The Hermit and the Libertine

Gaz Hilton Designer, Maker

Bodysurfing is the most pure form of wave riding you can experience, you've probably done it when you were a child but forgotten what a rush it is. With a pair of swim fins and a hand plane that experience moves onto a whole new level. I tried it again for the first time this year and you can read my stoke fuelled gushings on our Instagram. So we caught up South East based surfer Gaz Hilton, who designs, makes and rides these sublimely, simple craft.

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You’re a seasoned Brighton surfer, so you’re used to making the best of what little we have to surf here. Is this where the bodysurfing / hand plane interest came from?

I moved to Brighton in 2002. At first I found the fickle surf frustrating, but I’ve grown to really love surfing the area now and have realised that ok, it isn’t West Country consistent, but there are still plenty of waves to keep you going. My body surfing journey however, started due to an injury which meant I couldn’t risk stand up surfing for a while… I desperately didn’t want to be out of the water, so I looked into alternative forms of wave riding and pondered the prone arts. I tried out riding hand planes and belly boards and haven’t stopped… stoked and hooked!

Bodysurfing and hand plane movement is still pretty small compared to surfing, whats your take on the scene?

I started body surfing just before the more public global Renaissance of the discipline. Keith Malloys epic bodysurf movie ‘come hell or high water’ hit the London surf film festival about 3 years later and I thought it would have had a more pronounced impact on the British body surf scene, but we are still a tiny minority. A lot of surfers haven’t seen ‘come hell or high water’, and in all honesty it is by far the best surf flick I’ve ever watched. Most surfers think bodysurfing is what you do when the surf is really poor and you have nothing else to do… People do tend to perceive a body surfer as some sort of kook who is just playing around in the shorey… I think people are crazy if they overlook bodysurfing. It offers an intense surfing experience in which you access a more holistic connection with the wave and experience the seas behaviour on a more intimate level. I’ve just come back from a trip to Harlyn bay in Cornwall, a formidable hollow body surfing wave. There was a 3metre swell running so Harlyn was at its best. Out of about 50 people in the water I only saw 2 other body surfers. More barrels for me I guess. So I reckon the scene is still in its infancy.

I heard a good quote about bodysurfing tips that goes something like 1. Be able to swim, 2 Kick like hell, 3. Leave with a smile on you face. Is it really that easy, whats your tips to anyone wanting to give it a try?

That’d be the great Mark Cunningham… That’s the basic concept… Mark would know being one of Oahu’s most respected life guards of all time.
What has been left out here is how challenging swimming in the sea is. Due to the drag your body creates without a board, you will move slower swimming through the surf and it will tire you at first. You need to breathe slowly and take your time. When body surfing you are constantly moving and submerged and this adds a further element of pressure especially when it’s cold… In winter you must have the best warmest suit you can possibly afford, otherwise you’ll get cold much faster than when board surfing. I wear a Patagonia R4.
A hand plane is a welcome addition for any body surfer irrespective of ability, since it will give you added lift and projection down the face of the wave enabling greater ease of trim. Timing is key to ensure you don’t over tire yourself paddling for waves which are not critical enough.
It is also important to raise awareness of people board surfing around you. They will snake and drop in on you seemingly without a care in the world. This is a part of the plight of the torpedo people…

Do any particular types of wave suit bodysurfing?

You can body surf most waves both in terms of size and shape… In a nutshell; Fat waves aren’t great… You have too much drag and not enough planing surface to get going but, you don’t always need a shallow hollow wave either. I’ve body surfed lots of standard English beach breaks no worries. Having said that though, a punchy, fast wave is what you’re gonna have the best time on. There are a couple of spots in Brighton which will suit. Another type of body surfing wave is the old whomp… This often describes a shore break wave breaking in shallow water which gives a fast short ride and hopefully a coverup. There is loads of shorebreak in Brighton, but be prepared to get nailed on the pebbles.

How’d you get into making your own hand planes?

I bought my first handplane and had a great time using it, but it was a little big and cumbersome, which can lead to wrist snagging, so I pondered making something smaller and more light weight. I used a piece of recycled oak kitchen work top and a few basic tools and started shaping… I then oiled the wood using linseed oil. I’d read a load of blogs on wood furniture and boat care and got my oil on. The result was immensely rewarding. As first attempts go I was pretty stoked and the plane actually worked so I was hungry to get stuck in and strived to make the best boards I could.

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Do you have any formal carpentry skills or are you self taught, any lessons you’ve learnt?

I have no formal training. I am quite creative and enjoy making music and bashing out the odd painting. I learnt a lot from my dad, a brilliant mechanical engineer and my brother, an awesome designer, when doing my house up – a keen eye and an accurate touch with a Japanese rasp and you’re well away… Each type of wood has unique characteristics which will affect the way it shapes… The key is to always follow the grain and get the wood wired. If you approach paulownia in the same fashion as sapele or teak, your gonna tear out and cause a right old mess. Sealing the wood with oil is a learning process in itself. I like to build up layers thin to thick and massage with wire wool in between coats to give a beautiful durable finish.

