranger magazine, but was never published – all I had to do was get a few words out of him about temptation, but what follows is our conversation, which due to my amateur journalistic skills turned into more of a chat than an interview…

cooper41What are you doing in the UK?
I’ve been working for Laminations because of my connection with Chops. What I’m interested in doing is catering for the older guys, or the newer guys who are just starting out, who are (let’s say) handicapped with older age, delayed reflexes and body balance shifting; in other words, the problems old people have to deal with. Young people don’t understand, they’re made of rubber bands and everything works for them. When you get older things don’t work out quite so well, to the point of sometimes not working at all (laughs). The idea is to give them a product that doesn’t handicap them, and I’m not thinking of a longboard, which is immediately what people think of when an older person walks in…

So you’re working on shorter boards?
Yes. Well, they’ve done that. They’ve learnt that and want to go somewhere else. The initial problems of becoming old are you don’t have the muscle power, the paddle power, the stamina or the aggressive desire- which goes with age too: you become more mellow and don’t have to catch every wave or impress anybody. So your body weight shifts, generally around to your hips and your stomach, your reflexes slow down considerably and you have difficulty finding the hotspot if you’re riding a 6’3” potato chip. When those equations vanish you’re stuck with riding a malibu. But you don’t have to be, and that is my message to Europe. What I’ve done in Australia is come up with a line of boards that are fast, responsive; give you the feeling that you are doing something and surfing contemporary, and that there are huge possibilities with what you are riding. You are not handicapped by paddling, stability, speed or reaction problems that are inbuilt with the malibu boards. I’ve limited all that. Essentially what I’ve done is come up with a line of boards that are wider, thicker, slightly longer, and have all these conveniences built in.

What I’ve also seen is a lot of younger guys who are forced almost seemingly by peer group pressure, or the desire not to be seen as a goon, riding boards that are totally wrong for them…

As in boards too small for their ability?
Yeh, you know, in addition to their bodyweight they’ve got 5 pounds of rubber (once it’s wet) on top of a 2 and a 1/4” thick by 6’3” potato chip. Wow, they’re really stacking the odds against them! The unfinished contemporary young surfer wants to ride what Kelly rides, no matter what his ability. And, of course, if Kelly shows up and surfs Perranporth he’s riding what he normally rides, and the young guys think, ‘if he can do it, I can do it’, but I’m sorry, you’re talking about a freak here!

cooper6You set up Bob Cooper surfboards in 1970, but how long have you been making boards?
Historically, I’ve been making boards for 50 years. Right now I’m a boutique shaper: I shape my boards, I glass and finish them; nobody touches them but me. This is in Australia. I do one-offs on an individual basis and I’m there for the whole process because I’ve learnt it all. I’m a professional at anything having done this all my life. So, I can do it all and I enjoy it all too. I don’t do many a week, but I find I’m answering a big market over there because we have many surfers back in the water on retirement, recalling their youth. Physically, things are failing them and this is what I feel I am addressing.

I understand you’ve been using a shaping machine at Laminations
Oh, well I know the dimensions of the shapes that are working over there, and why they are working. Having watched the surf over here, there are minor interpretations, but essentially what’s working there will work here too. Going up to, say, a 6’8” by 23.5”, 3.25”, 4 fin; which is a totally contemporary design. We’re still tightening up the 4-fin design and I’ve come over here and seen a lot of variations on it. The scene over here is very complete; you have excellent quality manufacturing. Working with the guys over at Laminations, I’m impressed with the quality of their work, their understanding of the materials and the whole process I’ve seen. Looking in the shops, the quality of the boards is excellent and the designs are generally pretty much as I expect; nobody seems to be addressing this one particular niche that I’m looking at, so I feel good about that.

Have you been in the water since you’ve been here?
No, it hasn’t been attractive to me at all. I live in Queensland where the water gets no lower than 62 degrees (laughs). I brought a lot of rubber over with me but there has to be really tempting surf for me to put all this stuff on! I have looked though and I almost did it.

When were you last over here?
In 1968, when there was one surfboard manufacturer in the UK, which was Bilbo, and that was the whole surf scene. And I come back and there’s a surf shop on every corner in Newquay, not that they’re selling any surfboards; they’re selling the image, which is the same worldwide now.

What are your feelings on the way surfing has grown since the pre-Gidget era?
Well, like anything that receives public recognition and is suddenly exposed to the outside world, you are also exposed to the corruption of the outside world. Before, we were very much soul surfers, and as soon as Gidget hit the corruption started creeping in. And with the advent of, we’ll say, the major corporations, who at their soul were wave riding based, they are no longer even though they might claim it. Their essential hierarchies are all extremely well educated: company directors, advertisers, etc. who may have some association with actually riding a surfboard on a wave, but it is not necessary now because of the corporate intervention. The amount of money involved in the industry is too large to be left to surfers, even though the original directors or those who started it are still surfing. All that matters now is an understanding of the buying public.

