Hot Curling — The Birth and Rebirth of a Genre

By Michael Kew

 

 

“We had a lot of problems with the boards. We would call them ‘sliding tails’, which means the back of the board would slide around in front and dump you off. The tails were about twelve to fourteen inches wide—just flat, wide boards. We got pretty disgusted with it; we were trying to get across and make the wave and not get caught by the whitewater. Sometimes we wanted to make longer and bigger waves, and these small, flat boards were just not getting across...so we came home and decided to work on it.” —Wally Froiseth

 

GENESIS: THE KAHALA BOYS, HAWAI’I

 

1923

Four-year-old John Kelly arrives in Honolulu aboard the Matsonia, ending a weeklong sail from San Francisco. The family moves to Black Point, in Kahala, east of Waikiki; a year or so later, with an old ironing board, John dabbles in the neighborhood surf.

When he turns nine he is given an eight-foot redwood surfboard, custom-shaped by David Kahanamoku, brother of Duke.

“We discovered that the Hawai’ians had a very fine discriminating sense of observation in regards to board design,” Kelly said in 1989. “Now we have come to a point in modern times that the haole tends to be very subjective—I invented the first of this thing or I witnessed this event and therefore it originated with me. But the Hawai’ians, without any question of doubt from the standpoint of scholarly research, have much more to do with the development of surfing as a worldwide sport than any of us.”



1925

Six-year-old Wally Froiseth and his family move from Los Angeles to Kahala. A few years later, he begins surfing at Waikiki and Kahala on a redwood surfboard given to him by Allan Wilcox, a family friend.



1930

Originally arriving on O’ahu as an infant, twelve-year-old Fran Heath starts surfing around Waikiki on an eight-foot redwood surfboard. John Kelly becomes a good surf buddy, as the two live close to each other, in Kahala.



1931

Tom Blake writes “Surfriding In Hawaii” for Paradise of The Pacific magazine, vol. 44, number 12:

“The Outrigger Canoe Club, built in 1907, is the center of surfriding at Waikiki. At the Canoe Club is to be found a row of some two hundred upright surfboard lockers filled with boards of all sizes, shapes and colors, the average being ten feet long, twenty-three inches wide, three inches thick, quite flat on top and bottom, and weighing up to seventy-five pounds. They are made of California redwood, white cedar, or white sugar pine, ninety percent being of redwood because of its lightness, strength and cheapness.”


In the early 1930s, on the Hawai’ian island of O’ahu, Waikiki is the global hub of surfing. Following his surf-ambassadorial trips around Australia and the United States, Waikiki’s Duke Kahanamoku is happy to arrive back at his home which, in his words, is “truly the world’s center for boardmen.” A friend of Tom Blake, Duke goes on to write: “A few more haoles were now coming to the Islands and witnessing the renaissance that was taking place. They became dedicated converts to the sport without any coaxing. To me, the surfing challenge seemed greater than ever.”

 

“When we first began surfing in the early ‘30s, we were led to believe Waikiki was the only place waves could be surfed. When John Kelly...moved to Kahala and Black Point, it became obvious to us when walking home on Diamond Head Road, that there were some fabulous surfs both off Black Point and Diamond Head. We soon found out these waves differed from Waikiki, especially Brown’s surf, as they were harder and steeper.” —Fran Heath


Mid-1930s

Fran Heath pays twenty-eight dollars for a semi-hollow 10’4” redwood plank, made by Pacific Coast Redi-Cut Homes, in Los Angeles, California. Neither Heath, Froiseth, or Kelly are proponents of Tom Blake’s pin-tailed hollow surfboards, which he innovated in 1929.


“In the ‘30s, most of the boards that were around then were just planks. The Outrigger guys all were into wide tails. Nobody was into chopping their boards down yet, except for this group of guys, they were big surf riders. Hot curls worked good any place with some juice, some power where you could race down the curl line. With the wider boards you could ride a flat, slow wave with no trouble. On a hot curl in those same conditions, you’d just sink.” —Wally Froiseth


1937

Large south swell hits on a sunny summer morning at Brown’s, near Black Point. With sets up to fifteen feet, it was on his fourth consecutive wave where seventeen-year-old John Kelly finds himself ‘sliding ass’ (side-slipping) down the face, riding (or at least attempting to ride) his redwood plank. The board could not fit into the large wave’s concave face—it wasn’t built for such curvature; scientifically, it would never work. The board rode decently on the small, horizontal waves of Waikiki, but not at Brown’s that day, or the rest of the Kahala reefs during large south swells, which would resemble wintertime Sunset Beach—around Kahala, the surf was steeper and bigger than that of Waikiki.

“When we rode Brown’s surf,” Kelly said, “every wave was so steep that you would go to make your turn to get away from the crest, and we would slide ass down the face. The tail would come out of the water and be parallel to the rest of the board and start sliding sideways. Sliding sideways down the face of the wave—no forward motion. It’s the ultimate humiliation. We were sliding ass on every goddamn wave.”

Kelly grew frustrated with his equipment on this day of quality, challenging surf, and he knew he could ride it, but not on this wide plank board. So he and Fran went in, determined to make a difference, an act which would change their surfing lives forever.

“We came home at about eleven-thirty in the morning, and I took this ax and set the board up on two sawhorses, and I said hey! I’m goin’ to whack this board and however deep this ax goes, I’m going to cut that much off the side. I took my drawknife and recontoured the board to the point where the ax had gone in. We then sanded it down and varnished it and took it out into the surf about two (o’clock), and the varnish was still sticky.”

Kelly’s “vee shape” afforded a similar effect to that of a fin, digging into a large wave’s face, preventing the side-slipping that would inevitably end in a bad wipeout, a long swim, and possible reef cuts and board damage.

“We wanted to make changes, just the way any generation wants to make changes. We wanted more speed. We wanted to go across the face of the wave and stay clear of the break, instead of just dropping down and getting pushed in by the whitewater.

“This was the beginning of riding big waves,” Downing said. “Meaning that going down at an extreme angle on the top of the big wave—the crest of the wave. This is how they were able to accomplish this, by bringing the tail to a small tail and with the vee.”

Kelly: “I caught my first wave with the board and I felt this vee tail catch in the wave and it made a nice little groove in the wave like a skeg would have done ten years later. It held in and boom, right across under the crest and made it. We changed boards and we all got the experience that day, and rapidly, that became known as the Hot Curl board. You could get into the hot curl and stay there and not have it slide ass and humiliate you by slipping down the face of the wave.”

Downing: “The next step on the board was to make the vee a little more subtle until the point where it was no longer working, where it started to slide out again. When you took the the vee away, (the board) got more maneuverable, but it got to the point where it slid ass again. The combination was worked not only because the board was narrow in the back, but because of the vee configuration in the bottom that allowed the water to come to a point to hold the board in. The ratio between the width of the tail and the amount of vee is very important. Calculated drag is very important. Too much vee also causes you to slide ass.”

Kelly: “We made several of those boards, and pretty soon guys at Waikiki zeroed in on them. Among those surfers who rode big waves, especially at Castle’s surf, it became the way to go. Wally Froiseth shouted out, ‘Hey it gets you into the hot curl,’ and the name stuck.”

In the early 1940s, Woody Brown arrived in Hawai’i and eventually refined the Hot Curl’s V tail.

“You couldn’t ride big waves without the V tail and I liked to ride the big waves,” Brown said. “So, I had to whittle mine down. Wally helped me, he showed me. Then, I perfected it more and more. Because, I was interested in the speed….from my aerodynamics I knew that too steep a curl will suck air….the more you flatten out the curve, the faster you can go. So, with my boards, I’d flatten out the belly and get it flatter ‘n flatter. Well, that made it stiff and hard to turn, but it made it fast.”

Froiseth: “The technology was changing, just like it’s changing now.”

 

 

MARC ANDREINI: 21ST CENTURY REPLICATION

 

In 1963, at the age of twelve, Marc Andreini began repairing surfboards in Montecito, California.

“I would also find old boards and rebuild them—shape a new nose, new noseblock, tailblock, new fin, then I’d pigment the board,” he said. “Sometimes I was putting maybe six inches to the last two feet of the board, and it’s really hard to shape that thing to make it match the rest of the board. You really learn how to do a template, how you get the flat spots and how you get those lumps and bumps in the rails and all that, just by doing a ding. So that’s really where my shaping started.”

By 1968 Andreini was living in San Mateo, building surfboards in his father’s garage, eventually completing one per week—shaping, sanding, glassing, glossing, shaping fins, pinlining. By 1971 Andreini Surfboards was his official business, which drove him south.

“My dad said that if I wanted to build surfboards for a living, I had to get the hell out of the house and go find a job doing it. So I drove down the coast and stopped in every surf shop and asked them if they needed a shaper; there were only about five shops between San Mateo and Santa Barbara. The first guy who said yes was Bob Haakenson, who was running the Spindrift shop in Santa Barbara.”

Haakenson sold Spindrift to Andreini a short time later, affording the young shaper an entirely self-sufficient shaping business.

“I had no dealers; 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, I’d glass for Wilderness, I’d glass for Yater.”

In the mid-1970s Andreini partnered with Yater in Yater’s shop on Gray Avenue.

 “I think we made three hundred boards a year between us,” Andreini said. “We made more boards than Al Merrick. We were the main shop. Now Al's shop does about eight thousand a year. In our era, you didn't need to make more than two hundred boards a year because there wasn't the demand—there weren't many surfers.”

Andreini and Yater split expenses and worked side-by-side seamlessly until Andreini moved back up to San Mateo in 1979. Aside from six years in San Luis Obispo (1998-2004), Andreini has remained in San Mateo full-time ever since.

“I moved up there thinking that I was going to retire from boardbuilding, but it was so much a part of me—I dream about boardbuilding every night, to this day, every single night. You always think about the next board and how you can make it better, and what you can do on the next one. How to tweak a design—a lot of it is cosmetic. How can you make something that’s really unusually unique or good? I think about that every day of my life since I was about thirteen. It’s never changed.”

 

ANDREINI’S WOOD

 “There are such beautiful properties to surfing on wood compared to foam and fiberglass,” he said. “It’s very much an unknown quantity because there’s no real way to make them and proliferate them so that people can ride and experience them, unless you’re back in the era of making your own.

“The way wood goes through the water is entirely different from foam—it’s a whole different set of design parameters, a whole different approach to surfing.

“Most of the used boards that were around when I was kid were made from balsa, and the wooden boards really worked better than the foam boards. They had a much better feel to them; they went through the water lower. They weren’t blobby corks like the foam boards were. They carved through the water, they were beautiful through the soup, and they had a real smooth, deep turn to them. I still ride balsa boards primarily.

“That’s what drew me to the Hot Curl, is having ridden balsa boards from the early 1960s until today, and I prefer them over foam. The whole idea of the ancient Hawai’ians riding a natural plank they shaped themselves, and the prowess that it took to ride those boards—it’s just really intriguing. It was the experience of gliding on a swell, going for a ride, being taken for a ride, as opposed to forcing a ride onto a way, which is what we do today. The mature surfer will gravitate toward the roots and the whole experience of just finding the energy of a wave and letting it take you.”

 

HOT CURL: 21ST CENTURY

“The guys who originally built Hot Curls are now in their 80s and 90s, and they’re pretty much bringing it all to a conclusion. I want to keep it going, because there aren't people who’ve really learned or made Hot Curls (whom I know of) after those guys.

“About ten years ago I saw a photograph of an early Hot Curl that was a pintail, and they'd actually shaped a keel into the bottom. When I saw that, it was the most beautiful thing—it's was like a piece of sculpture laying on the beach. I've always loved the idea of doing redwood boards, and when I saw that, I said, OK, now I know what I want to make—I want to make a Hot Curl like that, but there’s no wood to do it.

“I wouldn’t make one until I was certain that I could replicate exactly how and why Hot Curls were made, because I wanted mine to be completely authentic. Before shaping my first Hot Curl, I spent years looking into the boards, reading about them, planning, searching for the wood. I’ve never gotten to actually meet the guys like John Kelly or Wally Froiseth.

“So I finally get some wood together, spending ten years to find a source for lumber. Greg Noll and those guys, they're like on a mission from God to go get it. If anybody can find it, it's usually Greg. The guys who are known for dealing it, and I know who they are, are from Santa Cruz. I'm calling the same guys—we're all going to the same places for it because they don't allow you to harvest it anymore.”


TEMPLATES

“Joe Quigg made the famous ‘Gray Ghost’ Hot Curl that was made from foam. It was glassed at the Yater shop. It was built in the mid-‘50s, I think, for Bob Cooper.  It was an exact replica of the ‘30s Hot Curls. It was glassed extra-heavy to make it feel like a wood board. Sam George has the Gray Ghost, and he rode it for six months, as did Phil Edwards, as did Bob Cooper.

“Because all of them went through the same thing I went through that you’ve been through with me—having to ride a Hot Curl. They had to see if they could do it. And all of them rode it for six months, determined that they’re going to learn how to ride a finless board.”

How do you make a finless board work?

“It’s a very beautiful concept, for some reason, that’s artistically in your thought process. You picture this natural board all one piece. It’s a design challenge to figure out how to make one work without a fin.

“The first template I made was off of a Hot Curl in Renny Yater’s collection. I thought, ‘Oh, this is perfect—I’ll get a beautiful Hot Curl template.’ I couldn’t remember Renny’s story on it, but I know he bought it from Flippy Hoffman, who acquired it in 1950. It was a balsa/redwood Hot Curl.

“After I made my first four Hot Curls, I was asking Yater, ‘Hey, what’s the story with that board again?’ And he says, ‘Oh yeah, I paid ten bucks for it from Flippy Hoffman and then I reshaped it.’ (laughs) I thought, ‘Oh shit!’

“But Roger Nance has a whole bunch of them in his collection at the Beach House. They were built in the ’30s and ‘40s. My template from Renny’s board is a little racier by an inch on each end, and that’s about it.

“There was a 10’8” redwood board that had been found aboard a ship—that one is in Roger’s collection. It was a real 1930s Hot Curl, so I made a template from it. I also made a twelve-foot template freehand, because when you do this stuff, you think about it every single day. You have a visual...you know exactly what it’s supposed to look like, and I spent as much as an entire summer working on a template just on paper before ever making it into a wood template. You draw it, you lay it out, you look at it, you sleep on it for a week. You go back, you change the lines—it really takes a long time, because the outline is where it all starts. Getting those outlines to be authentic to the originals is tricky—they’re so different from any modern surfboard, so no one had any template that you can use to even start making a Hot Curl template.

“I made my two templates off of two boards, and I’ve modified them and made different lengths and sizes. I made the templates because I want them to be precise, I want to recreate them, and I’m not just making one for myself. I’m making them as a profession, so I want them to look perfect.”




THE BLANK


In late July 2003, living in the rural outskirts of San Luis Obispo, Marc led me to a heap of old, dusty, faded lumber stacked on the weedy dirt in his backyard. The stack consisted of one-hundred-year-old redwood sliced into in fourteen-feet-long, three-inch-thick, ten-inch-deep planks, some salvaged from a water tower in Woodside, Calif., most from a decommissioned PG&E water tower off San Luis Obispo’s Higuera Street.

“These are planks, but they’re the Ferraris of planks because it's all just 'plank techology,’” he joked. “You take these planks and run them through a thickness planer, which have been around since the ‘20s, to make them an even thickness. You glue them together with any sort of wood glue that has some sort of waterproof compound in it. That process sounds very simple, and it’s very elementary, but with the actual boardbuilding part, you take it a step further.

