When legendary shaper Tom Hoye recently passed away the tributes flowed in. Everyone from Taj Burrow to surfing veterans acknowledged his contribution to surfboard design.    

Hoye grew up in northern California and took his early cues from Jack O’Neill. He moved to Australia in the early 70s and played an integral role in introducing the twin fin to the vibrant Brookvale shaping scene. Soon after he moved to the west coast, where his hand-shaped boards had a cult following for decades.

 By an odd quirk of fate the story by Tom de Souza below was published in Tracks issue #578 just before Hoye’s passing. It offers an engaging insight into an intriguing character and the unique boards he loved to make.    

Tom Hoye and ‘Da Claw’: From Tracks issue #578
By Tom de Souza

Tom Hoye’s surfboard shaping factory is in a faded brick building hidden behind a row of jarrah trees in Margaret River’s light industrial estate. On the locked shopfront door is a map directing visitors around the back. Through a slot in the sandy concrete wall, across a yard, past a 1985 Nissan Patrol patched with fiberglass, and through the raised roller door.

Tom comes out, all bright and sun-battered, white hair with a 240V charge through it. Californian drawl. Biker moustache. Trusty sneakers, one at the end of a mangled leg. Eyes equal parts mad scientist and measured craftsman.  

We go through to the musty front showroom, where five of Tom’s trademark ‘Da Claw’ surfboards are hanging on the wall. Each is tinted yellow and has five, black glassed-in fins. The smallest is a 7’10. The longest is 12 feet long and four inches thick - “a serious fucking surfboard,” says Tom. Above the counter, there is also an 8’2 sailboard with cascading stepdown rails and golf-ball like dimples in some sections.

These boards, like all of Tom’s surfboards, are shaped entirely by hand, he tells me. He is one of the last remaining professional shapers who work in this way. It’s hard work for a 74-year-old man, especially one who bears the debilitation of a lifetime dedicated to surfing, and Tom knows he could save his body and make more surfboards and money if he moved to a shaping machine. But he is compelled to hand-shape because he is a true artisan, he says.

“I’m not a production guy. I’m just thinking better surfboards,” says Tom.

“I don’t use a machine because I like to tune the levels of plane and amounts of drive to suit the individual variables: the surfer, the wave, their approach to it. The machine can’t always take those things into account.

“The physics on the bottom of a surfboard are so complex and the changes I make are so small and subtle that they are almost immeasurable. You can try to measure them, but you only get an approximation.

 “Shaping to me is like music. A great classical guitar player can tell you how they play the notes in a particular riff, but they can’t tell you how they did it. It’s about the space in between.”

 Tom has been quietly building Da Claw surfboards in this factory since 1980. He says this unconventional design is his magnum opus, and is convinced it is more dynamic than any other surfboard he has ridden in 62 years of surfing.

 Two of Tom’s boards on the rack – the 7’10 and an 8’4 - are demo boards. Both are swallow tails with late 80s style full deck grips. The yellow tint is sunburned brown on both. The 7’10 is thinner, still three inches thick, but with steeper rocker and a narrower nose. I choose the 8’4: a hulking beast of a thing, with vicious edges on the underside of the rail.

 Tom flips the board over and shows me his classic five stage bottom. In simple terms, it’s a subtle single concave on the nose, transitioning into flat, then a vee with a double concave, and chines on the sides. But this an overly simple way of explaining a complex vehicle, says Tom.

“I call it the five-stage bottom because I use five flats to put it together. It breaks the bottom of the surfboard into five phases of plane. It’s not so much about each phase of plane but the transition points between them and the myriad of rockers in each phase.

“There are a whole bunch of different views to try and describe to you how those parts of a surfboard inter-relate, but again, like music and good art, it’s almost impossible to put into words.”

Tom’s journey to creating Da Claw goes back some sixty years to Santa Cruz in the late-1950s. He grew up the son of a single-mother school-teacher. As a child he spent most of his free time at the beach, kidding around in the beach breaks and watching a handful of guys ride waves through the Inside Cove at Steamer Lane.

His first board was an eight-foot Mike Winterburn shape his Mum bought him for his fifteenth birthday from the Santa Cruz hardware store for 75 bucks. As fate would have it, Tom had to learn to glass even before he knew how to ride the board.

“We were driving home and this thing was hanging out the trunk. It fell on the road and the nose got all smashed up. I taught myself to patch it. After that I covered the whole thing in ten-ounce glass so it wouldn’t get smashed up on the rocks. It was virtually bullet-proof,” he says.

Tom became obsessed with surfing the moment he first saw the inside of the tube. He knew that to get another board he had to get into the trade, and in his final years of high school he started work experience in Jack O’Neill’s shop.

“Jack was a father-figure because my Dad wasn’t around. Brilliant guy, I watched him in the early days. On big swells he was a charger. He didn’t have the patch, didn’t have the beard. He influenced the way I live 100 per cent.”

