He’s lasted over forty years – and counting – in the world’s ficklest industry, while calmer heads and better business brains have gone to the wall around him. In the process, he’s revolutionised surfboard design again and again. The reverse vee.Single concaves of such outrageous depth that the boards are known as ‘catamarans’. Tow boards for life and death situations and everyday workhorses for the nameless hordes.
Maurice Cole criss-crosses the surfing universe at will these days, but he emerged from the farthest corner of the galaxy: western Victoria. Long walls, raw sea and heavy moves. If anything defines Maurice (which is unlikely), it’s those physical forces. Working now between France, Japan, the U.S., Hawaii and Australia, Maurice is widely recognised but little understood. Over a series of late-night phone calls and subsequent clarifications on email, Jock Serong caught up with one of surfing’s genuine enigmas.
It’s great when you get to use “peripatetic” in a surf story. It’s a word that may have been designed specifically to describe Maurice Cole.
When ASBfirst catches him, Maurice is in Hossegor. More particularly, he’s shaping at Surf Odyssey in Capbreton, which he describes as “the Jan Juc of Torquay”.In the context of his wild and wilful life, Capbreton represents peace. “I’m so at home with all the crew here,” he says. Then comes the first of many evil chuckles. “Although they do have some of the world’s leading arseholes…”
Torquay surfers know when Maurice is in town, and when he’s overseas, because he is even now an incredibly consistent presence at Bells. For many surfers he is as permanent a part of the scenery as the orange cliffs are. An Achilles tendon problem has kept him out of the water for the past few months, and he’s only now venturing into the French beachies to test it out.
“The surf is small but fun and tomorrow’s a big day, so I’m going surfing with Charly (Martin), who’d also injured himself.” He’s currently sitting at 9thon the QS rankings, yet has no sponsors. That kind of outsider status seems to draw Maurice in. “I think his boards were all wrong. Hopefully I’ve made him a small quiver of the old and the new, like a Mermaid Mach II. I think I shaped him some magic, so really looking forward to going down to the beach with him and putting a new design in the water. Love the pressure!”
The range of shaping challenges open to Maurice in France is daunting. As we speak, he’s starting work on a pile of 5’0”s for the promising local grommets (“to see if I can teach and learn, get some knowledge imparted.”). The following week it’ll be boards in the range of 9’6” to 11’6”, alongside theproprietary designs which are sent off for manufacturing.
“I just love the variety of surfers and surf here. I get very inspired. Maybe that’s why I’ve made some of the best boards of my life here; for Kelly, Occy, Curren, Trent and others… it’s creative inspiration through innovation.” Boards carrying the MC bear logo aremade in the US as well, at the Lost factory in San Clemente. SST make them in Japan, along with Odyssey in France and Pepo in Brazil. They’re people Maurice has worked with “forever. I call them the ‘Feral Fossil Network, or old school rules’”.
In Hawaii, specialised guns have been the focus. Interestingly, given his leading role in the technology, Maurice says he’s “not really doing tow boards over there – the whole tow thing’s died in Hawaii.” He’s also focussed on the polyurethane ‘Proto’ (the step-up board from the successful Metro design). Noah Johnson, the youngest-ever Eddie Aikau champion, has been an enthusiastic Proto convert, paddling out on a 5’10” version in 15’ surf. “He’s prepared to experiment,” quips Maurice. Last summer Chis Ward rode a 6’3” Proto at second reef Pipe. “Even Barton Lynch tried ‘em and loved ‘em.”. Mark Matthews and Dan Ross, Dingo Morrison (who rode one at Jaws) and Luke Davis have all ridden and backed the design. As always, there’s a canny marketing instinct for the endorsement of the brave and the famous, one that stretches all the way back to Occy and Curren.
Maurice makes no secret of the fact that he tries to do most of his design and manufacture overseas these days; Torquay has become a form of “semi-retirement”. “It’s the tyranny of distance (in Australia) – it makes it very hard to do business.
“It’s the tyranny of distance (in Australia) – it makes it very hard to do business.”
“Australia is a long way behind,” he continues. “With new designs we’re twenty years behind everyone else. There’s no design work going on here. Hayden Cox and Thommo have gone to America. They think the same as me. But I don’t want to be negative about Australia. I don’t want to put people down, but I’m shaping boards for Australians at the moment that are fifteen years old. I’m doing Taj’s bottom lines here as we speak, and they’re the same as he rode in the Coke way back then.”
