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Interview with Charles Williams of Impact Surfboards

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It’s easy to miss the Impact Surfboards center of operations. Located just over the Indian River from one of South Florida’s most consistently rippable waves and lost among the many boat yards and trailer homes of Ft. Pierce, Florida; the small, nondescript, residential house could easily be the crib of some local fisherman. But instead, secured behind a chain link fence amid the pungent stench of fresh resin exists the nerve center of a surfboard company that has been quietly churning out state of the art equipment and epitomizing the surfing lifestyle for decades.

The Impact “factory” is aptly named since each board is ordered, shaped, and glassed right on the property. Heck, most of them come back to get repaired too. The house is buzzing constantly. Surfers of all ages hang out and talk surfing; kids drop by with their dads to order new boards; trophies for the next local amateur contest are lined neatly in rows inside boxes stacked in the gutted living room. This place breathes and bleeds surfing.

At the center of it all, Charles Williams is getting ready to head out to lunch at the Captain’s Galley. Covered in foam dust from his flip-flops to his fluffy pelt of hair, he looks for his wallet in the “lounge” where the focus is on a videotape of the Billabong XXL nominees. A couple guys kick back on the dusty couch waiting to join Charles for lunch as they do almost every day. They scream joyously as they watch “Skindog” Collins carve across a 20-foot Mexican bomb and then disappear into a menacing barrel. The screams subside and then explode once more as Collins emerges seconds later with arms outstretched.

While giant waves in Mexico and a small surfboard factory in South Florida seem to have very little connection, Williams says that one wouldn’t exist without the other.

“I started shaping so I could surf all the time”, he tells me after lunch as he is carving life out of yet another lifeless surfboard blank.

“I never wanted to let down a boss or let down guys I worked with every time the waves came up. I didn’t want to keep scrambling for excuses to explain why I missed a day of work. I just wanted to go surfing. That’s it.”

That’s been Impact’s guiding principle since the beginning, and Charles plays the card well to everyone’s advantage. While he claims he is not a businessman, Williams has whipped up an unbeatable promotional strategy that has not only created a very profitable business but also afforded him maximum time in the water. He doesn’t just stamp out a ton of cookie cutter boards and hang around surfing the local slop like many shapers. Instead, he experiments with new equipment on the road in some the heaviest waves on the planet, tuning his gear in locales like Hawaii, Mexico, Australia, Costa Rica, Panama, Virgin Islands, and Nicaragua. Williams not only lugs his boards abroad. He pushes them to the edge. Leaving behind a few boards for the local kids, gaining the respect of local rippers, and then injecting this experience into his next batch of shapes has been the formula garnering Impact Surfboards an international reputation.

Impact made its, well, impact back in 1978 when Charles was shaping just a few boards a month for local kids. Since then, he reckons he has shaped some 20,000 boards for surfers all over the planet, while at the same time learning from other shapers he’s met on the road. He spares no admiration for the shapers who have rubbed off on him along the way like Hawaiian icons the Willis brothers and Jeff Bushman as well as a handful of craftsman from South and Central America.

Looking around the shaping room, one wouldn’t guess this guy is on the cutting edge of surfboard shaping. Besides the fact that he rarely wears a face mask or respirator as he scours foam dust into the air, there is also an aura of resistance to the modern world. Old calipers and rusty T-squares hang on the wall like some dentist chair nightmare.

He holds his bulky planer made in the 1950’s up and smiles, “The Skill 100…It’s every shapers dream.”

While shapes coming out of the Impact factory are on the cusp of modern design, Charles doesn’t subscribe to the idea that boards are retail products to be mass produced by just anyone.

“This !@#$ is meant to be hard!” he snips, referring to the time before industry leviathan Clark Foam shut its doors when blanks were being designed with almost all curves already in place.

“Shapers became scrapers. The blanks came all ready to go with just a few swipes needed. Now, blanks are back to their raw form, and a guy has to have skills to shape a board again. Shaping is a craft. It’s not something you can learn from a Shaping 101 video. There are some things you can only learn that from shaping a lot of boards.”

Shaping a lot of boards is what Charles does every day he’s not surfing. But he says that what he does is different from most of the known shapers out there.

“I’m not shaping for surf shops. I’m shaping for surfers…real people with real names who have unique styles and body sizes and surfing goals.”

These individual surfers’ names can be seen scribbled in pencil on the wall, on the wooden saw horses, or on photos lying in the shaping shed.

Name…phone number…nickname…weight…etc.

It’s all a little bit Flintstone-ish, but it has that timeless simplicity that makes old stories better and old cars cooler. Just like Charles’ Skill 100 planer, the Impact Factory has lasted while other local surf shops and shapers have come and gone. But he sees his legacy as something different.

“On my tombstone, I’d rather see the word “surfer” than “shaper”. That’s why I got into this and that’s why I keep doing this.”

Even after over 25 years of shaping and even more surfing around the world, Charles is always looking for that next surfing challenge to stay stoked. Pioneering the use of jet skis to ride the occasionally large swells that barrel down into South Florida and recently exploring islands off the coasts of Costa Rica and Panama have kept him busy lately. But if you think about it, with each surf trip, Charles is insuring the presence of Impact Surfboards. After all, he has to pay for his trips somehow.

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