The FreeSurf Interview By Andrew Oliver

For those who are relatively surf-savvy, Ryan Burch is a name they’re quite familiar with. Burch has been one the most influential surfer/shapers of the last decade, pushing the boundaries of creativity in the water and the shaping room. Nearly a decade out from his debut on the world stage, it is clear to see the reverberations of Burch’s influence in the ascending popularity of alternative surfboard design, and the unique styles of waverding those boards facilitate. There is likely no surfer who is as strongly associated with their equipment, especially boards that they shaped themselves, as Burch is with his innovative designs. From his Rainbow Fish in Psychic Migrations, to the black-railed asyms from his sessions at G-Land and Cloudbreak, to the sawed-off chunk of raw foam he famously rode to surprising success, Burch has created seemingly unorthodox equipment to explore the limits of his surfing. The catch is, he’s proven them to work, time, and time again.

A majority of that proof has come by way of Volcom’s widely acclaimed 2015 full-length surf film Psychic Migrations. Burch’s electric surfing in the dreamy sand-groomed points of Chile, on self shaped equipment, won the hearts of viewers, making him the unlikely star of one the most impactful films of the new millenium. FreeSurf Photo Editor Brian Bielmann, who shot photos of the auspicious Chile trip which would provide the entirety of Burch’s footage for the film, witnessed first hand the incredible surfing display that would later reverberate through the surfing world.

“I don’t think any of us realized at the time that it was a super important trip,” remembers Bielmann. “We were just stoked because we were in such a beautiful place. The local people were so cool to us. Burch had already created a relationship with the people, the surfers that lived there, and the shapers.” Burch’s natural ability to forge a deeper bond whether it’s with people, a place, the waves, or his equipment is a trait that Bielmann picked up on quickly, and would shine through later with the release of the film. “He was just on this whole other wavelength,” said Bielmann. “I think all of that came through with the movie and people realized just how unique and creative he is as a surfer and a person.”

There was a lot of serendipity to Burch’s rise. At the time, the culture was ripe for a shake up. The competitive end of the spectrum was becoming increasingly homogenized with the commercial aspirations of the WSL. While surfing has always had its share of iconoclasts, Burch wasn’t out to “Bust down the Door,” so to speak. He was on a journey to discover his full potential as a surfer and surfboard designer. And, through his unpretentious spirit we were all the more willing to join him on his trip. “I remember at the beginning of the trip, I heard that classic song, “King of the Road” playing downstairs at the place we were staying at. I thought, ‘That’s an odd song to hear on a surf trip with a bunch of young pros.’ I walked downstairs to find it was Burch. I heard his music collection and the selection he was playing and instantly decided that I loved this guy!”

“We had such a good crew on that trip, with Nate Tyler and Ozzie Wright,” Bielmann continued, “their distinct personalities, everyone was so interesting to be around. And, obviously those guys are amazing surfers, but Burch stole the show. There was so much creativity coming out of him. It was one of those times when somebody’s so connected, you know what I mean? Everything that he did seemed to flow perfectly. From shaping those boards on site. And then, riding them in those waves. It was the most creative surfing I had seen in a long, long time.”

Now that the world isn’t quite on lockdown as it was, have you been on any trips or have you got anything planned?
I’ve been pretty stationary for the last couple years, getting back in touch with my roots here in Southern California, but I have some things on the radar for sure. And I wanna start traveling a lot. I just recently bought a house, so I’ve been doing a bunch of home renovation projects and stuff that keeps me at home. So I’ve been enjoying my time here, but definitely looking to get the show back on the road again soon.

As you’ve been at home, are you just staying in your zone or are you doing road trips up north or down in Mexico? Or, are you just really keeping it super local?
I’m usually looking to go on a couple of road trips a year to chase surf on the west coast. I like going up anywhere north of point conception where it’s a little more exposed to winter swells and getting some more juicy surf up there. But, aside from a couple strike missions up north and maybe the occasional Baja trip, I just mostly stick at home and surf local and kind of surf the same spots around Seaside.

I guess the beauty of what you do is that you have equipment for any condition?
Yeah, totally. And just living down here. I mean, it’s easy to test longboards and to ride fishes and small wave boards, but it definitely forces me to travel when I want to test good wave equipment or guns or anything like that.

I would imagine there’s probably a pretty solid demand for your boards. How have you managed that? Are you spending a lot more time in the shaping room than before?
I like to go in consistently like four days a week and, and put like six hours in or something like that. But, the whole running the business and keeping up on orders and organization and all that stuff is another thing. And so I’ve been working on trying to streamline my program a little bit and just be more efficient with my orders and my time management and stuff. The demand just got so high after COVID and the prices of everything went up to build a surfboard. So the industry has undergone a lot of changes recently, so I’m just trying to stay current with it. And everyone’s charging a little more, so boards are getting more expensive, but I’m still spending the same amount of time on each one and trying to keep the quality high over anything else. The boards that I am shaping are going through the glass shop with a small crew of people who work on my boards. So there’s still a pretty long waiting list, even though I’ve been closed, in terms of taking orders, for eight months trying to catch up.

