Flesh, Blood & Slabs

Seventy years on, in both talent and craft, the Longbottom family continues to cut their own path across surfing’s landscape.

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August 13, 2021. Dusk falls and a massive “event swell” set rears from the deep at Teahupo‘o. After spending close to eight hours circling the 40 fathoms of water that sit just beyond the edge of the reef, Matahi Drollet locks his feet into the straps of his Dylan Longbottom tow board. He then twice taps the shoulder of his older brother and ski driver, Manoa, the signal that the rapidly approaching lump is “the one.”

It’s a mutant. Matahi gets whipped into it 50 yards deeper than anyone else is sitting. He lets go as the water is sucked off the reef and the backless wall lifts up and throws. He holds his line, leaning heavily on his rail without halt or hiccup, angled toward daylight, and disappears as the wave folds over. In the low light, the wave goes almost black inside the barrel. Though he surely isn’t counting feet as he exits out and angles over the wave’s back, he’s just ridden perhaps the largest wave ever at the spot. 

“I didn’t need to think about the board under my feet,” Matahi says. “No one makes better boards for those waves than Dylan.” 

Australian Dylan Longbottom would know, in both design theory and real-world application, what such craft require. The 48-year-old spent a decade as Manoa’s tow partner in the aughts, the pair surfing every big swell that hit Teahupo‘o, often on their own. He also spent an even longer period of time clocking multi-story tubes at slabs across Oz, along the North Shore’s fabled haunts, and at other name-brand and off-the-grid locales around the world. 

What Matahi doesn’t know—what he certainly didn’t have time to give thought to as he dropped down the ledge on that late summer’s day at the End of the Road—is that beyond setting records and racking up social-media views, his wave has added another of many threads to the Longbottom family’s surfing and surfboard-making tapestry. Tracing it, long and lengthwise, is to travel almost 70 years across the annals of surfing performance and craft history. 

Ross Longbottom, the family’s patriarch, sits in his apartment overlooking the surf at Kiama on the South Coast of New South Wales. Beyond the window, windswell lines spill in and break along the beach. On each end of his view sit two of the many green, sprawling headlands that dot this part of the coastline.

Ross’ surf arc began 60 miles north in Cronulla, at a spot called Sandshoes, so named because surfers often would wear tennis shoes to negotiate the urchin-carpeted reef. It was there, as a teenager in the late 1950s, that he started surfing on balsa boards. Within the small community, he quickly became acquainted with the area’s other wave riders, including local surfer, shaper, and Qantas flight attendant Norm Casey, who’d recently brought the polyurethane-based surfboard-making process back with him from the US.

New tech in hand, Casey launched an eponymous surfboard label and opened a factory and shop in the southern Sydney suburb of Rockdale in 1962. Ross, being good with sales and looking halfway presentable for a “surfie,” was hired to run the shop. 

“I’d left school and was working for a firm of chartered accountants,” he recalls. “My boss, Peter Clarke, had grown up in a wealthy family in Sydney, but didn’t surf. As we did audits in boardrooms around the city, he became fascinated with surfing and surf culture.”

A year after he took the job with Casey, the brand was in financial trouble. Fortunately, Ross had a bailout from his past come knocking. 

“Peter rang me,” Ross says. “He was working for a firm of liquidators and had seen Norm Casey Surfboards had gone bust. He bought it, so that became Peter Clarke Surfboards. I learned how to make, sand, and glass boards. Unlike Dylan, my son, I didn’t have the eye for shaping. So I ended up glassing. Turns out I was good—and, more importantly, I was fast.”

For the next ten years, Ross served as partner, glasser, and foreman of Peter Clarke Surfboards, which soon became one of the country’s largest surfboard manufacturers. A talented surfer himself, he also spent that decade scouring Australia’s East Coast from Ulladulla to Noosa, scoring the numerous and then-empty pointbreaks he found in between. 

 Dylan—who parlayed institutional knowledge from his dad and a reputation for heavy-water hand-to-curve mastery into a successful shaping business—plying his trade in the shed. Photo by Ben Bagley.

“Ross was a good surfer and a real artisan of the surfboard-making business in Australia,” says journalist Phil Jarratt, who was editor of the groundbreaking magazine Tracks during that period. “He was so embedded in the industry that he was almost hidden. But if anything went down within surfing at that time in Australia, he was right in the thick of it.” 

Ross recounts judging alongside Nat Young and Bob McTavish at the inaugural competition between the American and Australian branches of the Windansea Surf Club, held at Sydney’s Long Reef in 1967. 

“All the Aussies had 8- or 9-foot boards, and all the Yanks were on 11-footers,” says Ross. “It was embarrassing. We were ripping the shit out of it. I think that comp helped further spread the shortboard-revolution word around the world.”

