Surf-loving Portrush brothers on the crest of a wave
Three investers interested in ‘next generation’ of surfboards from their Skunk Works company in Coleraine
The Martin brothers know that soft learner boards – foamies – are very buoyant and help beginners to catch waves, but they can be very vulnerable to the elements
Breaking the mould is something that comes naturally to Chris and Ricky Martin. The surf-loving brothers from Portrush might not look like innovators at first glance, but the fact that three serious financial backers are knocking at the door of their young start-up shows otherwise.
The Martins are doing something that has never been done before locally – designing and producing what they describe as the “next generation” of surfboards at their Skunk Works surfboard company in Coleraine.
The entrepreneurs behind Northern Ireland’s first surfboard company recently caught the eye of some of the surf industry’s leading players during a sales and investment trip to California. Imagine Californians one day using surfboards engineered by two Portrush entrepreneurs – that alone breaks all the moulds.
Chris and older brother Ricky grew up surfing daily around Portrush. For Ricky it has become his livelihood – he owns the well-known Alive Surf School in the seaside town.
A chance conversation between the brothers in Ricky’s garage sparked the beginning of a business idea which has married passion with entrepreneurial flair. They were discussing the condition of the various learner surf boards which Ricky’s surf school and virtually every other similar venture uses to help beginners master the art of surfing.
Beginners’ boards are generally made from foam. These soft surfboards – or “foamies” as they are called – are very buoyant and help beginners to catch waves. But, as the Martin brothers knew from experience, those soft boards can be very vulnerable to the elements and take quite a bit of abuse day in day out in a busy surf school.
“Some of them may only last a couple of months before they start to disintegrate,” Chris says, “and they all suffer from the same problems. The glue used to produce them starts to deteriorate and then the core polystyrene suffers. As you can imagine, none of this is particularly environmentally friendly either.”
A throwaway remark by one of the brothers that “there must be a better way” got both thinking that they could be on to something. Chris started his research there and then.
“We knew surfing – and we knew what the problem was with the boards – so we just thought ‘right, how do we fix it?’, Chris adds. “That’s really where it all began. At the start we didn’t know really anything about alternative materials so I spent three months on a computer learning about foam and then I started sourcing new materials and thinking about how we might create a new board that solved all the old problems.”
Because Ricky had previously dealt with problems created by traditional foam surfboards every day, he knew exactly what they needed to achieve with their product. Both brothers also had a very clear idea of what they did not want their surfboards to be but, because they were trying to create a new generation of foam surfboard, they literally had to build the tools to achieve this.
Chris says: “Nobody was doing what we wanted to do so we got together with a local engineering company, Hutchinson Engineering, and custom-designed and built machinery to start off with.
“The fact that we weren’t engineers or had any specialist knowledge to start off with actually helped us because when someone said that won’t work, we just got around the problem in another way. It was all an open book to us.
“Our whole process is custom designed – we don’t use any glues or adhesives in our production, we only use hot air to make our boards – and we now have a patent pending in the United States and are just about to get our patent application finalised in the UK and Europe. There are a number of problems we have solved in a totally unique way that we know will revolutionise how soft surfboards are made.”
He says what makes the Skunk Works surfboards different from competitors are the materials that they use. Their foam creates a surfboard that is the “equivalent of a yoga matt on steroids”.
“It makes for a very comfortable deck to lie on and gives you a rash-free surf, especially if you are learning in warmer climates,” he adds. “It can withstand temperatures from the coldest place on the planet to the hottest, and it won’t be affected by salt water or by UV rays. The material we use for the edges of the board called the ‘rail’ is super-lightweight, hard-wearing and made in a completely different way to other foams.”
So far the start-up has been self-financed and funded by investment from E-Synergy but all of that could be about to change as Skunk Works’ s first custom-built surf boards hit the market shortly. Judging by the level of enthusiastic inquiries the Martin brothers have received, they may just be about to enjoy their first wave of success and they have their eyes peeled for the next.
“We didn’t go looking but three potential investors approached us and offered us money – which is a really good thing because we do need some more money for the next stage of our plans,” Chris says. “All we’ve got to decide now is who would be best for us to go with.”