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Surfing is the bait that entices us to leave our little bubbles. Surfing is what justifies getting holed up in the same town for weeks that turn into years. Surfing gives us a sense of purpose.
RICHARD “DEEPO” MATTHEWS HAD TAKEN THE BAIT.
I had heard of the Australian surfer and bamboo board maker who had taken up residence in Surigao del Sur from my friend Tanya whose family comes from the neighboring town of Cantilan. When she invited me to visit her hometown, I didn’t want to pass up on the chance of meeting the man who has become a celebrity of sorts in this community.
On the same day I’d arrived, I headed to his work shop overlooking the river mouth that accessed the nearby surf break. The place was strewn with bits of bamboo weave, stacks of unfinished boards and Styrofoam panels. My eyes were quickly drawn to a short board covered in classic banig—a woven mat that looked golden in the sunlight. The colors of the sunset wove down the full length of the board. I couldn’t resist running my hands on the rich texture of the surface.
I was met by a slender, almost fragile looking man with wild beach blonde hair and eyes the color of the ocean on a cloudy day. He wore a shirt that read “Respect the locals.” I called him Richard but he said, “Call me by my Indian name Mandeepo or deepo.”
deepo came to the Philippines in the 1980s in search of surf and bamboo. He had found both and much more. He says, “I stayed because of the warmth of the people, the smiles on their faces. I’ve felt like a fish out of water in my own culture. And when I came here, I felt I was in calm waters. The Philippines is like a smorgasbord—a melting pot of different influences. It has the ability to digest incoming immigrants.”
It’s a curious corner of the Philippines that Deepo chose to be digested in. When Filipinos hear of Surigao, they often think of Siargao Island, the country’s premier surfing destination known for its barreling reefs and giant swells. Dipo had initially lived on that island but his search for bamboo and more raw materials had brought him to the lesser known but equally captivating surfing village of Lanuza in Surigao del Sur, a boat ride away.
We had come at an opportune time, towards the end of the Lanuza Surfing Festival. We managed to avoid the crowds and still catch some of the action during the culminating event. Surf enthusiasts, spectators from all over the Philippines and a few foreigners had joined the festivities. More family-run guesthouses and a handful of restaurants had sprouted for the season.
As I walked along the town’s sea wall, I was welcomed by a beautiful sight. The waves had arranged themselves into playful ramps and a few “groms” (surfer slang for young surfers) and a wahine (Polynesian for woman) were having some serious fun out in the water. Tanya took out her camera and shot frantically until a huge wave slammed into the wall and made us shriek in retreat.
The main surf break is a long right hander that ends towards the river mouth close to Deepo’s shop. Only minutes away are several barreling reef breaks to choose from. It never gets crowded at the line up and surfers of all skill levels are welcome to so many options. Surf season runs from October through March. But the best time to go is from November to December when the swell is most consistent.
Surfing is bait for this small town. But I felt there was more to this place than the lure of stoke. We watched curiously as a family of six fit into a motorcycle with wooden “extensions” and sped through town in all smiles. Children danced and played by the sea like it’s their first time to get splashed by ocean spray. By sundown, the entire town would congregate along the seawall to exchange the day’s stories and wait until the ocean spat out the last thoroughly sunburned surfer. The locals lived in such sublime contentment that can only be understood as joy. For them, every moment is as it should be.
No one understood this more than Deepo who, through the years, found himself soaking up not just the waves but the culture and heritage of the town and the Philippines as a whole. He has done considerable research not just from books but through observation. He considers himself as an anthropologist who lives with the people.
Deepo believes that the Philippines is the place of origin for surfing—where the beach culture began. This coastline is actually an ancient laboratory, he says. This is where the first waves were understood.
He shared a story:
“I was in Pagudpud in Luzon a few decades ago. And I was thinking: How can surfing start here? And I saw a local fisherman take seven bamboo poles tied together and go fishing. He paddled out to the shore break which was not easy. And then I thought he was going around the back to go fishing. But instead, he turned in. I watched as he paddled his bamboo craft into the wave, caught the wave, stood up with his spear gun balanced on the board. And then he dived in after the fish. And that’s the origin of surfing: necessity to feed the family and adapt to the environment. It’s using what’s in the environment, the bamboo and the swell, to actually propel him to catch fish.”
