Shaper of the Year: Bert Berger and the Rise of the Firewire

posted by / News / January 23, 2007

It’s a funny thing, really. Paranoia’s practically a way of life out there in Surfboardland. A lot of it is fed by the fearful idea of these Giant Companies coming to Rape Surfing. You know, these big-ass money machine corporations, from Asia or some such place, that’re gonna come roaring into town, selling popout kookmobiles left and right and undermining the brave little guy in his nice little factory, who only wants to maintain the Sacred Heritage of boardmaking. Or whatever.

So, here’s Bert Burger, from a little town called Rockingham, Western Australia. In the mid-1970s, modern surfing’s Core {{{Soul}}} decade, Bert grows up in a single parent household with no money. The only thing he’s got in his favor is the beach; it’s a stone’s throw from his bedroom window. That and a mom and three uncles who happen to be avid surfers. Bert’s family is so poor that he has to innovate; he does his first shape job – cutting grooves into the bottom of a polystyrene “coolite” board – at the age of seven. When the Thruster appears in 1981, he can’t afford one, so he gets hold of an old single fin, strips off the glass, re-shapes it, foils some fins out of Perspex, and glasses the board back together using an old cotton bedsheet and a tin of resin he buys at the local hardware store. He’s 13.

A couple years and quite a few boards later, he takes a school-based internship at Town and Country’s West Oz factory. When the internship’s two weeks are up, Bert has a job. (He tells a lie about his age in order to get it.) He learns to fix dings, sand surfboards, make and foil fins. After a while Margaret River draws him, like it seems to draw most kid surfers from West Oz, and he ends up working for a company called Santosha Surfboards, where one day the head shaper, Colin Ladhams, comes back from a stint in the USA with two unsanded boards from a label called Ocean Rhythms. The boards are made from Styrofoam and epoxy resin. Col throws ‘em at Bert and says, “Finish ‘em, please.”


Thus begins a {{{Journey}}}. Over the next decade and a half, inspired by those Ocean Rhythms and by a sailboard maker called Trevor Wright, Bert invents a way of building boards that nobody else has ever even tried. He takes foam, first polyurethane, then Styrofoam, and sandwiches it – deck, bottom and rails – with high density foam layers, thin wood veneers and epoxies, taking out the center stringer and compensating by loading up the rail with balsa offcuts. He comes up with a board simultaneously lighter, quicker-flexing and better looking than any surfboard, anywhere. His business expands, despite the fact that he’s charging almost twice as much for these boards as for the normal urethane variety.

Yet because it’s West Oz, an almost hermetically sealed surfing culture on the absolute other side of the planet from Southern California, Bert’s operation remains a near-complete secret from the wider surfing world. He grows so far and no further. In 2002, after one too many business headaches, he decides that’s it, I’m taking a break. Bert goes back to a one-man band, builds a handful of boards each week, and considers his future.

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