tractor man

tractor man

Photos courtesy of JS Industries

Jason Stevenson started from nothing, just a grom who wanted to surf. Then he realised he had to get a job, so he moved to the Gold Coast and started on the bottom rung in a surfboard factory. He is one of the world’s best shapers, with one of the top teams in the world. Trevor at Down the Line surf shop asked him to visit the UK so Steve England popped along to ask a few questions.

How long have you been shaping?
Since 1999 when was I first started JS Industries and the Tractor label. So nearly 21 years.

Has it been an easy track, or would you say or have you had ups and down like the rest of the surf industry?
I’d say nothing is easy. We have had ups and downs like everyone else, highs and lows. And global economics affect all of us, surfboards aren’t immune to that. So yeah it has been a rollercoaster ride but I don’t think its ever been hard. But I think I have been fortunate working with good surfers and working with good guys building boards. Everyone who works for me has worked with me since I set up. Matt Branson is my head laminator but the sanders and laminators have all been there since day one.

That is a sign of a good boss!
I hope so! I’ve been harsh but fair. We pride ourselves in the quality of board we build and we are recognised by the retailers as building the best boards they get. I think that’s been a real strong point that’s got us through a lot of the hardships that the surf industry faced. Also people just want to buy a surfboard even when things get tough. Even more when things get tough. You just want to get back to that happy place, and everyones wants to go surf. So we are not immune but it’s been good.

How have you found the transition from hand shaping to CAD?
I love it. Obviously I have come from that background and I was one of the first to accept and work with the software. I think Ned Hyman was one of the first but as soon as I got involved with it I loved it. I was probably one of the first owner/operator companies. I bought machines which were built locally, off Mikey ‘the German’, he built the first app machines. I was one of the first to get one and never looked back. I think even the other guys in the world now copy the top guys CAD shapes and work off them to produce even better boards. So yes I was one the first to be hands on. I jumped all over it. I think my age may have helped, but I wouldn’t say I was competely computer literate, but when it came to designing surfboards and the machine I knew it was important to have good relationship with the CAD and the machine and the output. There was one machine and now there are five, and now we are working on designing new machines. We are even making and refining our own machines. So you have got to know software, the machines, the nuts and bolts, so I’m not just shaper. I kinda of know all of it. Plus I have really good people around me who are involved in building all of this stuff.

There are so many variables in surfing, hydro dynamics, personal preferences, etc how do you go about designing and getting inspiration these days. Is it from team or F1 or science?
I think because I am a surfer myself I do a lot of the design aspect and I do all the testing. There are things in there learned from the Americas Cup I learned about like the finishes of boats and water friction and what finishes do that are relevant to surfboards. How to finish a surfboard in particular for the elite who get the most benefit of this information. But not too much else. I think it is a unique sport, it’s dealing with waves, individual surfers and styles, so there are no wrongs and rights.

Where do you see it all going?
In my own business and industry we are seeing the change in materials; the top guys are now adopting the new tech. As you know we make our own boards which are called Hyfis and other brands are doing other stuff with similar materials. This is the biggest jump in material since what has essentially been the same process since the ‘60s. We are seeing a big change in designs and the younger generation of surfers and shapers are rethinking the way surfboards should look and be built. And there is now accessibility to the new materials. We are developing boards that are lighter, stronger, faster, all these key words you hear. That is where we are heading. And it’s never going to end. It will constantly evolve.

Do you think we are in a design jump era?
Hard to say. It’s hard to step back, look and make that assumption when you are in the midst of it. And hard to see or predict where the next jump will come. I find it’s dictated, especially when you make boards at the elite level, by what the top guys think, adopt and and where they want to go. I can’t force change on them. Like with the Hyfi it was easier to get some guys to have go and adopt and ride them, than others, who may have been chasing world titles and just had this one track mind. They just wouldn’t sway or jump to new tech. Until they relax and get loose and comfortable with it then things stay that way in the general population. I designed boards and built this new technology but it was really hard to get Joel, who was going for a world title to adopt it. He just said, ‘This thing goes amazing but I’m not going to ride it.’ So that doesn’t stagnate the process but it means you are not evolving at the rate that you would want to. But you just have to keep that in mind.