Deepo has taken these ancient techniques and applies them into modern context. He took bamboo to create something so mindblowingly beautiful, I’d be more comfortable hanging it on my wall than riding it out on the water. This man definitely takes pride in his work. The material he uses for these boards are pretty basic but the process of making them is very technical and labor-intensive. Every single piece is hand-made and it takes about 10 days just to make one. Deepo has chosen bamboo because it is made of the strongest structure found in nature. It’s like a flexible diamond or organic fiberglass.
“When I first told my wife I would start making bamboo boards, she thought I was crazy. But today, these boards are world famous. I’ve been sending Philippine culture to the rest of the world. Here, we use this colored weave which is an indigenous design to this island. This is my message for tourism: if you want to buy one of these boards, you have to come here and experience the culture, meet the people. We don’t export boards per se. If someone comes here and orders a board, then I ship them out. But not until they’ve actually been here.”
Who could not love his philosophy?
Deepo and I chatted for an hour then he was gracious enough to lend us a couple of his bamboo boards to try out. It was my first time to ride one and I felt like a five-year-old kid with a new toy. I was up at the crack of dawn more than eager to try a bamboo board. Tanya took a shot at the long board made with an experimental abaca weave and I got the 6’2 short board with old school twin fin and banig layer. It felt so light in my arms as I carried it to the surf break that I started to doubt if it would carry all 100 lbs. of me.
My first few rides were wobbly. I couldn’t balance properly on such a small piece of wood no matter how buoyant it was. But as I rode more waves, my confidence grew. The bamboo board and I became fast friends. We started to dance together on waves. Those were the fastest, most fluid rides of my life!
The experience brought back memories of when I first stood up on a board. I had been taking surf lessons on the beaches of Zambales. The instructor had been pushing me, wave after vicious wave. I had countless wipeouts that day and was just about to give up. I had taken a serious beating and was getting frustrated. Finally, before sundown, I managed to push myself up. I saw the white spray, felt the energy surge beneath my feet and heard the scream rising from my throat. The ride probably lasted all of five seconds but it felt like forever suspended in time.
I surfed for every single day I was in Surigao.
When I took the boards back to Deepo’s place he mentioned that he was moving his shop further south to the beaches of Mati in Davao Oriental in the coming year. He felt his work was done in Surigao and wanted to share his knowledge and techniques in bamboo board making to the surfing community there. We said our goodbyes and I promised to visit him in his new place which was close to my own hometown of Davao City. The laboratory was constantly shifting, expanding.
By the end of my short stay, I got a tan, a memory card filled with photos and videos and snatches of a meaningful conversation. There was just one thing missing from my luggage: a bamboo board with a weave design in the colors of the sunset.
I know. I’ve taken the bait.
The story of the surfboard
The surfboards we ride today have come a long way from what started as a spiritual affair in Hawaii. From the art of riding waves itself, to praying for good surf, to rituals surrounding building a surfboard, surfing was deeply revered in this ancient culture. It was also a training exercise for Hawaiian.
The surfboard is made up of several parts and each has a specific purpose. The nose is the forward tip of your board. The deck is the top section of your surfboard on which you apply wax and stand while surfing. The stringer runs through the center of the surfboard. The rails are the outer edges of the surfboard. The thickness and curve of the rails are very important to the surfboard’s performance.The tail is the rear tip of your surfboard and greatly affects the board’s ride. The bottom is where the magic happens. It’s probably the most important aspect of your surfboard. It all depends on how water flows over it and how much friction occurs between it and the water.
Surfboard design has always been a very personal thing. Shapers tend to be surfers themselves, and board design is as much an engineering feat as it is a love for surfing.
The two basic types of surfboards are the shortboard and the longboard. The shortboard is the common board used for shredding and contest style surfing. It sacrifices paddling ease for the sake of speed, power and control. They are generally around 5’6″ to 6’4″ long and between 16″ and 19″ wide, generally with a rounded square tail. A surfboard is designed for the advanced surfer. The longboard is the oldest and most traditional design and typically range from 8 feet to 12 feet long, at least 2.5 inches thick and twenty inches wide. This extra volume allows you to paddle incredibly well and catch waves with ease.
Crafting Bamboo boards
In Deepo’s case, he uses a hotwire attached to a battery to shape the original styrofoam blanks. He uses a wooden stringer that is attached to the middle of the board. After the board is shaped, then he applies the weave design for top and bottom. He then attaches the rails. Lastly, the finish coat is applied.