“What’s beautiful about it is that in the era when everything was made out of wood, they hadn’t developed fiberglass or foam—those were all plastics that came about just prior to World War II. In the teens and ‘20s, when the koa wood and the natural native woods were very rare, the California redwood was used because they made decks out of it. You could get it wet all year long—it rains on it, it dries, and it doesn’t really shrink or crack, or absorb much water. It’s light and it’s got a nice grain to it.

“Redwood cuts real clean and it’s soft, even-grained wood, for the most part. The clear-heart redwood, which is now an endangered species, has very few knots or rough grain, so it’s really nice to shape, and relatively light compared to any other hardwood by maybe fifty percent.

“First you select the length of board. Say you’re going to make it 10’6”—you find pieces of wood that are 10’6” or longer. You mill them all so they are the same depth, typically two-and-a-half to three inches deep, which gives you your thickness. Then you mill them as wide as you can get them. It was rare to get a four-inch-wide piece; most are two to three inches wide. You meld them so it’s like a stringer in a surfboard—a piece three inches wide, three inches deep, and they’re basically dead straight on the top and dead straight on the bottom, like a two-by-four.

“You stand them on end and then you pick the end that’s heaviest, and you let that be at the tail. Every board is different weight, so you pick your heaviest pieces to put on the edge, because you’re going to shape those thinner and lose weight that way. The lightest pieces go in the center of the board because they’re going to remain full thickness. That helps balance the board.

“You’re going to have about ten two-inch pieces, and maybe a couple of T-bands, which are three skinny pieces on each side. So you can end up with sixteen to nineteen pieces altogether, including the fin stringers.

“You want to put a heavy piece opposing the other heavy piece so the board isn’t heavier on the right side and lighter on the left side. I weigh each piece and measure the length of each piece, making a mark in the center.

“Then you set it on a fulcrum, and whichever end falls to the ground is the heavier end, and that’s the tail. You always want the board to be heavier at the tail than at the nose. The back end of the board has to create a lot of drag—Hot Curls are finless—so if the weight and the board’s roundness is aft, it creates drag at the back of the board. You take the planks and you center-balance them.

“For artistic sake and for balance, you take a piece that’s six inches deep and you split it down the middle to have two three-inch deep pieces. That’s called bookmatching. So now I took one piece of wood and made it into two, which now becomes a pair. I weigh all the pairs, and the heavy pairs go on the outside, the light pairs go in the center, and they all oppose each other, all balanced and matched as they go out to the rail.

“You think this all through when you’re selecting your wood and you’re preparing to cut them and mill them and glue them together. That’s how you start, with your wood selection, the lighter and the clearer the better, without heavy grain. Of the best pieces, there’s still a huge variance in the weight, as much as a twenty or thirty percent difference from one piece to another, so you want the heavy ones on the outside.

“By the time you cut your outline and shape your rail up, you’re going to take fifty percent of that wood off of the outside pieces, so you’ll end up with an even weight all the way across. After you’ve selected your wood and you aim them all the right way, you take a roller, roll wood glue on each piece, and slap them all together with pipe clamps, one every ten inches. It takes a half-gallon of glue to put a Hot Curl together; the blank weighs one hundred pounds.

“Let it dry twenty-four hours, then pop the clamps off and you’re ready to shape.”




CRAFTING


 “The first Hot Curls I made had chambered center pieces, and those boards took forty hours start to finish, of actually selecting the wood, milling it, hollowing out the center pieces, gluing it up, shaping it, and sanding it out by hand.

“But in a really good woodshop with good industrial thickness planers and sanders and all that, I could get it down to about twenty-two hours to make the blank and shape it. You basically just whittle on it with the hand plane until your eyes and body are tired, and then you come back to it a day or two later, and you look at it and work on it some more. The shaping part itself is at least ten hours, and most of it is just sanding the damn thing.

“I can do the planing work in about three or four hours. It doesn’t take a long time, but I’ll do all the rest of it by hand. Then there’s three or four days with the hand plane and the sanding block just tweaking it, shaving it. No measuring at all. I don’t care what the measurements are—it just has to look right. You basically just do it until it looks right to you. You want all the curves to have that nice elliptical shape, where there’s no break anywhere, or a lump, or a rise and a fall down the bottom line.

“All the rocker is shaped in from the bottom, and when you look at it, it looks it has enough shape to ride, which is amazing for us as shapers. Rocker is so important. The original Hot Curl guys did that—they made the bottom come up to meet the deck, which is just your basic dining room table.

“You can’t necessarily see the difference, but wood never looks like you worked on it. If I’ve worked on a wood board for an hour and a half and I come back to it the next day, it doesn’t look like I did anything. I suppose you could measure the difference if you were a scientist, but the wood does seem to expand somehow. So when you keep coming back to it, by the time you’re finished, it will basically hold its shape.”

From the raw lumber to the finished board requires roughly forty hours of hard labor. “You can't do it in a straight shot,” Marc said. “You're doing three or four hours at a time, and after that, you're just dead. Your fingers are just wrecked; you can't feel anything anymore. You're back is killing you and you just have to quit and return later. I ruined my back surfing Sunset Beach, and if I lift anything more than twenty-five pounds, I'm in pain for two or three days. So making these boards has been difficult because it's hard for me to move them. But once I cut it out, it gets it down to where I can manage it. And once they're shaped, they're fine.

“I still have all of my original shaping tools from 1970. I've always worked with the same sanding block, same Skil 100. I just take that plank lumber and I use these little tools…after the wood is milled, you have to size it then put it through a thickness planer so that they're all sized at the right thickness.

“What you do with these things to make them really pretty and balanced is you take the white board and you split it into two pieces, and that becomes a pair. Each board becomes opposed from the other one on the other side, so you can put your heavy pieces on the outside and your lighter pieces in the center, and they're all matched. It makes a finished board look really pretty, but it's for function, too. I hollow out all the center pieces before I glue it up so I can get all that dead weight out of the center, then I ban-saw the rocker templates out on them to see how they line up before I glue them. The board weighs about ninety pounds after the blanks are glued up.”

 

FINLESS WONDER

I noticed one of Marc’s Hot Curls featured a single-fin box, which struck me as running against the vintage of pure Hot Curl methodology.

“I put the fin blocks in just so I could experience the board,” he reasoned. “I could pull out and put a wooden plug in, but this one I made because I'm surfing it. I want to just learn about it. But, you know, a small fin in there made the board completely surfable, and then, see, you could really feel the thing.”

But did it then remain a true Hot Curl?

“I have a picture of an original pintail Hot Curl on the beach at Waikiki, with a keel shaped into the bottom,” Marc said. “That's why I did that, or I wouldn't have done it. I've seen the picture. Tom Blake invented the little tiny runner fin in 1935 and he put it on his hollow paddleboards as a stabilizer. But then some uncredited genius actually shaped a ridge into the back end of his Hot Curl, and when I saw that, I thought that was beautiful.

“The most aesthetically pleasing Hot Curls I’ve shaped have that keel, which is like a big ridge that drops out of the bottom. They do really work well; you can steer them and stand way back on them. They’re better than the flatter-bottomed ones that are just squared off.

“I’m only interested in making boards to use. I’m not a collector. I’m only now old enough where I’m actually interested in making some that you don’t have to surf, but I want them to be completely useful. That’s why they're chambered and they've got the keel shaped into them, and you can absolutely take them out and ride them. It doesn't have to be a wall-hanger.”

  

COMPLETION

 “I sand the blank down to 320 grit, because any sort of scratch beyond 220 grit will show up when you put the finish on it, and it’ll look like your kids were in there doing their homework on it.

“Balsa boards were always fiberglassed. Fiberglass was invented in the mid ‘40s, and that's when balsa became popular. When I started dong these Hot Curls, I didn’t want to put resin on them. It doesn't belong on redwood. There's nothing authentic about it.

“Greg Noll’s work is outstanding. He’s the Julia Childs of surfboard oil finishes. He dies with the family recipe. He would do these old koa boards, and he had a hand-rubbed finish on them which had a real satin look to it. I thought there must be a way to do the finish that enhances the beauty of the redwood, but it isn't resin—it's something authentic to the original period.

“There are two ways to finish a Hot Curl, and I’ve done both. You use either varnish or linseed oil. The really common method was varnish. Varnish is really beautiful material—it flows out like a gloss resin. You put one coat over the other and it’ll stick to it. If you really sand that board perfectly, and do a nice thick varnish coat on it, it flows out and really looks pretty. It’s kind of a honey color and it gives the board this warm, yellow hue over this golden brown wood, and they’re just beautiful.

“In the old days, you used linseed oil and things that would turn hard after a few days. You'd wipe it on thick, then wipe it off. The oil penetrates the wood and then it kind of gels and coagulates, and you build up enough layers and then it will have a coating. Stuff people use nowadays has a synthetic base to it. The old oil is very hard to find.

“I like linseed oil because it has a satiny, dull, organic look to it, and it doesn’t look like it’s wood with a coating on it. It looks more like your parents’ dining room table, where you can still see the pores of the wood through it.

“You don't need fiberglass and resin to make wood strong—it already is strong. That is where the strength comes from. So it's only these redwood boards that Steve Triplett does, because this is a guy who’s a master woodworker, so he can put a finish on a board that belongs on it.

“I could take a finished Hot Curl to a surfboard factory and they could fiberglass it and polish it, and it would look really outstanding and pretty and perfect, but it would be like taking an old Hawai’ian board and dipping it into plastic. Nothing authentic about that, which is why I’m doing this with Triplett, because it's more like the real thing. This is how they're supposed to be made, how they used to be made. But, of course, the crème-de-la-crème is actually surfing them.”


MODERNITY

 “Bob Simmons and Joe Quigg are two of the guys credited with inventing what we consider the modern-day longboard, which is a fin on the tail, wide hips—a hotdog board that you can whip around. Roundhouse turn, run up to the nose. Quigg did that in the early ‘50s, and they were made out of balsa, and they called them the Malibu board because that's where they rode them.

“The Hawai’ians rode those narrow, finless Hot Curls until about 1950. Simultaneously, the Malibu balsa chip board with the fin on it was developed in the late '40s, so the designs overlapped. All those pioneer guys went back and forth from Santa Monica to Waikiki, and even though they had a design of a surfboard that was better in many ways, the guys were intrigued with the romance of a Hawai’ian riding a finless redwood board in the Hawai’ian surf. It had an appeal.

“So all of those guys, at one time or another, actually built Hot Curls and rode them as experiments. For them, it was like us riding contemporary boards and saying,’I want to get a retro longboard.’ That's what they were doing: ‘Hey, we have these modern boards made out of balsa wood with a fin on them, but we want to do this retro thing and ride Hot Curls.’ Even Yater did. Same with Phil Edwards.

“I read an old interview with Phil, and he just had to do it. I think the ‘Gray Ghost’ is the one that Phil Edwards rode. It's the same board Sam George was riding. It's like eleven feet long and it's made out of foam, but it was glassed with triple glass to make it really heavy, and he rode it for about a year. He made himself ride it every time he went out, and he said it was really difficult.”

  

THE RIDE: CALIFORNIA TODAY

“…this key period of transition during which hot curl boards and their special style flourished remains an obscure, or at best, misunderstood phenomena. In truth it was the portal to modern surfing.” —Craig Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal


Central Coast, July: late afternoon, mid-week, mild, partly cloudy, roads of tourists, rolling hills of brown grass and black cattle. It could’ve been Orange County sixty years ago, or Los Angeles a hundred.

The Central Coast’s summer surf is sporadic, often junky, with occasional clean south swell rejuvenating rare reefs in Big Sur, San Simeon, Cambria, Cayucos. After a late Mexican-food lunch in downtown San Luis Obispo, we motored west, eventually choosing Morro Bay’s Atascadero Beach for its smallish, mediocre windswell, empty, glassy, peaky, consistent—ideal for my first time riding a Hot Curl, or, more specifically, “Hot-Curling.”

Marc’s white Ford Econoline was big enough to house an entire quiver of Hot Curls. We brought one, the 9’4” he’d shaped in 2002, from San Luis Obispo water-tower redwood. He rode a self-shaped foam/fiberglass 9’2” Owl noserider, which he eventually sold to me.

Fitting into my damp wetsuit on the cold, hard sand, dusk approaching, the windless air cooling rapidly, Marc offered a brief tutorial, standing over the board I would ride, gesturing at its tail:

“It works best if you stand back there on it—it plants the tail into the face of the wave. Therefore the nose goes faster than the back of the board, and so when you get it on an angle, the nose is going faster than the tail, and you’re going to slide across at an angle rather than the back end trying to overtake the front end.

“You have to figure out how to make the board go where you need it to go, and the more time the wave gives you, the better. You're not going to be fighting to make sure it goes the right way; you have to let it flow.”

Woodsmoke from the nearby campground filled the air, stirring my own memories of sleeping in tents and cars along this rugged coast. Seagulls cackled and jostled; somewhere in the distance, a sea lion barked. All with the muffled roar of the waves we faced.

I lifted the board and waded into the surf. The water was icy—Morro Bay is five thousand miles from Waikiki.

The board was fairly light for a Hot Curl (fifty-one pounds) and dropped straight onto the water with a loud, flat crack, like dropping a coffee table into a swimming pool.

I started paddling: buoyancy was easy, stability was not. The finless tail wagged as I punched through whitewater, appreciating the board’s speed and fluidity but struggling to restrain its rear pivot.

Yet a momentum ensued and I earned stride, sluicing the water, head down, smelling the brine and woodsmoke. Once outside, I was able to admire the setting sun and its pastels cast onto the crags of Morro Rock to the south—ancient, yes, and appropriate for a trip back through time atop a modern Hot Curl, because Hot Curls are timepieces, their science and design precursors to the modern big-wave gun and, ultimately, tow-in surfboards.

What did Fran Heath and John Kelly and Wally Froiseth feel on that first drop-in? Firmer purchase in the pocket? Increased speed? A line-drive of effortless speed and flow? Surely a sense of oneness with the furling reef waves of Brown’s and Makaha, opposed to the soft contours of Waikiki.

Their scene was tropical, and their wood came from temperate rain forests in the Pacific Northwest. Old-growth redwoods are the world’s biggest trees, today reduced to a fraction of their pre-logging existence. Of course, Hot Curls were inconsequential, and the one I straddled was shaped from recycled lumber.

I caught my first wave easily and squatted in the whitewater straight to shore, feeling the plank’s firm grip on the water surface. It was fast and sketchy, but the instant my feet hit the deck, I was Hot-Curling.

Marc caught the next wave and rode it beautifully. Back outside, I asked him how he first fared on this rockerless, finless plank.

“I succeeded in riding a handful of waves on it at Pismo,” he said, squinting into the low sun. “I had to really stay back on the board. The first thing I did was I got up on it and it spun around so fast, I was facing out to sea instantly and I scared the hell out of myself.”

That was in wintry, overhead beachbreak—ideal size and steepness for the Hot Curl, but generally walled and closing out. Morro Bay’s summer sandbars were tapered, and once I balanced my weight and began mind-surfing the board between sets, waves became ridden from the outside to the sand. Recounting Marc’s advice (Plant the tail into the face of the wave—), I stood with an arc to my back, a slight bend to my knees, mimicking footage I’d seen of Blackie Makaena surfing toward Diamond Head at Canoes in Bud Browne’s Hawaiian Surfing Movies, circa 1950.

Morro Rock could be Diamond Head. Gazing south from Atascadero Beach, the arc of the beach down to the Rock resembled the view south from Waikiki. Sitting in the cold water on the Hot Curl, I could almost sense Blackie at Canoes, or Wally Froiseth out on a big day at Queen’s. The water and air were warmer there, and the men surfed over reef instead of sand, but Atascadero’s early-evening idyll—the backdrop hills, the lack of surfers, the campfires, the sun dropping through clouds into the gray sea—evoked a sublime immunity to the woes of modern surfing. There, under Marc’s tutorage, I could Hot-Curl undisturbed, sliding finless into the past, well before my time.

