EXCLUSIVE Britt Merrick Interview: Throwing a Board Under Your Arm is the One True Test

Jason Lock

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Updated 1245d ago

Britt Merrick can talk (and listen) about surfboards for hours. Sure, the stories of heroics in the lineup are great to hear, but it's the grit he wants – does a board bog for you? What felt electric about it? How does it feel under the arm? How are you surfing it? With each answer you give, he's digesting and unravelling your surfing, your equipment and wants to offer sincere feedback to help keep you stoked.

And that's just it, Britt's a shaper who values people's time. On a recent stint through Europe, he stopped off at a remote corner of Cornwall to talk through the CI range in front of a host of enthusiasts and to show off a fresh edit.

But before that, he wanted to listen and engage with people's stories, no matter what they were. A couple of MSW staffers have been riding Samplers for a while (myself included) and he offers some advice about that model – and a few hints about what's coming in the future.

Our senior app developer recently picked up a bonzer Biscuit, something completely different than what he usually rides, and has fallen in love with its speed. “It's great because it's fast and loose,” Britt relays to him. “That's what we wanted with that shape, you want to go fast because it feels good but you want to have some control while feeling like you can really let it go. Fast and loose. And I am so pumped that's what you're getting out of it – that makes me happy.”

For decades, Channel Islands has been at the pinnacle of high performance surfing. A team of surfers help sculpt the brand into a powerhouse of surf royalty; Zeke Lau, Sage Erickson, Dane Reynolds, Kelly was like a son to Britt's father, Al Merrick. But ask Britt about it and it's as important for the average surfer to find their perfect board than it is for high performance athletes. So while Mr Merrick was taking a tour of the Old Continent, we decided to sit down with him under the glow of a warm European bake and talk shop. No waves, it's been flat for what feels like an eternity, so we cracked a few cold ones and got into it instead.

MSW: How would you define the ethos of Channel Islands?
BM: It's always been about relationships, my dad really valued the surfer/shaper relationships, he had deep interactions with everyone. Going back to Shaun Tomson, him and my dad are still best friends. Shaun and I are very close, my dad was like a father to Tom Curren, to Kelly... my dad's philosophy was that the shaper's aim is to serve the surfer.

So if you're going to serve them well, you need to have some love for them. If your goal is to make the person stoked, you gotta really care about them. And I think that's a really cool thing. It's a deep payoff to work hard for someone, get them the equipment, and they're able to perform, and they can fulfil their dreams – that's a deeply satisfying thing. So it comes down to relationships, and the idea to serve the surfer.

In terms of how you got started – was there a time when something clicked and you thought, shaping, this is it. It helps having Al as your dad, of course, but what really drew you in?
When I was growing up, my parents were poor, putting everything they could into the business, both working every day, and so, there was no where for me to be after school except for in the factory. And then, I used to take the trimmings off the blanks my dad was shaping and make little surfboards out of them. [laughs] Tiny ones! A few inches. I did a few of those. Then in my late teenage years I said, ok, I want to do this. From watching my dad so much, I had this innate sense of how to use my tools and create the curves.

I can remember my first board in my late teens and it was a 6'9” pin tail. It was a cruisey tube rider, you know, a board of the time. I glassed it all clear, and I remember my dad went home and told my mum, “Britt shaped a board today and it's good enough to glass”, it's the only compliment I wanted at the time. Man, did I love that board. I still have it. It's crap. You look at it, it's absolute crap. But I loved it. Because there's something really beautiful about conceiving it, then making it and riding it

Because there's something really beautiful about conceiving it, then making it and riding it. I encourage people all the time, I don't care who you are, you need to shape yourself a surfboard. You need to make yourself a board, glass it and go ride it. There's nothing quite like that. It's incredible. You'll come to appreciate surfboards more and the craft. You'll learn a lot. From that first board, I was really hooked. Really hooked.

From that first board to now...what are you riding now, guess that pin tail is hung up somewhere now?
Yeah, I ride nothing like that [laughs] I'm riding a 6'2” Happy. My step down grovellers are 6'0” I almost never ride a board above 6'2”. Very different.

What types of waves do you prefer riding? Beachies, points?
I only surf right points [laughs]. I really only surf Rincon when I'm at home. In the last three winters, in California, I've only surfed another wave one time. Literally, one other time. Summer time is a bit hard there.

Who was the first surfer you shaped for?
The first really good surfer that I committed too was Dane. I started shaping for Dane when he was really small, his boards where 1 ¾” thick. Little tiny things. Shaped for him all through his teenage years. There came a point where he became 'Dane Reynolds', my dad walked in my room and said “right, I'll be shaping for Dane now” [laughs].

