Landlocked (titre WIP)
Text & photography: Julius Bauer
Julius Bauer and Niklas Kraus grew up in the German heartland, more than a 24-hour drive from the ocean. But this minor detail didn’t stop them from developing a passion for surfing and even opening a surfboard shaping brand. From Youtube tutorials using makeshift tools to boards destroyed during improvised surf trips, they swung open the doors to this world that didn’t seem destined for them.
The local hardware store is packed with construction workers, young families searching for supplies for their new homes and old people buying gardening gear. Going to the hardware store on the weekends is a ritual in Germany. There, you’ll see the country in all its diversity, buying everything from concrete to velvet toilet seats, where the latest Porsche will be parked next to a food truck selling chicken and chips for 5 euros.
Amongst all this, an 18-year-old guy is looking for materials that are, let’s say, unusual in these parts. He’s wearing Teva Sandals and a pair of O’Neill boardshorts covered in resin drips. Niklas needs foam and a wooden stringer to build a surfboard. Why doesn’t he just buy one, you ask? Well, he doesn’t want to spend money on an industrial product made in a Taiwanese factory. Having read hundreds of articles and consumed heaps of Youtube tutorials – the Internet is a beautiful thing – he’s ready to shape a board himself. Which, to put it mildly, ends in disaster. But he’s onto something.
I can’t actually remember how I met Niklas. Probably in the only nightclub in Heilbronn, our hometown north of Stuttgart. We had a lot of friends in common, but to meet another surfer in southern Germany, well, some would call it destiny. Very quickly, we realized we were both addicted to standing on a piece of plastic in the ocean. We shared the same heroes and references: Jack Coleman, Mikey February, Nat Young, Miki Dora, Gerry Lopez, McTavish, George Greenough. A bunch of surf pioneers and dirtbags, from a time when owning two pairs of boardshorts was considered super fancy.
What I can remember, though, is the first trip we took together. Niklas had shaped a new board he wanted to try out. I’d just returned home from Indonesia and was about to leave for Peru. Niklas had plans to go to New Zealand. I can’t recall what I was doing to sustain
my travels, but Niklas was working for the postal service, delivering 130 packages a day. With unpaid overtime, obviously. Let’s all stop ordering from Amazon, please. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the Eisbach trip. We didn’t have time to drive all the way to the ocean, so we decided to try that river wave in Munich. I borrowed my Dad’s Lupo 3L – a fine piece of German engineering, although not really well suited for a surf trip, quite the opposite in fact. But we managed to pack two boards in between the seats and left late after work. Niklas was completely knocked out and basically slept the whole drive. Along the way, we were nearly run over by two buses and definitely got lost in the city. It was a bit hectic but Niklas had an old iPod full of jazz, soul, and hip-hop blasting through the speakers. I’m not going to lie, “Get Busy” by Sean Paul was also played once or twice.
We really got to know each other on that trip. When I first saw Niklas’ boards, I was blown away by how much time and effort he was ready to put into something that seemed so impossible for me. How could a German kid living twenty-four hours from the sea ever be a shaper and make it in the surf industry? It takes dedication, and quite a bit of skill. With his background in kayaking, he learned early on how to work with fiberglass and resin. I guess charging down whitewater rivers in remote areas teaches you how to be fearless. Niklas would shape outside in his parents’ garden, covering the daisies with a thick layer of foam dust, and glass underneath the veranda. It was surreal walking through that typical, quiet family neighborhood and suddenly hearing the noise of a planer or smelling resin.
In two years, Niklas progressed quickly, despite the fact that he had no proper tools – using plumbing or carpentry ones he would modify – and had to pay for all the materials himself. Eventually, he had to find a cheaper option to the foam he bought from the hardware store. We found a supplier that sold 4.8 x 1.2 x 1m foam blocks and bought one. I don’t know what the neighbors must have thought we were doing when we brought it home. We cut the huge block into pieces and stored everything in Niklas’ sister's room – luckily, she was away studying. From then on, he made boards at an incredible pace. They were far from perfect, which we only figured out when we tried them on our rare trips. But this is what was driving us. The fun of guessing, trying, failing, learning and improving. We tried all sorts of shapes, lengths and fin setups, inspired by models from our favorite shapers. But, let’s face it, we had no experience and no idea what we were doing.
But we made progress during our first trip to Morocco. We packed Niklas’ boards and landed in Mohammed’s hostel right in the center of Taghazout. Definitely not the
best-looking accommodation, but the cheapest we could find and, it turns out, the one with the best vibes around. Our daily routine was simple. Wake up, walk to Anchor Point, surf, walk back, eat msemmen, surf Panorama – that we quickly nicknamed “shit pipe” due to the sewage pipe nearby –, grab a sketchy ride with Mohammed to Aourir, surf killer waves, walk back, devour a sandwich and double fries at Köfte Boss, sleep, repeat. We were on a high.
