“Surfing is the sport of riding waves. It’s not only a sport, it’s an art – the art of balancing on a “board” while sliding down or across the face of a shorebound wave.”
— Excerpt from John Severson’s “Modern Surfing Around The World”
It’s a cloudy Saturday morning and we’re in a wooden floored, high roofed and tastefully decorated Muizenberg village home. I’m hanging with Liam Bulgen, the founder and builder of Muti surfboards. As usual, we’re talking surf. He says, meaningfully, “well, for me, logging is an art.” This astute statement has formed after a thoughtful pause in the conversation and is the first of many eloquent one-liners that swell and surge out of the industrious shaper, surfer and creator.
As you can see, talking surf with Liam is not your everyday garble. Oh no. Rather, it’s far more accurate to say that this kind of conversation is more in line with a philosophy discussion presented by a learned wave riding savant.
“When you combine the experience of getting a really good ride with the stoke and sensation of gliding on a wooden craft, that you’ve designed yourself, it just feels right. It’s a shared interaction with you, the board and the wave. It’s an energy exchange.”
Liam learned the hollow wood core or “chambered” board building technique from his pops, Bill. Using this specialized method he’s built a number of surfboards based on the combined bedrock of two key fundamentals which when fused together he’s dubbed “Functional Art”. He describes the hypothesis behind this, saying; “Well, wood holds memory, and after a time that memory translates into its own individual personality. Subsequently, that personality comes alive when it’s surfed. Because of the nature of the chambered design, you’re basically building something around an idea, and framing that idea with wood, bringing it closer to the realm of art than that of construction.”
There are two exclusive designs that he’s built and surfed with success: “The Anomaly”, a high performance, single fin log and the “Flow Egg” a Donald Takayama inspired hybrid step-up which can be surfed with a single, twin or thruster fin arrangement. Both were built using a combination of Japanese Paulownia, a lightweight yet proportionately strong wood, and Obeche: a West African timber known for its light weight and aversion to warping. The boards were then glassed with Super Sap, a bio entropy resin which is a plant based epoxy laminate, and far less toxic than the standard polyester version.
As the story goes, Takayama craftily spawned the Flow Egg by joining the noses of two templates together, thereby creating an egg shape outline. Liam has created his own rendition by combining Takayama’s principles with the more modern precepts developed by Devon Howard. The result is a complete hybrid. “It’s the best of both worlds, possessing volume and length which translates into power, paddle-ability and flow. The pinched rails and continuous rocker outline demand it be surfed like a traditional single fin. It loves slotting into the pocket, in the juice, but also easily glides over the flats. What I really enjoy about it is that the meaty volume allows for different body positioning and style approaches.”
The next board is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The aptly named “Anomaly” is a 9′ 6″ featuring a nose scoop, parallel rails and a slight hip towards the squared off tail. It’s totally unconventional and yet the board clearly harks back to surfing’s humble origins. “Basically, it shouldn’t work… But it does! The Anomaly was made for faster, more powerful waves such as you’ll commonly encounter when surfing around the Cape Peninsula. It’s versatile and responsive with a spring in its step, and it was shaped, glassed and finished in my fathers workshop. The surface area of the tail makes for good turning and allows for more drawn out power turns. The most memorable session I had on this board was out at solid Supertubes late last year. Bruce Gold showed me where he usually sits and gets his waves, so I patiently waited in Bruce’s zone. A wide, carpark bomb came swinging through and I just put my head down and went. As I came off the bottom I realized the wave had synced with the reef shelf and was going to double up into a freight train barrel… I pulled in and got so deep. Then the exit began to pinch, getting smaller and further away so I instinctively improvised and bent my knee and literally lay right back on the board. This fortuitous Hail Mary move enabled me to slip through and come flying right out.”
It’s so refreshing to hear and bear witness to a unique approach to surfing, as one may be forgiven for feeling jaded by the presentation of the mainstream, high octane surf style. Liam Bulgen has quietly accessed a “return to roots” methodology and as a result is one of the most stoked and fulfilled surfers in the water. Because that’s what it’s all about, right?
Certainly, for Liam, it is. “There’s something so special, almost primal, about riding a wave on a wooden board. The experience starts before catching the wave. The stoke is felt from the moment I look at the wave, that moment when the board picks up on the energy. That’s what it’s all about for me. So, I just focus on that feeling and on building the craft.