Making surfing sustainable with Damien Cole and Lauren Bos of Varuna Surf

The average surfboard is made from a petrochemical resin called polyurethane. Each one emits 170 kilos of CO2 emissions. This is a common criticism environmentalists and surfers like Damien (Damo) Cole receive when paddling out to campaign against oil companies on oil based boards.

This fact weighed on Damo’s mind until he decided to do something about it. Fast forward a little while later and Varuna Surf was born, a team of resourceful people who have pioneered a new way of shaping surfboards. Made entirely from balsa wood, an invasive species in Indonesia, the boards have been perfected over years of meticulous development, trial and error. Modelled on designs from world renowned shapers, the result is a more durable product that rivals the performance of a standard fibreglass board.

I had the pleasure of chatting with co-founder Damo and Varuna’s marketing-queen Lauren Bos, to hear the incredible story behind their project and find out which world-renowned shaper is behind their design. 

I wanted to start by asking about the origin story behind Varuna surf? What led you to where you are now?

Damo: I was running the Fight for the Bight campaign and doing all the paddle outs around the country. That was obviously quite successful, but the only thing that ever kept coming back to us was that we were hypocrites because we were paddling out on oil based boards and that we were part of the problem. We’re all part of the problem and hypocrites to some extent really, but it’s also the fact we’re also victims of our own society. We’re trying to do better and improve, but it’s a long process. 

But it was something that just kept gnawing away at me. Fast forward a little while later, I got connected with Tom who’s now my business partner. He had the same idea of making wooden surfboards and flew to Indonesia and started looking for people who might be able to help him out.

Tom has been an integral part of starting this, he was just lacking a little bit in that surf industry side. That was more my background, including the environmental science background. He’d already had a first draft of a board and I was like, “you’re onto something good but this is nowhere near a finished product.” So we got to refine it, my dad’s a surfboard shaper. 

“So when you grow up around that compared to when you grow up around here, you’re much more connected with the environment and your surroundings.”

We’ve got the crew over in Indonesia doing the manufacturing and that kind of stuff. We’re front of house in sales and marketing. We were going alone there for 2019 until we met Lauren who I fell deeply in love with from the moment that I met her. 

Lauren: Then I ended up getting onboard. I was going to travel around Australia and then the black fires ended up going on. We ended up travelling to Tassie and then Indo. When we were in Indo, he [Damo] was going for work to meet Tom and test some of the boards and see how they go. 

I was really curious about the project. My background is in marketing, so I was just like “what’s the story. Who's your target audience?” Those kinds of things. There ended up being a boat trip to test these boards and Damo was like “do you want to come on this boat trip.” He was like “I’ll introduce you to Tom and you can make a pitch since we’ll need marketing for this brand at some point if we want to grow it.” 

I had no business wanting to work much, cos I was on a year long holiday but then Covid hit. I’d been working for the last 10 years and was wanting to take a year off at least. But then, obviously Damo and I were spending more time together and falling in love and I didn’t realise you could combine surfing with actual working, cos I’ve only been surfing since I was 25 which is relatively new but it’s deeply ingrained in my lifestyle and what I love to do. So once I started realising “I think that this would be really cool and there’s really something here.” I had my blinders shut in terms of capitalism and what consumerism does to the planet and your community just cos I’ve lived in LA for the past five years. 

It’s not something they think about in LA? 

It’s a beautiful place and it is to an extent but it’s just so dense and compact and there’s just shit everywhere, there’s a lot of garbage everywhere. 

Damo: I feel like the difference between Australia and America is that America has beautiful places but Australia is beautiful. It’s the same as a lot of other countries. We’re very fortunate, for the most part it’s still very beautiful and secluded. So when you grow up around that compared to when you grow up around here, you’re much more connected with the environment and your surroundings. 

Lauren: So coming here and realizing that you can make a positive impact in an industry that I love and am growing to love and want to do my entire life, falls into a background that I’ve been working for the past 7 years. It all fell into place really beautifully. 

Damo: I made my case with Tom to be like “if Lauren writes up a bit of marketing plan for us” are you happy to fly her over to Europe and we’ll pay for her flights and accommodation and stuff as long as she pays her way with her work. We went to Morocco for 4 days to test some boards. This is when everyone was like “you’re going to Europe what about this Covid thing” and we were like “nah it’ll be fine.”