Maurice’s theory is that in the U.S., the general quality of waves is so poor that everyone has to have multiple boards. “A shortboard or two, a wide one, a mini-Sims, and maybe a finless. And I’m doing SUPs, kiteboards and longboards for the U.S. market. I’m no longer trying to prepare young guys for pro careers.” A willingness to experiment also sets the two markets apart, in his view. “Here, I cop the tall poppy syndrome. It’s too conservative a marketplace.”
Two quite distinct shaping personas are starting to emerge as he speaks: “semi-retirement” at home, doing boards for mates, and “economic necessity” overseas. “Japan, France, Brazil, and the east and west coasts of the U.S. They’re on fire.”
“You’ll always get that side of me, the emotion, when I talk about my designs,” he says. “My surfboard designing is an extension of who and what I am. Because blokes like Mark Mathews and RCJ, when they go down in huge surf, I’m immediately thinking ‘Oh shit, I hope it wasn’t the board that did it.’”
Big waves provide Maurice with the ultimate test tank for his designs, and he both loves to watch and simultaneously fears for the worst. “They’re all paddling Belhara now,” he says. “The paddle thing’s fired up.
“I did that adrenaline thing when I was younger, the outside reef at Massacres at 15-20 foot with Wayne Lynch. Big Sunset, no legropes. Outside La Nord at Hossegor. We never trained, never stretched. Too busy rolling joints.
“Ross will paddle Waimea for the (Eddie) contest, but the thing with any big wave, I think, is paddling giant boards is pretty boring when you can tow it on a 5’9” and rip the shit out of it. I’m trying to do the lowest rocker lines I can without them catching. Chined rails. Recently I was chatting in Haleiwa with Dorian and Slater for an hour on surfboards. A good, open discussion – there’s this willingness to share ideas and theories. John Carper had done this one for Dorian: at 11’2” he went too wide and it took him three waves to work out he couldn’t turn it. I’m just glad it’s him testing it, not me.”
Maurice will use automation where it assists efficiency, but he’s wary of those who let it take over. “I belong to the analogue generation,” he says, “operating subconsciously, by look and feel, fine tuning digital shapes using my ‘analogue mind’, all that knowledge I’ve accumulated since 1972. It’s a proven method. But modern day shapers who are doing volumes of boards, they’re all going down the digital highway.”
He believes the surfboard industry was in chaos. The major problems were in the US market, he says. “The GFC. The advent of mass sales of Asian-made boards. A couple of brands have risen to the top, but through dubious commercial practises, offering very long credit terms, masses of team boards and consignment. For example, Channel Islands was a great family-owned business. But since they sold, Al Merrick is no longer working as a surfboard shaper/designer. It’s an enigma – one of the biggest brands in the world and doesn’t have a shaper/designer.” Maurice’s disdain for the Channel Islands way of doing things is a recurring theme: “John Burton bought them off Al Merrick. One of the greatest family run surfboard designers, and Burton make a loss on them every year. But they can afford to because of their snow business. Channel Islands has gone from being one of the world’s most incredible family surfboard companies, based on technical excellence, to…what? They seem to have a policy of mass production and marketing of old designs. Nothing new has come out of Channel Islands since Al left.”
This disillusionment with the major brands, and not just Channel Islands, has its roots in what Maurice calls “the cancer of stock boards.”
“I’ve had calls from coaches who I’d better not name,” he says. “The kids surfing the super-lightweight boards for the Oceanside 6-star event, they go into Channel Islands boards and instead of getting shown two boards and getting feedback, they get shown through a catalogue.
“A lot of them have never really worked with a shaper before. It’s like planning to drive Bathurst but just buying your car off the factory floor. Racing car drivers are three quarters mechanic – it should be the same for surfers. Mick, Joel, Taj and Kelly – their boards are sotuned in, you never see them with board problems. John John’s boards are unbelievable – he’s got an extra gear at high speed. A lot of other surfers aren’t getting the magic boards. World titles are built on magic surfboards. But the boards Kelly rides are no good for 90% of the surfing population – he’s predominantly a front foot surfer.”
