The Green Room is a series of interviews that I conduct with fellow saltwater fanatics, including up-and-coming brands, surf world personalities and industry leaders. This particular interview is with Joel Stevenson. He’s an Australian surfer and surfboard shaper who now lives in Norway, spending his spare time surfing insane slabs and windblown pointbreaks in what you and I might call f%*cking crazy conditions. Enjoy! (main photo: Chris King)
Joel! I’ve been following you on Instagram for a while and it’s nice to finally chat. Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from? What do you do for a quid?
I was born in 1973 and grew for the first 22 years of my life on North Stradbroke Island on Australia’s east coast. I’ve been surfing since age 5 and it’s been the passion and focus of my life ever since.
Throughout my youth, I had sponsorships and did quite well competitively until a bad fall and dislocating my knee in the surf at age 20. It was a serious injury that I still suffer from today and it really crushed my confidence to chase any further competitive success.
In the early years of my childhood, the island where I lived was a paradise with wild horses still running loose along its white sand beaches. My older brother was actually mauled by one of those beasts when he was a little kid and got the story printed on the front page of the newspaper.
The Island is known for its beautiful beaches and good waves, it also contains a small but very tight surfing community with a boardrider club starting up in the early 70s. That club has produced a lot of talent including pro surfers Bede Durbidge and Ethan Ewing as well as my brother, the shaper and creator/owner of JS Surfboards.
After moving to the southern Gold Coast at the end of the 90s, I started working for my brother’s company learning multiple processes in surfboard construction before moving into full-time sanding for the last 6 years.
I worked at the JS factory for about 10 years until I made my move to Norway in 2009.
And what brought you to Norway? I’m almost positive it wasn’t the weather.
For someone who’s grown up beside a Queensland beach all their life, moving to Norway wasn’t ever a goal. But life and love always have a way of changing your priorities.
My wife and I met in Bali in 1995 but afterwards lost contact for 14 years due to the fact that there were no internet or mobile phones at that time. But fate had its way with us, and we found each other again and fell in love, which led me to where I am now.
How does life up there differ from life in Oz? Obviously, the weather and landscape are at the other end of the spectrum. But what are some other differences?
The differences are so extreme in so many ways.
I’ve always grown up close to a beach where the surfing culture had the most dominant presence in the area. You never had to make plans to meet people for company. You just had to go to the beach that had the best waves and you’d see someone you knew.
It was a comforting feeling knowing you had a common meeting place to socialise. Here where I live in Norway that doesn’t exist at all.
The waves I surf most are in remote places that require a boat to get to, since these were spots never surfed before I started surfing them, they aren’t the kind of places you’d find anyone at.
I live in Portugal and when I’m here I miss certain things about surfing in Australia (uncrowded slab setups and surfing in boardies). But I also miss a lot of things about surfing in Portugal when I’m in Australia. Anything you really miss about surfing in Oz when you’re in Norway and vice versa?
I definitely miss the consistency of surf in Australia, just to be able to go surf after work most afternoons is the best way to end the day.
Also, the beach/surf culture makes it way easier to make friends since everyone has a common interest and a place to meet. But with that surf culture also comes crowds, and usually after a month’s vacation back in Australia I’m starting to miss my little piece of solitude back in Norway.
On the topic of shaping, you were obviously right into it in Australia. How’s it been opening a shaping business in Norway? Do you do it full-time or?
It’s only a small business that I do in my free time outside of my full-time job. I started off by just wanting to make my own boards since it’s both expensive and time-consuming to get boards sent from Australia. Plus, I’ve grown up getting either free boards or swap over deals since age 10 and never paid full price for a board in my life so I wasn’t too keen to start now.
I actually had only shaped a few boards when I was living in Australia, I never felt the need to learn since I could just get my brother to shape one for me. But I had picked up a lot of knowledge over the years watching my bro and other ghost shapers in the JS factory.
As a sander, you also pick up a lot of how a board should feel just from sanding 50 boards a week. It only took me 2 or 3 boards to get a feel for what technique I needed to improve on.
Being able to ride the boards you make definitely helps give you a good understanding of what makes it go and what rocker, concave and rail adjustments are needed. But as for running a business to make boards in Norway, it’s quite complicated.
There aren’t any quality materials to make boards from here and I wanted to focus on building boards made from a combination of high-grade composites that could tolerate more abuse than standard glassed polyester PU boards.
All composites, foam and epoxy had to be searched for and shipped from other countries. Where I was living in Australia it was as simple as driving 10 minutes to pick up everything you need to make a board.
Regarding the boards you make… who would be your core type of customer? The weekend warrior? The confident intermediate? The shred lord or lady?
There’s been a variety of customers wanting boards from all levels but due to the Norwegian economy and prices I can’t compete with board prices in other countries, so I only sell mostly to Scandinavian customers.
I’ve made boards for surfers at lower levels, weekend warriors and also guys from Australia, South Africa and the Canary Islands who live here full or part-time. I’ve also made a few boards for Swedish pro Freddie Meadows as well as a batch of display boards for the international clothing brand, J. Lindeberg.
Are there any special considerations you need to make when it comes to board design for the waves in Norway? I imagine a bit of extra weight and volume would come in handy for those wild and windy offshore days…
There are definitely some changes I’ve been working on for surfers in Scandinavia, especially for those living in areas with inconsistent surf.
Increasing volume is key for surfers wearing thick wetsuits and lacking paddle strength, from my own experience testing boards, you can still get great performance from a board with a huge amount of volume as long as the rail volume is kept in comparison to your body weight. This combination helps get more glide paddling into both really weak and super heavy slab waves.
