Core Surfboards are being shaped and laminated in the wave spot Peniche on the Portuguese Atlantic coast. What sets them apart from their competitors? A look behind the scenes.
Gero Tragatschnig grew up in Münster, Germany and went to the island of Sylt at 17 to do his civilian service. But secretly it was windsurfing and surfing that drew him to the North Sea island in 1984. He soon developed all the skills required to become a shaper; at Paradise Customs Sylt (former German windsurfing brand) he learned the craft using a custom-made forge. He learned lamination, grinding and so on through many successful years on Sylt. He’d work in summer months, and at the latest in November he’d go surfing in Australia, Hawaii and Indonesia.
Gero Tragatschnig: Sebastian Wenzel (shaper for the windsurf brand Fanatic) had settled in Guincho/Portugal in 1995 and asked me to train his staff for lamination and grinding. So it happened I had spent my winter in Portugal and surfed regularly at the Portugese hotspots Peniche and Ericeira. And then came the founding of my own business for the production of surfboards in Peniche and also my own brand Fatum. Thomas Lange, former world-class German surfer, cooperated with me in the beginning and in the following years we grew fast.
KM: With your production of Core kitesurf wave boards and surfboards under your label Fatum, you are one of the big producers in Portugal. What makes you different?
Gero Tragatschnig: We are big, yes, but not too big. Our company achieves a consistently high quality. There are so many variables in surfboard production that can go awry, and there is a need to consistently apply rigorous quality management.
KM: And if you would produce more boards?
GT: Then you cannot keep the quality, at least permanently, so high. Such negative examples are always to be found by other board manufacturers. Because at some point a detail on the material or in the production stage is not right and then the kitesurfer or surfer does not have the optimal product under his feet. This does not fit with our corporate philosophy. By the way, this is also the reason Core has their wave boards built by us.
KM: What makes Peniche for you?
GT: With our production we are at one of the hot spots of the European surfing scene. This pays off in the long run, so that every employee is also an inspired surfer and every detail and every component, starting with CAD milling, backshaping, laminating, grinding and so on can evaluate and strive for maximum quality without end. Furthermore you get to see trends in the market. It cannot be better and more consistent. In contrast, 80 per cent of the world’s surfboard production comes from Asia, and so many variables on the board are intangible, incomprehensible.
KM: Asked again, every employee is also a surfer?
GT: Absolutely. For example, one employee of mine, Quim, manages to be on the water every day. For me, I’m also out regularly, but I also like to go to special spots, like individual locations in Indonesia or in Panama.
KM: You’ve already surfed most of the major waves on the planet. And for almost all conditions you build surfboards.
GT: Yes, whether for beginners or advanced surfers and also all board type as well as for all spots. That goes up to special Nazaré boards or for the standing wave at the Eisbach in Munich (legendary surf spot at the river of Eisbach in Munich).
KM: How big are the changes in surfboard shapes these days?
GT: There are trends back and forth. For example: surfboards become more surfable for surfers who are on the water for maybe three weeks a year. The boards are sometimes slightly wider and keep the speed on each part of the wave.
GT: That’s the joke. The differences of a 6’0” surfboard to 6’0” kiteboard is vanishingly small. The kite is just the tool to get on the wave. I would like to mention three points: 1. The fin placement is different in terms of the angle and the degrees to the board’s longitudinal axis. 2. The rails are a bit sharper in the back area (up to the tail). 3. The rocker course is a bit flatter.
KM: What are the advantages of PU/polyester surfboards from your production to the sandwich boards from China?
GT: The flex behavior of PU/polyester boards is worlds better. Why is it like that? To be completely honest, we don’t know. Maybe it’s the PU foam that gets softer and softer on the inside, giving the board the unmistakable flex. Or the combination of the PU foam/stringer to the polyester resin? No surfer would get the idea to go on a sandwich board in the wave. And if it were otherwise, maybe we would build sandwich boards too.
