THE WOLLONGONG CONTINUUM
Gary McNeill is an unlikely guru. He’s from Wollongong for a start, the blue collar capital of the East Coast. The closest thing to sacred geometry in the ‘Gong is a hunk of coal blasted from the Bulli mines. But after decades in the trenches, ghost shaping and production managing for some of Australia’s most iconic board designers, Gaz blasted off alone into interstellar orbit with the idea for a performance twin-fin featuring a geometric curve described by cosmic scholars as “the most foundational pattern of energy flow in the universe.” He needed someone with an open mind to ride it and shaped the first one for Dave Rastovich… who promptly threw it under the house with the rest of his boards and forgot about it. Dave surfed it a year later and has surfed almost nothing else since. The pair have been out there for a decade now, working together to turn magical thinking and some fringe design theory into high performance boards.
SW: Tell me about the surfing scene in Wollongong when you were growing up?
GM: When I was in Wollongong, it was all about the Byrne brothers. Critta Byrne was surfing in the Surfabout. I think he got second to Buzzy Kerbox and I remember me and my mates rushing home and watching it on TV live, you know. And that was a big thing. Those guys were ruling it back then. But it was a typical working class town; no money and no sponsorship. We only had few pros because there was just no money there. We had the talent. There was a lot of guys from up Sandon, but some of those guys just turned to drugs in the end. I pretty much just surfed North Beach when I was a kid and I think there was four guys who hung themselves from my beach. When smack came in on a big scale, you know… before it was pretty much drink as much as you could, drink and smoke a bit of pot, and all of a sudden we had these guys who were bigger and tougher than us, guys who used to beat us up and kick us around a bit, but in three years they were all gone. About 30 of them, all gone. Half of them ended up in Long Bay and the rest of them were dead. Smack. It’s the same as Cronulla. It’s exactly the same story. It’s like it came through the whole East Coast at that time and just took people down.
Was it hard for you as a young guy not to get dragged into it?
I felt like I was a bit smarter than that. I’d never touched drugs at all. I didn’t even smoke. I could barely smoke pot back then and I didn’t even drink really. I just wanted to surf. I was a real surf fiend grommet, you know. That’s all I want to do. I was always dragging friends out to come surf with me.
How old were you when you started shaping boards?
1979 was the first one.
How did that come about? Was that with Phil Byrne?
Phil was later on and actually. It was funny because when I won the Australian Title in ‘92 I was actually riding for Phil at the time, but I was also tinkering at home and shaping my own boards in my grandfather’s shed in Osborn Street, Wollongong. I got to the final and I had this dilemma. I had two boards: one of Phil’s and one of mine. I was riding for Phil, but I wanted to ride my own board. I pulled mine out and rode it in the final and won. That was a really big moment for me because it vindicated that I could do it.
Tell us about the Aussie title.
It was the senior men’s final in 1992 down at Bells, against Rabbit Bartholomew and two other guys. There was four of us at tiny two-foot Rincon. I’m like, here we go. I’ve got Bugs. He’d never lost a heat that year; he won the Gold Coast Titles; he won the state titles. Here we go. I knew he would want the biggest set to come through and he did exactly what I thought. He got the three biggest sets, but if you get the big ones at Rincon they just go fat and all you can do are cutbacks. But when you get the smaller ones, they actually run along the reef and you can whack it. I was doing four or five turns to his one. I was surfing for Queensland at the time. I’d moved to the Gold Coast and was working at the Byrnes surf shop in Coolangatta. My wife was pregnant with our daughter and she wanted to be near her mum, who was actually Gordon Merchant’s sample maker. But then there was a big plane strike with no planes flying. Cooly became a ghost town and the Byrnes folded. I’m like, shit, what am I going to do? I had nothing, no money, nothing to do. We moved back to Wollongong for a while, but eventually moved back to the Gold Coast the following year and I got a job as Nev Hyman’s production manager.
That would have been the start of that ‘90s boom, huh?
Oh, it was booming. It was pretty much Nev and Murray Bourton. Those two were the guys. Murray was doing about 70 boards a week at the time and had four ghost shapers. Nev had three ghost shapers and was doing 150 boards a week. It was just motoring. Nev was in 18 countries. It was such an eye opener for me to go from this little Wollongong deal shaping a couple of boards here and there, to all of a sudden I’m mass producing boards, you know? So there was a definitely a really big learning curve. It threw me in the deep end. I was shitting myself.
How was Nev as a boss?