Lauren: “She’ll be right” 

Damo: She wasn’t — because after four days we were in the Western Sahara and we saw America shut down flights to Europe, formula 1 and surfing got cancelled on the Gold Coast and we were like “shit, we gotta get back to Australia.” Two days later the borders shut and here we are.

Lauren: When Damo came on, he saw the potential that we were in a unique position to redefine the world of sustainable surfing and make high performance boards that are good for the planet and make them accessible for everyone. Growing up surfing his whole life, he understood what the surf industry needs to take a new product seriously. 

“Even if it costs us more and takes more time and is harder to do, we wanted to make sure that every single step of our process is done in the right way.”

Fortunately the investors have been really open minded in working with us. They’ve taken on Varuna as a passion project. We’ve been able to justify and show them the potential in this and through that they’ve gotten on board with what we’re doing. What was going to start out as being a year and a half project of making 300 blank boards to sell in Europe has become this three year journey that’s going to be expanding into ideally this global phenomenon that gets everybody to change the way they surf and what type of boards they look for. 

It’d be interesting to look back but I’m pretty confident that no one from outside of the surf industry has ever made it in the surf industry, including someone like Nike. They started 8-9 years ago, jumped in with Nike 6.0 and no matter how much money they threw at it, it just did not fly. 

That says a lot about authenticity

Damo: Yeah, it’s a real niche kind of industry where you don’t even quite know what makes things cool or authentic or whatever, but people can just smell you a mile away if you’re not authentic and you don’t know what you’re talking about. 

I kind of want to butt in there and find out how this fed into your R&D process and not just the R&D of constructing the surfboards which I’m imagining would’ve been a huge challenge, but also the supply chain and making sure that the balsa wood was sustainably sourced and all of that. 

Dan: There was a lot of trial and error and mistakes made and things. There was potential to go down a few avenues that sounded good. Even the sourcing of the wood it was like, “oh, we found this really big company that’ll be able to give us all this wood.” And I was like, oh, let's do a bit of research on them to look at who they're connected to. All of a sudden we found it was connected to the Indonesian military. It was like having to do our due diligence and learn, particularly in a country like Indonesia, corruption is pretty rife over there. So that's been a really long process. 

Even if it costs us more and takes more time and is harder to do, we wanted to make sure that every single step of our process is done in the right way. And with a planet and people first mindset, we want to look after our workers and make sure every step of the way is done correctly.

I think that's probably where having the background that I've got with the Fight for the Bight and working for the Surfrider Foundation and stuff. There is that legitimacy straightaway, where people were like, okay well, this guy has gone out and lives and breathes protecting our coastlines. 

Lauren: But I think to kind of answer your question a little bit more. So trying to find all of these third parties to source our wood from and realizing that it's a bit difficult. It's a bit dodgy, you know, their back end connections don't align with our values. And so that's when it kind of sparked and they're like, “I think we just need a source of the wood ourselves.” 

So that's what prompted this whole journey of like — I call him the Indiana Jones of Varuna — but we have this guy named Yan Young Smith. He basically goes out into the jungles and looks for patches of balsa wood, because balsa is an invasive species in Indonesia. It grows like a weed, and it's bad for the native ecosystem. So he goes out and scouts for spots that has balsa and we go out and harvest it. 

In other instances, there's a lot of decimated land that's been desecrated from over logging. Balsa grows so quickly, so we're going into those over logged areas and planting the balsa ourselves. In tandem with native species with other native plants and trees and fruit trees. So the balsa grows really quickly and provides a shade and canopy for the grass, so it kills the grass. And then that makes space for the other native plants to grow as well. 

“It's not even just the plastic world that we live in. It's the disposable world that we live in and it's happening with surfboards.”

And then after about the four year mark, before the balsa trees flower, they'll spread more so before they flower will go in and harvest them and plant more native plants in their place. Also working with the local communities asking what kind of plants and fruit trees and stuff would be most beneficial for their community. So that's how we're able to regenerate rainforest and regenerate land as well. 

How do you scale sustainably so that more people can have access to a sustainable surfboard? 

