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James Robert Banks (1959-) can lay fair claim to being the last of the true ’70s roots hippie stylists. Emerging in 1977 as one of the world’s top young proto-professionals, Banks was never convinced of a pro career’s worth and eventually walked away from it to pursue the life of a surfboard shaper, tube junkie and full-time alternative lifestyle guru.

Banks was born and raised almost right on the sand at Cronulla, Australia. Parents Bob and Dorothy owned a house just a few yards inland from the Cronulla beachbreaks, and Jim was paddling around among them by the age of 10. Experimental by nature, he took his badly delaminated beginner’s board, stripped the glass and reshaped it into what he later laughingly called “an absolute non-performance vehicle” — the classic first step to an extensive surfboard design career.

The mid-’70s was a potent era for Australian junior power surfing. Banks’s long lean goofyfoot surfing, with its emphasis on clean carves and tubes, stood up well to pressure from supergroms like Cheyne Horan, Tom Carroll, Chris Byrne, Joe Engel, Steve Wilson and others. At 17, in his final high school year, he was arguably the youngest professional surfboard shaper in the country, shaping and surfing for Gordon and Smith, the U.S. label that set up shop in Cronulla in the ’60s. The following year Banks got his big pro break — a shock third place at the Coca-Cola Surfabout at Narrabeen, then the world’s richest pro event. The result drew attention from Ian Cairns and Peter Townend, the entrepreneurial Australian pros who’d set up the Bronzed Aussies, their own tour surf team. Soon the Bronzed ones — known as the BAs for short — had signed up Banks along with Horan as their stake in the young competitive generation.

Jim spent two years with Townend and Cairns at their new home base in Huntington Beach, California, living a gypsy life on tour between BA business tutoring sessions and long winter trips to Hawaii. He spent much of his time in the San Diego area, surfing and hanging out with Windansea’s young champion Chris O’Rourke, or with the George brothers in Santa Barbara. Unlike the hypercompetitive Horan, Banks was less interested in winning than in enjoying the surfing life, and he rarely excelled in contests unless the waves were big, hollow, or both. His hard-charging nature in Hawaii — he made a rep as a kid for tackling Cronulla’s renowned Shark Island reef, backside — won him a Pro-Class Trials in 1980 and brought him into contact with Brian Bulkley, Bruce Hansel, Chris Lundy and the rest of the early ’80s Pipeline underground crew.

By 1980 Banks had left the BAs and headed back to Australia. In 1981 he won his only major tour event, the inaugural OM-Bali Pro, in perfect surf at Uluwatu. He ranked in the elite IPS top 16 in ’81 and ’82, and made an impact again as a shaper and designer in the Cronulla area, creating the swallowtail twins on which Mark Occhilupo first tore into the limelight. Married to Sharon, he more or less quit competition in 1986 and hit the surf-adventurer road, traveling to desert West Australia, Indonesia and Fiji in search of the best and heaviest left barrels he could find. The couple moved to Queensland’s Gold Coast and had two daughters, Rachel and Emily, before ending their marriage in the early 1990s.

Banks stuck to surfboard making for much of the ’90s, occasionally making forays into Indo tubes: he starred in an Alby Falzon short called
Can’t Step Twice (On The Same Piece Of Water) for Island Records, and showed up to ride the best wave of the free-surf sessions at the first Quiksilver Pro at Grajagan in 1995. In late 1996 he decided to quit the surfboard industry in protest at the toxic chemicals used in their production, and spent some time working on a system of board glassing using natural resins and hemp cloth. Recently he began designing surfboards again using computer design software and shaping machines; he is also involved in designing and marketing a fin system known as Speeed, and leading groups on surf/health/yoga retreats. Today Banks lives on the NSW north coast with partner Manuela and their three children, Rhyand, Leilani and Harley.


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