"By The Sea" with Michael van der Klooster
Next up in our Gage Roads Summer Surf Coast series we chat to long-time local, Winki charger, and respected shaper, Michael van der Klooster… AKA Vanda. We’re catching up in his new big ass ‘factory’ behind Torquay Bunnings. Last time we saw him he was operating out of a backyard shaping bay. The new factory seems about five times bigger isn’t just a shaping shed but also a retail outlet for all things surf. As a sidenote, Vanda and I have some history. He’s been doing my dings (much to his dismay) for the better half of a decade. Recently I brought in my much beaten-up stick and suggested I should probably chuck it in the bin instead, to which I got a swift and sharp ‘yep’. Anyhoo, this interview has something for everyone and defs a must read if you’re interested in the surf industry or running a business. Vanda’s the man if you want a high-performance board in Torquay or if you want to talk to someone who rides them as good as he shapes them. So introducing – the man who’s life is one big adventure and who embodies so much of what we love about the Surf Coast – Michael van der Klooster….
SV: So where did you grow up and have you always had a connection with the ocean and when did you get into surfing?
Vanda: I was actually a really bad swimmer and I didn’t like the water and I started surfing when I was 8 years old at a friend’s birthday party at Pt Addis on some sort of mal thing. From that day, it woulda been in ’88, yeah I was hooked. Mum took us to Kmart and I bought, I think they were called a Coolite or something, they were this foam board wrapped in blue hessian, had a red fin, and that was my surfboard. And it was this little 6ft long mal thing.
I grew up in Geelong so about 30mins away from the beach. Lots of time sitting in the back of the old Kingswood with boards on the roof and Mum taking me down the beach to go surfing every weekend.
SV: Go Mum! Were you ever interested in comps or was surfing more of a personal outlet?
Vanda: Yeah during school we did school comps and I did State rounds. And when the Quiksilver Airshow was on I did those. And just did sorta state surfing and that’s about it. I never really enjoyed the comp side of it, I thought it was a bit subjective and I don’t have the most beautiful style in the world so I don’t think I ever really went very well in comps and I didn’t really enjoy them.
SV: You were more interested in throwing punts?
Vanda: Yeah pretty much. I’d go out into a comp and just try and look for air sections and you either land an air or you go for four attempts in a heat and finish with like two 1.5’s or something. So yeah, I just didn’t really fit the whole mould of comp surfing.
SV: Relatable! How long have you been shaping for and what got you into it?
Vanda: I’ve been shaping for umm… 21 years. I always wanted to be a shaper and I used to play around at home making like little foam boards and little surfboards out of balsa wood and gluing fins on them. And then I’d use PVA glue and fabric, and glass them in PVA and fabric when I was a little kid. Then during the 90’s I started surfing a bit better and Michael Anthony the Rip Curl shaper started making my boards and looking after me for boards. And our relationship evolved and when I finished high school, he asked me what I was going to do with my life and I sorta just blurted out ‘I wouldn’t mind being a shaper like you’. Then yeah, he started teaching me how to handshape surfboards.
SV: What bits of advice did you get from him that you still carry with you today?
Vanda: Just really the fundamentals of board design and hand shaping and just things like that. Hand shaping boards, planing, doing rockers, doing all that sort of stuff, Michael taught me all that. And I’ve got a funny way of doing my rails, I shape the rails with a foam block and then sorta pretty much shape them into a perfect circle and I quickly gauze them (using a kind of sandpaper with holes so the foam falls through it) and not many other shapers do it that way. And I was like ‘I wonder why I do it that way?’. And then I was shaping with Michael about a year ago and I was watching him, and he did it the exact same way and I hadn’t even realised I was just doing it the way that he taught me.
SV: When did you set up Vanda Surf and what’s the story been there so far?
Vanda: I set it up when I’d just finished high school. And I kinda just started out making myself a board and then I made my mum a board and then a few of my friends wanted boards so I made them boards. They had no logos on them. And I was like oh maybe I’ll start a little business making surfboards. And I couldn’t think of a name. I was gonna call it Angel Surfboards or Angeles, like so many random names, and then one of my friends was like ‘why don’t you just call it Vanda’. And I’m like ‘oh that’s a good idea’. And that’s how it got its name.
