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In 1967, Bob McTavish’s Plastic Machine, and its unique bottom contour, helped usher in the shortboard revolution. More than 50 years after its initial creation, McTavish has found new life in the design—thanks to a fluke glass job and the interest of an Aussie doctor and surfer named Nick Vitko.
By Noah Dow
Light / Dark
In the late 1960s, surfboard design was rapidly evolving as shapers and surfers raced away from longboards to shortboards, their on-wave approach shifting from horizontal to vertical. One key innovation in this evolution was vee, essentially a convex angle shaped along the centerline of the bottom of a board that projects into the water and gives a board an axis upon which to turn. With its implementation, surfers could suddenly surf rail to rail and turn up the face of a wave as opposed to the trim and drop-knee techniques of traditional logging.
While today Bob McTavish is considered one of the most influential figures in surfing history, at the time he was just a young surfer and shaper living on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. George Greenough, meanwhile, had arrived in Australia from the US in the early ’60s, and the vertical turns he made on his kneeboards shocked Australian shapers and surfers, McTavish among them.
One afternoon in 1967, while driving behind a deep-hulled boat, a light clicked in McTavish’s head: The design in the boat’s hull, if shaped into the underside of a surfboard, might allow for more radical, Greenough-esque turns on a surfboard. McTavish soon shaped his first vee-bottom board, and the moment he stood up on the design, he fell in love with the swooping sensation in its bottom turn. In November of that year, McTavish and Nat Young traveled to Hawaii for the Duke contest, bringing along a quiver of 9-foot vee-bottoms McTavish had shaped. The overall look of those boards was famously described by Australian filmmaker Paul Witzig as a “plastic machine.” It was on that trip to the Islands that Witzig filmed Young and McTavish riding the boards at Honolua Bay. The footage would become a central component in The Hot Generation. With its saturated hues and unhurried soundtrack, the film is both a cultural and technical statement, showing McTavish and Young demonstrating what the design had unlocked: accelerated bottom turns allowing access to sections of wave that had hitherto been unavailable.
It ultimately helped speed up the evolution of design through the period. However, the energy of that evolution was moving so rapidly that the vee was quickly passed over in favor of other design concepts, from Hawaiian-influenced boards for larger waves to twin-fins and on to thrusters. In the nearly 50 years since, McTavish has made, by his own count, 38,000 to 45,000 surfboards. Of that number, however, only about 20 have been Plastic Machines.
But the seed of how vee could free a single-fin across a wave had stayed with McTavish.
“I’ve been frustrated by that all my life—trying to revisit it and trying to find out what’s the essence that we loved about a vee, but in a modern design,” he says.
A few years ago, McTavish accidentally came across a new element in a Plastic Machine. He’d made a new iteration of the design and, after riding it, noticed it felt different.
Plastic Machines are all made from stringerless blanks, which leaves the un-glassed boards especially flexible. To ensure that they have the correct rocker, McTavish has to go into the laminating room with weights and props to get the rocker just right. Somehow the board in question, an 8-footer, had a flatter-than-usual tail rocker on the centerline. In conjunction with the board’s vee-bottom, it had caused a slightly different tail lift. The effect allowed McTavish to better harness the board’s unique swooping impulse.
“When I measured it all up,” McTavish says, “the glass job’s bend in the rocker gave that particular one a very stiff tail rocker. It was just by chance.”
He quickly passed the board on to Christian “Wispy” Barker, one of his trusted company board testers, for confirmation. Barker has ridden several versions of the Plastic Machine over the years, and knows the design’s personality: The vee, while allowing those swooping turns, can be difficult to control, its angularity making the board want to roll rail to rail. Finding a stable midpoint between rails can require a sensitive touch.
“Keeping on rail is key,” Barker says, “going from one to the other. You get a feeling out of those boards that you don’t get [with other shapes]. I think it’s that swooping. When you’re there, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is a really unique feeling.’”
“When we surfed the new one,” says McTavish, “we went, ‘This one’s different. This one’s good.’”
