Audi Ambassador and innovative surfboard shaper, Hayden Cox isn’t one to rest on his laurels. Now the founder of Haydenshapes Surfboards is using his expertise in cutting-edge design to create a more sustainable product.
19 March, 2019
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The surfing world would be a very different place if a 15-year-old Hayden Cox had taken his mother’s advice. “Your father and I didn’t work this hard to send you to a good school so you can make surfboards,” she chided, from their home in the commuter suburb of Gordon, on Sydney’s leafy north shore. Mrs Cox was a loving matriarch. Her advice was sensible, and also wide of the mark.
“There’s no future in it,” she said. “You’ll do your work experience at an accounting firm.”
Fast forward 22 years, and Hayden Cox is one of the world’s best-selling surfboard makers. Haydenshapes has operations in Australia, the USA and Thailand, with over 300 people working on the brand and product.
Haydenshapes boards retail in more than 70 countries. Cox’s portfolio includes collaborations with Alexander Wang and Google, an ongoing creative partnership with Samsung, and commissioned industrial design for Westpac. (He created and introduced the first designer range of wearable, tap-and-go PayWear accessories for the banking giant last year – a world first.)
His mum eventually came around. Hayden Cox is a natural entrepreneur: frenetically innovative, innately enthusiastic. As a shaper, his first breakthrough came aged 27. It was the mid-1990s: a fruitful time for board making design, but not in progression of materials. At that stage, he says, ‘the way surfboards were made really hadn’t really changed since the late ’60s, early ’70s’.
Hayden Cox is a natural entrepreneur: frenetically innovative, innately enthusiastic
Tom Carroll, a two-time world surfing champion, described FutureFlex as ‘the Ferrari of surfboards’ for its fast-twitch nature and lively response
The components were all but standard. A polyurethane foam core, sealed with fibreglass and polyester resin, a plywood stringer – a thin strip of wood – running centrally from nose to tail for strength. Cox envisaged something better.
Instead, he used a different set of materials – some marginalised, such as epoxy resin and high-density expanded polystyrene foam (AKA Styrofoam, or EPS), some new to surfing, like carbon fibre and biaxial e-glass. He did a year-long deep dive into R&D, customising and tweaking, and emerged with FutureFlex. Surfboard construction’s most influential leap forward in decades, Cox’s FutureFlex boards were painstakingly engineered, using a parabolic flex concept with biaxial fibreglass laminated over. The boards were top strengthened along the rails by a carbon fibre tape developed from scratch. They had no stringer.
“That was really tricky, ’because carbon fibre, when it gets bent, it wants to kink, and create kinky lines,” he says. “So we had to design a tape that allowed it to be laid down by hand and to follow the curve of the board, and fit into quite intricate, subtle customised shapes.”
His boards were more energised, generated speed faster, and had springier, more reactive flex. Tom Carroll, a two-time world surfing champion, was the first person after Cox to test FutureFlex. He described the technology as ‘the Ferrari of surfboards’ for its fast-twitch nature and lively response.
With no stringer, they immediately stood out visually, with minimalist black rails. A patented design, FutureFlex would ultimately give Haydenshapes its unique edge in the market upon the brands global launch in 2012 and went on the influence an industry wide carbon trend in surfboard manufacturing . But now Cox is grappling with an even bigger challenge.
From polyurethane to polystyrene, to polyester, carbon fibre, fibreglass and epoxy, modern surfboards are a carefully engineered cocktail of harsh ingredients and non-biodegradability.
While surfers pride themselves on their connection to the ocean and environment, the boards they ride are usually anything but eco-conscious.
Sustainability is now more of a focus for Cox than ever, but he is the first to recognise that is an area that requires a lot of thought and thorough research before diving headfirst into major change. “Firstly, I’d never want to compromise the product quality and performance. I also want to ensure that the any eco-changes that are made don’t have other detrimental effects along the way, like excessive water or power consumption, lack of ability to recycle/regenerate the material etc. It’s important to start somewhere but you need to educate yourself.”
His enormous Mona Vale Haydenshapes factory has banks of 36 monochromatic photocell solar panels on the roof, enough, with batteries, to power 80 percent of his needs. A battery installation later this year will up that to almost 100 percent. His car is currently an Audi Q7 e-tron plug-in hybrid SUV, allowing him a well sufficient 50km range each day, all of which can be powered by those photocells. He re-uses waste products from the manufacturing process to make accessories, such as fins.
His goal right now is to create an eco-friendly version of his FutureFlex technology. As in industries across the world, it’s an incremental, evolving process of exhausting R&D. Passionate pioneers, like Cox, are the ones driving rapid change.
“With FutureFlex, we know that the flex pattern of our boards lasts two to three, even four times longer than a traditional polyester, polyurethane board,” he says. “That’s a great place to start, because we’re already building fewer boards (per surfer) and they are lasting longer.”
“But now, how can we make that much more sustainable? Can we do away with the carbon fibre, or the fibreglass? Can we use bio-based epoxy resins, using fewer oil-based materials? Does recycled EPS actually consume less energy than virgin EPS foam?”
“With FutureFlex, we know that the flex pattern of our boards lasts two to three, even four times longer than a traditional polyester, polyurethane board”
"We’re working towards more sustainable solutions without compromising performance”
“As a designer, I need to build prototypes with my own hands, ride them, and understand how their mechanical properties impact different designs. It’s really exciting.”
Cox’s experimentations have taken him through promising left-field materials – replacing his patented carbon fibre tape with a concoction of flax and crushed basalt, for example.
“The challenge for that,” he says, “is how can we actually sand that board – if you sand the basalt, for example, it looks terrible. And you can't leave flax on the outside, ’cause that just puffs up when you sand it. Every set of materials has its own challenges. This is the dance, that back-and-forth.”
Still, progress is steady. Prototype Haydenshapes eco models, distinctive in muted green and black, are set to be available later this year.
There’s a corollary, he says, with the development of electric vehicles. Last year, Cox attended the Audi design event in Barcelona. “I’m always interested and passionate about how the Audi brand is leading the automotive industry with their decisions. It’s going all-in with Formula E and winning in its first season.”
“It shows their commitment. It’s cool to learn from a brand like that. We’re not there yet, but we’re working towards more sustainable solutions without compromising performance.”
As with electric cars, he says, the proof of a more eco-friendly surfboard will be down to the user.
“Ultimately,” says Cox, “it’s a board, and a board is all about how you feel when you ride it. I want to make something as good as, or better, than what we had before.”
Accountancy’s loss is surfing’s gain. And the planet’s.
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