Pics: Loco SUP
Joe Thwaites is the brains and brawn behind North East based Loco SUP. A self-styled paddle surfing brand Joe is outspoken, colourful and certainly a personality within UK stand up. Ever one for a good nitty gritty chat we caught up with Mr T for SUPM’s latest Behind the Brand feature.
Tell us about your watery history – how did you get into sports of a moist nature?
I hit the water for the first time when I was about 9 years old! My gran used to pay for my brother and I to get surf lessons down at Saltburn-on-Sea. I also tried windsurfing about the same time but it largely left me cold, as the equipment was massive for my size and pootling about on a lake was a bit lame by comparison. The following years were filled with regular visits to Saltburn to practice and build my water confidence going out in bigger waves.
When I was about 15 years old I got into DJing, so I sold all my surfboards and spent all my available cash on vinyl for the next 10 years! I got right back into windsurfing doing all the usual flat water Vass and Dahab progression trips before testing myself in the waves, hitting places like Cape Verde, Fuerteventura and Morocco as well as maxing out on coastal water time in my native North East and other spots around the UK. I still windsurf with the NWC lads but mainly at the coast in the colder months when the swell is firing and the fan is turned up to 10.
When did you first come across stand up paddle boarding? Did you think it looked cool?
It was through windsurfing that I got introduced to SUP, which lead to me setting up one of the first dedicated SUP schools in the UK. Not sure it looked ‘cool’ and I certainly copped some grief for starting a scene up here in the North East. That said, I thought SUP had great potential for bigger waves – which I thoroughly tried out in my first year of ownership. Nothing like a couple of near drownings to test the limits..
Where did you first learn to SUP?
100% self-taught. I was catching waves in less than 30mins from a standing start. It felt familiar to ‘surfing’ a larger windsurfer i.e easy to catch waves and impossible to turn without ‘very deliberate’ footwork. We all just watched YouTube videos from Hawaii and tried to emulate the guys with varying degrees of success.
Got any fond memories of your time stand up paddling so far?
Plenty! Enjoyed a couple of fantastic winters developing our original range of SUP and short SUPs in Fuerteventura in 2012/13. I regularly shared waves with Iballa Moreno, Olivia Piana, Stephane Etienne, Erik Terien and many other pro water folk before they could actually do any ‘proper turns’. It certainly brought my SUP surfing on in leaps and bounds.
I’ve also spent some quality time in Morocco and its right hand reefs slap a big smile on your face as you throw buckets off the top. It’s cheap and friendly over there too which always helps.
Who are your SUP heroes?
I can’t say I subscribe to hero worship, but there are plenty riders who I respect because they charge massive waves on SUPs or surf with style. Got to love Laird. Apart from that, Leco Salazar is one of my favourite riders and the general standard down in South America is off the hook.
In terms of racing, I find it hard to get excited about anything apart from technical races in and out of the surf. The longer races, although impressive displays of stamina and endurance, aren’t really geared towards the spectator in my humble opinion. That said I’ve been really impressed by some of the UK charity endurance paddlers like Dean Dunbar, Jo H-V and Loco all-rounder Neil Craig.
What about land based activities – anything that gets you frothing like a silky offshore wave?
I still play badminton, enjoy long beach or country walks with our black lab and love visiting new places, usually rough camping in the van with a selection of wind/surf/SUP toys in the back.
Where did the idea for a SUP brand come from?
The brand was born in Fuerteventura working with Witchcraft, so it made sense to give it a Spanish name and Loco seems to tick the box and was short enough for people to remember. Jagermeister might also have had a hand in it.
What appealed about the concept?
The boards I was riding five or six years ago weren’t saying much in the waves, so I thought I could do better. Four months in I had a national champion. Since then we’ve gone from strength from strength, extending our range and attracting interest from all over the world. I still maintain that we make some of the most exciting surf SUPs in the world.
As one of the first home grown UK companies, was it difficult getting things off the ground?
Not as hard as you may think, although being put in touch with Bouke from Witchcraft was a lucky start to my ongoing R&D adventure.
