By James Lock
Surfing the Georgia coast can be like stepping back in time. Some islands on this 100-mile stretch are inaccessible, wild, and almost primeval. The swamps, marsh, and oaks add to the allure of surfing these murky waters. However, consistent surf and waves rarely happen since the continental shelf lies 60 miles off Georgia. Yet what Georgia lacks in world-class waves and surfing destinations, it makes up for in culture and gratitude for the environment and humble swell (often hurricane-driven) that make its way to these shores. Surf culture manages to thrive against all odds in this humid southeastern atmosphere, and in this small, tight-knit group, the dying art of surfboard shaping manages to thrive as well.
Geoff Gable, owner of SML Surf Co, shapes his boards out of a warehouse in the heart of Brunswick. Locals ebb in and out of the shop to drink a PBR and look at the various surfboards lining the wall. The smell of resin and coconut surf wax clings to the vintage shaping tools and clutter lying around the shop. Geoff, former chef turned surfboard shaper, is at the center of the conversations, swapping surf stories beneath his “Wu Tang Is Forever” banner. “I kind of always wanted to do it; just at least make a board for myself. And then I did it, and saw the process, and did one for my daughter. Friends would say, ‘well, you’re making one, would you want to make me one?’ And yeah, at the time, it would take me maybe six, eight months to make a board, you know? A little bit here, a little bit there. And then I just kind of kept progressing and somebody else asked and then somebody else, and then somebody else, and just kind of kept on going where, all of a sudden, it’s 1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 15, 20 boards. I’m like, oh, I guess this is legit, I can do this,” says Geoff.
“It gives me the same feeling as I had with cooking and the creativity part.” Surfboard shaping has fallen into the trap of soulless mass production and factory “pop-outs”--boards made from a factory template. Now more than ever, shaping by hand is an art form, and Geoff preserves that art with his unique, tailor-made boards. “You get to create something, and, for me, I get to make somebody smile when it’s done. The difference is for cooking, I was making the dish, and yes, you’re gonna love it that night, and a week later, you’re gonna still remember it, but it’ll fade over time. Whereas surfboards, you get on it, and it can be two years later, you have the ride of your life, and you’re still super stoked on it. You’re just like, ‘this thing is amazing,’ you know? One of my buddies called me the other day and said, ‘I can’t believe I had one of the greatest waves I’ve ever had on one of your boards.’ It’s a great feeling,” Geoff explains.
Surfers in Georgia typically agree the surf can be lacking. Yet, it’s the potential for adventurous surf that keeps Geoff shaping and surfing in Georgia. “There are a lot of places to go [surf]. It’s a smaller surf community from where I’ve been, but at the same time, Georgia has something special. Besides maybe Maine – there are still places to explore. There’s offshore reefs, there’s islands that you can pull a boat to, and all of a sudden, you’re gonna get this rad little ride-able wave out of nowhere. It’s just totally different to me than anywhere else on the East Coast.”
Geoff isn’t the only Georgia shaper in love with the Coastal Empire. Jonathan Sage shapes his boards on Tybee Island – just over an hour up the coast from Geoff. Salty air peels the paint from his island home, where we sit down to talk in the evening glow. Space on Tybee is limited, and both of Sage’s surf companies, Dingbat Repair and Sage Surfboards, operate out of a friend’s shed just down the road. Sage originally began repairing boards out of necessity. “Three years ago, I was selling a Channel Islands Average Joe that had a spider crack in the nose, and I was selling it to a buddy of mine, and so I wanted to make sure it was in pristine condition because he was starting to surf. And the only person that I knew that did repair, I messaged him and asked for a quote. I knew the typical cost for this was about 40, max 50 bucks. He quoted me at $75. So in order to try to work that down to like 60 or 65, I just asked if I could sweep the shop or clean or something like that. And then he said, I don’t want to deal with the board; price just went up to 100.” After hearing that, Sage sarcastically asked, “if he could make it 200.” He then proceeded to watch as many board repair videos on YouTube as he could. “I repaired that board and repaired all my friends’ boards for free and got to the point where I was comfortable enough to start charging people that I didn’t know.”
Sage made the leap from repair to board shaping during the pandemic. “That’s when I really started doing repair as a business rather than just a side hustle. And then, time after time, people would say, ‘you gotta start shaping.’ It wasn’t until my supplier out of Jacksonville told me, ‘look, if you start shaping, I’ll sell you everything at wholesale. So that was the motivation for me to start shaping boards. And so I figured, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. So I’ve only got six boards under my belt, but it’s been a lot of fun. A lot of the time, it’s very, very humbling.”
The surf culture here in Georgia is what makes surfing and shaping on Tybee special for Sage. “Not dogging on Jacksonville because I still go back there a lot, especially St. Augustine, but it’s very closed off. There’s a bit of localism to the break, especially if you’re going to one that’s a little bit more tucked away like Matanzas or something like that.” Localism tends to thrive where the surf is consistently firing. “The people [in Georgia] are so nice. It’s so inviting. Everybody is just riding the high of ‘we’re so grateful that we have a wave. So I’d say the special thing is the culture, the stoke that everybody has in the lineup, and it’s a lot of fun. Very rarely do you see anybody chirping at each other. To a degree, nobody cares. You’re solely here to surf. Not too many people are claiming waves. Everybody knows that you’re not gonna get sponsored out here surfing, and nobody cares about how good or bad you’re surfing. So it’s a fun environment.”
The number of surfers in Georgia has grown exponentially since the initial Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020. Line-ups from Tybee to St. Simon’s are becoming increasingly full, with people looking to get out of the pandemic blues. Shapers like Geoff and Sage provide these people with boards and helping fuel the growth and interest in surfing here. The Georgia Coast has something special, and what keeps the local surf culture alive are the local shapers who contribute to their communities. No one knows these waves better than the people who surf them – no one will shape boards for the Georgia coast like the shapers who live here.