Sam Egan Surfboards
I had the pleasure of doing a road trip in April 2014 down the east coast of Oz and it was my intention to meet as many legends in our Rare Surf Tee stable as I could. Sam was busy shaping when I called in and he was really giving of his time to see what we were up to and appreciate the work we are doing to recreate the old surf designs on our tees. He was busy shaping with a planer in his hand. This biography by Michael Kane appeared in the Pacific Long Boarder Magazine way back in 2000.
There are few airs or graces about Newcastle - pretty much everything in the city is industrial strength. The determination needed to sustain decades of coal and steel production - in good times and bad - has made the locals tougher than most.
Sam Egan has been shaping boards for over 50 years. The master shaper is a surf-industry pioneer in a city which has always valued performance over promotion. The proud eagle sticker on the deck of his boards is rarely recognised outside Newcastle. But in the steel city itself, the Sam Egan label is an intrinsic part of the local surf culture. While his son Luke may have hoisted the Egan name into the pro surfing spotlight, Sam himself has been quietly influencing surfing at the highest level, his shapes under the feet of many of the WCT top 44 and aspiring young longboard stars.
He's uncomfortable talking about himself, but talk surfing and you're there for hours. Quiet and easy-going, he's good company, keen to hear the ideas of others. And despite having encountered most of surfing's colourful characters in his fifty-plus year career, Sam never once has a bad word to say about anyone. He's just that kind of a bloke. While his skills as a shaper put him at the cutting edge, Sam probably belongs to another more innocent time.
Maybe about 1964 when surfing in Australia he was a wide-eyed grommet. When everyone, knew everyone else. When you knew Barry Bennett and Scotty Dillon and Midget Farrelly and when you came down to Sydney you went surfing together. When all the surfers in Newcastle used to get in their cars and drive in a convoy, with their lights on, down to Catherine Hill Bay to go surfing together.
When there were no retailing giants or big dollar sponsors. When your wife could be named Miss Surfing World, and it was all fun. When surfing was a lifestyle and a community outside of business and the 'establishment". When your motivation for everything was simply the love of surfing
Sam Egan was 14 when he discovered wave-riding in 1956 as a member of the Cooks Hill Surf Life Saving Club, out the front on a sixteen foot wooden toothpick. Getting equipment was almost impossible in those early days so the teenager built his own, teaching himself how by studying toothpicks that had been smashed up on the rocks. By 1958 though surfboard design was starting to leap ahead... Sam spotted a marine ply malibu (that he thinks might have been a Barry Bennett) on the beach at Merewether. He measured it up, went home and made himself one.
Another few months and Sam was riding a Bill Wallace balsa malibu purchased from 'Reg A. Baker's Sports Store' in Newcastle, the board made up of short lengths of balsa glued up lengthways and across like stepped floorboards. Then came the discovery that Barry Bennett was making a superior balsa board with red cedar rails. Sam and three mates put in their orders, endured a six-week wait, and on the day of delivery sat at the kerbside for hours until Barry's FJ Holden ute finally arrived.
Sitting on the beach one day early in 1960, Sam was approached by a fellow called Ray Richards. He wanted to know whether the young surfers would buy boards from him if he began selling them from his car yard. Sam encouraged him and put him onto Barry Bennett. Ray went ahead and the Richards family was introduced to surfing.
"I met Scotty Dillon… I can't remember how… And I became an agent in Newcastle for his boards (in opposition to Ray). He was selling boards out of his car yard and I was selling them out of my house. So I was the first backyarder in Newcastle. I wasn't making boards then, just selling them. I'd go down to Brookvale in Sydney to pick up boards from Scotty. After hanging round Scotty's factory I got to know how they were made. I used to hang around watching." Sam flashes on another memory. "I met McTavish there! He was only about 14 then, hanging round there too. I was a little bit older than him."
"Whenever I went down to Scotty's we'd all go surfing together. If it was big we'd go round to Voodoo. We used to take (the late) Bob Pike with us. I can remember one day was so big only Scotty and Bob would go out ."
Barry Bennett had begun supplying Sam foam in 1960. Having worked with marine ply and balsa Sam took to it easily and he was still the only shaper in Newcastle. Brookvale was about three and half hours drive away and there were only a handful of manufacturers … Barry Bennett, Scott Dillon and Gordon Woods. Plenty was happening in the USA but that may as well have been on another planet.
Apart from the basic manufacturing skills he'd picked up from Scott Dillon, Sam was completely self taught. These were pioneering days. "All we did then, really, was clean the blank. The blank that we got was virtually the shape of the board, except when you made it shorter. Then we found out that if we did change things it made a difference. We learned from then… by making different size boards from one blank. Blanks were approx. 9'6" long, so if you wanted an 8'6" you made it from a 9'6" blank. By changing the shape of the blank to make different size boards was how we learned boards went different with different shapes. Everyone began experimenting with different shapes and different tail curves. That started everyone wanting a different shaped board to their mates."
Still only making boards part-time, Sam estimated there were about 150 surfers around Newcastle in those days. “Ray then gave me a job repairing his boards… by this time he only sold boards, he'd got rid of the cars. I was still making boards at home in the backyard and then in 1963 I went into business for myself. My first shop was with two surfing friends. They only lasted a year or so. The shop was next door to the Beach Hotel. My mum used to work the shop for me." Sam started out making 10 boards a week, but was soon faced with a six week long order book so he had to expand.
