Russell Bierke was putting O&E gear to the test before his voice broke, and his modern R&D looks like this (which is a make, btw).
Ocean and Earth is a Core Australian Brand Set to Last the Ages
Sussex Inlet is quintessential coastal Australia.
What it lacks in amenities it makes up for with natural resources; it’s surrounded by pristine bush, hinterland then distant mountains, and teeming with surf and fish. It’s the sort of place that breeds curiosity yet keeps you there, and for the right sort it’s nirvana. Ocean and Earth founder Brian Cregan has managed to live his whole life in this sleepy corner of the South Coast of New South Wales, and build a heritage surf brand that thrives to this day. When the opportunity to investigate a core brand from an obscure part of the coast riding the current COVID surf hardware boom arose, I snapped it up pronto. Partly due to my love for the stretch of coast in question and its inhabitants, but mainly because I haven't interviewed anyone in the flesh in almost a year, and miss the interaction.
Heritage you can't fake.
The Ocean and Earth office/factory/flagship store sits on the side of the road on the way to the beach in Sussex, less than three hours from Sydney on a good run. It’s a one stop industrial zone, and apart from a black O&E flag flapping in the howling westerly I’d have driven straight past it, as Maps is, thankfully, glitchy in these parts.
It would be easy to cave to nostalgia and say it’s like going back in time, but when more and more people are re-locating to the coast, working from home and generally trying to find a way to earn a living rurally, visiting O&E HQ could just as well be a glimpse into the future. My photographer companion and friend Max Zappas is a local in these parts who grew up with the Cregans, shoots regularly for O&E, and is one of NSW’s foremost yabblers, so we cut straight through any threat of awkwardness whilst getting the tour and meeting the 20-odd strong crew, the greenest of whom have been with the company for nearly a decade. “They’re all reeeeally good surfers,” Max tells me after we spend five minutes chatting with the creative department, later supporting his claim with photographic evidence on their respective instagrams. Being a “good surfer” in these parts means tucking into thick, royal-blue tombs detonating on inch-shallow rock shelves.
That's Brian, in case you were wondering, putting his own wares to test since their inception.
Speaking of good surfers, Ocean and Earth’s got a new CEO by the name of Phil Macdonald, who surf-enthusiasts of a certain age would recognise as the former number five in the world. Although “new” in this case is misleading, as Phil’s been associated with Ocean and Earth since he was 13, literally coming of age (flow grom to masthead pro before transitioning to the business side) under Brian’s wing. Brian would later tell me that easing your grip on your baby is a lot easier when your successor’s been associated with the company for almost 30 years, and that he's still proud that Ocean and Earth remains one of the only independently surfer owned and run brands in the industry.
Brian runs us around the factory but it doesn't take long, as they've sold out of just about everything. Whilst 2020's been a disaster for retail in general, surf hardware is one of the few industries that's soared since the great pandemic-enforced work from home revolution. Brian motions at empty shelves and explains that they've got no single boardbags left (but there's enough travel covers to last the rest of the year), barely a foamie in sight (until the next delivery) and, much to my dismay, no cool water wax.
Back in the office, the decor is the stuff of Surfcore 2001’s wet dreams, much of which features Phil at various ages. We stop in front of one of the hallmark old ads, featuring Phil, his twin brother Ant and Todd Prestige sitting in a burnt out car with the latter Macdonald holding a carton of VB with the label photoshopped to “O&E”.
Brian Cregan, walking the boards he's traversed his entire life.
“You remember that, out the back of Gerringong?” Brian asks Phil, prompting a heartwarming trip down memory lane that culminates in discussing the current state of the surf, in particular the whitewashing of the WSL. Phil says that they need to play on the personalities instead of stifling them, pointing to the involvement of non surfers as the crux of the problem. “Surfing’s an emotional thing,” he says. “You either get it or you don’t.”
