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White Caps of the Mind

Shaper Donald Brink wonders if “magic” equals “frequency.”

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The lights in Donald Brink’s shaping room recently burned out, meaning time for replacement and assessment.

“Each set of 4100 kelvin color temperature bulbs has a lifespan of 10,000 hours,” says Brink.

While it is common understanding that after one set of 4100Ks, a shaper may claim proficiency, this is the second time long hours have forced the South African transplant to change the bulbs. On a recent trip to Lowe’s, Brink decided to replace the 8-foot  fluorescent lights with a set of LEDs.

Stepping into his port-colored shaping bay, Brink flips on the new lights.

Cut blanks, dust from century plants, and finished crafts populate the room. Brink has conceived, tuned, colored, and glassed the entire lot by himself. From the neighboring room, the smells of catalyst and epoxy resin remind him that another board is “kicking” somewhere in his compact, galley-sized workspace.

“People think that the more you learn, the easier it gets,” Brink says as he poses a step-up gun on the racks. Toured by Ian Gottron at Off The Wall this past winter, the stance-specific 6’4″ is defined by the bruises of a successful North Shore campaign.

“But the reason any of this exists,” he says, “the reason why I work, is driven by the question: ‘Why?’”

And that, Brink explains, is never easy to figure out.

The new bulbs, 4000 kelvin, propose 50,000 hours of life.

“But LED is too soft,” says Brink. He waves his hand in and out of the  bone-white fluorescence. “I’ll have to find another solution.”

*

In his 17 years as a shaper, Donald Brink has sailed the coast of Eastern Africa, earned a degree in interior design, emigrated to the United States, married, begat two children, weathered criticism, fought malaria, survived a recession, assisted on photo shoots for Levi’s Korea, and dabbled in cinema, all the while shaping in factories, garages, and side yards.

Now 39 years old, he does not believe in the idea of a magic surfboard. However, leasing space in an industrial slum on the left bank of the Capistrano River, Brink does believe he can build a better board.  

Waking at 5 o’clock each morning, Brink’s wardrobe is determined by a shirt’s ability to accommodate his writing instruments: one #3 pencil and one 3-inch, 50-page, thread-bound composition booklet. For Brink, noting questions, ideas, analogies, and proverbs is as crucial to the design process as eating lunch, which for the past ten years has been a double-decker, peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich on wheat, prepared every night and consumed each afternoon.

Leaving his Shorecliffs condo, Brink is careful to toggle the 2001 Ford Econoline’s blinker as he merges onto an empty Pacific Coast Highway. Although this is the 17th consecutive Saturday that Brink has covered the two-mile trip to his Capistrano Beach workshop this year, his prudence on the road may only be understood after studying his careful word choice.

To Brink, this is not a routine. This is repetition. This is the only method by which one can dream of change and hope to give oneself an opportunity to replicate. It’s a raison to which he stubbornly holds.

“Being very intelligent and creative,” says big-wave surfer Ben Wilkinson, “Donald knows that his design process can make a big difference in the way boards ride, especially in waves of consequence. Donny’s only risk at this point is not being innovative with design or material.”

Unlocking letter D in a row of partitioned shacks, which range from A to Fly (for foundational shaper Fly Van Swae), the narrow concrete passage where Brink leans into the shaping unknown is a chemical oasis of California design lore. Once used by the late Hobie Alter as a  burial ground for his own false starts and mothballed experiments, the row is known among builders as the Alley of Broken Dreams. 

On a gray afternoon in July, Brink invited me to see what he has been up to. Stepping out of his workshop, the wind sucks his white coveralls against his body. With the exception of a taut paunch due to insufficient digestion, Brink has the build of a scrappy welterweight. And indeed, he’s recently been in a near-fatal scrap.

“First I cut into the century plant,” Brink says, gesturing to a pile of splintered agave offcuts. “Then I remembered that Terry Martin almost died doing the exact same thing.”

When Brink first arrived in Southern California, it was Martin who took the young shaper under his wing. 

“Initially, what intrigued us most about Donny,” says Jeff Quam, a friend of both who was there for their first meeting, “was his ability to think in 3-D.  Terry told me, ‘Anyone with that kind of gift, we have to help them in any way we can.’”

Martin found Brink a room in the mythic hovel, whose previous tenants included Phil Edwards, Mickey Muñoz, Tom Morey, Corky Carroll, Ronald Patterson, and Martin himself.

“People think Terry gave me all of his templates,” says Brink, “and all of his secret curves. But Terry never really gave me any answers. He knew that’s not how you learn.”

Despite mentorship from a surf-craft icon, Brink double-timed as a handyman, carpenter, and a humble agent of ding repair. When he first arrived in the alley, Brink built his boards under the cloak of night. That’s where I first found him.

Bridging the void between the veritable heaven and hell of surfboard production—the Hobie and Gato Heroi factories—I would often see Brink as I migrated between Terry Martin’s shaping bay and Robin Kegel’s Quonset hut salon. Brink showed me strange and experimental designs, speaking of them with a kind of eloquent fury that I was too young to comprehend. He spoke of oxygen molecules, compound curves, Martin Luther, and swing weight. 

