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Interview: James Otter - Otter Surfboards, UK

As you may know, yours truly is from England, and though I deeply love living in New York, from time to time I glance over my shoulder to see what I’m missing. Brexit isn’t one of them, but Otter Surfboards most certainly is.

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We recently caught up with Otter Surfboards founder, James Otter, to find out more about his wooden surfboard company. Otter descends from a family of farmers and carpenters, so if there’s a gene for finding pleasure in working with your hands, Otter almost certainly has it. Growing up connected with the land and with craftsmanship Otter went on to attended one of England’s more outdoorsy, coastal universities, Plymouth. It was here that the idea of building wooden surfboards first struck.

Ice Cream Headaches: Tell us about the genesis of Otter Surfboards - where did the idea come from?

James Otter: The thought of making my first wooden board actually came from a magazine: The Surfer's Path. I was studying furniture making, heading into my final year and through the summer break they ran an issue called 'The Wood Issue', which exposed me to a whole world of wooden surfboard makers. I loved the idea of it, so began working out how to use local timber to make surfboards. After two years of experimenting, I got to a point where I was happy with the boards and started working out how to sell them.

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ICH: Did you know right away that you could make it work, or were you considering other paths at the time?

JO: I definitely didn't know if it would work, but I was young, so didn't have any financial commitments or dependants, and I had the 'If not now, when?' question rattling round my head. So I jumped into it and gave it all the energy I had. Luckily I've had such supportive friends and family that are still by my side to this day, who have helped make it all possible.

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ICH: You've said in previous interviews that you were surprised and very happy to discover that teaching people how to make these boards was almost as fulfilling as making them yourself. What is it about teaching, or the combination of teaching and making, that’s so satisfying?

JO: By teaching people to make things, you open them up to what they are capable of doing with their own two hands. It gives them such belief and confidence that you can't help but smile. Today, not many people stop and take the time to make anything, let alone something they plan on playing with in the ocean, so the excitement and anticipation that rattles round the workshop during our courses is just magical.

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ICH: What's the hardest thing about running this company?

JO: For me, it's simply the ambiguity of it all. We never know when the next order might land in our inbox, which leads to some pretty lean months, even years, which can be tricky to deal with. Although we definitely aren't in this to make lots of money (I think that would be incredibly hard), we do need to make enough to keep going, and that can be challenging at times. Luckily, after 8 years’ running the company, we're still here and still smiling. It still doesn't feel like a 'real job', hanging out with friends, laughing and surfing for most of our waking hours.

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ICH: For people who are deeply attached to surfing, but who’ve never tried a wooden board, what would you say to convince them to give it a go?

JO: I know for a fact that it isn't for everyone, but for those with an open mind it can transform your surfing. Our boards finish about 25% heavier than a typical foam board. They have momentum and carry speed, so they really suit big, smooth turns and flowing lines. If that's the kind of surfing you aspire to, then they could be just what you're looking for. Also, knowing exactly how they are made and what they are made from - literally being able to see where the trees once stood - is a big plus side for us. We make our boards to the absolute best of our abilities and know they will last decades, all of which contributes to better care for our planet.

Surfer Jonny Leon

Surfer Jonny Leon

ICH: How important are partnerships with other brands or sponsored surfers in spreading the word about your work and your boards?

JO: We love working with like minded people, companies and charities. It's a way to elevate what we do and expose ourselves to new audiences, so it works really well as a way of getting our name out there. It's also one of the most enjoyable parts of the job because each new partnership or project demands creativity and a new story.

ICH: Is there any surfboard technology you're aware of, or following, that you believe could make a meaningful dent in the environmental impact of mainstream surfboard manufacturing, and what are the barriers to wood as a material playing a bigger role in the industry?

JO: I think there are several that are interesting to keep an eye on, but it's a tricky question because most of them are still based on a very capitalist attitude of selling more products to make more money. It's really encouraging that you have larger manufacturers trying out new materials and manufacturing processes to try to make boards more sustainable, but there is also a heck of a lot of miscommunication and green-washing. The big manufacturers still, ultimately, rely on selling a huge volume of products to make their businesses viable. We focus on doing the least amount of harm we can and making the best product we can, but above all for us, we are building a community of like-minded individuals who will make real changes in their local communities. We can all make a difference.

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ICH: What is your vision for Otter Surfboards in the long term - do you plan to keep growing organically, or are there other plans for growth or diversifying on the horizon?

JO: There are some fairly natural progressions for us, but we enjoy doing what we do so much that it's mostly about the preservation of that. It's funny, we got together a few years ago as a team and decided that growth for us doesn’t mean chasing targets for more customers and more sales. Instead, it’s about finding ways to improve our customer's experiences, add more value to the surfboards and our care for people. We've got a few projects and plans up our sleeve, but ultimately we're keen to keep doing what we already do. When you have customers that make positive, life-changing decisions off the back of their experiences with you, it feels like we could hang up our tools tomorrow and be more than happy with how we’ve affected the world around us.