There has been something of a revival or interest in old boards such as single and twin fins. Younger shapers are looking back to an era you were involved in to move forwards- having been through it all, how often do you refer to these old designs?

What you are saying is interesting, because I find myself referring back to the fifties when we were experimenting with twin fins. Twin fins went through two evolutionary processes: the original twin fins, and then probably ten years later that they came back again. In what I am doing now, I find that I do go back to things that worked back then in combination with what we know now; contemporary rockers, flow concaves, planshapes, lower dome rails, knife edges; all those things are definitely proven factors. Then we can combine those elements with slightly different rockers in order to extend those turns. Older guys aren’t interested in hitting the lip or sliding the fins out; they would like to get more distance out of their turns and generate speed, so that requires a different planshape.

Who do you feel has influenced your surfing and shaping the most?
I think one of the great things about surfing is you never conquer it, so your idols are those who you feel are further down the line than you are, or those who have accomplished more than you have, and that will always exist. I surfed with Miki Dora three years ago just before he died, and I was better than he was (laughs). I didn’t like that, I wanted to continually hold him up there in the cusp of greatness, but it didn’t make any difference to either of us, and who’s to judge anyway? So what it comes down to is you look for inspiration, instruction and guidance from those you feel have that to offer. Right now I’d love to surf like Kelly but it ain’t going to happen (laughs). It’s good to keep those goals and ambitions in front of you, so you have something to strive for and a form of measurement.

What are your views on traditional versus progressive longboarding?
When I look at progressive longboarding it confuses me. What they are doing is impressive because they are overcoming inbuilt obstacles. Sometimes it looks ok, but most of the time it doesn’t- it looks forced since it doesn’t have the flow, the rhythm and the fit which longboards were designed to do. So what they are trying to do is almost a bastardisation. The grace and the flow of traditional longboarding is a dance; there is a symmetry and a synergy involved, and when you take that away you are in a compromised position, whereby if you want to do surf progressively, why don’t you ride a 6’6”?

trimThe judging criteria for most longboarding contests seem to score a turn or manoeuvre in the most critical part of the wave higher than, say, a good nose ride.
Well, a greater man than I, George Downing would grade you down, if in order to do a heavy cutback and bounce off the whitewater you didn’t make the wave. And I feel the same way too: is it about the wave, the blending, and the overall package of surfer, board and total exploitation of the wave? Or is it about the surfer contorting the visual beauty of the line in order to grind out another point, and then in fact lose the wave?

And this can apply to all forms of wave riding.
Yeh, you know, people are dazzled by Kelly, what they don’t realise is he fits whatever he is doing; he is not just doing tricks and spins and airs, he is landing them and continuing on down the line, surfing top to bottom; and he pumps that sucker until he gets speed to do something else. So it doesn’t look like a contortion.

Compared to his contemporaries he seems to be far more spontaneous and freeform with his approach to a wave; it all happens very naturally.
That’s what it looks like and that is why he is so good. People of that calibre, they don’t distort the original concept or art form or visual feast that is surfing or the observation of surfing. The young would-be’s do; they are very assaulting on the wave. And hopefully they will improve by smoothing out their assault routine.

Take, for instance, Joel Parkinson’s surfing, where many judges find it hard to distinguish the moves because it all flows so well.
They’re beautiful to watch, the contemporary shortboarders, and to get it all together with that feel is what separates them from the masses. They have maintained the art form and just moved it ahead from, say, expressionism or impressionism; from cubism to whatever; they are the leaders and are taking it there, while everybody else is filling in the numbers with whatever colours the kit says they should have.

Speaking of shortboards, were you or your contemporaries already experimenting with smaller boards before the shortboard revolution came about in the late 60’s?
Ok, this is the true story. Greenough was riding kneeboards; he has always been a kneeboarder- he stood up maybe twice or something like that. I was living in Santa Barbara at the time, and he was going extremely fast on a kneeboard. We noticed how fast he was going but we wanted to hang ten, you know, we wanted to look beautiful out there. Nobody paid any attention to him, so he did his own thing with his particular brand of hydro-dynamics. He used to do a lot of work on boats and yachts, so he put a lot of knowledge into these things he was riding: the bottom flow and release, the fins etc. He was into his own package. George is not a commercial quantity, you are not dealing with a normal person when you are dealing with George, and he maintained that during the early days in Santa Barbara.