Tell us about the variety of materials you use and where they’re sourced? I remember you saying you’ve made some from an old piano?

I’m environmentally conscious so I wanted to use reclaimed materials as much as possible. I’ve shaped reclaimed oak, teak, sapele and mahogany. My dad has loads of random bits of wood that he’s hoarded from all sorts of expired antiques and is always chucking them my way. I recently shaped an asymmetrical bellyboard-paipo from a piece of tropical hard wood my dad salvaged from an old friends house. Yeah, the old piano collection – a guy who restores pianos up the road offered me a piece of an instrument he couldn’t save… The piano itself was build in 1850; the oak will have been from a mature tree, so you’re looking at hand planes crafted from wood that could be at least 200 to 300 years old… Love that! I also shape paulownia which is much softer, but has a high natural silica content and therefore repels salt water. This is sustainably farmed. I also use the local wood yard if I don’t have any other options.

So whats the range of shapes you make and the differences they make in the water?

I’ve shaped a range of outlines but have really found my niche in asymmetrical designs. Depending of the severity of the asymmetry, the impact on the ride can be little to great. I shape some boards with a specific wave in mind… Usually a punchy right… This may mean bevelling one rail more intensely and extending it to ensure greater bite into the wave. A single concave can also be scooped to add lift and projection… On the other hand a flat bottom can be equally as effective since it offers a solid planing surface which will slide on top on the water giving considerable acceleration. The size of the board is also important. Simply; a bigger planning surface will enhance speed, but can cause you problems in bigger hollow surf. I surfed a custom plane I made for myself this week at Harlyn. It’s a tiny plane, with a deep concave and bevelled rails and is just a bit bigger than my hand. The speed and projection it gives is awesome. So this maybe a plane a more experienced body surfer could try out. At the moment I’m shaping a batch of boards with a subtle asymmetrical outline and a single concave-channel through the bottom. These are suited to lefts and rights and have enough planing area to get you going in smaller summer surf, but will still hold nicely in the hollows.

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The name you shape under, ‘The Hermit and the Libertine’ is rad and so suits what you build, so wheres that from?

Not to be too whimsical, but ‘the hermit and the libertine’ is a play on words which I feel truly depicts surfing and especially body surfing. The hermit is a metaphor for the solitary mindset you enter when riding every wave… You are alone, immersed and focused on a single goal – trim… Added to this I literally feel like a hermit when body surfing, because I’m usually isolated from the pack often being the only surfer doing it. The libertine describes the pure joy and almost selfishness/ self indulgence of the wave riding act… The 2 words at first appear as a juxtaposition, but when brought together in surfing they are united as one… Focus and joy! I could go on, but I think that’ll suffice.

Whats the future plans for Hermit? Are you planning some house shapes or do you want to keep things more bespoke?

I’ve pretty much nailed a house batch now and will be getting them out there soon as… However, I plan to release boards in collections based on whatever materials I have available. I’m hoping to have my website up and running by the end of the summer… I won’t be doing individual custom orders at this stage however. I do tend to go off on a tangent depending on how the wood is behaving and this can result in every board being unique.

Legendary surfers such as Tom Wegener, Keith Malloy are keen alternate surf craft advocates, any surfers or shapers you’d cite as an influence?

Shapers; I’d say Tom Wegener and Ryan Lovelace I found particularly inspiring… I love Toms wood mission and ethos and Ryan’s Vbowls is a treat to surf.
Surfers; I’d have to be guys life Derek Hynd, Wayne Lynch and Mark Cunningham. Derek’s grasp of finless surfing is beautiful to watch, Wayne’s style riding evolution boards, mid lengths and single fins is an inspiration to us all and Mark is the greatest body surfer ever (enough said).

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Obviously you’re a very committed surfer too, what surfboards do you like to ride?

I’ve surfed so many different shapes with varying degrees of success over the years from little tooth pick short boards to heavy old logs. I’ve found my peace though riding my Ryan Lovelace Vbowls and my Bing/Chris Delmorro Lovebird. Vbowls is so much fun; inspired by evolution single fins, it’s perfect for a range of approaches and handles loads of different conditions and waves… and the lovebird is a light gem of a single fin log, perfect for cross stepping and carving.

Other than our lovely South Coast, where else in the world do you enjoy surfing and wheres next to visit?

I’ve surfed all over the place including OZ, NZ, Morocco, Barbados and Hawaii, but I adore the French Basque Country. I’ve visited Biarritz more than any other area. The waves are so versatile, the beaches are gorgeous, the town is super cool… Perfect! I’d like to surf a few spots in the Mediterranean, off the beaten surf track. I love getting waves in places you don’t necessarily expect them.

And most importantly wheres your favourite place for a post surf beer or two?

It’d have to be my little back garden… I usually race back home to my loving wife – Kitty – after a surf, crack open a bottle of Anchor Steam and then spend the rest of the arvo snoozing on the hammock.

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