More demand than you could really ever keep up with.
More demand than I’m capable of keeping up with. And sometimes it gets a little bit draining when all your friends want their boards too, and then you’re trying to pump out customs. That can get outta hand pretty easily.

What’s it been like to see the increased awareness and interest into the type of equipment that you’ve really pushed the boundaries with? I’m sure there was a time where people weren’t paying much attention to what you’re doing. And now, there’s more demand than you can even keep up with. What has that transition been like for you over the years?
It’s pretty wild to see it unfold before my eyes, like you said, it was something at first there wasn’t much attention paid to it. I was surfing all sorts of alternative stuff and people just thought that these wacky designs only worked for me because I was an adaptive surfer. And now seeing the designs pushed into the mainstream and pushed into the quivers of some of the world’s best surfers, it’s pretty wild to see what sort of performance enhancements a narrow twin fin, for example, might have to someone who surfs at the top level. It’s a nice step into the future. I’m glad that I could spark the fire for a lot of people to try different stuff, because it obviously works for a wide range of surf styles.

Are there any design elements that have got you really sparked to work on right now?
Yeah, I’ve been messing a lot with different sorts of channels in the bottom contours and I got a couple basic outlines and dimensions that I’ve been running with for a while. So it’s kind of a subtle adjustment at this point. I have my high performance board and I’m just trying to tweak on little things and tune it up to make it that much more of a complete package – with speed and versatility. So just trying to refine those boards. Also, I’m getting psyched on the idea of trying other technologies, because there’s a lot of stuff out there now. And just to be hands on with some alternative sort of board builds and see if I can find something that is as exciting as the polyurethane boards I’ve been riding for the last decade or so.

Think about the ebbs and flows surfers go through in their lives, in terms of staying motivated. Being that you have, not only the board building, but also the competency to ride all these different types of equipment, you have access to so many avenues in surfing, has that helped feed the fire over the years?
Yeah, for sure. The fact that I can go jump on a longboard when the waves are one foot and clean, have a challenge at hand and it’s something that I’m interested enough to push myself in and that it totally gets me involved, is I think a unique situation. And I often think how lucky I am that I have the board building knowledge to where I feel I need to go surfing so that I’m doing my research, that I’m keeping up on what I can change. Yeah. It’s an interesting way that surfing’s crept into my life and been this endless source of inspiration and energy. It gets me all rejuvenated. Yeah, it’s wild.

Talking about riding your own designs, I know for a lot of shapers surfing their own boards can at times take the fun out of a session. As they’re so focused on the design, and what they put into it, and what they hoped to get out of it. But, watching you surf, you seem like a free spirited surfer who’s not so much in their head and is really present in the moment. How do you balance that mindset of Ryan, the designer, and Ryan, the surfer?
It has its ups and downs. I’ve definitely had my moments where I feel the pressure big time as I’m trying to always push myself and always do better. You have your own standards and I definitely am my own biggest critic. I try to enjoy it and learn new stuff from it. And, I’m kind of getting at an age where I’m not so performance driven so that stress starts to lift off me and I’m just riding boards and trying to assess it realistically, and better my ability to create what I’m thinking.

I feel like it bounced back and forth. I use the shaping bay to boost me back up when I’m not surfing well, and vice versa. I mean, there’s pressure there, but I’ve been trying to learn how to deal with it.

This kind of goes back to your designs and equipment, and those influences becoming more mainstream. Obviously, Psychic Migrations, (2015 Volcom Surf Film) was a huge thing, in terms of exposing you to the greater surfing world. And looking back on it, there hasn’t really been a film or an event in the free surfing realm that has had as much impact since then. What’s it like, having been a part of that, and becoming a much wider known surfer as a result of it? What’s that been like for you? Is that something you ever really expected?
No, it’s nothing that I ever expected. It’s strange how the stars aligned with that. And it reached so many people and seemed to change so much stuff. I’m really happy that I had that experience and got to share a moment in my surfing timeline where things were really clicking and to share the experience as well. I think the fact that I built the board there on site and I had my own personal experience that gave me that much more inspiration to go out and surf that board well in front of a camera. I’m just really stoked to have had that opportunity to shine and have gotten the waves we did and everything to fall into place. I definitely think that all the popularity from one thing like that is something I wasn’t really ready for. And, I never thought that all of a sudden I’d be a really well known surfer for that, or for anything really. So yeah, it’s kind of crazy in that regard.