SV: Easy to remember, it’s your name as well.
Vanda: Yeah. I kinda thought it was a bit self-serving at the time but it’s kinda stuck.
SV: So you ran it out of the shed of your family home?
Vanda: No, well I ran it out of the shed of my grandma’s house.
SV: Oh your grandma’s house. How was the challenge doing it from a backyard shed and what advice would you give to others starting a homegrown surf business?
Vanda: It’s an interesting exercise. Me personally, I enjoyed my business more when it was smaller and there wasn’t so much monetary stress on making a fulltime living out of surfboards. I think it was a lot more enjoyable when it was just a hobby and I didn’t have huge overheads and lots of workers and a huge factory and ya know its sorta just a big business now. Whereas when it was smaller you could really spend a lot of time on each board – like I still spend a lot of time on every board – but you sorta feel a bit more connected with the customer and boards and it was probably just more enjoyable as life generally is when its simpler.
SV: How’d you get the word out in the first place?
Vanda: Its honestly just through word of mouth. Just from surfing 5 hours a day at Winki every day. Honestly that was just the way, it was really organic, just really friends of friends. I’d make a board for one person and they’d tell three people and then they would come and order boards and it just snowballed like that. And with like social media now, that’s sorta helped a bit.
SV: Sounds like you could’ve made it without social media though?
Vanda: Um. It’s changed the beast. Back then you had to spend money on advertising in surf magazines and stuff like that to keep building whereas I don’t think you really need to now. I don’t even know if many other surf magazines even really exist anymore.
SV: How’s your job changed from the beginning to now. What do you spend most your time on these days?
Vanda: When I started shaping I sorta based my business around the same way Michael Anthony ran his business, so that was outsourcing all my laminating. So, all I did was shape. And then I’d send the boards off to a glassing factory, and they’d get glassed, and I’d make my money on top of that, and it was really simple. You can run your business with one shaping bay at home. In a single car garage.
SV: So now you’re glassing yourself?
Vanda: Well then yeah, I started trying to chase more and more. Especially as more boards were getting manufactured out of China we sorta lost a lot of our mini mal margin, it just got more competitive out there. So to make good money you gotta sell a lot more boards if you’re outsourcing your laminating. So then I started working with a few of the guys I was paying to laminate for me and do the glassing just so that if you’re only selling a couple of boards a week you’re still making a good living if you’re doing it all yourself. And that was good and then you sorta get busier and busier and all of a sudden you’re caught in this thing and you’re like 25 boards behind and someone comes in and says ‘can I order a board’ and you’re like ‘yeah I’ll be able to start that in five weeks’. So then as I was trying to chase not letting customers down, I just had to start employing more people, getting a bigger shed at home, and then trying to get rid of supply chain issues, so that’s why I bought my CNC machine. And then people are like ‘can you do these dings?’ and you’re like ‘yeah I’ll do the dings’ and then next thing you know you’re doing everything – you’re running the business, you’re balancing books, you’re doing payrolls, you’re reordering things, you’re still designing boards for customers, and yeah, you’re doing everything.
SV: Sounds full on.
Vanda: Yeah it is busy. And the year’s been a real reflective year for me, lots of big life changes and stuff like splitting up with my long-term partner. That was sorta the reason I started my big factory, I don’t want to be sitting at home doing nothing so no time like the present to throw yourself into a huge new project.
SV: So that was 2019?
Vanda: Yeah 2019. So, she left a year ago, and that’s why I put this into motion. And you know, it’s been fucken stressful, and lots of money, and there’s been about two or three times that if I’d had the chance I would’ve quit building the big factory cos it’s so much money and so stressful and yeah, surfboards is a tough gig. They’re high labour, high cost of materials, for not a lot of margin.
SV: So you really gotta have a passion if you wanna do it?
Vanda: Yeah. Its sorta interesting. Like I can see why Corey Graham has pulled his business back to just making surfboards. Cos it is really quite relaxing. Like its nice just waking up saying ‘I just gotta shape these boards this week’. Whereas I’ve gotta say ‘ok we’ve got 15 ding repairs we gotta get done by the end of the week, I gotta open at this time so people can come and pick up board bags, and then I’ve got contract laminating jobs for other shapers that I have to get done’, and then all of a sudden its two o’clock and you haven’t really done anything productive, you haven’t shaped any boards that day yet, and then you shape for the next two or three hours trying to get boards done.
