Conrad Comer’s recent series, Board Men, pays homage to some of his most revered shapers who create functional pieces of art and his admiration for these men is reflected in his oil portraits and the words that accompany them.WORDS & OIL PAINTINGS by Conrad Comer
DESIGN by Gary Parker
“This year, I’m going to shape less boards, and concentrate on improving my surfing.” These are not the words of a wet-behind-the-ears, twenty-something, dabbler. This is what Russell Head tells me, as he saws into a mid-length blank in his shaping bay under his mother’s house, just across the road from Long Reef beach.
I’m not sure how old Russell is, but he is old enough that it would be rude to ask. I know that he shaped for Bennett Boards for many years, and I often see his work come up on eBay from those days. Usually in the guise of single fin, teardrop shapes from the seventies. I tell Russ that I saw one of his boards online recently for $2400. He laughed, and shook his head. If you could bottle humility, Russell Head would have his own microbrewery.
I first met Russell after buying one of his boards from just such a site. He is the archetype, eccentric surfer/shaper. The forever grom; transfixed by the surf bug as much today as he was fifty years ago. After surfing a couple of his boards, I ended up asking Russ to shape one for me. A 5’6″ fish, with glassed-in wooden quad fins.
These days Russ’s boards are all shaped with stringerless blanks, and on some of them, he glasses feathers into the finish layer. Something I’d never seen before. So, for my fish I had a braided lock of hair from my two children and my wife glassed into the finish layer. I love it, and it also means I can never sell it.
Evan Daley is not an easy guy to pin down. I had attempted to catch him several times before, to no avail. His text replies would be written just as I imagined he would speak; like Hunter Thompson, before the drugs melted his synapses completely. Sharp, wired, but also very laid-back at the same time. When I finally did catch up with Evan at the ‘Wild Things’ store—the Gato Heroi headquarters in Australia—he proved to be every part the American surfer/shaper eccentric I had hoped for.
As if to dangle the carrot of interest under my nose even more, it turns out that Evan is originally from Aspen, Colorado—the same town that the aforementioned king of Gonzo resided in for so long. And according to Evan, his dad was good friends with Dr. Thompson before they packed up and moved out to San Clemente, California. It was here where Evan traded his snowboard for foam.
The rest, as they say…well.
Evan is a very good guy. I know this because I like dogs and they like me. In fact, I have never met a dog that didn’t like me, which means I am a good judge of character. And therefore, I am right on this one. He is easy to converse with, and has one of those faces that is alive with life. We spoke a little about boards, bad vibes in the lineup, and the controversies of the no-leash movement. His west coast drawl fitted him like putting on a five-year-old-pair of jeans in the morning. His hair is a thick, dark, curly mess, and he has a problem with his back. And he makes perfect surfboards. Not good boards, or even great boards. Perfect surfboards.
Malcolm had been over in Australia for a few weeks already. Taylor, at ‘The Shop Next Door’, was wide-eyed about getting a rack full of brand new Bonzers in from the man himself. He suggested I go up to Rhino Laminations and grab a shot of him. That really isn’t my style.
With Carl and Russ, I already had a window in. I was surfing their boards, and they’d both already heard of the slightly eccentric English guy who jacked everything in to be a painter. It wasn’t a completely cold call. But to just rock up, stick my hand out and point a camera in someone’s face? Not me.
As fortune would have it, I’d given up on trying to get a shot of Malcolm. I was in Rhino, attempting to track down Evan Daley, of Gato Hiroi. A pretty eccentric guy himself, who was proving to be highly elusive. I bumped into Carl again and we spoke briefly. In the corner of the entrance platform of the complex, a real photographer was set up ready to shoot. He had big lights, a big white thing for reflecting them, and a camera so big I could have comfortably fit my SLR in to it three times over. He was a professional.
I was not. He was shooting Malcolm Campbell for Surfing World magazine. I was not. He was confident, and clearly good at what he was doing. I was…well, I was watching.
A great deal of pictures were taken. Malcolm looked a little uncomfortable in the lights, and he didn’t give the impression that this was something he was naturally drawn to. The shoot ended, Malcolm walked over to me, and politely asked me if he could help me with anything. So, I introduced myself and asked him right back if he would mind me taking a couple of shots for a portrait.