“The most defining advice Jack gave me was when I was eighteen-years-old. He said to me: ‘it doesn’t matter whether the shape is a half-inch thick or four-inches thick, six feet or ten feet long. When you come up onto the plane, you’re only on three foot of wetted surface with about 20mm of draught,” says Tom.

“The instant that he said that I just got a vision of configurations on the bottom of the surfboard. The physical dynamics of it. How certain things cause lift and others cause draught, and if you use those two pressures against each other in the right way, you get this thing that locks on the water but it squirts through the water, it goes fast, but it doesn’t jump around and it has good control, you can turn it pretty much where you want it.

“That’s what got me shaping: those thoughts.”

The testing ground for Da Claw is one of Margaret River’s outer reef breaks. This morning the swells are long and stretched out, around eight to ten feet. The wind is offshore and conditions are clean, though a little blustery.

In the car park, the board’s peculiar aesthetic attracts mixed reviews from other surfers. Some glare with obvious disdain. Others admire its vintage. “You wouldn’t want to damage that,” one surfer reminds me. “That thing is a straight wall hanger.”

While the bottom and the rails of the board are sanded smooth, the glass on the deck is rough, almost leathery. Above the top of the deck grip is a smooth narrow strip along the stringer where my chin rests. Tom calls this glass job the “anti-skid traction system”. He says it removes the need for wax. On one of my first waves, my front foot finds this anti-skid system. It slips off.

It’s this kind of fearless experimentation that almost destroyed Tom’s shaping career before it began. After honing his craft with O’Neill for eight years, Tom went out on his own and set up a surfboard shop behind his Santa Cruz home.

“My ideas were different from the norm. At the time surfboards were becoming shorter, but still lot of guys were riding Malibu boards. I didn’t want a mal,” he says.

Hoye on a trip to J-Bay in 1974

“I wanted something dynamic, so I started shorter boards with these modern outlines and narrow noses. The noses were really rolled out and flicked up elf-shoe noses, radically flipped. Some of them I actually cut and bent up. I called them BWB: Brain Wash Boards.   They were radical, man.

“They were weird looking things and me and a bunch of my friends could surf them really well. I had heaps of energy and it didn’t matter that they didn’t paddle for shit. On the wave I could just turn them anywhere.

“I made a whole bunch for some other people and nobody else could surf them. I just about sent myself bankrupt before I started.”

On the first three waves, it’s difficult to discern any real difference between Da Claw and a modern thruster. The powerful, bumpy surf exposes no major weaknesses in the board. The only surprise is that there is no extra drag, as I expected on a board with five fins.

“You’ve got more drag points but less drag per point,” Tom later explains to me. “It takes me about the same amount of material to make the fins for a large thruster as it does Da Claw. The physical mass is basically the same.”

It isn’t until the board is placed in a critical situation that the advantages of Da Claw become apparent. A set wave feathers on the outside peak, crumbles, and rolls toward me paddling back out. I’m just behind the inside ledge. I’m little late when I swing for it and am forced to take off in eight feet of rolling whitewash. Where other boards might be skittered off course, Da Claw grips in the foam and tracks a steady line down the face.

Tom experimented with a variety of fin setups over three decades before he found Da Claw. In the mid to late ‘60s he trialled boards with no fins, tiny four-inch square single fins, and single fins with a trailing keel.

He brought some of these ideas with him when in 1970 he and his wife and young daughter left the Santa Cruz crowds for the empty reef breaks of Margaret River. They came via Sydney, and Tom’s travel quiver was a 6’8 single fin with a trailing keel, a straight 6’ single fin, and a twin fin.

Corky Carroll had just introduced the twin fin to California but Tom’s board was the first modern twin-fin in Australia. Tom disliked the design for its lack of drive, but it became popular in Australia after a chance encounter with Terry Fitzgerald at Dee Why Point.

“It was my first surf in Australia. Six foot Dee Why, only one guy out. Turns out it was Terry, but I didn’t know that at the time. I showed him my board, said I didn’t like it, it had no drive. On the grass I showed him my 6’8, which I really liked. It had a really exaggerated version of the five-stage bottom. He was interested in the twin-fin but didn’t really identify with the bottom shape,” he says.

“A couple weeks later I saw him again in the surf and he came paddling up and flipped his board over and went, ‘check this out, I love these things!’ He was riding a twin-fin.

“Terry was the one who got them going in Sydney. Because Terry liked them everybody wanted them. And they came to me to get them because of the ad that appeared in Tracks.”

That ad was an image of Tom with his twin-fin in the inaugural issue of Tracks. It was promoting Barry Bennett surfboards in Brookvale, with whom Tom had found work shaping so he could scrounge enough money to head West. Orders for twin-fins came rushing in, and Tom would shape over 300 of them at Bennett’s factory. But his own boards had already moved ahead of convention.  

“On my board, I had put a little fin behind the twin fin, a third, stabilising fin. I was telling people look, you put a keel behind it. They’ve got more drive. I used to show them the keel on mine. That was amazingly close to a thruster in 1970. But nobody wanted anything that looked remotely like a thruster. It was just too over the top at the time.”

