Siargao sits like a pristine tear drop at the south eastern edge of the Philippines.
Home to the world class Cloud Nine, the island has been a favourite for surf tourists since the wave was discovered by photographer John Callahan in the early nineties and featured in Surfer Magazine.
Like many tropical paradises, the sudden influx of wave hungry visitors has fast tracked development on the island and in recent years locals too have began taking up the sport in their droves, creating an unprecedented demand for surf related infrastructure.
Fulfilling this demand, for boards in particular, requires a creative approach, as sourcing the tools and materials required to make surf craft can take months and these logistical difficulties have helped foster a DIY culture amongst Siargao’s small crew of intrepid shapes.
Cocosurf is one local company that exemplifies the need for an innovative and creative approach as well as any. Founded by British ex-pat Ash and island local Din Din, the brand was born two years ago and has been going from strength to strength ever since, opening up a cafe/ shop and establishing the island’s first board sponsored surf team.
Travelling surf photographer Gwilym Thomas, who himself lived out in in Siargao for six months a few years ago, recently caught up with the pair to discuss the challenges of building boards on a remote island, the importance of supporting the local surf scene and the steps they’ve taken to produce zero waste.
GT: Hey Ash and Din Din, it’s been 2 years since I left the island and we’re now sat here in Cocosurf’s brand new Surf Shop and Cafe. It’s awesome to see how you’ve grown the brand. First, how did you guys meet?
A: We first met in Siargao in 2012, Din was visiting the island and I was already living here at the time.
D: Yeah I was working in Manila as a full time shaper and I’d come back to see my family.
A: I was living in this house next to what is now Buddha Surf Resort, and Din ended up renting next door to me. We got talking, and I ended up ordering some boards off him for
GT: How did things progress from there?
A: A year or two after getting the first Buddha boards, I went to Manila and linked up with Din to order some more. Din was saying how he hated Manila and wanted to get out of the city. At the time I told him if the opportunity arose for him, I’d help him get things set up on the island. About a year later, in 2014, Din contacted me and said he was ready.
D: At the time I was working with Paulo at Skwala surfboards, and I told Ash that I had to let Paulo know first before making any movements. I ended up working for another year with Skawala before moving back to Siargao.
A: Shapers are hard to come by in the Philippines, so respectfully Din didn’t want to leave his mate and colleague Paulo in the shit.
GT: How long has Cocosurf been going for now?
D: We started in 2015
A: In year one, Din shaped just over a hundred boards. We’re most probably on a similar track this year so far, maybe a bit more. As Din is hand shaping everything and making the blanks, he’s limited to how many boards he can make a week.
D: If it’s just for shaping then I can do one board shape a day, but I’ve got to train the other guys too which takes a lot of my time. They are still learning, so I have to oversee every part of the process in order to ensure the level of production is kept as high as I want it to be.
A: If you think about it on a global level, how many shapers out there nowadays just shape a board, have someone else glass it, and have someone else finish it off. Din does the whole process from making the blanks, cutting and putting in the stringer, shaping the board, glassing, resin and polishing.
GT: Am I right in saying you essentially cut the blanks from a giant block of foam, with a few jigsaws, and a thin high tensile wire that’s heated using an adapted clothes iron Din? I came down to the shop recently and watched the whole process, and for me it was simply mind blowing.
D: Yeah, that’s right, I’ve even spoken to a few famous shapers who have come to the shop, and they’ve been simply amazed by the way we do things here. It’s so easy for them to turn around and order any blanks they want, and they get them delivered in days. We’re stranded on an island here and have to do things our own way.
GT: And so do you make your own purely because of the logistical difficulties of getting them delivered?
D: Yeah, we can get them made cheap in China, but the delivery is expensive.
A: Getting the blanks shipped into the Philippines hits us with 100% import tax, and getting them shipped from Manila down to a small island like this takes months.
GT: I remember for the whole 6 months I lived here, you were waiting on blanks right?
A: Yeah that was actually our first shipment, the Chinese factory blew up on our first order. That was in the news, all of our potential boards went up in flames. So it’s taken a lot of trial and error.
GT: Ash, how did you end up setting up a life for yourself here?
A: I was travelling around Asia backpacking, working remotely building websites back then. I ended up in Siargao which was my last stop. I loved it here immediately and had decided I didn’t really want to go back to the UK. I ended up buying land with the simple intention of making a holiday home for myself here. That then developed into building extra rooms for friends to come stay…and then turned into a business. I guess the rest is history (laughs)
GT: And Din, are you Siargao born and bred?
D: Yes, I was born and raised in Siargao, but then I moved away, although I’ve always had a feeling that I wanted to come back and live on the island. It’s really good now being part of the island. When I was working in Manila it was all work, work, work with very little chill time. It kind of killed my passion for shaping. Coming back here and being a local involved with the scene is special.
GT: Is it important to you that you contribute to the local scene in a positive manner?
A: For me it’s really important that the locals benefit from the growth in surf tourism here, which is now booming. It’s easy for the locals to be left out when foreign and Manila investments come in, just trying to make a profit. I think it’s what really makes the place is the locals, so it’s important that they are working and setting up their own business whether independently or with foreigners that are coming here. I think it’s important that it keeps its roots, as they what makes it magical.
GT: I completely agree it needs to be embraced and not exploited. One way you’re doing that I feel is through the Coco Surf Team. It’s quite pioneering for a company that’s only been established for 2 years. Can you tell us more?
D: We are the first surf brand in the country that’s making surfboards and supporting local surfers. Most guys are just making surfboards and selling them and that’s it. But here at Cocosurf we’re a lot happier to be making boards and giving them to a few local riders.
