Drilling for Darwin

By Michael Kew

Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu. Photo: Kew.

In the late 19th century, flak spawned between Darwinists and those who supported oceanographer John Murray, a Scot who thought atolls grew from shallow sandbanks on the ocean floor. Among his acolytes was a Swiss-born American scientist/copper baron named Alexander Agassiz, who funded expeditions to study coral reefs globally to support Murray’s theory and to denounce Charles Darwin.

In an 1881 letter to Agassiz, Darwin claimed the dispute could be solved by drilling 150 to 180 meters into an atoll. If volcanic rock and traces of shallow-water organisms were found beneath the atoll, Darwin’s theory would stand. If a thin coral crust over sand was found, Murray’s theory would triumph.

After years of talk, England decided to investigate, and in 1896 a Royal Society expedition bore into Funafuti Atoll in Tuvalu (then called the Ellice Islands, a British colony). They were only able to drill 30 meters down, so the mission was a bust.

A year later, another Royal Society crew reached 210 meters—deeper than Darwin suggested to Agassiz—but the crew found nothing but coral. Apparently, Darwin had underestimated atoll thickness.

The Royal Society’s third and final attempt in 1898 also proved nothing despite boring to 340 meters. Technology could only drill so deep, and the Society team couldn’t prove the depth of Funafuti’s coral or whether basalt or traces of shallow-water organisms could be found. Darwin’s theory held firm.

It wasn’t until 1950 that modern technology and a research team for the U.S. Geological Survey stepped in, working with the U.S. Department of Defense in the Marshall Islands amid the nuclear arms testing done there by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.

Drilled into Enewetak Atoll were three deep holes. The first, in 1951, was to a depth of 390 meters and ended in lower Miocene rocks; the second, in 1952, was to 1,411 meters, and the third (also in 1952) was to 1,287 meters. The latter were the first to reach the basement rock beneath an atoll, proving that the foundation of Enewetak is a basaltic volcano rising less than four kilometers from the ocean floor.

The steep underwater slopes of atolls in the Marshalls also bagged proof for Darwin’s theory. In 1950, at depths of 1,830 to 3,675 meters, basaltic rocks were dredged from the slopes of Bikini Atoll. In 1952, black basaltic rock was collected 2,000 meters offshore Wotje Atoll at a depth of 1,446 meters, and west of Ailuk Atoll, at a depth of 2,486 meters.

The core samples contained coral fossils that could only have grown in shallow waters—evidence that Enewetak’s coral reefs had begun to grow during the Eocene epoch, and for 30 million years they climbed sinking volcanoes, thickening as the lava settled. Additionally, shallow-water organisms were dredged from the top of guyots (underwater volcanic mountains).

Back in England—vindicated but underground in the nave of Westminster Abbey—surely Darwin was smiling.

Marshall Islands. Photo: Kew.

Golden Heart: 50 Years of White Owl Surfboards

By Michael Kew

  

Refugio State Beach, California, February 26, 2011

The late sun shines and blinds, as it often does, but Stan Veith quakes. His gray hair is damp. The Gaviota Coast is cold today — snow dusts the Santa Ynez range behind us. Sometimes winter can feel like winter in Santa Barbara County.

Wolfing a leftover burrito, lanky Veith sits above the rear bumper of his gray van, parked in the asphalt lot of this cove that blocks northwest wind. He’s just surfed clean, knee-high swell borne from this wind, wind which shoved last night’s rain south to Los Angeles. This wind corrugates the blue Santa Barbara Channel between here and the hazy horizon stain of Santa Rosa Island, 20 miles out. This wind scatters gulls, rustles palm fronds, shakes the green campground grass. This is a loud wind that drowns the rumble of the occasional Amtrak or freight train that passes behind the empty campground, above this beautiful pocket beach. It’s a winter wind here in the cove. In the refugio.

Daylight fades. Veith looks at the Pacific and chews on cold bean-and-cheese. “Jeff was my hero,” he says after swallowing, “and that’s what’ll keep me going. Because if the waves are this small and I have to lay down, I’ll do it, because I watched Jeff crawl across the beach to get to the water. He did that every day till a little over a year ago. That was Jeff.”

Veith’s heart weeps. Its wounds are fresh. Tears oil his eyes. Jeff White, his second father, has been dead just three months.

 

(L) White in the '80s. (R) One of the only known surfing photos of Jeff White. Hammonds Reef, 1968. Photo: George Greenough.

 

745 Sand Point Road, Carpinteria, October 16, 2008

Rincon Point was fun ‘round noon today, thigh-high and slick for my 9’4” Andreini spoon. Eighty degrees on the beach, 64 in the water. A slight offshore breeze. No neoprene needed.

Forty-seven years back, Jeff White birthed White Owl Surfboards in the seaside hamlet of Summerland, eight miles west of Rincon. White is 70 now. He’s a vague cog of Santa Barbara surf history. You know Reynolds Yater and Al Merrick and George Greenough. Maybe John Bradbury, Wayne Rich, Michael Cundith. You don’t know Jeff White. Today, longboarding at Rincon, I too don’t know who is he is despite living a few miles from him for several years. White dwells adrift from the common orb.

His surfboard label is not an eponym. He was tagged “White Owl” in ‘57 by a friend who saw him puffing a White Owl Cigar at a college party at Miramar near Hammond’s Reef, a good Montecito wave that was three years from the first Surfer magazine. In ’56 White had moved to Miramar from Hermosa Beach after wrapping one semester at Pasadena City College. He was accepted at UCSB to chase an engineering degree. Perhaps one or two other surfers were enrolled there.

I’ve not seen White surf Rincon nor Hammond’s because, 43 years back, he was tagged with multiple sclerosis, the disease that slays your central nervous system. Impulses are slowed or stopped. There is no known cure, but it’s rarely fatal. White hasn’t really surfed since 1967.

At 3 p.m. today, photographer David Pu’u and I warmly greet White in his cozy, boat-themed beachfront home. On a flat, sandy acre, it’s a modest nest built in 1940. He sweats stoke from his red leather chair, where he sits in white socks, black jeans, and a loose, baby-blue T-shirt. His hair is cropped high and tight. His voice is loud, gravelly. A deejay’s drawl, a smoker’s rasp, but White doesn’t smoke. Not anymore.

You can’t, but if you stand him, White is 6 feet 6 inches tall. Long, skinny legs. He’s a squatty three feet high where he sits now. His small bedroom is upstairs, hard for him to reach. He’s got some rare surfboards up there, including a Velzy hot-curl balsa. Down here, the black tile-floored kitchen’s in front of him. Pale wooden cupboards and a white refrigerator of juice, fruit, yogurt. Things like that. White dines thinly. He’s a thin guy.

He’s got a wide flat-screen television. His blue eyes grok Jeopardy and Fox News. His recliner is worn. It’s a chair you too would have in your house. Its four darkwood legs stab a green patterned throw rug flanked by a teak coffee table and a mobile shelf of White’s items — books, eyeglasses, granola bar. Behind him there is a brick fireplace, some waist-high pine paneling, and framed boat paintings festoon the white drywall.

Pu’u begins filming from his tripod. Across from White, I sit on the red leather couch, set a tape recorder on the coffee table, and press REC.

What was your first experience with the ocean?

My first experience that I really remember was with surf mats.

How old were you?

Must’ve been five or six. Of course, our dads and our moms in those days, they always…you had your lunch, you were only allowed to go in for a hour. Our parents would let us surf-mat, myself and my sister and a couple of friends. God, we had a great time. One guy could actually stand up on one.

This was in the early ‘40s?

Yeah. I can remember World War II very well.

Your first surfboard?

Ramsey Clark sold me what they call a kook box, a Tom Blake board that had a cork up front to let out the water. Then along came Bob Simmons. He lived in that area — Venice to Hermosa — and so I wanted to get a Simmons surfboard. My dad took me and couple of my friends down to San Pedro and got these old World War II balsa life rafts. We had blanks made from them. Simmons had a place in Venice; I was so impressed with Bob Simmons because he was an eccentric guy. An eccentric son of a bitch. Really a neat person to look at and see what he was up to. Very intelligent. He looked at our blanks and he said, “Yep, I’ll do it. Come back in a week and I’ll have them done.” We asked him how much, and he said he’d do it for $5 apiece. That was a lot of money in those days — for us it was, anyway.

When?

It would’ve been ’51, at the latest. I was getting ready to go into the seventh grade. I was 12. And what happened when they made those life rafts, they put doweling in them, which is a lot stronger and harder than balsawood. Simmons said it just screwed up his tools. He said he wouldn’t do it again (laughs). But they were neat boards, and we took them home.

How long were they?

Jesus Christ, I don’t know. I always think it would’ve been like 9’6” but it was probably more like eight feet, okay. It was pretty wide. A bitchen board. Simmons didn’t glass them, so myself and my dad glassed ours.

What was your next surfboard?

In 1952, Dale Velzy made me the first board that had a detachable fin. He made it out of redwood in the box, okay, and then he made a redwood fin, which I put into it. I had to let it sit for 10 minutes in the water for it to swell shut. It worked! And I remember up at Malibu, I remember a helluva ride. It’s funny how life can be put together in snapshots. I always liked Velzy. When you were a kid, you knew he was a man, and he was a good man.

 

(L) Stan Veith at Refugio, 2011. (R) Original logo.

 

2320 Lillie Avenue, Summerland, October 1961

Stan Veith is 15. He lives with his parents on Third Street in Carpinteria, a sleepy beach burg where Jeff White lifeguards at the end of Palm Avenue. He’s 23 and has just returned from traveling solo for a year in Europe and Africa.

Carpinteria Beach is one of California’s most pleasant. Busy in summer. No surf most days since the beach faces south and the Channel Islands block south swells, but White swims, runs, and rows dory boats often. He’s good at rowing. He’s happy and fit. He’s a guy you want to be around.

Rincon Point lays three miles south. That’s where White surfs, usually. It’s been the same script each winter since he moved from Hermosa: Rincon at low tide, Hammond’s at high. He trades waves and hoots with Billy Meng, Stu Fredericks, Reynolds Yater, Paul Hodgert. Hodgert is White’s dory-rowing partner.

For Stan Veith, White is an icon of health, a god of beach-life cool. A model citizen. Veith trains with White, surfs with White. Veith’s first surfboard is a foam 8’10” Velzy-Jacobs bought for $60 from Yater’s on Anacapa Street. This is Santa Barbara’s first surf shop, but Yater soon shifts to a small red A-frame on Hollister Street in Summerland.

Founded back in 1883 as a “spiritualist retreat,” Summerland is a funky spread of cowpokes and hicks and oil-rig gents from Bakersfield. These guys dislike surfers. The hippies came next, of course, trailed by waxing property values and sequential gentrification.

In October 1962, White aims to make boats — double-ended lapstrakes, perhaps 20 feet long, Viking-type vessels — so he gets a $1,500 small-business loan from Santa Barbara Bank & Trust and begins paying $95 per month to Mr. Sam Azar for a property at 2320 Lillie Avenue, a stone’s throw from Yater’s. Previously it was grocery store attached to The Shanty, a tiny beer-and-burger joint. The Shanty remains, and next door, White and Veith start making freon-based foam blanks, not boats. White buys three molds and put them in back of Azar’s shop — initially it was to be a foam-making facility, not a surfboard mill. White wants to make do-it-yourself, all-in-one surfboard kits.

“I was hanging out with Jeff in Carpinteria one day,” Veith tells me, “and I knew he had the shop in Summerland. He said, ‘Let’s go blow foam today, Birdman.’ So that’s what we did. We went in there, collected ice cream cartons, and he had two five-gallon containers that you poured into the bucket. He got a drill bit made to mix it up, but we didn’t have a drill motor. Bruce Glenn came in and he went up to his dad’s and came back with this old steel drill motor, and that was the first day that anything happened in the Summerland shop. We poured the stuff in there, mixed up the foam, poured it in the mold, put it down, clamped it down, waited, unlocked it, and we had a surfboard blank.

“Then one day we glued up a blank, and a guy named Curtis Jackson was there. Technically, he and Jeff shaped the first White Owl board. What happened to it, I don’t know. Then a couple other guys came along, like Tom Rowland, then Brian Bradley came along and it turned into a surf shop.”

White hand-shapes the first few White Owl boards. He laminates the red logo cut from White Owl cigar boxes beneath the fiberglass. He and Veith pour their own foam, cut their own stringers, cut their blanks, shape them, glass them, make fins. It’s a lot of effort. Yater’s sander Bob Cooper stops in and compliments White’s work. Despite the two shops’ placement, there is no sense of competition. Different demographics.

Soon White recruits Tom Rowland, a skilled craftsman from Santa Barbara, to help. Rowland has been shaping balsa for a few years and is the first surfboard shaper in Santa Barbara, preceding John Eichert, who precedes Yater. Rowland lasts a few months at White Owl between late 1961 and early 1962.

In late 1962 Montecito’s Brian Bradley starts shaping for White. Bradley is a lifeguard at Refugio and El Capitan. He knows White from the lifeguard world, and, although White still shapes a bit, Bradley becomes the main White Owl shaper through 1966. It becomes a legitimate surfboard-making facility with a few more employees. Veith, the shop rat, does hot-coating, makes all the fins — 17 panels in those days. He gains two years of work-experience credit from Carpinteria High School.

In mid-‘64, after graduation, Veith moves to Santa Cruz to manage the new White Owl shop at 24 Front Street. He sells and rents ($5/day) a lot of boards. In 1965, he’s drafted by the Army and sent to Vietnam. After the war, he moves to Northern California. He wouldn’t speak with Jeff White until 2001.

White Owl Surfboards, 2320 Lillie Avenue, has a tidy little showroom, boards for sale and rent, O’Neill wetsuits for sale (White Owl is the first O’Neill dealer beyond Santa Cruz), Hang Ten surf trunks, custom-order forms, a glassing room, a shaping room, three molds in the backyard, a nice ambiance throughout. Everybody likes Jeff White, and his high-quality boards draw a dedicated cadre of young surfers around Carpinteria, Summerland, and Montecito. Up the street, Yater caters mostly to older crew. It’s a different vibe there.

A direct descendent of José Francisco de Ortega, the first commandante at the Santa Barbara Presidio, Gregg Tally is a White Owl kid. He lives at 644 Oak Grove Drive in Montecito, a few clicks down from kneeboarder George Greenough’s place. Tally recalls watching Greenough customize the Boston Whaler featured in Innermost Limits of Pure Fun. Years earlier, the two had taken swim lessons at Coral Casino, fronting Hammond’s Reef.

“On cardboard, we used to slide down Cracky Hill, an adobe mound below George’s parents’ house,” Tally tells me. “He was older, but he kind of hung out with us. He’d drive his customized go-cart up on the old dirt firebreak — now Bella Vista Drive — and all over the neighborhood. You could hear him fire that thing up from a long ways away, and you could track his progress from the noise. I remember my mom used to say, ‘Here comes George!’”

Tally starts surfing Hammond’s in 1956, when he is five. In the early ‘60s his mom, also a surfer, drops him off at 2320 Lillie knowing White will look after the kid and his friends, like Marc and Peter, the Andreini brothers.

“Marc and I were pretty religious about White Owl Surfboards,” Tally says, “and when we surfed, we hooted at each other and had all kinds of sayings like ‘White Owl forever!’ and ‘White Owl rules!’