“It’s a really beautiful experience to ride a Hot Curl in any clean wave that's not a top-to-bottom closeout thumper,” he said.

Closeouts were rarely surfed sixty years ago. Frequented surf spots were quality, usually pointbreaks and reefs like Waikiki, Malibu, San Onofre. Beachbreaks like Morro Bay would have been ridden on smallish, clean, perfect days, like today, and the Hot Curl would have been the perfect board.

World War II, the draft, no wetsuits, no Internet, no cell phones, no crowds, no ocean pollution—life was different for the 1940s-era twentysomething male surfer. Futures were uncertain, often fateful. It was possible that a young enlisted man from southern California, summoned to O’ahu after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, found the Hot Curl: Waikiki, Makaha, and Brown’s were not far.

After Pearl Harbor, John Kelly was ordered to boat around and retrieve dead bodies—the adage “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” comes to mind:

“We would pick up dozens and dozens, lay them out for identification, then put them in boxes for storage. Every once in a while we’d bring a dead Japanese pilot in. We were using those double-size boxes, so you’d put two bodies in instead of one, and I remember laying an American sailor face-to-face with a Japanese pilot, and thinking: who the hell made the decision that these kids had to kill one another? These two boys had no grievances…the outrageousness of the whole thing, the waste—it just about took me over.”

Later, Kelly and Fran Heath served aboard the USS Calcedony ; the captain let them bring Hot Curls. Exotic surf was imminent: the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island, Palmyra, Midway Atoll—places far removed from today’s surf-travel map. Yet they are out there, suspended in time, mid-Pacific, soiled with rusty military leftovers, weedy airstrips, and the souls from untold casualties of war. Sixty years on, visitors remain rare, tourism unknown.

Surfing on a Hot Curl—a floating wooden timepiece—withdrew me to that era, years described to me by my grandfather, an army colonel who earned a purple heart in Germany. The frozen screams of Alcatraz were a world distant from Hawai’i and the tropical Pacific, yet the horror and challenge of warfare remained the same for Kelly and Heath, both assigned to Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) duty, an early version of today’s Navy SEALS.

“We considered using surfboards for reconnaissance missions,” Heath said. “That was Kelly’s idea. But, boards are too easily spotted from low-flying aircraft and there’s no protection if you’re spotted, so that idea was scrapped.”

Around the same time back at Morro Bay, the U.S. Navy was staging mock invasions with amphibious landing crafts at the exact beach I Hot-Curled with Marc. Morro Rock was being quarried for landfill and port improvements, notably harbor entrance’s two 1,800-foot-long jetties, built, at the Navy’s request, for better wartime defense purposes.

Angling shoreward atop the Hot Curl, balanced methodically, learning its rail and tail-suction nuances—I needed no defense. But what if I did? What if I was in my twenties just before the Pearl Harbor bombing, surfing wintertime San Onofre in a wool bathing suit on a Pacific Redi-Cut Homes 10’0” redwood/balsa, sharing waves with Guard Chapin, Lorin Harrison, and Dorian Paskowitz? Military service would’ve been certain, and I would’ve joined the navy, like John Kelly and Fran Heath.

Disaster would’ve also been somewhat inevitable—gunfire, shipwreck, bombing, hand-to-hand combat—against the Asian enemy. Or, in Kelly’s case, there could’ve been a lucid instance of oceanic abandonment: to break the monotony at sea, Kelly occasionally grabbed a rope and bodysurfed behind the USS Calcedony. One day, however, his rope snapped, and suddenly he was treading in the Big Blue, watching his ship sail away. He was soon rescued, of course.

More questions: What if he wasn’t rescued? What if he had been left in the middle of the Pacific, with no life vest, flotation, food, or drinking water? What if he was stranded within swimming distance of an obscure atoll populated with islanders who had never seen a white person? And what if that atoll had rideable waves, and trees to build a surfboard with?

Toweling off at Marc’s van in darkness on the side of the road, campfire smoke and sea salt in the air, Morro Bay’s lights winking in the distance, I asked him if he thought surfing’s halcyon days were over.

“In southern California, to an extent, yes, I’d say they’re over. But each generation has its own period of innocence and evolution—or revolution, I suppose.”

Sliding my hands along the contours of the wet Hot Curl, I realized mine had just begun.

 

SOURCES

 

1.    Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, 1996.

2.    Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Fran Heath, 1996.

3.    Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with John Kelly, 1996.

4.    Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Legends of the Hot Curl.

5.    Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Woody Brown, 1994.

6.    Stecyk, Craig. “Hot Curl,” The Surfer’s Journal, Summer 1994.

7.    Warshaw, Matt. Above the Roar: 50 Surfer Interviews, p. 77.

8.    Lynch, Gary. Interview with George Downing, 1989.

9.    Lynch, Gary. Interview with Wally Froiseth, 1989.

10. Lynch, Gary. Interview with John Kelly, 1989.

11. Kew, Michael. Interview with Gary Lynch, 2005.

12. Kew, Michael. Interviews with Marc Andreini, 2003 and 2005.

Reasoning With Spencer Reynolds

By Michael Kew

Reynolds in his booth at the 2015 Azalea Festival in Brookings, Oregon. Photo: Kew.

Spencer Reynolds won’t paint burgers. But maybe he should.

They’re gorgeous things.

And he’s just ordered one, medium-well with extra avo, from Raymond Ross, friendly owner of the Vista Pub. Squinting in late-Saturday sun, the 41-year-old Reynolds sits opposite me in his jeans and blue coat, drinking Brookings-brewed beer at a varnished redwood table. We’re in the pub’s side patio on Chetco Avenue, the whoosh of traffic alternating with birds chirping from the green hedge that doubles as a fence.

On the black cinderblock wall by our table is Reynolds’ 4-by-4 painting of Natural Bridges, a picturesque spot 11 miles north. But it’s not the view commonly photographed. “It’s a little more dangerous to see,” Reynolds says. “You have to almost hang off the cliff to get that angle.”

The piece was commissioned by Ross, who has displayed Reynolds’ art since the pub’s birth in 2011.

 “One chilly day, Raymond ran over to me as I was walking from the ocean after surfing. He excitedly told me that he was opening a pub and would love to hang my work inside. We didn’t know each other well at that point, but I loved his passion.”

Today, four years later, Brookings’ ocean-breezed air is still chilly. Hot food sounds great. But first: two more pints by Chetco Brewing; in 2013, Reynolds was hired to draw the company logo.

“Designing it was fun for me on a couple of levels. First, I love a good beer and thought it would be cool to make art for a brewery. Second, I grew up on the Chetco River, so I have a deep passion for this amazing place.”

After my third sip of Willa Nelson IPA, I ask Reynolds about something he’d told me a few weeks back, a morsel about his art being driven by an attempt to balance opposites. What does that mean?

“It can mean lots of different things,” Reynolds says [then, to Ross, approaching with our gorgeous burgers]. “Wow, that was fast!”

“Everyone in there is drinking beer,” Ross says, grinning before heading back inside. “The cooks are just waiting for orders.”

Squirting ketchup onto his French fries, Reynolds continues.

“So, yeah, opposites—there’s always some sort of opposing elements in my work. Could be a structural element versus a flowy element. It could be the physical materials, or metaphorically political, and a real desire to see those things get along. It’s not always something that I know that’s going to happen when I start a piece; rather, it’s when I finish a piece and I look at it and realize that the rule of opposites has come out of me again. No matter what I create, that always seems to be there.”

The rule of opposites, I posit, could apply not just to his work but to his base, firmly in Brookings, perhaps financially unsound for a full-time artist.

“There’s a lot of moral support here,” Reynolds says, chewing fries. “Often I’ll have to sell my art in other places—mainly Southern California, because that’s where a concentration of surf culture is. But as I expand into different areas, maybe that won’t be as important.”

I ask, “You no longer consider yourself a ‘surf artist,’ right?”

“Not anymore. I think I did for a time, but I want to broaden more, because the title of ‘surf artist’ is too confining for me. I want to do other things.”

“Like what?”

He sips some beer, sets his chin.

 “I don’t know. I just want to experiment, to play with paint and try whatever comes to mind. I feel like a jazz musician, improvising a lot of the time, seeing what comes out of me.”

Reynolds admits to being a kid enamored with surf culture, because the Curry coast had none. A 1991 graduate of Brookings-Harbor High School, he moved to Eugene for a lukewarm stint at community college, then to Port Angeles to surf, then to Seattle to prioritize his art. He attended the Art Institute and surfed rarely. “I was moderately scared of the big city—the big world—but I wanted to enter it.”

After six years, he did some traveling, eventually settling in Hawaii and Australia before returning to Oregon—Portland this time, where he met Stacey, now his wife, marketing director, and mother of Blake, their 3-year-old son.

“Stacey has lots of skills and abilities that I lack,” Reynolds says, wiping his lips between burger bites. “I’m the passionate dreamer side of the relationship, and she’s the realistic, mechanical side. She’s pretty essential for me not getting too far out in la-la land.”

In 2009, the newlyweds moved to Brookings.

 “I really want to feel like I’m sinking into this place, to be firmly rooted,” he says. “I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’m a bit of an introvert, so I don’t feel as hindered here as I did in the cities, where everything seemed to suffocate me. I can really breathe here. But it took me years to get to this mindset. I wanted to be out everywhere. I didn’t want to be here for a long time, but I always knew I’d come back.”

There are plans for a Reynolds art gallery not far from where we sit.

“The commercial side of it to support your family is probably Spencer’s deepest desire—to be able to live off his art,” says Stacey, who’s just joined us from inside the Vista. “We’re constantly trying to navigate that—how we can bring art and creativity to everyone’s lives and make it accessible, especially here in the Brookings community.”

 “People are excited that I can make a bit of a living as an artist here,” Spencer adds, “but it’s definitely a sort of bizarre element to where most people here make a living in a very practical manner.”

“Is art impractical?” I ask.

“It’s very practical,” he says. “It’s essential. A lot of people might argue against that, but art gives you a reason to live.”

A swig of beer and a pause in eating. He leans back in the metal chair, red-cheeked, aglow, optimistic about the future, about the second half of his gorgeous burger. Spencer smiles. Because here in Brookings, living is the reason.

____________

This Saturday, June 27 (NOT Thursday, like the flyer says), from 5-9 p.m., Spencer will be at Bliss 101 in Encinitas, California. See flyer below for more details. If you love quality art, don't miss this event!

Click here to view a wealth of his artwork.


Windsurf Eden on the Curry Coast

By Michael Kew

Kevin Pritchard. Photo: Mark Harpur.

For a few blustery days each June, the world’s windsurf stage veers to Eagle Rock in Pistol River State Park, Oregon.

“Everyone loves to come here and sail, to rip it up, to take advantage of what we have,” Harbor's Luke Mathison said. “It’s a big playground.”

The bearded Mathison, a 20-year Curry County windsurfing vet, stood atop the dunes, buffeted by a near-gale, and smiled as he watched another professional windsurfer launch 30 vertical feet off another large wave.

“We’ve always had good conditions for this event,” he said, “but this year has been exceptional.”

Photo: Harpur.

For a Pistol River resident like James Lundin, the Wave Bash is akin to having the Super Bowl or World Cup in his front yard.

“It provides us with a great opportunity to watch some of the best sailors in the world perform,” he said, wetsuited, minutes before his final Grandmasters-division heat. “It inspires us greatly to try to achieve more than we already do. It also gives sailors the opportunity to spread the word about this area. It’s a nice place to come and hang out for anyone who enjoys recreation, because it’s not just about windsurfing here. There are lots of other things to do.”

Lundin’s good friend (and fellow Grandmasters competitor) Dwight Bode, who lives just north of Brookings, agreed.

“The Wave Bash is a great event that brings a lot of people out to watch what we really do out here,” Bode said. “People forget that it’s much more than just a beautiful coastline. People come from all over the world to sail here. It’s an epic place.”

Pritchard. Photo: Harpur.

Ted Eady, owner of Inn at the Beachcomber, provided lodging for Wave Bash competitors, plus barbecue soirees and fresh beer from Gold Beach’s Arch Rock.

“We’ve had a bunch of happy people here,” he said. “And I noticed there were more rooms booked by visitors who came specifically to watch the event. Anything you can do to put Curry County in some sort of international spotlight is good.”

Yet, ultimately, the Wave Bash is communal, grassroots exhibition, aided in large part by Pistol River’s Dana Miller, a windsurfer for more than three decades.

“It puts us on the map,” Miller said, grinning. “Not that the place isn’t already on the map—you can walk into a bar in Nepal and they’ve heard of Pistol River. It’s legendary in windsurfing circles. This place has everything going for it. It’s a windsurfer’s dream.”

 

Video of the 2015 Pistol River Wave Bash here. Results and photos here.

High Tide — Chris Burkard's New Book

It was my pleasure to be the editor of Chris Burkard's new project for Mendo Books. "High Tide — A Surf Odyssey," has just been published. For more details, and to order a copy, click here.

 

I CLEARLY RECALL the moment I first met Burkard. It was with a cheerful handshake in August 2006, beside the tidy desk of then-photo editor Peter Taras, inside the offices of the now-defunct Transworld Surf magazine in Oceanside, California. Burkard was Taras’s summer intern, commuting weekly 420 kilometers each way from Arroyo Grande and sleeping in his truck while absorbing the nuances of surf photography and photo editing. He was a few months away from his first-ever international trip (to Dubai/Oman), but his was an obvious talent just beginning to simmer. Nearly a decade on, I caught up with Burkard at home for a current glimpse into an artist mind that is now at a full rolling boil. —Michael Kew, Oregon Coast, February 2015

 

 

MICHAEL KEW: Your body of work is impressive, and yet you’re not even 30 years old. How did this occur?

CHRIS BURKARD: Traveling is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I didn’t set out to run a photography business—I wanted to see the world. That was all I cared about, getting out of this small town that I felt stuck in. I started going to these places that were really unique, but they weren’t fulfilling. We were going to the tropics, living that status quo, visiting places that were normally associated with surfing, but I felt suffocated. I had a draw to go to some off-the-beaten-path places, which ultimately led me to places like Iceland and Norway, getting further from my comfort zone. Those trips eventually became more like an internal journey than anything. To see how far we could go to push ourselves and to experience something new.

 

What do you try to capture?

Photographs are one-dimensional, right? They’re just flat, especially when you’re looking at them on a computer screen. Years ago I’d studied a little bit of two- and three- dimensional art, and one of the things I learned was how to use color as a way to make an image stand out and look three-dimensional using warm tones and cool tones to my advantage, pushing and pulling them to make an image feel deep. Lighting has always played a huge role in my work.

As far as my lenses, I tend to go a bit wider. Most of my surf work has been shot using 70-200mm or below. Those are the types of photos I’m the most known for, at least. For my landscape work and such, I love shooting super wide and getting close rather than trying to just zoom into subjects—I like to actually walk up and approach them. It’s a more intimate experience and that’s what I like about it—the opportunity to be close. All the moments I’m shooting are usually something that I’m personally involved in myself.

 

How has recently bringing two sons into this world affected your career?

I’m not as reckless as I used to be. When I used to travel, I wouldn’t care about the length of time I would be gone, but nowadays I’m trying to be smart about booking my trips. I’ve found that, in having a family, communication is the most important thing—it’s everything. It’s made for a lot of expensive phone bills, but it’s been worth it because I’ve been able to talk to my wife while on the road and make sure the kids are safe—that’s the role of being a dad who’s trying to travel for a living. There’s no way for me to stop seeing the world. That’s just what I do, so I need to figure out how I can make them feel safe and I can feel comfortable leaving them for periods of time.

