As you get older, I think your circle of friends diminishes until it reaches a certain solid state and you’re left with only the ones that count.
I met Lee during my first adventures around Cornwall – he was the captain of the big red shark, a towering character with a heart of gold, who loves to go sideways and sink a few ales. To this day we take jollies around the coast, donning the finest tweed attire and finding a waves fit for a true gentleman.
FOM: You’ve just read Jamail Yogis’ ‘Saltwater Buddha’ in one go in the bath with three changes of hot water according to your Facebook status…
Lee: Man, that’s a fresh book, really invigorating, gave me a real good clean between the ears.
He’s got a simple, well-paced style; it’s the sort of book that keeps in your mind for a while after reading it, there’s some lovely passages in it and some great quotes. I connected with Ariel’s song from ‘The Tempest’: “Full fathom five thy father lies…” You should set it to music Richard.
I loved Kerouac’s ‘Dharma Bums’ as an adolescent and Jamail took me back to that time where the world is there to explore, where all people are unusually interesting and where a light-stepping man has all to look forward to.
FOM: You surf, you write, you doodle, you create… Where does it come from?
Lee: From travel, that sublime state of mind where you’ve got little to do but watch and all day to do it. I love getting my internal busy-ness settled with a surf and then getting the paints out and trying to capture the vista in front of me. We’re lucky as surfers to spend time in spectacular places and when I spend an hour or so painting it imprints the scene internally. Now if I look back at some of my pictures, crap that they are, it’s enormously evoking. I can smell the ozone.
FOM: What made you want to make shorts?
Lee: Shorts are fundamental for a surfer. You need two things: a board and a pair of shorts. It’s not like other sports where everyone tries to outdo each other with technology – though a lot of people try – making shorts with NASA-inspired anti-grav technology. I just wanted a really tough pair of shorts that lasted. When I was a kid I always had clothes that I loved the age of, my scruffy shoes that seemed to get better over time, or my jeans that frayed and bleached. Now people buy jeans pre-frayed! WTF?
I wanted a pair of shorts that reflected my essence of surfing – carefree, simple, practical, understated. All those new-fangled shorts just seemed to detract from that. So when I couldn’t find a pair I thought I’d have a go at making some.
It’s typical of me, I think I can do anything and then realise what skills are needed. I spent hours trying to master a sewing machine before I met a lovely lady who worked in Savile Row and really taught me some things about textiles. She’s brilliant and now makes up every pair by hand. The process to get the right shape through the changes in size is incredible – nearly every pair is designed on card before being cut out to ensure a comfortable even shape. Man, I want to get a suit made in Savile Row now.
FOM: How did you first stumble across Ventile?
Lee: Low Pressure made some really functional clothes; they tried a snowboard jacket out of Ventile some years ago that I really liked. I wondered if Ventile made a lighter-weight cloth suitable for boardshorts and looked into it. When I found out how it was made and the history I was sold…
1n 1942 Winston Churchill ordered scientific boffins to create a material that was soft enough for pilots to dogfight in yet would be tough enough to protect them from the cold water if they went for a burton (crashed into the sea). They came up with a really elegant solution – use top grade cotton to make the finest tightest weft. It wasn’t cheap, but it has passed the test of time. Fliers still use it because it’s natural, breathable and light. It’s the perfect material for boardshorts, super-soft when dry, super-tough when wet. It fades really nice, and like denim gets softer with age.
FOM: You’re a well-travelled man; you must have seen, met and conversed with many a great cat. Any stand outs?
Lee: It’s funny how people can give you messages that you don’t get until much later; sometimes friends, sometimes strangers. I did some interviews with surfers before, and I think they all gave me an insight in some way. I call those messengers ‘ghosts’ – they stick in your heart and give you a realisation.
Tony Hussein died last year – he was an Aussie adventurer who got washed up in the Maldives after a hellish yacht trip across the Indian Ocean. He stayed for life, marrying a local girl and taking on Islam. He was so mellow, he taught me that when you know when you are happy, stay. When I met him he had very few possessions – a couple of boards, a few t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a little CD player and some discs. He was living at Pasta Point looking after the surfers that came through. He smiled all day long.
Robert August has a house above Tamarindo – I visited him and asked him about his life. He seemed really grounded, settling nicely into being a ‘Patrician of Surfing’, a humorous gentle ambassador of the sport. He had a restaurant once called ‘The Endless Summer’ but he didn’t enjoy dealing with drunk people. I often think about him telling me that now that I am a chef and publican.
Captain Zero, aka Patrick, was living in Puerto Viejo. Allan Weisbecker wrote a surfing book about his personal search for his lost friend, ‘In Search of Captain Zero’. At the time there was big talk about making a film of the book with Sean Penn. Patrick was hoping to get “some Hollywood money” for himself out of it. It didn’t seem to me that likely. He was a superb old surfer guy, but lost. I didn’t want to go down that route of waiting for something you aren’t gonna get. It can eat you up, waiting for Godot.
FOM: A movie is to be made about your surfing life; who would play you and which other actors would play your friends?
Lee: My mum named me after Lee Marvin – ‘I Was Born Under A Wandrin Star’ was always being played on the old HMV record player when I was a kid. I loved his gravelly voice, his presence.
He was in ‘Hell In The Pacific’ a war film with a cast of two – a Japanese and an American are stuck on a desert island and have to come to terms with their differences. It’s a bit like going on a boat trip. He was also in ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and I reckon some of my friends are well portrayed in that film.
Or maybe Sean Penn, he’s an extremely talented actor and director. ‘Into The Wild’ left me in tears, but Jeff Spicoli is his greatest achievement and for that magnificent role he wins it for me.
FOM: Some songs that would have to be on the soundtrack?
Lee: These are some songs I’m failing miserably to learn on the Uke:
The theme from ‘The Littlest Hobo’
Neutral Milk Hotel ‘Holland, 1945’
‘Sloop John B’ – the Johnny Cash version
Calexico – ‘All The Pretty Horses’
Beirut – ‘Nantes’
FOM: What’s in your quiver?
Lee: Right now I’ve got about eight longboards, all fairly well-repaired after going down to one board a couple of years ago. I’m like Yuri Geller, I can bend boards just by looking at them. I’ve snapped loads in my time, I’m a disaster. But then I love getting covered in sticky fibreglass on a nice day outside my caravan fixing up the vehicles; a calming pastime. I’ve got a blank around somewhere; I’m looking forward to making a Fred Flintstone.
Right now I’m loving a 9’0 Takayama model T, a resurrected Woolly Lamb – an old favourite from Celtic Connection, and The Aircraft carrier – a 9’6 tanker. I’ve also got a Jedd Noll about 9’1 – really lightweight and fast, the only board I can ride with a three-fin set-up. It works well in the bigger stuff.
FOM: Who inspires you?
Lee: Family – I’ve got two sons, a two-year-old and a 19-year-old, and a beautiful wife. When they’re laughing with me I can do anything.
FOM: What flattens the beer for you?
Lee: It’s all good, but King Canute knew what he was talking. You can’t stop the tide. The crowds, the swell, the weather – I can’t change it, I’ll ride with it. If it affects you, don’t tell me bout it.
FOM: Shout outs and anything else?
Lee: Thanks for the questions Rich. Gotta say big up to Friend o Mine for being a hub and instigator of lots of creativity energy, Low Pressure for their ethos and good karma, the Old Smithy Inn crew, and most of all my beautiful wife Chrissy, my son and best friend Noah, and a little boy called Alby.
Next time you’re in the market for some new duds, check out Eels, Lee’s handcrafted boardies.