Hailing from Cape Town, South Africa, Donald Brink is a talented surfer and humble board builder now living in San Clemente, California. In our latest interview, Donald shares his influences and experiences that have helped shape the meaning of his personal philosophy, “Enjoy Your Water.”
How were you introduced to surfing?
In a sense, I really wasn’t introduced to surfing but the first time I remember seeing it I knew I wanted to do that. My family didn’t live on the coast but we spent many vacations there. Those times offered a wonderful opportunity to discover this fascinating new world of the ocean. Much later when I was 15, our family moved to Cape Town and I couldn’t have been happier. Before we arrived, there I was already off and running, under my own steam, to figure out surfing on my own. I had bought a water-skiing wetsuit from an ad in the newspaper not knowing the differences but wanted to be prepared. I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew I wanted to do it.
Same beach I learned to surf at and rode exclusively for years. South African beauty, Glen Cairn Beach Cape Peninsula False Bay. Photo: John Brink
Do you remember first surfboard and/or wave?
Oh definitely! Within two days of our family arriving to Cape Town, I had a surfboard. I clearly, clearly remember everything about it. In fact, I could probably shape one today with my eyes closed because of how fondly I remember it. It was an older Spider Murphy model, under the Safari label, given to me by some friends in the area. The board is around 6’2” with a faded green deck spray and blue wedge band tapering nose to tail on it. It was pretty much a 1980’s, flat deck thruster, with a downed rail, soft bump through the tail, foam core thruster fins and had a bottom that was a pretty much a flat panel V through the tail. This was my first surfboard and that’s all I had and that’s all I knew.
On a recent trip back to South Africa, I went about finding the board since I had given it back to the family when I moved away. I wanted to get a hold of it so that I could look at the board and restudy it. Visions of reliving those early sensations with today’s experience to enjoy it more, yet as a treasured first love. Once I had it in my hands, I knew I had to take it out! I paddled out at one of my favorite reefs wearing only a Farmer John wetsuit, water was in the 48-50F neighborhood and the wind must have been blowing 25–30 knots. This wave had a critical section on takeoff and ran down this small point into a beachy cove. At the right tide, you could really get a poor man’s J-Bay feel. Although I only planned to get 4–5 waves in this session, I was able to relive some of the youthful sensations of learning to surf, being exposed to the elements yet being part of these angry waves. Years later, learning to control the flow of speed and energy, all at the same time looking to have fun and being safe.This is surfing.
Safari Bowl. Photo: John Brink
This board became good point of reference for my surfing because everyday I was surfing pretty meager waves on my own. Most of the time, the conditions were strong onshore winds and the waves were fairly punchy; nothing considered to be lined up and easy to ride. The board had a lot of buoyancy and the flat deck allowed me to get into waves earlier and also allowed me to paddle into bigger waves, too. It wasn’t until I finished school that I was able to start making my way around the country and local peninsula in Cape town and began to experience the real variety of the waves on offer. I moved to J-Bay at one point to play drums in a band there but also because I knew the depths of the potential that stretch of coast had to offer from shapers, waves and coastal lifestyle. Jason Enevoldsen, my good Australian friend, showed me the ropes both in the water and on shore there and they are some of the most treasured memories for all sorts of simple reasons and deep ones too. Miss you, Buddy.
What was it about surfing that made you want to become a shaper?
Throughout life, I’ve been fascinated by design and art. Discovering the way things are put together and the mechanics of how something was built or how it worked was just inherent in my nature. Wanting to understand how these different boards worked came from the first time I traded boards with a guy out in the water. He was riding a bladed out Jeffreys Bay design, a full mid-Nineties chippy short board. I was able to catch waves but I noticed that the board really sank and didn’t get going like the Spider Murphy did. Later on, I met a shaper and after a couple of meetings, he realized that I was more intrigued with his design ramblings than most others. I don’t remember the title, but he lent me a book on the basic principles, practices and elements of a surfboard and how they work. I remember reading that book and most of the stuff going over my head at that time, but I started to get a sense that the details in what goes into making a “good” surfboard was incredibly complex. It helped me understand how the many little things come together into making something magic.
Shaping a surfboard, for me, is expressing yourself accurately so that those details really matter when it comes down to the few seconds of a ride in whatever that session has to offer. It’s unlike a lot of things in life where you spend all this time, months, years or however long it is, applying yourself to get to a place where a performance is so critical, at intervals a few seconds at a time. It’s not like anything else I really know. I like discovering the details of that “something” that made a board special and even though it may have not been perfect (I’ve come to learn that for sure!) it was the sum of the parts that just turned into an amazing experience for the right person, on the days it’s most often used. That is why I shape surfboards.
Photo: Shawn Parkin
Tell us about your relationship with Terry Martin.