He was hard but he was fair. He had a little pantograph shaping machine out back and the guy running it was a bit of a stoner so he’d stuff up blanks all the time. So there was a room full of rejects – one rails too low, one rails too high – and the ghost shapers refused to touch them. So Nev said to me one day, “Go for your life, grab anything in there you want.” And so I used to stay back every day after work and shape my own boards with the rejects and make a little bit extra money. It’s actually harder to fix something than start from scratch, so I learned a lot.
And then you jumped to Darren Handley’s from there.
I knew Darren from Kirra Surfriders, but his business was booming. He was the next big thing. When I first went to work for him he was only doing 25 to 50 boards a week, which for him at the time was a lot of boards. He poached me from Nev’s and I was production managing again. Then I started to do a little bit of ghost shaping and soon learned a whole new style of finishing surfboards. It’s chalk and cheese, Darren to Nev, just polar opposites how they finish the board and how they approach a board. I learned a lot from Darren.
In what way?
How to a finish a board properly and how to look at a board differently. I mean, Nev was the master with a planer. I used to stand there and watch Nev hand plane. He used to do all these boards for Northern California, for Mavericks. I learned how I could do it super-fast and super-accurate. Nev used to shape for Town & Country, right? A big week for Town & Country was 15 boards. Nev would go down there on a Friday and shape 15 boards and come home at lunchtime. Seriously. So that’s how I learned. I learned to be a master craftsman with a planer from Nev, but I learned to finish boards from Darren. And then I left him and went to JS, and JS was another level again. By the time I got there he already had Bruce, he had Luke Egan, Dingo Morrison and was doing a few boards for Parko. Straddie [JS] made me the edge guy for the team boards. So I used to have to come in and when the sander had finished with them and I had to edge their boards. Luke liked them sharp and forward, Dingo liked ‘em further back and hardly there at all, and then Bruce and Andy were in between. They knew straight away if they’d been tweaked or not. Once I went to Bali on holidays and someone else edged Bruce’s boards and he got a box of 10 sent to Kauai and he hated all of them. He handed them out to his mates.
How was the vibe between Darren and JS at that point?
They called it a game of chess and it still hasn’t ended. It’s never been checkmate. I reckon it’s come close a few times but never quite checkmate. They were like the Irons brothers because they were both so good. They pushed each other to be better and I think that’s what happened with their shaping. At the time it was all about Kelly and Al Merrick but I think those two guys blew Al away as far as finishing performance boards.
Did you always have in your mind the idea of going alone at some point?
I was always tinkering. I was working for JS and shaping two or three boards myself a week, just for family and friends and crew who knew me. I gave JS three years of my life, put everything on the back burner and just dedicated myself to that but in the end it just was too much. I needed to have something else to do.
What were you shaping for yourself around this time?
I was riding 6’1” pintail thrusters at the time, but I was riding a lot of quads too. I’d been riding quads since the eighties. I actually rode one in the 1986 Coke Classic at Manly.
You were in the ’86 Coke Classic?
I was on the dole at the time and my dole cheque paid for my entry fee. I got interviewed for radio by Terry Fitzgerald, cause I’d made it through three rounds and he goes, “So what surf team are you on, mate?” I’m like, “What do you mean, surf team? I’m on the Bob Hawke surf team! My dole cheque paid for this.” He just broke down laughing and he put that on the radio. I was listening to it on the drive back to Wollongong. But I beat Luke Egan and Nick Carroll. I got out and was walking up the beach and Derek Hynd looked at me and just went, “Who the fuck are you?” I said, “Nobody” and just kept walking. I was riding a 5’10” pintail quad which probably got his interest. I eventually lost to Stuart Bedford-Brown by half a point. The Coke was the only pro contest I ever went in though.
I was curious where the seed for the whole performance fish came from? Where did the idea come from?
Do you remember when Martin Potter was 15 and he was on that green T&C and just going warp speed and surfing so good? That was really inspirational to me. And then I saw him later on in 1990 when he won the world title and he looked good, but he never looked quite as fast. He was riding a thruster in 1990, but back at 15 he was riding a twin fin. He was flying. I rode twinnies in the ‘70s when I was a grommet. I grew up on them so I knew them quite well, but I just remember coming into the ‘80s and thinking they were too loose and too skatey and too hard to control. But yeah. And then obviously years later on I met Dave Rastovich and I watched a movie called Thrive.
