Just like a guitar for a musician, a surfboard is a seriously personal thing for a surfer. While you can learn your pop and ride the green waves on a rental, there comes a point when you need to find your board.
Different surfboards can change your style of riding. Watch someone who loves their funboard ride a wave and then compare them to someone who learned to surf on a longboard, the choice of board changes the kind of surfer that you’ll become.
Last autumn, after a summer of finding waves in the UK and overseas I was desperate to own my own board again. There’s nothing more heart-breaking than a heady five day fling with the perfect board, just to have to return it back to the rental shop on the way to the airport.
While I knew I needed a board of my own, a summer of fun meant I was seriously broke, so I decided to enter into the online world of second-hand selling.
Ask most surfers about buying a second-hand board and you’ll hear the same thing. Don’t go to any old private seller. If the seller doesn’t know what he’s selling you, how can you expect to know what you’re paying for?
You can’t make a decision on a blurry photo taken in someone’s front room and all surfers know that what looks like a small dint to the untrained eye, can secretly be a surfboard’s death sentence.
We’ve all seen the cheapo surfboards on Gumtree and eBay. They’re usually a 5’8 that an active dad bought on a whim, drove down to Cornwall for one family holiday, then left in the back of a damp shed for the next decade. It has collected moss, got banged around by the kids’ skateboards and bikes, and been stuck under the lawnmower. Now it could be yours for £150.
There are exceptions. I have a friend who claims to have scoured the pages of eBay for weeks and weeks until he was finally rewarded with a perfect Aloha shortboard. Listed for sixty quid, it was under the title ‘Retro Surfboard’. Perhaps the hidden gems are out there, but for the most part – you buy from those in the know.
Flicking through pages and pages for over a month, I was unwilling to risk £70 on what could be a dud and unable to commit to anything more expensive.
"The old, discarded, beaten up boards, all hoping for a new home"
You quickly realise that on any online marketplace, there’s the same mix of boards listed. There are the bright, big brand, stock image boards listed for £200 to £350, not only unnervingly cartoon looking, but also far too run of the mill and factory floor to elicit any real excitement.
Sat next to those, there are the £2000 longboards – these boards have photos taken in store, they sit shiny, beautiful and way out of your price range. You’ll end up staring at them for days on end, until you finally accept that you’re never going to afford one.
Which of course leaves you with the rest, the old, discarded, beaten up boards, all hoping for a new home. I was slowly losing hope and considering giving up. Then I saw it.
A blurry front room photo of a 7’0 Dick Brewer board. Seriously old school, intriguingly unassuming, apparently watertight and only £15.
The seller’s description was obviously tinted with love, by someone who had ridden this Brewer many times.
“Perfect for someone who wants a project! Fins need replacing and board has dings from years of riding, but is watertight and looking for someone to ride it or give it a new home."
I immediately called and agreed to pick it up that weekend.
Pick up morning came after a particularly heavy night out and with the taste of cider in my mouth and a herd of elephants having tango lessons inside my head, I wondered if it was worth the journey and called the seller to beg for a later collection time.
The voice on the other end of the phone was half asleep, young and Australian. “There are many other people interested in the board," he says. “If you can’t make it I’ll have to offer it to the next guy." There was nothing for it, forty minutes later I’m ringing the buzzer of a modern block of flats in North London.
"I’d managed to buy the little board that just wouldn’t quit"
The board’s owner answers and says he’ll bring it down. Opening the door I see he’s clearly someone who’s spent time as a surfing instructor, and clearly just got out of bed that second.
“I was half hoping you wouldn’t turn up," he says, with an expression that shows he really means it. “Your call woke me up from a dream that I was surfing it. It’s a real good board."
We exchange cash for board and I walk away feeling a little like I’ve taken a puppy from its mother. I get it, once you’ve surfed a board enough times you’ll always feel that really, it’ll always belong to you. I sit grinning on the tube home however, because actually, it now belongs to me.
Having never repaired a board before and well aware that YouTube tutorials can only take you so far, I phoned around a few ding repair shops, to see if I could get some inside tips on bringing my board back to life.
A few calls in, however, I realise the obvious fact that most shops don’t want to tell you how to do the repair for yourself, they want your business, so I make a plea on twitter for a helping hand. I’m pointed in the direction of Matt, a friend of a friend and a lifelong surfer, based in Woolacombe.
