Mitchum: Helping ‘Shape’ the Way They Will Surf Again
by David Brennan
A former U.S. Coast Guardsman, Stephen Mitchum is a surfer and independent surfboard shaper. From his shop in Cape May, New Jersey, he hand-shapes and glasses customized surfboards, including bamboo surfboards made from eco-friendly materials. He is currently involved in the local communities through Life Rolls On and They Will Surf Again, a subsidiary of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation dedicated to improving, through the platform of action sports, the quality of life for young people affected by spinal cord injury and paralysis. Mitchum has volunteered to build and donate a customized surfboard designed for those unable to stand-up surf. A husband and father of seven, Mitchum is a native of Moncks Corner, South Carolina.
* * *
How long have you been surfing and where have you surfed?
Been surfing for, let’s see—now you’re going to force me to do math. Let’s see, I’m forty-seven. Started at twelve. What’s that, thirty-five years? So, I’ve been surfing thirty-five years. I first learned to surf in Atlantic Beach, NC. Did a little traveling before I joined the Coast Guard. I’ve been to Barbados, all up and down the East Coast, Hatteras (North Carolina)—used to almost live at Hatteras—Costa Rica, Panama, Puerto Rico. I lived in California for three years. Surfed in Alaska. Hawaii. Having as many kids as I have, that kind of limited me in my surf travels, so that’s about it.
Alaska may surprise some as a surfing destination. What’s the surf like up there?
Big. And cold. Surfed off Kodiak Island. Sitka Island. That’s a real big beach break when it breaks, on the south side of Sitka.
Um, you want Hawaiian size or [New Jersey] size? We’ll just call it double-overhead barrels [laughs].
What goes through your mind while shaping a surfboard?
Shaping surfboards has a lot of different theories as far as rail design, rocker, all the dimensions—it’s kind of a cross between aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. Everybody has their own theories how different things work as far as the dimensions of the surfboard, the fin set-up, all that. There’s a guy down in Tahiti, I can’t remember his name, but he shapes for a Tahitian pro [surfer] and he measures nothing. If it looks good, it’ll work. That’s pretty much what I do. I don’t measure too much. If it looks like it’ll work, then pretty much it’ll work. If you’re not a pro, you’re really not going to notice too much the different flaws in the board.
What types of surfboards are you shaping?
Anywhere from 5’10” to 9’0”. I enjoy the midrange boards, 7’0” to 8’0”. I like to shape those. The shorter boards are a lot easier, but as I’ve gotten older [midrange boards are] what I’m starting to ride. I’m a lot more in tune to that size board, so that’s pretty much what I like to shape. I like the feel of the weight and the paddle of a longer board. The 7’0” to 8’0” boards I’m shaping are more of a longboard shape instead of a funboard shape. Like, a girl 4’9” to a guy that’s 5’5”, under 160 pounds, can use a 7’9” as a noserider. You’re not limited to the action of a funboard, which is really kind of sluggish. [A midrange board can be] more of a high performance longboard. Anymore, that’s the boards I tend to have the most fun on. I can still ride shortboards, but it’s too much work [laughs].
I’ve made wooden boards—haven’t had many orders for wooden boards because they’re expensive. I’ve done some epoxy boards for customers, I’ve done traditional polyurethane [foam]/polyester [resin]. I’ve dabbled a little bit in tinting the resin. But pretty much, if you give me the dimensions of what you want, I can make it. It’s not rocket science. If you need me to make something up for you, then I’ll pretty much base that on the way that I like to surf. It works for some people, it doesn’t work for other people. It’s just like buying a board out of a shop. They mass-produce these boards. And they work well for some people, they don’t work well for other people.
I would recommend [customers] come here to my shop and either shape [their surfboards] themselves with my guidance or help in some way. I think that builds a better surfing experience if you have some hand in your surfboard.
What materials do you prefer to use?