While we’re on the topic of waves, I’ve heard there are quality setups up there but access and timing are tricky. I also find that the waves at Unstad are quite publicised but you don’t see a whole lot else. Do you have a good variety of waves to choose from?
The country has some amazing surf on its day, but storms move quite fast so most swells only last max 1-2 days depending on the coastline.
Norway has a huge coastline stretching from the Swedish border in the Southeast where I live, around the west coast and all the way up to Finnmark beside the Russian border on the Barents Sea coastline. Unstad at Lofoten is probably most recognized for its amazing pointbreak and beautiful mountain scenery but there are also so many off-the-radar locations waiting for the hardcore explorers.
Can you see surf tourism in Norway growing? Because it looks like a beautiful place to surf but I feel like prices keep most of the pack at bay.
It’s an expensive place to visit but if you do score at some of those out-of-way locations on the west or far north coasts then you’re guaranteed to write it down as one of your best surf trips ever!
How can you beat scoring sick waves with next to no one in the water while looking back at a coastline shadowed by snow-capped mountains?
Places like Unstad are starting to pull in a crowd during warmer months. And the Norwegian surf culture is slowly developing. But the surf tourism industry is still hindered by the costs of travelling here as well as needing to invest in all the cold water rubber.
And what about the Norwegian surf scene… hard to find people to surf with?
Maybe in places like Unstad and Jæren you can always find a crew out if the waves are good but there are still many low-key or secret spots like the ones I usually surf where you won’t see a soul in sight even on the best days.
Let’s say the surf is pumping at one of your local spots. What does a typical day look like for you when the waves are on?
The typical surf day for me involves a quick assessment of the surf charts to make sure everything is still on track. Pack the wetsuit, boots and gloves in an Ikea bag, and pack the dry bag with food, water, fins, wax and a camera. Put all the gear in the car, hook up the trailer with the zodiac and drive down to where I launch the boat and head out to one of the small rocky islands which only offer short and very shallow slabs.
And what type of gear (wetsuits, hoods, booties, the works I imagine) are you rocking?
It’s damn cold here in winter with water temps in my area getting as low as 1-2°C due to the lack of Atlantic current flowing around the waters near Oslo fjord.
When it’s coldest I wear a 6/5mm suit with 7mm boots and mitts, just changing to 5mm gloves when it’s slightly warmer. In summer I still wear a 4/3mm suit, winter boots and 3mm gloves. It’s not so much for needing the warmth in summer but for protection from those shell-covered granite slabs. Surprisingly in summer, the water can get up to 22°C and air temps up to 35°.
Best month or months to surf in Norway?
The best months for surf would be late autumn through to spring on the west coast. Same as the far north, which is probably best in spring and autumn. My area has unpredictable cycles which can prove my claim wrong that the colder months are supposed to be better.
Can you tell me a bit about that Icebox doco?
The Icebox documentary (from Fredrik Harper – watch it here) was a lot of fun and gives a great insight into chasing barrels at a recently discovered slab called the Icebox, which is located in the inconsistent and unpredictable waters of the Oslo fjord region.
I teamed up with Fredrik Harper, a friend and filmer from Oslo who had to travel around 3 hours each way to get to the wave, we tried our best to be out there every time it broke but due to work and other life commitments, we still missed a lot of the best swells over a 2 year period.
Fredrik did an amazing job and I have to give him credit for the number of hours he spent in freezing conditions to try to get enough footage to create the film.
Dream surf trip?
Dream surf trip these days doesn’t always contain warm water destinations. I love Ireland and have had some of the best trips ever over there. Anywhere that’s isolated with the possibility of finding prime quality waves with not a person in sight are the type of trip I dream of.
Shaper that inspires you most?
Other than my brother, who inspires me just because he’s been successful for so many years and makes awesome boards, I’d just have to consider those humble guys that shape at the top level that are willing to share their knowledge and respond to questions asked by inexperienced shapers wanting to improve techniques. Guys like Matt Kazuma from Hawaii are prime examples of this, and a few of the guys that work as ghost shapers for my brother’s brand.
Jack Robbo to take a world title in the next 5 years?
Jack is definitely showing the hunger to win. He’s also got the skill in both small and gnarly waves to take the title but I’d still rather see Ethan Ewing win it since I grew up surfing a lot with his mum and dad, and also watching him as a little grom develop into the surfer he is now. I love his smooth style and aggressive approach with his rails.
Fav surf movie section ever?
I think when I was younger it was all of Slater’s sections in the Taylor Steele movies, but also that Code Red swell edit from Tahiti blew my mind.
Best live act you’ve ever seen?
The best live act was standing on the beach watching Tom Carrol win the 1990 Pipe Masters at maxing pipeline. He was in a league of his own in those days.
Who wins in a surf-off between you and your brother?
Haha… I’ve been kicking his ass since I was 15 years old.
Finally, I can’t let you off the hook without asking about that slab I’ve seen videos of you surfing in Norway. It looks the opposite of user-friendly. What’s the deal with it?
The wave is spot my friend and I found not long after I moved to Norway. I named it the Icebox cause it’s similar to the Box in West Australia. It’s so shallow most waves suck dry, so you really have to read the way each wave breaks to decide if there’ll be enough water over the ledge to make it to the channel.
It scares the hell out of me and I’ve had plenty of days where I’ve only caught one or two waves and ended up paddling in. But there are not many other quality waves breaking with consistency in the area so this is the wave I focus on most. After my knee injury, I don’t get much of a buzz from small weak waves so it’s been perfect to have the type of wave that continuously challenges you to the best of your ability.