In 1973, with Peter Clarke becoming less and less interested in the surfboard industry, Ross took an offer from Gordon & Smith Surfboards to work at their Cronulla factory, where he would spend the next ten years, eventually becoming factory foreman and part owner.  

“Back then, G&S was the dominant surfboard brand in Australia,” says 1976 world champ Peter Townend, who at the time was a shaper, surfer, and ambassador for G&S and was also based out of Cronulla. “Its stable included the best shapers and surfers, and eight retail stores in Sydney alone. Many people probably don’t realize that Ross was at the heart of that success. He was the boss of the factory, and ‘The Longy House’ at Sandshoes was the party house of the whole scene. And let’s not forget, he glassed every single PT model I ever shaped there. All the boards I rode in my world-title year were glassed by Ross.” 

In 1974, a year after signing on at G&S, Ross’ first son, Darren, was born. Two years later, in 1976, came Dylan. The brothers would spend their early years in the Cronulla G&S factory, running barefoot through the foam dust. “I was in awe of all the shapers and surfers coming through,” says Dylan. “They were like gods to me.”

In 1982, after 20 years in the surfboard business, Ross decided on a change. He sold up in Cronulla, bought a racquetball and squash center, and moved the family to Dapto, a small town on the South Coast. 

Just before he left, he made a surfboard for each of his sons, hand-shaping, glassing, and sanding the twin-fins himself. He also added wholly distinct sprays: tip-to-tail portraits of KISS stars Ace Frehley, for Darren, and Gene Simmons, for Dylan. 

As teenagers, both Dylan and Darren became talented surfers, pushing each other in the powerful beachbreaks and slabs on the South Coast. “When we started competing, I was a bit envious [of my brother],” Darren says. “I was always more competitive than Dylan, but he was more talented. He also had a fearless streak.”

For Dylan, a youth and career spent chasing distant slabs has come full circle in midlife at similar setups closer to home. Photo by Duncan Macfarlane.

Dylan had marginal success in the local junior competitions, often defeated by his friendly local nemesis, Mick Lowe. “Dylan always had his own style and flair as a junior, which sometimes didn’t conform to putting scores on the board,” Lowe says. “But he was a guy who, when he took off, you always wanted to watch what he did on the wave. He was explosive and unpredictable. And he’d take off on anything that came his way.” 

At 18, Dylan signed with Billabong, which took notice of his healthy mix of progressive surfing and big-wave chops. His first team trip was to Tahiti alongside Munga Barry and Brenden “Margo”

Margieson. Not only did it set him up on a professional track, which he’s still following, but it also ignited his love affair with Teahupo‘o. 

“It was immediately apparent that he had the look in his eye,” says Margo. “He’s just a natural-born charger. And it wasn’t for the cameras—he was doing it for himself. It was deep within him. I just knew he was the real deal.”

Back in the late 1990s, however, a career as a freesurfer wasn’t such easy work, unless you were Tom Curren or Gerry Lopez. While Dylan stayed plenty barreled, he also realized he needed to find a stable way to pay the bills, and secured a bricklayer’s apprenticeship under his friend Jeff Lee at home in Dapto. Lee gave him plenty of time off to chase swells, but a future in construction wasn’t exactly what Dylan wanted out of surfing and life. 

With his own first son, Jay, born in 1999, he had a decision to make. “When Jay was tiny, my wife asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” says Dylan. “I told her I’d always wanted to shape; I was brought up in the G&S factory and it was in my blood. She said, ‘Well, follow it, then.’” 

That same year, after borrowing money for a planer, a few blanks, and the basic tools, he began shaping. It wasn’t an easy learning curve, and with a young family he had plenty of pressure from those around him to stick with the safety of his trade. 

It was around this time that he stole his brother’s KISS board, sprayed it black, and bolted on foot straps. His aerial maneuvers on it would land him dozens of full spreads and covers in magazines all over the world. Perhaps more importantly, his heavy-water charging on the tiny sled would prove the foundational template for the big-wave boards he began crafting.

In 2002, he was hired to shape for Insight in Manly. Soon thereafter, he received an offer to move to the Gold Coast to shape under Jason Stevenson, of esteemed JS Industries, for Billabong’s newly formed branch into the surfboard market. It was a no-brainer. He spent nine years shaping under Stevenson, cutting blanks for Andy Irons, Joel Parkinson, and the rest of Billabong’s A-team. 

It was also Dylan who, in 2006, took Irons, Parkinson, and a 19-year-old Laurie Towner for their first taste of Shipstern Bluff, where Towner rode one of Dylan’s boards on one of the biggest waves ever paddled at the reef. That led to further collaboration: Dylan has made Towner’s boards ever since, and their relationship has been a cornerstone of his growth as a shaper. 

Summa selecting a line with genetically encoded aplomb. Photo by Lucas Salisbury.

“Dylan saw that I had an interest in bigger waves, and he really nurtured that,” says Towner.

