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.”