I actually didn’t meet Terry through surfing. Years ago, I was traveling the world with a Christian rock band and we eventually got signed. During that time, our old bass player invited us to his wedding, in San Clemente. I met a lot of great people at his wedding, some of them were connected to the surfing community. When they found out that I was interested in surfing and shaping, they told me that I had to meet Terry. Years later, I ended up working for his son Josh, doing construction work, and that was the time I got to know the Martin family. My relationship with Terry was probably less about surfboards than most people think it was. Don’t get me wrong, we talked a lot about rails and rockers and so on and so forth. But, he was never the one to pick up a board and be like, “Oh, you should have done this.” Or, “I’ve seen that you’ve incorporated this.” He was just so encouraging. He was into surfboards and he knew I was. We shared that and it brought us together.
Hotcurl art piece.
Terry’s excitement for somebody else who was excited about the same things he was, that’s what made us really hit it off and get along. Besides surfboards, we’d always be tinkering on something. I’ll never forget the one day he came to me after he had whittled these crazily dangerous large wooden darts with these steel tips on them. They looked like bombs of an old wars era that could fall to the ground and ruin. He came into the shop with the darts and was trying to figure out how to put feathers on them as flights. I came up with another plan of putting this foiled tape on them. Doing those things together, it felt like we were kids at times. His youthful spirit was so infectious that I made it a golden rule that when Terry’s van pulled up, I would stop what I was doing because I never knew where the conversation would go or what would come out of it. These moments were electrifying and I never wanted to miss a nuance. We became very close and shared a lot of time together. He would stop by in the morning on his way to shape to check on what I was working on and come back later in the afternoon to see how things came out. We would have quick, impromptu visits that would lend discussions to deeper things. We spent a lot of time talking about incredibly deep things in life that we both found fascinating and that’s what took our relationship to a level of impact.
What I take away from this relationship was the confidence he gave when someone would share their brave thoughts. He wouldn’t back up the ideas or tell you how to do things. Rather, he made you confident in what you were doing. That seems to be something fairly rare in the world. You don’t get inspired like that by a lot of people but from Terry, I did. He was there for me and was always interested in the details. He was definitely involved in my life. I miss him dearly, every day.
How have you translated his influence into your shaping?
As I mentioned, Terry gave you confidence in your own thoughts. I’ve translated that into my shapes by being determined to push my boards beyond the boundaries in terms of concept, theory or rudimentary technique that is being sought after. I sometimes just throw out all the rules and measuring tools to the side and get back to the pure essence of what it is that I’m trying to make and do the best I could at it. That motivation to be out there trying to do something excellently for somebody so that they can surf it, coming in there with your heart and soul, just laying it all out there to the best of your ability is going to translate itself into a magic board for somebody. Terry didn’t really wander off and think that the grass was greener somewhere else. He just figured out that this was what he was meant to do. He stuck at it and the joy was something that he continued to pursue from pouring himself into it. He was so honored to shape something for somebody that was going to enjoy the sea and that is what I really hold in high regard. I find myself at times, constantly keeping the joy of getting to build surfboards instead of having to build surfboards. It’s an honor and privilege to partner with people’s path to enjoy riding waves.
What was it about Terry that you treasure the most?
I was fascinated by the way Terry conducted his life. Over the years, I started to get a sense of his story and found that pretty early in his life, he had come to a point where he realized the few things that he considered true and important. He took a hold of those things and never let them go. He didn’t falter or change his philosophy along the way. He believed and understood God to be who he said he was and applied it to his life and he never changed. What fascinated me even more, was the way he would give people the time of day or the manner in which he would conduct himself. He was interested in what you were doing and what you were about. He was a captivating and electrifying personality. Yeah, was sort of spontaneous, but it wasn’t like he was a loose cannon. He was just excited because he was excited. This led me to capture the essence of who he was and the way he conducted his life, in a film. It was kind of an odd thing to speak to someone about, “Hey, you’re not going to be around forever, let’s make a movie about what you think is important in life.” The film turned out to be an interesting perspective of a guy so old and successful in what he had done and how he applied himself so well to something that was a part of changing lives; from boards, to the personality, to conversations, to the time he invested in people.
During one film session, he was talking about life and how one doesn’t live forever. I remember it vividly. I stood behind the lens pulling focus on his eyes looking through the glasses and while he was talking to the camera, he said, “I’m happier today than I have been… well in all my life. Because, I’m knowing God better and understanding Him better.” What a confidence to have someone say those words at that age! It wasn’t about what happened in the past or what was going to happen. It was more about the present. I was so fascinated by that and I’ll never forget it. Think about saying you’re happier today than you have been in all your life. I certainly do. I am also learning that a pursuit of freedom is a more accurate path than one of happiness. These kinds of questions are birthed within us, avoiding them or disregarding truth doesn’t leave you happy, or any less confused. Surfing to me helps process the things in life that take time to understand, I think often how long it takes to get to understanding things in surfing and perhaps these tensions of similarity are what keep them hand in hand for me.
