The shaper-surfer Maurice Cole prepares the earth for his last, and greatest, comeback.
The Surf Industry Apocalypse, of which Maurice Cole has been warning anyone who would listen for the last four years, is here.
“We’re in a full-blown crisis,” says Maurice, who is sixty-three years old and whose relationships with Tom Curren and Taj Burrow, as well as his pioneering of tow-design with Noah Johnson and Ross Clarke-Jones, made him, for a considerable time, one of the most in-demand shapers in the world.
“The whole allure of surfing has collapsed. The WSL’s just a sanitised version of what surfing is and it’s not translating beyond traditional markets. Surfboard sales are down fifty per cent, clothing thirty. It blows my mind what I’ve been hearing coming out of the States, the glass shops closing down.
Maurice is in the Capbreton factory of Surf Odyssey, right next to Hossegor, where he came for the amateur world titles in 1980, where he fell in love with empty beachbreak tubes and where he developed a close friendship with the Californian transplant Tom Curren that would peak with Curren’s world title on MC’s boards in 1990 and the reverse vee design of 1991.
When you FaceTime Maurice it’s less an interview and more of a waterfall of ideas and opinions. The green accept button is the cork. Punch red to stuff it back in the bottle.
Maurice, meanwhile, has two hundred Euros burning a whole in his fist.
“I’m going to see the drug dealer, shit, the alcohol dealer,” he says. “I better go buy some cheese for the five bottles of red I got given yesterday. I’ve got a contest going here on Instagram (“Bring a beautiful bottle of red and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a magic board!”) and now everyone’s bringing me the best wines, trying to outdo each other. Those five bottles would be worth maybe five hundred apiece in Australia.”
He’s been drinking ‘em too.
Summer hasn’t been kind to the Aquitaine. The last two weeks have been flat with another week, at least, of a still Atlantic to follow.
“I’m looking forward to going to Trestles to get some waves. Now, that’s a worry,” he says.
Salt in the wound are the crowds, always a surprise to the first time visitor to France, not so much to those who know.
“There are more people in the water than you’ve seen in your life, 1615 down at Seignosse taking surf lessons. It’s in the newspaper. It’s incredible. Being really small, every hundred metres there’s a fucking surf school. I went out the other day, offshore, nearly shoulder high on the sets, sixty people out, no one could surf.”
Maurice countered that absurd tableau with a typical response.
“The only thing keeping me laughing was riding a longboard and playing the slalom course, much to the distress of the other bastards,” he says, “and pretending that I couldn’t surf. I’d do an el spazmo and people were throwing their boards away in horror. I had fun doing that.”
The last time I’d seen Maurice face to face was for what I’d sold to the publisher of Surfing Life as an On Location issue. I’d take the whole magazine somewhere remote, in this case the north-west of Australia, and shoot and write the whole thing while inspired by the stars, by the desert nights, empty waves, the ever-present threat of shark attack and by living in isolation with Maurice, his then protege Taj Burrow, Shane Powell, Pancho Sullivan and Martin Potter.
How long’s it been? Twenty five years? More sand through the hourglass.
Time to reconnect.
BeachGrit: Tell me what you’ve been doing these past twenty-five years?
Just my life, mate. I’m trying to remake the money I’ve lost over the years. My wife wants to retire. I got more dramas than Donald Trump. I’m an absolute Trump addict. You couldn’t have made this shit up. No one could make this shit up, whether it’s good, bad, indifferent. He’s like the BeachGrit of the political world. I spend way too much time on the internet. My best friend is Google. What I love about the internet is the amount of information about everything and anything.
How do you view the current state of the surfboard-building industry?
There’s a whole underbelly of fake marketing, fake bullshit. The surf industry is in a full-blown recession even though the economies are doing okay. It’s a huge combination of over-saturation, of too many boards, too many technologies. The consumer’s really confused. Five years ago, the big brands, were going, ‘Asia’s fucked’, now they’re all making boards in Asia, copying what Hayden Cox did with the Hypto Krypto. And Kelly’s boards. Fuck! Who’s going to ask Kelly, why did you put fake carbon on the boards? People are spinning out. People are going, it’s not carbon, it’s a sticker.
You disappeared in the mid-2000s until now. Where did you go?
