“Selling out, profit over substance, mass marketing, crowded line-ups, number of instagram followers” that is just a few of the terms I heard as I prepared myself for my inaugural trip to the center of the Surf World, Southern California.
I had set up a week’s worth of meetings with a number of the surfboard manufacturers we represent at the shop. All are located somewhere between San Diego and Santa Barbara. I thought it would be a good chance to meet with the “titans” of board building and surf some breaks I’ve been reading about my whole life. Names like Lost, Channel Islands, Robert August, FCD, Almond, Bing, JS Industries and spots called Trestles, Malibu, Rincon, C street, and Swamis, this is going to be as big as it gets. So I prepared myself for angry locals, jockeying for waves, massive manufacturing facilities, and the over commercialization of surfing.
Any hope for an epic surf trip was squashed a couple days before I left. The forecast was calling for flat conditions and unfavorable winds. I still decided to pack my board in the hope that something would change or the forecast was wrong. Crazier things have happened and nothing can be worse than seeing waves and not having your board. Only a surfer would pay an extra $100 to bring his equipment on the plane even when there is little to no chance of using it. It’s who we are…
Landing in San Diego in the middle of the night and seeing that the freeways are still bumper to bumper was my first indication of how massive this area is. Just like the lights of this city that seem to go on forever, the surf industry itself has grown to unimaginable proportions. Companies that started out just selling boardshorts 40 years ago are now being publicly traded. Their stores or products can be found in almost every metropolitan area around the world. The surfing lifestyle is being sold to people who live thousands of miles from the nearest ocean and have never seen a surfboard. Surf contests are now broadcasted worldwide, our surf stars are becoming movie stars, and images of pro surfers are being published in mainstream magazines every day. The world seems to love surfing and it’s not hard to understand why.
It wasn’t long into my first meeting that I realized the surfboard manufacturing world is completely different then the mainstream surf world. Maybe it was the fact that they were located in the back of an industrial park, far removed from the town’s trendy retail strip. Or that their name wasn’t lit up above the front door, or that there wasn’t even an open for business sign in the window. There were no 18 wheelers parked out back waiting to load up today’s shipment of boards headed to the east coast. I didn’t see an assembly line, a break room, or even one forklift. What I did see was less than a handful of guys who were practicing their craft and building one board at a time. Keep in mind that this is one of the biggest names in surfing. A company, that if you are reading this blog, you know who they are. This scenario, for the most part, replayed itself at every stop I made.
Sure, every company I visited was different. Some were bigger than others, and each with their own style of production. But, I couldn’t help but feel the passion and soul that each shaper and person working put into every board they made. I heard the term “family” used several times and met guys that have been working for the same company for over 25 years. I toured shaping bays that have been passed along from one shaper to the next for 3 decades. At places like Almond Surfboards, Griffin still shapes every board by hand. Fletcher Chouinard at FCD, finishes every single board before it goes off to be glassed. Lost Surfboards still makes the majority of their pro riders pay for their own boards. Why, “because nobody is getting rich off shaping surfboards”. Even at Channel Islands, the biggest player in the game, the art and love of making surfboards was first and foremost. The attention to detail and desire to create the best boards for us to ride was evident at each company.
As much as the clothing portion of the surf industry seems to be about bright lights and fashion models, the surfboard world is back alleys and bros. They aren’t doing it to attract the non-surfer or to sell the surfing lifestyle. Caring about doing it right seems more important than getting it finished. Taking surf breaks is a necessity and bringing your dog to work is encouraged. Building a surfboard is still about creating something for a surfer. What can be more core then that?
So I left my last meeting and headed towards the airport, past the glitz and glamor of Malibu and Huntington Beach, past surf shops the size of department stores and billboards covered with images of surfing. I then had a thought, that the soul of surfing is alive and well and in good hands. That it’s being put into every surfboard that is shaped. They are built by the hands of people who surf, for people who surf, and only used for surfing. That as much as the clothing companies are building the surf industry and bringing it to the masses, the surfboard manufacturers have always and will continue to separate what it is to be a surfer. Anybody can put on a pair of boardshorts, but only a surfer needs a surfboard.
I only got to surf once on my trip, a morning of clean waist to shoulder high waves at C Street. I caught one fun wave in particular that lined up down the point and allowed me to make a couple of fun turns. It made the money I spent on board fees worth every penny and I would call this trip pretty epic!
*Keith Novosel came with me on this trip and videotaped all of our meetings. We will be putting together a series of videos over the next few months showing each company and what we saw. They will show the actual boards we will be selling in the shop at different phases of production. I think you will be amazed and entertained with what it takes to build your boards!