James Otter – 5 Surfboards That Have Changed My Life

Me and James Otter. Photo: Mat Arney

To celebrate the release of episode 115 guest James Otter’s new book Do Make, he has shared five key making experiences from his life shaping wooden surfboards:

“It’s been over 12 years since I began making wooden surfboards, and what a ride it’s been! Ten years ago I went full time, and I don’t think I’ve ‘worked’ a day in my life since. I can’t quite believe that making surfboards, hanging out with close friends and enjoying the outdoors in and around where we live is the day job. 

Over the years, several surfboards have left a lasting impression on me and helped shaped the path my life has taken. Here’s a short journey through the five that have had the biggest impact. They also follow my own relationship with making, and show how it has evolved over the years”.

1. The First Ever

“I was studying for my Designer Maker degree at Plymouth University, and looked set to follow the career path of a fairly typical furniture maker. In my spare time, I chased waves, obsessively checking weather charts, early iterations of MagicSeaweed, the wind and the tides.

At the same time. I was becoming disheartened by the surfboards I was using. They were made of incredibly harmful materials and not built to last, which sat completely at odds with my own values of caring for the planet. I felt there must be way to make a surfboard out of more sustainable materials and as a woodworker, I naturally started to investigate the idea of making a wooden surfboard.

After a few months of research, and experiments with various construction techniques, I decided to design and make my first wooden board – a classic, 5’ 10” twin fin fish. It was an exciting process. As each step took me closer and closer to a finished surfboard, the level of excitement and anticipation really started to build. Would it float? How would it sit in the water? How would it paddle? How was that first wave going to feel? 

I distinctly remember settling into the shaping process, and imagining the way the water would run down the rail. I got so giddy with excitement that I stopped and said to myself, ‘No matter what happens in the rest of my life, I HAVE to keep making wooden surfboards’”.

2. The One That Led To Otter Surfboards

“Soon after leaving university, I set myself up with a small workshop in a friend’s barn. I wanted to carry on making surfboards, and I wanted to test and develop how to make them in a way that would use timber efficiently and make for boards that would be strong, light and long lasting. 

It took about 18 months and around 10-12 boards before I was happy, and during many a classic pre and post-surf conversation I started to think about how to best go about getting my boards out into the wider world. 

While I was whittling away in my workshop, a chap named Steve dropped by. He was a local surfer and enjoyed making things out of wood, so it’s safe to say we got along pretty well. After a few cups of tea, he asked a question that would change my life: “Do you think you could help me build a wooden surfboard of my own?”

I rocked on my feet a little, as the question surprised me and made me nervous. What he’d actually asked was whether I’d happy to share the knowledge I’d amassed from two to three years of trials and tribulations. I didn’t know whether to keep my cards close to my chest and only offer him a custom made board, or whether the experience of sharing the making would hold something more for the both of us. 

I spoke with my wife and family about the prospect and came to the conclusion that I had to give it a go. Wouldn’t I always wonder ‘What if?’ if I didn’t at least roll the dice this once?

So it was that over the next few months, Steve would drop by on a Wednesday afternoon and work on his own surfboard, with me there to guide him and help him through each step of the process. As we got to know each other, I could feel that sharing the fun and joy of making was in turn making me incredibly happy. Some advice from my Dad began to ring in my ears. ‘Stick to what you enjoy and you’ll end up doing something you love.’ It was clear: if I was enjoying this experience as much as Steve clearly was, it was something I had to keep in my life.

Helping Steve to make his own 8’2 had clearly stuck a chord in me, so I worked out a planned structure of five days’ work in which a wooden surfboard could be crafted so that I could begin running courses to allow people to experience what Steve had just done.

Our workshop courses were born”.

3. Skinner’s SAS Cribbar Gun

“After a couple of years of running workshops and making custom surfboards, Surfers Against Sewage approached me about a project they were planning. They wanted to help showcase and celebrate the more sustainable side of surfboard production and thought that putting one of our boards through its paces with a pro surfer could be a really good way to do that. 