I know there was a lot of resistance when we first started. Thankfully these days we have a base of loyal customers and riders, a much slicker supply chain and those in the know definitely have Loco on their radar.
Talk us through your day to day responsibilities – is it all paddling, testing, paddling or do you have to do some work occasionally?
I used to work over the winter coaching badminton in schools and teach SUP during summer. Learning the basics on flat water isn’t that involved – despite what the various training organisations would have everyone believe. The surfing side can take a lot longer to learn, unless you have a decent coach, so I tend to offer specific surf clinics these days, usually over the colder months either on the East Coast or organise trips away to sunnier climes with more reliable conditions.
In terms of my Loco work, I wear many hats at the moment but that’s set to change as we move into foreign markets. My day can involve everything from coming up with the next shape, to designing the aesthetic of the boards, doing social media and website amends to discussing liability agreements. There’s never a dull moment and, with potential partners all over the world, I’m always emailing or on Skype at all times of the day – which can make ‘sleeping well’ tricky, let’s say!
Loco has come a long way in its short existence – what’s been key to Loco’s success?
I’d say it’s been largely down to my own personal drive, vision and singlemindedness and ongoing support from my family and friends. It’s not easy competing with the marketing machines of more established brands, but quantifiable performance and good value for money always shines through. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t all been plane sailing but I’ve run several businesses to date so this is all just part of the game. I’m just a normal lad from the North East following his passion, have grown up in the water and have served my apprenticeship over 30 years, which you can see and feel in every Loco board.
In terms of change, how’s the sport moved on in the UK? Is it easier to sell SUP gear nowadays?
The sport is almost unrecognisable since the early days. The UK scene still seems to be largely focussed around the south. In terms of selling kit outside the retail network, this has certainly become a lot easier. We tend to get a lot of second purchase customers or crossover watermen/women looking for something different.
Why do you think inflatables are more popular than hard boards in the UK?
I know iSUPs give riders a false impression of ability, so when they bite the hard board bullet it’s almost like starting from scratch from what I’ve seen. I still maintain, as a SUP coach, there’s no reason for anyone to buy a board any bigger than twice their bodyweight in volume unless they’re racing or want to do Yoga.
Any plans to introduce iSUPs to the range?
People seem to like them, so you’ll see a range of key sizes from Loco in 2017. I think the 12’6’’ and 14’ iSUPs make sense; anything shorter has me baffled, but we’ll have a 10’ all-round windSUP and a 7’7’ WW iSUP that will double up as a kids’ board.
There’s a lot a cheap rubbish out there and, with people responding to price in these times of austerity, we’d be foolish not to proceed with caution. Sure, if you live in a shoe box and don’t have a car or want to fly with a board with complete peace of mind, they make sense.
Tell us about how you plan on developing the Loco brand. We’ve seen significant changes in 2016 – what about further plans to evolve, technologically or otherwise.
Don’t want to give too much of the game away… but we’re branching out into other markets, recruiting more foreign riders and will continue to develop product. The branding aesthetic will also evolve. We’ve tentatively moved into surfboards and directional kiteboards, which seem to be getting some positive feedback so we’ll be looking to recruit more talent there.
We’re also looking into UK-based production for specific markets and will be rolling out a premium custom service so if customers want a production model tweaking to their exact requirements, we’ll be able to cater for that moving into 2017.
What’s your most popular piece of equipment?
9’5’’ – 9’11’’ All-rounder aka the Amigo have been our most popular boards since we started, although the new Inca, El Diablo, Aztec and Motions are proving increasingly more popular as sub markets grow in size.
Give us your thoughts on SUP kit in general.
There’s good and bad in every industry and SUP is no different. Having seen some of the £299 iSUPs off eBay and some of the ‘premium carbon race boards’ and everything in between, price can be a helpful indicator but it doesn’t always follow that spending more means you’ll get a better product.