Big Sur. Photo: Kew.

What in your career so far have you wished that you could’ve done differently?

That’s a tough one. I think I would have traveled sooner to places that had initially inspired me. I was always so afraid to invest my own time and money into places I really wanted to visit. I chose to travel to places that my editors thought to be good, or to places that I knew the magazine could use. I was just playing it safe. As soon as I stopped worrying and carrying about all of that, I started to go to places where my work started to mean something to me. Suddenly it became fulfilling and not just a job.

 

What have been your most prominent ups and downs?

Probably the lowest point was in Russia, when you saw me getting walked out of customs in the Vladivostok airport and put into jail. (laughs) That sucked. It was a low point but also an eye-opener because being so young and suddenly realizing that, at 21 years old, you’re not invincible. You’re human and subject to the same treatment that everyone else is.

Besides my kids being born, one of the highest points was the opportunity I had to see the waves in Alaska. That trip to the Aleutian Islands was the best of my life. We were so far off the grid and so remote that we realized there was nobody but ourselves there to rely on. That type of self-sufficiency makes you feel alive. It’s really gratifying.

 

How do you stay inspired?

It used to be just by looking at photos, but nowadays I find inspiration in a lot of different places—through art, music, architecture—and also just by travel. I try to look in unorthodox places to find it.

Thailand. Photo: Kew.

What does photography mean to you?

It’s been a tool and a vehicle for me to see the world, and it’s been a way to inspire people as well as myself. Photography is a job and a business, which is great, but I’ve never been a good writer, I’ve never done journals or taken notes. All I do is take pictures of my experiences and, at the end of the day, at the end of my career, of my life, I’m not going to give a crap about how much money photography made for me; I’m going to care about the ability to share a lot of these experiences with my kids. A way of remembering (hopefully) a life well-lived.

 

What makes a good picture stand out from the average?

A good photograph is something that inspires people, that moves them, that makes them want to get up and go do something. That should be most important. It should have good light, great contrast, an emotional trigger. The real beauty of a good photograph is there are no real rules. You can look at something in a bunch of different ways and still make a beautiful image, because it’s really about the content.

 

Weather conditions can be critical for a successful picture. How do you handle these unpredictable forces?

Finding unpredictable weather is one of the best things someone can do. I used to live for those bluebird days, when it’s sunny and offshore, and those are killer, but they get old after a while. It’s so much more unique when you’re chasing storms and when you find yourself immersed in an actual storm, you realize that the weather and the light and the whole emotion of the situation is a lot more dramatic. That’s what I live for now. I’d rather be in a clearing storm than a sunny bluebird day any time. I’ve learned to embrace every situation. There’s no such thing as bad weather—there are just soft people and poor clothing.

Christmas Island. Photo: Kew.

What are your big future goals?

To be as good a father as I am a photographer. (laughs) I’m actually making a children’s book—that has always been a goal of mine. And this TED Talk has been another goal of mine for what seems like forever. It’s a huge, huge thing that I’ve been wanting to do because it’s a way of leaving a legacy behind, some of the things I’ve learned and gained from traveling, to have a global stage and present some of my greatest work is a really amazing opportunity. I feel super lucky.

 

Any wish-list locations you’d like to visit?

There are a lot. I still want to go to so many places in Canada and Norway and Iceland; these places are still just as inspiring as the first time I visited them. That’s the beauty of them. I’m a lifelong traveler—it’s not just something I’ve done for a career but because I love it.

 

Ultimately, with this photographic path you’ve chosen, what have you learned about life and the world?

In life, there are no shortcuts to joy, and for us to truly embrace anything that’s worthwhile, we have to be willing to shiver just a little bit. I’ve definitely done my fair share of shivering and it’s taught me a couple things. For my entire life I’ve been seeking these distant shores—as a little kid I was daydreaming about them—and then when I started traveling to them and I realized that you’re never going to get there by daydreaming or by flipping through pages in a magazine. You have to go and seek out your distant shore. It’s not enough to just dip our toes into what inspires us; we have to immerse ourselves. 

Peripatetically Speaking — A Nutshell Tale of Surf Travel

 

Text and Photos by Michael Kew

{Written for Transworld Surf in 2004.}

 “A surfer’s dream is to walk into a unique location with a perfect peeling wave, totally unknown.” —Peter Troy, legendary 1960s surf adventurer

 

Wanderlust. Seafaring. Excursion. Trekking. Passage. Movement.

Travel: It begins with desire. A desire to depart familiar scenes and slip into something a little more comfortable…or uncomfortable, depending on what lies at Point B or Point C or Point D. And so on.

Chances are you’re at Point A right now, reading this magazine in a place you know all too well. Maybe not. Either way, this magazine is filled with images and words from far afield, pieced together by the editors for the sole purpose of showcasing the world to you, the humble reader. And, full of waves, it’s a big, wet world to see.

Africa.

“In the beginning, there was Hawai’i,” said longtime surf writer Drew Kampion. “Then there was Hawai’i.”

Hey, it was Hawai’i’s George Freeth who imported surfing to California in 1907, hauling a 150-pound wood surfboard into the waves at Redondo Beach. Three years later, as a member of the traveling U.S. Swim Team, Duke Kahanamoku left his beloved islands and brought surfing to the U.S. East Coast. In 1915, Duke was the first person to surf in Australia, on a big day at Harbord (a.k.a. Freshwater Beach).

In the 1920s, freshly graded Highway 1 (PCH) was the vein for surf travel in Southern California. Sure, we’d surfed all the name-brand spots like Windansea, Swami’s, Corona Del Mar, Long Beach, Huntington, and San Onofre, but what existed up north? Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane soon became a destination, as did Rincon and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Santa Monica surfers Tom Blake (who surfed Hawai’i in 1924) and Sam Reid knew zones to the north featured high-quality waves with no one to ride them—not that it mattered in September 1926, as California’s surfer population was only a few guys. On that warm, Indian Summer morning, Blake and Reid hopped onto PCH and motored up to a place that was then as deserted as the loneliest point in Baja. Their find?

“Going to Malibu from Santa Monica was the equivalent of going from one country to another,” historian Gary Lynch wrote.

“We took our 10’ redwoods out…and paddled the mile to a beautiful white crescent-shaped beach that didn’t have a footprint on it,” Reid recalled in Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman. “No buildings and, of course, no pier! There was no audience but the seagulls.”

Essentially, first-surfing Malibu in 1926 was akin to first-surfing Jeffreys Bay in 1963, or Irian Jaya in 2004. It was (and is) all about the search, after all—a catch-phrase coined by Rip Curl for an advertising campaign several years ago, yes, but also the lifeblood mojo of surf searchers across the globe.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, a surf trip entailed traveling either to Hawai’i or California and vice versa. California’s Pete Peterson and Lorrin Harrison followed in Blake’s footsteps with a stowaway voyage to Waikiki in 1932; 15 years later, Hawai’i’s Wally Froiseth, George Downing, and Woody Brown sailed in the opposite direction.

Going back hundreds of years, Polynesians were the world’s first surfers, riding waves in canoes from island to island across great expanses of sea; why would they need to go anyplace else?

“To appreciate Hawai’i, you’ve got to leave Hawai’i,” said Randy Rarick, director of the North Shore’s annual Triple Crown series. “My first major trip was to California when I was 15, and, back then, it was a huge adventure.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-traveled surfer than Rarick. At age 54, it’s said that he’s been everywhere, met everyone, and seen everything. Rarick’s traveled in 110+ countries and surfed in more than 60 of them—random places like Somalia, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Burma. But, like all of us, his traveling had to start somewhere, and why not California? It was as exotic to Hawai’ians as Hawai’i was to Californians.

“In the 1960s,” Rarick said, “surf magazines were growing, and I’d look at all these pictures of glassy California beachbreaks. I’d dream about how cool it would be to ride a wave and fall off and step onto the sand—we just don’t get that here in Hawai’i very often.”

Rarick’s California sojourn fell smack-dab in the middle of the planet’s fledgling surf discovery. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, doors the world over swung wide open, thanks in part to cheaper air travel and to movies like “Endless Summer,” which was surfing’s first surf-travel documentary. Who’d ever thought of surfing in Ghana, Tahiti, or Senegal, anyway? After the film’s overwhelming success, surfers looked at their world maps in a whole new light.

In the 1960s, magazine articles about Mexico, Baja, France, Mauritius, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil effectively distracted surfers from the standard Hawai’i-California circuit. Europe became vogue; the England-to-Morocco migration route became de rigueur in the chilly winter months, and surfing’s popularity skyrocketed in places we’d never dreamed of surfing.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Peter Troy introduced surfing to Brazil in 1961, setting the stage for what is today a teeming surf culture. Through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, surfers had left their mark across South and Central America, and, halfway around the world, first-surfs occurred frequently in South Africa, Australia, and Indonesia.

A series of 1970s travel articles produced for Surfer magazine by writer Kevin Naughton and photographer Craig Peterson further fueled our wanderlust: who can forget the world’s first look at now-defunct Petacalco in Mexico, Fiji’s blue perfection, France’s fine wines and waves, or West Africa’s dusty barrels? The pair’s stories filled the reader’s mind with distant exotica, stating that, hey, there’s a lot of ocean out there, and that perhaps travel is the greatest education.

“Our tales from a lost horizon,” Naughton said, “were a wake-up call to fellow surfers that it’s better to have your passport in some thief’s pocket in a foreign land than sitting in your drawer at home. If there was any underlying message, it was that, for a traveler on the road, it’s better to be lucky than rich.”

Randy Rarick remembers those articles, identifying with the Naughton/Peterson ethos that it’s our world out there, and that everyone should get off their ass and go check it out.

 “The aspect of either discovery, interacting with the culture of the place, and then being able to actually share that with fellow surfers is really cool,” Rarick said. “If you take the time and energy to go find a place, you have the right to either keep it private, or share it with your friends or the surfing world. We’re all here to share the world, and if you can share it with people who surf and enjoy it with surfers, that’s a good thing.

“When you go traveling, my philosophy is the interaction with the local people and the place is why you’ve traveled. To get surf is just the icing on the cake. If you want to surf-travel, just go to the Mentawais—you cannot go wrong. Get on a boat and you’ll get good surf no matter what. But when you’re sitting on a boat, you don’t really interact with the place, per se, and you actually are missing the whole mark of traveling.

“When you do it that way, you’re nothing more than a surf tourist, as I call it. A traveler is different than a tourist: a tourist is somebody who goes there to see it, and a traveler is somebody who goes to experience it.”

And now? Well, where haven’t we surfed? A more interesting answer would be where we have surfed—it’s an impressive list. Rarick knows.

“I try to go to obscure places in the world where I don’t care if the surf’s really that good or not,” he said. “I go because it’s different.”

One of today’s preeminent and most conspicuous forms of surf exploration is the Crossing, an ambitious plan to scour the Earth’s oceans aboard the Indies Trader, funded by Quiksilver. Launched in March 1999 from Cairns, Australia, the Crossing’s original theme was a detailed one-year exploration of the South Pacific, which quickly evolved into a six-year voyage covering just about everywhere in the world with swell exposure: Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Indonesia, Indian Ocean islands, Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, South America, North America….

Magazine-sponsored trips are another visible conduit of unique surf travel. One from 2000, featured in Surfer magazine, was a groundbreaking adventure deep into the pirate territory of Indonesia’s Spice Islands.

“It was one of those places where you began to wonder just how silly and frivolous the hunt for surf is,” said Hans Hagen. “We were constantly caught off-guard both by beauty and danger—sometimes they seem to go hand in hand. It’s always the hard trips that stick with you.” 

Pacific Northwest. Sea temperature: 37°F.

Initially, following the early days of Duke in Australia and Santa Cruz, surf travel was sowed via California’s Highway 101—gas it for 10 cents a gallon and go. North, usually. Rincon was as cold and wild then as Alaska is now. Not quite the Arctic Circle, but, then again, when you had no choice but to surf in trunks year-round, Rincon was cold enough.

Not as cold as Santa Cruz, though—hey, Jack O’Neill knew that, and gave birth to modern rubber. With great advancements in wetsuit technology, nobody dismissed the idea of surfing such extreme cold-water climes.

“You know, until you’ve surfed with polar bears around,” Dr. Mark Renneker told Surfing magazine, “you haven’t really surfed.”

To wit: Greenland, Sweden, Antarctica, Svalbard, Tierra del Fuego, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Falkland Islands, Alaska, Russia, Norway, and Iceland.

“They used to be places where the elements were working against you,” Rarick said. “Now, with the modern wetsuit, you can overcome those elements.”

A 1996 Surfer magazine delegation to Iceland raised more than a few proverbial eyebrows in the surf world, especially considering nobody had ever really thought this island nation smack-dab in the middle of the North Atlantic could produce some incredibly good waves.

Robert “Wingnut” Weaver, of Endless Summer II fame, was one of the trip’s participants. “The surf was really fun,” he recalls. “Good pointbreaks and reefs—even a bitchin’ sand rivermouth deal. Of course it was cold, but one of the points stretched for more than three miles with the right swell...amazing! I would go back in a heartbeat.”

Inspired by what they found, Wingnut is sold on the concept of surf-trekking into the world’s icy netherworlds. Who needs palm trees and white-sand hammocks?

“It will be the cold places that the new discoveries will be made,” he said.

Wetsuits are better than ever. So good, in fact, that they have allowed waves to be ridden everywhere from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

“Besides great wetsuits,” said former Surfer editor Steve Hawk, “with the growing number of surfers, there’s bound to be a lot more people looking at more interesting places based on their own personal travel needs. Some guys don’t mind camping out where it’s cold; I know a lot of people who think the idea of going to Alaska to surf just sounds like the stupidest thing in the world. But then you have guys like Doc (Renneker), who’s done with tropical places.”

Dr. Renneker surfed among polar bears and icebergs in Svalbard, an island north of Norway, which made his previous Alaska trips seem tropical. Hawk was with Renneker in Alaska, who, when flying home to San Francisco, decided that it was time to head south for the winter. Not to Tortola or Costa Rica, not to Fiji or Tahiti, but to the 33°F water surrounding the great white sheet of ice at the bottom of the world: Antarctica.

A brave sail from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica, which some consider to be the deadliest trip in the world, then three earnest weeks on a steel-hulled boat with only one day of good surf. Why? Thank the great British explorer of yore: Ernest Shackleton.

“One of the real moments of genesis for our trip was the book about Shackleton’s expedition,” Hawk said. “There was a photo of some of his crew, who, for survival purposes, he’d left behind on Elephant Island. He left them and sailed off in a tiny boat, returning months later to get the other guys.”

Shackleton had a photographer with him, and, in the book is a shot of Shackleton coming toward his men on a skiff, with the mothership anchored offshore. It’s the moment of rescue, and all of the men in the foreground are waving—they’re ecstatic. And about 20 yards in front of them, there’s this little wave breaking, which was what planted the seed in Doc’s mind about surfing Antarctica.

“The first place we actually surfed was right at that spot on Elephant Island,” Hawk said. “Chris Malloy and I paddled out, and it all came full-circle.”

So is Antarctica a bona fide surf destination?

“Oh no,” Hawk assured. “It was a novelty trip—an excuse to go to Antarctica. In many ways, all of the best surf trips are like that.”

Seychelles.