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We’d like to thank James Otter and photographer Mat Arney, for their time. Check out Otter Surfboards at their website here.

For news, action and offers, follow Ice Cream Headaches on Instagram here.

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Interview: John Weber - Surfrider Foundation

If you’re a ocean-going soul and you’re not already aware of an organization called The Surfrider Foundation, it’s about time you got an introduction. 

In its own words, Surfrider is dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world's ocean, waves and beaches through a powerful activist network.

Under the banner of this mission, Surfrider is focused on five key initiatives: to ensure public beach access, promote clean water, fight against plastic pollution, protect the ocean and preserve the coastlines around the US. It’s a tall order, but as the saying goes: it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. 

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To learn more about the critical and complex work Surfrider does on our behalf, we dropped a line to John Weber, Surfrider’s Mid Atlantic Regional Manager. 

Weber grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey. His grandmother had a beach house on Long Beach Island, were he caught the surf bug during long school summers. After some time away from the ocean at college in Virginia, he found his way back to the Jersey Shore where he’s lived ever since. We asked how John became involved with Surfrider.

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“A few years out of college, in the early 90s, I went to this classic longboarding event with a friend. Surfrider had a table there and they invited us to attend a chapter meeting later on. After we surfed my friend wasn’t interested in going to the meeting, but I decided to go along and learned more about what Surfrider does. I was interested in helping out, and started going to the chapter meetings regularly. They gave me things to do like tabling at surf contests and concerts.”

Weber took up a day job organizing professionally for NJ Citizen Action - a not-for-profit that fights for social, racial and economic justice. He continued volunteering for Surfrider, taking on more responsibility as time went on. 

In 2005, Surfrider brought on a new CEO and restructured to operate regionally. The organization began searching for full-time regional managers to help organize the dozens of chapters in every corner of the US. Weber’s professional background in not-for-profit organizing meant he was perfectly poised to take on the role. He became the first Surfrider employee on the East coast, and has now worked there for 13 years. 

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Somewhat uniquely, Surfrider measures its impact by the number of victories it wins when pitching itself against politicians and businesses whose actions could harm the ocean or the coast. Though the organization is largely comprised of volunteers, this simple indicator of success helps Surfrider to stay focused in its efforts and to learn lessons from each campaign that can be applied to the next - even when the next campaign may involve new volunteers or take place in a different part of the country. These guys really understand how to win a political fight.  

We asked Weber about the actual process involved in legislative battles. “My role has a practical function, in that a lot of hearings and meetings take place in the middle of the day. Volunteers are generally at work during the day, so I go to the meetings, cover them and provide input. I answer a shit-ton of emails and have a lot of conference calls! My goal is to try to organize support for a specific position or idea so it’s all in one place. This way our voice is more powerful and impactful. I’m not running around trying to convert people who don’t believe in a particular point of view. You’d be exasperated trying to convert them! It’s a matter of getting people who already agree to do something.”
 

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Surfrider’s power to effect change and protect coastlines and oceans depends on its activist network. “We’re not doing this through high-priced lobbyists in D.C,” Weber explained. “At a local level politicians care about whether people are going to vote for them. We train volunteers so that when they do stand up in front of a town council, they’ve got the science and the speaking skills to make the case in their communities for protecting the coast and the beaches. We invest a lot in that training - that’s how we rack up the victories. We do it without spending lots of money. We can make a big difference with three people turning up at town hall meetings and speaking a few times.”

We asked Weber about where the work of Surfrider intersects with climate change, especially in an era of unprecedented environmental threat and climate change denial

“On climate change, Surfrider has a unique position. We recognize that it’s an underlying factor - what we see happening on our beaches and in our oceans all relates to climate change, but we’re not working on the emissions end of the problem. Someone wants to put up a seawall. Why? The water level is rising and the beach is eroding - that’s climate change, but we’re at the table with insurance companies, real estate developers and risk assessors. We’re not going to convince them with charts and graphs about global warming. We’ll convince them with the dollars and cents: ‘You will lose money.’ That makes it easier for people. Also, we keep our work local and grassroots: ‘Your local beach is disappearing and here’s a plan to protect the private property.’ If they love the beach, they’re in - we had them at ‘beach’. People can actually see the local manifestations of that work.”

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Of all the challenges faced under Surfrider’s broad remit, we wanted to know the most pressing issues for the East Coast region Weber manages. 

“Oil and gas affects the whole East Coast, so it’s number one to me,” Weber said. “In this region and for the NYC chapter, the Williams Transco Pipeline is a big one - it’s coming from New Jersey and multiple chapters are affected. NYC is doing an incredible job on that right now, and it feeds into the bigger climate change debate. When we’re fighting the fossil fuel industry, it’s never about the facts. We can win the fight because of power, because we have amassed an amount of power politicians can’t ignore. I can get more votes by bringing in the wind energy people, because it’s about creating a new industry.”