Max and I had literally gone straight from the surf to O&E, but it was soon suggested that we again go for a surf with Brian “for the story”. Gore Vidal once said that one should never refuse an offer to have sex or appear on television, but I’d add going surfing under the guise of “work” to the great man’s adage, so off we went.
CEO Phil Macca then and now, and, thankfully, still finding humour in it all.
Brian’s conscious of a fell wind blowing the corner rip bowl to pieces, so we suit up swiftly and head out. He notices my O&E leash (that I’d traversed half of Santiago, Chile, for) and seems mildly chuffed. I recount the story he casually replies, “Ah yeah, Surfers Paradise, I know that shop.”
Max runs around with a camera for the obligatory Brian walking down the track shots, before looking at me longingly, saying “I don’t need to shoot water, do I?” I reason that no one really wants to see a photo of a sixty year old trimming along clean two footers, regretting my decision when I see Brian fade and scoop into a shoulder-high, crystal blue cavern on his MR Bushranger.
Brian Cregan and a view built on selling legropes.
Post surf Brian promises to show us why he never left Sussex Inlet. His parents owned the caravan park, which is still there, and he currently lives in the house next door to the one he grew up in, right on the water. I’ve seen lots of nice views from various abodes down here, but Brian’s is special. His house is understated and elegant, with the ocean as its centre point. From every room in the house you can see a number of quality, not to be named here surf spots, with the southern tip of Jervis Bay to the north, and Bendalong to the south.
After a brief tour of Brian’s place - multiple sandy O&E wetsuits in circulation by various Cregan children hanging on the line outside, we head for a spot of lunch at the one spot to have lunch in the sleepy hamlet. Conscious of the fact that spending a pleasant day surfing and talking about good fishing spots wasn’t really the brief going in, I begin to lightly grill Brian about the beginnings of Ocean and Earth over chicken wraps and long blacks, overlooking the glistening inlet.
Tyler Wright, one of many South Coaster's who put their faith in Brian Cregan's wares. (Photo: Sticks Photography)
“I won a leggie in a surf comp and it broke,” Brian tells us. “I thought I could easily make something better, and that’s where it all began.” Brian was already a qualified carpenter, and making skateboards and working enough to fund his budding professional surfing career, which led to him finishing 39th in the World in 1978. Not that contest numbers ever really did his surfing justice, the chops of which will live forever on classic films of the time like 79's Band on the Run, alongside Rabbit and Paul Nielsen, among esteemed others.
Ocean and Earth cultivated in various Sussex Inlet garages, taking a more gargantuan leap in 1978 in South Africa, when Brian was introduced to the possibilities of urethane by one Shaun Tomson.
“I knew that was the future,” he says. “So I brought one back, sourced the materials and went from there.”
The master (Brian Cregan), and his newly crowned apprentice (Phil MacDonald).
Brian recounts the fledgling days of O&E with glee. The genius of making hardware that supplies bricks and mortar surf stores is that, in general, people buy leg ropes where there’s quality surf. Meaning the business/pleasure trips (before things got more serious) were perfectly blended. “Ah Indo, Fiji,” Brian recalls. “We went to Tahiti to open a couple of accounts, so it would’ve been rude not to check out the surf. And it was cranking.” Brian goes on to say that the relationships forged with bricks and mortar retailers is crucial to O&E's longevity.
Whatever way I frame questions to prompt Brian to unearth revelations of how surfing got so big, lived so large, crashed so spectacularly, and yet an unassuming company from the south coast weathered it all, it comes back to making quality products that surfers want and need.
Kanoa Igarashi, the latest in a long line of elite surfers to trust O&E to keep his back foot planted and craft connected. (Photo Bosko)
“If the product doesn’t work then it’s all just marketing,” Brian says. “Companies push the shit out of stuff, but if the gear doesn’t work then it’s all a waste of money."