Dylan’s unique position as both a surfer and a shaper meant he was able to chase any swell to any place on the planet. It was Teahupo‘o, however, where he continued to make his biggest impact. Few international surfers have put in more time at the break, and no shaper with Dylan’s intimate knowledge has developed such specialized boards to deal with the wave’s unique combination of power and perfection. It was no wonder, then, that on the Code Red swell of 2011, Dylan and Towner were the first team to catch a wave, effectively green-lighting one of surfing’s most historic days.

“I thought when you had kids, you had to wrap yourself in cotton wool,” says Parkinson. “But he just went into beast mode and hasn’t stopped.”

He had every reason to, however. In 2008, while on a surf trip in the Mentawais, his brother, Darren, kicked out of a wave—a routine act—and collided head first with his board. His neck and spinal cord were crushed. Lying in the Indian Ocean, he was instantly paralyzed. 

What followed was a daring rescue in which fuel was pulled from the boat and transferred into a helicopter. An emergency landing in the jungle came next and, eventually, another emergency flight back to Australia, capped by nine months of treatment. Darren ultimately lost permanent use of his legs and fingers. 

After the accident, Darren became a sales rep for Quiksilver and Billabong before purchasing his own surf shop in Kiama and, later, a second shop around the corner. As for Dylan, the path forward became a question among his family members—particularly his brother.

“I would always think to myself, ‘How will my accident affect Dylan’s surfing? Will he be more cautious?’” says Darren. “If the roles were reversed, and my brother was a quadriplegic, I would start to second-guess myself. But he didn’t. During the Code Red swell, I was watching at home on TV, and he got some of the heaviest and best waves of the day. I knew then that he wouldn’t ever change.”

In 2013, Dylan left Billabong Surfboards and set up shop on his own in Canggu, Bali, just as it was becoming an international hub. Board orders from locals and blow-ins alike stacked up. Due to his continued big-wave hunting, he was also getting multiple offers to do shaping stints overseas, to bring along his hand-to-curve knowledge of making boards for giant surf.  

“It was so hectic,” he says. “I was shaping in Bali, Morocco, the Canaries, Brazil. I had three kids and was still chasing swells. In Portugal, I was getting up at three o’clock in the morning, shaping until ten, then surfing Nazaré, then back shaping later during the night.” 

Dylan first traveled to Portugal in 2017, and teamed with the ORG Surfboards stable of shapers near Lisbon. On that initial trip, with his daughter Summa, he arrived on a Tuesday and was surfing 60-foot Nazaré on Wednesday. Summa, an aspiring pro—who had by then surfed Teahupo‘o, G-Land, and massive Outside Corner—would also get her first taste of the wave on a “small” 20-foot day during that trip. She had just turned 14. 

“I didn’t understand Nazaré until I rode it,” Dylan says. “I had to surf the wave to learn how to make high-performance boards for those giant waves. My existing templates didn’t cut it.” 

Dylan, Ross, and Darren, comparing notes on more than 100 combined years of industry experience. Photo by Ben Bagley.

Those experiences helped him bond with Brazilian Lucas “Chumbo” Chianca, who joined the team immediately after trying Dylan’s Nazaré models. “I can’t think of a shaper that has the talent, ability, or experience to ride the biggest days at Shipstern’s, Teahupo‘o, and Nazaré,” Chumbo says.

“It means you can trust him and his boards.”

In 2019, with their daughters, Malia, 7, and Summa, 16, Dylan and his wife decided to head back to Australia. For Dylan, who never shook off the Cronulla DNA, the location was only natural. “Me and Darren always said to Ross, ‘Why did you leave Cronulla for Dapto?’ We had so much history there, and I felt that’s where my roots were,” he says. “So when we came back to Australia, we were always going to set up in the Sutherland Shire.”

Forty years after Ross left, the Longbottoms have returned to Cronulla. And there, the family’s legacy continues: Recently, Summa began shaping under her father. Over the past couple of years, she’s ridden her own boards on legit days at Ours, Depot Bombie, Shipstern Bluff, and a number of other shallow slabs near their home on the South Coast. 

Meanwhile, Dylan’s reputation as an elite shaper continues to grow with each massive swell that hits any of the world’s big-wave spots. As the business expands, he’s determined to put his family and surfing first, a sentiment first lit in his father’s factory all those years ago.

“I was in the industry for 35 years and had a great life and made so many friends through surfing and surfboard making,” Ross says. “It’s ironic, because I actually tried to steer the boys away from the surf industry after I left it. And here they are, right in the thick of it. Dylan may get the exposure, but for Darren to own two successful shops 13 years after his accident is such an achievement. I’m so proud of the way both boys have carved out their lives, on their own terms. Surfing is a life—you talk it, you breathe it. That’s why I did it. And that’s why my two sons and my granddaughter are still doing it now.”

[Feature image by Ben Bagley]