In the early seventies, Mitchell and a few friends were sitting out at Kuta reef in Bali, waiting for the next set. Kuta was just a small coastal village with no paved roads, no tourists and just a handful of surfers. Idyllic beach breaks could be had all the way to Legian. It was a classic dry season day; trades fanned the overhead swell and the ocean was so transparent you could make out the colourful fish swimming around the reef. A large outrigger with Balinese paddlers approached. Sitting in the centre of the canoe was a white man, in a white suit and a Panama hat. After a few minutes observing the break he undressed, took a surfboard from the bottom of the boat, jumped off and paddled over to the line-up. He sat on the inside and took a set wave. It was Micky Dora. They had a friendly few hours surfing the reef together and, when Micky left, he invited them back to the Bali Beach hotel in Sanur – the only hotel at the time in Bali. He was staying on the top floor with two female companions, the view from the balcony overlooked Sanur reef and in the distance you could see another island, Nusa Lembongan. Micky treated them all on a “borrowed” credit card. Such were the mysterious travels of Micky Dora, one of the earliest surfers to taste the perfect waves of Bali.
Mitchell returned to Bali many times over the following years and honed his surfboard design skills surfing the reef waves there. Along with his mentor, Glenn Ritchie, Mitchell developed a fine eye for the subtle curves that make a surfboard blend perfectly with the curvature of each wave. His fine sleek boards, with the flex-tails that he developed, came to life on the flawless faces of the outer reef waves. Nusa Dua, Uluwatu and Padang Padang became the testing ground for his early surfboard developments.
Mitchell was so impressed by Bali and the Balinese that he incorporated the eyes, that adorn the fishing boats of Bali, to the rails and front of his own surfboard designs. “Balinese folklore instilled the belief that the ocean was filled with evil spirits, so the local fisherman, the majority of whom couldn’t swim, felt the eyes on the front of their canoes protected them from the spirits. – the spirit eyes I call them,” recalls Mitchell. “They encapsulate the quest for the higher level of the surfing experience. It also gives the board a bit of added life – sometimes you check them from different angles and they seem quite alive.”
Back in Australia, after an early stint building surfboards at Palm Beach, he and Glen moved to the open country space of Nana Glen, near Coffs Harbour, and that became their base for several years. The country soul lifestyle was blossoming – George Greenough, Chris Brock, Garry Keyes and Bob McTavish were living in an abandoned old farm house not far from Angourie, shaping their own boards in between surf sessions at the point. Nat Young had bought a farm not far from Broken Head. The exodus from the city was beginning as more surfers realised the incredible unridden point waves available on the north coast. Living was cheap and waves were plentiful. The hills of Byron were alive with the sound of surfers – all trading their conservative city lives for a “lifestyle” of country bliss.
The designs Mitchell and Glen developed in those early Nana Glen and Bali days, particularly the early exploration of concaves, are still relevant in board design today. They never tried to promote their designs, preferring to remain “underground” and rely on “tried and tested” and “word of mouth” to circulate their boards.
“My aim is to generate speed and to create a surfboard that has the ability to use it. The faster you go, the more you can do with your board. It’s about accessing more speed quickly. Concave flex-tails allow you to take off late on a wave, and just snap it around using the recoil energy of the flex – off one turn you can generate great speed,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell is probably one of the most underrated designers in the world today. His board are made to suit the individual surfer’s style – all are precisely hand-shaped and finished with loving care. To own and surf an Outer Island surfboard is equivalent to having a classic piece of art in your hands. Energetically, they are so far ahead of most factory boards produced today.
Recently, Mitchell hand-shaped a small, flex-tail fish, with a full iconic Buddha image on the bottom of the board, and Tibetan writing and the OM symbol on the top. Every aspect of the board was carefully and methodically made – even the hand-made fins had inlays of Tibetan writing in them. When checking the energetics of the board, its magnetic field reached out 14 metres from the board – most machine-shaped surfboards today would have a magnetic field closer to 2 metres. The subtle benefits of high-energy boards in the line-up are very healthy – not only for the surfers you are surfing with, but for your own well-being and enjoyment as well.
Over the past few years, Mitchell has moved more into painting canvases of tropical island scenes and perfectly shaped waves. Many of his boards are airbrushed with designs in keeping with the colours and flow of the ocean. He has maintained a high degree of spiritual integrity with his shaping and painting often under trying economic and financial restraints, and now is moving closer to his dream of shaping just a few boards each year – enough to keep his interest. He would be happy living in a grass shack somewhere in the tropics, painting images of waves breaking over coral reefs and beautiful Island vistas for the rest of his life, and somehow I think that dream is not far off. His family is growing up and moving out and it appears he will move out, as well. Or, rather, move back to the things he loves the most. God knows he deserves it.
Mitchell has spent the best part of his life shaping surfboards so that others could enjoy what he loves most – surfing. He has comprised many waves in doing so. How he has survived in one of the most toxic industries is way beyond me but, in doing so, he has unknowingly built up an abundance of karma in providing hundreds of thousands of hours of happiness for others. And I am one of those who can never thank him enough for the creativity, the beauty and pure joy I received from his boards. Some of the most memorable and beautiful waves I have ever ridden were on his boards, at Sanur in Bali. I wonder if he realised, when he was with Micky Dora many years ago and overlooking Sanur reef from the top floor of the Bali Beach hotel, that his boards would be speeding down the line of those perfect barrels… Maybe he did. Maybe he knew all along that that’s what his boards were made for. Thanks Mitchell for taking me there.