“Maybe you write a piece about me?” he said, and poured himself another cup of coffee.
Jeff Alexander passes me a Surfing magazine from November, 20th century. The page is marked, he says. There is an Alexander sticker peeking up from the middle of the aged magazine. The sticker, which bares the logo for Alexander Surfboards, marks the article that was written on Jeff Alexander and his much disputed invention, the Gemini surfboard.
The article is short, filed under the Forum section of the magazine. A quick profile piece of maverick shaper Jeff Alexander and his looney inventions. The article calls him a purist, a rogue, a genius. The article says that he disrupts the traditionalist and excites some of the new wave experimental surfers. There is a photo of Jeff surfing his own board, in Hawaii, where he used to live. Now he lives in Bali. And he is poor. But happy. Sometimes.
Don’t try to shape surfboards for a living, he says. If you do you will end up broke, without a bank account, driving around on a scooter, living in Bali. Gerry Lopez, when once cornered in a parking lot and asked about surfing and shaping and such matters, said that he was rich in ways that had nothing to do with money. He also said that if they had known then what they know now about surfing and the huge cultural and economic impact it would have on a global level, well, he’d be a lot richer.
Jeff Alexander moves around a blank in his shaping room, behind the house he shares with his Indonesian girlfriend. The house is simple and spacious enough for them both, situated in the middle of a growing Balinese neighborhood. When he first came here there was grass and bushes all along this street. Now there are countless houses built right next to each other, a small garden dividing most of the properties, a concrete wall and barbed wire after that. There is little nature left in the neighborhood. People and dogs.
In the house there are photographs and advertisments for Alexander Surfboards hanging from the walls, along with photographs and paintings of Jeff riding waves. Jeff getting absolutely pitted at Padang. A giant wave at Uluwatu. An unknown Hawaiian break. He keeps photographs of his surfboards, and of himself modeling next to a few retro shapes, in a disintegrating photo flip book. Nothing is digital here. There is no computer in the house. No email. No kids.
The shaping room is a classic bastion of history and tradition. All the sacred tools. Cut out photos of naked women on the walls, along with photos of waves and surfboards. The floor is dirty with shredded foam. There is an air conditioner humming while he works. A small round clock on the back wall that ticks loudly. That’s all you hear. The ticking of the clock. And Jeff shaping another surfboard.
The shape of the Gemini surfboard, the board that Alexander created and patented and shaped and tried to sell to surfers around the world, and instead received a ton of criticism and grief from, is still his baby, his pride and joy. Though throughout the day Alexander works on surfboards for local expats, tourists passing through, and young Indonesian rippers, all wanting a surfboard that looks like the Merrick Semi Pro. Jeff, and a part time Balinese friend who glasses his boards, work tirelessly.
They move fluently through the single shaping room, the sanding room, and the glassing room, all built by Alexander himself when he first leased the house. The rooms are spacious enough for one person to work, another to watch if necessary, but that’s it. The luxury has been left out. Only because luxury is expensive on a global level now, and hand shaping surfboards has become less luxurious and less global.
There is a shaping machine now on Bali. The machine spits out surfboards quickly. You enter a shape from a list of pull down programs and the machine cuts away. The corporate guys with money and new surfboard brands pay to have boards spit out by a computer, then pack them up and send out to their shops peppered all over Bali. Kuta, Seminyak, Changu, Nusa Dua, the Bukit Peninsula; all victims of the surfing explosion that has occurred in Indonesia. Bali is the 21st century global surfing industry’s ground zero, the new school Hawaii. And just like the controversy of the previous century, the shaping machine is receiving a similar chagrin from the old school local shapers.
“The guy can’t surf!” Alexander says of a guy who owns a surfboard brand on the island. “I went out with him and said, ‘Hey, buddy, before you shape any boards you need to head inside and grab a longboard on a smaller day and surf for five, maybe ten years, and then we can talk about shaping boards. That’s what I told him,'” Alexander says.
He sits alone at the round table in his living room with no shirt on, wearing old yellow with blue polka dots paint stained board shorts. He is still fit, surfing almost everyday. His age, now over 50, and a lifetime in the sun, has left him a little wrinkled, and without hair.
He is honest. “Don’t trust anyone. Make less friends. Watch your money. If you are making any money don’t tell anyone. Wear proper shoes when riding your motorcycle.”