It’s an interesting look at what drives you in life. Lots of people are like ‘it’s so great you have a huge factory, it’s so impressive, it’s so amazing’. I don’t actually give a fuck. A lot of people are fuelled by that external praise but more and more I don’t actually care about that. And I don’t care about social media, and how I’m portrayed. People are like ‘oh you look like you’re smashing it on social media’ and I don’t really give a fuck about any of that sorta stuff.
SV: You’ve got more personal and lifestyle goals driving you?
Vanda: Yeah, it’s kinda interesting, this whole fake life you project on social media too. People think they know you and make judgement calls and say things to people that can affect your life based on things they see on your social media. I think social media’s a real slippery slope. But most industries are like that. There’s always Chinese whispers going around in the surf industry.
SV: And you’re not too interested in getting caught up in all that?
Vanda: Na actually I just don’t care. It’s interesting like, I think the surfboard industry is a tough gig, like you either go ‘ok I’m not going to make lots of money out of this and I’m just gonna have to struggle for the rest of my life and be content in that’ or you try and swing for the fences and try and make a proper living out of it. Going through this whole process of building the big factory, it’s so stressful, I hate it. All I think about now is like where the rent money for next week’s going to come from. You make your money for the day and you’re like ‘so that’s the break-even point, and anything on top of that’s margin’. So, it’s an interesting exercise in what actually makes you content in life as well.
SV: Yeah. Sounds like the factory’s been a whole new challenge for you?
Vanda: Oh completely. I’ve learnt so much. Luckily I’ve got some really amazing mentors who when I’ve struggled at stuff I can call and bounce ideas off and I can say ‘fuck this has been a nightmare’ and they’re like ‘oh I’ve gone through that, it gets better, and do this, and…’ you know. And I’ve learnt so much. Just dealing with councils and permitting and building stuff and just stuff like that. And having the factory, so many people want to come in and see it, and it’s sorta like I’ve gotta do eight hours of work today… I’d love to talk to you for an hour but, ya know, I’m not making money right now.
SV: Oh for sure. Am I right you did an internship at Al Merrick in Sydney?
Vanda: Not an internship, I just worked at Al Merrick in Sydney for a bit.
SV: Was that before you started Vanda?
Vanda: Na it was in the middle. I was still running Vanda at the same time I was working for Al Merrick. I was at a stage in the business where the next step was to go to a bigger factory and then Al Merrick rang me and wanted me to come work for them. And I was kinda at that stage where I was trying to work out what I wanted to do with the business. And I kinda just looked at working for Al Merrick as an opportunity to see – Al Merrick I think at the time was the biggest manufacturer in Australia, or one of, and were doing about 180 boards a week – so I just saw it as a bit of a personal growth opportunity and go see how big business is run, see what kinda processes they use, and get to move to Sydney for a bit and get to live in a different place.
SV: Who did you learn from when you were there?
Vanda: Just from everyone. From the owners and a lot of the guys that worked in the factory. I learnt a lot from the laminators we had working up there and some of the process guys, but the main thing I learnt was I didn’t want to work there. That was the biggest thing. It was just like white t-shirts, everything was white, and you had no connection with the customer, the customer was just a number on an order form, and you’re just checking pre-shapes and making white surfboards. You weren’t seeing the customers, you weren’t talking to the customers, the customers were probably in a surf shop a thousand kilometres away. I learned a lot about manufacturing and how to do things faster and how to build a streamlined factory, which is great, but I also learnt that that was not where I wanted to be. I think I went there saying I was going to stick it out for two years, and yeah it didn’t take long and I was like ‘okay this is actually making me not want to make surfboards’.
SV: And you got the passion back when you went back to doing it yourself?