I came to Australia and George wanted to come over, so he wrote me a letter, and I said ‘fine, this is what we can do, blah, blah, blah’. When he flew in I had to be in Sydney to judge a contest, so I had a friend pick him up. I didn’t think anything of his impact on Australia; I knew George was George, so when I came back to Alexandra headlands where my friend had picked him up, George was somewhere else. My friend says to me, ‘I couldn’t believe this guy when he got off the airplane. I said are you George Greenough, and he says, “yeh, where’s Cooper?”’ (laughs). By the time they got back from the airport, George had talked Algy (Grud) into changing the fin on his board. McTavish was with me, so by the time Chop’s brother had driven us all back, George had already started changing things around. Algy had a new Greenough fin on his board. McTavish, being the kind of person he is- very responsive, progressive and studied in terms of his board designs, came into that. He brought back a board he had won in the contest, designed by Joey Cabell, it had a rolled bottom with high edges. So he was just learning rail control at that stage, and was very satisfied with the board, riding it for another year before he started chopping things off and making them shorter; trying to decrease the arcs, like the imitation of George. It wasn’t like they conspired. McTavish just went, well in order to do that I need to make it shorter, and the influence went on from there.

cooper5Having worked with Tom Morey at Morey-Pope had you both experimented with designs?
I wasn’t into the shortboard thing. I left for California before they started chopping things down. McTavish came to the (Hawaiian) islands and rode the vee bottom at Sunset and span out; then he took them to Honalua and they worked. So he came over to California when I was working at Morey-Pope and asked me to get him a job there. Morey-Pope took one look at him and said ‘ok, we’ll see what he can do’. Greenough came along with a fin design he wanted them to put out, and McTavish shaped a shortboard with a slight vee in the tail. At that stage they were shooting the movie, Fantastic Plastic Machine up at Rincon. This Hollywood crew, the sound men, the trucks and everything, would come up and miss the surf every time, and go, ‘well, you called us up, now where’s the surf’! In the mornings these guys were out in the water absolutely firing; McTavish on his shortboard and Greenough on his kneeboard were just blowing the place apart. It was really something to see and great surfing.

There was a promotion at Pacific Beach, and McTavish was staying with me. So we drove down and Skip Frye and a bunch of other guys were out at PB point. We all went surfing, and Mac went down with this little thing under his arm, and everyone went, ‘that looks interesting’; they didn’t want to insult him but knew he couldn’t hang ten on it. Skip, a lovely guy and the reigning god at that time, was drawing these beautiful lines on the wave, and McTavish was going in front of him, behind him, beneath him and around him; all over the place! I really felt kind of embarrassed for Skip, but McTavish rode all over him with that little board. I think people at that stage went, ‘what are we seeing here?’ because visually this was a whole new picture of surfing.

And when did you start riding smaller boards?
Me? I shaped one at the same time as McTavish, but his worked so much better than mine (laughs), so I kind of left it alone for a while. A year later I returned to Australia and the whole thing was shortboards, so I just picked it up from there. It was just starting to go when I left California- the manufacturers were holding it back because they had all this stock. More than half their production was going to the east coast because surfing was just taking off there. There were warehouses full of brand new longboards and they ain’t moving, so there was a gag order in the surf magazines not to push the shortboards. They had to get rid of the longboard stock. So the underground were riding shortboards, but the general public didn’t know about it for a while.

You can read what Bob Cooper had to say about temptation in issue 15 of Stranger. Thanks to Steve and Chops at Beach Beat for setting up the interview. You can see Bob’s boards at Aggie Surf Shop, St Agnes or beachbeatsurfboards.co.uk.

Interview conducted by Nick Radford
Illustration: frootful.co.uk

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  • Bob Wightman

    Hi, My name is Bob Wightman. I went to Venice Hi School along with Bob Cooper and surfed Malibu at the same time as well. I started surfing in 1955 and we would buy our beautiful balsa boards from Velzy-Jacobs, right down in Venice by the oil wells that were still pumping. A good used board sold for around $39 and a new one for $75. We would see Velzy and Jacobs when surfing at Malibu which was the only place I surfed back then and till Aug. of 1964 when I moved to Santa Barbara and began my teaching career which lasted 41 years. I know Bob came up to Santa Barbara and worked for Yater for awhile after graduating from high school. Another one of our classmates who surfed Malibu was Hugh Foster, otherwise known as ” the Jaw”. He was a character and was a new arrival at Venice Hi in his senior year. Another one of our classmates who surfed was Mike Martin who went on to teach at the University of Colorado in Boulder. We would always love to see Bob Cooper in the surf movies at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. I still have surf bumps just under the knee joints from so much knee paddling at Malibu which I felt was necessary to gain good vantgage when taking off on a wave because of so many other people trying to get into it as well. I still have the board I made back in 1961 from a Dave Sweet foam blank that was a reject and that I bought for $20. I took it home and did some shaping and sanding, glassed it ,and rode it for years. These days I mainly surf my Ocean Kayak Scramblers. I remember our days from the 50’s at Malibu and nobody wore wetsuits back then either. It was a great era. I sure wish I’d kept a couple of those balsa boards. The new ones are beyond expensive. ‘Bye, Bob