After working with the bamboo stringer and the EPS (Extruded closed-cell Polystyrene) foam and the epoxy and the bamboo cloth—the bamboo cloth is really nice to work with when you can get it to stick to the tape—the newer materials are a little bit more challenging to work with than the older stuff. Seems like the older glass, the older resin tack up a lot faster. It’s a lot easier to lap when you’re doing you’re rails. So, it’s like teaching an old dog new tricks. You can learn it, but when you don’t do them everyday it’s kind of like trial and error.
How do different materials affect a surfboard?
Mitchum Surfboards The EPS foam is like a compressed beer cooler, so it actually has air pockets in the foam. When you make [EPS surfboards], you have to have some type of venting system so if you leave it on the beach or leave it in your car you have some way for the air to escape as it expands. Traditionally, they’re lighter, they float better. So you can actually make a board thinner. Whereas the traditional polyurethane/polyester set-up, the bigger the board is the heavier it is and the more coats of glass you put on it—which is good for longboards because you want the weight. It takes a minimal amount of paddling to catch waves outside [the wave break] that the shortboarders probably never could catch. There’s different schools on that.
Now they have vacuum-bagging, which I’ve thought about but I haven’t got enough information to start doing it. But apparently you use a lot less resin. All you do is you build a bag, put the resin on it, stick a [newly shaped] surfboard in it, and suck the air out of it. It creates a vacuum and [the resin] dries a lot harder. Now you got a surfboard that’s a lot stronger and a lot lighter.
In addition to shaping and glassing, are you painting your surfboards?
Actually, my daughter Tessy paints the boards for me. When it comes to high-tech painting, I’m dabbling with the airbrush and doing my own pinlines and tinting the resine, doing the bottom coat tinted, and might look into doing some Mexican Blanket tints. But when it comes to regular artwork, Tessy’s the go-to person.
Tell us about Life Rolls On (LRO) and They Will Surf Again (TWSA).
Life Rolls On and They Will Surf Again is an organization started by Jesse Billauer, who is a surfer who got injured. He broke his neck surfing. Off hand I don’t remember if it was Hawaii or where he was when he broke his neck, but after his recovery—he’s a quadriplegic, so he’s in a wheelchair—he wanted to get back in the water. And he’s good friends with Rob Machado, who’s a professional surfer, and Rob started taking him out in California, where they live. They started this organization, which is branched out through California and the East Coast.
There’s quite a few events on the West Coast, quite a few events on the East Coast, and fortunately for us we have a chapter of TWSA here in Cape May (New Jersey). Chad DeSatnick is the president. Chad actually broke his neck surfing at Poverty Beach (Cape May, NJ), and he was lucky enough to fully recover and stand-up surf again. [I got involved] through Chad DeSatnick. I won’t say I was one of his mentor surfers—I was an older surfer when he was growing up. I’ve known him and his brother since they were ten or twelve years old, so I’ve been surfing with those guys for quite a few years. It’s a good organization, and we have people come from New York, Maryland, Virginia to our events here. They have other events in New York, they have them in North Carolina, down Florida.
It’s usually a big turn-out, a lot of volunteers. You have the deepwater swimmers that actually push the people into the waves. Then you have the midline people incase they wipeout that get a hold of them. And then you got the catchers on the inside that actually after [surfers] finish riding the wave will turn them back around and push them out to the midliners. Then the deepwater guys come out and get them and pull them back out. It’s an all day affair. It’s a lot of work. By the end of the day you’re exhausted.
How are you currently involved with TWSA ?
I’ve been commissioned to make a surfboard geared more towards a high-performance type surfboard for the guys who actually used to surf and can still shift their bodyweight even though they can’t stand up. [TWSA has] a lot of Morey Doyle softboards, they have a lot of stuff that you can just push anybody into, but the guys actually want to surf the wave, and that’s what they have me build.
What makes your TWSA< surfboard different from a stand-up surfboard?
The dimensions are different as far as where you put the actual thickness and the width of the board, cause [the surfers] are going to be in the prone position. So it’s not going to be like you can stand up and shift your weight up to the front for more speed or shift your weight to the back to turn. Where ever they’re laying is where they’re at, so it’s kind of a fine line where to put the thickness and the width of the board. Hopefully it’ll work [laughs].