Thrive is where the torus channel came from. Sitting there watching it one day and I just had the light bulb moment. Nassim Haramein explains how everything in nature has a torus, everything that flows has this channel, this torus channel. And I’m like, there it is, I can put this on the bottom of a surfboard. I did the first one and the channel was only three inches wide and a quarter of an inch deep, but I could feel it. I made one for Dave, I gave him this board at Christmas time with a torus channel in it, but it sat in his shed for a year. A whole year. That board could have come out a year earlier but it got lost in the pile and he just forgot about it. Then one day he rings me and goes, “Hey, remember that board? I’ve been riding it at Lennox and it goes unreal!” He never got off it for three years.
Can you explain the torus theory and how it works?
Well, Dave calls it the Venturi effect, where if you put something in a hose and it goes from a big hose into a smaller hose, the water is squeezed and has got to flow faster. It has to; it’s got nowhere else to go. So when you pull in a torus, it’s wide at the nose and then it narrows through the middle and then it widens at the tail. The board has to go faster. And then something that Mitchell Rae said years ago stuck with me about wetted and unwetted surfaces. The channel now is about three-eighths of an inch deep and on either side of it you’ve got a panel and when you’re going fast, the board sits up on those panels. So that means there’s no drag for the middle. If you’ve got less wetted surface, you have to go faster.
It seems like pretty basic physics when you think about it… so why aren’t there torus channels on all boards?
I’ve watched a lot of guys mimic it, copy it, whatever you want to call it, but they don’t run the channel the whole way through.
They only run it halfway.
Because they feel they need to run a traditional bottom contour through the tail?
Yeah, exactly. And that’s because they’re still basing everything off thrust. Everything in the thruster is tail, tail, pivot, pivot but the twins are completely opposite. Everything in twins, is that one fin and one rail. But instead of having one edge at your front foot with the torus edge you’ve got two. So you’ve got twice as much hold when you’ve got it up on one fin. When you run these channels through it, it gives you twice as much grip.
When you first struck out on your own, I remember you were working in the Europcar hire car lot at Cooly airport. How hard was it to establish your own label?
I’d just left JS’s and I had a big house on the hill at Kirra with a big mortgage to go with it so I had to work two jobs. I was shaping and then working that job as well cause it paid really well. I finally got rid of that house and bought this house in Fingal and went back to one job, shaping. I got a really good tip off Taylor Steele at the time. He was telling me a story about when he had this whole film studio with 20 people under him in and he had to let it all go. He said, “Don’t be afraid to start again. Don’t worry about it. It’ll all come good.” And it was really good advice. Don’t be scared to back yourself.
How does a guy from blue collar Wollongong become the guru of cosmic twin-fin surfboards?
That would be Dave Rastovich again. I think his design sense gets overlooked quite a bit and if he was a shaper he’d be scary. He’s got a lot of knowledge about how boards work.
I think we’ve been working together 12 years now. When I was working at the airport I got approached by these Japanese guys, and Dave was big in Japan at this point. He was that alternative guy and a lot of Japanese surfers are into that. They were very alternative so they were loving him. This is pre The Cove. The Japanese guys approached me and asked, “Do you know him?” I used to be his team manager at Nev’s when he was 16, so I approached him and asked if he wanted to try some boards. He was already riding for Dick Van Straalen and getting boards off of Akila Aipa and Chris Garrett.
He had plenty of shapers. I asked if he’d try some boards and see how they go, and that’s how it started. I’ve been pretty much with him ever since. I said, “Look, I’m going out by myself” and he said, “Well, I’m coming with you. You’re the shaper.” Dave backed me, so that was really nice.
At the time you guys started working, performance boards were really standardised and pretty white rice. Was the plan to do something leftfield?
I used to ghost shape ten 6’0” squashtail thrusters a day. Let’s talk about brain numbing. So I was so happy when I met Dave because all of a sudden I was challenged, mentally challenged to come up with something better, as different as you want to go. The weirder it was the more amped he got on it.
Can you remember a breakthrough surf Dave had on a board of yours where you’ve gone, whoa, we’re onto something here?
Yeah. I saw him at Bruns Bar one day. It looked like a day at Kirra. It was hollow, four-to-six foot, the water was green and he got shacked off his head. But when he came out he just went into that big drop-wallet smash that he does, but he was doing it at warp speed.
Dave needs fast boards. if the board’s not moving forward on its own it’s not any good. But when I first started shaping for him I never made him twins. It was all about quads. You go back to the Castles In The Sky section, that’s a quad. In the early days he had so many twinnies because he was still getting twinnies off Akila. So I’m like, I reckon we can make a twin with a bit more grip.
Getting the twins to hold at speed was the key?