“Jeff knew I had done ding repairs for a few years, and one day he offered to take me in the back to show me how they made boards — a big honor for me. He also let me buy trade-ins and beat-up rentals to fix and resell. I’m sure he lost money on those boards, but I think he was helping me get experience.”

I meet with Tally 40 years later outside his house in Santa Barbara. He’s got long hair and a long memory. We drink beer. A notepad is found and he draws the Summerland shop, an oblong square along “Lily Avenue,” and marks an area in the front of the shop as the “showroom.”

How many boards were in there?

Not very many. (laughs) Maybe a half dozen, at best. Then, eventually the rentals were there, stacked up. And if you went in here, this was like the little salesroom.

The Shanty was here?

Yeah, The Shanty was right here. You could smell the burgers cooking.

Was it connected to the shop by a door?

No. So this was the little salesroom. Underneath here, Jeff kept his cash register. It was a cigar box. And right here he had a one-way mirror, a little tiny one. He used to watch the salesroom and he would see who’d steal decals and stuff. This was the shaping area over here. This was the glassing. These racks over here was where they did all the wet work. And back here, the backyard was the molds.

This was the office?

So to speak, yeah. It wasn’t really an office. It just had a sales counter. Eventually, there were some T-shirts, and eventually, when they started selling wetsuits, it had wetsuits in there.

What was in this room?

Well, this is a wall here. There were boards there, there were boards along here, and along here, and maybe one in the corner here.

What’s this?

This right here was a little balsa bellyboard that Jed, Jeff’s son, has now. It sat there the whole time. They made it really early, and it was there forever. It was really bitchen. And then right here sat my board. The second White Owl I bought had an error on the fin, and I didn’t want that fin, so Jeff said, “No problem, we’ll fix it.” But he didn’t tell me that they had to make a whole new board, and I would’ve probably taken it because they couldn’t afford that. So for years, that board sat in that corner for years because it was so small because I was such a little kid. They couldn’t sell it.

That’s funny.

 

This is what he drew:

 

In late 1966, White, now a championship dory racer, pulls the stakes and moves everything to a busy street in downtown Santa Barbara, a marked shift in atmosphere. He names his 1,600-square-foot store “Surf-N-Wear,” and his new business model pushes clothes, not boards. Unapproving of this, Brian Bradley splits. In early 1967, a guy named Tom Hale replaces Bradley for a spell — he shapes a few White Owl longboards and shortboards that are sold from Surf-N-Wear. Later this year, when Hale quits, White Owl Surfboards dies.

 

(L) White, rear, in the '50s. (M) Marc Andreini at Refugio, 2011. (R) Santa Barbara, '70s.

 

209 W. Carrillo Street, Santa Barbara, 1974

In 1963, at the age of 12, White Owl team member Marc Andreini learns ding repair at his mother’s house in Montecito. He also spends a lot of time at the White Owl shop in Summerland, riding his bike there from home, often with his brother Peter. Jeff White hosts surf contests at spots like Stanley’s, Haskell’s, and C Street, and Andreini does well in them. With Gregg Tally and a few others, Andreini is a devout White Owl disciple.

“Jeff was so good to us,” Andreini tells me. “He reached out and made us feel like a part of the surfing world, which was his world. He was an ocean guy, he was a boardbuilder, he was a lifeguard. We were just little kids finding our way. But he took us in and made us a part of his deal. It wasn’t just because we were out selling boards for him — he really cared about people and about kids, and I think when somebody has that kind of an outlook on life, it makes things happen.”

Family changes things for Andreini. In 1967 he moves to San Mateo, a city near San Francisco, to spend time with his father. In 1968 he begins making Half Moon Bay Surfboards in his father’s garage — one per week. In 1970, surfboards drive him south. “My dad said that if I wanted to build surfboards for a living,” Andreini tells me, “I had to get the hell out of the house and go find a job doing it.”

Andreini drives down Highway 1 and stops at each surf shop — perhaps five or six — and offers his shaping skills. The first to accept is Spindrift’s Bob Haakenson in Santa Barbara. But in 1971 Haakenson moves to Hawaii and, for $150, he sells Spindrift’s tools and racks to the 19-year-old Andreini, who rents a barn on Ocean View Avenue, near the Montecito Country Club. Andreini Surfboards is born.

“I had no dealers,” he says. “I only did custom orders locally, and since I could do all the shaping steps and was friends with everyone else, I helped everybody around town. I’d work a couple days a week helping whoever. I’d glass for Bradbury and Wilderness, I’d glass for Merrick, I’d glass for Yater.”

In the summer of 1974, after surfing the previous winter in Hawaii, Andreini adds White Owl Surfboards to his résumé. Jeff White runs Surf-N-Wear shops in San Luis Obispo, Goleta, and on Carrillo Street in Santa Barbara. The latter is White’s flagship store. None of them stock surfboards, though. Not really. Maybe a few by Bahne. Usually zero. White changes this by asking Marc Andreini, one of his original shop gremmies, to shape boards under the White Owl label. He does until 1979, when, after a short stint working for Yater, family duties yank him back to San Mateo.

White Owl Surfboards is dead again.

Jeff White had always admired the surfboards made by Hermosa Beach’s Phil Becker, so, in 1982, he asks Becker to produce a batch of White Owl Surfboards. Maybe 20 of them, all traditional longboards, and they sell quickly from Surf-N-Wear.

Then White Owl Surfboards dies.

Again.

 

Roger Nance, now and then.

 

10 State Street, Santa Barbara, September 1995

Roger Nance is a tall, genial man from Capitola. UCSB lures him to Goleta, where, starting in ‘70, he studies geography (his dad is a geophysicist) and surfs Campus Point. Five years later he is hired by Steve Howells to work in the Surf-N-Wear shop at 5858 Hollister Avenue. Nance remembers Jeff White from his shop on Front Street in Santa Cruz, the one Stan Veith managed, and always thought White — shrewd in business, a born salesman and negotiator — would be a great man to work for. “It was funny,” Nance tells me, “because when I first went into his shop here, I felt like I knew the guy, right away. He remembered me as a little kid in Santa Cruz. His memory was incredible. I thought he was just…cool. Now, after working with him all these years, I understand. Jeff was sincerely a friend and was concerned about every single facet of everyones’ life.”

Initially White had discouraged Nance from surf-shop employment because he’s a college graduate. But, like White, Nance is an innate salesman. He wants to own a sporting goods store.

Nance eventually manages the Goleta shop and creates a business partnership with White in 1979. Adding to their roster of shops in San Luis Obispo, Goleta, and Santa Barbara, the two men open Surf-N-Wear in Thousand Oaks, Santa Maria, and a brief foray in Carpinteria with Matt Moore and his iconic Rincon Designs shop. Within a few years, aside from the one in Santa Barbara, all Surf-N-Wear shops are sold.

In 1986 White, Nance, and a guy named Barlow Williams partner and lease a small space at 10 State Street. They call it the Beach House. It occupies the foot of Santa Barbara’s downtown drag, across Cabrillo Boulevard from Stearns Wharf, a tourist attraction. During big west swells, Sandspit’s sandy barrels churn within spitting distance. You can surf by the wharf, too.

While living up north, Marc Andreini hasn’t lost touch with White. In 1991 White asks him to shape a few classic longboards under the White Owl label to sell in the Beach House. Andreini obliges and the boards do well. “They were clean, simple, straightforward designs,” he tells me. “No bells and whistles or hype or fads. Just real clean boards that surfed they way they were built.”

In 1993 Nance buys Barlow Williams’s share of the business and runs the Beach House with White, the majority owner. They sell boards by Yater and John Bradbury. Mostly Yater. Channel Islands Surfboards is across the street.

White works in the Carrillo Street Surf-N-Wear shop, which stays open until 1994. Then White stops going to work each day. He regrets plucking White Owl from Summerland. He stays home. The disease is accessing him.

After moving to Hawaii in December 1970, in September 1995 Tally relocates to Montecito for knee surgery and to care for his ailing mother. Tally never lost touch with White, who introduces Tally to Roger Nance. The two connect, and Tally begins restoration on several rare surfboards in Nance’s collection — 1950s-era Hobie balsas, for example. Serendipity strikes further with the appearance of Marc Andreini in the Beach House one day while Tally too is there. A 25-year gap is bridged.

“It was like we’d never been apart,” Tally tells me. “It was great. Marc and I just romped down memory lane, talked about White Owl almost immediately, and agreed that we had to get together with Jeff since Marc hadn’t seen him for many years.”

They drive down Highway 101 to 745 Sand Point Road and lunch with Jeff, who is enthusiastic about reviving the White Owl logo in earnest.

“It was one of the most emotional days, a very prideful day,” Tally says. “It was a big deal for us.”

White Owl Surfboards lives.

Again.

Slide magazine advertisement featuring Travers Adler.

 

745 Sand Point Road, Carpinteria, October 16, 2008

Jeff White’s legs barely work, but he swam in front of his house this morning. He swam a thousand yards, 500 each way, parallel to the shore, just past the breakers. He’s got a beautiful stroke. Long arms. Big shoulders. The water was cool and clean. He wore boardshorts. Literally, he dragged himself from his bed, bumped down 16 wooden stairs, across the living room floor, out the door, down the six concrete steps to the sand.

The water is only 50 feet from here. The sand is cool and hard-packed, usually, after high tide, and it’s footprint-free, since nobody really walks down here from Santa Claus Lane, or up from Carpinteria Beach. Those are the two public beach accesses flanking White’s stretch of paradise. The homes along Sand Point Road are exclusive. Financially, Jeff White isn’t rich. But rich he is.

You can get up from Jeff’s chair, walk outside and across the white-sand beach, and go surfing. Jeff cannot. He thinks he got multiple sclerosis from the chemicals in surfboard foam. I don’t want him to think about that right now.

What do you look forward to, Jeff?

I can’t wait to get into the ocean in the morning. You ever seen a better day than it is right now? This morning was high tide, and I just went out to the beach and went swimming. I’m glad the water’s cooled a little bit. Aw, it felt so good.

What have you enjoyed most?

I really liked making surfboards. I really liked working. It wasn’t like going to work, though. It was like playtime. You liked the people you were surrounded with, you liked what you were doing, it’s a thrill to sell a surfboard. I really enjoyed my time. It was amazing what we got away with there in Summerland — the fire department was right down the street from where The Nugget is now.

What do you see in your future?

You know what I really want to do? What I really want to do? I don’t know if I’ll have the guts to do it, that’s the thing. I want to get myself a 32-foot sloop, very well-built, with a wheel and all the modern stuff. The GPS tells you right where you are, longitude and latitude, right to the second. So what I’d like to do is go get myself this boat, if I could afford it, and I’d really like to solo sail down to the South Pacific.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Being a man of his word.

 

Bel Air Knolls, Santa Barbara, March 5, 2011

In 1969, Gregg Tally stopped cutting his hair. Today he’s got a long ponytail and a mustache and often a lighted Marlboro between his fingers, the same fingers that guide a Skil planer across US Blanks in the backyard shed, the same fingers that lay wet fiberglass onto the foam, the same fingers that make fin panels for the fins that are glassed to the bottoms of White Owl Surfboards. Tally’s versions, anyway. They’re mostly shortboards (though he recently made a 9’2” thruster for Stan Veith) and colorful retros. The boards are still sold from the Beach House, now 10,500 square feet. Roger Nance still owns it.

It’s Saturday, near dusk. We lounge in beach chairs on the cement fronting his suburban garage. Tally’s about to go inside and cook beef steaks for himself and his mother. He takes care of her. Together they bought this small house in April 1997. It’s become the de facto “southern division” headquarters of White Owl Surfboards. Up in San Mateo, Marc Andreini mans the “northern division.”

Tally laughs at this and takes a swig of beer. The smoke from his cigarette floats upward in a near-straight line in the windless air. On the sidewalk, a woman and her dog pass. She smiles and waves to us.

“It’s an honor for Marc and I to do it, Mike,” Tally tells me. “It really is. Jeff was very, very proud of us, and excited about it, that White Owls were back with two of his little gremmies doing it. It was personal to him.”

Tally taps the ash from his cigarette and takes a drag, the embers a small orange dot in the dim light. Tally’s red White Owl sweatshirt is soiled with white foam dust.

“It’s amazing what Jeff put into Santa Barbara surfing and how it evolved. Reconnecting with a person like him was a joy. He was my second father, big brother, and a real friend. Like Stan said, he was my hero, too. He was the epitome of integrity. A golden heart. I know Stan feels the same way. None of us will ever achieve what Jeff was. He was one of a kind. If I ever become half the man Jeff was, I’ll be satisfied.”

“And it’s nice when people do recognize the White Owl label. They ask me, ‘Hey, where’d you get that old board?’ And I tell them it’s not old. After 50 years, it’s new.”

Beer For Breakfast

Field Notes: El Paso to Corpus Christi


By Michael Kew


(Below is unedited stream-of-consciousness recorded during my drive across Texas in September 2012. I’m sure there are several errors. By no means is this meant be a comprehensive narrative or study of the Lone Star State—rather, a simple trace of long interstate miles fueled by truck-stop food and caffeine. Also, the italicized song titles are what was playing on the car radio at the times of note-taking.)


So far, Texas is pretty boring. Flat fields of brush and sand with distant hills, similar to Arizona and New Mexico. Very desolate, nothing of note for miles. Cloudy, dreary sky. Windy. Bridges over washes, also called arroyos.

Between Sierra Blanca and Van Horn at 4:20 p.m. on 9/13. Pastel desert, mountains, more flat fields, Sierra Blanca Mountains, everything is muted from the overcast. Few cars. I passed through a U.S. inspection station and the guy asked if I was a U.S. citizen.

“Sure am.”

“Have a nice day.”

How did he not know that the garbage bags of clothes in my car weren’t full of drugs?

Speed limit on the sign says 80 mph.

Who owns all this land? As far as the eye can see. Nothing but power lines, occasional sign of ranching, some cows, railroad. Near Van Horn, the terrain became more mountainous but still treeless. The town has just 2,500 residents but major hotel chains, fast food, even a KOA. An oasis on the interstate.

Alongside the road outside town is a narrow paved frontage road, like a bike path, but I didn’t see a person on it anywhere at any time. It’s surprisingly chilly for September, very windy, cloudy, almost need a jacket. Normally boiling hot here.

Passing Michigan Flat, which looks pretty damn flat. To the north, I can’t tell if it’s rain or dust clouds. Twenty-two miles to Kent. Flashing Exxon sign: Tire Shop. Diesel. Burritos.

Near Kent, the clouds are smothering the hills and leaking onto the fields. Drizzle soon became hard rain and I had to slow considerably with the poor visibility.

No cars in front of me, none in back, for as far as I can see, which is for miles out here.

Little rectangular metal signs along the road: Drive Friendly, Buckle Up, Maintain Your Vehicle.

Shell station in dreary Fort Stockton, near dark, drizzly, 56°F (weather was hotter back in Santa Barbara; Seattle is in the 90s; a heat wave there). I asked the Mexican clerk if $5.99 for a six-pack of Lone Star Beer was considered cheap.

“Yeah, for a six-pack.”

“Is it any good?”

“I wouldn’t know,” she said, “because I only drink Corona, Hornitos, and Jägerbombs.”

In the Motel 6 room, my dinner was spicy beef jerky and Lone Star. Every vehicle outside was a full-size pickup.

