It’s 11 am and Werner Gnigler is just driving to work. It’s my fault he’s late as he usually begins by 8. My plane into Cape Town was delayed so Gnigler was forced to wait at the airport to pick me up, but he is friendly and polite and insists that it is not a problem since he doesn’t have to be anywhere at a particular time. Nonetheless, I get the sense that Gnigler has a preplanned mental agenda for the day that will have to be revised.
THE 30 YEAR OLD Austrian spends three months a year in Cape Town, South Africa fulfilling the board design duties in his role as a product manager for F2. Gnigler is the man behind the boards whose names have become well known to recreational sailors; Comet, Axxis, Xantos, Phoenix. Gnigler is reluctant to take credit for it, but many of his designs have helped guide the development of the sport of windsurfing.
This winter, he is working on developing the Phoenix, a completely new all-around board for F2. As we drive toward the monolithic Table Mountain which thrusts up over the country’s oldest port, Gnigler explains that he usually has to build three or four boards in the span of three months in order to get the design right. Once it is correct, he sends it to the factory to be put into production. It means a busy schedule and a lot of pressure to create a good product, especially since his signature goes on the tail of every board.
Gnigler’s cellular phone chirps and he answers. It’s his importer, calling to say that the next generation of his prototypes for F2’s “Arrows” sail line, which he also designs, have cleared customs and are ready to be picked up. Arriving downtown, we pull into a parking garage at the ground level of a building and pick up the four big boxes that have just arrived from China. We load them into the back of the van and drive a few blocks to the building that serves as Gnigler’s office, storage area, and workshop.
Gnigler has been working on product development virtually since he began windsurfing. After his parents took the family for their first windsurfing lesson in Austria 19 years ago, they bought boards immediately. Soon Gnigler was windsurfing as much as time allowed. By the time he was 13, he was already third in the Austrian ranking. After an unsuccessful attempt at the Olympics, he changed to funboard racing and began sailing for F2. While racing production boards, Gnigler always wanted to improve his equipment in order to have an advantage over his competitors. In 1985 he began giving directions to the developers at F2. When he was twenty-one, F2 was bought by new owners. Because Gnigler had been involved in all of their development projects, from accessories to boards, they asked him to join the company. “In the beginning, I wasn’t too keen to do it because I still wanted to race, but then you can’t do both,” he says. “Your head has to be focused on something if you want to do it well. If you do both, you can’t do either well.”
The building where Gnigler works is nondescript, save for a few blocks of discarded foam and the faint smell of resin. I would never have guessed that this was the birthplace of sailboards. In fact, the smell of resin is coming from the back of the building, where owner and former pro-surfer Johnathan Paarman, oversees the production of fiberglass truck caps and catamaran hulls. When Gnigler and I arrive to begin work on the second prototype board, Johnathan is instructing a worker on the correct way to cut fiberglass cloth. For Gnigler, the first prototype of a board like the Phoenix requires a completely new concept. At a marketing meeting earlier in the year, a decision was made on the characteristics that the new board should have, and the rest was left up to Gnigler. “On a new design, we must first determine what the dimensions will be so that the board will be balanced. If you work on an existing board, you already have the right dimensions and you know how the volume distribution works. You just have to refine it.”
The block of foam that Gnigler is measuring now will be the second prototype for the new board. Because the rocker line of the first prototype he built felt good when he tested it, he decides to use the same template for this second prototype. I help him drag the hot wire through the foam, being careful to keep the wire close to the template. When the wire is free of the foam, what is left looks like a big square surfboard. Gnigler explains that he will need to improve the volume distribution on this prototype since it’s going to have a daggerboard and will need more volume in the front.
We place the foam piece into the back of his already loaded van, on top of the first prototype, a couple of shortboards and the many boxes of sails. The van is just as crucial to the process as the measurements of each board, because it is used to transport all of his material from place to place. As we are driving full speed down the highway to the Town & Country surfboard factory, where Gnigler has managed to get a room which is just large enough to do his shaping work in, a man runs out across the road in front of the van. Gnigler locks up the brakes, swerves, and just misses hitting the man, who keeps running, unphased, across the pavement. “He’s probably drunk, and just going home,” says Gnigler, a little shaken by how close we actually came to hitting the man. Gnigler points across the street to a shanty town built right beyond the edge of the busy route.
The sight of the township reminds us that we are in South Africa. Gnigler recalls an incident that serves as a reminder as well. A couple of years earlier, just as Gnigler had finished his prototypes, his van was stolen with all of his final products in the back. Three months’ worth of work, gone. Apparently, mini-vans are popular for use as taxis to and from the shanty towns and often get stolen. As Gnigler tells me the story, he has an air of “this shit just happens here, you know?” As for the prototypes, initially Gnigler was a little upset, but it was not a big problem since he still had all of his templates and measurements. He was able to go back and re-build the final product again. The contents of the van were eventually found by police in a helicopter who spotted a bunch of colorful sails strewn about in a junk heap on the edge of town. The monofilm in the sails had all disappeared, most likely used for windows in township shanties.