Dan: That’s where we've been fortunate enough with our investors to be able to outlay a lot of finances initially, so that owning all of our stuff, we can actually expand as we see fit. So that's kind of been a beneficial thing for us, we've just built a new factory to make sure that it's already too big for us at the moment, but knowing that we want to get 200 boards a month in 2023. So we're already looking ahead and planting a whole heap of trees now that’ll be ready in five years.

Lauren: But I think there will also be a limit to how much we can scale and rightfully so because the Earth can only produce so much balsa, regardless of how much we're going in and planting it ourselves and in exchange for native species. So I guess the point is, is that like, fuck yeah, if we can hit our limit then absolutely. Because we don’t want to get to that point where we're working to exploit that limit, just for the sake of making more boards. Ideally, we also want to get to the point where this technology is universal that every other shaper and surfboard designer is using this type of technology. 

What was the shaping and R&D process like?

Damo: It was a long process. Having my dad there is, you know, quite a prominent surfboard shaper, the performance was really important for us. But also the number one rule of sustainability is that things have longevity. It's not even just the plastic world that we live in. It's the disposable world that we live in and it's happening with surfboards. People are buying surfboards, kind of expecting them to break in the six to 12 months, like that's kind of a normal thing. So we wanted to change that as well. 

We wanted to have the weight very comparable to the normal polyurethane counterpart. We wanted to have longevity there, but the performance as well. So balancing all three of those, it was constant. We'd make it lighter, but then it had started breaking a little bit more. So then we’d be like, okay, we figured this out, but now we've got a counter the lightness with extra fiberglass. So we went back and forth. 

And then just before COVID hit which meant I couldn't go to Indonesia and test these boards. So instead of us having six or seven prototypes over that six months, we got one. Because we had to get board sent from Indonesia to Australia for me to test them.

Lauren: Damo was getting one board every three months and it’d crack right away under his foot when he took it out for a surf. So then we're on a Zoom call in his bedroom, talking to the people from Indonesia trying to hold up the board in front of the computer screen pointing to this crack.

Damo: Compared to being in a factory where you can kind of look at it and compare, we're on the other side of the world talking to people from three different continents on the call, showing surfboards in front of this computer trying to all this stuff out. But you know, we just kept going because we knew we were onto something.

How did you know you were onto something?

Damo: I mean, I just look back through history. Humanity is an incredible species. Look at the things that we've achieved with technology. We didn't know that WiFi existed, but the components were all there. They've always been there. It's just a matter of putting it all together, you know. 

Lauren: I think it was really helpful because his Dad would come in and sit on the calls. And obviously Morris has made his career from shaping exceptional surfboards. Damo has a really thorough understanding of what it entails, but Morris has that mad genius understanding that I don't know if anyone could ever articulate except for him. Like this one millimeter of a degree of a grade in the concave of the belly.

Damo: Yeah, or the fin position and things like that

“People can’t believe that it’s a wooden board cos it goes so well”

Lauren: Yeah so intricate. So it really helped to have Morris come over and get on those calls and explain to the factory workers like you know “we need to adjust this tiny little thing in the jig so that we can get that sharper edge on the rail,” you know, little things like that.

What I find so wild about all this is this relationship between physics and feeling. You have to physically try the boards to know they work but there’s physics behind it too. You couldn’t be a non-surfer doing all this. 

Lauren: I think one of the biggest breakthroughs we had was we had these ribs going all the way from the nose to the tail, but it was really stiff and you couldn’t feel connected to the board. But these guys were like “no there’s gotta be a way to increase the flex and the torsion” yada yada.

“These boards will always be a collaboration with shapers, they’re all designed by industry legends who’ve been in the industry for 20, 40, 50 years”

Damo: The important bit is the flex, from nose to tail and up and down. You’ve got the back of the board which doesn’t only flex from tail to nose, but it twists and that’s called torsion. 

You lend the boards out to give people a go on them. What’s the feedback been like? 

Damo: The feedbacks just been incredible

Lauren: Unreal, people can’t believe that it’s a wooden board cos it goes so well. I think people are also very excited because Morris Cole boards are some of the best in the world. So I think another part of it is also that we’ve got designs from one of the best shapers in the world working on these boards. People get on them and say it’s the best board they’ve ever surfed. 

It’s like it was meant to be

Damo: Everything has fallen into place, even moving up here into the studio. We found the office before we even knew we wanted to come up. People wanting to work with us and things just aligning in the right way.