In the morning I went to the nearby Wal-Mart. Outside was a guy inside a huge stuffed panda bear costume with Coca-Cola garb, and a Cheetos tiger dude handing out Cheetos. Health. Inside, at the samples section, an old man said to me: “Hey, it’s free stuff! I love free stuff! Lookit them san’wiches over there.” He was eating a piece of white cake.

Plateaus are trippy. Like hills with their tops sliced off. How do they form? Big one outside of Fort Stockton. Windmills on top. Drizzle, occasional rain, low dark clouds. All the rest stops are well-maintained and have free wi-fi. Passed DOT trucks picking up pieces of tires.

Twenty-two miles to Ozona.

The earth is in layers. Only one station on the FM. The road cuts through the land. Entering Hill Country, just drove up a long incline. Really windy.

Stepped out of the car in Ozona and smelled the fresh air. It reminded me of Johnny Cash lyrics in “Hey Porter” —

Hey porter! Hey porter!

Please open up the door.

When they stop the train I'm gonna get off first

Cause I can't wait no more.

Tell that engineer I said thanks alot,

and I didn't mind the fare.

I'm gonna set my feet on Southern soil

and breathe that Southern air.

 

Ozona not looking too plush. Who lives out here? A memorial to David Crockett stands at the south end of Ozona’s main square. After the town, the land flattens—nothing but fields, low trees, electricity poles.

Al-Qaeda bomb threat, the University of Texas at Austin. Friday morning.

On the radio: agri-business update. November rough rice, 20% gain to 15.29; November soybeans up nearly 7 cents, at 17.54; Chicago wheat, December contract, nearly 25 cents up, 9.27. “You’re listening to the BSA Radio Network.”

Lots of big Ford pickups, some muddy and battered-looking, dudes in cowboy hats. Women employees in the Chevron shop were talking about the high school football game between Sonora and Wall, how the schools bang heads. “I’m gonna get tonight off work for sure,” the fat white one said. “I already requested it from my other job.”

The radio stations are either country, Bible, conservative talk radio, or Mexican. Lots of ads for the film Last Ounce of Courage.

Just outside of Sonora, I swear I saw a surfboard on top of a car heading west.

Basically have seen no police. The road seems to keep repeating itself. I keep saying the same overpasses, the same beige space, cell phone towers, bushes, chaparral, alternating between low hills and little valleys. Texas Peco Trail.

Living on Subway, McDonald’s, beef jerky, Red Bull, and coffee.

“Bubba shot the Jukebox,” “Dixie on my Mind,” “Santa Monica,” “Cowboy Beat,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “Navajo Rug,” “Ring of Fire,” “Beer for Breakfast”

On the radio: talk of combining Austin and San Antonio into one city.

Gallon of regular unleaded octane 87: $3.67.

Cases of West Nile Virus reported; 2012 has been the worst year yet.

There is a radio station called KOOK-FM (93.5 FM), a country music radio station licensed to Junction, Texas.

After Segovia, the road descended from the plateau as I was passed by a hay truck.

“Just Good Ol’ Boys”

Outside San Antonio: sand hills, desert valleys, wooded mountain slopes and desert grassland. Piney looking trees (oak?). Nearing Kerrville: woody plants, forested. Buckhorn Lake Resort. Intermittent rain.

“As Good as I Once Was,” “Beer Bait and Ammo”

The number of cars and radio stations increased dramatically the closer I got to San Antonio. Low wooded hills, lots of trees, lots of green. Big Joshua Creek. South into the heart of the city, then onto the I-37, (one of the few freeway hurricane evacuation routes for the southern Texas coast), southbound for Corpus Christi at the end of the road. At 2:40 p.m. I passed the San Antonio city limits.

“Paradise City,” “Pride and Joy”

The clouds were merciful during this drive across Texas. Couldn’t have asked for better weather for this drive without air-conditioning in the car.

“Boot Scootin’ Boogie”

Lots of bugs flying around as I drove south. More humid here, hotter, more dairyland, flat and green outside Pleasanton. “The City of Live Oaks and Friendly Folks,” “Birthplace of the Cowboy” on the welcoming sign, where Willie Nelson was once a a DJ. Feels like I hit the tropics here. Air is damp. Rednecks.

Oakville. Brush Pen Hollow Creek. The surrounding terrain is low-rolling to flat upstream and flat downstream and is surfaced by sandy and clay loam that supports scrub brush, cacti, and grasses in the creek’s upper reaches and water-tolerant hardwoods and grasses in its lower.

“Tube Snake Boogie”

A billboard:

9/14 Jackson Landgraf And Lane Nobles

Champion Bull Riders Will Be On Hand Signing Autographs At Billy Bob's Western Wear And We Have A Few Other Guest Like

Bull Fighter Larry "Wildman" Gandy - Bertram, Tx

Bull Fighter Kameron "Backflip" Warren - Hillsboro, Tx

Funnyman Darryl Titman - Seguin, Tx

Free Bar-B-Q!!!!! From G & H Bar-B-Q While Supplies Last!!!

2nd Annual Buckin’ For Boobs Rodeo, 9/15 In Robstown

Benefitting The American Cancer Society.

 

Rain up ahead, skies darkening, sunshine is gone. Major downpour at 4:43 p.m. Hard to see, pulled over in a parking area, raining too hard, low visibility, dangerous.

Near Mathis, the roads were dry, so the storm is coming from the west.

“Whiskey Wrote This Song,” “You Ain’t Much Fun”

Heavy rain squalls en route to Corpus, minor road flooding, drivers pulled over.

I didn’t know Corpus was this industrial. Big Citgo refinery, car dealerships, hotels, small houses, dingy looking suburbs. I-358, 6:05 p.m. On the road’s right side are freshly plowed cotton fields.  Overpass bridges have paintings of swordfish and embossed shells and stars. Lots of traffic. Strip malls, big box stores.

Bumper sticker on a pickup: “Real men work in the oil field.”

Driving over the Park Road 22 connects Corpus Christi to North Padre Island. Beginning at SH 358 in Flour Bluff, PR 22 crosses the JFK Causeway to the island, ending at the entrance to Padre Island National Seashore. Several pickups were parked on the bay beach aside the road. Guys fishing. Sheet glass, golden late-afternoon sunlight. Lots of palm trees.

First morning on the coast—rainy. I drove from the motel (not feeling really sharp, where I drank 11 Lone Star Beers—Mike Doyle had told me that Lone Star is a terrible hangover). Got a tuna sandwich from Subway and headed out to Bob Hall Pier. Campground here. Everything is wet; palms wind-torn. A few people on the beach; puddles, gulls, surf was small and junky but rideable. Met with Wayne Maroney, who’d texted me the night before.

We surfed Packery Channel. Waves were actually pretty fun—clean, some fast, lined-up lefts, shorter, punchier rights that were really crowded. Water was 82°F and brown; sky partly cloudy, sun not too much of a factor but still intense. I ended up south of the main pack, which was much less crowded. Fast and clean. Borrowed a thruster longboard from MDC Surf Shop.

The beach was a line of trucks and cars, people drinking and partying, a Saturday. Drunk redhead in a pink bikini with her drunk friend as I was changing out of my wet trunks: “I’m watchin’!” Then: “I’m a redhead and I’m tanner than you!” I told her I surfed in a wetsuit almost all year and didn’t much care for bronzing.

Wayne, 32, grew up right on the channel, basically, in a condo. He was a boat captain and didn’t really get into surfing till his 20s. Born in Corpus. People have always said he doesn’t sound Texan because he doesn’t have even a slight accent. He works at MDC but is getting his teaching degree in psychology.

He told me how lucky I was about the unusually cool weather in West Texas. Normally, cars overheat all the time; air temperatures can reach 115°F and higher.

“You would’ve died out there, man!”

Random quote: “The thing about southern hospitality is you only know that they’re being nice to your face.”

Serious fishing around here. Lots of people fishing from the jetty, fishing poles poking from truck beds, rod racks on the front bumpers.

Felt great to get some saltwater on my skin after being possibly the farthest I’d ever been away from an ocean, which was probably back in New Mexico.

The culture here seems humble, non-pompous, friendly, down-to-earth, laid back.

They didn’t have the TSA comp today, but they should have.

Book signing and film showing at MDC on 9/15. Characters showed. Scuttlebutt Bar after the event, had a few $2 pints of Lone Star. Had Whataburger around 1 a.m. with Wayne. First Whataburger restaurant was founded here in Corpus Christi, 1950. Wayne said Whataburgers in Corpus are the best, and that the employees are proud.

Crashed on Wayne’s couch; woke with sore back. Didn’t rise until late morning.

Borrowed Wayne’s white Subaru Forester to go surf Bob Hall Pier. Water was much bluer and clearer than Packery’s. Smelled fresh with a tropical zing; waves waist-high and fairly punchy on the inside.

Padre Island National Seashore. The road is ruler-straight and flat, nobody around, grasslands, ominous rain clouds to the west, mud flats, dunes. Parked at Malaquite Beach—birds, dune grass, desolation.

The peace was surreal. Very tranquil. Sandpipers. A few trucks were parked up the beach—families fishing from the sand, sitting in chairs. Oil platforms offshore. Looked like it rained hard a little while ago, the sand pockmarked with countless little rain holes. Thunderstorms and thunderheads offshore. I remembered Wayne telling me how the storms accelerate as they pass down from Mexico’s mountains and head north.

Approached by a park ranger. Nice guy. He thought I was lost (California license plates). I asked about the barrier and he said it was to protect four miles of beach from humans and their cars and dogs and fishing poles and noise.

The parks’s entrance station had perhaps 20 cameras pointing in all directions. Apparently the cameras aid authorities who recognize the stretch of coast as being vulnerable to exploitation by smugglers of drugs and undocumented immigrants.

Drove back to Corpus to go barbecue and drink with the Doyles.

“Hell Yeah I Like Beer,” “Hicktown”

September 17, Monday: Highway 77 north out of Corpus, rain, clouds, cool temps, Hungover—stayed up till 3 a.m. drinking with Dusty and Tre, Marine Corps vets who’d just returned from Afghanistan. We were drinking High Lifes.

I left the house around 7:30. Lots of farm supply stores, tractor dealerships, tool shops. Scenery off the 77, near Victoria: acres of green that soothed my hangover away.

Louisiana in my sights.

You Can Call Me Al

(Originally published in Transworld Surf in 2006.)

By Michael Kew

Kelly Slater in California, 2009. All photos: Kew.


“I rode one of Kelly’s boards one day, and it was like a whole new world had been opened up for me. It was something I’d never experienced on a surfboard—it went to a whole other level. I stole that board from Kelly, rode it to death, then came straight home and called Al.”

—Rob Machado, 2005


In 1985, my dad’s friend Bruce owned a parcel on Hollister Ranch, an exclusive and exalted sanctuary of sublime surf spots near Point Conception, California.

Since he was Tom Curren’s stockbroker, Bruce rode a quiver of Channel Islands shortboards custom-shaped by Al Merrick, and I still recall his words as he blithely handed one to me on the beach at Big Drakes: “To surf great on great waves, you need a great board.”

 Such was my quasi introduction to Al Merrick, the venerable, reclusive Santa Barbara foamsmith who most notably lent since-unparalleled greatness to Curren, Kelly Slater, and dozens more professional elite since he began shaping in 1969. Aside from his domestic dominance, Merrick garnered interest from international kingpins like 1978 world champion Shaun Tomson, who called Merrick “the professor,” and it wasn’t long before ASP world titles were being won by surfers on Channel Islands Surfboards—Slater, Curren, Lisa Andersen, Shaun Tomson, Kim Mearig, Sofia Mulanovich.

Three of those titles belong to Curren, six (seven?) to Slater. Most would agree that the two regularfoots were/are the most influential surfers in modern surf history, their surfboards crafted by the most influential shaper in modern surf history, who has also built boards for almost every well-regarded pro in recent years, including Bruce and Andy Irons, Mick Fanning, the brothers Malloy, Dean Morrison, Bobby Martinez, Taylor Knox, and Joel Parkinson.

Twenty years after my Ranch initiation, I stood shaking hands with Al Merrick outside Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theater, at the September 19 world premier of Flow, a grassroots documentary exposing his life and surfboard business, the most successful of its ilk, worldwide selling about two thousand boards each month, consistently outselling other board labels in the biggest surf shops.

“Channel Islands is widely regarded as the top board manufacturer in the United States, perhaps the world,” said Sean Smith, executive director of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.

Merrick, 61, is a tall, thin man with dark, earnest eyes and a low, thick, deadpan voice—he’s of Scotch blood (‘Merrick’ is Scottish for ‘ruler of the sea.’), and I wouldn’t dispute his place in the lineup of Skirza or Thurso East. He’s not a big talker, and he’s rarely seen without a black Channel Islands cap. He carries himself powerfully, confidently, sincerely, purposefully; he’s reluctantly famous and enormously well-liked, and for good reason, because, hey, Al’s a nice guy.

“He’s an example of the kind of person we all strive to be,” said Slater, who got his first board from Merrick in 1988.

A week after the Flow premier, I visited Merrick at his Carpinteria home, tucked in a quiet cul-de-sac a few miles from the famous waves at the queen of the coast: Rincon. Carpinteria, a city of 14,000—quaint, sunny, friendly, unpretentious—exists virtually unchanged from what it was when Merrick moved there in the early 1970s. And with Rincon so close, it’s obvious why he’s never left.

It was 5 p.m. on a Monday, dark, dreary—rare for September. With the season’s first rainfall upon us, Merrick was dressed for winter: black collared fleece, gray corduroy pants, black tennis shoes. He was relaxed, happy, healthy—a year ago, he beat prostate cancer. In his face I could see the decades of surf and sun, the thousands of perfect Rincon walls, the endless hours in the confines of a shaping room—filling orders, creating brilliance, nurturing heroes.

I knocked; Merrick opened. Nobody else was home.

“Glad you could make it,” he said warmly. “I need to make a quick cup of tea.”

We settled into the den of his modest, comfortable single-story home, the same home the Merricks have occupied for thirty years, the same home that has housed some of the world’s best surfers—Channel Islands surfers—passing through town, getting new boards, getting barreled at low-tide Rincon and Sandspit.

Amid intermittent thundercracks, we talked, petted his cat Lily, admired framed photos from Merrick’s twenty years of flyfishing sojourns to eastern Idaho, where he was soon headed for a two-week respite.

“A lot of guys will go and take a vacation and go surfing,” he said, dipping a tea bag into his cup. “But I’m surf-surf-surf all the time. I’m literally dreaming surfboards, so it’s nice to be able to go someplace that is just the opposite—being up in the mountains in my log cabin, sitting by a fire, looking at a lake. This time of year, the tree leaves are all turning orange…it’s beautiful. I see moose in my yard.”

He lifted a frame from the wall and handed it to me.

“Here’s a view off my patio where you can see the mountains I look at across, the Sawtooths, where the clouds are breaking, and this is the lake here….That’s the clouds breaking and that’s the mountains. That’s right off my patio…. (points to another photo) ….and that’s an eight-pound cutthroat, which is a pretty good-sized cutthroat.”

This is Al Merrick, flyfishing extraordinaire, a man who millions of people consider to be the world’s finest surfboard shaper.

“There’s no such thing,” he said when asked if he’s the best. “I’ve never considered myself as making things that are designs are on the extreme and that surfers have to catch up with me. I always feel like I’m on the other end.”