Just as McTavish was discovering the accidental tail flex in his latest Plastic Machine, a doctor and surfer named Nick Vitko was separately exploring the potential of vee about 30 minutes up the New South Wales coastline from the McTavish factory.
Vitko grew up on North Stradbroke Island, just off the coast from Brisbane. For much of his surfing life, he’d ridden either high-performance thrusters or Neal Purchase Jr. twin-fins. Along the way, he also began shaping boards for himself, becoming versed in design, including principles of hydrodynamics that affect rocker and tail performance.
In 2016, Vitko ordered a longboard off eBay for $120. To his surprise, when the board arrived from a seller in South Australia, it was a copy of one of McTavish’s old Plastic Machines. Undeterred by the extreme vee in the bottom, Vitko began to ride it and the design came alive. The board had what he describes as “squirt,” meaning the energy he says it channeled through its stringerless design and the Greenough-inspired flex fin.
Vitko went on to explore other logs, but nothing compared to his vee-bottom McTavish replica. So, naturally, he made one for himself.
Then, strictly by chance, he met the shaper who had pioneered the design. It turns out that Vitko often surfed with a man named Ben, just another guy in the lineup whom Vitko knew only by his first name. One day, between waves, Vitko mentioned his interest in stringerless vee-bottom boards. Ben replied that his dad was also interested in that exact design, and suggested that Vitko should visit him for a talk. Ben’s last name? McTavish.
When the elder McTavish and Vitko finally met, they immediately began talking about refining the Plastic Machine’s design. Their discussions began with size. McTavish had older Plastic Machines at the factory that today would be considered long, more akin to the original Plastic Machines of the late ’60s, when “shorter” boards were around 8 feet. He also told Vitko about the recent breakthrough with the tail rocker. Vitko’s experience riding high-performance shortboards then brought the conversations into focus: How could the concept of the vee be brought to bear with a contemporary shortboard? And what, then, could that unleash on a wave?
Progressive turns had been part of the vee’s original intent. McTavish had been in Lennox Head in the ’70s when the roundhouse cutback, Greenough’s name for the move, was developed. But in his ongoing explorations of the Plastic Machine, McTavish had not been able to get the board to do the wrap. His and Vitko’s focus began to narrow further, to a desire to get the board to complete that turn.
Vitko offered a solution: “If you had a smaller one, you could be going fast enough that you could have it leaned right over and then accelerate back onto the flat and across and transition from rail to rail.”
They began to make vee-bottoms together, each one shorter than the one before it, their combined curiosity and knowledge steadily moving toward harnessing vee in a progressive, compact design.
It’s late March. McTavish and Vitko are at the McTavish factory to finish a board they’ve been working on, a collaboration of each of their input and knowledge. It has McTavish’s tail design, one he has been working on for 54 years. It also has Vitko’s nose template, one rooted in a modern surfboard design.
McTavish and Vitko are outside the shaping bay, standing over a 6’4″ vee-bottom prototype they’d previously made, deliberating its pros and cons. The board is on a stand in between them, and each man has a pencil in hand. They draw circles around various design features and discuss their merits. Their voices are low.
Then they begin overlaying fresh design ideas onto the 6’4″. New details are drawn onto the tail, pulling it in. A smaller tail patch, to maximize flex, is suggested. It’s decided that the next board will be 5’9″. The two consider changing the hip point and making the deck flatter. It will be stringerless, like prior versions, which, as Ben McTavish told Vitko early on in his experimentations with the design, is like having “two rockers for the price of one.” The board can thus be flat when it needs to be and also flex and contort to meet specific sections of the wave.
Vitko and McTavish pause to contemplate the rocker on their prototype. The stringer rocker is flatter than normal. Vitko explains how it will allow the board to achieve greater trim speed. He also says that the board has rail-line rocker, which, combined with this specific amount of vee, will allow for tighter pocket turns from a board with such a wide tail.