Pinpoint the surf discoveries you remember best: perhaps it’s Indonesia: Uluwatu, Grajagan, Macaronis, Lance’s Right, Nias, Desert Point. Perhaps it was the Philippines and Cloud Nine. Or perhaps it were outposts in Australia, Panama, Africa, and Papua New Guinea.

Maybe it’s desert Arab sand that intrigues you: Pakistan, Oman, Yemen. Or 6-mils and hypothermia: Alaska, Scotland, Norway. Or Indian Ocean dreams of the Maldives and Andamans, Seychelles and Madagascar.

What is surf adventure? Driving without a map down Mex 1? Camping on Northern California’s Lost Coast? Booking a guaranteed 10-day Bintang Bash in the Mentawais? Or charting the unknown on an unknown vessel in a location with unknown surf potential and good chance of peril and misfortune?

“The roots of surf travel are based on two principles: cutting away from the herd, and finding an off-season resource,” said Scott Hulet, editor of The Surfer’s Journal. “Many centuries ago, a few boatloads of Tahitians split for Hawaii because things were getting rat-caged back home. In this century, Lance Carson turned on to Rincon because Malibu went dormant in the winter. The adventure element is there, but it follows the practical.”

Word-of-mouth and maps chicken-scratched onto cocktail napkins have exemplified more than one surfer’s quest for a foreign shore. Tales of the South Pacific, perhaps the most surf-rich region on the planet, have for years seduced us with omniscient images of Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, and spaces between—usually unidentified.

Twenty-one years ago, Dave Clark was a schoolteacher in Pago Pago, American Samoa. A friend who had sailed through Fiji described a sublime, tiny island just off the coast of Fiji’s Viti Levu, and suggested to Clark that he pay a visit. That island was Tavarua, and Clark, along with friend Scott Funk, liked what they found on Tavarua and soon built accommodation on the pristine white sand fronting Restaurants, forever changing the picture of surf travel.

“I think it was the natural evolution of things,” Clark said. “Populations increase and people want to visit more remote areas. On Tavarua, nature did a wonderful job creating that reef, so we thought having accommodation there would be a cool thing to do.”

Clark’s creation? The surf resort. Forget about hoofing a backpack and surfboard through the jungle, or hassling with to a do-it-yourself travel tack. One swipe of your credit card could now buy you guaranteed perfection with three meals a day, air-conditioned bungalows, and hot showers.

All said, not everyone is sold on the packaged surf trip.

“There are still guys out there doing it hard because they believe that’s the way it should be done,” Hulet said. “Craig (Peterson) and Kevin (Naughton) were prototypes; contemporary ferals keep the vibe in production.

Contemporary ferals?

“Yeah, they’re the guys who get on some local fishing boat and scrounge it out for six months on $100 a month, surfing waves with no one around,” said Rarick. “Some people think that’s exotic—when I was 20 years old, it was great. But as you get older, you realize you need to maximize your time.

“I spent weeks and months driving the coast of West Africa—dirty and dusty and flat conditions, eating shitty food and just waiting for a swell. Weeks wasted. You can romanticize it and say, ‘oh, it was great and exotic and romantic, driving through the deserts of Africa looking for surf.’ But I look back at some of the shitty times and I know I could’ve been surfing (somewhere else) that whole time rather than crawling around trying to find surf. That’s why I have no qualms about surf resorts or sharing shortcuts for people to be able to get to the surf.”

Business at Tavarua’s new resort flourished following 1984’s Tavarua cover story in Surfer magazine, submitted by Naughton and Peterson. Now, 20 years later, the tropical surf world is virtually awash in surf camps and resorts—ideal Everyday Life escape routes for anyone with the coin, quiver, and time off from work.

“Surf resorts are great for a guy who’s an executive who’s got two weeks per year to pack in as much surf as he can,” Rarick said. “He’s taking his two-week vacation and maximizing the surf potential. Surf resorts allow people who don’t have the time, the energy, or the wherewithal to maximize their surf experience.

“It’s no different than building a golf course; you can go down to your little local driving range and hit balls, but if you can go out and play on a golf course, it’s obviously going to be a better experience. It’s the same thing with surfing: you can stay home and surf your local beachbreak, or you can get away and find a better wave somewhere you can have X amount of time with fellow surfers and enhance your life. I think there should be a thousand surf camps where people could go and enjoy the surfing experience in different places.”

Essentially, perfect waves have been the catalyst of change. Take Mauritius’ Tamarin Bay, for example. First seen (and identified) in Surfer way back in 1966, the flawless, fickle lefthander was later the star of Larry Yates’ seminal Surfer article about the “Forgotten Island of Santosha,” which, in 1974, assured each and every one of us our own mental utopia. The concept sent surfers worldwide into a dreamland, pining for “Santosha,” knowing that it existed, but not knowing exactly where.

Australian Kevin Lovett found it at Lagundi Bay on the island of Nias, Indonesia. After voyaging along Sumatra with partner John Geisel and their newfound friend and hard-core traveler Peter Troy, Lovett endured remarkable hardship and garnered personal growth while unearthing one of Indonesia’s finest gems, his reasoning described in detail in The Surfer’s Journal.

“Recurring images of pristine tropical environments, swaying palm trees and perfect surf seemed to fill my every waking moment from the time I read (‘Santosha’),” Lovett wrote. “The author…drew a red herring across the trail to the site of his experience by describing ‘Santosha’ as not really a place, but a state of mind….Was the Surfer’s Dream just a state of mind? Was there no physical basis for its existence? My friend John Geisel and I were determined to prove that Santosha was a hoax and that somewhere out there The Dream burned brightly and we were a part of it.

“We were to discover that journeys are rarely in straight lines, and that digressions occur for the most sublime reasons. That fresh-faced feeling of traveling for the first time; experiencing life moment by moment, the realization of being a part of a bigger whole, never leaves you.”

Today, Lagundi Bay is a site of overcrowding, decaying accommodation, theft, filth, and occasional sour vibes. The wave is still perfect and worth the trip, but the encroachment of “surf colonialism” at spots like Nias has tainted the original idea, driving many—Lovett included—further afield.

Africa’s potential has scarcely been tapped, due in large part to inaccessibility and civil unrest. Intimately, we know Jeffreys Bay, the Durban beachbreaks, Cape Town, and Morocco, but what about the rest of the Dark Continent’s thousands of swell-exposed miles? North of Durban, south of Morocco? What perfect lineups exist unsurfed in Somalia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Ivory Coast?

Peterson and Naughton explored West Africa in the 1970s, surfing and camping and photographing for more Surfer articles back home. If you think surfing Africa is wild now, imagine what it was like 30 years ago.

The burning sensation of wonder certainly exists, especially for Stuart Butler, a writer who looked south of his British homeland—south of Morocco—and said, “I can do this.”

“The world may now be fully explored and mapped, but, for surfers, huge swaths of the planet are still as blank and unknown as it was for the medieval map-makers,” Butler wrote in The Surfer’s Path. “Several trips to northern Morocco had left me intrigued. South of Anchor Point and the world once again became an unknown blank. I’d heard of the waves around Dakar in Senegal, but that left thousands of kilometers in between and beyond.

“The first European explorers to Africa had come in search of wealth. They found it in the form of gold and slaves. I was searching for riches of a different type.”

He found them. Oh, yes, African perfection exists. But what about the Middle East? Hasn’t anyone observed the obvious, vast fetches of coastline yawning into the Arabian Sea? Hey, if western India and the Maldives have surf….

Ignoring today’s obvious dangers, traveling to those parched Arabian shores for the purpose of surfing could be deemed ludicrous by the casual observer. Not to a determined coterie of Brits and one Frenchman back in 2001, when ‘Pakistan’ was stamped into their passports. It had been a long road to get there, and a painfully rough, dusty, blistering hot road to find a few waves.

“An aerial photograph of the coast in a book…revealed an image that set my heart racing,” again wrote Butler in The Surfer’s Path. “Through apricot-colored dunes wound a long-dead riverbed that snaked down to the Arabian Sea. Thick righthanders could be seen breaking into a deep-water channel. The picture stayed etched into my mind for months, and, slowly, almost subconsciously, an idea was born. I had to go and surf in this desert of myth and mystery.”

San Diego’s Shayne McIntyre, along with his wife Shannon and photographer Jeff Divine, had a similar expedition in Oman, finding waves, but not the Arabian perfection they’d hoped for. But a few guys did stumble upon watery fortune off Yemen last year, confirming all speculation that, yes, the Gulf of Aden is indeed holding.

Flipping the climatic coin, however, McIntyre and friends were extremely successful with a 1999 trip to Russia’s Kuril Islands, a staunchly off-limits ex-military zone littered with decaying military hardware and, as predicted, a wealth of prime surf territory.

“I wasn’t looking for Kirra,” McIntyre wrote in The Surfer’s Journal. “I wanted to be vulnerable, with the elements opposing me. I even wanted the hassle of the military trying to kick us off the island. I was on a remote Russian island, surfing a virgin beachbreak by myself in a fierce storm in the Okhotsk Sea. I couldn’t be happier.”

Great surf adventure and discovery often occurs by accident…or serendipity, depending on who’s talking. In the case of Australian Tony Hinde, it was an act of fate. Led by wanderlust to Asia in the early 1970s, Hinde and friend Mark Scanlon spent some time in Sri Lanka with before boarding a spiffy yacht captained by a sketchy American and his pet monkey. The plan? Africa, thousands of miles and a world of dreams away.

But instead of reaching Africa, the crew ran aground on Maldivian coral four days into the trip. Desperate salvage efforts ensued during the next two months, during which time Hinde and Scanlon found decent waves on Male, the nation’s main atoll. The pair eventually left for India, but Hinde returned to the Maldives shortly thereafter—for him, the seed was set.

Hinde’s story, recounted in detail by Shawn Shamlou in The Surfer’s Journal, is a rare tale of serendipity and the ultimate result of surf adventure. After all, if it wasn’t for surfing, would Hinde have resided in the Maldives permanently since 1975?

“It wasn’t until Tony’s fourth trip…in 1975, that waves outside of Male were found,” Shamlou wrote. “…Tony headed straight for a spot he had seen on a very onshore day, hoping this time it would be the right season. What he found changed his life forever: not one, but two perfect waves breaking off an uninhabited island, an unreal right/left setup…After that first hallmark surf, Tony literally peered out from the surf break and sussed out the closest inhabited landmass—Himmafushi Island. That’s the island where Tony would live. He’d found the end of his road.”

After experiencing stellar, warm waves, the act of relocating one’s life to a steamy Third World country is not uncommon. Take Costa Rica, for example: some would venture to say there are too many damn American expats down there. Hawai’i would be close in the running for foreign transplant status if it wasn’t our 50th state.

Several Westerners also exist in Bali, perhaps the most benign Indonesian island for Western acclimatization. Naturally, their uprooting from home soil to craft a new life in this Hindu paradise was initially sparked by each individual’s quest for exotica in the land of perfect lefts.

Polynesia.

The future? Satellite images from anywhere in the world, beamed through your computer screen for a price. Wondering if a random reef pass in Kiribati is breaking right now? No problem—just click and zoom in.

If that’s the case, our world will get larger, not smaller. Vast expanse of unknown coast will become known, and we’ll figure out a way to get there. All it takes is money, time, willingness, planning…and plenty of classic wonder.

“(Surf travel) is like the search for the Holy Grail: you’re never going to find it,” Rarick said. “There’s always going to be something bigger, better, or different around the corner. Are you satisfied to stop and just say, OK, let’s stay here, or is the endless search where your head is at?”

Maybe you’ve found your Holy Grail, maybe you haven’t. Perhaps you’re on your third passport, or perhaps you’ve never had one. Airplanes, trains, buses, boats, subways, rental cars, rickshaws, taxis, donkeys, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, camels, human feet—all modes of transportation from here to there, be it Port Elizabeth or Port Blair.

It’s all an interlude from the daily grind. Some come in packages, others come as full-tilt feral rumbles in the jungle. Or somewhere in between. Could be a weekend Baja jaunt in the Suburban, a two-week scouring of Norway, or a four-month tour of duty around Australia.

North or south? East or west? Warm or cold? Cheap or expensive? Near or far? Point is, surf travel is an open road. A choice. Your choice.

So get out there and do it.

Reynolds Yater — Interview '05

David Pu'u and I sat with Reynolds Yater in an alley off Milpas Street in Santa Barbara, California, on November 21, 2005. This interview was never published. Pu'u videoed and shot stills while I asked most of the questions. Yater's son, Lauran, made a cameo.

Yater on Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, 2014. Photo: Pu'u.

Yater on Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, 2014. Photo: Pu'u.



What was your life like as a child in the ‘30s and ‘40s in southern California?

I was born in Los Angeles in 1932. Grew up just prior to the second world war, and then through it, and mostly in Laguna Beach. A little bit of Pasadena, also. I got acclimated to the ocean really early. I spent a lot of time in it, around it, but not necessarily interested in surfing, because it wasn’t really much of a sport then. About all we did was bodysurf in the slam-dunk beachbreak of Laguna Beach. My folks would buy homes and then fix them up and sell them, so we kind of lived in them sometimes for a few years until they sold the house. For some reason, they got into Pasadena, because that was kind of a moving area at the time, real estate-wise. So they would purchase a place and we’d live in it while we fixed it up. We did maybe three of them in Pasadena though the time when I was in, oh Christ, kindergarten all the way up through my first year in college.


You went to college?
Just for a little bit at John Muir Junior College, and then I went out to Clairemont for about a year. That’s about all.


This was during Southern California’s Golden Era.

Southern California during the war was pretty damn neat. The very lack of population, number one. Everything was pretty suppressed because you couldn’t do much, and then after the war, it started to explode, obviously, and things got a little out of hand. (laughs)


What defined the Golden Era?

To me, it was great because of the resources in the ocean. They were really pretty much untapped at that time, so there was an abundance of it, and you could make a living harvesting it, to a certain extent. Of course, there was only a limited market for selling some of the stuff. Nevertheless, that’s kind of what got me going way back there, when I got interested in diving and commercial fishing.


Were you lucky to be alive back then?
Yeah. I think it was a great era for somebody to grow up in and experience, compared to now.


Has Southern California gone downhill?

Well, here I am—I’m still here. (laughs) I saw the tracts coming when I lived in Dana Point. I could see them coming over the hill. I though, oh, I’ve got to get out of here.


Do you remember your first wave?

Yeah. First of all, we’ve got to back up. I was in high school in ‘44, hanging around beach either at Crescent Bay or Emerald Bay; I can’t remember which. There was this guy who said, "You know, there’s a lot better place to bodysurf than this stuff you’re dealing with right here. I’m going to take you down to a really good wave." So he picked us up one morning, about three of us, and we went down to Salt Creek. Untapped Salt Creek. There were trailers there on the beach; it was all bare land. Anyway, the waves at the point in the summer were a lot better than that crappy slam-dunk stuff in Laguna. So that got me interested. And once in a while, some lifeguards would come down with big planks and ride the stuff. Difficult, but they did it. That turned my head a little bit, and the guy said, "You know, this isn’t really the spot for it. You ought to go around the corner to Doheny and San Onofre—that’s where it’s done." So my dad or somebody took us down there one day and we got a look at it. I remember buying a board—a plank. I don’t know where I got it, but eventually we wound up at Doheny riding planks.


Was it from Pacific Redi Homes?
Yeah, it was one of those, just like the big one over there at the store, 90 pounds of it.


Redwood?
Well, they’re half balsa wood, half pine, half redwood.


(Dave) How old were you when you rode that thing?
I’m going to say…it was ’45 or ’46, so ’32, ’42, three, four five…I was about 13 or 14, something like that.


(Dave) How much did you weigh?
About 110. It took two of us to lift it.


(Dave) How would you get it to the beach?
Two of us.


