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shaper builder

Balsa

Ray Young worked alone out of an old stable across a small park beside Wellington Street, a right hand turn off Bondi Road going uphill. Just across the way from where Graeme Thorne was kidnapped in 1961. A lottery win gone tragic.

Ray had the facility of an old loft across that sunny strip of park and everybody and everything that needed to be delivered to, or taken away from his business, had to hope that he was in the building on the day.

Ray had no schedules; he would to wander in and out of building commitments as often as the weather changed and he was fearsomely unapologetic for missed appointments and delivery times, though a young boy with dreams of a new board would find him readily complicit, he would listen. His best boards were for the youngest Bondi surfers and he had this coastal thing about him that defied all commercial sense.

Phlegmatic, almost dour, this big old man who would wear a suit and RSL badge on his weekends abroad had an open ear for our illusionist chatter and enthusiasm, unlike our fathers so recently returned from the war. Those impatient men with an engraved sense of discipline and little knowledge of the ways of  children, men so scoured of hope, so fettered with bloody memory.

The shavings pile at the foot of the ladder was an indicator of his daily progress as Ray would sweep all his balsa leavings off the top floor and down through the trap.

Some days a golden pyramid of blonde lightwood curls sat there awaiting us, and the ever-increasing size of it was enough to have everybody scrambling for the bottom rung of the ladder at the same time. There were times however when the pile of shavings remained at the same height for weeks on end, and when this was evident we didn’t bother climbing the ladder to knock at the trapdoor.

– because Ray was away surfing, sleeping out of a tent somewhere, following a ground swell moving up the NSW coast with a few friends, clocking in at all the Heads – Crescent, Hat, Scotts, Evans, Arrawarra, Angourie, Broken, Lennox, Boulder, Flat Rock, Byron, Crowdy – then into the Queensland border series; a lengthy and solitary business in 1959. A dreamtime memory in 2010.

When he was in he wordlessly welcomed the tousled heads that poked up like haystack-haired mushrooms through all the shavings and glass cuts on the loft floor, all of us sprouts up the ladder, so many grinning heads just happy to be where Ray was: kids from Bondi and Bronte Public, from Waverley College. South Bondi kids.

Kiting off from Religious Instruction, Maths, Algebra – Fridays would have boys from the Colleges in their cadet uniforms standing around the park,watching for movement in the upper window of the loft.

We all loved this place of ancient island trades, as we did watching this taciturn man work amongst his glues and clamps, seeing him saw and plane down the rough square sided balsa flitch into a graceful water biting edge.

And how we liked to be able to call this big old surfer by his first name, and he would stop work sometimes – and look over at us – us, his clients, way over there in the corner, boys sitting so silently, watching his quiet work on our boards. What a teacher would pay for such attention.

He had an office off to one side; an upturned tea chest with a bundle of invoices weighed down by a brick of fully cooked polyester resin. A couple of pages ripped from a surfing magazine decorated a dusty wall above the chest, some early Makaha waves, impossible for us to comprehend. A glued-up black telephone sat marooned on a kitchen stool and it never rang once in all the hours we spent with him.

Greg Noll, Waimea Bay

Ray was generally silent as he sawed and glued up angled plinths into the balsa, and splashed down the resin topcoat onto the glass-covered timber. There was no apprentice handy for abuse; as is the time-honoured way, no shiftless offsider available for the menial tasks, although we would not have baulked at any request from him for assistance.

Ray was the compleat shaper builder, a man who could fashion these nondescript planks of lightwood into a graceful surfboard. He had a habit of running his rough palm over the deck of the board he was working on as he walked around it, almost fondly.

Like a man does with his best dog.

Even now I don’t know why a bloke like Ray was doing that. The money was poor and at times the balsa took eight weeks to arrive from Ecuador, and it was sometimes unusable, wet and heavy after an exposed Pacific crossing.

Another time he lent me one of his boards to take to Surfers Paradise on a school holiday when he wasn’t able to deliver a new board in time. He just signed it over to the airline, deliver to Main Beach, use it as you like.

I was fourteen. It was 1958. I was just another kid.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Steve Shearer #

    Wished I coulda read this instead of the garbage in surf mags when I was coming of Age.

    Fortunately, that time in the late 70’s , there were surfboard factories in the main street of Byron and malcontents and fuck-ups and bizarre Californians existing on post-war trust funds. The smell of resin and incense and maybe something intense and fruity grown in the soil.

    Fucking first rate piece of writing Pete.

    December 6, 2010
  2. cheers mate – tried to find the old boy a few years ago but had no luck – had another couple of worthwhile experiences with scott dillon when he was at bondi as well – one leaving certificate gone bloody west thanks to the days off – fair trade though….

    December 6, 2010
  3. Blown away, Pete. Great writing and perfect complimentary photos.

    December 11, 2010
  4. Thanks sharky, I drove past the old park not long ago – foolishly hoping that the old building would still be there, of course it was not – but the dark alleyway where scott dillon used to call home was still as gloomy –

    December 11, 2010
  5. Pete,just had this client walk in for a dental appointment.He ignored the golf and fishing magazines in the waiting room and reached for an old copy of The Australian Surfer’s Journal. In it he found an ancient photo of himself surfing and after a few questions I found this story and realized who I had in the chair.He is still a great story teller with a good memory. I mentioned your name to him and how you had no luck finding him.He would be interested in having his stories recorded and if you want to get in touch,contact me via FB.Cheers.

    August 15, 2013
  6. done mate, back to you

    August 15, 2013
  7. Well. Whaddya know – a bloke named Sandro, who’s known to a bloke named Kidman, put me onto a bloke named Ray.
    I’ve got his phone number, the old lad must be in his eighties and I have it on professional authority that he is as blessed with as many teeth as me.

    August 17, 2013
  8. sjh #

    big fucken deal , can he still mow that’s what id like to know good Balsa shapers are not that easy to come by and nothing makes rhino chaser like good old Balsa , its the weight its perfect.

    August 21, 2013
  9. He lives about ten miles away from here, there must be some kind of magnet in the rocks at this place. And he only made 36 boards he said, all balsa. Me and my best mate got one each. Are you listening Yatesy?

    August 21, 2013

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