“Look at that! You never see a rocker like that,” says Vitko.
“That’s juice,” McTavish replies.
Once they’re satisfied with the measurements, the two men move into McTavish’s shaping bay, where a stringerless 5’11” blank awaits. Together, they line up a template Vitko recently cut, working to orient it to the blank’s center.
“Something tells me you’re a little bit wider on this side, Nick,” McTavish says.
They adjust the template, bringing it true. Suddenly, the two agree to diverge from the template and narrow the tail even further. Then the template is pulled away.
McTavish goes to the bay’s wall and grabs his orange-handled hand saw, lines it up to the drawn-on shape, and begins to cut. His movements are both exact and calm.
“It looks like you’ve done that before, Bob,” says Elliot Kirkwood, a local photographer who has come to document the moment.
“Forty thousand times,” McTavish responds.
Outside the shaping bay, as McTavish works, Vitko muses about twin-fins. He wonders if, like the Plastic Machine, the evolution of twin-fin design went too fast. He jokes about making the board inside into a twin.
Inside the shaping bay, McTavish has moved on to the blank’s rail. Pencil lines disappear beneath sandpaper. As the board’s shape becomes clear, it’s set down on its side, and McTavish moves back and forth over the upturned rail, refining it. Quietly and in an instant, the board’s rail is there. Someone flips the lights on in the bay. McTavish turns the blank onto its deck and goes to work on the vee.
There is almost a kinetic hum in the bay as McTavish focuses on the board’s bottom. As with great craftsmen, the focus fills the room with a feeling of channeled efficiency. There’s a feeling of tactile nuance as he sands into the tail: 50-plus years of internal consideration being brought to bear as he runs back and forth, back and forth, finding a new expression of vee.
An old spoon is leaned up nearby, like the designs Greenough used to ride. Vitko points to its flat rocker and mentions the flex in its tail. Greenough’s presence is still very much felt in the board they’re working on.
Then McTavish picks up the new board by the nose, sighting down its length. He sets it back down. Maybe it’s the fresh whiteness of the newly sanded foam, or maybe it’s McTavish and Vitko’s evident enthusiasm about it, but there is a palpable feeling of possibility.
“Let’s sign it,” McTavish says, indicating that they’re finished.
A push of autumnal east swell comes to Byron Bay soon after. The air is clear. The winds are offshore. Vitko and Kirkwood outline conditions, spots, and lighting to test and document the 5’9″.
Vitko, tall and lanky, has an easy fluidity to his surfing, as well as an expressive bit of power. Seeing him lean into a big turn on the vee-bottomed single-fin elicits a feeling of catharsis. The turn is taken at speed and is fully controlled. The board wraps back into a rebound off the foam before springing ahead again—and Vitko is back off down the line.
He says that in these sessions he and McTavish achieved exactly what they were after: Their new board is quick. The rocker works. And even though the tail is narrower, the board still has the distinctive transom-style Plastic Machine tail. This feature, along with the flat area ahead of the fin, provides planing. The vee and the board’s foil also complement one other: Whereas the older Plastic Machines could be difficult to transition rail to rail, this one does so smoothly.
All together, Vitko says, these design features have allowed him to execute the turn they’d sought: the wrap on his forehand, cutting back down the face of a wave. He explains how, through the turn, he could completely bury the board’s heel-side rail. In that motion, he maximized the torque in his body, the board, and the fin. Then all that loaded-up power released to rocket him ahead. “That’s the concept,” Vitko says. “That’s the proof of concept right there.”
McTavish agrees. In his words, the 5’9″ has “no loss of swoop and drive off the bottom” compared to the original Plastic Machines. But, drawing on modern design elements, he continues, the new board has “booster-rocket driving and arcing ability feeding naturally into a full wrap.”
McTavish and Vitko’s collaboration is a unique intersection of tradition and innovation. Vitko has provided McTavish a conduit to bring Plastic Machine design concepts into a contemporary style of surfing, something McTavish has long sought. That itself is a testament to Vitko’s ability.