And that was your first board?
Yeah, at Doheny. It went so fast, I fell right off the back.


Did it have a fin?
No, not then. But they were starting to show up, and they were just like little keels, about an inch or two high and about a foot long. That was the first fin they put on the round-bottomed planks. Eventually we wound up going down where we could drive cars to San Onofre. Guys were coming back from the war. Some of them didn’t come back. Of course I didn’t know any of these guys, but they were coming back from the war. There weren’t many people at San Onofre. Might have been a couple dozens guys there on the weekend.


Nobody during the week?
Nah. Just desolate. Maybe in the summer,  yeah, but in the winter there was absolutely no one. Even on the weekends there wouldn’t be anybody.


Now they charge you $10 to park there.
And you’ve got to get in at five o’clock in the morning to get in line. (laughs) They only let in 400 a day or something.


What led you to shape your first board?

While I was in Pasadena, there was a kid who lived around the corner named Tim Lyons who had started surfing Malibu. We both went to the same school. He started surfing Malibu and he ran in to Bob Simmons. This had to be about ’48. Lyons came over to me once and said, “We got to go down and see this guy. He’s making different kind of surfboards.” And Simmons was in Pasadena, of all places.


Didn’t he go to CalTech?

Yeah. His family lived on Oakland Avenue, and he was doing this stuff in the backyard. He was still in school, I think, and then he bailed out of CalTech eventually. I think he was in his upper 20s. The first thing he did—he had a handicap—he’d broken his arm, and when they’d reset it, they couldn’t get it any straighter than that. So he couldn’t carry things real well. He had started on a plank, but he had to do something about that right away, so he started building boards out of lighter materials, all balsa wood, but still pretty planklike. And then he started to put scoop on the nose of the boards, just adding a scoop up in the front of the board. If you look at the boards ridden at Malibu in that era, there were a bunch of planks with scoops on the front. Not much; they just raised it up a couple of inches or an inch and a half, he would glue it and reshape it to give a little more nose. And there’s a bunch of them out there still. Then he started to turn the rails down a little bit, you know, from the sharp edge, being up real high like that. Then he started to curve them down a little bit. He just kept on doing it until he really went down on the rails. He was just sort of meeting them right in the middle for a long time. His stuff was radical, there’s no question about it. But it started the flow of that direction. So I started seeing what these guys were doing, especially at Malibu. San Onofre was kind of a diehard area where guys really didn’t care that much about surfboard designs, just down there having fun on the weekends. Surfboard technology wasn’t a big issue there. (laughs) These boards started showing up from Malibu, so we started getting to see them. So I started reshaping in my backyard. I just got interested in shaping the board for myself, changing it, and then somebody else would see it and say, “Do that to mine.” So I would try it. It’s pretty hard to reshape a plank into something. It’s really hard.


(Dave) When you guys were doing that, how many people surfed in California?

Oh boy, that’s a hard one. Because I didn’t know what the population was like in Santa Cruz or La Jolla. I didn’t know how many guys were at Malibu, so I couldn’t say. But in that area down there, it started to grow after the second world war. New faces started to show up a little bit, and it was growing slowly. It was still the same game—fun on the weekends, surf, camaraderie, then go back to work or school. The guys who got G.I. bills came out of the second world war and went to school, got an education on it and did something.


So the Malibu boards are what inspired you to shape….

Yeah, well, it made sense. It just started to work better—it’d go across the face of the wave instead of just riding them straight to beach, like the planks. Those were horrible.


So your actual first board was a re-shape.

Probably the first six or eight. At least 9’6” or 10’. Fiberglass was a second world war product, and the public got ahold of it, so we started putting a little fiberglass on solid balsa wood boards. It just progressed that way, slowly. Obviously, the challenge was to get rid of the weight. Eventually boards went to solid balsa wood, then when fiberglass came out you could use lighter balsa wood and put some protection on the outside. But boards pretty much stayed 10’. Way up there. Even Simmons’s boards were all 10’, all big. They weren’t short.


(Dave) In that era you couldn’t just go out and buy a surfboard.

No, not really. Velzy, I guess, started on the Manhattan Pier in what year? I’ve got to back up. Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin were making boards, I’m going to say in ’49 and ’50, and they sold a few, but very few. They spun off of Simmons. They actually worked for him for a little while. They being very good surfers kind of took their own direction, their own way, their own style of surfing. And Simmons’s stuff was considered very radical. It was always very radical. He even went into concaves awfully early.


(Dave) How was Bob as a surfer?


Not really that good. Go across the face of the wave and no turning. Whereas Kivlin was beautiful to watch, he was really good. Really, really good at Malibu. Simmons had a mechanical brain. He was coming from that direction. My boards kind of more copied Joe’s and Kivlin’s more than anything, and Simmons was going off into his own deal. Obviously those boards worked at Malibu, his boards. You could get it out on the point and just point it right at the pier and make anything. They would really glide. But you couldn’t cut them back. They were really difficult to do that. They just wanted to go straight. Kivlin’s boards and Quigg’s boards, they were really good-riding boards. Quigg became really, really popular, especially at Malibu. His boards worked. The Santa Monica group went to Malibu. They never really went south. They’d go down to P.V. maybe in the winter because there wasn’t surf at Malibu at the point, so they would go down to the cove and ride that a bit. A lot of the Malibu guys were lifeguards in the summer. I think Quigg was one for a while. Tommy Zahn. They were all lifeguards at one time.


So we’re in the late ‘40s….

Yeah, I’m in Laguna. Eventually I made a board all the way through, of balsa wood. In fact, it’s over there at the Endless Summer bar, upstairs. That’s the oldest existing board that I’ve ever made, and I think that’s about ’53. Maybe one or two before that, but nobody’s come out with it.


What else were you doing then?
I started diving abalone. You still couldn’t make a living making a surfboard. You just did it. Somebody would buy the materials and you do it for them, more or less for the experience, yeah. Even if you did get money for it, you’d probably make $20 above the cost of the materials. Hobie’s boards sold for I think $55 or $60.


Sixty dollars for a board?

The whole board finished, glassed. So how much of a margin of profit is in that thing? (laughing)


(Dave) Hobie’s starting everything up again.

Well the boys are. Yeah, they came back in strong. They’ve got a good name. They let it slide away in the surfboard part, you know, and went into other things. And then with Jeff and Little Hobie, they realized that the longboard thing’s really come back. “We need to come back to it. Our name’s big. It’s stupid for us not to.” So they came back. The got Marc Johnson. Nice guy, good shaper and everything, you know, and he got put back on the map. Hobie started in ’54. I think he opened the Dana Point store in ’54. He was making boards in his backyard on Oak Street. I glued up a couple boards in the press he had there in his shop.


Were you working for him?
Not really then, no. I was just still doing my own boards, for nothing, you know. He claims he made 100 boards out of there. I don’t think he made that many there. Even if he did 50 there, that’s a lot of boards at that time. Then his dad asked, “Do you really want to do this?” And Hobie says, “Yeah, I think you can make some money doing this.” So they bought a piece of property on PCH down there, and they put the building up and the whole works for less than $20,000. Building and all property. He went in and started making boards—well, he got really backed up. He had Bobby Patterson, he had Jimmy Johnson, who started glassing for him, and then Bobby Patterson came in and…unreliable Bobby (laughs), typical Hawaiian. Wouldn’t even show up some weeks. And Hobie had to do six boards a week. He’d get backed up. If you didn’t get your order in by the middle of June, you weren’t going to get a board by the end of the summer. He’d do six a week, all the way through, and he had four of us to do it. Jimmy Johnson was glassing for him, and then Patterson came in, and he wouldn’t show up sometimes, so Hobie started nagging me, saying “I gotta get someone in here to glass these things. I can’t depend on Patterson.” So I said, “Okay, show me how to glass.” So he did, and I went down to work for him in the summer. You know, he’d dive in the winter, and he’d get down to doing a board a week. That Orange County really died in the wintertime; it was a summer surf zone.


This was the mid-‘50s?

Yeah. I started working there about I think ’55 or ’56. Somewhere in there. And I’d go out and fish lobsters in the winter.


Which ultimately led you to Santa Barbara.

Yeah. I came up here for that purpose.


Did you harvest abalone, too?
Yeah, I dove abalone. That’s what I started doing back in Laguna, mid ’50-’51, I would say.


What else drew you to Santa Barbara?
To get away, number one, from what I could see was going to happen down there. Might as well go now, even though there are some good years left, but still. And then, uh, well, it’s kind of a long story. To shorten it up, Bill Meng and I came up here. He was going to school up here at one time, and he started fishing lobsters out of San Pedro and he was down talking with me one day at Velzy’s, when I was working for him in the late ‘50s. He said, “You know, we ought to go up to Santa Barbara.” He was telling me how bitchin’ it was when he went up to school there.


He went to UCSB?

Yeah, but it was at the city college. Isla Vista hadn’t started yet. So we took a trip up here, and we got to looking at the fishery and the lobster fishing and the way these guys did it. It was completely different from the way we did it down there.


You had little boats.
We had little boats and we fished in really close and took chances. They had big boats up here, and they couldn’t get in that close. So we though, “You know, we could do good up here.”


You could have your niche.

Yeah. So that’s what we did. We came up, and Farallon Fisheries gave us a yard and a truck and all this stuff to bring the gear up. We started in I think it was the ’59-’60 season.


Did you know of the surf potential here at that time?

Oh yeah, because I kept coming up and riding Rincon in the winter. So I got to see that real well.


Do you remember your first Rincon session?

Actually, I think I came with Simmons. He came over and got me one cold morning and he says, “I’m going to take you up to show you a really good surf spot.” I don’t know why he did this to me, because I couldn’t surf really very good, especially on the equipment we had. So we arrive at Rincon—we drove in the dark and arrive at Rincon. It’s morning, and it’s pretty good size, high tide, nobody out. A day like today, it was really nice! (laughs) It had to be in about 1950, I guess. Might have been even earlier, ’49.


What was the drive up like?

We had to go all the way through Newhall to get up here before Highway 101 was finished. The old L.A. highway came through the valley, over the hill, the valley, and then back towards Newhall. You had to come all way back down from Newhall to get to the ocean. There wasn’t a Canejo Grade.


What was your first impression of Rincon?

Well, it was over my head. It was a pretty wave, but, you know, with those surfboards? Ugh. Not easy to do. It was cold. Simmons didn’t even go out. We waited until late afternoon, when it was more user-friendly. At high tide it was really ripping along the beach. Somebody else showed up and went out, and then he (Simmons) went out. I didn’t go out. And then in the afternoon, we went out at Ventura…I can’t remember. Somewhere farther down. It was smaller, and we went out down there.


Had you been to the Ranch before you moved up here?

No, never knew anything about it.


How did you hear about it?
From the kids who lived up here.


Surfers?
Yeah. Hollister let people in to use his ranch for any particular reason you wanted to. They had clubs up here—I think it was Federated Sportsman's Club, or something like that, and there was an archery part of it, there was a diving part. What else? Horseback-riding or something. He just wanted the county to be able to use it; there were so few people using it, it didn’t make a difference, anyway. They were running cattle heavily up there at the time. It was a working cattle ranch. That’s all it was. So the place was wide open, a harsh dirt road and all that. Probably the first time I went up there was…let’s see. Phil Stubbs and Hobie and myself and Joey Cabell—we made a trip up in, I’m going to say ’58. Rincon was good. It was starting to get crowded; a crowded day would be 12 guys. Somebody told us about this area up at Conception, so we got up in the morning and we drove up there, because the surf was good, we might as well go find out and look. We were kind of hip on the idea that high tide at Rincon isn’t that good, so let’s wait until low tide in the afternoon anyway. It was real high tide, the real extreme. So it was a really good day. We slept in the park in Carpinteria, as I remember. We got up, powered up to there, drove into the Ranch, drove all the way past places that were breaking good, because somebody said Cojo was the place to go to. Got up to Cojo and it was hardly rideable—it was so little. (laughs) It was wintertime, so the swell was passing it by, obviously. So the trip was interesting, but we didn’t understand the place. As we were driving back out, it was real low tide at Razors and Drakes and all that kind of stuff, but it was now too low. So we didn’t surf that whole trip. Got back down to Rincon and it was really good. (laughs) We didn’t know anything about it. We though it was interesting coastline up there; it occurred to me that it probably would be good in the summer because you could see the islands, and you could see there was a way for the surf to get in. It’s got to come through the gap there or come around the other side of San Miguel. So it looked, to me, like, “Well this could be a good summer deal instead of winter.” In the winter, the swell might be just passing by. We didn’t really understand it at all.


When did you have success at the Ranch?

After living up here a couple of years. Then we started going up in the summer. The kids who I made boards for up here in the beginning were involved in going up there during the summer months. They knew that there was something you could surf up there, so they just went up in there. Could kind of see it here, so they’d just go up there. We didn’t have to up there to ride winter surf—we had plenty right here. We really didn’t ride winter surf up there, because of the summer.


Through Gaviota?

Yeah, right out the same way it now. Of course, it was all real harsh dirt. Took a long time to get in there.


You could drive all the way to Cojo.

Yep.


Governments?
Actually you could, yeah. They didn’t even have the gates closed between the two ranches. There was no reason to. It was just open.


When you first came here, were you primarily lobster fishing?

Yeah.


Was it the most lucrative fishery here?

It looked to be, yeah. It looked to us like we could do good up here, Billy and I. And we did.


Was it untouched?
Not necessarily, but the way they were doing it, with those deep-draft boats, they were slow, they’d work the gear very slowly, but they knew what they were doing. I’m not saying they didn’t know what they were doing. They just couldn’t fish it as well as we could with these little boats and get in and fish really shallow.


What was the range of your fishery?

All the way from Ventura to the point, and all through those islands. Actually the two islands. I never went to the islands to fish out of the little boat. The guys with the bigger boats were fishing the islands.


So you would go out of Santa Barbara Harbor….

And go either way.


To the Ranch?

No, that’s too far away. That came later, when we worked off the beach up there.


So if you weren’t fishing—

Well, it occurred to me after I came up here, “What am I going to do in the summer?” There is another fishery, this crab fishery, that wasn’t really developed yet. So I thought, well, I could always pull it back and make some surfboards. One of the guys who moved up here with me, Dick Perry, he worked at Velzy’s when I was working there too, and he knew how to glass. The two of us rented a place down on Anacapa Street and made boards for local guys. Well, that was about eight of them, or 10. That was it. We flooded the market! (laughs) I still had a clientele of guys who I shaped boards for when I was in Velzy’s, and they would come up—this is transition now, it’s getting into foam now. Late ‘50s.


Did you do foam at Velzy’s?
No, I went to work for him shaping balsa wood.


That was…?
After I worked at Hobie’s glassing, then Velzy shows up in ’57 in San Clemente, and in about ’58, Hobie shut down completely. Do you know anything about the history of urethane foam?


Not really.

Nothing, eh? He and Gordon Clark took the whole year off and developed polyurethane foam. He shut the door and didn’t make a board for a whole year. They started up a little place in Laguna Canyon and did R&D on pouring foam blanks. There were a lot of problems with it. It was horrible. Big, big bubbles in them, big ones, I mean that big sometimes. (laughs)


Which screwed up some of your boards?

Well, they had to fill them all. That’s why all these boards were colored in the beginning, to hide the mistakes. There was nothing you could do about it—you had to. But anyway, when he closed the door, guys still wanted surfboards, so Velzy just said, “Alright.” (laughs) He had all the business, and I mean he had it all. Everybody was on him to make boards. So he got me down there to start glassing, number one, because I knew how to do that. I said okay, and we went down the hill and opened up a two-car garage and did the glassing down there. And that got so out-of-hand and I trained a couple of guys to do the glassing and then started going up and shaping boards for Dale, up at the main place on PCH in San Clemente.


