While shaping in the Vissla Shaping Bay at the recent Vissla Sydney Surf Pro at Manly, the one and only Darren Handley (DHD) created a hand-shaped 5’11” to be ridden by Mick Fanning in his final competitive event at the 2018 Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach.
Vissla recently caught up with Darren to discuss the process of shaping it, the reception he received and how his friendship with Mick blossomed into one of the most iconic surfer/shaper relationships in the history of surfing.
The board you shaped at the Vissla Shaping Bay was the last handshaped board you’re making Mick Fanning for competition. What was the big difference between it and some of the other boards you’ve shaped him in the past?
Vissla asked me to come down to Sydney and do a handshape board as part of the event and I thought ‘I don’t do many handshape board anymore, so I’ll come down and do one.’ With Mick announcing his retirement around the same time, I thought I’d make something for him to ride at Bells in his last event. He rides 5’11”, so I used that as a base and flattened the rocker a little bit and changed a few things with the concave and that was really the motivation. I wanted to shape something new and different that people could watch me make and then see Mick ride it at Bells.
Did the reception you received while shaping that board blow you away a bit?
Yeah, it did. I’ve done things like this before, where I shaped on the beach at Huntington and I’ve shaped here, there and everywhere, but Manly was the most people I’ve had running around and watching. Even the people watching on Facebook, came back to me saying that it was good to watch.
Your relationship with Mick is one that’s been going for quite a while now, can you tell us a bit about how it started?
My relationship with Mick started 25 years ago. He was 12 or nearly 13 years old and he used to do Kirra Boardriders when I was President. It was a time where I was just starting my career having just left Pipedream Surfboards not long before. I approached him and basically asked if he wanted to be a team-rider. I went and told him I’d like to sponsor him and he basically went, ‘yeah sick.’ That was the start of it and now he’s won three World Titles, four Bells titles and countless other achievements. We both met each other at the perfect time, where we were both starting our careers and we’ve both achieved great things because of it.
You were a competitive surfer yourself who surfed on the QS and Juniors before Mick did. Do you think once the competitions began to fade, was shaping just a natural progression?
I fell into shaping, not because I wanted to. I knew I was never going to be a professional surfer. I enjoyed surfing in contests and I had a few alright results, but I didn’t have that natural talent, but I think knowing how to surf allowed me to look at the boards we were riding at the time and say ‘these are terrible.’ Then when I began to work at Pipedream Surfboards I was lucky that Murray Bourton allowed me to experiment as much as I wanted. I began getting blanks that had more rocker in them and moved the fins up and stuff like that. I had a few good surfers like Scat (Craig Pitchers), as well as myself, who could test a lot of the boards and feel what was good and bad. That really helped a lot. When Mick came along, things went to another level with his performance. I wasn’t doing airs or big carves like he does, so I think a lot of it was evolution and I probably taught him a lot about how boards work and he helped me to make it better.
You mentioned your time working under Murray Bourton before. He’s a pretty accomplished shaper who you don’t hear much from these days. What pearls of wisdom did he impart on you as you learned the ropes?
Murray had some great ideas. We had these shaping machines that created the curve of a board, so we weren’t doing it all by handplane and allowed us to get a lot of consistency going. He really taught me that consistency is key. Plus, because I was loving what I was doing so much, that I’d spend all day and night playing round with things, he’d tell me a lot. He would explain the concept of why certain fin placement, rocker or concave works and what doesn’t. To this day I still chat to him about things like that. He taught me so much and I really respect that I learnt a lot of my craft from him.
Would it be fair to say that like your relationship with Mick where it’s been great between surfer and shaper, your relationship with Murray has been a parallel, but between shaper and shaper?
Yeah for sure. If you look at a lot of the shapers on the Gold Coast – JS, Sparrow, Lee Stacey – a lot of them came out of our stable where they were shadow shapers or machinists. Then you go to the glassing, and it’s the same case there also. A lot of guys worked there alongside Murray and I for a long time.
If you had to put a number on the amount of boards you’ve made in your career, what is it?
Someone asked me the same question recently and my honest answer is that I don’t have a clue. I would have to say, that it would be no less than 20,000 boards and no more than 30,000.
Is there a specific board or model you’ve created that you’ve been more proud of than others?
The model would have to be the one I made with Mick, the DNA, as it’s had 13 or 14 years of research and design tweaks to get it to where it is now. It’s the same model that Steph [Gilmore] has won six World Titles on basically. As far as boards go, there’s one in particular from a few years ago  that Mick called the ‘money maker’ because he won a World Title on it, as well as Trestles, Portugal and France all on the same board. There was something different about that board and he was untouchable that year really.
Do you know what the thing was that made it different from the rest?
The thing that separated it from the rest was that - at the time - Mick was riding 5’11’s with quite pointy noses and were narrow right through to the tail. He had the idea to shorten it, fatten it up and widen the nose and he was able to still do his good carves, but also get through those dead sections of a wave. It was just one of those things that helped us change the direction on the DNA model boards that we still make today.
If you could shape one board for one surfer you’ve never shaped for – alive or dead – who would it be?
I’d say the person would have to be living. One person whose head I’d love to get inside is probably Ozzie Wright. I’d love to make something that he can go to town on and get in the air, but still do his carves. I would love to try and get what is in his mind and make a board that will allow him to do it while surfing.
If you could shape one board for one shaper you’ve never shaped for – alive or dead – who would it be?
Michael Peterson. I grew up watching Michael and I would love to make him a thruster and see if he could ride it as well as he could ride single fins and hear his response.
Finally, has Mick had a chance to look at the board you shaped him?
Not yet. I’ve told him about it and he’s excited to come and have a look. We’ll get it glassed shortly and go from there. He said to me, that ‘I don’t care how it goes, I’m still going to ride it at Bells either in the freesurf and one of the losing heats,’ so I think it’ll either be a hero or a zero on that one.
Words and Photos: Ethan Smith