In terms of where the sport is going in general, I worry that the surf side is fast disappearing up its own backside (like windsurfing did) with sinky boards that no one can ride unless it’s glassy calm. Surely the whole point of SUP surfing was to get out there when the waves weren’t suitable for surfing proper? I take my hat off to riders who can balance on super tiny boards, but they scratch more than they catch from what I’ve seen and the turns aren’t noticeably better in 8/10 cases.
In terms of racing, I think there’s still lots of work that can be done. For me, using computational hydrodynamics software to test race shapes in different environments is where it’s at and it’s something we’ll be looking at in the near future.
As far as inflatables go, we’re already seeing brands trying to make them stiffer or retro fit hard rails so we’ll probably see some interesting developments over the next couple of years. Whether they’ll ever replace hard boards…?
I think there’s massive scope for developments with paddles and other SUP accessories and this again is something Loco is looking into. I know there’s a lot a promo around hydrofoils at the moment, which is terrifying. I can see taking a metre high machete into any line up ending in disaster. It’s not like the turns even look that good, even when ridden by the pros. They should remain the bastion of big wave tow in chargers and downwind enthusiasts, unless the whole safety issue can be regulated, in my humble opinion.
Talk to us about your personal quiver – what are you using and why?
I use the 8’9’’ and 9’2’’ El Diablos, depending on which way the wind is blowing. I find the extra length and volume of the 9’2’’ gives me a bit more stability and glide in onshore conditions, whereas the lower volume 8’9’’ works really well on clean days or in smaller waves. I’ve also been enjoying the 11’ Inca over the summer months.
I’ve also just started using the new versions of the Aztec and even the biggest one in the range has me frothing every time I’ve used it. It’s rocket ship fast, to the extent where airs aren’t always optional, and it’s so easy to carve. Even intermediates who’ve tried it have fallen in love instantly. Needless to say, I think it will be a great seller for Loco!
Where’s your local spot? What does it offer stand up paddle boarders?
Tynemouth (honest). I travel for my waves these days so much depends on swell and I try and coordinate with my riders to make sure we get some photos from any killer sessions. I surf everywhere, from Scotland and Northumberland down to Scarborough, Wales and Cornwall. The East Coast has its gems but I’m not giving them up. The search is all part of the fun anyway, right?
Any plans to hit up locations further afield for personal SUP time?
Few plans afoot but again not telling at this stage…
Describe your dream destination – why does it tick the boxes?
Anywhere with sunshine, food that doesn’t put you in hospital, cheap booze and a nice predicable head high reef break will do nicely!
Is it just waves or are you happy paddling all waters?
I’ve given most things a go, bar serious white water. I’d have a stab at that with someone capable to save me from drowning. Thinking more large standing waves than 2” river burp. Launching off waterfalls just looks like a severed tongue in the making if you like sticking yours out as much as I do.
Got any burning SUP ambitions outside of your normal routine?
I’m keen to revisit the whole construction process in terms of materials. I’m sure there are lighter and stronger options available than just using foam and sandwich materials. I’ll be doing some work on this with a university over the coming months. The idea would be to remove the labour intensive process and hopefully migrate production back to the UK.
Outside of getting me nerd on, I’d really like to SUP down the Amazon and test myself in some waves of consequence. I seem to be spending more time on the business side of running Loco rather than actually getting wet, so this needs addressing, work life balance and all that.
Any final thoughts on SUP or Loco?
SUP is a great sport to get into, people who’ve not been bitten by the bug should try it. It doesn’t take years to perfect and you can paddle pretty much year round. Similarly if you’ve not tried a Loco there’s no better time, with constructions better than ever before, shapes to die for and with our price points typically save a bundle. We offer a 12 month no quibble warranty and have some great carbon paddles and accessories, so people can buy with real confidence.
Shouts and thanks?
Thanks to our team of ambassadors and riders both past and present for their competition results, local beach stoke and content creation. Thanks to my family and friends for supporting me through the tougher times. Thanks to the ‘ghost shapers’ we’re currently working with. Thanks for the ongoing support from all our customers, the boards in use photos and videos are always appreciated and we love seeing our gear out on the water where it belongs.