The “other end” has been a bastion of shaping genius, of surfing-career pinnacles, of unprecedented supremacy beginning with Merrick’s success in the early 1980s—his avant-garde team was virtually unbeatable in California’s highly competitive arena, because Merrick knew adolescent promise when he saw it. Tom Curren would become his first true prodigy, followed by Kelly Slater.

“I think they would’ve become world champions whether I had been there or not,” Merrick said.

Unlikely, because Merrick’s modesty belies the outcome of his revolutionary ‘tri-plane hull’ design, implemented in the early ‘70s. The tri-plane hull is a coalescence of a single concave under a surfer’s front foot, leading into an embellished double concave, creating three planing surfaces under the surfer’s back foot, affording substantial lift, speed, and overall maneuverability.

Merrick is also noted for the development of the infamous volume-challenged ‘minimal’ surfboard, known as ‘potato chips,’ or in the words of shaper pundit Dave Parmenter, “flip-tip punji sticks.” Until the early 1990s, pro surfers rode the same small-wave boards as you and me—in his ‘80s prime, Curren’s were 6’3” x 19 ¾” x 2 ¾”; in 1993, Slater’s were 6’1” x 17 3/8” x 2”. Curren’s boards were more buoyant, paddled faster, and caught more waves. Slater’s boards sank, paddled terribly, and were difficult to catch waves on. Yet Slater’s were far looser and quicker and sexier, affording the extreme, fins-free, aerialistic mode of surf-experimentation that was so crucial to Slater’s peerless ascent.

“In most applications, today’s shortboards are absurd,” Parmenter wrote in a 1995 edition of The Surfer’s Journal. “In the hands of 99.9% of surfers they become Fantastic Spastic Machines. Kelly Slater is the only Rock & Roll band in the world…everyone else is playing air guitar.”

Merrick saw it this way:

“A lot of people took it to extremes—guys who were 190 pounds tried to ride what Kelly was riding at 145 pounds, which was ridiculous. His boards didn’t grow with him much, and when he started having a lot of success in his surfing, the volumes of boards came way down. But Kelly’s boards now are 18 ¼” x 2 ¼”—he’s surfing a little wider boards, and the rails are much finer, so the volume of the board is not quite as much. It’s never gone back to where it was.”

“(Al) understood what I was looking for and could create that,” Slater recently said. “He’s helped and allowed me to go where I wanted to on a wave.”

Today, Merrick’s retail boards run the gamut of design, from the high-performance Five to the hugely successful Flyer to the tech K-Board to the retro MSF. Truthfully, Merrick creates boards for everyone, but unless you’re a Slater, a Machado, a Curren, or a Reynolds, you’ll get one from the machine.

 “I’ve had pros go buy a board out of Huntington Surf & Sport and call me up and say it was great,” Merrick said. “And I didn’t even touch it—I designed it, it came off the computer, and one of my finishers finished it.”

Since the early 1990s, the KKL shaping machine essentially revamped the entire surfboard industry, especially for Channel Islands (KKL’s biggest customer), because perfection is difficult to duplicate thousands of times over. But when it was first introduced, the machine encountered much resistance.

“People had this romantic vision of someone going in and personally shaping them a board,” Merrick said. “But after you’re grinding foam with a big planer and you’re lugging that thing around all day, and foam’s shooting into your eyes, getting in your lungs, the romance leaves pretty quickly.” (laughs)

It wasn’t long before Merrick had customers and pros alike requesting that their boards specifically came from the computer.

“You could replicate perfect boards time after time off this machine,” Merrick said, “and people who were 200 pounds could ride one of Kelly’s boards that was designed originally for a 145-150-pound guy. That’s a great advantage.”



Alford Hanwell Merrick was born March 11, 1944, in Bradley Beach, a popular northern New Jersey resort town. His John Wayne-lookalike father was a Wyoming cowboy, his mother a Scottish lass, and shortly after Al’s birth, they all moved to Florida, where his parents wed. It was then out to Colorado, then to the California desert of Cabezon, finally settling in Leucadia in the early 1950s, back when Leucadia was a rustic seaside eden coated with fragrant flower fields.

‘Leucadia’ means ‘sheltered paradise,’ which indeed it was for the Merricks, living on the beach, literally, in Noah’s Ark Trailer Park, now the parking lot of South Carlsbad State Beach.

“There was no freeway,” Al recalled fondly. “I used to walk all the way to Grandview for school. No houses around Ponto. I used to hunt back in there. We used to build rafts and haul ourselves around the slough. BB gun fights (laughs) in those bamboo forests down there….”

He found surfing in 1956, at age 12, which eventually evolved into a sponsorship with Surfboards Hawaii and the first presidency of Swami’s Surf Club.

“I used to be a pretty good surfer—pretty competitive. I won the west coast championships a few times. I was a competitive surfer on a competitive team, surfed for Surfboards Hawaii, competitive teams and clubs. I was a reasonable surfer, you know? Good surfer, solid surfer, but never a pro type of surfer.”

Graduating from San Dieguito High School in 1962, Merrick subsisted by growing potted chrysanthemums and working with his surf sponsor.

“I did a little glassing for John Price at Surfboards Hawaii—I think I glassed one or two boards. As for shaping, I’m pretty much self-taught all the way along. One of my friends shaped, so I probably picked up a few things here, a few things there.”

In 1966, he permanently relocated to Santa Barbara County, fetching another flower-growing job, this time in sunny Summerland, around the same time he met his wife, Terry. Santa Barbara Boat Company was hiring, too, and Al started working for Harry Davis, building and repairing boats. Yet by 1968, destiny was afoot.

“I made my first board at that boat shop,” Merrick said. “They had all the equipment. I had previously cut down boards, stripped boards, stripped off glass and did all that stuff—tried to reshape boards. I always had a fascination with it. I was always a fairly good craftsman, good with my hands.”

That first board was a sleek 7’2” pintail, but he didn’t have much time to test it at Rincon. In 1968, hundreds of people were arrested for possessing marijuana in Santa Barbara County—Al Merrick was one of them.

“The police knew there was a lot of narcotics in Summerland,” he said. “It was the ‘60s, you know? Hippieville. I was in a bad point in my life—sometimes you get into stuff and you don’t realize how far backwards you fall.”

Merrick spent eight pensive months inside Susanville’s California Correctional Center, and upon release in ‘69, his life had been transposed.

“Prison certainly gave me pause to consider my life and where my life was going, and how far I’d fallen,” he said. “That was a sobering thing, and the salvation message made a lot of sense to me. I accepted the Lord, and that just turned my life right around.”

In the early ‘70s, things brightened with the births of daughter Heidi and son Britt, now a pastor at Reality, a Carpinteria-based Christian church the Merricks helped to establish. While wife Terry tended to the children and made clothes for the small Channel Islands retail store, Al shaped and glassed alongside Bill Barnfield and Marc Andreini (both exceptional shapers), and, somewhat influenced by George Greenough, he developed the tri-plane hull, widely used to this day.

“Concaves were basically unheard of at the time,” Merrick said. “It was more vees and rolls, things that passed over from longboards into shortboards. So I started using concaves in bottoms in conjunction with rolls and vees. We’d left the longboard thing behind and were into shortboards—short meaning 7’6”, 7’0”, stuff like that.”

Unbeknownst to Al, expansion beyond Santa Barbara County was imminent. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, his was an unprecedented combination of acquaintance, isolation, skill, and perfect pointbreak surf: precisely the right place at the right time.

“I never really considered getting big. It just sort of occurred. Shaun was a big influence because he was surfing competitively—he actually won a world title when I was making boards for him—but I wasn’t influenced by a lot from outside the area. And that’s good or bad: good in the sense that it drove me to make my designs unique and around my surfers, bad in the sense that maybe we didn’t develop in other ways.”

Who could impugn him for insularity? Santa Barbara was and is known for such—there was no need to emigrate. Al and crew had some of the best surf in California’s history, plenty of talent, and enough moxie to rattle the status quo with something bigger, something better, something smarter than whatever else was occurring in Southern California. In Santa Barbara, in California—indeed, the world—Al Merrick would become the first, and perhaps the last, to affect the sport of surfing the way he and his rarefied team did.

“Al was able to get the overall view of what was going on worldwide at the time by his working with Shaun Tomson,” Curren said, “so he took that and developed his own way of doing something new—he didn’t just copy someone else. He moved to the forefront in shaping and he didn’t let that get to his head—he stayed humble and kept getting better.”

Yet for his top team riders, Merrick was/is far more than a shaper—he is a friend, a coach, a counselor, a pillar of strength and insight.

“My relationship with Al turned into something I’d never imagined,” Rob Machado said. “Coming through town, spending the night at his house, hanging out. Life, you know? Just friends—true friends. And it goes so far beyond that.”

Slater called Merrick his second father, a best friend, a great golf partner; Curren viewed him as an uncle, a mentor, a confidant.

“He’s a diligent person and really good in some other areas,” Curren said. “It so happens that he has that intangible thing about what goes into making a good surfboard. So, not just for his shaping, but because of his personality, he draws the surfers to him. His shaping talent is just an extension of who he is.”

And so, after thirty-six years of full-time boardbuilding, fishing maintains its draw, and Merrick’s Idaho cabin stands as an uncommon refuge for this uncommon man.

“The lake is only twenty feet deep, so it’s a bug factory, and fish eat bugs,” he said. “Because the light penetration and the weed growth is so good, the fish grow like crazy. It’s a double-edged sword, though, because I love the cabin, but I’ve got to work so hard just to find the time to go. And when I come back here, I’m behind and I’ve got to work real hard to try to make up for the time that I was gone.”

But Merrick’s time inside the world’s greatest shaping room is thinning with each flip of the calendar, and his proud lifetime of achievement and inspiration for the world’s best surfers will likely soon be translated into retirement.

With more time for Idaho, the trout in Harveys Lake won’t stand a chance, and Rincon isn’t going anywhere.

“Yeah, I’d like to hang out there, spend time on my boat (Merrick has a custom Greenough 21 by Bill Anderson) with my grandkids, stuff like that. Fishing, teaching them about the ocean, teaching them about the waves, maybe playing a little more golf.

“I don’t know how I’ll be involved in surfing, or whether I will be, but I don’t really consider it too much. When the time comes and the Lord directs me, that’s what’ll happen, and I’m sure it’ll be good.”

The Revolution Will Be Televised

(Originally published in Transworld Surf in 2006.)

By Michael Kew

 

 

CUSP OF TWILIGHT ushers the day’s biggest wave into a pastel Indonesian lineup. Positioned are three age-thirtysomething Basque men and Australia’s Chelsea Georgeson, current female world champ. Quickly she out-paddles the men and snags the backless beast, air-dropping sideways into the front-lit pit — backside, no less — instantly vanishing from view for the entire wave, eventually gliding into the channel, greeted by hoots and laughter and arms held high from everyone in sight.

“I’ve never seen a girl get barreled like that!” yells a red-faced, grinning Aussie, watching from the bow of an anchored yacht.

Two waves later, Hawai’i’s Melanie Bartels thrusts herself into a feathering lip and boosts several feet above it, accented by a stylish double-grab.

The Aussie cocks his head toward his two friends: “F---, mate, how was that bloody air?” Doubly impressed, they clap and smile agreeably, shaking their heads, raising cold Bintangs in deference to what they had just witnessed: the state of the art in professional women’s surfing, live and direct, fast and fresh, all captured on film for you to see, because, yes, the revolution will be televised.

 

I MUST CONFESS that, before alighting seaward with six of the world’s best young female surfers (Georgeson, 22; Bartels, 24; Peru’s Sofia Mulanovich, 22; Australia’s Rebecca Woods, 21; Brazil’s Silvana Lima, 21; and Kauai’s Alana Blanchard, 16), I was just as naïve as the next guy: Pro women’s surfing? You mean those dull contests we see in two-foot slop? Gidget? Cute, bikinied longboarders at Malibu? Brawling lesbians? Roxy-clad teens? The countless surf camps and ditzy Blue Crush wannabes?

Stereotypes can be horrific mistruths, especially when applied to today’s female pros, who have raised the bar in a big way. They charge Cloudbreak, lacerate Lance’s, get shacked at the Superbank and towed at Teahupo’o. Aerials are landed, fins are popping out, rails are set deeply and rigidly, poising the perfectly positioned arc of spray.

We’ve all heard the sexist expression, “She surfs well, for a girl.” Some would argue that it holds true. Others say it will never change. But applied today, it’s simple: these women surf extremely well. Period.

Better than most? Believe it. On the recent Indonesian boat trip, photographer Dustin Humphrey said he’d done several projects on the same boat with men who didn’t surf half as well.

“I’m amazed,” he said after bagging more than a week’s worth of benchmark women’s surf imagery.

The occurrence was hardly anomalous.

“At this year’s Roxy Pro at Cloudbreak, Rochelle Ballard rode what Martin Potter called the best tube he’s ever seen ridden there,” said Quiksilver’s international media manager Kirk Willcox. “She pulled in deep on her backhand, and had to pump the rail with her outside hand at critical moments to get the speed to make it. She later told me she’d learnt the technique from Andy and Bruce Irons.”

So women are influenced by the men. But are they trying to surf like men?

“No, I don’t think it’s physically possible to surf like Andy or someone like that,” Mulanovich said. “We’re just made differently.”

For some, considering physique isn’t even part of the equation.

“I don’t think about surfing like guys,” Bartels said. “We’re all progressing because it’s everyone just pushing each other, in contests and in free-surfing.”

Still, most female pros agree that the men are the sport’s most inspiring surfers.

“Most want to surf like guys, or they look up to people in the lineup,” Woods said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a guy, but generally it is. Of course you need people to look up to, in any sport, or anything in life. Who wouldn’t want to surf like Andy or Kelly?”

“We look at guys for inspiration, sure — they’re the best surfers in the world — but we’re not necessarily trying to surf exactly like them,” Georgeson said. “Any girl would kill to be able to surf like Andy or Kelly, but we’re happy to be us — to be girls, surfing the way we do.”

From afar — on an anchored boat in Indonesia, say — an average viewer would perhaps not realize he or she was watching a woman surf, because, as popular opinion tells us, females surf nowhere near as well as men — never have, never will. Of course, this is untrue. Today it is hardly a matter of gender comparison, which has been usurped in recent times by the simplicity of natural progress, embraced by the surfers and the industry itself. Relative equality is only a matter of time.

 “When as much support and passion put into men’s surfing is put into women’s, it will be at the same level,” said Ballard, 35, a nine-year WCT veteran who finished second in the world in 2004. “Men will always be the leaders of our sport, but the gap will definitely continue to grow smaller and closer together.”

Keen surf-industry players and pros alike echo Ballard’s sentiment.

“Every year, there are clear notches that women’s professional surfing ascends,” Willcox said. “There is a definite lineage from the early days of pro surfing, and people take the best of certain things and develop their own styles and approach.”

“Women today have a lot more opportunities than generations past because the sport is continuing to grow,” said Roxy’s Monica Paull. “Women now have stand-alone contests with bigger prize purses, and it is because the industry is supporting and recognizing their amazing talent.”

“It’s easier for our generation,” Georgeson said. “Women’s surfing is more accepted and it’s being pushed — it’s actually a good sport for women to do now. There is a lot of money involved in it now. People actually respect girl surfers.

“From an economic standpoint, the big surf companies have realized our marketability,” Woods said. “Surfing is a fun, fit, athletic lifestyle, and there’s a market for it, so they just clued into it — maybe a little bit later than they should have, but they did. And instead of comparing us so much to guys, it’s more that we can be accepted for being females and for being good as females.”

