The last time I’d seen Maurice Cole, face to face, was for what I’d sold to the publisher of Surfing Life as an “On Location” issue. I took the magazine somewhere remote, the northwest of Australia, and shot and wrote the whole thing while inspired by the stars, the desert nights, the empty waves, the ever-present threat of shark attack, and by living in isolation with Maurice, his then-protégé Taj Burrow, Shane Powell, Pancho Sullivan, and Martin Potter.
How long had it been, then? Twenty-five years? More sand through the hourglass. It was time to reconnect.
I found Maurice in the Capbreton factory of Surf Odyssey, right next to Hossegor, where he first came for the amateur world titles in 1980. He fell in love with the empty beachbreak tubes, and it was where he developed a close friendship with Californian transplant Tom Curren that peaked with Curren’s 1990 World Title on M.C.’s boards, and the famous reverse vee design of 1991. As we spoke, it became clear the summer hadn’t been kind to the Aquitaine. The last two weeks had been flat with another week, at least, of a still Atlantic to follow. Salt in the wound were the crowds, always a surprise to the first time visitor to France, not so much to those who know.
Fortunately for Cole—the now 63-year-old whose relationships with Curren and Burrow, as well as his pioneering of tow-designs with Noah Johnson and Ross Clarke-Jones, made him, for a considerable time, one of the most in-demand shapers in the world—he had 200 Euros burning a hole through his fist, and wine was aplenty.
“I’m going to see the alcohol dealer,” he said. “I better go buy some cheese for the five bottles of red I was given yesterday. I’ve got a contest going on Instagram. Bring a beautiful bottle of red and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a magic board! Now everyone’s bringing me the best wines, trying to outdo each other.”
In FaceTime conversation with Maurice, it’s less an interview and more of a waterfall of ideas and opinions. The green accept button is the cork. Punch red to stuff it back in the bottle. What might come across on the printed page as caustic is delivered in a benign laughing style that suggests anything but bitterness. —D.R.
Tell me what you’ve been doing these past twenty-five years?
Just my life, mate. I’m trying to remake the money I’ve lost over the years. My wife wants to retire. I’ve got more drama than Donald Trump. I’m an absolute Trump addict. You couldn’t have made this shit up. No one could make this shit up, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. He’s like the BeachGrit of the political world. I spend way too much time on the Internet. My best friend is Google. What I love about the Internet is the amount of information about everything and anything.
You’ve spent the last four years or so warning everyone about the “Surf Industry Apocalypse.” Is it finally here?
We’re in a full-blown crisis. The whole allure of surfing has collapsed. There are more people in the water than you’ve seen in your life. Here, there are 1,615 people down at Siegnosse taking surf lessons. It’s in the newspaper. It’s incredible. Being really small, every hundred meters, there’s a fucking surf school. I went out the other day, offshore, nearly shoulder high on the sets, and there were 60 people out, and no one could surf. The only thing keeping me laughing was riding a longboard and playing the slalom course, much to the distress of the other bastards. And, pretending that I couldn’t surf. I’d do an “el spazmo” and people were throwing their boards away in horror. I had fun doing that. Industry wise, the WSL is just a sanitized version of what surfing is, and it’s not translating beyond traditional markets. Surfboard sales are down 50 percent, clothing 30 percent. It blows my mind what I’ve been hearing coming out of the States, especially all the glass shops closing down. It’s the end of an era. Look at Torquay. Two billion dollars worth of wealth, and none of it put back. None of the owners’ kids work for the companies.
“I went out the other day, off shore, nearly shoulder high on the sets, and there were 60 people out, and no one could surf. The only thing keeping me laughing was riding a longboard and playing the slalom course, much to the distress of the other bastards.”
How do you view the current state of the surfboard-building industry?
There’s a whole underbelly of fake marketing. It’s fake bullshit. The surf industry is in a full-blown recession, even though the economies are doing okay. It’s a huge combination of oversaturation, of too many boards and too many technologies. The consumer’s really confused. Five years ago, the big brands were going, “Asia’s fucked.” Now, they’re all making boards in Asia, copying what Hayden Cox did with the Hypto Krypto. And Kelly’s boards. Fuck! Who’s going to ask Kelly, “Why did you put fake carbon on the boards?” People are spinning out. People are going, “It’s not carbon. It’s a sticker.”
You disappeared in the mid 2000s until now. Where did you go?