“How do you think Taj Burrow manages to pull the board back down from an off-the-lip in howling trade winds?” Brink once asked rhetorically. “Well, you drill a hole into the nose, fill it with lead, and slap a Billabong sticker over it. How do I know that? When you’re traveling, people aren’t so afraid to tell you things.”

Brink, on the other hand, has never been afraid to tell anybody anything. His perspective on craft secrets? “A rising tide floats all boats.”  

Ushering me inside the workshop ten years later, we are greeted by the sharp burn of epoxy resin. Although diligence has since allowed Brink to shape full time, with a list of orders large enough to outsource glassing work, the shaper continues to experiment with every medium and facet of design.

S-Cloth. Laminating racks. Squeegees. Tailor’s scissors. Pigment. Resin. Lights for laminating. A curtain for sanding. A booth for fin foiling. Past boards, no two of matching form or color, layer the left wall in a stratified history of experimentation, while the right wall presents a jigsaw puzzle of pine cupboards. Pocket-sized notebooks sprout like primary-colored fungi. A trail of foam dust leads to a second room where the chrome planer perches like a napping cat.   

“I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time,” Brink says, referring to the whole space. “But while I was in Sydney this past year, I was finally convinced.”

“People look at birds and fish for foil influence,” says Brink, “but air compresses and water doesn’t. There’s a reason why a fish’s fins aren’t sharper. Bacteria would eat them up. I don’t design from nature.” Photograph by Shawn Parkin.

In Sydney, Brink tells me, he was commissioned to build display shaping and glassing rooms for a professional contest. “We were making boards one day and receiving feedback the next. I forgot how much more control there was in building boards from start to finish. I decided to rebuild my shop so I could do the same here.”

Out of the dozens of compartments on the wall, Brink approaches the largest. Unfastening the latches, the front falls open. The room is suddenly filled with luminescence. Adjusting my eyes, I see that the interior of the box is lined with reflective silver sheeting. Suspended in the light is a dimpled curve. Reaching in, Brink lifts the curve out of the pine compartment and places it on the mobile glassing racks in the center of the room. 

The board is hardly longer than the racks upon which it sits. While it seems Brink’s only logical course of action is to explain the new board, he leans even closer. Like a doctor listening to a patient’s lung, Brink shuts his eyes. The shaper raps the bottom twice with his knuckles. A note, sharp and bright, bounces through the air.

Opening his eyes, Brink smiles, nods, and, to an incredibly accurate degree, imitates the note with his own voice.

“I had it up to 124 hertz this morning. Pulled it right out and…”

He raps the board once more.

“You know what I mean?”

Brink explains that he is tracking and testing resonance and frequency in surfboards. “You hear people talk about those magic boards,” he says. “Even the guys at Channel Islands tell me they’ve had no more than four or five. So, is it really magic? Maybe. Or is there something else present that we’re not picking up?”

Retrieving a dusty notebook lying on top of the lightbox, Brink rifles through pages full of sketches, glass schedules, rocker transitions, and foam recipes. From Ben Wilkinson’s Waimea gun to Ian Gottron’s national title-winning thruster, among the familiar dimensions of width, length, buoyancy, and thickness, “frequency” is noted as a key component in each design.

“Yes, boards flex,” Brink says. “But boards mostly twist. And the board’s ability to twist and return to its natural state is what gives the board a lively, magic feeling. Now, I’m almost certain that this feeling can be honed and reproduced by controlling the frequency in surfboards.”

Frequency, or the rate at which a vibration occurs in wave form either in a material or in an electromagnetic field, Brink explains, can be measured in hertz.

*

Growing up in Cape Town during the 1990s, boards were valuable until repaired four or five times. Building a quiver of used, buckled, and broken boards, Brink not only mastered surfing’s dark art of ding repair, he learned how to choose the right ones. He knocked on the decks as one might test a guitar in a music shop or a melon in the market.

“Basically, boards have acoustics and feedback,” he says.

The pine box, which Brink calls “the oven” and that which I later learn is electrified by a ceramic chicken coop heater, is the instrument by which Brink fuses disparate theories.

But before we are able to discuss the strange board, Brink checks the time. It’s 5 p.m.

“I hate to dine and dash,” he says, “but I have to get home.”

A husband and father of two, Brink replaces the unexplained board, shuts the oven, and sets the heat regulator. Closing shop, Brink invites me to return another day. Driving out of the alley, he waves and shouts a phrase that  he would repeat on nearly every occasion we meet.

“We’re chasing the wind!”

I now know they were the words of a man who never intends nor hopes to actually catch anything. Brink is a sailor. One idea only leads to further whitecaps of the mind.

A mere 72 hours later, I’m again knocking on the corrugated steel door, but I’m too late.

“Remember how I told you I was trying to figure out how to control resonance?” Brink asks as I push open the unlocked door. He’s grinding fins. Abandoning the task, he moves straight to the oven.

“Well, I figured it out.”

