Thursday, November 30, 2006

Riding the Free Market

This article was published in The Times Online on Alex Wade's 'Surf Nation' blog on 29 November 2006.

Adam Smith once used the metaphor of the invisible hand to illustrate his argument that those who seek wealth by following their individual self-interest also inadvertently stimulate the economy and thereby assist the poor. With the recent death of another advocate of the free market, Milton Friedman, the question of whether so tangible - albeit invisible - an influence flows in surfing’s increasingly commercial wake is a timely one.

One man better placed than most to deliver a verdict is surfer, shaper and businessman Tim Heyland, of Tiki fame. Tiki not only manufactures boards and wetsuits but has also recently extended its shop in Braunton, North Devon to offer the largest range of surfboards in Europe. This is a remarkable achievement on any level, but is all the more impressive given Tiki’s humble beginnings. Heyland was one of the first British surfers to take on the might of Sunset beach and other breaks on the north shore of Oahu, and recalls arriving in North Devon “with £5 in my pocket, a dog on a piece of string and a home-made wetsuit. I had to sleep on the beach in the early days.”

The early days were in the winter of 1963, when there were no surf shops, let alone labels and brands. If you wanted to surf, you had to make your own board, and Heyland became one of the first people in the UK to do so. He launched Tiki with Dave Smith in 1967, and by 1968 the company was up and running from its North Devon base. However, this was no big commercial enterprise at the time. Heyland, a man of imposing physical presence and an almost military demeanour, puts it thus: “In the first twenty years it was virtually all word of mouth with hardly any advertising.” Now, though, things are rather different. “These days it’s a commercial whirlpool with the big five brands dominating the market and anyone able to enter it just by setting up a website.”

Heyland appears to lament some of the changes. “People have got it made today,” he says. “The sense of adventure has gone and kids don’t know anything about the history.” There’s a sense in the way Heyland talks of what the sociologist Max Weber called anomie. Weber adopted this to describe the breakdown of social norms and values when Europe moved from a rural to an industrial society, uprooting its people and transforming them from family units to alienated individuals fending for themselves in the big cities.

John Milius illustrated this tension in Big Wednesday. The protagonist Matt Johnson has become an alcoholic as he watches surfing descend into what he sees as a dark pit of commercialism. This is most vividly illustrated by his childhood mentor, Bear, setting up a surf shop to cater for the skateboarders and trendsetters of the day. But even though Matt’s decline is absolute, he is still seen as the hero, romantically defending the old values, refusing to sell his soul. When Bear offers him a board to endorse, he replies: “I just surf because it’s good to go out and ride with your friends.” Later, exasperated, he cries, “You oughta know what I mean, Bear!”

So does Tim Heyland think commercialism has been good or bad for surfing? “Good”. Despite his general comments he has no reservations and there are echoes of Adam Smith’s invisible hand in his answer. “I don’t think surfing would be where it is now if you didn’t have it. Without it, we’d still be riding tree trunks. Balsa wood.” Not to mention the obvious developments which have been made in wetsuit design. “People take the benefits for granted. Kids have everything these days.” He likens the complaints about commercialism to those made in the name of localism. “It’s the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever heard in my life”.

Bear sidesteps a reply, but Heyland is not one to shy away from giving his opinion. So, does he think commercialism has been good or bad for surfing? “Good,” he says unhesitatingly. Despite some of his comments he has no reservations and there are echoes of Smith’s invisible hand as he amplifies his answer. “I don’t think surfing would be where it is now without commercialism. Without it, we’d still be riding tree trunks. Balsa wood.” Not to mention the obvious developments which have been made in wetsuit design: “People take the benefits for granted. Kids have everything these days.” He likens the complaints about commercialism to those made in the name of localism – “the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

The voice is that of an authentic waterman, someone who has just returned from double-overhead Ireland and who can still be found in North Devon barrels whenever the swell is on. This is the thing about Heyland. Whether he is riding big waves or the free market, he has total commitment and shows no fear.

It is this, above all else, which distinguishes Tim Heyland from his peers.

Photographs © Dr Michelle Tempest

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