"My first employee was Jimmy Newburne, the hottest surfer around here at the time and still a really good surfer. We couldn't keep up with the demand. We used to do everything ourselves. Glue up the blank, make our own fins… everything"
By now surfing was exploding in popularity - production went up to 50 boards a week. Sam's wife Margaret was managing the business, now running two shops in Newcastle as well as supplying boards to shops up and down the coast. Sam's mum still worked there as did Sam's sister and Margaret's sister as well. But the expansion brought extra demands and responsibilities.
"When I first started making boards it was to go surfing, so I didn't have that restriction on your time. Just make boards and go surfing. But it seemed to turn around where the making of boards took over your life and you didn't surf as much. It turned around; it ended up the opposite to what you started with."
Business continued to boom into the seventies when Sam's health began to falter - while the doctors were baffled, Sam was simply unable to maintain the hectic pace. The family battled on, but by the mid eighties they were ready to sell up… A decision Sam regrets having to make, but at the time there was little else they could have done. “My wife used to say that she had to run two surf shops to finance my hobby of making surfboards."
It's always been a team effort with Sam and Margaret; both love surfing and are proud to have been so involved in its development. Margaret's broader business background (in 1986 she won a "Businesswoman of the Year" award) and over forty years of hand-on experience have given her plenty of insight into the surf trade.
Sam doesn't get into the water as much as he 'd like, failing health continuing to frustrate him. As far as the doctors can tell, he suffers an immune system problem, not helped by years of exposure to the toxic materials used to make surfboards.Sam seems to almost shrug off his chronic health problem, upset only that it keeps him out of the water too often. When he does get a surf in his eyes light up and you'll get an animated story about how the good the session was.
Sam’s son, Luke Egan's success on the world circuit (WCT) has made this devoted surfing family very proud. Sam taught Luke to surf "I used to take him to quiet places.. you know, not too crowded. I'd paddle out with him hanging onto my foot. I'd tow him out. He used to complain it was too big..." Sam chuckles. "He's not like that now but."
For Sam making surfboards is an extension of his love for surfing. He wants other people to get the same kick out of it that he does. He pursues the ideal board the way others chase the perfect wave.
"You just can't get a board that's perfect. But, sometimes you get a board and you're really happy with it. You're so happy with it that you don't even want to know how it goes, in case it doesn't. The reward is when you give a board to a guy and it goes fantastic… the day to day reward is if you can get one to make you happy when you shape it... because it's pretty hard. Sometimes you're in there shaping away and shaping away and you get this calmness. You get this coolness in your body. It's like a drug. And you know it’s coming, it's coming. And you're in the groove… you just feel it… it's hard to explain, sort of like being in a barrel. I never feel like I could stop shaping."
It's a love job for Sam - He couldn't bring himself to do it just for the money. In fact he's almost a kind of anti-businessman. It's like he feels selling his skills and ability isn't right. He does it for the love of surfing. His passion has not gone unnoticed, attracting plenty of surfers who stick by his shapes. And there are some high-profile customers among them - at one stage Sam was supplying boards to 28 of the top 44 WCT surfers! We won't go through the list but it includes four world champions and a few serious contenders.Shaping for son Luke and the other WCT surfers, Sam gets to see the latest designs from around the world.
If asked to name one standout shaper, Sam says Al Merrick. Donald Takayama's shapes impressed him so much he even ordered one of his boards in order to learn more. "Really there are lots of good longboard shapers around. See, most longboard shapers are really experienced and it shows in their work. Another thing is that guys are all riding different boards to get different things happening with their surfing. So there are all kinds of longboards that suit different riders in different waves. There's no one longboard or shaper that stands out. One thing about Australian longboards is we all seem to want something different, like different rails or rocker. We don't seem so interested in models, so there is all this development all the time. I think that's why Australian longboards are pretty good now." He also places Billy Tolhurst, Bob McTavish and Bob Brown highly is for their all round design work. And rival Newcastle shapers Mick Byrnes and Peter Sheely aren't overlooked.
Of course Sam is quietly confident about his own shapes, having been making surfboards continuously for more than 50 years - he stopped counting over 20 years ago at 30,000 hand-shaped boards. By itself, it's a body of work that makes him a bit of a legend - and how many others can say they started making 16' wooden toothpicks in 1958 and still make boards for the top 44 in 2001?
Sam rides longboards and loves shaping them, but he makes no secret of the fact that he sees shortboards as surfing's main game. For Sam they are the pinnacle of design development and performance, and he argues they should be the first choice for young surfers. "Today's longboards incorporate everything we learned with shortboards. They are a much better board than what we had in 1966."
Regarding the thruster as the biggest innovation in surfboard development, Sam expects board-design to simply continue to be refined in coming years. How many others can say they started making 16' wooden toothpicks in 1958 and still made boards for the top 44 in 2001? His influence stretching back to the 1950s, Sam would have to be seen as the father of surfing here, a role he's fulfilled with distinction.
Consider the champions who have come out of Newcastle; a roll-call including Mark Richards, Mat Hoy, Luke Egan, Jye Bynes, Josh Ferris, Peter Cornish, the Late Col Smith, Bob Lynch, Ross Ramsey, Ted Harvey, Ron Rudder, Peter McCabe, Jimmy Newburne, Marty McMillan, Chad Edser, Roger Clements and Simon Law. Their emergence is proof that the city is home to an elite, world-standard surfing community, one which demands the very best equipment.
And that's where Sam has helped to make the difference, and not just with his own boards.Ask almost anyone involved in shaping in Newcastle who taught them how to shape - or who taught the person who taught them - and they'll say “Sam”.
Sam's "apprentices" have in turn gone on to make their own mark on world surfing - there will be no boasting, but their teacher can be proud. Sam is still shaping world class surfboards to this day.
Bio By: Michael Kane.