Vanda: Yeah, it kinda revitalised me. I think I was sorta drifting a bit, trying to work out my direction when I went to Al Merrick. My business was going gangbusters. I think at the time I went to Al Merrick I had about twenty team riders, and the business was going really good, and I was really promoting, I was surfing in a tonne of local boardriders comps and the business was really going well, but I was trying to work out where to take it, where to find that passion. You know, with most small businesses you get to the point where you’re like ‘I’m making so many surfboards but all I seem to be doing is paying invoices out to pay for materials’. And then Al Merrick comes along and says we’re going to pay you a salary to come make surfboards and you’re like ‘alright well lets do this lets actually make a certain amount of money every week’.
SV: Can see why you took the opportunity.
Vanda: Yeah, and on paper it looked like it was going to be a really good opportunity, but you know big businesses, they promise you the world and give you fucken nothing. They promised me so much stuff. Like to get me up there they’re like we’re going to give you your own Al Merrick team riders and you’re going to go to world tour events and you’re going to go out and sell Al Merrick boards to the shops and be working in the factory and be running our CNC machine. And I was like wow that sounds amazing. And then I got there, and it was honestly just making surfboards. They didn’t give me any of that and didn’t say anything about actually ever giving me that sort of chance to do stuff.
SV: Big business hey.
Vanda: Big business.
SV: Do you still have team riders for Vanda?
Vanda: Na not really. I kinda got to the point where you know, a team rider you look after them so much, and then a team rider would order five boards, and you’d spend a week making five boards, and you’ve made no money. You’ve technically just given a team rider a week’s worth of labour for free. At the level I was sponsoring people, yeah, it’s great, there’s so many great people surfing your boards in boardriders comps and getting photos here and there, but I was finding it wasn’t actually bringing in enough revenue for how much free work you’re giving them. You know at that stage I had like twenty boards on order, and I spend a week making five boards for a team rider that I could’ve made five boards that I would’ve got paid full retail for.
SV: Sounds like it’s good you don’t need that anymore?
Vanda: Yeah, I dunno. I kinda like doing that teamrider thing cos it does keep you on your toes. It is nice working with people who surf really well and who like tuning their boards, it does make you a better shaper. Ya know, I can surf boards and go ‘yeah that goes sick’, but there’s kids who are so much better than me and are so much more-fine tuned into how well boards go. They’re surfing so good and they’re like ‘can we change this a tiny bit and I want it a bit curvier and this will go better in this wave cos it’s got this’.
So I think I’ll probably start getting a few more team riders, cos now I’ve got workers who can laminate and fill coat and sand their boards so I can put a price on a board to give to a team rider and really all I’ve done is shaped it.
SV: Right on, so rebuilding a team with a revised approach. Tell me what are some highlights from your personal surfing life?
Vanda: So, one of my best friends is Ellis Ericson. It was really good, his parents were working a lot, I was good friends with him and his parents, so when he was doing the pro junior series and he was a grom he was travelling around a lot and his parents couldn’t go so they’d ask me to go traveling with him. Me and him had lots of really good adventures. It was sorta nice to be at the comps and not have to worry about performing or anything, just sorta make sure he had his boards and got out for his heats and try and keep him on the straight and narrow. And that was really fun. Watching him surf in heats against Julian Wilson in the pro junior series and lots of the guys who are on tour now we were hanging around with on the pro junior series when we were all just kids. So, it was pretty fun. And great to go to New Zealand and renting Subaru’s and driving them like rally cars and going down to Tasmania and crashing cars. Trying to do burnouts on dirt roads finding surf and like hanging the car off the edge of the road. Some pretty fun adventures.
SV: Thrill seekers hey. Do you still keep in touch with Ellis?
Vanda: Yeah yeah we talk all the time. He’s shaping now and he’s sorta moved into a bit more of the free spirit sorta thing. He’s doing all the stuff with Greenough. On The Edge Of A Dream or whatever it’s called. He’s mucking around. He’s on his own trip with the edge boards. So yeah, we’re still super close but we’ve sorta gone in different directions with our surfing and our shaping. It’s crazy to think back, there’s quotes from like Andy Irons saying that Ellis is the best natural tube rider I’ve ever seen if he’s not world champion I don’t know who will be. It’s just crazy, even though I was just looking after him, you know when your friends are like ‘that guys amazing’ and you’re like ‘na thats my friend’, and you don’t really realise it. He’s like a little brat you tell to pull his head out of his own fucken ass.