 

WITH EACH GENERATION there is a narrowing chasm between the abilities of men and women. They are not surfing for their gender. They are surfing for the sake of performance and progression, studying history and realizing their gifts, ultimately grabbing the ball and running with it.

“It’s the same with all generation changes,” Georgeson said. “It starts off being the older girls who first started progressing our sport, and then you surf with people, and they inspire you even more. When the girls before us were trying to beat Pam Burridge and Margo Oberg, they were so fired up — they were the next generation, and they’d already seen what the previous generation could do, and they wanted to progress and get better than them. And now we’re younger than those girls, and we want to get better than them.”

Watching Georgeson and her peers surf shallow, tropical reef-pass barrels, one after another, with each girl watching, later hooting and congratulating for big moves and deep tubes, it’s obvious that their primary influences come from within their peer circle.

“After a trip like this,” Woods said, “I want to go home and learn new things, because these girls are pushing the bar so high. Sometimes I just sit out there and think, ‘I don’t really want to take off because they surf so well.’” (laughs)

Witnessing the futuristic surfing of Bartels and Lima, young Blanchard was inspired to perhaps surf even more radically then she already does.

“At home I try (airs) sometimes,” Blanchard said, “but now, after seeing Silvana and Mel doing huge airs and landing them, I want to try more.”

Woods, quite solid on rail, also credited a few of the crew as primary influences growing up.

 “I saw Silvana and Mel and Sof and Chels when I was younger, watching Peaches and stuff like that, and I’d think, ‘Oh my gosh, they surf so well,’” Woods said. “I didn’t see any girls surfing at my local break when I was growing up, so, coming from that, and watching a girl’s surf movie was funny, because you could actually see people trying to do what you were trying to do.

“You’d never really seen a girl do a certain maneuver, and you didn’t really know if it was possible. Seeing the girls blowing up now gives you a bit more confidence, then, say, if I was coming in now and hadn’t seen half the stuff that I’ve seen some of the girls do. It makes you want to rise to the challenge a bit more.”

 

IN YEARS PAST, the picture of women drawing motivation from other women was a bit bleak, due namely to the absence of visibility and insight from the professional ranks, essentially ignored by most of the world, viewed as a bit of a novelty genre, not really something Joe Six-Pack would stake an interest in.

Still, in the name of publicity, there remains a void: a successful all-female surf magazine. Besides high-profile, big-money surf contests, what could be the most effective conduit for showcasing today’s women has repeatedly perished at the heels of commerce.

 “You really should ask why the industry has failed to support women’s magazines,” said Sunshine Makarow, publisher of recently defunct Surf Life For Women. “I don’t think there will be a successful magazine unless priorities change drastically.”

Yet pros like Georgeson feel the genre is quite possibly best represented by being featured in the prominent long-standing “men’s” magazines like the one you are holding.

“I think it’s better to be in a men’s magazine, anyway,” Georgeson said. “Girls’ magazines hardly ever have surfing shots — it’s always fashion stuff, music reviews, stuff like that.”

“When I became editor-in-chief of a surf mag seven years ago, we got few, if any, decent photos of women,” said TransWorld Surf’s Joel Patterson. “I’m not sure if that meant they weren’t surfing well, or what, but in the past three or four years, we’ve made concerted efforts to reach out to female professional surfers and say, ‘Hey, let’s go shoot some photos!’ The results have been incredible.

“Another interesting aspect of women’s surfing is the sheer amount of sponsor support they get. It’s really interesting to see what’s happening on the female side of the sport. It’s where surfing is making leaps and strides right now.”

 “Being in the men’s magazines is best,” Mulanovich said, “because more people see them.”

Some veteran surf journalists believe it is just as well.

“Women would prefer to just be included as part of the surf community at large — more stuff in Surfer, Surfing, Surfer’s Journal, TransWorld, etc. — then be separated and cordoned off into their own area,” said Matt Warshaw, author of six surfing books. “None of the women’s mags were really all that great. You kind of want to root for them as plucky and brave pioneers, but none really had a distinctive or interesting voice.”

But why, with today’s ever-increasing female surf-population factor and resultant economy (Roxy is currently selling more product than Quiksilver, for example), has there yet to be a successful all-women surf mag? What does this mean?

“Women’s surf magazines have struggled because they occupy a micro-niche,” Surfer’s Journal editor Scott Hulet said. “Also, I suspect that more than one publisher discovered you can’t gauge viability purely on the strength of the ad base. The overwhelming bulk of the girls buying Roxy and Hurley don’t surf, and thus could care less about surf magazines.”

Yet a glimmer of hope exists. Last month, longtime surf writer Ben Marcus launched Wet, a glossy, quarterly Surfer’s Journal-esque magazine for females, something he feels could change the stigma attached to women’s surf mags.

“I started Wet because I knew there was a lot of great material out there, both contemporary and historical,” Marcus said. “I thought I would try to do a women’s surf magazine that had traditional surf magazine values, and serialized that history of women’s surfing as part of the magazine.”

A venture in vain? Unlikely, Marcus hopes. After all, he’s seen the state of the art in his backyard.

“Last year I watched the Rip Curl Malibu Pro, held in absolutely perfect surf, and had my eyes opened as to how fast and stylish the women had become,” he said. “I remember a time where, when the women’s heats started, everyone would get up and walk away, because, to be blunt, the women were slow and had no style — who wanted to watch that? But that’s no longer the case.”

 

ROCHELLE BALLARD KNOWS this to be true, too. A standout from the previous generation who competes against the aforementioned young stars, Ballard has witnessed and participated in the transition first-hand, since launching her WCT career in 1997, when the professional female surf world was a different place.

“My generation broke down a lot of barriers,” she said, “and we were fortunate enough to enjoy so many turning points in women’s surfing. The industry, the media, and the ASP really got behind our surfing, and a big change in the imagery and perception of women surfing changed.

“This new generation has amazing resources: insane boards, coaching, great endorsements and support. They’ve learned from our mistakes and were inspired by our success to take it to the next level even sooner than we did.”

Fifteen years ago, Ballard wanted to become world champion early, then attend college, get a job, and build a family. She never dreamt she where she would be today, owning a nice house on the North Shore, living well off of surfing into her mid-30s.

“The generation before mine didn’t really have that opportunity,” Ballard said. “But now, Sofia and Chelsea have both each their first home, their first world title, and a very healthy income at the age of 22. Stephanie Gilmore won her fist WCT event as a senior in high school, instantly becoming an icon in Australia. It will be amazing to see what girls like Carissa Moore and Coco Ho do in the next few years.”

Indeed it will. Today’s generation is a portal to the future, and with the proverbial snowball gaining girth with each new face, the fundamental shift of paradigm within professional women’s surfing can only perpetuate the brightness which abounds today.

Yankee Trio — New England Might Be The Place

By Michael Kew

{This story was originally published in 2012 in Slide magazine.}

Shore of Tooth

Forecast?

The forecast was for sharks.

Posted June 28 on Cape Cod Shark Hunters’s website: “George Breen discovered a 16-foot great white shark during his routine flight this afternoon. The sharks have returned to the area so swimmers are asked to use caution. Do not swim at dusk or in locations heavily populated by seals.”

The Hunters are a pod of Cape fishermen who tagged sharks for scientific research with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. “We are here to keep you safe in the water,” their site promises. “Tag a shark, save a tourist!”

As a shark-loving tourist from California, June 28 was the day I chose to bodysurf in the shapely shorepound at Cahoon Hollow Beach, a pretty place with mountainous sand dunes and drinkers and diners in the Wellfleet Beachcomber, an ex-lifeguard station that today is an axis of summer.

On June 28, the Atlantic was calmly cool to the horizon, Spain the next port of land, 3,110 miles east. Belly waves barreled along the yellow-sand shore. A haven for city dwellers, Cahoon’s wide beach was flecked with colorful umbrellas and plastic chairs and pasty-white humans, evidence of the recent seasonal shift, lifestyles from indoors to out.

June 28 was a serene portal to the Cape summer — warm, windless, with a few white wisps of cloud, rips in a vast blue curtain. The drive east from verdant Lakeville was first cleaved by a bloating lunch of fried clams and Coke at the Seafood Shanty on Route 6, the paved release valve for Bostonian surfers, two hours behind.

“But most a’ da real soifas, yeah, they live out hee’ on da Cape,” said a heavily-accented fat guy on the barstool next to me. He looked like Homer Simpson.

“Are you one of them?”

“Nah,” he said between gulps of Bud Light. “I don’ soif.”

“Stand-up paddle?”

“Nah. Dat shit’s fer gays.”

I finished my beer and walked back down the steep, sandy beach trail for another round of shorebreak body-whomp. I wanted to see some more seals — I’d swam near one earlier — which lure sharks, a natural Cape occurrence ever since this big arm-shaped sandspit was born.

“Yeah,” the beach lifeguard told me. “Everyone’s hopin’ to see a shark, man. People keep askin’ me, ‘Where are the sharks? We gonna see one? Where can we see one?’”

“You see any out here?”

“Not yet. They’re all down by Chatham and Monomoy. That’s where the seals hang out. Especially Monomoy. It’s nuts.”

Treading water near the lifeguard’s tower, waiting for a wave, I reckoned Monomoy might be great for bodysurfing.

 

Winter Without

July in Hampton Beach looked nothing like the 10 pages of wave porn that photographer Brian Nevins decorated in “Seasonal Exceptions,” his 2006 feature in The Surfer’s Journal. Shapely slabs, a golden back-lit left, aerial views of whitewater triangles and rocky points, all offering a glimpse of how good the state’s 18 miles of coast can get. It also made me wonder how any East Coast surfer could live anywhere but New Hampshire.

For Nevins, a Hampton native, those photos were the result of living there year-round, witnessing his spots in their finest hours, typically in winter. “I was born in love with the cold,” he wrote. “Surfing the gelid water of New England in winter is not a stunt, a cry for attention, nor an act of courage.”

I felt courageous in the boiling air of New England in summer, inching along in my rented car, negotiating the haze of Hampton tourists who licked cotton candy and ice cream while strolling past junk-filled shops hawking black tank-tops that said Party With Sluts. The afternoon air temperature was 90°F, the humidity near 90 percent, and I was thrilled to see rideable waves at The Wall, New Hampshire’s most consistent spot. But I had no surfboard.

“Just grab one from the rental rack outside,” Dave at Cinnamon Rainbows Surf Shop said to me. “You can only surf a few blocks back that way. It’s restricted. Take the sidewalk. Have you got a wetsuit? The water’s gone a bit cold in the last day or two. Offshore wind skimmed all the warm water away.”

I had no wetsuit and wouldn’t don one in such swelter. The beach sand steamed and the tide was too low. The ocean was brisk. The board was a generic orange Thai pop-out and rather kooky but proved handy for catching small windswell peaks off the Route 1A drag. A plump, bored-looking woman in a red lifeguard one-piece stood on the damp sand at water’s edge, watching the swimmers and non-surfers who were trying to surf, also on Thai pop-outs. To the south lay Great Boar’s Head, a sharp right point, one of the spots in Nevins’s TSJ article. Between waves, I sat on the board and admired the headland, daydreaming about what a double-overhead southeast swell would do to it.

“The point gets really good,” Nevins had said. “Lots of locals are on it, and parking is slim, but it’s great when you get it.”

In July — peak tourist season — there seemed to be no locals in crowded Hampton, nor in scenic Rye, which seduced my uncomfortably hot afternoon into a slow inspection of a particularly fine surfcoast. It was the New Hampshire that I could befriend. But not today.

It was flat.

So I thought: Rye might be my place to visit this winter.

 

Lobster Rock

Short Sands Beach in York, Maine, poses a kerfuffle because summer surfing there is illegal until 5 p.m. each day. Cruelty when, at 4 p.m., there are three separate peaks humping up within view from the Inn on the Blues. I had no surfboard, anyway, so I ended up drinking New Hampshire-brewed IPAs on my private porch. “Sometimes,” I said to myself, “at Short Sands, a beer buzz is all you can catch.”

“Come back in the fall when there’s hurricane swell and you’ll be stoked,” a drunken Nick LaVecchia promised me with a smirk later that night, downstairs in the noisy bar, while I ate lobster, the Maine cliché. “Summers are crazy here. Wait till you see the beach parking lot and the traffic tomorrow. Maine is called ‘Vacationland’ for a reason.”

A friendly, stubble-faced photographer and farmer’s-market maestro, LaVecchia was drinking from a copper cup filled with Moscow Mule, a mix of vodka, lime, and ginger ale. Soon I was drinking one, too. LaVecchia’s wife Molly, who was just leaving, sat across from him.

“This sucks,” LaVecchia told me. “I gotta get up at 5:30 to work at Molly’s farm-stand. It’s hers and her friend’s. I make sure they don’t make any dumb decisions.” (laughs)

The next day, I did a book signing in Liquid Dreams Surf Shop, then lucked into some fun, cold waves at a rivermouth that was long a hub for Maine surfers. LaVecchia had warned me of a likely crowd, since today was Saturday, but, surprisingly, there was almost no one out. Front-lit from the late-afternoon sun, the crisp, brown, sand-bottomed rights were rib-high and fast, groomed by light offshores, and the lineup lent a clear view of the umbrella sea on bustling Ogunquit Beach. Tiny Ogunquit (pop. 1,500) itself had just been rated #1 on Yankee magazine’s “25 Best Beach Towns” list; Money magazine once chose York/Ogunquit as “one of the 10 best places to vacation in North America.”

In surf magazines, I’d seen some of LaVecchia’s non-summer lineups — snowy left points, hollow rights, deep green forests cradling rocky beaches. They exposed the obvious: for Maine surfers, “Vacationland” might never fit.

#The Simplicity of Cyrus Sutton, 10:33 A.M. – 12:11 P.M., Holy Saturday

{This story was originally published in 2013 in Slide magazine.}

You may know of this subject.

He’s created four surf films, soon five. In 2006, he split an Emmy for another.

His commercial work is praised.

Korduroy.tv, which he launched in 2009 and still lords over, has produced more than 400 shows for public view.

At 18, he was a professional longboarder. At 30, he is a professional freesurfer.

He has many interests beyond surfing.

He lives in a van.

 

#Words and Van Photos By Michael Kew

#Surfing Photos Courtesy of Dylan Gordon/Terasu

 

 

#If only the yogi had surfed.

“Swami’s”—an eponym. The longhaired yogi had no clue about its fine rights. Lefts, sometimes. The lineup was bare. Tranquil. Spiritual.

For him.

‘Til death, if he’d wanted.

In 1937, the land facing Swami’s Reef in Encinitas was a prime knuckle of sandstone. Paramahansa Yogananda built a hermitage. The expat Indian lived there in serenity, gazing out over vast brown kelp beds and the blue, softly-seabreezed Pacific, so mild in that Southern California way, while he taught scientific forms of meditation, energization, and concentration, urging folks to grok an intimate rapport with God. Yogananda called it the Self-Realization Fellowship and it became a worldwide clique.

The surf below his retreat was best in winter. Nobody knew or cared. Mass surf-realization was years off. But since 1952, when Yogananda died, many thousands of people have surfed Swami’s. They still do, even today, this sunny morn before Easter, when lousy little waves dribble to shore.

Here, Yogananda was onto something. His soul was fed by nature. It bathed him. Globally, his peregrinations touched millions.

Yogananda has been dead twice the number of years Cyrus Sutton has been living.