Volume measurements are not a panacea for ill-fitting stock boards, he says. “That’s not for the average Joe. It’s a fashion – they come in and say “I want a 6’1” x 26 litres.” It doesn’t give you enough information. Volume’s a fine-tuning thing, absolutely. It belongs at the very high performance end of the spectrum.”
“Kids don’t know how to ask for a board.Charly Martin’s 5’8” and 67 kgs. He’s on a 5’11”, 18 ½, 2 ¼. That’s Parko’s board, and Charly’s 10kg lighter. And he’s on AM2 fins. And I said to him, no wonder you can’t do man-turns like Adriano’s developed, like Bourez or Taylor Knox. Your back fin’s too small on AM2’s, so all you’re going to do is pivot. These people just haven’t worked with a shaper. They’re not fulfilling their potential by having average equipment.
“The first thing kids should be working on is their equipment. I love doing kids’ boards – the 5’0”s, 5’2”s. I want to do a course for the kids: an on-land seminar on all the tech stuff, then we go out and surf. I watch the session, make suggestions and by the end they know exactly how to collaborate with their shaper.”
He also envisages building a facility in his chook shed complex near Torquay for kids to learn shaping, glassing and sanding. Darcy Day and Marcus Hyett (the 24-year-old son of photographer Rod) are already under Maurice’s wing, learning the skills. The Christian College nearby is interested in the concept. It’s maybe indicative of a unique generosity in Maurice that rather than naming an individual successor and looking to transition his business, he wants to ensure that his skills are passed to an entire generation: ‘Open source shaping’ maybe.
Maurice’s design focus these days is all on thrusters, using the new “C-drive” fins. Despite long experimentation with them, he now declares he “doesn’t need” quads. “My hulls go so fast because of my deep concaves. They’re catamarans – less wetted surface area, similar to the reverse vees.”
The MC concave is one of the most startling design flourishes in world surfing. When Maurice talks about it, you can almost hear the defiance in his voice: that radical hull is a metaphor for all of his inspired contrariness. “It started at ¼ inch,” he explains. “Then it went to a ½ inch, then 5/8, ¾. People laughed. I wanted to know what would happen if I went too far… to 1 and 1/8 inch. I wonder if I’ll end up with 2” of concave.”
Materials technology is another MC staple. “I’ve worked with epoxies and EPS foams for more than 25 years. I’ve experimented with carbon stringer technologies, and now realised it’s not me that should be developing that. I’m a surfboard designer – I design hulls – but people are coming to me to test their technologies. That’s good – I can go 100% into the design of the hull shape and how the fins work.”
In a later call, Maurice enthuses about the “Hydroflex” technology he’s developing at Oceanside in the U.S. with Rich Ciesco and “an eccentric German called Bufo.” “This,” he declares, “is the future of custom boards. It’s light years ahead.”
It follows from all this focus on design that Maurice is not a fan of specialised athlete training centres. “The High Performance Centre on the Gold Coast, in my eyes, is not producing world champions,” he says. “It’s building a bureaucratic infrastructure with a lack of technical expertise. That does not seem to me to be a winning formula. The fact that no one at the HPC is being taught how to get better surfboards to enhance their surfing is a glaring omission. The formula for the HPC has a technical bias in favour of its sponsors instead of being ‘neutral ground’ for training.”
The other great domestic obsession that has occupied Maurice over recent years is the fraught issue of the custodianship of Bells Beach. In some ways, it’s an indictment on the rest of us that a man who now lives overseas for much of the year is still the strongest voice in support of the surfing lineage of the Bells Reserve. “The Surfcoast Shire are telling us they believe the Bells Beach Recreational Surfing Reserve is now for all users,” he begins. “Bells Beach was and is the world’s first Surfing recreational Reserve. It’s not negotiable to call it anything else.”
“Now they’ve got their “Visioning Taskforce”. I say, look at it from our perspective. Between 1971-73, the Bolte government and the ASA had a discussion, out of which came a vision. It’s been done. Now, protection at Bells is not strong enough to protect it from development. The State government want to develop Bells for all other users. The fact that the Surf Coast Shire could even contemplate developing Bells shows that there’s not enough protection. There are no protections – just like the National Surfing Reserves.
“It needs Federal and State legislation to protect it in perpetuity. The protections have been diluted down through the years. Yet they put up a $30,000 sign two years ago, saying it’s a surfing reserve. So why are they putting hang-gliders, walkers, buses, etc in there? The most valuable tourists in the area are the surfing tourists. We’ve had ‘em every weekend since we can remember. And they’re not like a normal tourist, buying coffee and meals and moving on. They stay here. They buy boards and wetsuits.”