And during that time is when you decided to come up here.

A couple years after. I worked for him for a couple of years.


You were unable to make a living solely from building surfboards here.

It was just some way to get through the the summer. Then I started fishing in the summer months for this crab that’s produced here in the channel.


Which crab?

It’s a rock crab. You had to haul them all the way to San Pedro. That’s the main market. The lobster season is October, November, December, January, February into March. Then it’s closed, so you’ve got a long summer, but crab season is open year-round. But the market’s very slow in the winter for the crab. It was a summer fishery, really, because of the marketing. So that started up; I got involved in that and I could actually do it year-round.


That was your primary income?
Yeah. Nobody made any money making surfboards. Hobie did pretty well, Velzy did okay, but nobody really made any money. There wasn’t enough people surfing, it would die out in the winter bad. You’d choke all winter long, just glide through, then in summer you try and do as best you can.


How long did you fish the Channel Islands?
I never really did fish the islands. I fished the coast about all the way to Arguello, eventually.


Back when you first started surfing Rincon and the Ranch, compared to today, have you seen any changes in the waves?

If you look back at the pictures before they built the wall down there, the granite breakwater road, there was a straight up and down—I guess it was out of wood or maybe metal sheeting—there’s some old pictures where it’s just straight up and down. So, actually the shorebreak went down further and the ride was longer in the cove in those days, but that was short-lived because they did that in…they must’ve done that in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s—put that rock in. The sand built outwards from it, so it was a longer ride in the outside down there. Everything else out on the Indicator and all that, I don’t think it’s any different. I’ve seen the pictures taken from the top of the hill and everything, and it looks to me to be the same. The river, the way it comes out, I don’t see any change.


Was the water clearer or bluer?
No. It’s just this Monterey shale, the way this is up here. It’s always got that cloudy look to it, green. The one thing that’s changed here that kind of screws it up is that we had huge kelp beds here. I mean really monstrous, and they would block that chop.


Even outside of Rincon?
There was, yeah. That disappeared in the late ’50s. That never came back. When I came up here, they used to cut the kelp in Summerland up to the Santa Barbara pier, just back and forth, spent all winter cutting it. Just a huge barrier of this kelp. We had these horrendous El Niño winters back in the ‘80s—’82, ’83, like that—and it ripped it all out and it’s never come back. That’s the only thing that’s really changed. So there’s not that protection. It was a neat chop break, because the swell can go right through kelp, but chop can’t.


In those early days, did you ever think that what you were living through was special and that at one point it would end?

No. At the Ranch, it didn’t ever even occur to me that that would happen the way it did, that it would be subdivided like that. I thought it would probably stay a single piece of property, but then the family had to get something like 50 signatures to sell that property—there were that many Hollisters. They had to sign off on the sale of the thing. Most of them didn’t live around here anymore, and didn’t even care about it. It was just JJ Hollister and Clinton and the one who became a really good doctor, a neurosurgeon. I can’t think of his name right now. There were just three or four of them who were really concerned about the Ranch, who were kind of keeping it going. The rest of them said, “Nah, sell it, we don’t care.” Then with the county regulations, they said it’s never going to get cut more than 100 acres, that’s it, minimum cutting of it. So it stayed the same, at least, in that category.


When was your last time there surfing?

It was in the summer a couple of years ago. (points at Lauran) He goes more than I do. You know, it’s just as crowded up there as it is down here, when it’s good. (laughs)


Thirty boats at Cojo….

God, did you hear about that? At eight o’clock in the morning there were 30 boats. (laughs)


(Dave) Yeah, I talked to Sean Collins about that one.

And then they were backed up to the highway. (still laughing) And that’s just to surf one place.


What was your favorite wave up there?
Well, that place is good when it’s good. It’s a summer wave, there’s no question about it—it’s really good. Getting it good is not easy. It just isn’t that good that often.


When did you first to go Hawai’i?

I went with Severson in the winter of ’50-’51, when he did Big Wednesday, the original one.


(Lauran) The movie doesn’t exist anymore.

I think that film was Ektachrome and it didn’t make it. All his stuff is gone. Shame, isn’t it?


(Dave) Yeah, it is.

A real shame. It was the wrong film. It didn’t survive.


Did you continue going to Hawai’i throughout the ‘50s?
I went the next year and the next year, and then I started to go over on to Maui, probably In ’63, something like that. A good friend of mine dove black coral over there, so I went over to see him and do that a little bit one winter. Got to look at Honolua Bay, nobody there. Next day there was a Chinese guy who came out. He said, “I’m the only guy who lives on the island who surfs. All the other guys come from O’ahu. I’m the only one who lives here.” He had a Weber. Wrong board for the right wave. (laughs) Not that mine was any good either. It was terrible. I’ve got a whole set of shots with nobody on the waves.


You surfed it alone?
Yeah. It’s an easy place to surf by yourself.


What were some of your best experiences in Hawai’i?

Well, that place was neat. I had a hard time on the North Shore because it was so big that winter, plus at Makaha I got hit by my board, in the ankle. ’60-’61, right around Christmas.


Pat Curren was there?
Pat and his group, Diff, Chaney, Nelson, his group from La Jolla. And of course Downing was over on Makaha a lot—he was really good at Makaha. There weren't that many guys who went from California over there to surf, and we all took the wrong boards, obviously, then realized it when we got there. They know how to make the boards over there, for that surf. And that was a harsh winter; it was big.


Did you reshape your boards over there?
No. I made a board styled after Pat’s, real similar.


You’d seen it here in California?
Yeah. Well, he shaped them down at Velzy’s. Before I left, he was doing a couple down there. That year that he went over, he must have gone over in ’58. By the time I got there, he’d been there surfing a few years.


He knew the deal.

He knew it pretty well, and he was building boards for Waimea.


You surfed there as well?

Yeah, I maybe surfed two or three 15-foot waves. Harsh place to surf, really harsh.


Did you fish in Hawai’i?
No. Just went over for two or three weeks. I’d go to the Bay probably for about three weeks every spring. After I quit fishing for the year, I’d usually bail out and go over there. Get the late part of the season, late February, March. It’d still be good.


You never surfed Pipeline?
Never went over and did that, no. I just quit going to the North Shore.


Waikiki?

Never did surf Waikiki. Never even been out there.


What was your first real contribution to shaping? The Spoon?
Yeah, in the longboard era, yes. I think it was summer of ’65 that I did that board. I don’t think it was ’64.


What happened to that board?
The first one went to Miki (Dora).


Why did you make the Spoon?

I came back from Australia in ’64, and I wasn’t pleased at all with the way the boards worked over there. I thought, “God, these things are straight and heavy.” And I got thinking that, at the front of the board, some way we’ve got to make them lighter. Some way to get rid of the weight, so why not just dig out part of the deck which never has any contact with the water. The only reason you’re ever riding up there is noseriding, so I just thought, “Screw it, I’m just going to take one and butcher it.” I got rid of maybe a pound and a half. Then I glassed the whole thing and it was summer and there was no surf here. I could take it up to the Ranch, but it was a flat summer, so I called Miki because I knew Miki real well. I said, “Miki, I want you to come up and get this board and take it down and ride it at Malibu.” So he did, and I didn’t see him for a month or six weeks or something like that. I can’t remember exactly what the deal was, but he came back and he was really ecstatic about it. He said, “I got an idea. Let’s make a model. I can sell these things, and call it something.” He hadn’t named it yet. He said, “I could sell these things at Malibu really good.” And I thought, “Oh, yeah right, Miki. (laughs) Dealing with you? Yeah, sure.” I didn’t give him an answer but then I thought about it and said, “Nah, Miki, I don’t want to do that.” I let him still have the board, just for feedback. In fact, I went down and watched him ride it at Malibu. He was good at it. He really made it work good.


So scooping out the nose really made a big difference?

Yeah. It just got rid of the weight and the other thing was that you stand down in the board deeper—you had really good control over the rails, and his style was that way. He could make the board go back and forth like this, rail to rail, in the wave, better than anybody else I’ve ever seen do it. He could really cut it like that and work the thing up to the top and down to the bottom. Not necessarily on the tip of the board, but just back a-ways.


Hadn’t you thinned the rails, also?

A little bit, yeah, they were knifier, but I was going that direction anyway with the rails. So I started making them and letting some of the kids around here use them. It just became real popular. In fact, by the time longboards went out, that’s about all I was making.


Was that around the same time you had your first shop?

No, that was after that. That was, let’s see, that had to be over on Gutierrez Street. I was over there when I first did that one. Then, when the Castignola brothers built the building for me, that was in ’66, so I we were, yeah, we were really into it, as I remember then. Because Bradbury was glassing and Eickert and John Thurston were shaping, and we were doing all Spoons at the time. In ’66 and ’67, we were in full production on those things.


Was that before Cooper?
He was here, glassing for me at the time, going back and forth, then he’d bail out and go to Australia.


Where was Greenough in all of this?

He was right here in Montecito.


Was he a friend of yours?

He came on the scene surfing Rincon with his kneeboards. He was the only one here who did that, that I can remember. He was instrumental in figuring out the way of the surf at the Ranch, the right time of year and swell directions and all that stuff.


Did you go up there with him?
Not right in the beginning, but eventually, yeah, both of us went up there a lot.


How did your relationship with him evolve? Was it a fishing camaraderie?

Yeah, it became that. We worked off the Hollister Ranch. He surfed Rincon well with his kneeboards, and then he was really into fins. He’s got to be really responsible for fin design and changes back then. He was making these little raked-back fins on his kneeboards. Nobody was making those fins. So when he was over in Australia, he became really good friends with Nat (Young), and he started making some fins for Nat. Nat was a real gifted surfer anyway. When Nat came over and won the ’64 World Contest in San Diego, he had one of George’s fins on his board, and it really worked. It really made a big difference.


Did anyone notice the fin’s influence?
Well, we started seeing it. It was pretty obvious. We were making stupid fins, half moon, right on the tail of the board—just terrible shit. He was influential to me to start cutting the back part of those fins off. The very first ones you remember were just barely cut out.


(Dave) When did that hatchet fin that Eickert uses come about?
That was his own thing.


(Dave) He came up with that one?
Yeah. It was his own deal.


(Dave) What year did that show up?
He was making boards, before he worked for me, for himself. Balsa ones first, and those fins came out on his boards. He had that cut way down at the base, way back in there, and it did release some of the pressure of the water that went through it, but it was still a great big fin on the tail of the board, a giant thing on the tail of the board. Now, George’s fins were stepped up on the board, also—they weren’t on the tail of the board. They were up there, and you could just see Nat turning the board really well, up on the board instead of way back on the tail. He really had it down, and it had a lot to do with the fin. Of course, he’s really good, but nevertheless, the fin position and the shape of it really made it work. So I started doing that kind of stuff on my boards slowly. I didn’t go that far, but eventually wound up using his stage three, or something like that. Plastic fin, when we went to all the plastic fins. His was actually the best and the last. They’re real flexible, and, boy, they worked. The first ones were made out of polypropalene and they almost all broke. You get them in the sun and they get brittle and break.


Where did you meet Greenough?

In the water at Rincon. He’d park at the house down there and come through. I lived down there for a while. He’d go out late in the afternoon and stay in until dark. Everybody would go in, and he’d still be out. Come walking through the house, remember? (asks Lauran, laughing) In his wetsuit, describing the last ride. You gotta know George.


You guys fished together.

Yeah. He actually went up and worked off the beach at the Hollister Ranch. He kept his boat parked on a mooring at Little Drakes, outside in that little open bay right there, and then he’d paddle out on one of his little dugout—you ever see one of those little dugout canoes, little things he made? He’d paddle out himself, take his bait out and his gas, load all his stuff in there, and paddle it out (laughs). I think he had about 30 traps, or something like that. And he had that bicycle winch—you’ve got to get all of this from George if you want it right. He had a bicycle winch that hand-cranked the traps up.


(Dave) How did the spot get the name Drakes?

The railroad sidings had names for places. They have them all along the coast here. They had them wherever there were side tracks and things like that, or little stations they had. I don’t know what the stations were for, but they had some stations.


It’s on the map.

It’s on the maps, you know?


(Dave) I wonder why. Somebody’s name….

Yeah, most likely. Nothing to do with Sir Francis Drake, the great explorer. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with that.


Do you have a real good Greenough story you can tell?
Oh no, he’s just so eccentric. There’s too many stories. (laughs)


What was your relationship with Bob Cooper?

He bought a board from Velzy. God, what a kook.


Cooper?
Yeah. He came into Velzy’s one day. I wasn’t there. He didn’t buy a board that day. I came back the next day and Dale said, “You ought to see this kook that came in yesterday, he’s something else. He’s going to be back.” So I was down there shaping, and sure enough, he comes in (laughs), Dale sells him a board, and we went down to Church a few days later, and there he was, learning how to surf. He had a hard time. He had a really hard time.


But he got good at it.

He got good at it, eventually, yeah. He wasn’t natural at it at all. I didn’t think he was ever going to make it.


Did you have any influences at that time?
Every area had an outstanding surfer, you might say. Like down when I worked with Hobie, Phil Edwards was the big deal. In fact, Phil sanded boards for Hobie, so I saw him all the time. And Phil was really good at riding crappy surf. He could ride Oceanside junk really well. He rode heavy boards, 30-pound surfboards. He just did it real well, but you get him in good surf and he wasn’t really any better than anybody else. There were a lot of guys just as good. In fact, he wouldn’t even go up to Malibu because he knew Miki was there, and Miki could surf Malibu better, so he’d stay away. It was an ego-trip thing. He wouldn’t go up there. Because if he didn’t look that good, it would screw up his ego. (laughs) And his boards didn’t work as well there. But Miki would come down and ride the Trestles and stuff. He didn’t care. He didn’t care to be embarrassed, really.


In that era, who were Santa Barbara’s standout surfers?

There weren’t any. The kids here couldn’t surf very well. They didn’t have any good equipment—it was terrible in the beginning. And even when I was making the boards in the beginning, they were just straight.


All the good guys were down south.

Yeah. Better surfers.


Would they come up here and surf Rincon and whatnot?
Yeah, just Rincon, that’s all.


No Hammonds…

Yep. That’s about as far as they’d go.


Would it be a sort of celebrity sighting?
Yeah. There wasn’t that many. Some of the guys from South Bay—Dewey and his group, Carson. They’d show up, they were good.


Did they get boards from you?
No.


They had their own teams….

Well, Hap Jacobs was making boards for them, most of them.


Did you have a team?

No, not really. A lot of the guys I built boards for down there would come up and get them and take them back down. After I built eight boards for everybody in Santa Barbara, that was it.


After you saturated the market—

—Saturated the market. (laughs)


What was your relationship with Velzy like?
Good, real good. He showed me a lot about how to use tools. It was good. He was a good craftsman. He showed me how to really shape surfboards. Hobie didn’t, because he didn’t need to. He just hired me for one reason: to glass. I shaped a board or two down at Hobie’s, but that wasn’t his purpose, to train me to shape.


So Velzy was your primary shaping mentor.

Yeah, he showed me a lot.


(Lauran) Tell him about that first board you made in your garage, or in the driveway, the one that’s down at the—

I did. I told him about that.


What was the Gray Lady all about?
That was the last board I made at Dale’s. I made it just before I came up here. Brought that board up here, rode it for a few years, tried at least a half a dozen times to make one better, but couldn’t, so I just kept it.


Why did you call it the Gray Lady?
Oh, because it was gray. No other reason. I just couldn’t make one that worked any better at the time, so I just kept resurrecting it.