Fullerton first. “My dad was a landscape architect and professor of landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. Fullerton was directly between his favorite local mountains, where he liked to hang out, and the surf spots of Orange County.”

Seal Beach next. “You can talk about East Coast surfers being really stoked and really pure. It’s the same in Seal Beach. The waves aren’t that good, and there isn’t as much to be jaded about. When it’s on, everybody is just frothing. I like that. I know personally that that brought that out in me when I was really aspiring for something more.”

Cardiff later—he lived in the back of Rob Machado’s house. Then La Jolla, right above Big Rock. Then back to Orange County in his van. Encinitas now. “But I’ve had enough of Southern California at this stage of my life.”

Matter-of-fact. No hint of sour.

We’re sitting atop new sub-floor plywood storage compartments in the bare rear of Sutton’s white 2003 Ford E-250. It is parked in the dusty dirt off San Elijo Avenue, overlooking a busy Coast Highway 101, Swami’s, guardrails, railroad track, kelp beds, native shrubs, and Yogananda’s iconic digs. Humanity floods the scene. The sky is vast and clear, the Pacific a rich cerulean, textured by a soft west wind. A fine day of seasonal spring hue.

We’d hoped to surf. We’d also planned to park this van in the small Swami’s lot, because Cyrus is renting a room in an old house nearby, and, because, raised in Encinitas, I’d spent my youth surfing over that reef. But all 40 spaces were taken, mostly (or all) by the joggers and dog-walkers and baby-pushers who’d left cars there.

“Southern California is based on a road-traveling infrastructure,” Sutton tells me. He’s picking at something on his arm. “Every amenity that’s necessary for man is roadside. You can get every single thing you need, the most efficient way possible, being on the road. This is the most efficient way for me to get all my work done and stay healthy and stay stoked. Stay creative.”

Sutton is wearing a plain black T-shirt and his Reef signature Cy Stripe boardshorts. On his feet are black, green-soled Reef Rodeo Flip sandals that look to be one size too big. To his right hangs a small, black-handled broom. Five times during our chat, he uses it to lightly sweep the floor around his feet. He’s not really sweeping, because the faux oak flooring looks clean. Once, he sweeps the bottoms of his Rodeo Flip sandals.

“I have a really hard time making this van dirty. Everything is wood and nothing is carpet because if I try to throw shit in here and drive, it’s gonna slide around and it’s gonna be all sketchy. So I’m constantly having to pick up after myself. I used to have open shelves that said, ‘Throw stuff in me and never come back.’ Cluttered my van. So I’ve designed it to make the most use of space and keep it self-cleaning.”

He designed this new interior using Adobe Illustrator and employed skilled friends to help bang it all out. Tomorrow he’s going to spraypaint the van’s exterior for a more grounded look. Something greeny. Or brownish. Maybe both. Camo?

“I had to get rid of a bunch of my stuff.”

Liberating, eh?

“Super liberating.” He shakes his head. “The biggest challenge we all have is getting rid of shit. Our belongings consume us. The more shit you have? Spiritually and mentally, you’re slower. I’m obsessed with simplicity. Simplifying my life.”

 

“Every tomorrow is determined by every today.” Paramahansa Yogananda

 

#The E-250 once belonged to an overworked electrician.

“I got it when it was a couple of years old. I was at a point where I didn’t want to live with my parents in Seal Beach, but I couldn’t afford rent. I made my first surf film, ‘Riding Waves,’ and that made me quite a bit of money. I took off around the world, bought 16mm gear, and shot a bunch of stuff. Spent all my money. I came back and was back at my parents’ and I thought: ‘This sucks.’ So I moved into the van, put a bed in the back—just a really simple piece of wood—and since then, I’ve transitioned into living down here more. It’s been about six years now.”

Flanked by the highway and railroad tracks on one side, San Elijo Avenue on the other, our setting is loud—constant cars, flatulent Harleys, chatty walkers, horn-blaring trains—so the van’s sliding door is left just slightly ajar. It’s too warm. I sweat. A perfect beach day out there. But in here, Sutton and his 5’6” John Wesley TwinFinPin—the one board he brought today—will stay dry.

“That board is insane,” Sutton says, pointing to where it’s stashed behind the clear Plexiglas panel of the van’s portside sub-floor space. The top of the compartment is used as a guest sleeping area, a counter space, and a cook space for his red camping stove. Behind the driver’s seat, the end of the compartment contains a trash can and a five-gallon propane tank. Two white onions lie at the bottom of an orange mesh basket that hangs above the other end, left of Sutton’s head. No other foodstuffs are visible. Soon, the compartments will be stocked.

“Sleeping on wheels has always felt like home. The funnest times of my life were spent sleeping in the back of my dad’s Volkswagen bus, driving up to the Sierras and smelling the sage when you drive into the high desert.

“There’s something about getting out off this thing we live in in Southern California. I think we can all feel it. It’s just this, like, HOO-WO-HA. [arms move from his head out and down, like compression] Being a pretty driven person, I get affected [jabs fingers together] by all the energy. I get excited [raises and pumps fists] but it also binds me in a lot of ways. Going out and hiking and not being around cell phone signals and all that stuff. And that’s true, man. There are cosmic people out there who are afraid that we’re getting bombarded with ozone radiation all the time, or whatever. I’m not on that end of the spectrum, but I know if I go down to Mexico for a surf trip, if I’ve been working on a lot of projects here, the first four or five days that I’m down there, I will sleep 13 to 14 hours a day. It’s because there’s no energy going through my body. I get to sleep. I come back here and I can’t sleep. I’m just wired. Maybe I have nothing on my plate that week. But there is a current running through the city that affects us. This (van) just allows me to get outside of it and to do it really efficiently.”

Next weekend, Sutton will fly to Tahiti for a Reef team shoot. After that, he will spend two or three months in the E-250, absorbing and capturing the fabric of his surroundings, wherever they be, his movements fueled by…fuel. The result will be distilled and packaged as “Compass_ing,” freely viewable to you online.

Got a loose itinerary, Cy?

“Nah. Wherever. I’ll look at the swell forecasts and just go. I haven’t really decided. That’s what I’m excited about.”

And from there?

“I have certain aims of living in a society or a community that, based on resources and geographics, may or may not be based in Southern California. [loud motorcycle passes by] The end goal for me is to be more connected with the local things that are going on and all of that is purpose-built. Recently I read ‘Imagined Communities,’ a book which postulates that anything other than your local town—any belonging that you have to other people other than people you deal with on a day-to-day basis for your survival—is imaginary. [waves a hand in the air] The whole Internet is fuckin’ imaginary. [becomes animated, puts left hand on chest] ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag,’ all this hoopla that they pound [pounds fists together] into us because, based on human nature, we don’t have that loyalty to that big of a place. On a very basic level, we just have loyalty to those around us who we need, who we rely on to eat every day and to procreate. That’s about it. Just getting back and letting go of all these imaginary ideas of ourselves and popularity on this grand scale, trying to get thousands of….”

‘Likes’ and views?

“I didn’t say that. [laughs] Because, for me, that’s a means to an end. That’s part of my career right now. That’s part of the reason I get a paycheck. That’s not what I’m about, though. That’s not really what I want.”

What do you want?

“I want enough ‘likes’ and views to support myself and my family, so maybe 20? That’s all we need. I don’t think we need more than 20 ‘likes’ and views.

During our chat, the E-250 is photographed by an outside passerby, who posts the image to Instagram and Facebook.

Have you seen Cyrus? @cyrussutton #cyrussighting @korduroytv

Minutes later, Sutton sees it on his phone. He smirks.

“That’s funny.”

The photo receives 42 ‘likes’ and no comments. On Facebook, 13 people ‘like’ it. One comment: “No but if i see that hillbilly creeper van in my hood i'm callin the cops!” This comment is ‘liked’ by one person.

Sutton and I have 403 mutual Facebook friends. Which moves me to ask: What has all this friending and hashtagging and blogging done to surf culture?

[Long pause. Stares straight ahead, loose-jawed, absent-mindedly fidgets with the top rung of the onion basket] “People who refine a viewpoint and have a story to tell are always going to rise to the top. I have a lot of sympathy for artists who are trying to make it now. I always tell any person who is struggling with the media side of surfing, or the global web side that I’m involved in, to just get more local. What is it about yourself that makes you feel that you need to be a part of the big global scene? Why not just spend more time with the farmers in your local community, or figure out something that you can make and trade? Be more rooted in your local scene, because as someone like me, who has been embraced by the global community, I can tell you that it’s no more fulfilling. I’m there. I’m in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and I’m rolling around in the gold coins, and I’m telling you that the gold ain’t real. I can’t eat the gold.”

 

“Remain calm, serene, always in command of yourself. You will then find out how easy it is to get along.”  P.Y.

 

#What’s fun about Cyrus Sutton? He’s silent for 12 seconds after I ask. It’s a strange question since, to you, his life rotates around all that’s fun.

Drinking beer?

“Beer’s fun.”

But, ultimately, Sutton dislikes beer. That’s not fun at all, is it?

He doesn’t drink much.

Smartly fun, sometimes, though he does like tequila. “I drank probably a bottle of tequila a week while I was working on this van. Alcohol can be a real fuel. It allows you to be outside and work and stay warm and have this constant energy to do stuff on a real mellow level. I’ll take a sip of tequila and hold it in my mouth for a while, letting it get warm. I’m not pounding it to inebriate myself so I can go talk to some girl and it’s less awkward.”

Vaguely fun.

He likes to fish. “I grew up fly-fishing in small creeks in the Eastern Sierras. It’s like hunting, because with creeks, you have to learn how to read the different currents, and if your line gets caught in the wrong place, you’re going to have drag in your fly and the fish will be able to see it and you won’t outsmart it and it’s not going to go for your fly. You move up the stream and every bend is a new challenge. And every bend changes, depending on the time of year and how much water is flowing through it, so it’s kind of like surfing in that nothing’s ever the same, but you’re traversing territory, trying to ultimately get a fish.”

Categorically fun.

He likes to get scared. “Getting out there to the point where you get outside of your safety net—you break down somewhere, anything that happens—there’s this thrill of being alive that we’ve always felt as humans. It makes me feel grateful about my life.”

Not particularly fun, but true.

Is media fun?

“You can’t eat media. You can’t grow media. [sweeps broom a little to the right] It’s fake, basically. All media is artistic expression. What blew my mind was looking up the word ‘aesthetics.’ [hangs broom back on hook] Basically, it’s the creation of physical objects which evoke an emotional or spiritual response. So it’s art. But aesthetics were treated very gingerly by most ancient cultures because they realized that it was not directly contributory to the sustainment of that culture. It’s not growing food, it’s not building infrastructure, it’s not feeding cattle, [talks faster] the basic shit that everybody used to have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. The people who were able to create art—whether it was literature or paintings or whatever—they either had to be immersed in a religion and do it in a mastical context, or they had to be sort of an older, wiser person, considered wise within their tribe or community or city-state, or whatever it was, to be able to practice it. Otherwise, the society simply didn’t support it.

“Nowadays, most of the ways that we gain support for doing media is through commercial endeavors, so we’re participating in marketing. The marketing is the creation of ideas and, at the base level of everything, we’re trying to create visual and auditory expressions which evoke a love response. The love response is an interesting response because when people fall in love with anything, dopamine is released into their brains, and the ability for cognitive reason goes down—it becomes suppressed—because, on an evolutionary level, we want to procreate. That’s what all commercials and marketing are based on—evoking love—so you can then associate some kind of product or something that you probably really don’t need and probably isn’t really going to last very long. [removes broom from hook]

 “It would be awesome if everybody got famous, if everybody on Instagram got their 15 minutes of fame, and then we all got over it. We didn’t hold anybody on a pedestal because of what we saw in a magazine or in a movie. We treated each other normally. When you treat someone specially because of what you’ve seen, it’s kind of a pain in the ass to treat them specially, and then the person who’s treated specially, it doesn’t feel good to be treated specially for no reason either. [Almost frowns. Shakes head briefly] It doesn’t really feel that good, so why do we do it? Let’s just not do it. Let’s just figure out stuff we can do together.”

 

#Together, commissioned by some Basque folks in Spain, he’s crafted a short flick about the Basque diaspora. It may be titled “Homeland.” To aid the research, he flew to Spain with Ryan Burch (“He’s the pure surfer we all want to be.”) and fellow van-dweller Foster Huntington. Together, they surfed large Mundaka. Sutton is making a short film about that, too.

In the past six years, he’s worked with his cousin to make a rock-climbing doco, together tracing families that live in Yosemite Valley, balancing an inherently dangerous activity with the responsibilities of being family members. “The mountain culture—people who are climbers or hikers or camping in general—is pretty straight. There’s such a reverence for the outdoors. There doesn’t need to be this whole ‘Look at me, I’m into myself and what I’m wearing and what I’m drawing and what I’m listening to’ kind of vibe. This ‘hip’ vibe, this ‘scene’ vibe.”

What do you mean?

“People who hang out together and they feed on the collective vibe of who they are. They get positive reinforcement by a momentum that they’re creating, which is great, because a lot of the momentum they’re creating is because of hard work they’ve done—creativity and passion and talent. [gets more animated; grips broom] If I do a web edit and it’s really something I’m proud of, and I feel like I did it to the best of my ability and it conveys what I want to convey, nine times out of 10, I will not then go down the street and hang out for a week in my hometown and talk to people and wait for them to tell me that they saw it, or talk about it. I will, nine times out of 10, go to the mountains by myself and go hiking.

“It’s like ‘The Crying Game’ every time after I make something that I was really passionate about. I have to take a cold shower, in a way. Hiking is that cold shower, or going on long paddles and not talking to people and just feeling the elements of nature. Because a lot of media is marketing, and that’s what we’re all participating in. (hangs broom back up)

Is that good, then?

 “You need to really get in touch with yourself and be egocentric when you make art, and the hiking thing and being away from people brings me back to reality and brings me into a space where I can create something that isn’t about the result. Good art is not about the result and the response that you get. It’s about doing the act itself. That’s what the scene bleeds me from. It’s all about the laurels and the results and reinforcement for people. I would rather save my time and energy to be a part of something that is a community of people based in function instead of fashion.”

 

“Live quietly in the moment and see the beauty of all before you. The future will take care of itself.” P.Y.

 

#There is no real set route, no end, no mash of the gas pedal toward the proverbial sunset. With his current and previous work, Sutton has proven himself.

To himself.

He thinks so.

“All my other projects have literally changed who I am to birth that project. Now I have the values down that I really enjoy and appreciate, and I’m going to continue to carry on in that direction and be productive. [starts sweeping the van floor while still sitting]

“There are always certain people who do something in their lives, and then the greater scene thinks that that’s cool, and they’re able to make a little money from that coolness for a short amount of time until they’re not considered cool again. I guess I would be put in that realm. The realm of, ‘This is who I am and this is what I’ve done.’ It’s been really embraced as being really cool, and I’m able to surf more and not have to work as much because of that. So I’m very grateful.”

Many thousands of people love what you do. Does this translate into being a pillar of the greater scene?