Another issue at the top of Weber’s list is plastic pollution in the ocean. The scale of this problem has come to the fore in recent years with scientific documentation of the mind-boggling Atlantic and Pacific gyres, swirling with slowly-degrading plastics that are working their way into the food chain. 

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“It’s a reminder that we’re not paying attention and we’re mucking the place up. Who wants to go surfing with a bunch of plastic crap in the ocean? Surfrider has been working on it for over ten years, and a newer offshoot is our ocean friendly restaurant program, with a goal of serving 500,000 plastic-free meals. Hundreds of restaurants have registered for that program. As seemingly the whole world has changed its attitude about plastic straws, one of the requirements for participating restaurants is ‘straws on request’ - i.e. for people who actually need them. You can live your entire life with a reusable coffee cup and a reusable water bottle. This kind of programmatic work is never really done - there is nobody on the opposing side fighting against you. Millenials are more on this than older generations for sure. Young kids just get it - it hurts animals!”

Finally, we asked how Weber stays motivated when this line of work can seem like an endless uphill battle. 

“The legendary environmentalist John Miur said, ‘All the victories are temporary and all the losses are permanent.’ I don’t know why I’m hopeful. There seem to be more losses than victories, but I’m super motivated by the volunteers that come out of the woodwork - they have plenty of passion. Because people continue to come forward and take a basic step like helping with a beach cleanup or leading an action, I continue to be hopeful.”

We'd like to thank John Weber for taking the time to educate us about the important work Surfrider does. 

Our enjoyment of the world's oceans is literally Surfrider's mission, so if you haven't already, please --> join the Surfrider Foundation <-- right now!

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Interview by Ed Thompson

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Justin Mulroy - Lifeguards

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There are few jobs more complimentary to life as a young surfer than lifeguarding, as we learned when we interviewed 20-year veteran lifeguard and surfboard shaper, Charles Mencel for our book.

So, as you can imagine, we were seriously stoked to hear from Justin Mulroy, a lifeguard and photographer from New Jersey who has spent several years documenting lifeguarding culture in Sea Girt and Monmouth County. We'll let Justin take it from here!

"Lifeguarding at the Jersey shore had always been a dream job. Growing up a surfer, I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to spend the summer. From eleven to fourteen years old I was a Junior Lifeguard and every surfer I knew was on the patrol."

"At the time I saw lifeguards as people with the best job in the world, but I was clueless about what being a member of Sea Girt Beach Patrol actually entailed. I scraped by my first year on the beach, grinding through the foreboding lifeguard test, a 500-meter swim and a mile and a half run. The swim was tough, but, to my relief, I completed the run rather easily."

"At 16, I was the weakest member of my Rookie class, but seeing the people I was surrounded with quickly changed that. Training for the first time for something other than surfing, I sought to compete in the traditional lifeguard tournaments held across the beaches of Monmouth County, the prize: bragging rights as the most athletic patrol." 

"The tournaments consist of running, rowing, swimming, and Paddleboarding with a few unique events thrown in, depending on which town is hosting. Every town ordered and set up their own events in the most advantageous way possible to their individual beach patrol."

"Lifeguards at Sea Girt Beach Patrol are watermen and women that understand the lineup better than most of the surfers out in the summer. We swim around in hurricane surf, laughing. We have great responsibility as first responders not only to people in distress in the water, but to anyone who may need assistance on or near the beach."

"The roster ranges from 16 year-old rookies to 70 year-old veterans, the oldest, known as 'Ace'. Ace leads the beach with his morning announcements and holiday speeches, always concluded with a resounding “Praise Him!” Working for Sea Girt is more than just a summer job: it is looked forward to all winter long, keeping people swimming, running and training... even in the dead of winter."

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We'd like to thank Justin for reaching out to share his photos and his story, and for the service he and his fellow lifeguards do for their local communities! 

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Words by Ed Thompson & Justin Mulroy

Photographs by Justin Mulroy

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Matt Clark - Four Frames - Part II

Following on from Part I earlier this week, here's the second installment of four photos from Long Island Photographer Matt Clark. 

Jesse Joeckel - Greenbush, Indonesia

Jesse Joeckel - Greenbush, Indonesia

Matt was shooting at a shallow, left-breaking reef in Indonesia when, by chance, he turned to look back at the beach, risking a closeout on the head. Jesse kicked out of a wave at the same moment. “I shot the sequence,” Matt explained, “and when I dumped the memory cards to my hard drive on the boat, I saw one that just captured this weightlessness, balance and tranquility that seemed special.”