I moved back to Torquay after Western Australia (where he lived from 1995 and where MC Surfboards was started) and everything was going good. Then we did the BASE thing (a mega surfboard company setup in 2003 to streamline costs that also included Darren Handley and Simon Anderson. It collapsed in 2011 with $5.6 million in debts) and it was absolute fucking disaster for me and for all my friends who invested. After BASE, I went underground. I was very hurt. I was disillusioned, bitter and twisted and in a very dark place. Unbeknownst to me, all that stress with the lawyers, I spent more than a hundred thousand dollars trying to get my name back from BASE, was very taxing on me. I finally realised I had to get off the fucking couch and really get back into shaping. I kept disappearing down the coast with Ross (Clarke-Jones) and it was one of my more creative periods. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me said I had thirty-five years of undiagnosed depression. He asked me if I’d killed anyone. I told him I’d never kill anyone who didn’t taste good. He didn’t appreciate my humour. So I tried to rebuild myself. I came back to France and stomach pain dropped me on the floor. A doctor had to come and give me morphine to get me off the ground. They did a check and found I had very, very advanced cancer. They asked me if I’d had anything stressful happen. Well, when I was negotiating with BASE to get my name back I went to a dark, dark place. I say I activated the cancer then. But I fought it. Francois Payot (who set up Rip Curl in France) guaranteed the hundred grand I needed to get to the States for cryo-revolutionary surgery. Vegan diet. No fucking bread. No pasta. No dairy products. Eating five meals a day. At that time, Matt Biolos came and asked me to make some surfboards with him. He really gave me a hand so I could cover may expenses. A couple of years later the cancer came back and I had to fight it with hormone and radiotherapy. That knocked the shit out of me. I’ve only had a clean bill of health since June. The cancer, at the moment, doesn’t look like it’s there. I’m starting to rebuild again. Travelling a lot. Japan twice a year. France twice a year. US four times a year. It’s been a lot of trauma for the people around me. My family suffers too. But it’s the world, mate. Don’t take life for granted. I said to Ross, should I get fit and drive that fucking ski for you at Nazaré? We’ve got all new boards, all new guns, new ten-footers, new ten-sixes, new tow designs and it looks like I’ve nailed something. He’s going to spend the winter here hoping he gets really big swells. Me? I’m still alive, still cranking, overweight because of seven fucking years of hormones, but I’m really excited about rebuilding the surf industry. That really appeals to me. It’s a challenge, pioneering new areas. In certain areas I’ve never felt so relevant.
In what way?
I’m getting so many fucking customs. There’s a real boom in customs. I can see that the future is this, no working in shops, build your online businesses, service your customers, give ‘em really good service. Everyone’s becoming accustomed to it. If you want to have a look at an incredible thing, look at REAL Watersports at Cape Hatteras. They sold 900 Lost boards online last year. They’ve got reviews of every model, of every board, they’ve got credibility. Billabong. Quiksilver, it’s all caught up in the same thing. SurfStitch, another fucking bunch of surf pirates. That’s why I get a bit bummed. People took the short-term money and left empty vehicles for the kids, the sons, the daughters, he younger generations. Instead of inheriting these amazing companies like Patagonia, and they’e going through the roof still, their bricks and mortar store went way above projections. I look at the skateboarding thing. It retained its integrity. We’ll end up with smaller companies. I’m really interested in what Dane and Ando are trying to do with Former. You try and do something like that and you get all the critics. But they’re all old fucking codgers. The other thing, have there been any skate companies gone public? Every surf company has gone belly fucking up or is struggling. I’ve got a friend in the States in Oaktree and they’re having a meltdown. They can’t fucking believe what’s happened, what they’ve got stuck with (Oaktree Capital owns Billabong and Quiksilver.)
How do you see your future?
I’m travelling over six months of the year. When I come home, I’m that fucking tired. I watch all the footy replays, read a couple of online forums I haven’t seen, watch Game of Thrones episodes I missed. Recharge. Shape some boards and leave again. It’s easier overseas. I haven’t been able to get my shit together in Torquay. I’m on a mission. I’m trying to work out what it is.
How are you dealing with age?
MC: Wait ’til you see how quick you get to 63. If someone had told me when I was twenty that I was going to get the biggest barrel and best turn of my life at fifty-three I would’ve said you were tripping. But I did. It was a twenty-foot waves down the coast. It was so smooth and clean and fucking massive. If I hadn’t come out I would’ve died. I had that much adrenaline I did the best fucking hack I ever did and then I jumped off. I didn’t need another wave that day.
You’ve made a lot of money. What’s left?
I have nothing. I’ve got a pretty good surfboard collection. My wife’s over me. I made so much, lost so much. That’s why I’m here in France. I pick up five grand here, ten grand there, pay a few debts. I have a twelve-year-old car worth five hundred bucks. I think I’ve got my integrity. Can you tell that to my wife? That it means something? She’s over the drama of making surfboards. She wants to live a simple, peaceful life. She’s been with me since I was eighteen, poor thing. She’s just burnt out. I was telling Ross and he said, ‘You can’t fucking retire. You’ve got too much fucking shit to do!’
(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Surfer’s Journal and, briefly, on BeachGrit until it was pointed out by TSJ’s editor, and correctly so since they’d paid for the story, that it must come off the stands before appearing here.)