By the time we get to the factory, the highway incident is forgotten. Inside, the building is covered in foam dust. Rows of beautiful new surfboards line the walls, and from another room, we can hear the sound of a planer screaming through foam filters beneath the door. The piece of foam that we carry up the stairs just barely fits through all of the doorways and around the corners in the halls. It also just fits into the room where Gnigler’s templates are stacked neatly in a corner. Since there is only space for one person in the room, I observe and take photos while he works, from a recessed windowsill. From my position, I can see the water, which doesn’t show any sign of wind. Gnigler, absorbed, measures, makes a few notes, measures again, draws a cutting line and measures again. He is patient and meticulous, a discipline that will save him time later.
For a surfer or windsurfer, there is something romantic about a place where the boards that we ride are born. Perhaps it’s the need to believe that a boardmaker’s craft is the highest form of art. “There’s no art involved,” admits Gnigler, bursting my bubble. “It’s all measurements. In the old days, they used to say that shaping was an art, but I think that every good craftsman who knows how to handle tools, and given perfect measurements, could build a perfect board. It’s just finding the dimensions; that’s the hard part. You have to be critical, measure everything, analyze the numbers, and then you can build the board. Once you’ve got the numbers, it’s just work, it’s no art or feeling. You don’t just shape it, you construct it.”
The din of the planer in the shaping bay next door subsides and a thin, shirtless, foam-dust-covered man appears holding the curves of a thin, modern surfboard in his hands. Gnigler’s big block of foam looks neanderthalish in comparison. It’s hard to envision what it will finally become. We move our mammoth block into the bay and Gnigler checks his measurements one last time before cutting the outline. Just as the cutting is finshed, there is a knock on the door, and the shaper who had just left appears with a new piece of foam, essentially kicking us out. Gnigler negotiates for some time to work in the bay the next afternoon, and we put the templates and tools away calling it a day.
Gnigler’s schedule, although inconsistent, is intense. Every day there is something different to work on. Since he is often dealing with long drying times for epoxy, sometimes he only goes in for an hour in the morning and evening just to put some laminate or coats of resin on the boards. Other days, he spends all his time shaping or glassing. When he’s not working on boards, Gnigler works on testing and designing sails for F2’s Arrow brand. Although he does not take part in the construction (Neil Pryde in Hong Kong produces the sails), Gnigler is responsible for testing each generation of sails, working out adjustments to the profile on paper and sending the updates to Neil Pryde to be cut and sent back to him.
Typically, Gnigler’s season starts with ISPO, the big show held in Germany in August. “We look at all the products and check to see what’s happening in the market. Then we have our big marketing meeting where we decide on our product lines. That’s the start of our development season. After this meeting, we finalize our lines and start working with the boards and sails. This year, I went to Hawaii in October to work on the concept of the sails. We put the first one or two products together and then moved on to the next generation. I come here and begin working with the boards and try the newest sails. When I finish, I go back to Maui and complete the sails. By April, it’s springtime in Europe-that’s when we start introducing our products at the shops and dealer meetings and the customers start using the new stuff. In May, I go to China to approve the sails. All of the final designs have to be approved before production. In June, we still have several dealer meetings. We also do a lot of pre-production testing. Once the products have been constructed, we try them out again to make sure that everything is perfect. Then we are back at ISPO again.”
It’s about dinnertime when we arrive at the oceanfront townhouse that Gnigler shares with his girlfriend, Astrid. Astrid is also Austrian, but was brought up in Cape Town. Gnigler’s testing partner and housemate for a few weeks, professional sailor Didi Kornelli, is in the kitchen, attempting to fix a clogged drain. It is quite a sight to see the 6’4” Kornelli trying to maneuver a pipe wrench in the confines of a kitchen cupboard. Ever practical, Gnigler assesses the situation and is soon feeding a garden hose through the window, intending to unclog the drain with water pressure. The result is a wet kitchen and a drenched Gnigler and Kornelli. They laugh uncontrollably while the drain is still clogged. Walking over to the phone, Astrid dials the plumber.
Out of necessity, it looks like we will be going out for dinner. Before we leave, Gnigler advises Didi of the possibility of testing the new sails if the wind blows in the morning. Gnigler is a planner who likes to be prepared, especially when it comes to having a product that will stand up to the often subjective nature of some of the tests that magazines will put his products through. What if the tests come out negative? “It’s difficult because sometimes a bad review can kill a product, which I don’t think is right. If you look at the big manufacturers, they all want to have good products, so every product has a little advantage to it, but at the end of the day they are all OK products. The magazines shouldn’t have the power to kill a product.” Although Gnigler has yet to have a bad test result, he characterizes his success in the tests as being “Lucky.” “My boards have always gone quite well, because if you do your homework, and test properly, you’re prepared. Even if a magazine has bad conditions for the test, we are okay because we also test in shitty conditions, just to make sure that the product works everywhere. There’s always a small chance that they will give me a bad review and then we would have a problem.”
But for now, there is no problem. Sitting next to Astrid, he says with a laugh and a smile, “I’m very happy. No complaints! I think that working in windsurfing is work like any work, but it’s nice to make your hobby your job.”
I agree with him.