Rod Dahlberg has been around for a long time. Not in the ‘been there, done that’ kind of way, but one that makes you want to sit down with a glass of red wine around the campfire and listen to his stories until the wee hours.
The New Zealand native had been living in Angourie for over 45 years, its home for him now but he still manages a regular trip across the ditch to see family and then there’s the Maldives pilgrimage he’s been doing for a few years – that one keeps his hand in with a few mates.
I’ve always admired Rod’s rounded pins from my time living in J-Bay. Occy would rock up and draw exquisite lines on the Supertubes canvas… deep bottom turns that he held till the very last second, then released to carve out that track he became famous for. I’d see them from a distance and had subconsciously put them on the quiver bucket list. Fast forward 15 or 20 years and we rented a place next door to Rod while I took my sabbatical – it was the 3 weeks before we were taking off to Hawaii, and I knew I had to get a rounded pin from him for my first real stint on the north shore… I ordered a 6’6 and it was ready the day before we drove up to the Gold Coast. It was a thing of beauty – just like I had remembered seeing under Occy’s arm in J-Bay.
Two north shore winters and a full year surfing a local slab/point later and the 6’6 has been as trusty as a loyal Labrador and easily one of the favourite boards in my quiver. During that time Rod and I have become neighbors again, this time permanently, and while we haven’t had that wine around the campfire yet, we have had a beer watching the tri-nations rugby together and have had many a conversation over the fence.
Not only is this legendary shaper an incredibly humble human, he’s also amazingly generous. Just a few short months ago he showed my 10-year-old son (an aspiring shaper) the ropes in the factory – everything from the computer design and cutout, right through to finishing, glassing and spray. That experience culminated in Jordy’s first custom board a few weeks later which he ‘helped’ Rod shape… co-signed with Mr. Dahlberg.
I’ve also had the privilege of riding a few other Dahlberg’s – a couple of Rod’s personal boards that made their way over from his shed to mine. I’d love to have a glossy gun of his hanging on the wall one day, but I know Rod wants his boards surfed, not hung as art, that’s what he makes them for – and quite honestly, I think everyone should have a Dahlberg in their quiver – they’re iconic and a nod to one of the master craftsman of our time.
Shortly after moving to Angourie I did an interview with Rod for Surfing Life Magazine. I dug it up the other day and thoroughly enjoyed reading Rod’s insights again… and thought you might enjoy them too.
Here’s the unedited version of the interview.
What brought you over to Australia from New Zealand?
As a young teenager I saw a lot of the older surfers head over to Oz for the winter. Usually to Queensland where it was warmer, as the NZ winters are pretty chilly and wetsuit technology was nowhere near where it is today.
A lot of the guys came back way better surfers than when they left due to the consistency of the surf, warmer water and the long point breaks of the Gold Coast, Noosa and Northern NSW and also exposure to more advanced and refined surfboards.
Naturally I wanted to do the same. My first trip was as a 19 year old in 1972 with my best mate Nev Hill. We started off in Noosa and worked our way down to Angourie, where we parked up from June to September. I surfed more great waves in that time than the combined total of all my previous surfing experiences!
I got to see a lot of Australia’s best surfers and their surfboards, and had an amazing time, seeming to gel with the locals, with a lot of those friendships still going strong today. I flew back to NZ for the summer with a head full of design ideas and a much better surfer.
You’ve been shaping for a long time – what gives you the most satisfaction out of the shaping process?
The shaping process itself, especially hand shaping is quite laborious, noisy, dusty etc. With three or four crucial stages starting off with the outline/plan shape, rocker/foil, rails and finishing.
The whole process can’t succeed without all the ingredients coming together smoothly and accurately. Then add the custom aspect of having to be accurate to the 1/16” (1/5mm) in length, width, thickness, tail shape and fin positioning – It makes the entire process immensely satisfying. So all of it I guess!
How would you describe your relationship with Occy over the years?
I shaped my first board for Occy around 1983 when I started Insight Surfboards with John and Greg Webber. I pretty much copied an old Rusty board of Occy’s that Greg had brought up from Sydney after the Beaurepaires comp at Cronulla. It was a lot different to what I was shaping at the time. It had way more rocker with a flattish deck and blocky rails – Occ used to surf those boards insane! I must thank Rusty for his influence on my own shapes/designs during that time.
Even though I shaped Occy’s boards for 15 plus years, culminating in his world title in 1999, we had a pretty low-key relationship.
In fact, I’d go as far as saying he probably gave me the least amount of feedback of any surfer I have ever sponsored. Most shapers who have shaped for him would probably say the same. He just wants to ride them and not think too much about them. We still remain friends to this day and I look forward to every time we catch up.
You’ve been quoted, as saying the 1997 skins board you shaped for him was the most famous of your boards.
I think the surfing that Occy did at Bells over those two days during the 1997 skins event was by far the best surfing ever done on one of my shapes! The fact that he was actually competing, not free surfing made it even more significant as the pressure of competition can sometimes detract from performance.
The board itself was 6’5 x 18 ¾ x 2 3/8, 6 channel round tail, glassed on Soar DL fins, no concaves, just a slight V in the back third where the channels ran through the tail. Occy preferred flatter decks bringing the volume out to the rail more, so his 2 3/8 felt more like 2 ½.
Jack McCoy has footage of Occy surfing a left reef break in Sumba on a different board – A 6’6 rounded square tail, maybe a year prior to the skins event in ’97 where I thought he surfed pretty darn amazing. But that board never garnered the attention the skins board did!
Maybe the fact that Kelly (Slater) said in an issue of Surfers Journal that Occy’s surfing in the skins event was the best he had ever seen up until that point, gave the board more credibility.