SV: He is pretty good.
Vanda: Yeah. So, it was lots of fun times… up at Cooly, and we lived in Byron for a bit together. That was great times, we were just training and surfing and driving the rubber ducky and doing tow-ins and ya know we’d just wake up every morning and surf and eat and then surf and maybe do some work. It was a really fun time in life.
SV: Sounds like it. Tell us how important is the ocean to you, how does it play a part in your life?
Vanda: I absolutely love it. I could be having a shit day and yeah even just taking a coffee and the dog down to the beach, just seeing the ocean and seeing the sand and the waves roll in on the beach is just so amazing. And if you’re out there surfing with your mates it’s even better. It’s just that connection with nature. It’s the rawest form. It’s like going for a run in the park except there’s a chance that a tiger’s gonna jump out and eat you cos, ya know, there could be a great white shark swimming under you. One foot from land, you step into the ocean and you’re in a wild environment. And I love it down here cos, well today, it’s like there’s people everywhere, its crowded, it’s school holidays, and we just went surfed with me and two other mates and two other grommets and you’re just surrounded by beautiful cliffs and having a super fun surf.
SV: What are your favourite waves?
Vanda: Well I absolutely love Winki. Just cos it’s fast and you do cool hacks and it actually gives you pretty cool ramp sections and I love doing airs. Like take off at Uppers and race. If you’re on a smaller one you get the section coming at you from Lowers and it’s so good for doing airs. I remember being a little kid you know dreaming of the day I’d get to surf Winki. Back then there was a real pecking order out there and you had to earn your right to get out there. Not that I like localism, but it’s kind of a shame that it’s not really like that now. Like I paddle out there and like little kids just paddle up your inside and paddle for your waves and it’s like what the fuck are you doing, you’re eleven years old, fuck off mate.
SV: Do you try to assert your statesmanship over them?
Vanda: Yeah, I’m just like ‘mate I would not fucken paddle for that’ and just keep paddling. But I reckon most little kids like that, they have no idea. Cos I don’t surf Juc, so little kids they’re like ‘who the hell’s this stupid old guy? Who’s this blow in?’
SV: I love it when the kids just paddle up your inside at a point break and you’re just like ‘it’s not necessary’.
Vanda: Na. And that’s what they do at Winki and you’re like ‘who are you’. Like if you’d done that twenty years ago you would’ve been taken to the beach and peed on or something.
SV: Are you still racing bmx’s?
Vanda: Na, as the business has got bigger and there’s more overheads and, you know, if I don’t work there’s chances of going bankrupt. I can’t risk hurting myself.
SV: Yeah I feel ya.
Vanda: That’s the shame, like I love bmx. It was great and I was starting to go pretty good. I was looking at going to the world championships and I was feeling like I was probably in about top ten in the world form and ya know hoping to go pretty good. And then I had one pretty major crash where I broke three ribs and fractured my collarbone and landed on my neck pretty bad. And then a friend Sam Willoughby, he broke his neck and is a paraplegic, and it just got pretty real then, and you’re just like wow this is pretty dangerous.
SV: So Sam’s not racing anymore?
Vanda: Na he’s in a wheelchair.
Vanda: Yeah, he did it about two weeks after the Olympics.
Vanda: So heavy. So, he can kind of walk with a walking frame. It’s pretty gnarly. So as much as I love it, you gotta put risk versus reward. When Sam broke his neck, he wasn’t even racing, he was just training. That’s the thing you’re just like okay I gotta go train and when you’re training, you’re training as hard as when you’re racing.
SV: At least you’ve got a softer surface to land on in surfing.
Vanda: Yeah yeah. Generally, if you injure yourself in surfing you’ve probably either just blown out a knee or got donked on the head by a board. Not crashing into a mound of dirt and then getting run over by another 100kg person at 50kmh all while your carbon fibre bike is bouncing around you and you’re spinning upside down.
SV: Sounds like something else.
Vanda: Not that surfing Winki on a weekend isn’t fucken hectic enough with malibu’s and people throwing boards at you, it’s probably just as dangerous.
SV: Well I better let you get back to shaping but thanks for the chat man, always great to shoot the shit with ya.
Vanda: No thank you. Been a pleasure.