Pull up to the beach when the waves are pumping and there’s a good chance you’ll see the Salt Shack van, sporting its signature lightning bolt. Its owner is Holly Quinn, the woman behind both the design and the surf school it represents. She calls the logo “the boom,” which could also describe her dynamic energy and charging surfing. Reminiscent of a superhero symbol, Salt Shack is all about giving you the confidence of one in the water.
Founded by sister and brother duo Holly and Jay Quinn, now run by Holly, Salt Shack is not your typical surf school. For starters, there is some serious surf cred at the helm. All three Quinn siblings (including brother Maz) are world class surfers who have competed professionally around the world and contributed to Gizzy’s reputation as a serious training ground. Among many titles, Holly was the NZ Women's Champion multiple times.
Holly started surfing around age 10, part of a pack of grommets who quickly devoted themselves to improving and competing. At that time the Quinns were living at Wainui Beach on Murphy Road, along with kids from a group of families including the Gunnesses, the Carters, and the Stewarts (all of whom are still strongly connected to surfing). Together they would surf at Cooper Street, when it was still just an empty section, and they would bike to school instead of catching the bus, in case it was offshore and they needed to hightail it to the surf.
It was a group of keen surf kids that would go on to compete, and together dominate, local competitions for years to come. Holly remembers, “Everyone was really into it, we were surrounded by it. Back then it was all about competition. That’s all we knew.”
All through intermediate and high school, they were away nearly every second weekend, traveling to compete. The highlight of the year was the world grom title held annually in Bali. Even those who didn’t qualify would work and save to be able to go and be part of the scene. Gisborne would send a huge contingent, and Gizzy surfers dominated across all the age groups. Throughout the year the groms trained with coaches, some came in from abroad, and it showed. “So many people helped us as kids so much. I think that had a major impact on that reign of surfers in the 90’s.”
They were also remarkably self-motivated. Most teens will sleep in at any opportunity, but not Holly. “I used to get up every single morning and throw stones at my friend Nicki’s window to wake her up for a dawny at 6 am.” And she and Jay had a pact that they would surf every single day, no matter the conditions. This was when wetsuits lacked hoods, and they would wear their gath helmets to try to keep their heads warm in winter.
When high school ended, the prospect of continued competition and the struggle for sponsorship was daunting. Holly opted for Uni, earning a scholarship to study design in Auckland. It wasn’t exactly a smooth transition. For the first time, she couldn’t surf regularly, living in West Auckland without a car. “I think I rang my parents every night trying to come back.”
Surfing came to the rescue when she was invited to the trials for the World team in Whangamata. In her search for a ride there (she hadn’t yet learned to drive), she met a family that eventually took her in, moving her into their garage so she could live in Piha where there was surf. They also taught her how to drive so she could make the daily hour-long commute to the city for classes.
Pulled back into competing, she went to the World Games a few times as she completed university, before being drawn to Australia where Jay was living. He bought her a ticket for Christmas one year and she stayed, launching her design career there, working her way up through the ranks to be lead women’s designer at Volcom, and later Speedo.
Running a surf school was never part of Holly’s plan. But years later she found herself, married and pregnant, back in New Zealand on the Kapiti coast, where her husband Jackson grew up. “I would go to Waikanae beach and see beautiful tiny little waves, and no one was there! I couldn’t work out why no one used it.” Volunteering for the local surf club, she saw the demand for surf lessons and convinced Jay, who had been coaching in the UK, to come back for the summer and start a surf school with her. Holly got her coaching certificate, they bought all the gear, and settled on the moniker they both liked.
They were busy from the start, but Jay returned to the UK at summer’s end. Holly managed to keep going solo, even with two little ones, with friends stepping in to help coach. Their focus was teaching kids, but Holly noticed the mums hanging around wanting to give surfing a go, so she started to host regular womens nights. A huge success, the events continued to grow to include end-of-term contests with barbeques and drinks, the community rallying around the occasions to socialise. She also continued her design work as a freelancer, bringing her bold and eye-catching style to branding.
For Holly, “Gizzy will always be home.” Moving back was always on her mind, and when the opportunity arose just before the lockdown in 2020, she returned with her family and the surf school in tow. Now in its second season on the East Coast, Salt Shack serves both tourists and locals through its diverse offerings. This year it’s blasting into summer with after school programs, “learn to surf” lessons for kids and adults, ladies’ multi-week sessions, and women's weekend surf camps (aka “Mums on Tour”). Another summer highlight is the “Martini Mingle,” a tag team surf competition that teams up surfers of all levels followed by martinis. Not your average surf comp, as evidenced by the screaming and giggling that go with it.
The women's events bring Holly back to what was created for her in her youth, when “it was a totally different scene back then, not always a welcoming one for girls.” It was her mum who took charge and started a women’s surf club, teaming up with other mums to create a supportive environment for the girls, with their own contests and Women on Waves nights. And now some of those same older ladies who used to plan events for Holly’s generation participate in the Martini Mingle.
Promoting the community vibe is motivating for Holly, and staying in touch with that motivation is important, especially when it gets full on in summer running Salt Shack, parenting two children, and maintaining her design work. She also surfs nearly every day, not because she has to, but because she can. If the popularity of her offerings is any indication, her passion is contagious.
Just like it was for her as a grom, Holly sees what a difference the presence of some surf buddies makes for her kids, too. Now aged 8 and 6, they’ve been in the water since they were little, but they can still be resistant to the idea of going to the beach. But add in their friends and it’s a different story of stoke. They love the idea of having their own club too.
Leave it to the groms to remind us that it’s not just about learning how-to skills. The best kind of surf school, like Salt Shack, is also about inspiring a way of life that includes finding joy in the ocean, and sharing that joy with your friends.
Story by Victoria Williams Photography Shaun Tunny