It must have been a bit of a strange request, as he looked a little startled at first. But he quickly nodded, and with a soft smile, said “Sure, why not?” I lead him over to my big light reflector—day light—and took four photos. Done. End of photo shoot. He laughed at me. But I think he appreciated the pragmatism of a thirty-second photo shoot.
I told him that my first short board was a Campbell Brothers Bonzer, which it was, and he looked genuinely pleased for me. Like, ‘Wow, how lucky are you?” I had always been intrigued by the inscription on the board’s decal—’Be Mindful.’ It was something that had resonated with me at the time. I wondered why it was on a surfboard. Think before you act, use reason and logic, give a damn. I never thought I would meet the person who put it there.
Now he was standing in front of me, chatting about bottom contours and fin cant and I could see it. He is a quiet, cognitive man. A man of reason and logic. A man who took an idea based on fluid dynamic principles, experimented with it, refined it, and believed in it, when almost everyone else was taking a different path, in another direction.
The first thing I noticed about Carl Lamaitre, was that he was the image of my brother-in-law. Not that it helps whomever is reading this, but it took me back a step when he reached out to shake my hand. So much so, that I was a little lost for words. Never a good thing when you meet someone for the first time.
Perhaps there was something else too. I have two of Carl’s boards in my personal quiver. They are standouts. The first thing you notice, as with most surfing craft of this calibre, is the finish. The resin tint and glassing is otherworldly. An attention to detail I have rarely seen before. The outline shapes are of a distinctly retro ilk. One, is a classic 70s influenced, teardrop pin-tail single fin, with maroon tint bottom and rails, and an all white deck—a 2012 version of a cut down Lopez Lightening Bolt. The other is even more aesthetically perfect. A seven-foot swallowtail, with a blue-green marble tint and a tea-stain ochre deck. They are my pride and joy.
Unsurprisingly, I was expecting to meet some sort of Samurai master craftsman. An individual whose passion for their craft, cosmically aligned with a level of skill only heard about in folktale. Perhaps even Yoda? What I wasn’t expecting was a young guy, about to turn thirty the next day, with bright, sky-blue eyes, short hair and a clean, boyish complexion. For a moment, I thought he was going to take me to meet his mentor. Could this really be the same person that made the most beautiful surfboards in the world? This kid?
Carl took me through the corridors of Rhino Laminations. Occasionally poking my head into a few of the shaping bays, there were boards in various stages of completion lying everywhere. Hundreds of foam blanks, from high performance shortboards, through to logs, and all variations in-between were racked up in every possible nook. I was lead to the doorway of the glassing bay. A single room, with maybe twelve shaping stands, all drenched in hardened resin, rainbow-coloured inverted stalactites. The smell was intoxicating, in both the good and bad way.
As we walked back through the main corridor, Carl explained how most of his work was taken up with glassing Merrick boards. Huge numbers came through these doors, and there were a whole host of expert glassers churning them out here.
As we made our way to a back room shaping bay, I was a little downhearted. I had been expecting some sort of levitating, Yogi master shaper, working out of his own private hand-built shaping temple, on a hill somewhere in the bush, listening to Tibetan chanting, on vinyl. What I received was the absolute opposite.
The more I thought about it though, the more it made perfect sense. How else could someone so young, get so good? Not just at shaping. But the really tough deal of glassing and sanding as well. Where else would you get to handle thousands of the finest designed surfboards in the world, than being a glasser for Channel Island Surfboards? Carl didn’t just glass for Merrick. He finished boards for the cream of the shaping world. His hands and eyes had downloaded thousands of rails, tails, curves and concaves into his memory bank. From the best shapers on the planet.
Carl was finishing off a nine-foot, custom Lamaitre gun for a client. A beautiful monster of a board, complete with double fin plugs. Apparently the client wasn’t too great at swimming, so he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t lose the board when the waves got prehistoric.
We chatted about board design and his influences and directions. But it was when the conversation turned to free diving that Carl’s face lit up. It’s interesting observing the physical manifestation of passion in a person’s face.