We began knocking our heads together and they suggested working with Ben Skinner on a board to surf at the Cribbar. So Ben came over to the workshop, and we began thinking about a board he could paddle into some big waves at the notoriously fickle spot off the headland in Newquay. We settled on making a 9’ 8” gun, even though Ben had never surfed one and I’d never made one. In the moment, it felt like the right board to make for that situation. And so began months of research and conversations with shapers around the world so I could work out what shape would work best.

After making it, we waited….and waited. Ben has surfed the Cribbar since he was a teenager, but his life revolves around making and surfing longboards alongside the best in the world. It meant keeping a keen eye on the swell and weather charts for a big, clean day at the Cribbar. 

Alas, it never really got as big as we’d hoped, but when a solid swell came through Ben paddled out into the waves and took a few on. Watching on, my heart was in my throat, even though my feet were firmly on solid ground! 

We managed to capture some of his day on film thanks to the efforts of Al Bendal. Today, the board hangs on the meeting room wall at SAS as a reminder of the project, and how we can all push our own boundaries when we work collectively”.

4. Stokesy’s Shortboard

“For a number of years, thanks to feedback from surfers and our own sense of direction, our shapes reflected the type of surfing and quality of waves that the majority of us can relate to: longboards, twin fins and mid-length all-rounders. Boards made for catching lots of waves and making the most of any waves conditions we face. 

Then, last year, we were approached by a film company to work on a project with long-time British pro surfer, Alan Stokes. The plan was to replicate one of his favourite hybrid shortboard/fish boards and let him surf it as best he could at his local spot – North Fistral. 

At first, I was a little nervous because we’d always shied away from comparing our boards directly to true ‘performance’ boards. But Alan was so excited by the idea and supportive of the project that we went for it. Doing what we could to replicate his favourite 5’6 ADPT out of wood was challenging and exciting because it meant we were going to see what Alan could do with a board that was familiar, yet new. The wooden construction would certainly make it feel different to his own board, but what would he be able to do on it? We’d have to wait until the film crew travelled west and the swell and wind aligned to find out. 

This film was the result. For me, the most exciting part of the entire project came when I was speaking to Al on the beach afterwards. He was so excited by how the board carried its momentum and allowed him to complete a full grab rail roundhouse turn – something he’d never done on a foam board! Wow! We thought we’d get some interesting feedback, but to know that it was actually allowing him to push some of his surfing further forwards again was amazing. 

Suddenly we could consider how our boards fitted into the world of performance surfing with a legitimate belief and understanding. Keeping open to these projects and making sure that we never stop learning is a massive reason that I still love making boards to this day. You never know where the next board might take you”.

5. A Family Affair

“As much as collaborating and pushing the performance of the surfboards we make excites me, nothing quite compares to actually sharing the fun and joy of making them with our customers.

We’ve had individuals who have grown in confidence far more than they’d imagined, and made surfboards they didn’t think would be possible. We’ve had strangers come together for a  week of surfboard-making and leave as good friends. But the most incredible and long-lasting memories are made when we have family members making boards alongside each other.

We had a father and son join us a few years ago and when I reached out to see how they’d been getting on with their boards, the father came back to me with some feedback. He acknowledged that whilst the surfboards gave them the perfect excuse to go on surf trips together, their week in the workshop together had made the biggest impact on their relationship: “Spending the week together, away from our usual routine of jostling timetables and racing from one place to another, slowing down and connecting over something we are both passionate about, gave me the opportunity to see what a beautiful young man my son is becoming.” 

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about that. Wow, what an amazing space to have been able to provide for those two. That’s what gets me out of bed each morning; knowing we can create memories that have a lasting positive impact for people that reconnects them back to their hands, the planet and each other.

That, and the thought that there might be some fun waves to play in at the bottom of the hill!”