JAMES OTTER, FOUNDER OF OTTER SURFBOARDS
James Otter is the founder of Otter Surfboards, a company based in an idyllic Cornish village called Porthtowan that designs and makes hollow, skin and frame wooden surfboards and runs workshops to help customers reconnect with themselves by building their own wooden surfboard. I speak to James about the story behind Otter Surfboards, his wooden surfboard building workshops, how his surfboards differ from the industry standard, his love of coastal living and his passion for safeguarding the natural environment.
James has loved the ocean and woodlands for as long as he can remember. “My mum says that when I was a young lad I would always collect sticks on dog walks in the woodlands that surrounded our house in the Chiltern hills. The connection to the sea came shortly afterwards through childhood trips to see family on the Norfolk coast and holidays to the South West,” he explains.
“My dad always used to say to me if you stick to something you enjoy you’ll end up doing something you love,” James tells me. He always enjoyed being creative at school so with his dad’s advice ringing in his ears decided to study furniture design and making at Plymouth University. He was approaching the end of his degree when he came across an article about wooden surfboards and became obsessed with the idea of making his own. The excitement he felt while making his first wooden surfboard was greater than he had felt making anything else before because it was a product of his greatest passions in life: woodwork and surfing. Shortly after leaving university he moved to Porthtowan, which lies a few miles inland from the wild Atlantic ocean, and set his heart on founding a company that would specialise in making wooden surfboards that were inspired by traditional Hawaiian surf shaping techniques.
James used the prize money he had been given for winning a design award at university to buy some machinery and set about perfecting his surfboard designs. He learnt to be a complete perfectionist from his mentor Andrew Trotman, a former structural engineer who runs a timber framing company. “He uses wood in imaginative ways and his level of workmanship is through the roof; being an engineer, he is really fussy about the detail. Working with someone like that teaches you to pay close attention to detail,” James explains.
James was busy beavering away in his workshop one day when a local surfer stopped by. The chance encounter was to change James’s path forever. The surfer was a passionate woodworker so asked James if he would be able to teach him how to make his own wooden surfboard. James tentatively agreed, but deep down felt nervous sharing the knowledge and techniques that he had been honing for the past two years. After a few days of having the surfer in the workshop, his apprehension had disappeared as he realised how rewarding it can be to help someone reconnect with themselves through making something and witness the excitement and confidence that it can give a person. He enjoyed the experience so much that he decided to start running regular workshops so he could teach more people.
Workshops now run every six weeks and attract people from all over the country for all manner of different reasons. “For a lot of people the workshop is part of a bigger journey of figuring out what is important to them in life. One guy had been in an office for 30 years and enjoyed his job but thought something was missing. He made a surfboard for his son as a gift even though he had never surfed or made anything. The experience turned his life inside out; he is now doing things that have a positive impact on the world, not just the day job, and reconnecting with his son through making the surfboard was a big part of that. People come along thinking they are just getting a surfboard but it changes the way they think because they are taken out of their comfort zone and realise what they can achieve,” James explains. James always leaves his workshops feeling inspired by the people he has spent a week teaching. “More often than not, they are much older than me; it is lovely to understand what they have achieved, what they have been through and where they are on their journey,” he says.
James’s wooden surfboards differ from the industry standard (polyester foam and fibre glass with polyester resin) in a number of ways. They are much stronger and last longer but weigh 40% more so ultimately suit a different style of surfing. “The fibre glass emphasis is on high performance and when I first started I wanted to get my boards comparable in weight but realised this was too difficult; so it is a case of working out what shapes are better with a little bit of weight. Weight translates to momentum so for the waves in the UK it works out better to have a bit more glide in them. We have some bigger long boards and smaller twin fin fishes and mid length single fins which are great for bigger turns and rail to rail surfing rather than quick and snappy turns and aerials the pros enjoy,” James says.
James lives a stone’s throw from the ocean with his wife and Labrador and can not imagine living anywhere else. “For me the sea is a huge part of my life; I don’t know where I would be without it. There are definitely a lot of people who really care about the environment down here; it is easier to remember that there are bigger things in life than paying the mortgage and going out and enjoying the environment you are lucky enough to live in is a big part of that. I am definitely happier outdoors than inside and often go on runs with the dog or a surf. There is so much good stuff on our doorstep and something to be said for spending time working out where you are happiest living,” James says.
It is important to James that his boards have as little an impact as possible on the natural environment he enjoys spending time in so much. “That connection back to the woodland and how they are managed is really fundamental to what woodworkers do. The timbers we use are grown locally in Cornwall or Devon. The cedar is from a private estate and Nick, the person that runs it, told me that in about ten years the whole commercial woodland, which is 600 hectares, will be completely self-regenerative and they won’t have to plant any trees. That is pretty special; working with people like Nick and supporting that culture within the industry is really important to me because you can get wood from anywhere around the world if you want but that doesn’t really make sense,” James exclaims. The workshop has also been designed to be environmentally friendly. “The building is quite special because it has round earth walls, solar panels on the roof, recycled tiles, wood burner heating, electricity from a wind turbine, and I can walk to work. It all fits with our ethos,” James tells me.
Otter Surfboards are leading the way in wooden surfboard design in Europe and have ambitious plans to make new products, including a wooden paddle board as well as continue developing the workshops. James never envisaged how satisfying it would be to share what he does with other people and help them reconnect and remember what it feels like to make something. The excitement of creating something tangible that you can call your own and is the product of hours of hard work has prompted many of James’s pupils to completely change their lives. There is something primal about making something with your hands, it is intrinsic in all of us, and can have a huge positive impact on one’s happiness and well being. Sometimes all it takes is a little encouragement for people to give it a go and realise what they are capable of achieving.