Lauren: Being in Torquay it’s so surf centric, but you get those really intense southerly swells coming from Antarctica. People are like “ah that’s kind of a cool project.” The really core surfers seem reluctant to try out a board because they know what they need to handle these ways. They were interested but not as receptive because they knew what they liked. But when we came to Byron, people were so excited at even the prospect of having a high performance sustainable surfboard. People are very environmentally conscious up here.

Do you find the surfing community has taken to this project with more receptivity because of the time they spend in the water? 

Damo: I think because it’s such a new concept, it’s the same as a lot of things. When you offer someone a completely new way of thinking or doing, it takes a while for people to get used to. The surfing community is twice the size as it was 10 years ago. We’ve seen a huge explosion in the industry. It’s probably a little bit unfair to lump everyone in the same thing. There are definitely a lot of people in the industry that are really excited, we’ve had shapers approach us saying they want to work with us and other people are like “come back to us in a couple of years.” So it’s focusing on those people that are like minded and want to be part of the project. We don’t want to chase people who aren’t interested. We want to work with people who can see our vision of where we’re heading. These boards will always be a collaboration with shapers, they’re all designed by industry legends who’ve been in the industry for 20, 40, 50 years and straight away we’re replicating their designs. So if your old board used to go with Joel Fitzgerald or Morris Cole or Darcy, then we trust it in this other board. So that’s another part of our business model, is wanting to highlight and celebrate the designs from these people who’ve been in the industry for so long, whilst doing it in a much more sustainable way.

"We’re really confident with our product, we know that they go and people love them. So it’s getting as many people out there to break down that stigma of “it’s a wooden surfboard.”"

Lauren: The reason we’ve been able to establish that credibility is because we’ve worked so hard on achieving that level of high performance. If the boards don’t go, no one’s going to work with us. Because we’ve been able to prove the performance of the boards, that’s been an enticing element for other shapers to join us. Morris was under the table for a long time, we call him our incognito shaper because he wasn’t comfortable putting his name on the product until it was proven to go. He was happy to lend his expertise but until it checked all the boxes his name wasn’t on it. 

How do you bring financial accessibility to it? 

Damo: It probably goes back to the longevity of the board and having something that lasts. We’ve already got processes of how to repair the boards. A big part of this was to make it accessible and it’s not really far off what people are charging. We wanted to make the prices comparable so we’re not some exclusive rich company, we are still accessible to anyone and it’s not an investment from 6-12 months. Surfboards last longer as well, but it’s not uncommon for people to go “I got this board three months ago and it snapped duck diving or on a two foot wave.” 

Is surfboard repairs different as well?

Damo: Totally, we’ve had to reverse engineer the entire product. 

So you can’t snap one of these? 

Damo: If you look at the rails, I’d be very shocked if anyone ever snapped one of these. 

I’m glad I asked cos I think it’s just those questions that people will be thinking of when they’re reading about these boards — these objections in their minds maybe.

Damo: Let’s compare a Patagonia to a Cotton On. Cotton On you can get t-shirt for 10 dollars and Patagonia it might be 50. But that Cotton On t-shirt you wash it, all of a sudden it loses a bit of colour, shrinks a little bit, the stitching comes undone in a couple of months — throw it away you buy another 10 dollar t-shirt and by the time you know it you’ve bought 5 t-shirts anyway and you’ve contributed to this systems decline that we’re seeing around the world. Whereas something like a Patagonia T-shirt not only are they better quality and it lasts longer, but they’ve got the post customer service that they repair it for you. We’re the same with surfboards, you can go buy one for $500 if you want but you get what you pay for.

What are you guys up to next? Will you do longboards?

Damo: We definitely want to look into longboards, channel bottoms, finless boards, everything. At the moment, my goal is to get as many people surfing these boards as possible. We’re really confident with our product, we know that they go and people love them. So it’s getting as many people out there to break down that stigma of “it’s a wooden surfboard.” 

Lauren: We’re launching our pre-sale in December-Jan. Boards are 10% off right now and then probably about February is when we’re doing a full brand launch. People can come by and we want people to test them out and try them out. So if you’re a local Byron person come by the shop and test them out and see what you think. Cos again there’s such a stigma around wooden boards, so the biggest thing is getting people on the boards and letting the boards speak for themselves.