By Cass Selwood
South Australian surfboard shaper Mark Benson is keeping the local industry (not to mention the surfers themselves) afloat, by focussing on quality over quantity.
SA surfers are a hardy bunch, braving cold water, heavy Southern Ocean swells and the occasional toothy visitor in the pursuit of the perfect wave.
Of course, to do this, a surfer needs a board and Mr. Damage Surfboards, based out of Port Elliot on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula, has a strong local following amongst those who take their surfing seriously.
The label was originally founded by local surf-culture icon Syd Willmett, whose surf shop, Southern Surf, still operates in the town’s main street.
Syd sold the shop and retired to Queensland many years ago, but the Mr. Damage brand lives on in the safe hands of owner and head shaper Mark Benson.
Mark got hooked on surfing at a young age and developed a habit of dropping into Syd’s shop after his regular lunchtime surf sessions.
Syd must have seen something special in his young visitor, because he eventually offered Mark a job, which included a three-year, informal apprenticeship in the surfboard shaping trade.
He didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of a long and distinguished career.
In the early 1990s Mark also made the move north, earning his stripes alongside some of the country’s most respected shapers.
After so many years in the business, Mark can only guess at the number of boards that have passed through his hands.
“I did a bit of calculating a couple of years back,” he says.
“Including boards I’ve shaped or laminated (with fibreglass), I worked out that I’ve made perhaps 15-20,000 so far.”
In 2009 Mark decided to hang up the tools and move back to SA, but it turns out you can’t keep a good shaper down.
A persistent chorus of voices asking for boards, paired with an offer from a friend to finance the set-up of a new factory, eventually convinced Mark to get back in the game.
And so, with Syd’s blessing, the Mr. Damage label was reborn.
The decision wasn’t without its risks, of course. Surfboard manufacturing has undergone a significant shift in recent times, with small producers under significant pressure from big brands flooding the market with cheaply made imported boards.
But partly due to his extensive experience, and partly to an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, Mark has managed to carve out a niche for himself in Port Elliot.
“People recognise that I’ve put the work in and there are decades of experience behind every board I make,” he says.
“And the people who ride my boards like the fact that they’re made locally.
“They can come to the factory and chat with me about what they’re looking for, and a couple of weeks later walk away with a quality custom board made just for them.”
Anyone wanting to order a board from Mark need look no further than Facebook.
Alternatively, the Mr. Damage Surfboards factory can be found at 44 Hill Street, Port Elliot.
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