How Hayden Cox’s high-tech surfboards are shaking up the industry
Hayden points to a figure out in the surf who’s paddling for a wave with flailing arms. The ocean surges, and the surfer scrambles to his feet. He stands up straight, for a moment triumphant, as he glides across the wave’s cerulean surface.
"Oh!" we all exclaim, as he trips and tumbles into whitewash, his surfboard ejected rudely from under him. Hayden turns with a grin, his matted surfer’s hair and boyish good-looks catching the sun. "I don’t get much time to surf these days," he says, "but the feelings are just as strong."
We’ve been out surfing Sydney’s northern beaches with legendary surfboard shaper Hayden Cox. Now, with our wetsuits rolled down, drying in the sun, we sit in the sand watching the surf. Hayden’s surfboard designs pepper the beach. They’re as familiar a sight at surf breaks like this as washed up seaweed or a sunburnt dad. Hayden’s company, Haydenshapes, is a household name amongst surfers, and grew from a backyard obsession into a global business. His signature board, the Hypto Krypto, has won "Australian Surfboard Of The Year" two years running, and is popular for one key reason: it completely changed the way that surfboards were designed and ridden.
"It was in my nature to go after my dreams and my passion: surfing and surfboards"
Why was that? In order to understand the impact of Hayden’s boards, let’s turn back to our original surfer, who we watched at the beach tumble into oblivion. If he ever felt the urge to ride larger waves (heaven forbid), he’d need to use a different kind of surfboard. That’s because most boards are made for one type of wave. They typically consist of polystyrene foam that’s wrapped in a sandwich of fibreglass cloth and polyester resin. A central strip of pliant wood, called a stinger, gives the board its flex and curve.
But the flex of the stinger has a narrow range. To ride different types of waves, surfers need a selection of boards, one for each condition. This is what surfers call a quiver. Hayden’s Hypto Krypto design is different. While experimenting with new technologies and materials in 2007, Hayden wrapped a foam body in a parabolic carbon-fibre arc. Now the flex ran from the edges inward, and was provided by a material far more responsive than wood. He took it for a surf at his local break, had one ride, and rushed back inside to apply for a patent. It was a eureka moment: he’d cracked the formula for a one-board quiver. Now surfers could ride the same board in every condition using what became known as FutureFlex technology.
"When you’re riding a wave, you’re not thinking about anything else."
Hayden’s own "connection with the ocean" began when he was four years old. He grew up in Sydney’s suburban North Shore and learned to surf on family camping trips. "Just a tent of the beach, cooking our own food. Nothing glamorous," he remembers. He was a child of the 80s, inspired by local surf icons such as Mark Occhilupo, Kelly Slater, and Rob Machado — "all the names that kids back then were psyched on." When Hayden was old enough to venture out alone, he surfed the breaks along Sydney’s coast, from Manly to Palm Beach — anywhere the bus would take him. "I didn’t have a local break," he says. "For me, the local break was where the best waves were."
"Stoking out surfers — that’s why I do it."
At the age of 15, Hayden broke the board he’d been riding that summer. But instead of forking out money to buy a new one, he went to a local board shaper (armed with a white lie about an imaginary school holiday program) and asked for experience. The owner, Rod, taught him to shape his first very board. "Rod shaped one side and I shaped the other. I still own that board," Hayden smiles. "I shaped the second by myself. I got three quarters of the way through and had no idea what to do next. I took it back to Rod and was like, ‘what do I do now?’ ‘You’re the shaper,’ he goes. ‘You’re doing this. You’re on your own.’ And that’s how I learned: by myself."
Hayden had found his calling in life, and began shaping boards in his parents' backyard and school workshop to sell to teachers and friends. "I remember getting stuck with a tool that wouldn’t fit to the curve of a board. I thought, ‘What do I do now?’ I had to think creatively to figure it out," Hayden says. "Sometimes you don’t know the answer, but that’s why you experiment, why you test things out." Hayden tinkered away, refining his craft. Before he knew it, he was building ten surfboards a month, and at the age of 22, he opened his first factory. "It was in my nature to go after my dreams and my passion: surfing and surfboards — working with my hands, but also being in business too," he says.
He worked seven days a week for three years, sometimes sleeping in the factory at night, to get the operation running. Like every surfer, Hayden had his fair share of wipeouts. "There were plenty of boards that I scrapped and didn’t give to the customer," he remembers. "I’d go away and shape another board because I wasn’t happy with my skill." Hayden enjoyed local success, but with the financial crisis in 2008, Haydenshapes came dangerously close to bankruptcy.
"You have to be stubborn in business to deal with the ups and downs," Hayden says. "Surfing brings a balance to what I do: going out and riding the product you make brings you a level of calm. When you’re riding a wave you’re not thinking about anything else. It gives you the space to let the positive energy back in, so you can go back and give it another crack." Hayden resurfaced, and in 2011 signed a pivotal deal with the world’s largest producer of surfboards: Global Surf Industries. That lead Hayden to where he is today, with production lines in Sydney, LA, and the outskirts of Bangkok.
"Allowing surfers to get the most out of every wave — making sure they have a great time."
We grab our boards and head to one of Hayden’s workshops. It sits a few streets back from the beach, and we hop there on sandy feet across slabs of scorching, sunbaked pavement. Inside, we’re greeted by a large, brightly lit workshop, filled with high-tech machinery and countless surfboards at all stages of completion. Hayden leads us to a proud looking specimen and runs his hand along its tapered spine. His glasses frame a look of quiet concentration as he inspects the board for signs of imperfection.
For Hayden, the shaping of surfboards is more of a science than an art — an attitude that has made big waves in the traditionally conservative surfboard industry. "I took the challenge of changing mindsets within the industry head on," he says. "I appreciate artisans, that’s how I learnt to make boards, but there is a way to replicate those same skills and techniques that the best of the best put into each board using modern technology. It’s about replicating a process consistently time and time again."
Today, Hayden oversees the production of tens of thousands of surfboards a year. "It requires really good staff, but also an understanding (and acknowledgment) of all the technology that’s at our disposal," he explains. "Using CNC machines to replicate your shape, for example, and working with the designers of those machines to handle the cutting process. We even use customized parts to cut the boards to a specific tolerance." Those high-tech boards have been praised by novices and world champions alike — such as double world title holder Tom Carroll — and even caught the eye of American fashion designer Alexander Wang. Together they designed a series of custom marble-covered surfboards that were displayed in Wang’s Tokyo and NYC stores. Not bad for someone who used to shape boards in his parents’ backyard.
We leave the workshop and move through sanding halls and paint rooms to an office upstairs. There’s a photo of Hayden’s family on the wall. He shows us another of his wife Danielle, with whom he lives in LA. He spends his days managing staff and flying between factories, and doesn’t find a whole lot of time for surfing. But when the conditions are right, he’s straight back out there.
"I might drive 16 hours alone for that swell of the year," he explains. "I onced hopped on a plane in Sydney at three and was in Bali by 11pm. I hired a car from the airport, drove across a couple of islands, and was at Super Suck by six in the morning. That’s kind of how my life rolls these days, I guess," he grins. "But, I’m looking forward to having a family and taking those camping trips again," he reflects. "In the end, it’s about allowing surfers to get the most out of every wave, making sure they have a great time," Hayden says. "Stoking out surfers — that’s why I do it."
for showing us your craft and taking us for a ride on your incredible boards — we felt like pros! Learn more about Haydenshapes.
Interview: Lucy Byrnes
Photography: James Whineray
One of surfing’s legends in the making? Hayden’s design muse, Craig Anderson, shows off his timeless yet enigmatic style in this video.