At that time, Niklas had just bailed on his mechanical engineering studies and I was struggling with my communications design course. It just didn’t feel right. There, on a rooftop under the Moroccan sky, we decided it was time to really start our shaping studio. Still, Niklas had a lot to learn and needed a mentor. Somehow, he found one down in Aljezur, Portugal. Only a week later, he was repairing dings under João’s watchful eye, who taught him everything he knew and even gave him a car. That old legendary Clio, constantly out of motor oil, with non-existent suspensions and a steering wheel so hard to turn, driving it felt like a workout. I went to visit him for a week. Niklas had made a perfect burgundy 5’6 fish board that I tried out in Beliche, for the best sunset session I’ve ever had. It convinced me even more that we had to get Niklas’ boards out there.
But his time in Portugal was limited. He was about to start a three-year carpentry apprenticeship in Heilbronn. Of course, our project didn’t die. As winter arrived in Germany, we moved our operations from the family garden into his dad’s small motorbike garage. It was more like a closet, but we needed a shaping bay and convinced him to store his precious bikes outside. On the wall, the sign that read “Hoheitsgebiet Papa” (“Dad’s kingdom”) quickly disappeared under a thick layer of foam dust. To finally see Niklas shaping with proper tools was amazing. This tiny workshop became our haven, a surf bubble of our own. After work, I would laze around while Niklas was shaping and we would talk about the future of our project – whatever it was at that point –, where we should surf next, and what kind of boards we would bring to test. We were dreaming with eyes wide open, while eating our favorite Vietnamese food from a restaurant called China Wok.
With our first batch of boards ready, we went on what is probably the worst surfing trip in history. Niklas had just got a Lupo 3L as well, from his grandma. He added a roof box to it that could fit six boards. It looked ridiculous on such a small car, but it was perfect. We only had ten days and the conditions were looking very, very bad, but we headed up to France anyway, hoping things would turn around for us. They didn’t. There wasn’t a wave in sight,
and the wind was so strong it was raining horizontally. “You should have been here yesterday,” as they say. We spent the week sleeping in the front seats of our car and eating uncooked pasta with pesto. A café in Zarautz became our shelter. This is where I drew our logo inspired by the pine trees of the Basque Country, and where we picked a name: Otio, a Latin term with many meanings, including "dedicated to leisure.”
A few months later, we were in the shaping room, bathed in blue light. The laptop in front of us sounded like a plane taking off; shape3D – the shaping program we used – had already broken down twice and a Counter Strike window kept popping up, asking if we wanted to play online. We had much better things to do, like trying to develop the perfect shape for my next trip to Morocco. Niklas couldn’t join me this time, as he was finishing his carpentry course. Once I got there, the 5’8 fish board he had made for me was like a magic carpet. I surfed it in all types of weather, until I lost my beloved on the rocks of Banana Beach, due to a bad choice of leash. Let’s not talk about it. The waves were unbelievable, offering so many different possibilities. That trip changed my perspective on surfing. We had to go back together. And so we did, a couple of years later, spending a whole winter there.
This time, we drove down in my grandfather's car, a 25-year-old red delivery truck we called the Red Yak, as it could master all sorts of terrain. We stuffed ten boards into it and journeyed from Germany to Portugal. Everything was going surprisingly well, considering our past adventures, until a storm hit, making it impossible for the ferry to leave Portimão, in Portugal. We were stuck in the harbor for three days, under the pouring rain. Sounds familiar, right? With gigantic waves, the three-hour journey felt like a lifetime. While focusing on my surroundings trying not to throw up, I spotted a group of men praying around a gambling machine, the only space left to lay out their mats. Quite ironic, really. Kids were running around, families shared tea, and all I could think of was that I was unsure whether we were allowed to drive the Red Yak in Morocco or not. It wasn’t registered in my name, after all. I had a weird feeling in my gut.
As the Red Yak touched down on African soil for the first time, we were quickly stopped by an old man wearing a police cap. He asked for the car’s papers and my passport. “Not the same name,” said the officer. I tried to explain. “Not the same name.” He shook his head. I saw it in his eyes that we would never cross the border. He asked us to wait. One hour. An hour and a half. Minutes had never felt so long. He came back, opened the truck, gave a quick and rather disapproving look at our surfboards, and set us on our way, free to roam.
We never knew why. This episode set the tone for the following three months, and probably many more. We got so close to getting arrested that we were determined to embrace our journey fully, and so we did. We met many incredible people along the way, tried out all kinds of boards in all kinds of conditions and found so much inspiration for the future of our small business. Morocco has a magnetic energy for me, with its “DIY” vibes. We might have struggled to find the right materials, tools and places to pursue our crazy dream of making surfboards in the middle of Germany, but things are a whole lot different down here. Nothing comes easily. It takes time, dedication and creativity to succeed. Repairing a surfboard can take weeks, which doesn’t mean the Moroccan surf scene stops to wait for you. Just goes to show, it’s not where you start that counts, it’s where you’re going.
Since then, Niklas moved to the Basque Country where he worked for one of the biggest names in French surfing, before joining a smaller workshop. As for me, I live somewhere in Portugal, on the ocean’s edge. Our project has slowed down, but we’re not giving up on it just yet. And the thousand kilometers that separate us from one another nowadays aren’t going to stop us either.