The endangered art of hand-shaping surfboards

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Surfer, shaper, artist, photographer, historian, archivist, Richard Harvey is one of the Gold Coast’s most respected surfing elders for good reason.

It’s hard to imagine an environment further removed from the war-torn horrors of Iraq than the Gold Coast’s idyllic sun, sand and surf.

Perhaps that’s why Iraqi war veterans overcoming post-traumatic stress are among the legions of aspiring surfboard shapers making a pilgrimage to a small surfboard factory in Miami to learn the time-honoured craft from a local master.

Richard Harvey, 1973 Australian surfing champion and accomplished artist, historian and surfboard shaper, attracts a diverse clientele from around the world to learn the endangered art of hand-shaping surfboards.

Police, politicians, air hostesses and war veterans, from as far afield as Malaysia, India, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, Brazil, the US and all over Australia, are among the eclectic mix of eager students who have beaten a path to Harvey’s unobtrusive shaping bay.

“People come from every walk of life to do it … I never know who’s coming or what they’re about – from schoolkids to 70 year olds,” says Harvey.

“I don’t do any advertising, it’s just word of mouth.”

At a time when most surfboards are shaped by machines, not humans, Harvey’s tutelage in the artisanal skills of traditional hand-shaping has struck a chord with surfers wanting to get back in touch with surfing’s roots.

The Defence Force is just one of the organisations that has sought out Harvey’s services, to help rehabilitate soldiers scarred by war.

“Shaping a surfboard takes them into another zone,” says Harvey. “They become relaxed and don’t think about the stresses they’ve been under.”

Since launching his Shaper’s Workshop eight years ago, Harvey estimates he’s taught around 500 people how to shape their own board. Some just do the one board and go away happy, others take it up as a hobby while some even start their own surfboard businesses.

Harvey only takes on one student at a time, for the 10-hour program spread over five two-hour sessions, and is booked out two months in advance.

“People come up for a holiday and come in for two hours a day,” he says.

“It’s really rewarding. You share your information with people and you get back more than you give.

“I teach the history from Captain Cook in Hawaii, through to US lifeguards introducing their balsa boards to Australia in 1956. I give a bit of background to the history of surfing because it’s really important that people understand the culture – respect for elders and respect for the environment … That’s why I teach the history of the sport.

“It’s about freedom and being an individual and connection with nature, all on a personal level.”

A shaping course costs $850 plus materials so your first self-shaped board will be more expensive than buying one in a shop, but after that you’re saving yourself money.

Harvey also schools his students in how to build their own shaping equipment – shaping stands, callipers to measure a board’s thickness, sanding blocks – and helps them source hard-to-find shaping tools as a free after-sales service.

“I want people coming out shaping surfboards because I want the connection coming back from the shaper to the surfer,” he says.

But shaping classes are just one arrow in an impressive quiver of creative pursuits that keep Harvey as youthful and energised as many surfers half his age. Shaper, painter, photographer, historian, archivist – Harvey has turned his hand to a remarkable skillset over an adventure-packed surfing life.

Harvey was born near Tamworth, and his family moved to Avalon on Sydney’s northern beaches when he was 10, where he started surfing on an inflatable surf-o-plane.

He was soon among the leading guard of surfing development as surfboards transitioned from 10-foot longboards to increasingly refined shortboards in the late ‘60s.

He finished third at the Australian Titles at Margaret River, in WA, in 1969, behind winner Nat Young and runnerup, the Gold Coast’s own Peter Drouyn. A year later Richard moved to the Gold Coast permanently after a string of surfing holidays and has been here ever since.

“Burleigh is part of my DNA,” he says.

In 1973, in big and unruly surf, again at Margaret River, he won the Aussie title on a board he shaped himself, its extra length and thickness allowing him to pick up the big set waves earlier than his competitors. It was an early lesson in the importance of riding the right equipment for the conditions.