McTavish explains that Vitko’s attention to detail as a surfer has also made him more closely study how shortboards of all types can operate, especially when doing tighter wraps and exiting from turns. He says that he and Ben, who is also a shaper under the McTavish label, have applied Vitko’s feedback to other models they’re currently working on. For example, Vitko’s descriptions of foot pressure and body torque have allowed them to put more-advanced features into their shortboards and mid-lengths.
There’s something unlikely about a master shaper like McTavish finding a muse in an everyday surfer from just up the coast, someone who accidentally rode a board with some of the shaper’s older design principles incorporated into it. And it’s perhaps even more unlikely that that surfer would be passionate about board design himself.
There is also something unlikely, though somehow fitting, in revisiting a design concept that was mostly abandoned half a century ago, but still has a place at the table. The Plastic Machine and the vee were present at the beginning of modern surfing, catalysts for surfboards going from long to short, critical for the era’s surfers to learn what was, and is, possible. And two surfer-shapers—one who has crafted radical, historical changes in board design and the other incisively exploring what surfing is today—have closed a link in the evolutionary chain.
“It’s kind of been forgotten,” notes Wispy, who has seen untold different boards, board prototypes, and board ideas come and go through the McTavish factory. “But this is where it actually started. This is what did it. What got us from there to there, really fast, was all this vee in the tail.”
AND OUT PADDLED THE STRANGER BY DEREK HYND
I pulled up in a dirt car park by the old Byron railway track. It was early. There was a nippy offshore. A stranger, Nick Vitko by name, was waxing a fresh white board, a single-fin around 6’2″, with a straight-cut wing rounded pin, the wide point neatly disguised north of center.
The board, he said, was a collaboration with the eternal Bob McTavish. It simply looked valid. I’d ridden a similar wing pin in everything in 1977, a pared-down Terry Fitzgerald version of his Sunset guns. The rocker was similarly low in Nick’s board, albeit with thinnedout foam and softer rails. Our brief chat, though, was more about the fin—wide-based or narrowed, set up or back. Just strangers shooting shit. I wondered how Bob had linked with this unassuming man.
On a dune with my dog, I sat instead of walking on. It was the old empty-canvas story when Nick paddled out. The surf was knee- to waist-high at best, paltry. There wasn’t much length off the peaks, but they were neatly pitching. Shonan Beach, Japan, in the late ’70s taught me the value of studying surfers in tiny waves. The Hawaiians, probably from South Shore summers, were maestros. Fading on the paddle-in set them apart. To this day, a good angle of paddle-in fade tells just about all before the ride even happens.
Well, Nick had it. The rest came to pass, justice to the enduring relevance of Bob. Nick surfed the short, tight spaces not dissimilarly to Nat in 1973. On a single, that particular method puts the board through quick tight arcs, bottom to top, with smooth extension and compression—all of it at speed. It takes the right surfer to pull shit like that. Bob had a pilot.
In short rides, about five seconds, the onus was on linkage. Everything sat pat: the fade, the quick combination bottom drive to rooster lip pat, face drive into a tight cutback, pop reentry to finish. Upright, stylish, torquing. Nick wouldn’t have surfed more than 10 waves before two or three others paddled out and he came in. I called him out about his having Sunshine Coast style lines, only to be countered with “North Straddie” to correct the insult. I was wrong by only 40 miles as the crow flies.
Anyway, the session sticks out as my favorite over the last couple of years. A mile away, Byron Bay’s Pass was at the end of a two-year span of flawless, concrete-packed sand, with waves running half a mile on anything from knee-high to double-overhead, the likes of which 92-yearold Bill Swanton said hadn’t been seen in his time—all the way back to 1952. I’d seen 1,000 amazing rides with amazed expressions on amazed faces. Yet it was Nick’s basic pre-work session that really got me.
He also just happened to be surfing the same bank made famous in 1965 by one Bob McTavish, for his state of the future art form. Aren’t circles nice?