And, this morning, he arrived at Bells with 'em…
“If it wasn’t Kelly Slater I couldn’t give a shit,” says the semi-retired shaper Greg Webber, explaining his return to the shaping bay as he pulls a modern interpretation of his famous early-nineties banana board from the rear compartment of a station-wagon.
Greg has stopped, briefly, at a photographer’s studio in Sydney, en route to the surfboard’s destination at Bells Beach. He smiles.
“But if Kelly likes it…”
The surfboard is a five-ten squash tail, with flyer, all white, the Webber Rorshchach logo mid-deck, and when one holds it by the tail, nose down, and looks down along the deck, the famous continuous curve, or banana, reveals itself. The curve is as sculptural as it is beautiful. Such tones and harmonious ensemble. To even get the blank to shape the board, Greg had to physically bend the blanks to the required curve.
Is it art or a workable machine?
A little history. In 1992, Kelly Slater won his first world title, that ain’t news. But, in that year’s first event, at Narrabeen, it was the Australian Shane Herring, on a Webber banana, who beat Kelly in the final. History has recorded Slater’s rapid upward trajectory as well as Herring’s equally rapid trajectory in the opposite direction.
But Kelly never forgot about Herring and, specifically, the turns he was able to create on Webber’s continuous curves.
“The boards didn’t have their full day in the sun, in my opinion,” Slater had told me earlier. “Did you see those turns Shane did on em? And Rommel (Michel Rommelse) and Richie (Lovett)? When the waves have substantial power and speed they’ll do whatever you want and opens up new places on the wave.”
On an earlier call, Greg had told me about a photo Kelly had sent him (super low-res, natch, so the photos can’t be reproduced even online) and I ask that he open it on his phone. Greg has talked the photo up like crazy and I’m sceptical. The little file, this photo that is pixelated even on the screen of a telephone, is almost beyond description. But let me try.
We see a wave, maybe four feet, and Kelly is 10 metres out on the face, rail buried from nose to tail. He is two-thirds of the way through a cutback, and if one imagines the final few frames, Kelly has transmitted a turn so experimental it is, absolutely, one of the best I’ve seen in surfing.
“I wish Herro had stayed with them longer and the older crew like Barton had been open to them,” said Kelly. “It seemed like Shane couldn’t deal with the huge difference in design (focused on him and his success) and carry the weight of it around and he simply quit them instead of taming them down a little. He went straight back to flatter rockers and vee-bottoms I think, which didn’t suit what he had built his surfing around with the tight pocket turns even though he had the low centre of gravity and power to ride anything. The whole design was like this crazy, radical evolution that died abruptly… They were like Greg’s Chernobyl experiment, just super volatile and unstable.”
If you’ve ever tried to surf a banana you’ll know what Kelly’s talking about. They ain’t for beginners. Unless you’re turning, you’re sinking. Get ’em moving and they’re rockets.
Greg and Kelly’s 2015 version has lowered the rocker, but not the nature of the continuous curve. Greg pulls out the analogy of the banana board as a turbo engine as opposed to the normally aspirated engine.
Nothing special, at low revs, but once the turbo kicks in? The trick, of course, is getting rid of the turbo lag. And, so, Greg and Kelly have a few different version of the curve. There are three versions in the back of Greg’s wagon, all untouched, except for my dirty fingerprints on curve #2.
“Low speeds are an issue. It’s a constant balance mixing speed and maneuverability,” said Kelly. “There’s no reason you can’t calm the curves down a bit. Different waves, different curves. We’ll all die looking still looking for the perfect board.”
Is the modern banana going to work? Will Kelly ride ’em at Bells?
“I don’t know where I’ll personally end up with it but I’m into a mix of different designs and ideas at the moment and I’m sure something good will come from it. I’m still riding CI’s and also working with Tomo a bit and even got a couple nice boards from Stacey. I’m sure Maurice will have a couple options for me at Bells also. I’ll likely hit up Simon to see if we can make something for J Bay. Just lots of design ideas getting thrown at the wall. And they all have their merits…”