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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
(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.
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.
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?
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, 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?
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.
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?
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.
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.