His surfing and shaping skills were honed during an era of incredible surf on the Gold Coast pointbreaks in the early ‘70s, when cyclone swells seemed non-stop and the sandbanks were at their prime.

“At Burleigh in the early ’70s the run of great surf really helped refine surfboard design,” he says.

“We had really good smooth sand banks and incredible waves on the points.”

Harvey took his surfing and shaping skills and set out to explore the surfing world, spending extended periods in Europe, the UK, Morocco and Indonesia.

“The early ’70s were a golden era in surfing – lots of good waves and the freedom to travel around,” he says.

He was one of the first surfers to ride the dangerous, shallow reefbreak of Padang Padang in Bali (a surf spot so good they named it twice!). And he introduced his refined surfboard shapes to the grateful surfers of England, whose equipment was crude and basic by comparison.

“They were like spaceships to them,” he says, of the smoothly foiled pintail surfboards he became known for.

In Devon he lived in a caravan and shaped surfboards in a converted dairy for a local surfboard builder.

He recalls walking home from the dairy covered from head to toe in foam dust from shaping foam blanks when it started snowing.

“The locals were asking, ‘who’s the crazy Australian walking around covered in snow?’” he laughs. He shaped three to four boards a day for weeks on end and a surf shop owner from Cornwall turned up and bought the lot for his Summer stock.

But Harvey was always going to return to the Gold Coast and his beloved Burleigh Heads.

Initially he focused on his own business, Harvey Surfboards, but by the ’90s was working for local surfwear giant Billabong as a product designer.

Along the way, he wrote and self-published a history of Queensland surfing, developed a reputation for his fine art, started collecting all manner of surfing and ocean memorabilia and began an epic, multi-generational surfing novel. His timber boards and paintings now hang in the homes of numerous local surfing identities.

He’s painted the famed Burleigh headland from every conceivable angle, along with a vast collection of coastal seascapes in a wide variety of styles – from photo realism to abstract to what he calls “organic pop art”.

“My painting is just part of my creative suite,” he says. “Years ago I said to myself, if I start to paint now by the time I do 200 or 300 I might be alright at it.”

One favourite painting depicts the Gold Coast pointbreaks as five sisters – Snapper Rocks, Greenmount, Kirra, Currumbin and Burleigh Heads represented as naked goddesses reclining amid the stunning landscape in a pixelated abstract style reminiscent of Indigenous dot art. It’s a comparison he’s profoundly comfortable with.

“I like telling a story through landscape, like Indigenous songlines,” he says.

Just pinning down Harvey for an interview has proven challenging, given his busy schedule.

He’s off to the Mentawai Islands, in Indonesia, on a surfing boat trip for his old mate Tony “Doris” Eltherington’s 60th birthday. He’s booked in to give a talk and a slideshow at the Patagonia store in Burleigh. And there’s always more boards to be shaped and students to be schooled. Yet he graciously finds time on a sunny Sunday afternoon for us to talk story on his balcony high on a hill overlooking Burleigh, the entire coast and hinterland stretched out before us just waiting to be painted.

Surfing culture is not always kind to its elders. Wave-riding is often seen as a young person’s game, and past champions can quickly find themselves relegated to the dustbin of history when they are longer scoring magazine covers or shifting units for their sponsors.

So it’s especially gratifying to watch Harvey holding court at the Patagonia store, regaling a crowd of salty old seadogs, young hipsters and curious passers-by with a cavalcade of his artwork, photography and stories gathered over a lifetime.

Harvey is a wealth of knowledge on everything from local history to the intricacies of surfboard design to the flow of sand around the Burleigh headland.

Harvey generates his own warm glow of nostalgia on this cold and stormy night and the crowd listens enraptured through a 90-minute monologue and peppers him with questions afterwards. By the end of it I’m ready to book in for a shaping workshop, buy one of his artworks and stowaway in his boardbag for the Mentawai boat trip.

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