My surfing experience can be summed up by two brief and inglorious sessions. The first one in San Francisco where I rode 20 cm waves on a longboard, the second in Biarritz where I quit after a couple of 2 meter high wipeouts without ever making past the breakpoint. In other words, I’m not the best placed to talk about surf. But when Matt told me about this shaper named Nicolas Hervo who makes surfboards in Ciotat Marseille, I figured it merited the detour. Because I was like everyone else, I figured that surfing was reserved uniquely to the ocean waves, not that I disavow my tender and beloved Mediterranean, but I’ve seen more flowery shorts and Ricard on the terrace than surfers dipping their toes. So it’s in a back alley, next to a garage full of old cars that we met this big kid in his workshop where he makes his boards signed « Manipura » that we can find in his shop nearby. So let’s have him enlighten us on the Mediterranean scene and on the world of surf in general.
Jacker / A Shaper at «La Ciotat» can intrigue a lot of people. Could you tell us more about it ?
Nicolas / We’ve been surfing for over 40 years here. Contrarily to what most people think, there are waves in the Mediterranean Sea. It doesn’t interest them because people come here on Summer when the sea is flat and it’s rather cool in Summer. People get annoyed when there are waves. For instance, 25 years ago when I was working in a surf shop, I met some Americans and Australians that were after the wave of Saint Louis. Some foreign magazines spotted this place but here only the locals knew about it. It’s a great wave as it breaks over a long distance.
The perks of being here is that the littoral has spike shapes and hence between each spike we get really nice waves from each side. Back in the days, these spots where quiet. Now things are changing. St Louis spot has become very popular and that makes it better for us as other spots became really quiet. It’s my personal choice too, true St Louis waves are awesome but if you have to battle over with other surfers there is absolutely no point to go there.
J / From what consists a good shaper ?
N / A good shaper is someone that can shape a surfboard without a milling machine. Well, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use it at all but there are some dudes out there doing the whole of it with a milling machine. If you ask them for a specific size they won’t be able to make it unless it’s on their software. These are the problems of the new generations. We need to keep the savoire-faire, when a shaper makes a new board he knows why he has done it that specific way. Everyone can buy a board on the Internet, its pure marketing. Clients don’t even meet the person that made the board as its probably made somewhere in Asia. Some people don’t even know how to shape and have a surfboard brand which is quite impressive. Back in the days this was just impossible and now that we have milling machines they make them this way.
J / What sort of boards do you prefer making ? How do you tackle them ?
N / I get a lot of pleasure making old school boards. I like making them partially or completely out of wood. Working with wood is really interesting. We’ve put into place a whole process where we manage the whole production of these materials. Here in Marseille we use the American Aloe, as it’s a very oily plant that looks like a cactus. The flower is a massive thick rod so we cut them and dry them out. Once dry these are as light as balsa wood sheets. We then chop them up and make the material out of it by mixing it with foam and wood. The only thing that isn’t natural is the resin that we buy.
I have a small anecdote regarding resin. One day my brother and I broke into someone’s garden, we could see them having a family meal but they couldn’t see us as it was pitch black outside. We chopped their tree down and left with the tree, it was awesome ! But it wasn’t a big deal as when the flower blooms the tree dies anyway so we did well, although they may have had a different perception of this. In any case it was hilarious climbing off the wall with a tree. Police passed next to us but we acted like if everything was normal then we went back home with the tree on top of the car. It was a really good experience.
J / Wooden boards are a come back to roots, could you tell us how the surfboards evolve over time ?
N / At the beginning surfboards were really heavy, completely made out of wood, Malibu style. They could weight up to 90 Kilograms (14 Stones). People would make holes through the boards and just cover the surface to loose some weight but it would keep breaking all the time. Then with the discovery of resin and composite materials, boards started to be made of balsa wooden sheets. Then polyurethane boardstock foam was invented, I really like this innovation. I like making boards for people that compete. To make it work you need to push the limits to the edge and it’s always a risk.
J / Have you shaped boards for professionals ?
N / I made boards for Tim Bolt who was from the area. Then he moved to Quicksilver. Also I made some boards for Fred Robin. These two are fantastic and always gave me good opinions over my gear.
J / Where did this passion come from ?
N / When I was 13 both of my brothers and I wanted some surfboards and back then our father told us to figure it out ourselves. Fortunately here people are cool and I managed to meet Franz Daher who gave me my first tools and precious advice. I also bumped into Jimmy Lewis who gave me few little tricks. So with few friends I made few brands over time to finally end up with Manipura, registered brand (laughs)
J / How do you perceived the arrival of Asian products to the market ? Isn’t it too accessible ?
N / Both questions are ligated. Surf has become trendy and popular. I would rather say that is too open and accessible. When you open a sport to the population this one finishes to adapt to the people that do it. In other words, the level will decrease automatically... It’s like this with all so-called “extreme sports”. What’s shocking is that those brands with Asian boards try to recreate competition boards to sell. They make people believe that these boards are adapted to anyone in the world. It’s a real problem. Those who actually compete go to artisans and get their boards custom-made in order to get the best fit.
J / So if one of our readers decides to go for a Manipura board, how would that work ?
N / He simply needs to call. The most important is not to lie when getting a custom board. Once he calls we look at it together. If the customer weights 80 kilos and hopes to go down to 70 kilos that won’t work out (laughs). Just like others that are too humble and say they are shit while they already taking the waves diagonally... Other customers tell me they are the shit when in fact they are just beginners... That’s the reason I ask so many questions to the surfers who want a board so I can really understand their needs in order to make the most suited board possible. For a perfect board you need to be honest with yourself although I can still spot those who lie to me.
J / Finally, how do you perceive the future of shaping ?
N / Shaping in coming back slowly. People are going back to roots. They want something that slides and has a real character to it. They want to get some pleasure out of it and they like good quality and beautiful boards. Back then people wanted ultra light boards but they’re missing inertia and at the end they’re just not that great. Here we would break those boards as we want the speed.
The passionate are always looking for an authentic and designed board. Whatever happens, here we make boards for anyone.