Bus companies have been a constant target of Maurice’s scorn. “Recent figures show the bus companies have contributed $4000 to the reserve per year – not even covering 5% of the cost of running the reserve. In fact, the local ratepayers are paying more than $50,000 per year, while the buses take up surfer carparks. He asserts that they aren’t properly licensed to be in the Reserve, even whether their insurance is valid when they go in. “And why aren’t there enough dollars to put a ranger in there?” he asks. “Why can’t we take a percentage at the gate at the contest to pay for the upkeep of it? No one’s putting anything back in!
“We’re not backin’ off. Bells always was and will be a sacred spot for surfers.”
We finish our conversation with Maurice enjoying a break back in Torquay.
He’s overwhelmed by the amount of email he has to catch up with, but in fine spirits, choosing to see the deluge as a sign of his ongoing relevance. His well-known battle with cancer has done nothing to dim his characteristic level of passion. If anything, France and Japan have re-energised him. He says his health is now good, though he complains that he’s put on weight because of the hormone treatment. And ageing doesn’t worry him in the slightest.
“Turning sixty is great!” he roars. “I never thought I’d get there. A couple of years fighting cancer and it wasn’t looking too good. I reckon more than ten times in my life I’ve nearly died. It’s an amazing opportunity at this age to re-launch myself as a global brand.
“I’m enjoying being a grandparent. But even then, I’m spending a couple of hours every day on the phone to the US. I’m bringing boards back from the states to service the market here, and just shaping boards for friends here.”
He’s been fascinated by the webcast from Trestles, and a succession of uncharacteristic equipment meltdowns by Taj and others in Round 1. “Might be the tail rocker…” he muses. “Fascinating. It looks to me like the guy who had the best equipment in the event was John John.”
He’s got rumours from the industry he wants to share. Some of them are pure gold. “People talk to shapers,” he laughs. “We’ve got moral integrity in our craft, so they spill their secrets. They come in and there’s a certain need for a dose of reality. People in the commercial world come and go. We’re a constant.”
He thinks most surfing companies have become branding companies. But core surfers love the idea of the companies actually producing something they can relate to. Something real. ‘With great power comes great responsibility to keep it real’ – that’s Spiderman and Ali G” (maniacal laughter follows).
Live surfing is dead, according to Maurice, and the ASP must change its media model fast or risk sliding into B-grade obscurity. “The commentary is made for the U.S. market, for people who don’t surf (but love televised sports). But they’re not even watching. The characters are boring.” Heats between veteran surfers have appeal in his opinion – he sees the recent rematches between Curren and Occy as powerful examples of this – and he imagines specialty “grand prix” tours in regions like the Mentawais and the Pacific. The cost of such ventures would be offset by the massive expense of the existing webcast model.
“I want to make clear why I’m semi-retiring in Australia,” he says at one point. “It’s not that I don’t give a fuck. It’s my evolution. It’s Hayden and Thommo’s evolution – as designers. We’ve all become very, very homogenised, to quote the great man, Derek Hynd.
“But there’s been a really strong return to custom surfboards. I haven’t enjoyed my shaping this much since the reverse vee era. You lose everything, you get cancer, you get down…then you get in the shaping bay, put some music on and it all comes back. I’d say I wouldn’t change a thing but I would… for my wife’s sake. She’s put up with a lot.
You lose everything, you get cancer, you get down…then you get in the shaping bay, put some music on and it all comes back.
Just before we finish with our last call, I make the mandatory checks with Maurice as to whether everything’s on the record. He laughs at the idea that anyone would hold back. “Kelly once told me I’m the world’s oldest smartarse.”
And just when it seems he doesn’t have a care in the world, the unpredictable Maurice Cole lobs one last grenade. His voice falls to a soft murmur down the line, and the pace slows.
“I’m at the end of this two-year cycle on hormones, and it’s knocked me around. I’ve been out of shape. I’ve got a huge six months ahead of me to get back in shape to surf Hawaii. It’s knocked me around more than I care to admit.
“I’m developing my relationship with my granddaughter. And I’m – wait for it – a born-again Christian. I’m finding all the other stuff in my life outside the surfing.”