It all started in 1959, when the first Australian surf shop opened in Brisbane, of all places. “It was called ‘The Surf Shop,’” he says. “In The Surf Shop, he had a rack of 9’6”s and he got one 6’6”. It was only £21; the others were £28.” 15-year-old McTavish was working at a radio station. “I said, ‘Oh, that’ll be handy. I can buy the short one and pay it off.’ I liked it because it was so short that I could go on the tram and hitchhike to the coast with it. I rode a 6’6” right through that period. It was like a regular longboard, but with the tail cut off.” Two years later, Bob was living in Sydney, surfing the same 6’6” with Nat Young and Midget Farrelly, when he picked up shaping.
“[Under] peer pressure, I caved in and made myself a 10-footer,” he says with the quintessential storyteller’s knowing smile. “Like everyone else.”
Three years after that, he’d relocated to Noosa. “You were riding small point waves and didn’t want to ride short boards,” he says. “I gave up the idea for the moment, but my friend George Greenough from California came out every winter and stayed with us–and surfed a kneeboard. He was doing so well on the kneeboard, doing figure-eights and off-the-lips, and I went, ‘Well, that’s what I want to do standing up.’” Noosa’s nose riding perfection and Bob’s worship of Miki Dora tethered him to big boards for a few more years, but in 1967, he was ready for a change.
“I moved to Sydney,” he says. “I had a fresh mindset–that I really, genuinely wanted to do what George was doing, but do it standing up. So I got serious about it. I started off with an 8’6”, then I went to 8’0”, then down to 7’6”. In that first year, 7’6” was the standard size. By the end of ’68, I was riding 6’4”s and living here, in Byron Bay.” The following year, Hawaii and California offered some inspiration and the evolution continued.
“By 1970, the shortboard was pretty much there, except it was a single fin,” McTavish says. “In ’71, the first twin fins came roaring through, and I started making tri-fins in ’72. Not thrusters, but tri-fins: big center fin, two side fins. Through the 70s, singlefins were pretty hot, and so were good twin fins, and Simon [Anderson] finally did the thrusters in ’81, you know. The modern surfboard pretty much came together.”
“I think it was late in the 80s when I saw my first Al Merrick, and I was very impressed,” he says sincerely. “He understood rocker. Far better than any of us. We all had rocker theories, but Al’s rockers were… he understood tail rocker, and hips, and nose rocker… the first time I saw a really great shortboard was Al Merrick–in ’89? That’s the modern shortboard right there. And it’s still the same. It’s just gone through a bit of modification.”
“The shortboard’s… I’ve followed all the way; I loved it,” he says. “I can still shape good shortboards, but I’m limiting myself. I’ve got too much other stuff to do.”
These days, ironically, you’d be hard-pressed to find a McTavish thruster. He focuses on “alternate boards.”
“They’re interesting,” he says plainly. “Shortboards, to me, are pretty boring now. They’re just pop-outs, almost. If there is a pop-out, it’s a shortboard. Whereas, there’s still stuff to be learned in all of the alternate boards. Like, okay, the last three weeks, I’ve been riding what I call ‘Major Pin,’ which is a massive, big pintail with hardly any rocker. Dead flat thing. 9’5”. They’re built for waves 1 to 3-foot and just to go blistering fast, with very rapid pivot–and it works on rail. A week ago, I was surfing Wategos on it, and it was overhead, so, too big for it. I said, ‘Now I’ve got to make an 8-foot version of it.’ I came in last Wednesday and shaped myself an 8-foot version, grabbed it on Saturday, it was glassed–hot glassed; half done–took it down to Yamba (NSW) on the weekend. I must have ridden 40 waves in one session. I love the board to death. It’s in the back of my car now. It’s ‘Major Pin 2.’”
The point of this story is, McTavish just designed an entirely new board–or, completely tweaked an older one, and as he says, excitedly, “That was only a week ago! It was just a flash, I had to try something different.”
McTavish cops to using the shaping machine for Major Pin because it’s so easy to make tiny, ultra-controlled alterations. It was the third in a series of experimental boards.
“There are all of these possible ingredients to put into a surfboard,” he says. “They’re all floating around in the ether. And every time you want to shape a board, you’ve got to pull those ingredients down and package them how you want them. In ’66 at Noosa, we had the pinnacle of longboards, so I started from that point. The front two thirds is standard ’66.” Some very technical changes to the back end resulted in a weak tail that wouldn’t pivot fast enough. Stretching the tail, then stretching some more brought “raging success.”
“It has the ability to position anywhere on the [small] wave,” he continues. “I also reduced the weight, because I knew that was coming. In 1965, I’d made a couple of lightweights.”
“Just chuck a lot of glass away,” he says, laughing. “But I’m prepared to take that same board and put another layer of glass on it and try it again, as a ’66 weight. That’s the next thing. I’ve got the 8-foot version of it now, which is heading away from where the longboard would have gone… I just got inspired.”