Who else was an influence?
When I started shaping in Cape Town, there weren’t that many people shaping boards but David van Ginkel, of DVG Shapes, was a huge influence. He was extremely hospitable to having me watch him shape and explaining boards, techniques and theories. Mostly I watched quietly and observed his process. Robin Fletcher Evans from J-Bay was much the same way and I still wish I could have learned more from those guys. Terry is a solid influence and Carl Hayward though the generosity of his family who let me shape in his bay after he tragically passed.
What do you love about shaping?
It’s definitely a creative outlet yet it’s also an appointed task. I like the dedication to detail, the implication of accuracy and how it translates to performance yet at the same time, there are no fatal errors. It’s kind of a free expression. You go into the shaping bay, you do your best and be as accurate as you can. At the end of the day, it’s some hand tools, some foam, rocker, fiberglass and resin. It’s not rocket science but you just need to know a little about rockets. Wrestling with these hydrodynamic principles and drawing from what’s going to enhance the design and complement the parts that you put together is how it all flows and how the board is going to work… that’s a fun exercise every time I make one. I love that tension between the free sculpting of something and accurate articulation of what it is you’re trying to make for someone to match the description of how they want to ride or envision themselves riding a certain type of wave in whatever way. That’s what keeps it so exciting to me.
Photo: Allison Moore
Describe your ideal wave riding experience and how you incorporate that into your shapes.
We go surfing because it feels good. We go through life trying to acquire the best memories we can. That’s how we all live, right? Big wave riding is what I would say is my most ideal wave riding experience because it’s thrilling from the dangers and always memorable because of that. When you get it right, you’re safer than when you get it wrong; that’s a fact. There’s something about taking off on a very big wave and your board’s working and you’re making the wave. Those memories get etched into one’s being much more deeply than surfing some small little beach break.
However, living here in San Clemente I’ve come to have a huge fascination for small and even sometimes, fairly flat faced waves, that getting a design that highlights itself in the more meager conditions is still a beautiful thing to me. I’ve had the opportunity to ride pretty flawless waves from the likes of, Cloudbreak, Jeffreys Bay and even down in Mexico. It was great, however, when you can go out to a 1–2’ onshore beach break and just get unbelievably stoked riding something that seems to fit the conditions and lets you harness speed and gain control while feeling free enough to express yourself from one section to the next. Having 4, 5, 6 to 10 waves in a row, with nobody around that changes your day. That to me is just absolutely mind-blowing.
I dedicate pretty much my entire program to figuring out boards that work well in small or weaker waves because it’s probably the most important board in your quiver. At the end of the day, it’s the enjoyment of playing in the sea that changes one and is the main reason why we all started surfing.
What are you grateful for?
I’m learning to be grateful for things that I want to wake up with tomorrow. It scares me sometimes what I’m not grateful for because there is just so much to be grateful for. I’ve come to realize how fragile this life can be and that we’re really not in control of anything. We all want to create something that is lasting and investing in people’s lives is a very important thing that I’m grateful for the opportunity to do. It shows itself in having a family. I’m so grateful for my wife, children and family. In the end, it’s the sum of investing in people that will someday have you be remembered for with legacy. Wanting to leave that something that matters to someone or to the rest of the world is how I think we were made.
Same recent Trip to South Africa enjoying the benefit of life’s progressions and the asymmetric advantages available for the most beautiful waves and surroundings in this place. Photo: John Brink
What’s next for Donald Brink?
Like any other business, I’m working really hard to build up the infrastructure to be a little more smooth and flowing so that when I walk into the shaping bay, I have those things taken care of. I want to pay my best thoughts, energy and attention to shaping the boards. I’m playing with a whole bunch of concepts and alternative materials that I’m very excited about. I wouldn’t say I’m reinventing the wheel but I’m finding different ways to build the wheel. It’s exciting because it frees up some avenues for some creativity and uniqueness. I’d like to see myself as humble shaper that builds boards that add to people’s quiver. There are so many good shapers and board building companies out there who are building incredible surfboards. I’m fascinated by different parts of the quiver that I think are of value. Hopefully one day I’ll get those emails that are specifically for certain parts of people’s quiver because I’ve come to be known to be the best at that. The asymmetric boards are incredibly beneficial to the rides and when it comes to that small wave platform. I’m really excited, the boards are working well I’ve got a bunch of ideas and designs sitting in the back of my mind that I can’t wait to build. I understand the fact that I need to take my time, talk to the right people and experiment with the right board and the right wave.
Find out more about Donald Brink and his surfboards here. Top photo: Allison Moore