“I’m not really part of the scene. I touch the scene sometimes and I think,Oh, that doesn’t feel very good,’ so I go back to just doing my own thing. [holding broom brush-end up, picks at it] The interesting thing about when I’ve been around scenes, and people who are in scenes, is there’s a lot of collective energy created that is socially based: ‘I’m hanging with this person, who is this and that, and it makes me feel good about myself and what I’m doing. It gives me reason and it gives me purpose instead of trying to find it on my own.’ That’s always been problematic for me in the long term because I was brought up by teachers and people who challenged me from a young age: ‘Okay, but don’t be indulgent here,’ they’d say. ‘You can think and say certain things, but what’s it’s greater purpose? What’s your contribution going to be to something larger than yourself, based on your experience and your feelings right now?’

“Nobody in the scenes that I’ve dipped into and out of have ever really been coming up with ideas and things that really changing the culture. It’s more just this self-adoration of themselves. Some scenes aren’t like that. Revolutionary Russia was a scene of people in town squares talking about communism, and they changed things. They changed the world for better or worse. The Occupy movement, for better or worse, did affect culture a lot. But surfing scenes are kind of…what is there to really talk about anymore? We like to hang out. We like the sun. We like to surf.

“I’m not going to grow as a person by being in Southern California and being in scenes. I’ve found that, as I get marketed as being somebody who is ‘cool,’ and more people are attracted to me and want to hang out and want to include me in their scene and all of these things, that I looked at it and I’ve partaken in the scene for a day or two, and it always ends up being: ‘Okay, this is great, and I really respect and am thankful that you are including me in your scene, but it’s not my path.’ My path is to change myself.”

Regressing Forward is his new personal blog. A Tumblr. On it, Sutton’s bio: “A student of ‘the good life.’”

Why the name?

“Because that’s what I’m doing. At the end of the day, what do we really want? I want to be content and I want to be happy. When I was 19, I saw the purest expression of contentment and happiness in what some would consider absolute squalor in Samoa, and therefore, to a lot of people, that’s regressing. A regression of civilization and being civilized, yet I feel like they’re moving forward and they’re ahead of the game. Regressing forward means going back to the basics to go forward. I feel like we’ve reached a point where a lot of the ‘progress’ is leading into dead ends, so you need to regress. You need to do a U-turn to go forward. Back up a little bit. Take a survey of the scene. Say, ‘Okay, I’m walking into a wall here, but right next to the wall is an open path, and I need to walk back a little bit to see it.’ It’s nothing revolutionary. It’s an excuse for me to take photos.”

What about Korduroy?

“We’re starting to shape more of what we’re doing into a unified message. We’ve always been about functionality over fashion, but you can take people on a journey within that more instead of scrambling every week, or twice a week, to pump out something new for the sake of having something new. I want to make everything we do to have a purpose behind it.

“This is my own life, you know? [smiles] I want to scramble less and have more of a purpose.”

 

#It is time to go. My afternoon will be spent drinking ale at Green Flash Brewing Company, 16 miles south. Sutton might head east for a hike, maybe somewhere out in Poway. Healthy and mind-cleansing. But first: a photo.

He slips across the street and uses his phone to snap an image identical to the one the bypasser had Instagrammed. Sutton somehow adds three color squares below the image and uploads it to @cyrus_sutton, where 9,740 people “follow” him.

It needs new paint. Found spray paint in these colors. Which one?

On Instagram, the photo receives 409 ‘likes’ and 110 comments. On Facebook: 83 ‘likes’ and 54 comments.

Then, after two half-days and 12 cans of paint, it is done. Camo with black wheels and base. The E-250 looks military-issue. It looks great. Sutton posts a new photo—this one with iPhone contrast and vignetting—from our same location on San Elijo Avenue. Instagram: 600 ‘likes’ and 39 comments. Facebook: 162 ‘likes’, 17 comments, one ‘share.’

Swami’s remains flat. Paramahansa Yogananda remains dead.

“Be as simple as you can be. You will be astonished to see how uncomplicated and happy your life can become.”

Green: The Old Red


“EXPECT ANOTHER ROUND OF STORM-FORCE WINDS, WITH HURRICANE-FORCE GUSTS POSSIBLE, ESPECIALLY IN THE VICINITY OF CAPE BLANCO. THIS WILL BE A VERY STRONG STORM. MARITIME AND COASTAL INTERESTS SHOULD TAKE ALL PRECAUTIONS NECESSARY TO PRESERVE LIFE AND PROPERTY.”

By dawn, the damage was done—downed trees, flooding, thousands without power. The swell was huge and ripped apart by 70 mph gusts.
   A surf day? No.
   None of those for a while.
   Late that afternoon I sat on the couch and read “The Tallest Trees,” a feature in the October 2009 issue of National Geographic. It detailed Mike Fay’s and Lindsey Holm’s Redwood Transect, a yearlong, 1,800-mile, south-to-north hike through California’s coast redwood forests. Flanking their route, they’d found the world’s southernmost grove at Villa Creek in Big Sur; near the article’s end, one line struck me: “On the last day of their transect, as they hunted for the northernmost redwood near Oregon’s Chetco River….”
   Wait—I lived on the banks of the Chetco. And coast redwood is Oregon’s rarest type of forest.
   I found my big Forest Service map and noticed an obscure place a few miles northeast of my cabin: next to the Snaketooth Pistol and Rifle Range was the Snaketooth Redwood Botanical Area. The world’s most northerly naturally occurring redwoods lived there, above the Chetco at Redwood Creek, which for me became the next day’s destination, to be reached on my fatbike via a cold, muddy mountain road.
   The world’s tallest trees once flourished in some two million acres from Oregon to central California. When gold surfaced in 1849, hundreds of thousands of people flocked west—quadrupling California’s population in a decade, birthing hundreds of sawmills—and the ancient giants were felled widely to quench the need for quality, quick timber, nobody really caring that the groves were older than Jesus.
   And so 2015 isn’t 1850 (when the commercial logging and clearing began)—95 percent of those thick old-growth trees, which can grow nearly 400 feet high and live for more than 2,000 years, are gone.
“The battle to save the redwoods has already been fought, and look, we’re left with table scraps,” Steve Sillett, a forest scientist at Humboldt State University (my alma mater), said in the National Geographic article. “The challenge now is understanding how to improve management on the 95 percent of the redwood landscape that’s just starting to grow.”
With myriad homes and fences and decks and patio furniture built during the past 165 years, just five precious percent of those virgin old-growth trees remain, 77 percent of them, unprotected, living on private land. The other 23 percent mostly constitute parks and preserves.
“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark that stays with you,” John Steinbeck wrote in 1962’s Travels with Charley. “They are ambassadors from another time.”
I got a late start the next day, having to wait for rain to stop. Pedaling up through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, I surveyed “partial cut” selective logging done recently to the steep hillside groves of thin fir and cedar, established plantations on old clearcuts that one day might mimic the giants of yore. But not in our lifetimes.
Rain resumed as daylight dimmed and, sweating and slipping amongst the ferns and huckleberry, I couldn’t find the elusive northernmost patch of redwoods, otherwise easy to reach in two small parks a few miles south, with their road signage, lovely trails, and interpretive brochures.
Dusk and hunger and dark Mozart sonatas rode with me back to civilization for a $6.89 McDonald’s combo #1—Big Mac, medium fries, medium drink. More than a thousand calories and more than three times the cost of a gallon of gas ($2.17) at the local Conoco. Likely trailed by regret. (It was.)
Ironically, though, sitting on his mobility scooter at the table next to me was a beatific retired logger, north of 80, drinking his free senior coffee and reading a newspaper. He looked over and wondered aloud why I was splattered with dried mud.
“Yeah, we used to pull a lot of redwood out of there,” he said, gargle-voiced. “Not many of ‘em left, is that right?”
Those fries? Much too salty.

Catching Up With Dave Parmenter.


Dave Parmenter, Central California, August 2014. Photo: Jeff Chamberlain.
MICHAEL KEW: What’s the state of Aleutian Juice Surfboards, and why the San Luis Obispo resettlement?
DAVE PARMENTER: Up until recently, the Aleutian Juice label was more or less restricted to friends and family, since up until 2008 the bulk of my living was made as a writer; after that, I was involved with C4 Waterman Inc. until early last year. After parting ways with C4, I was no longer able to afford the high cost of living in Hawaii and so returned to my hometown of San Luis Obispo and to the little rural farmhouse and garage shaping room I have kept since 1989. I am fortunate that my friend Andrew Kidman has, with his films and articles, created considerable demand for a number of board designs that I have worked on for decades. The timing couldn’t be better for a shaper/designer like me, since so many surfers are exploring vintage or exotic surfboard design.

Photo: Andrew Kidman.
What is your assessment of today’s surfboard world?
I am very content with the present state of the domestic surfboard industry. Things are much better than they were over the past two decades. It seems as if the hardcore surfing population has circled their wagons against nondescript el cheapo surfboards and have a far greater appreciation than, say, 10 or 15 years ago for hand-built, locally designed surfboards. In particular, the trend towards fully finished, beautifully resin-tinted glasswork by a growing number of glass shops has made the surfboard both a work of art again, as well as (finally) worthy of a price tag that lets our domestic craftsman earn a living. The hipster trend, while pretentious and smarmy at times, has nonetheless helped in a big way to restore our cottage industry to its former glory. Bottom line: people really seem to appreciate quality now—and if some of the boards are slabs, at least they are works of art.


Photo: Chamberlain.
What distinguishes your boards?
There are literally hundreds of highly skilled shapers working out there. The level of craftsmanship is very high, and with the CNC machines, very accurate. There are probably far fewer really good designers, but that might not matter since so there are so many verifiably successful board designs that are low-hanging fruit for anyone smart enough to recognize them for what they are and copy them. I ride every sort of surf craft so perhaps I might possess a wider understanding of design than the guy who scrubs out ten 6’1” squash-tail tris every day. I see myself as a designer first and a shaper second. Each surfboard I design and shape is done completely by hand from start to finish—no one else touches the blank until the laminator. And speaking of glassing, a skill I feel is highly underrated is being able to work with glassers in a full partnership and not a push-me/pull-you antagonistic relationship. The surfboard trade is all about crisis management: from the second a customer writes up an order card, their hoped-for surfboard begins deviating from their mental image of the ‘magic board.’ So damage control skills are vital to anyone who can hope to weather the slings and arrows of the trade. I am very lucky to have a stable of a half-dozen or so really first-rate glass shops on tap. That is where the true craftsmanship resides in this trade—the artistry and skill a really terrific glasser brings to a foam sculpture imparts just as much of its value as the shaped-by label.

Thoughts on the current status quo?
Two things come to mind: First, the people I get to build boards for each day have all been a lot of fun to work with and are hardcore surfers who place their surfboards at or near the center of their lives. That’s very satisfying for me. Whatever I build for them has to work; it can’t just be trendy or pretty. Second, I see soooooo many boards or pictures of boards inappropriately and overly finned—biggest offender being quad fins. A hint: Fins are drag until they aren’t….

People can order a board/boards from you by doing what?

Most people contact me through my website (nowtro.com) and/or writing to dave@nowtro.com. The order process is designed to be personal and collaborative, with a lot of back-and-forth, working down towards the finest detail.
Photos: Jeff Chamberlain.





The Beer Shark

Manzanita Reef, with my 12' Klamath tinnie anchored out the back.
A clean south swell was pleasuring Manzanita Reef, so I anchored my small boat in the channel. The spot was inaccessible by land and essentially unknown, so it was empty.
I watched some nice waves peel through before noticing a few strange things (which really weren’t so strange considering the wilderness location).
The water reeked like dead fish—obviously something was rotting, likely the two sea lions floating upside-down just outside the peak. But they were not dead, because suddenly they righted themselves and swam off, like they’d been spooked. Moments later, dozens of gulls began squawking overhead, circling the baitball that had formed behind me. This was Manzanita’s food chain.
And I was part of it, apparently, because as soon as I stood to slip over the gunwale with my board, something large bumped the bottom of my boat. Cold aluminum didn’t suit the bumper’s taste, so it quickly swished away, affording a classic glimpse of that dreaded dorsal fin, the bane of all sharky-spot surfers.
Right then, a really good set steamed through, head-high and sheet glass, totally inviting, looping down the reef before sputtering into the channel. It could’ve been a rocky, left-hand version of Swami’s on a good day—with no one out.
I felt comfortable paddling away from the boat, as I had done so many times. The wildly unfamiliar was familiar to me: I knew the water’s cold sting, its ominous murk, the reefy hazards and threat of consequence should trouble strike—if I got hurt and couldn’t motor back to the harbor, I was doomed.
I paddled over to the take-off spot and sat up on my board, glancing around for that dorsal fin. The birds and baitball and sea lions were gone, and peace was restored. No worries, I thought, this is sweet. I was alone, scoring at this secret-but-perfect wilderness reef on a weekend while hordes elsehwere were beelining to their favorite Orange County/Santa Cruz/Los Angeles/Bixby Ranch south-swell spots. Good for them, I smirked, inwardly thanking my boat for this session.
About a minute later and 30 feet to my right, a young seal popped its head above water, like they always do, staring blankly, wondering whether you’re some sort of bizarre buoy or a badly deformed elephant seal.
The seal started swimming closer. I didn’t blink or flinch, but I was certainly startled when suddenly a white shark’s head shot from the water and, mouth agape, removed the seal’s head with one clean bite, like it was a Tic-Tac (seal brain flavor), before submerging.
What?
I couldn’t move because I couldn’t believe this was mere meters feet away—a shark mauling a seal. I’d seen it happen before, but from the safety of land. Sitting in the water when it occurred was a completely different deal.
Then there was a loud disruption of water caused by the shark’s reappearance, gnawing into the half-sunken, headless seal. I was soon sitting in water reddened by seal blood, dispersed quickly by the shark’s violent side-to-side motion of its head: much splashing, thrashing, ripping, yellow intestines and chunks of pale blubber flailing about.
Seeing this so up-close was surreal. I might as well have been watching a Discovery Channel “Shark Week” special from the comfort of my couch, Cheez-Its in one hand, Coors in the other.
But the attack ended as abruptly as it had started. The shark ate the seal and left. No birds, no baitfish, nothing. Only a few sinews of guts and a lot of slimy blood. Manzanita was serene once more, my staring-contest-opponent seal now marinating in the shark’s digestive juice. (I’d won by default.)
Of course I was scared, so I got out of there before catching a wave, because once another shark got a whiff of that fresh kill, I could’ve been toast. The waves were good but not worth decapitation.
Back at the harbor, I relayed the incident to a drunk geezer who worked in the tackle shop, emphasizing the part about me not fleeing after the shark bumped my boat.

“You’re real dumb,” he said, handing me a cold can of Coors.