The TWSA surfers must be brave individuals, dealing with paralysis and risking more injuries or worse.
The only thing that keeps them afloat is the life jackets that we put on them and the wetsuits we put on them. Extremely brave. Cause if I was in that condition, I don’t know that you would get me in the ocean. You have no control. You’re relying on floatation and somebody coming to get you instead of being able to rely on yourself.
You know, [surfers] have different [safety] teams and this and that, but when it all comes down to it, it’s an individual sport and you’re relying on yourself. And if you get in trouble in the water, you’re going to have to rely on yourself to get out of trouble. You might be surfing with your buddies, but, let’s put—say Mark Foo, who was a tremendous big wave rider from Hawaii, died at Maverick’s (Half Moon Bay, California), surfing with his friends. And he took what didn’t look like such a bad wipeout. He drowned. In twenty-foot waves, which he was accustomed to riding. So, you know, you’re buddies can look out for you to a certain point, but when everybody’s looking out at the horizon trying not to get hammered, and they saw you take off on a wave, thirty minutes later you’re not in the line-up, then they start looking for you. Well thirty minutes is [shrugs]—you’re done.
Have you ever been injured while surfing?
[Groans] Quite a few times. Ruptured eardrum, cracked ribs, various muscle strains [laughs]. If you’re going to surf, you need to be in shape. It’s not something you’re just going to go out and decide you’re going to do. Being a traveling surfer and going where the waves are overhead and bigger, you need to be a strong swimmer. You’re lung capacity needs to be quite high, like holding your breath between a minute and two minutes would be good [laughs] just for overhead to double-overhead waves. I’m not talking about surfing Jaws [Beach] (Maui, Hawaii) or Maverick’s or anything like that.
What usually causes injury?
The bottom, the sea floor. That’s what’s going to hurt you. Occasionally you’ll get smacked in the head with your board, but the way the boards are built now, the thinness of the glass and the thinness of the resin, [impact will] put a hell of a ding in the surfboard, but you’ll just have a slight headache. It’s not like the old days where it would open your head up.
Where would you like to surf that you haven’t yet?
I would like to go to France, I would like to go to Ireland, and I would also like to catch one of those odd, big swells in Israel at the end of the Mediterranean. I’ve seen pictures of that. I’d also like to maybe get on the parroquia, one of those river backwashes that goes for miles and miles and miles. I’d like to check that out, one of these days, before I get too old and infirmed.
You know, everybody wants to go to Tahiti, everybody wants to go to Australia. Well that’s where everybody wants to go. I’m not everybody. That’s just where I’d prefer to go. I would someday maybe like to check out Jeffery’s Bay (South Africa). But then I might as well be back in California at Maverick’s dealing with big sharks.
What advice can you offer those interested in surfing or shaping?
If you’re interested in getting into shaping, I would say when you first start off don’t use power tools. Use a hand planer and sure form. That way you’re not tearing up $100 dollar [foam] blanks to the point where nobody can fix them.
As far as starting surfing, if you go to your local surf shop they’re going to try to put you on a monster board because of floatation and maybe ease of catching a wave, but I’ve learned from some of the smaller people that I’ve dealt with that the big boards scare them. They need something that they can control and not get beat up. Even on a waist-high day, you put somebody that weighs 100 pounds on a 7’0” board, they get beat up just trying to paddle fifty yards. I would say a small, wide board is probably what you want to learn on. Something that will float you and give you stability and you’re still not getting beat up on your way out, even on small days.
Any up-coming TWSA Cape May events?
June 18 at Wildwood Crest (New Jersey) is when our event is. So anybody who wants to come out and cheer them on, bring some extra cases of Gatorade, donate, water, what-have-you, or just come out and watch them. You can go to liferollson.org if you want to volunteer. You have to go through a sign-up process—it only takes about five minutes. If you’re a good swimmer, if you want to cook hotdogs and hamburgers, if you want to run ice back and forth to coolers, whatever. The more the merrier.