When Matt returned home to New York and edited the images, he found the image more powerful when it was rotated through 180 degrees. “Finding this being, suspended in time looked beautiful to me,” Matt told us. “Often I won't find the most beautiful moment until months and months later when revisiting my work. I spend a lot of time looking for these moments and editing them over and over again until I feel satisfied.”

1998 - Long Beach, NY - Tom Zaffuto paddling out

1998 - Long Beach, NY - Tom Zaffuto paddling out

Aged 14, Matt took this photo of his friend Tom paddling out to bodyboard Long Beach. The photo was taken with a disposable waterproof camera. He submitted the photo to Bodyboarding Magazine and they ran it in the reader photos section. “I felt a duty to represent the place I was born and raised and felt as if I needed to prove to the world that you can be a surfer/photographer from New York,” Matt told us. “Nearly 20 years later and I'm still here doing it.”

To see more of Matt's work, check out his website

To keep up with our latest news and stories, hit us up on Instagram

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Matt Clark - Four Frames - Part I

This week we're excited to share four photographs by Long Island photographer Matt Clark, and the story behind each one. Through Matt's tireless dedication he has gradually carved out a niche for himself on the water's edge. When we interviewed him for the book, we sat in his lounge and scrolled through his library of photos, entranced by a colorful, hypnotic display of the beauty, power and variety of the ocean. We love his work and we hope you will too. 

After Hurricane Sandy, Long Beach, NY - Rob Bielawski

After Hurricane Sandy, Long Beach, NY - Rob Bielawski

“This is an image of a friend named Rob Bielawski after Hurricane Sandy,” Matt explained. “The cold, harsh concrete, the debris in the sand, the lack of sky - it's very urban. I love capturing images where the surfer is unidentifiable. When I used to look at surf imagery growing up, my favorite images were the ones I could imagine myself in, and I can't imagine myself if I can see someone's face.”

6 months after the storm hit New York, the shattered boardwalk had been completely dismantled, leaving only a concrete skeleton. Matt was on the beach shooting another swell when someone walked between the pillars, briefly creating this dramatic framing. Matt took note and took an opportunity the very next morning to re-frame the shot with a friend. “It’s an unidentifiable urban environment,” Matt said, “but you know the surfer is going to escape the weight of the world by going for a surf.”

October 23rd, 2006 - Long Beach, NY - Nor-Easter swell from the roof of the Jackson Hotel

October 23rd, 2006 - Long Beach, NY - Nor-Easter swell from the roof of the Jackson Hotel

Matt planned this image months in advance and his diligence was rewarded. This photo scored a double page spread in Surfing Magazine, hailed as iconic by the magazine’s photo editor, Steve Sherman. “This was a defining moment in my photography career,” Matt told us. “It was the first image that ran as a featured photograph in a magazine as large as Surfing.”

Matt had envisioned the image in sketches made months before he took it, so finally creating it and having the photo published showed that real dedication pays off. “I had illegally scaled the fire escape of this building with a backpack full of camera gear to scout out the position,” Matt explained. “Pulling myself up the final ladder, my nerves were on edge. This was 5 years after 9/11 and I imagined the police and FBI being called about a sniper on the roof.”

The day Matt scouted the shot, there were no waves to speak of, but he took note of the angle, framing and the lens he’d need when the moment came. 

Sure enough, that day came. A Nor-Easter rolled into New York with howling NE winds, building swell and ominous grey skies. “I spent some time photographing from the beach and thought to myself: ‘I may as well go shoot from the roof of this hotel.’”

Rather than climbing the decrepit, rusting ladder in the rain, Matt convinced a janitor in the hotel lobby to take him to the roof. He lied to the janitor, pretending he’d left a lens cap on the roof the day before.

“He said ‘no problem,’ but he’d have to accompany me up. I did my best to tell him I would be fine, worried he would  watch me the entire time and only give me a minute to shoot, but he insisted.” Matt managed to bluff his fictional search for the lens cap for a full ten minutes, shooting photos of the waves from the roof as he went. He snagged this shot of a wave breaking across the gap between two buildings just as the janitor lost his patience. “In my illustration months before I drew a perfect A-frame, but this seems even better. I love lefts.”

Stay tuned for Part II later this week. 

Check out a few more of Matt's photos we'll be featuring on Instagram this week. 

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Mikey de Temple - Into the Sea

This is a public service announcement: your lawn care regimen is screwing up the ocean.

Earlier this year Mikey de Temple and the Surfrider Foundation released a film highlighting a lesser-known aspect of our fragile relationship with the ocean, especially on narrow, densely populated barrier islands such as Long Island, NY and Long Branch, NJ. 

The beautifully produced film shares critical insights to guide us towards a sustainable relationship with our environment: a relationship where we don't take too much and we take care of what we have.

Complicated it ain't, but important it most certainly is. 

For additional lawn care advice and cool photos, follow @icecream.headaches!