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Gone Surfing

words and photos by Fabian Coetzer

I’ll look at Supers first around 7am, that’s the priority!”

Hugh Thompson first made the surf pilgrimage to Jeffrey’s Bay in 1968 and fell in love with not only the waves but also the town. 

He recalls that on the day they were leaving, as they were making their way up the hill, after crossing the Gamtoos River bridge, he looked back at the bay and decided that Jeffrey’s Bay was where he wanted to live out his dreams.

Today, Hugh does just that – surfing Supers when the swell is up and shaping custom boards when it’s flat or the beasterly easterly is up.

I was able to connect with Hugh mid week, just as a swell was supposed to arrive. We made loose plans to connect the following morning, get some surf shots and then meet at his factory on the Saturday.

The morning dawned with evenly spaced, 4 to 5 foot waves, groomed by a light offshore – the stuff of dreams!

The lanky frame of Hugh strokes into a couple of set waves, an artist masterfully & gracefully maneuvering his brush along a canvas, it’s clear to see the flow his surfing possesses.

I send him a couple of shots later on – “Some fun ones hey!” he modestly responds.

Saturday morning we meet at the Natural Curve factory on St Croix Street, the tiny colourful entrance may hide what’s inside but once you cross the threshold of the doorway you feel the magic.

Hugh shows me around the factory, we look at boards, we talk surfing – his love and enthusiasm for all things surfing is infectious, to the point where I have to remind myself of why I’m there.

The shaping surfboards seeds were sown before Hugh had even started surfing in 1963. He was just so interested in building boards, he recalls how he would watch the guys shape & glass boards through the sliding hatch at the Safari surf shop on Hospital Rd off old Point Rd in Durban, He would later, much to the horror of friends and family, convert his garage into a shaping bay and start his shaping  journey.

He credits Spider Murphy as the guy that took him, along with the likes of Johno Hutchinson, Baron Stander and Derek Girven under his wing. For a long time he also spent time with Peter Daniels and Peter Lawson before establishing Natural Curve in Durban.

For many years Natural Curve operated as a big factory, manufacturing surfboards for the local and international markets. 

Every year since ’68 he made the winter pilgrimage down to Jbay, until a couple years ago when he decided the time had come to follow his dream – he scaled down and moved the business to Jbay. 

His focus has shifted to custom hand-shaped boards, the board art is done by local Stevo Kneelo, glassing and finishing is done by Moana Glasshouse in St.Francis.

Hugh prides himself in the fact that he hasn’t “pigeon holed” himself into any particular shape or board type – “Give me a blank and I’ll shape a board!”

Which supports his current ethos – we surf to have fun, so ride boards that facilitate fun! This is where alternate boards/shapes enter the fray.

Surfers have been so influenced by what the pros surf, that often the masses ride boards that aren’t suited to them – the fun element is lost.

Experimenting with fin setups and bottom curves informs many of his shapes today – in his bay he is refining his “Squirrel” model, his go to board – refined nose & tail thickness, round tail, single concave with channels, thruster set-up but ridden as a dual fin with hatchet keels. It’s the board Hugh surfed so masterfully at Supers midweek.

It’s at this point that I ask Hugh one particular question – “If you could shape a board for any surfer of your choice, who would the surfer be, what shape and why?”

His initial response is that it’s a difficult one to answer, his answer will lead to a detailed and sometimes frank discussion about numerous surfers.

Photos by Fabian Coetzer (all photos expand when clicked).

I’d shape a board for myself. It would be a finless version of a dual-fin board that I’ve been surfing of late – look at the surfing of Derek Hynd, it’s art!”

Numerous surfers, internationally the likes of Tudor, Rastavich, Slater, Machado, Medina, Toledo, Wilson, Parko, Fanning; locally Jordy, Deon Lategan, Sean Holmes amongst the men whilst among the women, Steph and Carissa impress Hugh!

It’s very easy to identify the single common thread amongst these surfers, Hugh inclusive –  FLOW!

The ability to link ones surfing “flow” seamlessly with the flow of the wave – irrespective of the craft being ridden or surfing “technical criteria”. It’s this self same thread that informs and characterizes his boards. 

A little more than two hours later, Hugh and I bid farewell.

I walk out his modest factory feeling satisfied, not because I’ve got the images I had envisioned, not because I got Hugh’s story, not that I’m so inspired to surf a greater variety of boards, not that I’m excited about having more fun surfing, not that I’ll soon be ordering a custom board! I feel really satisfied because I feel as if I’ve gained a new surfing mate!

Thank you Hugh, until next time. When we catch up in your home town and you hang your favourite sign on the factory door…GONE SURFING!

Additional pics by Pat Flanagan (all photos expand when clicked).