But, it all kind of goes in waves, and I hope that it will just inspire the next generation to push the limits of design and push their own limits surfing. Together it can really create something unique. It’s nice when someone’s got the whole thing going on, they’re pushing design, they’re surfing it well, and they’re doing it themselves and focusing on the craftsmanship. And yeah, I’m stoked to be able to share that and give the youth that inspiration.

You have worked with Volcom for a long time, and they arguably make some of the best surf movies of the last few decades. Ryan Thomas, “RT,” the director of their recent films is widely celebrated as one of the best surf film makers in the business. And, this I feel goes along with the stars aligning for you in your surfing and shaping. What’s that feeling like to be in the hands of a master, like RT, and a company that really puts an effort behind their films?
That was the whole lure with riding for Volcom when I was at a crossroads and I was starting to get sponsored for doing what I wanna do. I had a relationship with RT already and I know him well and I love his vision and I love the way that he likes to portray surfing. So that made my decision pretty easy and to get the opportunity to work with him is pretty special. To ride for a company that’s as supportive of what I do over all these years as they’ve been, it has really helped me to be able to push what I do and I am super thankful for the work that I’ve had with them over the years and super stoked to been able to make some movie magic with RT.

Talk a bit about the community you grew up in and how it has influenced you as a surfer/shaper?
Growing up here in the late 90s and early 2000s, there were a lot of people riding different boards at that time. Fishes were making a big resurgence into surfing in general, but there was always that tradition here in San Diego and Southern California. Lots of people around here kept the boards from the past alive by riding them all the time. You’ve got your local legends here and they’re on their old classic logs and they have their seventies single fin guns. And, they’re applying different designs to different sorts of wave conditions. The waves here are pretty playful and forgiving. Growing up you’re kind of encouraged to experiment because the standard surfboard isn’t ideal for how slow our waves are. And then the big attraction from that point was to see if those boards would work when they’re applied to somewhere like Indonesia or somewhere with a little more juice.

That was where I wanted to push myself and to travel with boards that were inspired by the boards that I grew up seeing, those classic San Diego designs, and see if I could tweak them and make them work in all these other places around the world in a variety of conditions. So that was probably the biggest challenge for me.

You had that amazing trip to Chile, for Psychic Migrations, and some pretty remarkable edits from sessions on your own experimental equipment at G-Land, the Mentawais, and Tavarua as well. What’s that feeling like for you, when you’re surfing is really clicking and you’re on boards that you’ve shaped? And it’s worth noting, these shapes are quite different from what the other guys you’re traveling with are riding. What’s that feeling like, to be in those amazing waves, on your own boards, and everything is in sync?
Yeah. That’s the dream right there, the dream I’m chasing at least. It’s obviously really nice when everything’s clicking like that. I’m stoked to make something that suits the way that I surf. There may have been a point in my life when I could have really focused on training, mental strategy, or competition strategy. Instead I shifted my head to being interpretive of design and trying to listen to what the board was telling me. To solve my surfing weaknesses by designing features in my board that I can make better. So I never consciously sat there and thought about how I could shift my weight differently on a late drop to make it so I stick to the face and don’t get pitched. My approach was I need to make my nose have this channel in it so that I can enter the wave at a later point. And that was how I was pushing my surfing, it was through my design. And, so once that started to click and I started to surf the way I wanted to, that’s when it really all started to connect.

It’s super interesting to think about it like that. With a standard high performance shortboard, there’s obviously so many benefits to what that design can do, but you really do have to adapt your surfing to it in a lot of ways to get the best out of it. But you’re approaching it in the reverse, and adapting your equipment, radically at times, to you.
I was lucky that my skill set with my tools was at the level to complement what I was coming up with design wise. And, taking everything I’ve learned from riding different sorts of stuff and really trying to question everything with my equipment.

Has there ever been a moment on any of these filming trips, where one of the other guys, who’s on standard equipment, is seeing you on your designs having the time of your life, and they say, “Hey, can I get on one of those?”
Oh for sure. All the time. More and more now that people trust the wacky stuff to work.
Also, there are a lot of times when the guys I’m traveling with are riding normal thrusters, they’re kinda looking for a different sort of wave than I was too. So I could shine in the down days of the trip, at times. When it’s just waist high and peeling. It’s perfectly suited for the fish in my board bag.

I’ve had a lot of good opportunities to get good clips on the random days or even riding a longboard. Traditionally, Volcom was never a company that would promote any sort of long boarding or anything like that. As I’ve naturally progressed in my own realm of surfing, they’ve continued to support me. To the point where they wanted to put a long boarding clip of me in one of their movies. I think that’s kind of interesting too, where I could just go on a trip to a one foot point break and get some clips and hopefully inspire people.

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