Surfers aren’t real open to new tech. There was a huge resistance to change from hand shape to machine?
You still hear it today! My son Luka is coming up and learning and some guy asked if he was going to hand shape. And was like ‘No. He is not, because that is not where this is going to progress.’ Because it is not the future of surfing. What we are doing now with these wavepools is the future. We as shapers, designers and manufacturers of surfboards, this is where we will get our best feedback and fuel the biggest design jumps. The one thing we have never had is that one constant static bar, that wave that’s just repetitive. So where we will get wave pools we get opportunties to test. If you look at Texas, and see that they are doing, then you start rethinking and redesigning for ramps and airs and that kind of wave. Then you have Kellys which is a different kind of wave. You have other pools coming up. So all these pools will pop up with all the kinds of waves, but they will break consistently. So I am going to be able to do a wave pool tour and work on specific boards and designs, so this is going to evolve board designs. Bring wave pools on! Who doesn’t want a wavepool in their backyard?

Where is your favourite wave?
The best waves I’ve ever got was when I was travelling with Andy and Joel shooting “Life’s better in boardshorts” at Desert Point. Those were the best waves personally I’ve had. I went from there to Cloudbreak so between those two. Two totally different waves; Cloudbreak is big and scary, and Deserts is so perfect. If I had choice I’d go for Deserts. It’s an amazing wave. And to pull out of a wave some 600 yards down the line, just sit there looking back up and have it suck you back up to the take off! That’s amazing! It’s ridiculous that wave.

Favourite surfer to watch?
I like surfing in general. It’s like asking who is your favourite kid! I’m going to go with Joel as the most aesthetically pleasing surfer in the world to watch. Obviously it’s not that easy but his style and technique are effortless. Then you have guys like Julian with an amazing array of weaponry. Owen Wright one of the most technically gifted surfers, even though he doesn’t ride my boards any more, he’s an amazing surfer to watch. Flores in the heaviest waves in the world … Kelly, Italo, you see inspiring guys at specific breaks. I just think the world tour in general is amazing.

Olympics yes or no?
Yes. I think anything that raises the profile of the sport in a positive way is good. But. I only say this because I heard it was going to be held in a wavepool. If you go to Japan and its one to two foot, like it could well be, it won’t do it justice. But a wavepool, years down down the track, with developed technology which will make it a spectacle, then I’d say great. I’d be negative if surfing was in the Olympics and it was held in shit conditions. As long as the guys get to perform at their peak. So if they can build a good wave pool and everyone gets to put on their best show, because it is a show, and we all want to see a good show, then I’d say yes.

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The Joel Parkinson Interview

Photo: Corey Wilson/Billabong

In September Joel Parkinson made a 28-hour journey and ended up at Down the Line surf shop, Hayle, for the afternoon. He was the first elite WSL tour surfer to visit the UK for a very long time. A top effort and you know what, he turns out to be a top bloke too. Everyone who met him left with a smile on their face. Steve England caught up with him to have a chat.

Photo:  Joli

So what are you going to do when you retire?
Honestly, I’m going to pretend to be busy, so I can surf as much as I can. (laughs) I’ve got a lot of things happening outside of the WSL. I’m still with Billabong so will continue the ambassador stuff. I do enjoy going out and meeting kids and people and putting smiles on people’s faces. So that and a few surf days, that kind of stuff. I find all that rewarding and enjoyable, so I am going to do a fair bit of that. And I also have a few other little business ventures that I’m involved in. I also do Balter beer.