I’ll tell you another moment. Dave went to G-Land with Hoyo and Peter McCabe and all those guys. He rode a Torus Drive, which is a round nose moontail. He rode a 5’9” Torus Drive at eight foot G-Land and they’re all going, no one’s ever gone this fast before. They’re all flipping out and losing their shit. They couldn’t believe how fast he was going. Dave rang me from the airport and we spoke for 45 minutes. Let’s go deeper. Let’s go thicker. How far can we push this thing?
But you guys have also scaled up those boards. Dave has some big-wave twins that are quite interesting.
We’ve actually done really well scaling it up. We’ve actually come up with some different rockers and some different theories on stuff but it’s all got the channel in it. He’s got a favourite 8’6” that we worked on and that’s maybe two years old. Now I gave him a 9’6” version of that board for stuff mortal people just look at.
How out there have you gone with the boards? What hasn’t worked?
Dave came to me the other day with a filmmaker mate, Jai and he said to me, “We’re looking for an old board that’s failed. Something that didn’t work. We’re doing a little clip about failed boards.” I said, “No worries, remember that board I made you 10 years ago with the crop circle channels? I think you rode it once and gave back to me.” The guy I sold it to rang me up later and goes, “Mate, this is the best board I’ve ever owned!” So I went and made a copy of that board with the alien crop circle channels for this little film and Dave rode it. The board was supposed to be a failure. I said, “This is going to be the worst board you’ve ever rode.” But he went out and ripped on it. It’s a 5’9” twin and Dave reckons he can’t slide it out on his backhand, even in overhead surf. Maybe the crop circles are the next evolution of the torus channel.
Speaking of crop circles, I just Googled Thrive and do you realise Thrive 2 actually premieres this Saturday?
No way, this Saturday! This will be good.
The original Thrive asked all the questions… the sequel will have all the answers!
What are your general thoughts on sustainability with boards?
When you have someone like John John or Kelly say this board is good and it lasts and I can go through the whole season with just five of them, not a hundred, that’s when it’s really going to change. I think Dave’s only broken two boards, which is pretty good for him. He hasn’t broken any flax cloth boards at all. So four-and-a-half years riding that one board really hard and it’s still in one piece.
I wouldn’t even do 10 boards a year for him.
I get that. When you pick your boards up, they feel like they’ve got substance.
Well, they’re double-glassed. It’s flax cloth plus six-ounce, so 10-ounce each side. That’s why they’re in EPS. I’ve done flax cloth on PU but it’s too heavy and it makes them too stiff. They don’t flex properly, but when you use EPS they’re beautiful. They weigh the same as a light PU, but they’ve got a nice flex to them because the flax actually dampens them down, takes the chatter out of them. A lot of EPS are too light and don’t like wind and chop. They get twitchy. But with flax cloth they aren’t like that at all. They don’t mind wind and bump because they’ve got a little bit of inertia in them.
How would you describe your relationship with Dave?
I think I’m probably like his long lost uncle. I remember when I was a kid I used to ride my skateboard up the street with my two mates, and their uncle was Kevin Parkinson. Remember him? They lived in my street and he was their uncle. I would have given my
left nut to have an uncle who was a shaper back in the day to teach me and ride his boards and all that. I missed out on all that, but maybe I’m now Dave’s long lost uncle.
Dave mentioned he took you out in his boat.
He didn’t tell you we were surfing this 10-foot lefthander in his boat. I’m looking back and the barrel is coming at us and I’m in the back of the boat holding on for dear life. And he’s looking at me with the big grin on his face. “This is fun, isn’t it?” And it’s 10 foot! Then up the beach a bit, the steering wheel comes off. He’s holding up the steering wheel and goes, “What do you reckon about this?” I’m like, “This is not good!”
How many boards do you shape a week?
About 20. That’s enough for me.
How has 2020 been for you business-wise?
I don’t think the shapers in this country have ever been this busy in their life. As long as people don’t have to work and the government’s handing out money, all those guys are buying new boards.
What did we say the other day, surfboards have become the new flatscreen TVs?
True. There are thousands of boards backlogged on order they can’t make. Thousands. It’s next level. They’ve got enough work to get them into March next year.
How have you seen surfing during the lockdown period?
A lot of people have really suffered but look how many people are in the ocean. You’ve never seen that number of people surfing ever. I think that’s probably the one thing that’s stopped them climbing the walls, being allowed to surf, you know? It’s given people time with their kids, time to think, time to realise what’s important to them instead of doing nine-to-five, stressing out about all that. You know, I learned that when I left the airport. Having time on my hands that I never had before, it’s a beautiful thing. We’ve only got limited time on this planet so you might as well use it.