In Full Swing – The Swurfer
A Charleston-based innovator endeavors to bring families together under the canopy of nature, reinventing a classic and making the backyard fun again.
As you walk into Swurfer headquarters, it is quite clear that while some businesses only mean business, this business means fun. Colorful graffiti covers one wall, and toys of a certain kind are strewn about. There’s a hanging pod made for lounging, and a hammock ready for a catnap. A wood and rope swing—the Swurfer—a hangs prominently from a slack line. Stacks of boards, packaged ropes and handles, and boxes fill a huge portion of the room. In the center of it all stands Rob Bertschy, looking exactly how you would expect the inventor of a nontraditional, boardsport-inspired tree swing to look. Rocking a flat brim hat over shaggy hair, wearing camo shorts, crew socks, and a hoodie, Rob has a wide smile and a welcoming presence. His easygoing demeanor is common among boarders of all kinds: skateboarders, snowboarders, and surfers. I ask him where he lived before South Carolina, and he responds exactly how I thought he would: California. Of course he did, I think to myself, confirming my bias that cool, shaggy-haired adventure seekers most often come from the West Coast. But then Rob surprises me—he only lived in California for a couple of years; he actually grew up in Arkansas, even attending college there. Also, he wants to be sure to mention that the swing was actually his wife’s idea. It is at this moment that I throw my assumptions and expectations out of the window.
Rob joined the Peace Corps after college and traveled to South America, where he spent two years learning the language, communing with the locals, and kayaking to his heart’s content. Upon returning to the States, he moved to Asheville, where he soon met his wife, Brook, at a concert. Missing the ocean, Rob and his wife decided to move to California, and they headed west shortly after they were married. They had a blast, balancing work, family life, and play by meeting up at the beach to surf after Rob finished up work, their two young twins climbing all over his board and toddling after him toward the waves. Seeing how much his sons loved his board, the young father decided to make them their own balance board to use at the beach while watching him surf.
“I wanted something that would help them with their core balance and prepare them for surfing and skateboarding,” Rob explains, “And it had to be beautiful enough that my wife would allow it to just sit around our living room. So I made a simple curved wooden board, and they loved it.”
The family moved to Charleston after two years in California, and with one glance at the sprawling live oak trees on their property, Brook had an idea. She asked Rob if he would be able to string one of the balance boards up as a sort of modified classic tree swing; after trying it, they realized they were onto something. The board worked perfectly as a way to surf the air when waves weren’t an option. As they shared it with their friends and family members, they realized that people of all ages were able to find a comfort level with the swing. One day, Rob even came home to see a fire truck parked outside his home. Finished with a neighborhood call, the firemen were happily taking turns on the swing.
Emboldened, he asked his friend and owner of Wonder Works Toy Store, Christine Osborne, what she thought of the product, and she encouraged him to press on, helping him to get plugged into the specialty toy channels. Having worked for a rapidly growing power tool company for years, Rob was well-versed in bringing new products to market, and he quickly made all of the right moves. After tweaking the prototype, he secured a patent and sourced a manufacturer in Hickory, North Carolina who uses Hard Rock Maple to produce a high quality product. Now, three years later and more successful than ever, the Swurfer has been featured on the Today Show, Live with Kelly, and has won countless awards. They are sold at specialty toy stores, surf shops, at REI stores regionally, and online. The offerings from the Swurfer company are ever-expanding, with new products joining the Swurfer line regularly. For Rob Bertschy, the mission is clear.
“The toy industry is changing, and so much of the new products are focused on electronic devices and screen time,” Rob explains. “There’s virtually no innovation in the backyard. We want to create quality, made-in-the-USA, heirloom products centered around concepts like balance. We want to make the backyard fun again.”
With that, Rob hands me a box filled with all of the necessary parts to hang a Swurfer from a tree in my own backyard, and I am off to test it out on my family.
Even before we have a chance to hang the Swurfer from a slack line in our backyard (given that we have no suitable branches), the thing is a hit. My three-and-a-half year old daughter grabs the board out of the box as soon as we open it, before we can even scrounge around for the instructions. We find her in her playroom five minutes later, laughing and rocking away on the balance board. My one-year-old is fascinated by the wooden handles, and I think he is convinced that they were destined to be drumsticks. My husband is beside himself with excitement, having seen and formed a desire for a Swurfer months ago.
It is a quick setup, which makes sense given the encouragement from the company to take it camping, hiking, or on road trips. I step on it first, tentatively, sure that my lifelong propensity for being uncoordinated will betray me in my quest to have fun on this contraption. But it doesn’t. I instinctively begin rocking side to side, and soon I am lost in the moment. I am soaring, for how long, I cannot be sure. But I am flying, and I am swinging, and I am not the slightly awkward mother of two with responsibilities and a running grocery list and an expanding pile of laundry haunting my every dream. I’m just a kid again, trying a new feature at the park, feeling the wind in my hair. I hear my husband excitedly ask if he can try, himself not too far removed from his childlike wonder. Smiling, I wait for the swing to come to a stop, step down, and offer him the Swurfer. I watch as he bends his knees, rocks back and forth, and starts swaying in a wide, circular motion, a move I saw Rob do back at Swurfer headquarters.
As I watch my husband, I see the young man he was well before I knew him: the skateboarder in Rhode Island, relentlessly practicing his tricks until they landed with accompanying celebration. The decades since then melt away as he flies through the air, experimenting with different stances and movements. Just then, my husband’s two older children come running outside, thrilled to try the toy. Jude, the 11-year-old, braces himself for a learning curve by explaining that it may take a while for him to figure out how to ride correctly. Within 45 seconds, though, he is nearly flying over our heads, having experienced no issue whatsoever with mastering the technique. My 13-year-old stepdaughter, Noah, jumps on after he reluctantly gets off, soaring and smiling with intense joy while yelling, “This is the coolest backyard ever now! It’s like an amusement park ride!”
After she takes the Swurfer for a spin, our three-and-a-half year old princess of a daughter, Forest, comes over, begging us to let her ride her “pony named Cake.” She straddles the swing and uses the bouncing quality of the slack line to mimic a horse galloping, happily yelling, “Kitty up, Cake! Kitty up! Go, pony, go!” After she ostensibly reaches the castle and goes inside for a snack, I pick up our curious one-year-old, Oscar, and sit on the Swurfer as if it is a standard playground swing, holding him against my chest as I gently sway and reflect. With this one backyard addition, I have felt the unburdened freedom of childhood again, my husband has reclaimed the sporting of his youth, the older kids have met a new challenge, and my princess has finally found her pony. Innovative, indeed.
By Jana Riley