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Surfing the wave of history

The walls of Verve Cafe have become a time warp for East Coast surf culture, with unassuming surfboards of history hanging high on the walls.

Rescued from garages, basements and animal pens, the boards are in the spotlight for the special exhibition.

Verve Cafe owner Ray Teutenberg told artist and surfer Richard Rogers there was an opening between exhibitions, so why not but up some classic surfboards?

So Richard — known as Buck — called up his friends.

“I live at the beach and people I know invariably have a few old boards floating around,” Buck says.

The boards range from garage boards made at home in the 1960s when surfing was beginning to boom, all the way to modern hydrofoil boards that glide above the waves.

“It is a total evolution from the stabs to the foils,” Buck says.

“What's really cool is that you'd ask someone and they would have a few boards around . . . Then they'd remember the one under the house and go out and pull out something old and dusty.”

A classic kneeboard on display was found in a chicken coop.

“I tried to find boards that had a bit of a story behind them to make it a bit more interesting.”

There's Ricardo Christie's board from the World Surf League Championship Tour, with words and images spray-painted on the top.

There are plenty of classic boards, even a Gerry Lopez board made in Hawaii.

A favourite of Buck's is a board from the late great local Allan Byrne that was made in California.

“He was a bit of a legend back in the day because he was just so ahead of everyone else.”

Allan won various New Zealand Men's Champion competitions from ‘64 until ‘79, staying at the top of the surfing for 15 years, winning his first trophy when he was in his early teens.

“He went on to become a shaper . . . He was really well respected in Hawaii,” Buck says.

Allan went on to compete at the Hawaiian Pipeline Masters and, in 1977, set up Byrning Spears surfboard company.

Surfing is said to have started in Gisborne in 1959 when a group of Piha surf lifesavers brought boards into town.

“The phenomenon of surfing had arrived, never to leave,” it says in the Gisborne East Coast history book, A Splendid Isolation.

Surfing continues to boom, says Buck.

“It hardly used to get surfed out at Makorori, but now it's sort of the best place to go and learn. It's got a nice, gentle aspect to it.”

While the modern hydrofoil on display looks more like something from the America's Cup, the oldest boards look more like something Tahitians were surfing when Captain Cook's ship was anchored in Tahiti over 200 years ago.

In A Splendid Isolation, it says the first board in the region was a fibreglassed piece of balsa wood owned by surf lifesaver Gary Robinson.

“There's so much history here, and everyone that has surfed has still got a board somewhere that is special to them,” Buck says.

Even the hydrofoil on display is quickly becoming an antique compared to new boards coming out.

Buck says the boards and the surfers are part of living history.

“They've got the history. That board somebody won a title on, this board was the first to have rails like this or a fin like that.”

Buck is already looking to expand the exhibition, hoping to get a board from the 2021 New Zealand Women's Champion, Saffi Vette.

The boards not only reflect the changing styles over the years with improvement in technologies, but the personal styles each surfer had

“The surfboard is an incredible shape between form and function. You sacrifice one for the other and it works differently.”

The change in board styles reflects the person riding it and the thinking going on in the head of the shaper, Buck says.

“This is just a general collection with a few examples. There's so much more than just this.

“There is real scope for a Tairawhiti surf museum. It does strike a chord with so many surfers in Gisborne, which has such a long history of surfing.”

The Tairawhiti Museum has a handful of surfboards in its collection, but Buck thinks the region could do with a dedicated space.

“It's limitless. You'll always find someone with a board under their house. They're real collector's items.”

But Buck says the tales behind the boards are already being lost to time.

“The stories get lost . . . you stumble across these things, but you don't get to find out the story behind them.

“People love stories . . . you could go on forever finding these old boards.”

ON THE WAVE: Early surfers competing in the 1966 champs in Gisborne. File picture
THE CHAMP: Local legend Allan Byrne stepping out of the water at the New Zealand Champions competition in 1967, where he won in the under 18s category. File picture
CHAMP: Allan Byrne with his trophies from the under 18 category at the New Zealand Champions competition in 1967. File picture
COFFEE AND BOARDS: Verve Cafe has a surfboard exhibition showing some of the earliest surfboards from the region. Picture by Liam Clayton

Leave a Reply to Terry Byrne Cancel reply

  1. Terry Byrne says:

    Hey, this is an interesting article, brings back some memories. Allan and I started surfing Labor weekend 1959. Our father Des had made us a surfboard over the previous winter, you just could not buy them at that stage. Anyway, it was about 3.0m long, very wide and very heavy. Allan and I would struggle down to Roberts Road with it and take turns catching waves. Needless to say the young Al was already a wave hog and disputes arose over whose turn it was. So Des made us one each by the end of that summer and peace reigned.
    I lent Allan some money in about 1988 or so to kick off Byrning Spears and the rest is history. Dale still makes Byrning Spears boards at Currumbin.
    Currently our much younger brother Ian (Ern) Byrne has started his own label (The House of Byrne) in cahoots with his son Jake who is a fashion designer and I believe Allan’s eldest son Jamie is going to come on board too at some stage. Ian tells me he has lots of orders for boards and he charges top price for his custom boards, which are very well regarded on the Gold Coast and further afield. So the Byrne name still lives on in the surfing world.
    Best regards, Terry Byrne, Caloundra, Qld.