I’m expecting to see the small, dimpled board, but Brink removes a shape of totally separate curve and length. Before I can protest, he pulls an iPhone from his pocket, launches an app similar to a guitar tuner, and places it on the floor. He then positions the nose of the board, beak down, just to the left of the glowing screen.

“Now, I want you to be quiet, because this will pick up anything.”

The gallery becomes still. I can hear Fly in his lawn chair turning the pages of his Auto Guide magazine. The needle on the app shivers, settles, and then, like the tip of a pendulum, the nose of the surfboard tilts toward earth.

You hear about the Wright brothers, Galileo, and Newton. Considering myself an ally of visionaries, apparently, I am of the mob. Reflexively, I lunge forward to catch the nose, arrested only by a stern glance from Brink.

It’s a jarring sound, familiar to any surfer. The brittle crunch of cobblestones, the sharp report of a concrete shower wall, a stab wound from a spurned lover.

To Brink, it is acoustic perfection.

“178 hertz,” he says.

He then tests two more recent shapes of similar dimensions. Separate tests come within 5 hertz of one another.

“Do you want to know how I did it?” Brink asks.

Gesturing to the oven, he asks me what I see. I see an empty box. Brink replaces the board.

“Now what do you see?”

I see a board in a box lined with tin foil and heated by a ceramic chicken coop heater.

“Look underneath,” he says. “What’s supporting the board?”

I crouch.

“A bucket?”

“One central purchase,” Brink says, boiling over joyously. “Instead of spanning the weight of a curing board between two racks, resonance can be controlled with one central purchase.”

The circular deck patch sits perfectly upon the circular bottom of the upturned bucket.

“What do cymbals do?” Brink, who is also a drummer, asks rhetorically, alluding to the root of his epiphany. “Cymbals hang on one central stand. With a certain heat coefficient, and now central orientation, we can actually textbook molecular layup.”

Brink then proceeds to help me envision a world in which lamination rooms avoid “cure skew” and poor resonance by replacing curing arms with a central support. When I grasp the concept, I attempt to make up lost ground. I ask the shaper about the strange dimpled board from my previous visit.

“It’s gone,” he says. “Dane Gudauskas took it to Africa.”

For those who don’t know, Dane Gudauskas is built like a baobab tree. One of the largest men by condensed mass in contemporary surfing. The board he took is very well one of the smallest.

“Impossible,” I offer.

Brink responds with a video of Gudauskas surfing the board in knee-high, onshore beachbreak. The video, shot with Brink’s phone through a pair of binoculars, depicts Gudauskas not only managing, but clocking Rincon speeds on a D+ wave. The display goes against all logic. I feel slightly ill. The nausea of new.

“He’ll be back in a week,” Brink says, returning to the grinder. “It’ll be interesting what he finds.” 

*

When Gudauskas returns, he bears visual proof with footnotes. Brink then digests, designs, and bakes a stance-specific second-generation model. In turn, Gudauskas applies the modifications to the Lowers left and posts a clip. The surf world wants intel. Slater wants details. Brink needs a model name.

In the first week of August, having reviewed the video post, the shaper offers me half of his peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich along with the only chair in the room. Brink, comfortable in discomfort, lounges in the glassing racks. Feet up. Musing.

“I’m going to call it Ubuntu,” he says.

Speaking to Gudauskas at San Onofre, the surfer relates his personal experience with the tiny craft: “They’re for unlocking unridden waves. Finding space and speed to experience the types of body harmonies traditionally exclusive to big waves. On a big wave, you can’t just straight shoot. You’re constantly navigating. The Ubuntus are so facilitating because you actually feel your body rhythm with the wave. It’s an opportunity to see things differently and grow.”

Back in the shaping room, Brink says that he originally built Ubuntu as a teaching tool.

“I was trying to learn how to hold a rail throughout my cutback. How to stay low. Besides, unlocking the small unridden waves nobody looks at, this is going to be a great coaching tool.”

“For surfers?” I ask.

“And for shapers,” he says. “I want to release a file. A step-by-step. Everything you need to build one of these boards. Not as a marketing move, but as a way to elevate surfing and design.”

“Sometimes you end up making stuff that you hate,” says Brink. “But you’re not doing compelling work if you’re not pushing yourself.” Photograph by Shawn Parkin.

After their respective sessions on respective Ubuntus, both Dylan Graves and Gudauskas insist that Brink make one for Tom Curren. With both financing and publicity at stake, Brink expresses reservations.

“You have to ask yourself, does Curren move surfing forward, or does Curren’s neighbor being more excited about surfing than he’s ever been move the neighborhood forward, which in turn moves surfing forward? See the difference?”

Sitting in the center of the room, the shaper closes his eyes in the same way he does when testing for hertz.

The word Ubuntu comes from the Zulu and Xhosa languages. It translates to, “I am because we are.” However, Ubuntu is often used in a philosophical sense. Belief in a universal bond. Whether his inventions take hold or remain to be excavated by future generations, it’s all the same to Brink. Resonance. Frequency.