How'd that make you feel?
Oh man, I did not feel good about it. But what can I do? He's the boss. It's Al Merrick surfboards! But it's ok, I'm shaping for Dane now, it's come full circle.

As a kid, could you see the potential in Dane?
Oh yeah, from the first time I saw him surf. My dad and I used to do team practices when we had the local team come out to the beach. We'd run the heats and judge the heats. My dad ran them and I was the team manager at the time. Geoff Brack brought Dane along, he was this tiny little buck-toothed kid. He went out at the back beach of Rincon, I remember the first wave I saw him on and I went, 'oh wow, who is this kid?' We knew right away he was special.

How has it changed working with him?
He was a kid then, growing and developing. Wonderful working with him now. He's super intelligent. Knows a lot about surfboards. He won't be beholden to anybody. Not afraid to speak his mind. If a board sucks, he will tell me, will work hard to tell me what he thinks is wrong with the board. He's just a fun guy to shape for because there's such a high pay off when you see him surf. His surfing is so radical and demanding that it's a challenge to make the boards work well for him and it's great and I enjoy it.

In terms of shaping as a whole and the industry, what state do you think it's in? Do you think social media is helping or hindering it?
It kind of is what it is, you know? You can't live in the past, you've got to move forward and progress. It's cool that there's accessibility to the immediate cutting edge with the media – that's what I want, to know what's at the cutting edge. If there's good surfing going down on the other side of the world, we're going to see it, asap.

Now, everyone can see everything. It is what it is, I love looking at other people's board. Every board I see, I feel it, pick it up, look down the rocker I look down the bottom. My dad was different, you couldn't get him to look at any other boards. He was such a visionary, such a different age.

Is there anyone at the moment that inspires you?
When I go to pro events, it's surprising at how different all the pro boards are. I'll look at DHD and Mayhem, Patterson, they're all very different, rockers, contours. They're all high performance but very different. I'm looking at the subtleties and I appreciate that. I love looking at other boards. Timmy Patterson, he's a real craftsman.

What is the most important thing to look for when buying a new board?
Well, it seems silly to say but I think the old, under the arm test is really important. I think most surfers have the innate ability to pick up a board, feel it, we all shake it, look at the outline, we all have a sense and we know our bodies, our abilities and the waves we surf, I think we know if it's going to work or not. All the information is immediate, you can read reviews, the shaper's BS description; all that stuff... but you gotta go in and throw it under your arm Which is why brick and mortar surf industry is so important. Go in and feel boards. All the information is immediate, you can read reviews, the shaper's BS description; all that stuff... but you gotta go in and throw it under your arm. It's the one true test.

What about eco-friendly surfboard production, how is CI looking at this?
I mean, no surfboard is truly eco friendly. Cars aren't but we use them. There's some that are better than others, but they're not good. I took a jet over here, not eco friendly. But Sustainable surf [a standard for using eco techniques when shaping and using less harmful materials] is helping us do our best. We're paying very careful attention to all of it. We care about the surf and the environment and the next generation. We're going to do absolutely everything we can within the parameters of surfboards to be as caring as we can for the environment.

How do you see the future of CI panning out?
High performance surfing has always been a deep part of what we care about. It's the core of the brand and that's a great core because it's the most challenging. It's not very hard to make a fish that goes ok. But to make a surfboard for the best surfers in the world is incredibly difficult. That keeps the fire burning, the razor edge of it. But then you gotta make everything you learn there translate to your friends, if you can't do that, you're not going to be in business. So both of those are very different. The future of CI is to continue to grow and excel in high performance surfing but also be broad enough to apply all that to normal surfboards and get the everyday surfer more stoked. We've got 50-years of experience to make you happy.

Yeah, I mean it's funny how many people in the industry say the same thing. At MSW, we want people to look at the forecast, froth and get out there. It's a great mentality.
Right? And what a rad thing. Because people making vacuums aren't saying that. People aren't pumped about that stuff [laughs]. We're super blessed to do this.

In terms of validating the shaping that you're creating, getting feedback from pros is great and valuable, do you value that over winning industry recognition?
That's a great question. Like I said for us, at Channel Island, relationships are of the deepest value. So something like winning Stab in the Dark, it doesn't mean that much. I haven't really had that much of a relationship with Mick Fanning, I don't really know him.

I respect him and I value him, but I get much more of a thrill out of making boards for people who I have a relationship with and I'm emotionally connected to. It doesn't have to be pro. When I paddle out at Rincon and someone from my hometown is stoked on their board, it's just such a satisfying feeling. You know, there we both are in this crazy world, sitting in the waves and we're both stoked – and it has to do with waves and surfboards. To have that deep connection in that is just a really cool thing.

Shop the Channel Islands range by going HERE.

Cover shot by Tom Wigley