GT: How many guys have you got on the surf team?
D: We’ve got 9 on the team in total, 6 guys and 3 girls.
GT: What kind of age group are the riders?
A: The youngest rider is Kai Kai who is 7 years old, and then it goes up from there to Remar who’s 18 now. We’re mainly trying to focus on young kids because the surf industry in the Philippines is first generation.
It’s only now that Filipino surfers are starting to be recognised worldwide, competing on the WSL Tour in addition to the exposure they’re getting at the Cloud 9 National and International Comps.
Din’s trying to focus on the kids coming through, supporting them whilst they’re young and hopefully they can make a career out of it. Being exposed to bigger brands as they develop, but hopefully sticking loyal to Cocosurf throughout.
D: Kai Kai only 7 and he’s ripping. Imagine if he grows up to be the John John Florence of the Philippines (laughs). Think about John John relationship with Pyzel throughout his career, maybe it could be like that.
But who knows, for now I’m so happy just seeing these locals surfers, surfing on our boards and working with us to make
them bigger and better.
A: We’re also sponsoring a few local girls who have recently got into longboarding. That’s a completely new movement here as in the past it’s always been known for its big powerful breaks, and everyone used to say there’s not really a longboard wave here.
These girls have come through and certainly proved that wrong, showing people that you can definitely longboard here. There’s probably about 10 local girls now who are really into longboarding.
GT: In turn you feel that this moulds a scene in a new direction?
A: Yeah definitely. These girls before wouldn’t really think of taking a shortboard out to Cloud 9 because it’s too heavy, and then other spots are often too small to ride a shortboard.
Now we’re discovering more and more spots which are just prime longboarding waves. One thing that amazed me is the number of surf spots accessible from General Luna by simply a 10-15 minute boat ride.
D: The distance between the breaks is very small, but the difference between the way they break is pretty big.
GT: Din, you’ve developed some ingenious methods for shaping in Siargao. How did your shaping career start and when?
D: I guess it started when I started using Surfboard scraps from old boards. I’d scrape off old glass from really old 70s boards from my aunts. I’d scrape off the glass down to the original board, then re-shape it into a modern day surfboard shape.
That’s when I feel things really started, way back in 1998. I’m so happy as I didn’t expect my skills to grow in such a
Way. It grew pretty naturally from fixing friends’ boards into more aggressive shaping. It just happened at that time, my friends would come to me with a snapped nose and say “Hey Din, can you make me a new nose, I can’t find it?”
A: It started with Nose Jobs haha
D: I’m more of a plastic surgeon (laughs) taking something that didn’t look that good and making it look better. About 1998 I attempted to shape a whole surfboard and I continued perfecting the art of making whole surfboards from new. In 2007 we started to really make our own blanks in Manila, which we continued with for 5 months and then we stopped.
In 2011, I started shaping boards again and haven’t stopped since. It’s nice to think how I’ve grown from a 14 year old kid just fixing surfboards for fun, to what Ash and I are doing now.
GT: Are there certain shapers that influence your work?
D: Ahhhhh man, not really. It’s a different story on my part as I had no influence from anyone else when I was learning. It was simply me and a few tools just making shapes.
All trial and error, teaching myself everything as I go. This was before the internet had taken off, but as soon as it spread to the Philippines I started searching online for different shaping methods.
I really remember when my friend from the US brought me a DVD featuring John Carter shaping, going through a lot of techniques and how to create your own templates and creating awesome surfboards. That’s when I really pushed myself to be a better shaper, and it really drove me to chase my dreams.
GT: Is your market currently just in the Philippines?
A: It is as such, but a lot of people who are purchasing boards are from overseas. A lot of people generally order a custom board before coming to the island, saving on airline costs etc.
The boards then here ready and waiting for them when they arrive. Others will come here, really want a board and sometimes kind enough to leave their board with a local kid and buy a new one. Either way, it’s a great souvenir to have from the island, and at the moment its about 50% domestic sales and 50% foreign.
GT: The orders from the island’s growing more and more. Considering you’ve only made 200 boards, I was pretty stoked when I spotted one in Lombok last year.
D: It’s pretty cool to think of all these people are taking our boards back to parts of the world where no one’s ever heard of Cocosurf. When people most probably don’t even know there’s any shapers in the Philippines, it’s a good talking point for us to be spreading the brand.
A: I had a UK shaper Keith Bedoe stay with me the other week. He said he’d spotted one of our boards in Morocco, so it’s sweet to see how they’re slowly being dotted all over the globe.
D: When we’re such a small company, simply to be hearing that our boards are making it outside the country is a good feeling.
GT: You’re also committed to making 0% waste surfboards. Can you tell us more about this?
D: That’s one of the main problems of making boards, especially here on the island.
A: Since the start we’ve always kept all of our off cuts and waste on site. We offer the larger scraps to local fishermen and boatmen, they use the EPS foam as extra buoyancy in their boats and for fishing. We still held on to the smaller pieces and weren’t quite sure what to do with them until recently. Now we’re breaking down these smaller bits into small balls and making leather bean bags. It’s one thing for us that’s really important living here.
D: A lot of the bigger companies are just producing so much waste, using CNC machines and if things go wrong they just throw away the whole thing. We can’t afford to do that, and simply don’t want to.
A: We want to be sustainable in all aspects of our work, whether it’s upcycling or recycling. We’re lucky enough to be living on a beautiful paradise island, and we really want to keep it that way.
Follow @cocosurfph on Instagram to keep up to date with the company.
Cover photo: Gwilym Thomas