Occy riding your boards to that 1999 world title… Did that do anything for your business?
Having Occy as my number 1 team rider for all those years was massive for my business, which was, and still is quite a small business compared to say JS or Channel Islands. Occy’s numerous incredible performances documented in the Billabong videos, his WCT wins and his World Title all validated my shapes and designs and put my logo on the world stage. It opened up trade with Japan and created a demand that, pre-shaping machines, was hard to service.
Many other pros ordered boards from me as well and the workload almost become too much – almost to the point of not enjoying it anymore.
I had also started shaping boards for Joel Parkinson; he had just won the J-Bay WCT event as a wildcard and finished the year as the 1999 World Junior Champion, so I attribute much of my success to Joel as well.
I think at one stage I was shaping boards for Occy, Joel, Shaun Cansdell, Lee Winkler and sometimes Trent Munro as well as Ben Dunn and Dan Ross, who were all competing on the world stage!
The good thing was, I was shaping all the team boards and customs myself and was very fortunate to have had Ken Reimers (a great shaper) handling the stock and export.
The surfer/shaper dynamic is pretty key. Talk us through how that dynamic works for you.
The surfer/shaper dynamic is an interesting one and varies massively from surfer to surfer. I personally found Occy and Shaun (Cansdell’s) approach the easiest, where they pretty much leave it up to me. Some guys are really picky and struggle with eloquent feedback, so you have to try and interpret what they are trying to say. With others you have to be a psychologist and pick them up after a string of losses and/or ride along with them in their successes!
It can definitely be an emotional roller coaster through a lot of highs and lows. The year Jon Pyzel has just had, has been the most incredible I’ve ever seen. But you don’t get there without hard work, the trials and errors and the wins and losses. The new technologies available to us now have made it so much easier to be consistent, and to make small adjustments to constantly strive for better surfboards.
At the height of my success I was using a combination of hand shapes and profilers, and I kept diligent records of all the boards I shaped.
It helped me with my own consistency… So getting back to the question;
Personally being primarily a custom shaper, I try to engage with every customer whether team, friend or punter.
Can the surfer/shaper relationship (and subsequent boards) affect a surfer’s technique?
Tricky question! I guess a shapers designs could have some effect on a surfers style or technique; like the way certain boards perform well at a particular break. But personally, I think style or technique comes from within and would be more affected by the type of waves and environment a surfer grows up in, or by the way they look up to and follow other surfers they watch.
I’d love to hear a little more about this quote: “The board model is a movement that has gone overboard! It’s a wank!”
Ah, that was my quote from the first “Stab in the Dark’ board test!
Because all of the boards I shape are customs, I don’t need to give them silly names or market them in that fashion.
It’s a joke how many silly names are out there now. I can’t keep up with them, but that’s not what matters… It’s 100% a marketing exercise for the website trolls who are obsessed the latest “ducks buggy bastard” and that’s ok too!
What does shaping look like for you in another 10 years?
That would be good to know! Surfboards are somewhat fashion oriented and designs go in cycles. Like the re-birth of channels and single fins; everyone needs an angle and there are more weird and wonderful shapes out there now than ever before.
Personally I am pretty conservative in my approach to board design and don’t stay awake trying to dream up the next big break through – because no matter what – it has been done before!
Materials used in construction will continually evolve, designs will evolve and surfing performances will continue to blow minds, just as it has for the last 70 years!
We’ll touch on materials in a minute, but before we do, where do you see surfing going in 10 years and what sort of surfing do you personally like to watch?
I can’t see surfing performances making a quantum leap anytime soon. It will get to a higher level gradually over time and a few talented individuals will always be breaking new ground in some areas of performance.
It still revolves around the bottom turn, top turn, cutback and tube ride for 90% of surfers anyway.
I absolutely love watching pro surfing, big waves or small. It is the best, especially when the waves are epic.
I play golf and love watching the world’s best play in all the majors, its great. It’s such a mental game, but compared to Kelly and John John trading 9’s and 10’s in 8 – 10ft Teahupoo! Come on!
Is the WSL doing a good job in your view?
The WSL is doing an amazing job getting the entire event live into my lounge room! Getting live vision to my TV from a remote reef a couple of kilometers from the nearest island in the middle of the Pacific is crazy! I don’t know how they do it, but I’m so grateful they do!
How has your business weathered the cyclical nature of the industry over the years? Has there been any personal cost or impact to you?
Surfboard manufacturing has relatively low margins and a high labor content so you have to run a tight ship and keep overheads to a minimum otherwise you wont last. I would say imported boards from Asia have impacted heavily on some manufacturers, but not so much on my market.
I am fortunate to have a large and loyal clientele, but would also welcome new clients!
Surfboard manufacturing leaves a significant environmental footprint. What is the way forward for more sustainable manufacturing?
I would say surfboards are the least of our worries when it comes to the environment; and I don’t say that flippantly. Sure they are toxic and are a petroleum based product which can be environmentally destructive, but compared to cars, TV’s, phones and computers…
You have history with the Webbers and both them and Mr. Slater are in the game of surfboards and wave pools. What’s your view?
Wave pools will never take away the ocean experience – dolphins, sharks, birds and sea life. They will however provide waves for people who don’t have them and provide a training platform for pro’s and amateurs alike to perfect certain maneuvers. Wave pools have been around for over 20 years already, but most have been economically unviable due to the actual cost of making the wave.
The Webber wave pool, when it finally comes to fruition should be able to create the highest amount of quality waves for the lowest cost, making it affordable for most surfers. We will see professional events using wave pools this year, but it wont be like watching Cloudbreak or Pipe!
You can read the original Surfing Life article here.