Originally from Tynemouth in the North-East of England, Gabe Davies is one of those intrepid adventurers to have braved the cold northern waters. While his school buddies were all going crazy over football, Gabe dreamt of becoming a pro surfer. Thanks to his parents’ support and his own dedication, he gradually made a name for himself early on and was spotted by Quiksilver, a brand he would spend 20 years working with. A fervent environmentalist to the core, in 2013, he joined Patagonia, where he found a true calling.
Gabe, where did you grow up?
Tynemouth, in North East England. The nearest city to me is Newcastle, which is a football mad city. The Surf community here has always been counter culture, the water is cold, with waves on reefs and beaches on our doorstep.
What did you dream of becoming?
Being a pro surfer was always a dream, but I never thought it would actually happen. The North Sea is far away from the key surf zones of South West UK or France. Going back to the 90’s the surfing world was a very different place, but I had support from my parents to jump outside of my local area. I then progressed nationally against the best surfers in the country, and from there took on Europe.
Where did you get your passion for surfing?
Diving into the North Sea was a world away from my Football mad school and it gave a totally different perspective on the world. Surfing was so underground, we were a secret tribe, with a full coast to explore. We were following in the footsteps of some very inspirational and colorful pioneers.
You turned your passion into a career. How was this calling born?
There were some great surfers in my generation, and the British Surfers were taking European titles and were a stronger force in the competitive scene than they are today. As a young surfer I was pushing myself to make a mark in that world. Sponsorship allowed me a pro surfing career, which on paper, what was once an outside chance, actually become a reality.
How did getting support from a brand as significant as Quiksilver make a difference for you?
I won the national Under16s and then my first pay check came in just as I was deciding to either go to University at 18. With that support, I booked a ticket to Hawaii and chased the dream of surfing some really big waves. That journey lasted over 20 years, and culminated with pioneering waves like Mullaghmore, and being part of the first Tow Surf scene of Europe and some XXL big wave award nominations. I started with Quiksilver when it was just a handful of people in a small warehouse, I saw the growth of that company when it was really the coolest team to be part of.
“The environmental work […] was just as inspirational or as important to me as pro surfing and performance in the water.”
When did you decide to stop your career as a pro surfer?
Towards the end of my time at Quiksilver I saw some of the best people leaving the company, and I began to question the bigger reasons for being based in South West France and what was the most important thing to me and my family. The environmental work by inspiring groups like Surfers Against Sewage, was just as inspirational or as important to me as pro surfing and performance in the water. I didn’t see the surf industry taking that environmental movement as fast, or as forward, as I’d have liked.
What did you do next?
Having friends like the Malloy Brothers, aligned with Patagonia, an outdoor brand, which was doing more good than any of the surf companies had ever done was an eye opener. At the time the brothers stepped away from Billabong and Hurley to grow Patagonia surf. I was lucky enough to be in the right place, at the right time, when the European team was looking for someone to grow their Surf category at sea level, to complement the reputation they already had in the mountains.
Today, you work for a leading Outdoor brand. Can you tell us about it and what you do?
So many of the staff both in Europe and Ventura surf or Kite Surf the link between outdoor, snow and surf is really blended now. My role sits between marketing, sales, product and the environmental groups that have a surf focus. I support our sales teams and wholesale partners who represent Patagonia. We want long term relationships and sustainable growth. We’ve all seen the surf industry go form boom to bust, or brands lose their roots and their core values. My role is to engage Patagonia Surf with likeminded surfers to deliver our mission statement, and to make positive change within their communities.
Patagonia’s mission is to save the planet. Isn’t that a little ambitious?
Ha-ha, yes, it is very ambitious, but it is also deadly serious. Our mission statement: “We Are In Business To Save Our Home Planet” is central to every major decision. The stakes have never been higher, with the climate crisis leading to imminent tipping points, consumption and reliance on fossil fuels is driving our society over the edge. We can’t go on the same as we have been, or our kids planet will be trashed right before our eyes. Patagonia has always focused on building the best products and making the least impact on supply chains and supporting environmental groups, but we also need to change systems and industries, and come together on the solutions.
“Use your buying power as individuals or as an industry to make choices that are positive.”
How can we each be more respectful of our planet in our daily lives?
We can all take responsibility around how we can make a difference. This isn’t about a beach clean or reusing plastic bags, we need large scale change. We, as a surf Industry have numerous choices every day that can all make a positive impact. Who is your energy supplier? Do they use renewables? Using organic or recycled materials over raw materials is an easy win – Patagonia has proven that it doesn’t effect quality of product, and is fully transparent about where our gear is made. Any company can add in Fair Trade Certification if you use our supply chain partners. If a product is designed to be used for a longer life span, or designed to be repairable, then it’s even better. Use your buying power as individuals or as an industry to make choices that are positive. Solely seeking profit, will have an unwritten cost, either on the skilled people that work in the supply chain, or the environmental cost of using cheaper products that ends up in landfill. Doing good, is also good for business.
In 2016, Patagonia won the EUROSIMA Innovation of the year award for the Yulex wetsuit. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
It’s been a journey, Yulex Naturel rubber wetsuits has been over 10 years in the making. It started when Yulex Corp came to us with a sustainable rubber that would replace Limestone or Petro chemical based neoprene in our suits. We always knew Limestone was not the answer. If you could avoid it, why would you want to, quarry lime stone from the ground to make a wetsuit? Or use Petro-chemical as the largest ingredient of your wetsuit? It is not sustainable, not environmental in any way.
We just had to make a naturel rubber suit that performed as well as other suits on the market, and make a suit that would last longer than other suits, to prove it could work. Our current suit has had over 200 materiel trails and surfs great. Naturel rubber performs better than any synthetic rubber and saves ~80% CO2 per suit. The rubber is fully sustainable, the Hevea trees, which are FSC certified by the Rainforest Foundations, grow and provide rubber for 35 years. Yulex rubber is open to all, and the more brands come on board, the cheaper the raw material will be.
“We grant 1% of our turnover to environmental groups as a way of self-taxing our own impact.”
Patagonia decided to donate their 5000 euro-prize money to the association Surfers Against Sewage. Why, and why choose that association in particular?
It was a naturel fit, as have supported SAS for many years on their campaigns. We grant 1% of our turnover to environmental groups as a way of self-taxing our own impact. Anyone can sign up for “1% for The Planet’ organistion. We now use the platform of Patagonia Action Works to support all our NGOs grantees. Surfers Against Sewage do incredible work at government level, all the way down to community beach cleans and plastic free schools. They are constantly making progress and have been doing inspirational work since I very first met them.
What do you think of how surfing is developing? (wave pools, the Olympics…)
So, this is the future, whether we like it or not. I think the Olympics needs surfing more than surfing needs the Olympics. The positive I see, is that hopefully some of the young European surfers can access support from national sports bodies to compete on the world stage, as part of the Olympic funding cycle.
Wave pools are also way to progress surfing performance and accessibility, and for the surf Industry to expand, but as good as they are now, wave pools will never beat those amazing naturel moments we love surfing for.
If these developments can in some way inspire the industry to become more sustainable, or for surfers to appreciate nature and protect their own beaches is yet to be seen!
What advice would you have to give to young entrepreneurs?
Stay true to your dream. If I was starting out, I’d be inspired by the youth and the game changers who want a different and progressive world. There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, but that brings more engagement in politics and system change. Look at the school strikes for the climate or Extinction Rebellion bringing cities to a standstill. People want fresh air and fresh ideas and the surf community should really be ahead of that curve and leading the way.
Interview: Stéphanie Godin
Photos: Mike Guest, Stéphane Robin and Patagonia