I ride the 7’10 for my second surf on Da Claw. I ride it at the same wave in similar conditions. Where the 8’4 felt a little sluggish, this board feels fast, loose, and electric. It turns with the ease of a board at least a foot smaller.

The most dynamic difference between this board and modern thruster is the three-fin drive. The third transition fin between the carve fin and the drive fin creates a smoother rail to rail action, and is aggressively stable.

Tom clutching one of his fabled 'Da Claw' models.

It takes me a few more waves to adjust to the sensation. In the second hour, I find the confidence to surf more aggressively. I push my bottom turns harder, leaning into them with every ounce of strength, waiting for the fins skip out or the rail to catch. It doesn’t happen. The shape glides through ugly lumps of chop and pivots on a dime. The harder I push the board, the more critical the section ahead of me, the more the board seems to respond. “Is that all you’re going to throw at me?” it says.

But I wonder, if Da Claw is so phenomenal, why hasn’t Tom’s design become popular?

I ask Tom this back in the showroom. There are a few reasons, he says: his own anti-capitalistic bent, the difficulty of building one. But mostly, he hasn’t advertised Da Claw because he knew the design would be met with total scepticism.

“When I first started riding Da Claw, I looked at what I had made, and thought, I’m not going to tell people because they will look at them and just think it’s weird. They just looked too radical, and that early experience with the Brainwash Boards was still in the back of my mind,” he says.

“I even tried to talk the few people who wanted one out of buying them. I didn’t build them for anyone unless they really wanted them, because they are so damned hard to build.”

It was another 25 years before Da Claw gained any traction in the local surfing community. Word got out one morning in 2005, when West Australian tube-hound, Jeffree ‘Camel’ Goulden, came and asked to ride the 8’4.

“Camel was glassing for me in ‘89 when I made that board. At the time, he didn’t identify with it. Sixteen years later he comes into the shop and said he had been thinking about Da Claw a lot. It blew me out. He asked if he could take it down and surf it. I went down to watch him. He paddled out at good, pushy 8-10 feet Southside and just totally thrashed the place,” says Tom.

Camel making the descent on one of Hoye's 'Da Claw' models at big Margaret River.

“I went back to the shop and a couple of hours later, one of Camel’s mates comes in and wanted to order an 8’6 Da Claw. I did my standard response, told him that thrusters work well enough, Da Claw costs more money. He was determined. I offered for him to ride mine first. And he goes, ‘nah, I don’t need to ride one. The one that Camel was on, what was that?’

“Now, it’s 15-years after that fact. I’m probably 75 per cent Da Claw. I haven’t advertised or pushed it at all. Just about everything I do now is five fins, which rattles my brain because they are so fucking hard.”

Tom has been in business in Margaret River for fifty years now, and it hasn’t been an easy ride. He has held onto this shop through a battle with cancer, trouble with the bank, and two serious surfing-related injuries, including a near-death fall that left him maimed.

In 2005, Tom went with a friend, Rob Mansell-Ward, to watch a winter storm swell from the Sugarloaf Rock north of Margaret River.

“This day there was water on rocks that I’ve never seen wet before. We watched for close to an hour. We were getting ready to go but then there were two big waves on the outside.

“We were both surfers of 50 years and we could have, at that point, turned around and ran back off the rock and probably saved ourselves. But it didn’t read that way.   A heartbeat before it hit the rock we realised the swells had doubled up together. I knew I was going to get wet but I didn’t know how much.

“This swell came up Sugarloaf Rock like, it greased something, man, I mean, so fast. I got hit with eight feet of green water going sideways to the ocean. It just wiped the rock. Rob was a bit higher than me. He saw it and had time to lay down and try to lock onto the rocks.”

“I felt I didn’t fall that far. But I turned around and I was 100 feet from where I started. I was virtually a metre way from the ocean. I knew I had to get up and leave instantly. That was when I looked at my leg.”

There was bone sticking out through the skin and his foot was bent around 180 degrees. He couldn’t move. Fortunately, there was a lull in the swells, and with some assistance from Rob, Tom managed to drag himself 60 feet back up the cliff and was airlifted to hospital.

It took 13 months, multiple surgeries, bolts and a 20mm titanium rod to reconstruct Tom’s leg. His surfing capabilities never recovered and the injury decimated his livelihood. Still today, constant physical pain and a backlog of thirty-odd orders means it can take up to three years to get a board from Tom – though many are prepared to wait. But for Tom, it’s not about the money.

“Jeez, I’m 74-years-old, and my passion for surfboards and surfing hasn’t flickered from the day I started. And I can't even really surf anymore,” he says.

“Hand-shaping to me is like music in the way that when you seriously get into it and start to understand it is really hard to stop doing it. There is no perfect shape, no perfect song, only infinite variables of the same object. You can never attain perfection, but still I chase it. And I’m improving with every shape that I do.

R.I.P. Tom Hoye