Is there a beer off with your and Taj at Honest?
No, not really. We all get on well, and we try to be supportive of each other, so it’s pretty good. There is no bad blood in beer! (Laughs) And hopefully, I am invited to the Champions Trophy in the Maldives! That thing looks so good. I’ve asked Taj and Kerrzy to put a word in for me!

Do you think surfers ever really retire?
Not from surfing no. The way I put it is I’m not retiring from surfing I’m just taken the competition vest off. That’s the only way I can put it. You won’t see me in the WSL comps. And I am pleased about that because I’ve had enough of competition, but I nowhere near feel like I’ve had enough of surfing. I don’t think you ever think you have had enough surfing. Even today I’d love to have a surf, I am stinging to get the water (after 26 hours solid travel – Ed) so while I have decided I don’t want to pull a jersey on I still have a desire to be in the ocean as much as possible.

Photo:  Courtesy Billabong

It’s one of those things that never goes away.
No, I don’t think it ever does go away. My uncle is 57. He still surfs before and after work, and he’ll take a day off when the waves are pumping. He still rides my shortboards and even steals my quiver. He surfs more than anybody!

Is it that you’ve lost the competitive drive or is it just the pressures of the tour that made you quit. Are you competitive in life in general?
Not really, no. It’s funny I’m not the most competitive human out there, maybe in certain things. It might come back I guess – the drive for one or two events. I’m excited for the early Burleigh single fin event in January. I want to surf in different and fun events. But the WSL is the beast of competitions. And it takes so much out of you with the consequences of winning and losing being so great. So doing the other speciality events without those consequences will be fun. But that is it for the WSL; I’ll never take a wild card or surf on tour again.

Did you not fancy hanging on until the Olympics?

What do you think of the Olympics?
So it’s hard for me to say too much, but my opinion is that I worry. Maybe if it’s done in the wave pool and that’s just that, it will be ok. But I can see it being held in a one-foot beach break at Chiba and it will be a disaster, because the following week or month we’ll be at 10-foot Chopes, and to be honest that is our Olympics. That’s what I think; if you want the Olympics, you take it to Tahiti. For me, everybody is hanging their hopes of mainstream glory on the Olympics, but I think what the general public like about surfing is everything else. They like going surfing, the lifestyle and watching big waves I don’t think they will get small wave surfing as it stands. I think one older Hawaiian guy said some brilliant things. It seems like every 20 years we have this vicious cycle and it’s coming back. Possibly in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we (not me as I was too young!) made some mistakes, and it seems like we may be doing it again. I was lucky to be surfing in a phase where Rabbit started the dream tour with exotic locations and waiting periods and all the best surfers in the best waves, all that is what is great about competitive surfing. I think you learn a lot of lessons from mistakes and some lessons should have been learnt along the way.

Photo:  Courtesy Billabong

Over your career has there been one moment that you feel everything came together and it was absolute gold?

I had a heat in Tahiti, like pumping Tahiti eight to 10-foot perfect Chopes. Nathan Hedge, Ace Buchan and I were out. It had been pumping all morning, and I think we were going in heat four. Hedgy went on the first wave and went deep, and he made with it with a seven score. And then it just went flat… After it been pumping all morning. We were all sat there like “What the hell’s happening here? This is not right?” Anyway, it went on like that until we get down to the five-minute mark. I think Ace had had like a two and I had had like a 3.5, but after that, there had just been nothing. Then all of a sudden with a minute to go in the heat, this three wave set comes through. Hedgey had priority, so he takes off on an absolute 10 foot perfect Chopes barrel, and stands in this thing. He doesn’t get very deep, but he gets spat out into the channel. Ace is on the next wave. He got one of the best barrels of the event. It should’ve been a 10. He was riding on the foam ball at 10-foot Teahupo’o. The third wave was mine. I took off fell out of the lip, as stood in one of the biggest, most perfect, bluest barrels I can ever remember surfing. I got deep, touched the foam and got blasted out into the channel. So there we were, the three of us sat next to each other in the channel. And we were all so stoked I was like, “That was sick, how was yours?” And they were like “Mine was amazing! How was yours?” We all just shared an amazing moment, and it wasn’t lost on us, we were thinking “How cool was that!” It was the worst heat of the morning, and it turned into a fantastic moment. Three guys getting §absolutely drained one after the other. I went and watched it back on the replay. I thought I had got the better one of the set, but Ace’s wave was incredible. It was one of the best waves of the event.