GT: Apart from the design, the PU foam is the ultimate. I have been shipping the blanks from South Africa for 25 years because they are a lot better than blanks from other areas. That does not mean that blanks produced in China are basically bad, but there are often significant flaws and the quality is just not that high. The foam core in a board contributes significantly to the surfing characteristics. Important here are the weight, the flex and the resistance.
KM: Today you are using a CAD machine for the pre-shape.
GT: Yes, and for the last 15 years too. This will not be replaced. The CAD machine achieves very exact shapes within 20 minutes. Only then is it possible to exactly reproduce shapes. This is not possible by hand.
GT: Yes and that is only cosmetic. I put all the measurements in the computer and so the blank comes with a 100 per cent shape out of the machine. Otherwise it would not be possible to reproduce exactly the same shape on a longer term. Other manufacturers work in another way, but it´s the wrong way. Now there are kitesurfers, as well as surfers, who want to have a completely handcrafted board.
But only a few. If so, then that’s the romantic. Do you know what is more important than the shape? The processes of laminating and sanding, meaning the sanding after lamination. Here you have to work very precisely and much bigger mistakes can happen.
KM: Are the shapes of the Core wave boards also shapes for riding waves without the kite?
GT: Yes, if you have the skills to surf a 5’9” or 6’1”. We have already talked about the minor shape differences. Plus, they’re a bit heavier and more robust than the boards we build for surfing.
KM: And that’s what you’re doing with the construction methods?
GT: The Core wave boards have more glass layers than conventional surfboards. In addition, there is a carbon layer in the area of the tail, in the area of the footstraps and of course the plugs for the footstraps are particularly reinforced. On the other hand, the Core 720 strapless board is already closer to the surfboards, because the pressure exerted by the kitesurfer is much better distributed here. Added to this is the blank. We use five different densities. The density describes the density of the blanks. For an EPS blank for the epoxy sandwich construction this is 25kg/m3 and ours is in the range of 48-60. A blank with a higher density also has a greater resistance.
GT: But that does not give you a coherent overall package. The typical surf feeling of riding a wave cannot be achieved with these constructions.
KM: Let’s stay with the PU blank. The more foam you shape away from the blank, the softer the core.
GT: And that is why it’s so important to take only as little as possible. Therefore, we strictly align the sizes on the boards that we finally build. Also every six months we get new blanks from Durban/South Africa. What if a delivery of blanks is different? That’s the disaster! Then you can knock a big batch of boards into the trash. I travel to South Africa on a regular basis to keep in contact and to ensure that we get consistently high quality.
KM: Also a reason not to grow with the board production?
GT: Yes. Otherwise many steps can no longer be controlled to that extent. We aim for the highest possible perfection and could no longer ensure this with a larger company.
KM: Change of topic: fins!
GT: Fins are very important because the speed with which they are flown is very large. But fins are also a big challenge and there are crucial questions to ask: where do I position the fins, which angle do they have and which material are they? Three factors that are super important, but also there is little or no scientific evidence.
KM: Your boards all have a stringer.
GT: Yes, also an important topic. We’ve been using only a specific wood for a long time, so we do not have any variances, so we can keep the properties high and keep everything under control.
KM: How did you come to cooperate with Core?
GT: About ten years ago, Bernie Hiss (Core CEO) came here on a stopover to Brazil. He was looking for a production facility for directionals in classic surf construction. And now we manufacture these Core wave boards.
KM: How are new kitesurf board shapes developed?
GT: We receive a briefing and build prototypes, but also from Core certain ideas about shape details come up. These are tested by the team until it comes to the final board.
KM: For more than 20 years you’ve lived here in the wave riding Mecca Peniche. What has changed since this?
GT: 20 years ago, almost nothing was here. There were only a few surfers on the water. Surfing has only gradually developed. Nowadays, the spots are already crowded and the surf schools are partly talking about who is out at what time of day with the students. Just think, there are 160 registered surf schools here in Peniche. There are also a number of unofficial schools.