Dave North is helping to develop the facilities young skaters need on the South Island’s rugged and isolated West Coast.
On a bitter West Coast morning, Dave North watches a concrete truck pour grey, wet sludge onto a rectangular patch of mesh framing. A dense fog sits in the valley above the Grey River, and an icy wind nicknamed The Barber, because it cuts your hair, whistles over the Cobden Bridge.
North, 41, and two other men - an American skater and a Greymouth local - rake and smooth the concrete on a patch of ground connecting the two sloping walls of a skate ramp. They have been at it for 14 days, and at first, North, who is wearing a long, dark green hunting jacket, a fisherman’s beanie and dusty work boots, is distracted and too busy to chat.
His friends say he is humble, not one to talk himself up. His skateboard is resting against his white ute. Later, it will do the talking for him.
When the job is done, North leaves the patch to dry and walks a few metres. He swaps his boots for skate shoes, held together with tyre wire and tape. His hunting jacket gives way to elbow pads. He grabs his skateboard, and drops into a giant bowl partly paid for by raffled flakes of West Coast gold.
There are few skaters of North’s vintage on the South Island’s isolated, rugged West Coast, and over the years, he’s encouraged other, often younger skaters, and helped champion facilities needed to develop the sport there.
North first stood on a skateboard in the 1980s, back in his homeland - England.
“I rolled down my mate's driveway and had a zigzag down the bottom. I just couldn’t believe the feeling,” he says.
In Greymouth, he carves around the bowl, sliding the granite rail around the top and getting air. It looks fast, powerful, and when he falls, painful. “My old man-ness is starting to catch up with me,” he says.
In 1995, when a 22-year-old North arrived on the Coast after a ski season in Wanaka, there were no skate parks. There were no vert ramps either; hence, the giant one in his paddock. The road to his property, about 20 minutes from Greymouth, winds past a paint-chipped community hall, weathered farmhouses and a sign for the Nelson Creek Abattoir.
People wave as you drive past, and just as you think you’ve gone too far, a rust red vert ramp pops into the frame, about four metres high and 10m wide. “It’s definitely in an unusual location,” North says.
“We get tourists driving up the road, thinking, ‘What on Earth is that?’ All the locals are pretty well used to it.”
North’s workshop is in a shed between the ramp and his stylish, almost shed-like house. Different skateboard shapes hang on the wall, and colourful sheets of pressure-dyed Canadian maple wait to be cut, layered and squashed together in a press. North started making skateboards as a teenager, with his grandfather, which were good enough to sell through a local skate shop, and went on to study wood technology at Buckingham College. He set up Nelson Creek Skateboards in 1998, after meeting his Kiwi wife and deciding to settle on the West Coast. He put a pesky weka on the logo.
I guess compared to the big industry, we're just a little fly on the side.
“I guess compared to the big industry, we're just a little fly on the side. Here on the West Coast you see weka all the time. They're a cheeky, menacing little bird that can be a pain in the backside.”
At first, North used basic equipment to make just a handful of decks, and kept his job with a local logging company. At the turn of the millennium, he decided to make a go of it full-time. There was no-one building boards in New Zealand, and he saw it as an opportunity.
Over time, major players in North America started using Chinese labour to make boards, which drove prices down, and while North still has his own range, he now mainly makes boards for skateboard shops, built to their own specifications.
Back in Greymouth, the concrete ramp is the final addition to a skate park North first worked on in 2001. It links an international competition-sized bowl, completed last year, with skate features in the old park, pitted from years of West Coast weather. It was the first one North was involved with, and he says he didn't really know anything about concrete, including how to seal it.
"It's had a bit of a hiding from the rain,” he says.
The next project was in Reefton, and that led to other job offers. Over the last 10 years, North has built parks in Mapua, Kaiapoi, Christchurch and helped out on several smaller projects.
“It’s a fairly unique skill set, being able to build concrete skateparks well,” he says.
“Often, well-intentioned designers have done skate parks that really don't work very well, because they don't understand the skateboarding side of it so well.”
That’s where North comes into his own. He says finally getting to skate something he’s designed and built is “definitely what it's all about”.
Greymouth’s new bowl, light grey and glaring in the afternoon sun, is one of only three in the world North knows of with coping around the top made from granite. Funding to build it came from various sources, including council and pub charity money and community fundraising. The Wilson-Russ family, gold miners from way back, donated five ounces of fine alluvial gold in different presentation packs. The gold, along with some donated by two other families, raised just over $22,000 through a raffle.
“There are not many big bowls around New Zealand, so it's good to have one on the West Coast,” North says.
Why does the West Coast, with a population of about 31,000 people, need such a good bowl? North says the Coast seems to be a hotbed for an unusually high number of talented skateboarders, like 17-year-old Cade Wilson-Russ, and they should be supported.
“It means kids can learn to skate big stuff as well as the small stuff. We hope to bring world class skaters to Greymouth, so the local kids can see some proper world class skateboarding,” he says.
Cade learnt to kick flip on a patch of concrete in the backyard of his parents’ house in Kumara, a town with few footpaths. He is now sponsored by Nike SB, and travels the world skating on Nelson Creek Skateboard decks, in between completing building qualifications. North started hooking him up with free boards when he was 12, and still does.
There’s an old Polaroid photograph at North’s house of a skate ramp he built as a kid in the garage of his mother’s house. When he was studying at Buckingham College, he’d travel to Oxford and London to skate with guys whose names are now legend within international skate circles.
“I think he’s definitely obsessed with the sport,” his wife, Lisa Kilkelly North, says, looking out the kitchen window at the vert ramp. He finished building it before he finished the house.
Story written and produced by Anna Pearson.
Video shot and edited by Riley Bathurst.
This content is brought to you with funding support from NZ On Air.