When it comes to quality testing, Ocean and Earth hasn't had a shortage of competent test pilots over the years. From MR, Simon Anderson, Shaun Tomson through Tom Carroll and Luke Egan to the current crop, 'CTers like Owen Wright, Kanoa Igarashi, Ryan Callinan and Tyler Wright and big wave specialists like Russ Bierke, there's been nothing but expert feedback filtering back into the brand. “Those guys are going to come back to you if the gear doesn’t work and they nearly drown,” Brian says.
Russell Bierke is a south coaster who’s been slapping an O&E sticker on his craft for as long as he can remember, and he tells me that it’s not just out of solidarity for a hometown brand.
“Quality equipment’s everything when you’re surfing big waves,” he says. “From dragging your boards around the world in a board bag to wearing a leash that can be seriously be a lifeline, if you don’t have confidence in your gear it’s pretty likely you won’t have a very good surf. I’ve put O&E’s products in some extreme situations and have complete faith in them.”
We witnessed Ryan Callinan do this on a wave 1/8th of the size last month, and it was no less powerful or impressive. (Photo by Bosko)
Ocean and Earth makes apparel, but at nowhere near at the capacity that they once did. It was as much as 40% in the 2000s (I remember rocking a particularly garish turquoise tee with a graffiti splattered O&E logo stencilled off kilter on the chest), but now the range is small, mainly servicing the factory’s front of house shop. Much is made of surf apparel’s downturn, but Brian has a casual, philosophical outlook on its demise. Prompted by the simple practice of watching his kids grow up.
“You could always see the downturn of Surf as a lifestyle fashion coming,” he says. “Youth consciousness changed. My boys weren’t brand oriented after the 2000s, and kids realised that you didn’t need to spend $80 on a t-shirt.” Brian takes a bite of his wrap and grins. “God Vinnies must’ve made a fortune.”
Then and now, Ocean and Earth's primary concern is hardware, and it's served them well. The brand currently produces the largest range of surf hardware of any company in the world —wetties, soft racks and foamies as well as boardbags (that I can attest to the durability of having dragged one around South America for most of last year) and what's billed as the world's strongest leash.
Owen Wright, another Ocean and Earth team rider, and perhaps the greatest proponent of left tubes on the planet. (Photo: Sticks Photography).
On the way back to the factory Brian’s phone rings and he answers via bluetooth in the car. It’s an old friend who begins the conversation with, “Now it’s not personal, but I’ve got some feedback… The solar cure does not go off in five minutes.”
Brian smiles as his mate launches into a tongue in cheek spiel about how good the old ding repair kits were, letting him ramble before playing his trump card.
“Did you put the patch on it?” Brian finally asks, referring the crucial factor in making the resin set.
“Well nah, but…” his mate says, before launching into another humorous spiel, concluding his case with, “Fucken Ocean and Earth.”
“Well read the instructions ya wanker,” is Brian’s closing statement, causing phone callers and car passengers alike to crack up laughing.
Gear that allows surfers to do this: Dakoda Walters and the cornerstone on which O&E lives and breathes. (Photo by Respondek).
Seemingly just a humorous exchange between old friends, the conversation’s telling of how Brian’s built his modest empire. By personally ensuring quality, and trusting surfers to spread the word of quality gear. The “surf industry” is the industrial back end of the Gold Coast, Torquay, Huntington and Costa Mesa, and Sussex Inlet is a minimum of 1000kms from all of them. Yet Brian’s managed to create his life’s work around him. Solving the old live to work/work to live equation was the goal, and mid-morning surfs, O&E suits hanging on the line whilst still taking pride in your work surely represents mission complete. With panic rife as to the uncertainty of the economy going forward, Brian’s resolute and sticking to what’s served him and his company so well up until this point.
“Surfers are always going to go surfing,” he says. “The demand for quality gear is always going to be there. We’ve got a lot of time, money and expertise invested, so when the market changes you’ve just got to go with it. You can’t be complacent.”