“You’ve never repaired a board before?!" he laughs down the phone in a thick Devonshire accent, as I explain my plan for the Brewer to him. “It isn’t exactly a fine art, but it is messy. If it’s your first go you might get it rideable, but I doubt it’ll be much to look at by the time you’re finished."
I pretended not to care and pressed him for info. “Well, you’ll need to buy a few things first of all," he says, “sandpaper, a lightweight filler, sanding resin, catalyst and masking tape."
“Sanding down your board is super important if you want it to look like anything near a professional job, but even more important is giving the surface a clean beforehand.
If you’re going to fill in holes and dents, two things are crucial."
“First, you have to make sure you cut out any rotting foam inside the hole and secondly you have to make sure that the board is totally dry before you get to work. Once you have those two points sorted, you’re on your way."
Getting the board back home I’d given it a full inspection. The seller was right, it definitely did need some love.
Covered in bumps and bruises, I was clearly not the first person to repair this board. This wasn’t the Brewer’s second life after all, more like its fourth of fifth. I’d managed to buy the little board that just wouldn’t quit.
Most of the damage looked to be cosmetic, a few dings that needed to be covered and some ding jobs that were looking a little delicate, but not disastrous. There was a small hole in the top that needed filling, all fine.
Then I saw the biggest problem, a broken fin at the bottom.
“Mending fins is real tricky," Matt tells me as I ring back in panic over the missing fin, “that takes it from a simple job to a pretty advanced one." This is bad news I explain, the simple job was already a stretch if your personal skill level is sat at none.
“Do you think the board could ride as a single fin?" he offers, impressively invested in the broken board and panicked journalist interrupting his weekday morning. “Maybe you should cover the other fixtures and fill in the broken one. It’s a risk, but unless you’re secretly a surfboard shaper in the making, it’s your best bet."
Time to get to work. Firstly I had to take all the old wax and dirt of the board, using a hairdryer to melt the really tough bits and a credit card to scrape it away.
Turning my attention to the broken fin I mix up my filler and begin to fill up the hole. It looks messy and I’m not sure if I’ve already gone wrong. Smoothing it off and leaving it to dry, I start filling the other dents and cracks and wonder if I’m going to end up making the board into a bench after all.
Once dry, the board looks rough but doesn’t seem to have any holes. Sanding it down I cut down the fibreglass sheets into the right sizes and begin to apply with the resin. It’s messy and I have wax and resin all the way down my jeans and on the floor of my living room.
A couple of hours later, three cups of coffee, two minor breakdowns and one go at gluing my fingers together and I’m done. Two fins and a handful of dints down, the board looks pretty good. I phone Matt back in a rush of pride and excitement.
“You did it?!" he laughs. “Congrats man! I never doubted you! Send me some pics, I’ve got to see this zombie board brought to life."
“It’s more of a Frankenstein board," I say, looking at all the old and new repair jobs up and down the rail, “I’m not sure how much of the original board is even left."
“As long as it surfs!" he says, “Now you have a name for it too, Frank the surfboard! I’m sure you and Frank have got many days of surfing ahead of you."
I thank him and send him some pics of my slapdash repairs. Sitting in front of Frank I get out my mobile and look up train prices to the coast.
Three weeks later and me and Frank are on a beach in north Wales.
I've come down to surf with a group of friends and give my board it's tester trial, but looking at the shiny Epoxy boards around me, I'm feeling less confident that my own frankenstein board will hold up after all. We were expecting 3 foot waves, but it seems that the surf report had lied and we're sat in front of waves of only a foot. Most of the group lay down their boards and go to hire paddleboards from the rental shop, to avoid a wasted journey.
Picking up my board, I head towards the shore - waves or no waves, there's only one way to find out if it's going to ride.
As it hits the water, I look for signs that my repairs aren't holding up, but I don't see any. As I start to paddle out, I can feel how unstable the board feels, but it also feels like it's holding up. After a half hour of floating around in near flat conditions, I'm happy that the board is watertight. I see a small wave coming towards me and I start to paddle in.
Popping up and turning into it, I ride it for mere seconds before the wave disappears, but I ride it all the same.
Will Frank last me very long? Probably not. But I got a surfboard and successfully fixed it up for under £35. Even if we only get four or five trips together, it was still well worth the effort. The next surf trip is to Devon in a few weeks, to see how Frank holds up on some bigger waves!