MR Talks Pandemic, Board Sales and Foamies
Wise words from a tangible surfing icon.
Mark Richards is a four-time World Champion, Order of Australia medalist, but more than that he’s a living, breathing, walking icon of surf culture.
Accolades are one thing, but MR has also lived a pioneering existence. Literally treading out a path for coming generations, both in surfing itself, as well as, perhaps more potently, in surfboard design and lifestyle. So, I was understandably nervous whilst waiting for my phone to ring. You don’t phone MR, MR phones you.
The Wounded Gull, kneeling and swooping.
“I was in America in when the Pandemic started,” Mark tells me after we exchanged pleasantries. “We got home in the middle of March and had to quarantine at home for two weeks. After that I was in the very fortunate position of being able to work, and they didn’t stop us from surfing in Newcastle. I was very careful though because of my age, I'm in my 60s, which is a bad age bracket.”
Despite being in his 60s, MR’s surf enthusiasm remains. It was an average spring day out the front of mine (which being only a couple of hours from Newcastle, wouldn't have differed much), couple feet of southeast dribble and strong NE winds, but MR and I didn’t connect until midday as he’d been surfing.
One thing that was evident from my chat with Mark was his perspective. On paper, everything in his world has been going rather well this year. Like all shapers, his business is tracking nicely, although he admits that his selective hand-shaping output is small fry compared to JS, DHD, Merrick and the “big boys.” And, he’s been home during an epic winter of surf on the east coast. However, every description of the good parts of this year is preceded with context.
The brothers Walters, perfecting their double act in safety.
"It didn’t hugely affect my life,” Mark says. “But I was very receptive to the fact that it really fucked up a lot of peoples lives. There were people dying, losing their businesses, losing jobs.”
It’s a tinge of guilt that jabs many of us who’ve been “stuck” in New South Wales this year. The world’s in turmoil, but here it’s been JobKeeper, fires in the backyard, and endless surf.
You can't deny that they're eye-catching under arm.
"I’m sure someone will go, ‘Ah it was better in 1972’ or something, but I keep thinking it’s been the best winter of surf I can remember,” MR tells me. “Not in terms of there being perfect surf every day, perfect surf in Newcastle’s fairly rare, but it seemed like a never ending swell.”
In case you were wondering what a 4x World Champ rides these days, MR admits that he has “more boards than any human should possibly own,” and that “if the surf’s good I ride a thruster, I ride Retro Twins occasionally, but not that often as I surf modern boards most of the time. And I’ve got a modern twin fin I call the 'Super Twin' that I’ve been surfing a lot.”
Photographer Max Zappas taking a break from snapping to put the MR epoxy through its paces.
Whilst many businesses have spent the year buckets in hand, desperately trying to prevent their ships from sinking, surf hardware’s boomed. A visit to the Ocean and Earth factory earlier in the year showed bare shelves (apart from travel bags), and rumours swirl that the “big boys” have thousands of boards on order, with not enough staff to glass them, nor enough blanks to satiate the masses. MR runs a more bespoke operation, and can only sell them as quickly as he cares to make them. But, he admits that he’s not short of orders.
A nose's perspective of a man who's stared down his fair share of decks.
“I’m guessing quite a few people spent their JobKeeper on surfboards,” MR tells me. “And I read somewhere that usually during our winter there’s a million Aussies in Bali. Now they’re all at home, so the money they had put away for a trip to Bali may have been spent on surfboards. Surfing was one of the very few things that anyone could do thought winter, so it seemed as though everyone who surfed bought a new board, and everyone who didn’t surf decided to start surfing and bought a board.”
Sean Mawson endorses MR's claims that, unsurprisingly, his foamie's go.
Speaking of boards, the vague reason I’d been charged (most willingly) with contacting MR, was that he’s just released a range of foamies in collaboration with his longtime friend (and meticulous surfboard customer) Brian Cregan at O&E. I’d seen a flamed foamie with the iconic MR superman logo on it propped up in Brian’s office when I visited. It looked sleek and fast, and on enquiring I was told that it was, “Just something we’re working on.” Now, it lives. Just in time for summer.
Jay Taplin, one of O&E's design team, doing a little r&d close to home.
"I’d been thinking of doing a soft board for a couple of years, but usually I’m pretty bad at doing stuff other than shaping,” Mark says. “Then I got a phone call from Brian out of the blue and he said ‘Have you ever thought of doing a soft board model?’ And I said, ‘Funnily enough I’ve been thinking about it, would you be interested?’ And he said he’d love to do it.”
There’s two varieties of MR soft crafts, the entry level Ezi-Rider, and the top shelf Epoxy. “There’s no creator of a surfboards anywhere on the planet who’s going to say it goes bad,” MR says. "They’re going to say it’s the best thing ever invented and you should go and buy one right now. But it does actually go really good.”
Foamies have come a long way from rudimentary shapes designed for safe learning. Now, performance softies are a quiver essential during summer, especially if you live somewhere densely populated (which forecasts suggest will be just about everywhere on the coast this summer).
"I jump back on a normal board, and whilst there’s definitely a difference in performance, it’s not night and day." Mark tells me. "If you lean into a bottom turn or do a cutback they actually perform very much like a normal surfboard. We tried to take the best characteristics from the Retro 1980 model: the same shape, winged swallow tail and bottom contours."
MR's summer fleet.
After talking shop I couldn’t resist the opportunity to pick MR’s brain. He's been on a big, topical, espionage kick lately, reading 13 of Vince Flynn's 16 Mitch Rapp books and watching Blacklist and Homeland on the box. And, reminiscing on road trips past, he came out with this piece of gold:
“I tend to not travel too much when I’m home,” Mark told me. “If you jump in the car and drive for an hour or two north or south, you’re unlikely to get anything better than what you’re getting at home. Unless you know somewhere’s got the best bank of all time, or it’s one of those swells that’s closing out Newcastle and there's a few phantom spots that you know that could be really good.”
Wish someone told me that when I got my provisional license over a decade ago. Would’ve saved thousands on petrol, and approximately two and a half years' worth of stress.