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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”