Obviously lots of funny moments on tour. What were the most amusing moments that stand out? Who is the most hilarious guy on tour?
Probably Bede.

Yeah. One of the funniest moments happened after the event in Fiji. We had all had a few beers one night, so I tap out and sneak off to go to bed. The next thing I know my doors being kicked in, and Mick comes in trying to get me to go back out. The Bede tries to get in, and he had this huge sea snake! Somehow he’d been walking around outside caught this huge sea snake. Anyway, I fought them off so he couldn’t get it into my room, but he ended up wandering off and stashing it in one of the guys who was leaving in the morning board bags.

The best person to travel with?
I always liked travelling with Mick just because we’re pretty close. We grew up surfing and travelling together. And it’s always good travelling with a mate like that, somebody that knows you. Especially if something was up at home while we were away, and we needed to bounce something off someone. Andy was always hilarious travel with too.

So on that note mental health is now coming to the fore, with the pressure of the tour do you think it’s essential to have someone to talk to about these things?
Yes for sure I have been a little bit worried about things myself. Like leaving the tour. I was chatting with Barton Lynch the other day, and he told me that he was 12 years on tour and when he left it took in three years for him to normalise. He felt like he’d lost his marbles. And he was like “Joel you’ve been on there 18 years…” I hadn’t thought about that too much. But I asked if he was keen to come off tour or had to leave, and he said he was so frustrated by the end of his career, with companies and being surfers rep, he had built up a lot of things. So I had a good chat with him. That was great because it made me realise that I I don’t feel frustrated. I feel like I’m the other way. I’m a bit more appreciative of what I’ve been able to do to get to this position and what I’ve achieved. I don’t feel like there is any stone I have left unturned and I don’t feel any guilt that I’m leaving. I feel like it’s a release. And every time I end up thinking about leaving and what I’m going to do next I get a smile on my face. I’m happy with life and excited to head to the next chapter.

Photo:  WSL/Cestari

Greatest adversarially? 
My best battles were always with Mick. When we first started on tour he would always be on fire, and I get to him in my heat, and he would have a shocker, and I’d have a stormer! We had so many great battles. At the start of my career, Sunny was probably the most intimidating surfer to be drawn against. Every time I drew him suddenly I’d be like “I could be killed before even getting in the water!” (Laughs) But as I got older and got to know him and he knew who I was, it was nice to surf against him. But at the start, he was the scariest human, and if he lost you’d be thinking “Is he coming after the judges or me?” (Laughs) People forgot how intense he was. But look at him today and is an amazing Aloha gentleman.

Most outstanding surf session over your career?
I got to see Code Red in Tahiti and spent all day in the water watching, and then the huge swell that hit Fiji in 2012. Monster huge. I got a couple of waves that afternoon and then watched the two sets come through that no one rode. That was incredible. To watch the ocean do that is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.

Were you scared at any point?
Erm, Code Red for sure. When they shut it in the morning for an hour and a half, I was out just sitting in the channel on a stand-up, and 30-40 foot waves were breaking onto dry reef. It was the evilest ocean you have ever seen. If one of those had caught you or fallen that would have been it, it would have been over.

What about Cloudbreak were you scared out there?
I guess when you are in that position, the big wave guys, you use the adrenaline as a driver for sure. To a point you know, it’s all calculated risk.

And the last question. Complete the following: surfing is…
It’s been my life. I couldn’t imagine my journey without it, and it’s been awesome.