Surfer Suds — Introducing Pure Order, Santa Barbara’s Newest Brewery

 
James (front) and Dave (back) assisting customers with their beer thirsts.
 Warming his face under the bright afternoon sun of the mid-May heatwave, mustachioed Dave Burge, 27, stands outside the unmarked beige building at 410 North Quarantina Street, in a light-industry sect east of downtown Santa Barbara.
“Basically, this was just a big box with a bunch of stuff in it,” he says, gesturing at the 2,000-square-foot building behind us, adding that, until 2012, a general contractor used it for storage, and that the adjacent lot on the right was a once-vacant, weed-choked square of dirt that he and his cousin, James, have since converted into a picnic-tabled lawn and a 100-plant hop garden.
Dave here is holding a pint of Santa Barbara Pale Ale, taking regular swigs of the fresh brew that he and James created just steps away, where a handful of thirsty patrons imbibe near the bar that is made from local wood.
 “We often say that the third biggest part of the brewery, other than James and me, is Santa Barbara—that being its surf culture, its art culture, its music scene. These are all things that play a big part in our lives and in how we operate and run the business.” He takes a swig of beer and swallows it with a smile. “It’s just the two of us for now—we do just about everything.”
In 2011, after many years of homebrewing, James, 30, decided to launch Pure Order Brewing Company, today a microbrewery in the truest sense, featuring a humble 15-barrel brewing system (producing 1,755 liters of beer per batch—about 3,700 pints) with which he creates tasty, smooth styles like Crooked Neck Hefeweizen, Red Eye Wheat, and Black Gull Porter.
James named the brewery after Reinheitsgebot (“purity order”), the German beer law, written in 1516, that mandated the sole ingredients in beer production were to be water, barley, and hops. (Yeast was not mentioned because it would be another 300 years before French chemist Louis Pasteur discovered the role of microorganisms in fermentation; hence, yeast was not known as a beer ingredient.)
“Surfing is the purest form of a sport—you’re one with Mother Nature—and we like our beer to be as pure as it can possibly be,” James says, after joining Dave and me outside. “We’re going to keep it to four ingredients, and live or die by that.”
Pure Order's prolific hop garden and part of the lawn leisure area.
With its grand opening on March 15, three years after the cousins’ first “board meeting” (actually on surfboards out at Rincon), Pure Order is the fifth and newest of Santa Barbara’s breweries—and with a niche.
“As for setting ourselves apart from the other breweries as far as the surf community here goes,” James says, before heading back inside to pour pints for customers,” we’ve had lots of talks about marketing for the Rincon Classic, and we’ve talked with Matt Moore about getting in with him and doing collaborations of a different sort. Stuff like that. The fact that we surf has a lot to do with our beers. They are very California-centric, Santa Barbara-centric.”
While James grew up in Pasadena, frequenting the waves at County Line, he now lives in San Roque, and for his entire life has surfed Rincon and other spots in the 805. Conversely, Dave is a lifelong Santa Barbara resident, a 2005 graduate of Santa Barbara High who caught his first wave at Rincon when he was four.
“Surfing is such a big part of our lives,” Dave says. “We have plans to do some things here and there for the surf community in terms of philanthropy and that sort of stuff. We’re trying to bring good, new beer into the Santa Barbara area, and in doing so, trickle out to the best surf spots. Our families own a few homes down on the point at Rincon, and that’s where we grew up riding waves. The best times we’ve spent together have always involved the ocean.”
And so the Queen of the Coast, in more ways than one, has birthed another special Santa Barbara enterprise.
“Surfing is such a big part of who we are,” Dave says, finishing his pint, “so it naturally infuses itself into Pure Order, certainly through James’s creativity with our beers. If you’re an artist, I’d imagine that waves pop up in a lot of your art. As surfers like James and I are, waves pop up in our beers.”

Pure Order Brewing Co., 410 N. Quarantina Street in Santa Barbara, 805-966-2881; tasting room hours: Friday 4-7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, noon-7 p.m.

pureorderbrewing.com; @pureorderbrewco

Farming Malloyland — At Stoke Grove, the 'Duce Rules.

Wiley Connell (left) and Chris Everett, harvesting red Russian kale.

“Having a bunch of dirty-ass surf bums hanging out all day, growing fat-ass veggies? It takes a special sort of landowner to be down with that.” (laughs)
Shaggy-blond and goateed Wiley Connell, 24, is referring to pro surfer Dan Malloy and his wife, Grace, who own the 2.5 acres called Stoke Grove Farm off this quiet, dead-end street in Meiners Oaks, a burg of 3,500 in the heart of the Ojai Valley, 70 miles north of Los Angeles. In its previous life, the dirt beneath us fostered an orchard, which morphed into a petting zoo that included Bengal tigers. In 2012, a dentist sold the land to the Malloys, who leased it to Wiley, this morning in a blue Clark Foam shirt, work boots, and boardshorts.
“Dan and Grace are so fired up about farming and are so supportive,” he tells me, “but, at the same time, they really know what’s cool and are very relaxed about everything here.”
It is 10:57 a.m. One hour ago, 2014’s spring equinox occurred. Connell and Chris Everett, 25, stand by an oak tree near a small duck pond. They’ve been harvesting since 8 a.m. On the farm, Everett is Connell’s right-hand man, a head of dense facial hair framed by nipple-length blond dreads. A talented guitarist and vocalist in Pleasure (a local rock band that, thanks to friend Connor Coffin, recently recorded at Hurley—Pleasure will perform live at the U.S. Open), today Everett wears ripped jeans, a green trucker hat, sandals, and a paisley button-up he found in the antique store that once employed him. Workwear? Only at Stoke Grove.
The two friends begin washing oranges and grapefruits in a large plastic barrel, the yellow and orange orbs floating in freshwater, ever-precious after California’s winter of severe drought.
“Since spring is here, things are really restarting,” Connell says. “Our field is looking glorious after a crazy winter—hardly any rain.” He scratches his tan forehead and points to the field’s fallow east end, a deliberate rectangle of weeds. “In Wiley’s world, all that should be waist-high by now. Winter is a time of rest and you’re just chilling, for the most part, but then spring comes and the wheels start to turn non-stop. In winter, everything grows slowly because there’s not much light, and it’s cold, there are tons of aphids, the ground is as hard as a basketball court. It’s a time to just sleep and surf.” (laughs)
Since its inception in early 2013, Everett, who grew up surfing with Wiley, has been deeply involved with Stoke Grove. “I always knew it was Wiley’s dream to have a farm of his own,” he says, rinsing lettuce, “and as soon as he talked about starting Stoke Grove, I was amped to help him. I got myself fired from my job (serving beer at Island Brewing Co. in Carpinteria) and have since been working under him and his expertise. It’s been a blast—some of the happiest times of my life, for sure.”
Around the wet, knee-high wooden platform behind him and Connell, three of Stoke Grove’s volunteer harvesters are boxing a colorful mix of rainbow chard, carrots, fennel, Chioggia beets, oranges, grapefruits, two types of kale, three types of lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and celery. In an hour or so, the boxes will be driven to members of Stoke Grove’s CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture), a popular program in which the public buys food directly from those who make it.
“This ‘duce (produce) fires people up, and since we’re around it and we grow it, we get to be a part of that process,” Connell says, dropping grapefruits into the boxes. “People freak out when they eat the ‘duce, but they also freak out because the vibe has been brought. And also doing things in unison with the earth and the way the earth does it, but at the same time, being functional within society.” (laughs)
“Which is kind of hard sometimes,” Everett says, also with a laugh.
“What’s the overall Stoke Grove mantra?” I ask them.
“To have a good time,” Wiley says, nodding. “Yeah.”
“For sure,” Chris says, shaking water from a purple head of lettuce. “Uphold the vibe and stoke people out with some good ‘duce, man. Soak up the sun all day. Be out there in the rows, vibing with the plants.”
“Do what’s right, you know?” Wiley says.
“What is right?” I ask.

He hands me a carrot, pulled from the soil 15 minutes ago. I take a bite and chew. Ah, yes—this is exactly right.

Almost Asked Four Questions.

Simon Murdoch, one of the film's stars.

PEATHEAD: What is “Almost Cut My Hair” and why might we care?
RYAN LOVELACE: It started as a project to compile all of the footage I’ve gathered and shot over the years into something concrete. But then word got out and people started to get excited and wanted to send me footage they had stashed or had just gotten the week before. So, pretty quickly, it turned from my project into 'our' project, something that involved a lot of people I've met. Everything in the movie comes back to a relationship I have with someone—a band, a photographer, a surfer, a surfboard—and it’s taken me eight years of work to build those relationships through my boards.

Crafting Trevor's orange ThrougHull for Lakshadweep.
Discuss the film’s shapes.
It’s just a handful of them throughout. Some sections were filmed years apart with a different person on the same board. For instance, there is a 5'3” t.Rev, which I originally made for you, and it was was handed over to Trevor Gordon to surf in Lakshadweep. Later, he surfed it for a while back home. Aubrey Falk also had a go with it. Then it got into the hands of Simon Murdoch, who surfs it beautifully. Other main boards in the movie are Trevor’s 5'10" Piggyback, a high-performance twinnie shortboard, orange with a little swallow tail. (Earlier in the film, there is a lavender version of the same board, which was the first version of the Piggyback model.) Troy Mothershead rides an 8’0” pintail v.Bowls at home and in the Bali section. Trevor rides the same board in the after-credits section. That board now belongs to me, and we are in heaven. The Rabbits Foot that Ryan Burch rode was a mistake. I was shaping it for a regularfooter and realized a few hours later that I had made it backwards, so I called Burch and told him he had a new board. I drove it down to him and filmed him on it for two sessions at Seaside Reef. The Rabbits Foot ridden by Ari Browne was taken with me to Australia in 2012; a friend of mine told me a friend of his wanted to ride it in the finless division of the longboard festival, so I said ‘sure.’ He grabbed it, said it made total sense, then went out and rode it like they were born together. The footage was shot during a three-month road trip from San Diego to El Salvador with his brother and a few friends. The orange hull that Trevor rode in Lakshadweep was made specifically for that trip and that wave. He wanted to ride it as an alternative in case the surf wasn't pumping, so the days prior to the swell picking up, that footage was shot of him enjoying some smaller waves and some fun closeout sections.

What's behind the film name?
Lovelace making a Rabbit's Foot.
I had the film about halfway done before I named it. I was editing the footage of Trevor at Rincon on the Piggyback and needed to put some music on so I could watch the waves together and feel it out as a whole. I decided to play “Almost Cut My Hair” (from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu album), easily the most important and overreaching song in my life because it’s always nice to listen to. The second it started, I knew no other song would do, and that the movie's name was there without question. “Almost Cut My Hair” is (to me) about not cutting yourself short, to know that things are going to be hard, but to trust yourself in knowing the right path and following it. In doing so, you can never fail. The song has come to me many times in the past and has driven three of the most significant decisions in my life. The attitude alone has guided me numerous times, and I owe a lot of where I am now to the messages within the song. It felt nothing short of perfect to name such a personal film, and I know David Crosby would approve!

Cyrus__ing.

Last weekend I was hanging with Cyrus Sutton, who, as you may know, is poised to create a short film to be dropped online for free in August.
   "The tagline of it is: 'An innerworldly surf adventure to find freedom,'" he told me. "It’s basically going to be a fantasy surf film in which I drive north to find waves and end up going into the North Pole and going into the center of the Earth and surfing.
   "Do you have any sort of itinerary for the van trip?" I asked.
   "Nah. Wherever. I’ll look at the swell forecasts and just go. I haven’t really decided yet. That’s kind of what I’m excited about."
Compass_ing Teaser from Cyrus Sutton on Vimeo.

Stay tuned.

Troy Mothershead — A Jack Of All Boards.


You may have seen the cheshire-cat grin and flawless hair of Troy Mothershead, 25, as he shreds and/or flows on many sorts of surfcraft in the Tri Counties zone. Now is as good a time as any to get to know the funny man in the shiny Nineplus wetsuit.

PEATHEAD: Who is Troy Mothershead?
TROY MOTHERSHEAD: A loud guy, and a bit of a character, but he’s mostly enjoyable and will do his best to enjoy you. He usually rocks up in a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of pants which may not fit properly, depending on how successful he was at hemming them. Raised in a world of competition and longboard roundhouses, he’s understanding the true beauty and freedom of surfing anything propulsive. The joy of the Lord is his strength, and he mainly loves riding waves because it offers one of the raddest forms of connecting to the Creator. He prefers long righthand pointbreaks, where all lengths, widths, and shapes are catered for. Beer is a four letter word, and Troy enjoys it. In fact, he has recently brewed a black IPA. He’s climbed the Royal Arches in Yosemite, but would not claim himself a climber. Although his mother thinks he’s lactose intolerant, he loves ice cream. He might just love football more than surfing, but considering his size, surfing was a more enticing pursuit.

Three years ago, Troy was in the running for Orange County Surfer of the Year. What happened?
He couldn’t put the phone down. Ad agencies across the nation were calling. He graced the cover of People magazine and nearly grossed $3 million that year. Troy dined with Hollywood’s finest, and even dated Katie Perry for a bit. Actually, he lost. Joe Motion won. Troy cried. Most of his votes came through his grandma’s book club, so maybe he won in spirit.

How did he end up living in the 805?
Patagonia was nice enough to employ Troy as an accountant right out of college. A friend of his was living in Summerland, who graciously became Troy’s roommate, and he lived there for a year. Great place, awesome commute, but the changing job sites and approaching marriage of said roommate caused Troy the current convenience of living in Ventura. He is on a pull-out couch in Pierpont residing with Holga enthusiast Ryan “Mustache” Murphy and photographer Justin Bastien, who exclusively eats at Farmer and the Cook and Mary’s Secret Garden. Originally from San Clemente, Troy really enjoys it here — fun waves, great surfers, cultural diversity, a little more edge, a little less People magazine.

How is Troy digging the hand-shaped masterpieces of Ryan Lovelace?
It’s an honor to call Ryan a friend. He’s a great dude. Troy has learned a lot, and appreciates Ryan's enthusiasm for surfboard-making and surfing as a whole. Adding a few of his boards to Troy's quiver has made a big impact on the way he approaches a wave. Troy owes most of his current surf enjoyment to Ryan. The v.Bowls and Piggyback are radical surfcraft. Troy had the privilege of traveling with Mr. Lovelace to Bali a few months back. They met up with Deus Ex Machina in Canggu. Ryan plowed through some foam and Troy did his best to ride what Ryan had created. He lucked into a solo session at steamrolling Temples riding a 6’3" bonzer Ryan built. Troy had never in his life gone so fast nor experienced such thrilling drive off the bottom. He did his best to ingrain each wave to memory. Ryan is currently working on a $0-budget surf movie called Almost Cut My Hair. Troy is jazzed to be a part of it. The preliminary work looks awesome.

Describe Troy’s overall ruling mantra about surfing and what it means to be one around here.
Surfing is a wild thing. Bear with him, but Troy will argue that it’s the most connected human activity to nature in the world. You need an ocean, wind, swell, properly structured sea floor, maybe a beach, maybe a board, strength, balance, wave knowledge, reactionary movement, and all of those things have a few hundred variables among them. The other great thing is there are so many approaches and styles. The real bummer about surfing is that it fuels selfishness. You’re always searching for the best wave and often get trapped dogging people, sneaking around a person or two, and cursing set-wave riders. It’s especially easy for that to happen at a spot like Rincon. Troy doesn’t like that. Surfing needs to be more about fueling the stoke, the love, the enjoyment of being in such an epic environment. It should be shared. And so, he is struggling, but really trying to take that approach when he enters the water. Troy thinks guys like the Gudauskas brothers and Ryan Burch have figured it out, so he’s taking notes.

What’s next for Troy Mothershead?
It seems as though he just wants to have a good time. It’s easy to get caught up in the world, the attempts at exposure, the glamour of fame, but at the end of the day, Troy wants surfing to be about the experience, and simply fun. His hope is to head to El Salvador with his cousin in May and also attend the Deus Ex Machina 9 Feet and Single event in Bali in June. You can find him at around noon, on most weekdays, surfing the inside cove of C Street, and, if swell permits, joining the crowds of Rincon in the evenings and on weekends. He will continue to pursue whatever it is that fuels, strokes, ignites, and promotes the stoke of wave sliding, following adventures when able and sharing good times at all times.