How did you meet Sally?

Laguna Beach. We were married in ’54. I think she was going to USC at the time.


In the 1970s you were basically in full production. You had the shop on Gray Avenue….

Yeah. The Castignola brothers built that thing for me in ’67. In the beginning I had Linda Fredrickson, Stu Fredrickson’s wife, she was kind of running the retail. She would sit in the front room and guys would come in. God, I’d burn the candle at both ends. I’d shape boards maybe one day, all day long, then go fishing for two or three days. And then they had to be glassed, and all those steps had to be done to them, so by the time I got back from doing that, they would be finished and we’d move on. Thurston was shaping for me, and Eickert. Bradbury was glassing and Alan Bales glassed for me, Skydog glassed for me, Cooper glassed for me, John Kelsey later. I had quite a few guys. Of course, in the summer months, I could put more time in.


During this time, your primary income was still from fishing?

In the transition era there in the ‘70s, every two years was a completely different surfboard design. It was moving along so fast. It was difficult. There weren't that many guys surfing, really. California was going through that awkward period—vee bottoms to twin-fins, then it went to real narrow single-fins, and God, where was it going? It was going back and forth, all over the map.


Where did you fit into the shortboard revolution?

Slowly into it, yeah. Longboards went out and there were vee bottoms, like I said, and I guess twin-fins—when Rabbit won that world title on his twin-fin—it kind of stayed that way. Twin-fins. (to Dave) Shortboards kind of stuck around from there on, wouldn’t you say?


(Dave) Yeah. It went back to like 7-footers, 7’6” roundpins for a while after that, and then we finally got short when the modern twin-fin came along and they started putting some angle on the fins. The original ones were parallel.

Pretty straight.


(Dave) Remember when Corky was riding those?
Yeah, the real thick boards.


(Dave) Yeah. The fins were right on the tail.


So were the ‘70s your hardest period?

I don’t think anybody made money in the surfboard business in those years, really. There weren’t a lot of guys doing it. The ones who were in the longboard business, a lot of them just disappeared. They didn’t come back and make surfboards when they went short.


(Dave) Yeah, I think the only one who kept making longboards was probably Walden, and I think he was in Hawai’i.

Maybe, yeah. Bing quit, Hobie kind of petered out, Velzy was in hard times—didn’t do any boards there for quite a few years. Who did make boards out of the bigger names? Not really many, were there? A lot stuff was coming out of the underground. It was kind of getting weird in those years. Hawai’i was a big influence, you might say. Most of the developing good surfing was going on in Hawai’i. A lot of our boards were kind of copied after their boards over there, but more after California versions of them, not quite as radical, not quite as narrow, but still the same idea. At least for up here. I made a board called the Pocket Rocket which was a lot like they were making in Hawai’i then, too, but more California. They needed good surf. They didn’t work good in crappy surf.


How did you pull out of that period?

Well, I made tri-fins, but I never really went and got down into the really short ones. Short then was 6’10”, the upper sixes, low sevens. Then, all of a sudden, I don’t know who really is responsible for bringing longboards back. It’s hard to say. The first thing it did was, it was a shortboard influence, came ripping back into longboards—light, three fins, high-performance longboards. Now there’s about—how many longboard blanks are available? About a dozen, maybe.


Were you instrumental in getting the whole Clark Foam thing going with Gordon?
I used his stuff, I worked with him a lot with their problems, feedback, saying what was going wrong. He’d listen to me, obviously, because I knew him real well.


From the Laguna days….

Oh yeah, a long time ago, before he got into foam. His stuff just evolved and got better and better and better. He and Hobie were a partnership at Hobie Surfboards, and then finally it got to the point that, look, this thing’s getting too big. Somebody’s got to split off and do the foam, and someone’s got to split off and make the boards. So Hobie said, “Take the foam thing and go with it. I can’t do both.” Hobie went on and made boards and then went into the clothing line and the whole thing. He went the right direction. He couldn’t have done both things. I never worked for Gordon, but I gave him a lot of feedback about what was working and what wasn’t.


He was the only guy?

No, there was Foss making Foss Foam, and there was Don Amy. I bought blanks from him. See, when Hobie still was buying foam from Gordon, he had an exclusive with him. He couldn’t sell it to anybody else. Because he needed all of it, number one. He needed all that he could make. So finally, when Gordon got to a certain volume, he said, “I can really make more blanks than you can use, Hobie, and I want to be able to sell them to someone else.” So that ended that relationship and he went on and sold them to anybody he wanted to. You could buy them from Walker. Walker was getting into it, wasn’t he? Up at Huntington Beach, somewhere up in there. I used Clark’s foam all along, ever since he’s gotten good at it.


Do you use computer shaping here?
No, it’s down done in Huntington Beach.


How has computer shaping affected your business?

It’s made it a lot easier. The C&C cutting, as it’s called, machine cutting, was probably as big a breakthrough as the Skil planer was 50 years ago. That was a big, big deal back then.


What did you use before that?
Hand stuff, no power tools. Well, this machine-cutting is just a big a breakthrough today as that was then. It’s doing something that’s been a nightmare to do for a long time, just like hand tools were to make wood boards back then. It was a nightmare. Then the electric planer comes along and makes your job a whole lot easier. Well, here’s this exotic machine that comes along and makes shaping a whole lot easier and more accurate.


You don’t have to even be there.

No, but you have to think about what it’s going to do and get it pre-planned.


How did you first come across the machine?

Bill Bahne was really instrumental for getting KKL going in the beginning. He didn’t actually make it, but he got somebody to make the first one, and he probably had something to do with the programming and all that stuff. That’s where that company got that name. It’s a Hawai’ian name, KKL. I think they were the first machine. Now there’s a lot of them.


Are there any negatives to the computer shaping process?

Well, at first, there was this, “It has no soul,” you know. There was all this. Well, does the power planer have soul? (laughs) They’re all tools. The soul is the designing of the master part that you scan. That’s the soul part of it. You have to think that part out real real well, so because you’re getting parts back, you can tweak that part, too. You know how those computers work? You can change the numbers and it’ll flow into it, like if you change the middle number, it’ll still flow into the nose numbers. So you can use that thing, if you know how to use it, to really a lot of good purposes. And it gives you accuracy. You get the left side the same as the right side, which you can’t do by hand. It’s just impossible.


Has it revolutionized shaping?
It really has, yeah. It’s far better for the consumer. They’re getting a better product. It’s not so much guesswork. See, all the blanks, when they’re glued up, you would think they’d be glued up the way you want them, but every one’s different. They all come to us different, and we can’t change that.


How did your thing with SurfTech happen?
You have to go back to who did it: Randy French. He’s responsible for it.


Did he come to you?
Yeah. It’s sailboard technology. It was all developed for sailboards. Randy had developed it 10 years before they made a surfboard. They knew how to do it, and they had perfected it really well, and the sailboard industry took a nosedive, and the company that was making them thought there had to be another use for that technology. So Randy French says yeah, there is another use. We’d come to the end of line of the way we were making surfboards in California. We can’t make them any stronger and any lighter. We up against a wall. So he thought “why not?” It can be done. So he’s responsible for switching it over into surfboards.


When was that?

Let’s see, I must’ve seen the first one about ’99, somewhere in there. Maybe ’98.


What’s SurfTech’s significance?
You can make a very light, strong surfboard, and you can reproduce it pretty accurately. We do see variables. It’s taking it another step that we can’t take it, the way we were doing it here. We could only get these urethane cores only so light. Gordon’s been working on it for years. He just can’t get the stuff any lighter, so it’s relying upon a very thin skin on the outside to keep it together. And of course as boards got smaller and smaller, the skins got thinner and thinner until they’re practically nothing. So they’d just break real easily. The point is, the technology didn’t keep up with the demand. The demand in the sport went way beyond the technology that was available to do it. Usually technology catches up to something in some sporting goods product, so finally you’d figure it out real quick as it’s moving along. With surfboards, it was dragging really bad, so Randy saw this and knew that the next step was the only logical one—to make surfboards completely different, out of different materials. But it’s a molding process, so you can’t do one-offs. That’s a disadvantage of it, so you’ve got do think a lot about that one you make and reproduce. If it’s a loser, you’ve got to throw it away and make another one. You spend a lot of money just to do that one. There’s a bit of learning curve doing it.


Compare your SurfTech sales to your ‘regular’ shapes.

Well, they went real good. They’ve slacked off now.


Why?

They don’t turn over. You don’t see them on the used board rack. They don’t wear out. Guys just keep them. There’s no reason to get another one, other than a color change or something. The decks, you come back, take the wax off, and there’s not a dent on it. They’re that good. A polyester board’s just a mass of dents. (laughs)


So an advantage is your consumers can buy a board they can keep for a while.

Yeah, they got a little tired of buying a lot of surfboards, especially when they started getting a little pricier, especially longboards.


Some surfers take issue with the boards being made in Thailand.

Well, those guys drive Japanese cars, their wetsuits are made over there, their cameras are made there. There isn’t a damn thing that you’ve got in that car, going to the beach, that isn’t produced in Asia. There just about isn’t anything, you know? It’s unfortunate that we can’t make them here. It’s just really labor-intensive to make them. They could be done here, but the market wouldn’t pay three times for it. It would be very, very pricey. That labor force over there is so good in Thailand; it’s the best in the world for attention to detail. It’s just their makeup, their nationality—they’re that way. They’re artists. Just really, really good.


How did the Apocalypse Now board reissue come about?

I don’t know if that was Roger’s (Nance) idea, or whose idea that really was. What do you think, Lauran? Who was it? That was a tough project.


(Lauran) Wasn’t it was the guy who came up with the idea to try to get me to do the Silver Surfer?

Maybe it was him. That was hard to do.


How so?
Well, have you seen it? The way it’s colored and painted, the whole thing? The graphics on it? To make 90 of them exactly the same is not easy. I hand-shaped the first one and then we machined the rest, just to get them all exact. There’s only about 27 more to do.


(Lauran) They have to be exactly the same when they’re hand-made.

You can’t tell one from the other. They’re that good.


And you did it just to do it?

Yeah, it was a challenge to do it, actually. When I got started, I thought, “That’s really going to be hard to do to get those things colored just exactly that way.”


(Dave) Who’s doing them?
Channin. Those guys are good down there. They’re really good.


Did you get Lauran into shaping and designing?

Yeah. Well, he got into shaping on his own, really. I didn’t stop him. (laughs)


Did you teach him everything he knows?
He just watched me do it. You can watch somebody do it, and learn it, by watching the whole process.


How many boards have you shaped?
Oh, God, everybody asks me that. There’s no way to answer that.


(Lauran) I gave up counting at about 100.


Do you surf often these days?
No. In Mexico, mostly.


You have a house down there?

Yeah.


Some nice waves around there?
Yeah, just out beyond us is pretty good. Summer only.


Pacific coast of Baja?
No, it’s in the gulf, actually. End of the peninsula, Cabo San Lucas.


Sea of Cortez?
Yeah, it’s actually in the Sea of Cortez. South swell only.


Do you know who John Elwell is?
Yeah. John Elwell?


Yeah. I went on his boat all around there. A little sailboat cruise.

You came all the way down the Pacific side and then around?


No, we drove down to Loreto.

Oh, and then you went from there on down.


Yeah.
Yeah, it’s nice coastline.


Yeah, I kept saying, “If only there was a swell….”

How far down did you go?


Past La Paz.

All the way around?

No, we didn’t go around Cabo, but we went far enough down to see where if, there was a swell, it would be good.

Okay, that’s where we live, in that area.

How long have you had that house?

I built that place in, I think we finished it in ’88 or ’89. I’m sorry—’98. No, wait, it was ’88, yeah. Yeah, we have almost 20 years there. Close.


Describe your style of surfing.

You should ask somebody else. (laughs)


Have you ever entered a surfing contest?
No.


Do you still fish?
No, I quit in ’97. Sold the New Wave, my last boat. Bev Morgan has it now.


You just got sick of doing it or—?

Well, I did it for 35 years. Got to give up something sometime.


You didn’t need it to make ends meet.

No, not any more.


What else do you enjoy doing?

I ride motorcycles a little bit.


Around here?
You can’t, really, in the dirt around here. It’s pretty hard to. Grubby got me involved in that. He got me interested in riding in the desert.


Are you basically here all day, every day?

Yeah, when I’m not down in Mexico, or somewhere else.


How often do you go down there?

I try to get down there about six or seven times a year for 10 or 12 days.


You’re 73. Retirement?

Well, you know, I’m not doing as much because we subcontract out all the fiberglassing. I don’t do any of that. Everything’s subcontracted. Machine cutting.


Stuff you don’t want to do.

Yeah. So I’ve backed off on a lot of the work. If you go back 20-25 years ago, hand-shaping, glassing, retailing, the whole works, and fishing…it was a pretty heavy menu.


So you’ve sort of retired.

Yeah, I am. Lauran does a lot of it. So you might say I’m backing out slowly.


Have you done much surf travel?

I went to Australia in ’64-’65, New Zealand, Hawai’i and a bunch of that stuff. Mexico, Costa Rica. Never went to Europe. Been to the East Coast.


What has been your most greatest contribution to surfboards?

I guess the Spoon. It died out completely, but here it is, coming back. If you ask anybody else, you’d get the same answer, I think. I’m not noted for anything in the shortboard thing. There was one board I called the Pocket Rocket; it was pretty popular, but it wasn’t necessarily a significant design other than what everybody else was doing at the time.


Where do you see the future of the surfboard industry headed?

You know, this is an interesting era now because of all the new materials that are being used. It’s not stagnant at all. If you go back in the ‘80s and the ’70, it was pretty stagnant. Only one way to make a board. Now there’s a half a dozen ways to make a board. You ever go to the ASR tradeshows? 


No.

You ought to. There’s a lot of ways to make a surfboard now. The softboards you’ve seen…there’s a lot of good stuff out there. They’ve gotten really good at it. It’s more worldwide now, the way it’s being made and manufactured. It’s not just a Southern California-based industry any more. They’re still going to make surfboards built out of urethane foam, because it’s a way to make one-off surfboards, change-the-design-tomorrow, do experimental stuff. It’s still going to be around for a long time, but not at the volume that it was.


You think the Pope-Bisect thing will become mainstream?

Well, for a two-piece surfboard, he’s going the right direction, yeah. It’s a good way to do it. A really good way to do it. It’s an expensive thing that’s only going to appeal to a certain amount of people. But it’s very marketable. He’s got the same problem: he can’t get the thing built here in this country. He’s going to have to go to China to get it done right.


What would you like to be remembered for?

Oh, I don’t know. The fact that I went through all this and managed to stay in all this time. (laughs) Very few guys did. Most of them bailed out.


You’ve been in the surfboard industry continuously since, what—?

Since I first worked for Hobie, I would say. That was about ’54. Building the first surfboard all the way through probably in ’52 or ’53. All the way through, the whole finished product. Had to be somewhere around ’53.


What’s ahead for Renny Yater?

Well, I kind of like to do these more exotic projects like the abalone surfboard thing over there. Just veer off more to that direction.


Boutique boards.

You finally develop a sport to its maximum of ability. Like the shortboards now, how much smaller can they get? They finally just appeal to just a small age group, they’re the only ones who can do it, you know, that particular age in life when they can ride a three-pound surfboard that’s only five feet long. The good thing about it now is finally you’ve got to a point where there’s a board for the surf. You quit trying to ride a real hotrod surfboard in crappy surf. It just doesn’t work. So that’s really known now. That’s why you’re seeing heavier longboards come back into style, because they work good in a lot of surf. They work better.

           



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.