I moved back to Torquay after I left Western Australia [where he lived from 1995 and where MC Surfboards was started] and everything was going good. Then we did the BASE thing [a mega surfboard company setup in 2003 to streamline costs, which also included Darren Handley and Simon Anderson. It collapsed in 2011 with $5.6 million in debts] and it was an absolute fucking disaster for me, and for all my friends who invested. After BASE, I went underground. I was very hurt. I was disillusioned, bitter and twisted and in a very dark place. I spent more than a hundred thousand dollars trying to get my name back from BASE and, unbeknownst to me, all that stress with the lawyers was very taxing on me. I finally realized I had to get off the fucking couch, and really get back into shaping. I kept disappearing down the coast with Ross [Clarke-Jones], and it was one of my more creative periods. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me said that I had 35 years of undiagnosed depression. He asked me if I’d killed anyone. I told him I’d never kill anyone who didn’t taste good. He didn’t appreciate my humor. So I tried to rebuild myself. I came back to France and stomach pain dropped me on the floor. A doctor had to come and give me morphine to get me off the ground. They did a check and found I had very, very advanced cancer. They asked me if I’d had anything stressful happen. Well, when I was negotiating with BASE to get my name back I went to a dark, dark place. I say I activated the cancer then. But I fought it. Francois Payot [who set up Rip Curl in France] guaranteed the hundred grand I needed to get to the States for cryo-revolutionary surgery. Vegan diet. No fucking bread. No pasta. No dairy products. Eating five meals a day. At that time, Matt Biolos came and asked me to make some surfboards with him. He really gave me a hand so I could cover my expenses. A couple of years later the cancer came back, and I had to fight it with hormones and radiotherapy. That knocked the shit out of me. I’ve only had a clean bill of health since June. The cancer, at the moment, doesn’t look like it’s there.
“If someone had told me when I was 20 that I was going to get the biggest barrel of my life at 53, I would’ve said they were tripping. But I did. It was a 20-foot wave—smooth and clean and massive.”
I’m starting to rebuild again. Traveling a lot. Japan twice a year. France twice a year. The U.S. four times a year. It’s been a lot of trauma for the people around me. My family suffers too. But that’s the world, mate. Don’t take life for granted. I asked Ross, “Should I get fit and drive that fucking ski for you at Nazaré?” We’ve got all new boards, all new guns, new ten-footers, new ten-sixes, new tow designs and it looks like I’ve nailed something. He’s going to spend the winter there hoping he gets really big swells. Me? I’m still alive, still cranking, overweight because of seven fucking years of hormones, but I’m really excited about rebuilding the surf industry. That really appeals to me. It’s a challenge, pioneering new areas. In certain areas, I’ve never felt so relevant.
In what way?
I’m getting so many fucking custom orders. There’s a real boom in customs. I can see that the future is there, not working in shops. Build your online businesses, and serve your customers. Just give ’em really good service. Everyone’s becoming accustomed to it. If you want to have a look at an incredible thing, look at REAL Watersports at Cape Hatteras. They sold 900 …Lost boards online last year. They’ve got reviews of every model, of every board. They’ve got credibility. Look at Billabong and Quiksilver. They’re all caught up in the same thing. SurfStitch is another fucking bunch of surf pirates. That’s why I get a bit bummed. People took the short-term money, and left empty vehicles for the kids, the sons, the daughters, and the younger generations. Now they can’t inherit these amazing companies. Except Patagonia. They’re going through the roof, still. Their brick and mortar store went way above projections. I look at the skateboarding thing. It retained its integrity. We’ll end up with smaller companies. I’m really interested in what Dane [Reynolds] and Ando [Craig Anderson] are trying to do with Former. You try and do something like that and you get all the critics. But they’re all old fucking codgers. The other thing, has there been any skate companies that have gone public? Every surf company has gone belly fucking up or is struggling. I’ve got a friend in the States at Oaktree, and they’re having a meltdown. They can’t fucking believe what’s happened, what they’ve got stuck with [Oaktree Capital owns Billabong and Quiksilver].
How do you see your future?
I’m travelling over six months of the year. When I come home, I’m fucking tired. I watch all the footy replays, read a couple of online forums I haven’t seen, watch the Game of Thrones episodes I missed. Recharge. Shape some boards and leave again. It’s easier overseas. I haven’t been able to get my shit together in Torquay. I’m on a mission, though. I’m trying to work out what it is.
How are you dealing with age?
Wait until you see how quick you get to 63. If someone had told me when I was 20 that I was going to get the biggest barrel and do the best turn of my life at 53, I would’ve said they were tripping. But I did. It was a 20-foot wave down the coast. It was so smooth and clean and fucking massive. If I hadn’t come out I would’ve died. I had that much adrenaline. I did the best fucking hack I ever did, and then I jumped off. I didn’t need another wave that day.
You’ve made a lot of money. What’s left?
I have nothing. I’ve got a pretty good surfboard collection. My wife’s over me. I made so much, but lost so much. That’s why I’m here in France. I pick up five grand here, ten grand there, and pay a few debts. I have a 12-year-old car worth 500 bucks. I think I’ve got my integrity. Can you tell that to my wife? That it means something? She’s over the drama of making surfboards. She wants to live a simple, peaceful life. She’s been with me since I was 18, poor thing. She’s just burned out. I was telling Ross and he said, “You can’t fucking retire. You’ve got too much fucking shit to do!”