In the mind of every perfect surfer, there exists a perfect surfboard.
But the surfer is always changing his mind. Suppose he's at the South Mission jetty, watching a wave with the mass of a tall house approach at 30 mph along the rocks. He may wish his board had a little more flotation, to increase paddling speed. Suppose he's in two-foot mush at La Jolla Shores and his 9-foot gun pearls in the sand the moment the wave gets under his tail. He'd probably rather have a fat little summer0fish at that moment.
Changes of mind accompany changes in season as well as in popular taste, and are what keep the many surfboard shapers in this county at work.
There is no way of knowing how many boards have been shaped in San Diego County over the last 30 years for surfers who want everything just right. Mike Eaton, who shapes a board with a clownish name and explosive temperament, estimates that he has done over 4000 Bonzers alone, in addition to all the other boards he's made. ever since there were more surfers than there were shapers, the guys who could shape a board were, as Steve Pezman of Surfer magazine says, considered to be a notch above those who could only ride one.
When Eaton started shaping, it was all longboards, "logs" they're called now, with four-inch wooden stringers down the center and rubber fins. The skinny kids who rode those early state-of-the-art boards got their start at Windansea, the local surf mecca. Some of the shapers among them still live in the county: Mike Doyle, who applied his skill to an innovative snow ski, and Donald Takayama, who still shapes classic lightweight longboards for Surfing's New Image, are in Encinitas. L.J. Richards, a La Jolla surf star, is now an Encinitas fireman. Tony Channin builds fiberglass boats at a local shop, and Bill Owen, designer of a rescue board now used by Lifeguard services in the U.S. and Australia, is an Ocean Beach lifeguard sergeant.
Most of these designers owe a debt of inspiration to well-known local waterman Bob Simmons. Simmons had a congenitally disabled arm which provoked him to build handles onto his boards to make them manageable in big surf; these handles now appear on rescue boards worldwide. Rescue victims are not the only ones to benefit from Simmons's work. In the late '40s, Bob Simmons wet-wrapped a sheet of fiberglass cloth around a balsa-wood blank, the first application of these materials to the sport. The lightweight balsa board quickly replaced the solid mahogany and teak variety and became the model for virtually all the boards which make the sport what it is today.
They say he cackled with glee when he approached a solid ten-foot block of balsa. He rough-shaped the soft wood with an ax, cackling. Three days later, a smooth new board, shiny as a seed. He'd thrown it in the back of his woodey, a Model A Phaeton (with a low-ration rear end, perfect for sand), drive down to teh Tijuana sloughs on a big break, and rip.
Simmons rode a Malibu, the hot-dog shape of its era, a shorter board with parallel rails and mild rocker, or bottom curve. Simmons wanted speed, and found that a wide tail worked well. The problems of integrating a fin with the wide tail consumed his later experimentation.
Bob Simmons now has a reef and rip current named after him at WindanSea, where he drowned in 1956. The checkered board he was riding at the time, which may have struck him in the fall, was something special. Just over eight feet long, the board had a wide tail and twin fins — Simmons is credited with that development, too.
Something special. That's what surfers have always wanted. Miracles. Because it's a miracle when the modern surf magazine reader acquires a board which looks like his pipeline dream and still works like a surfboard on local waves.
Most of the good local surfers ride boards that evolved directly from the wide-tailed boards of the '50s, distinct from the Hawaiian spears. In fact, the shape that man surfers consider the most sensitive and versatile, a shape developed to perfection on San Diego's usually mushy waves, has the no-compromise sobriquet of "egg."
Not too many shapers can handle the rounded rail-edges on this type of board so that they don't come out feeling like opposite ends of the egg. John Holly sells his Seagull line out of the Green Room on Newport Avenue, and his egg is the favored in OB. He shapes for at least one editor of Surfer magazine, and his star is on the rise.
Skip Frye is already a star, has been for some time, and seems fairly unimpressed with his status, anyway. (Being a surf star won't get you a good table at Caesar's Palace. It's a generic term. Shaping is all piece work, whether you do rental or custom boards.) He comes to work each day at the Gordon & Smith factory in a white microbus, wearing t-shirt, cords, and wallabees. His open-ended shaping room is flanked by identical open-ended rooms where other shapers lean over their shaping racks. He puts a white paper mask over his face to keep foam shavings out of his lungs. Some of the shapers wear earplugs for the tool whine, but Frye says his hearing went a long time ago. He plugs in his power tools.
And he very carefully shapes four beautiful surfboards every day. Boards that satisfy his daughter's 14-year-old boyfriends. Boards that please old-timers, who compare them unequivocally to Bill Caster's. Caster got his start in the early '50s and his boards are synonymous with quality. Frye has been shaping a mere 15 years. But he has that old-fashioned touch for shaping the bottom of his boards in a nice soft curve up to the edge.
Any shaper will tell you it's easier to shape a flat bottom board. More accurate. The tools touch the foam less, with fewer chances for error. Simply blend the deck into the flat bottom. Mike Hynson, an Encinitas shaper, makes boards of extreme precision this way.
If you want a board with a round bottom, like an egg, you have to go to someone who shapes bottoms. Someone who concentrates very hard. Like Frye.
On the wall of his shaping room there are photographs, some cut from magazines, of waves and surfers, and there is a graffiti diary of the really good days scribbled on the wall: "April 6 Session: mystic orange see-through lips. August 15, 16, 17: Four Stats one of year's best. Clean long south lines." By itself on the end wall is a color blow-up taken along the face of a breaking wave, spinning water all around, and there, in the tiny patch of daylight at the end of the tube, is a picture of Jesus Christ.
Someone who concentrates very hard. His work ritual includes frequent measurement with wooden calipers and a steel ruler. The shaping room is lit with three 8-foot neon lamps, two on each side of the shaping rack at board height, one directly overhead. Flipping the blank back and forth under various combinations of lights and shadow, surface irregularities appear and are eliminated. Hand tools are preferred, the lightest tool that will accomplish the work.
Frye cuts his plan-shape with a hand saw, holding the blade away from him, dangling the saw up and down through the soft foam like a sinker on a string. He power-planes the rough shape, then uses a block plane and Sureform for detail work. After handsanding the entire blank, he takes a piece of year-old sanding screen to the rails.
The finished board will be notably stable in the trim stages of the ride. Less suitable for jamming. Frye's shapes require anticipation of wave development and earlier positioning. At the South Mission jetty on a good gray day, when it's been raining to smooth up the faces of an eight-foot swell, with four guys out, one will be riding a board with a small set of pilot's wings — the Skip Frye trademark. The wave shoots right along the rocks; a quick board is needed. Frye-pilot John Otterbine rides a 7'9" pintail model at the jetty: "His boards encourage a strategic approach." "They glide," says Eaton. "They squirt," says Frye, "like a watermelon seed."
Power surfing on local waves is another matter. Everyone wants to feel that Hawaiian juice, but this isn't the North Shore, and if you want to go fast you need a board that can convert lateral slip into forward thrust. That board in the Bonzer, and it is shaped by Mike Eaton.
Eaton didn't invent the Bonzer, but is responsible for its refinement. It is a strangely old-fashioned board (in the sense that Chuck Berry is old-fashioned), yet as different from conventional surfboards as the hydrofoil is from ordinary boards. From the nose it looks typical, but toward the tail the planing surface begins to squeeze and convolute, and two small fins sprout at the apices of these convolutions. Each fin says "Bonzer" on it. Close your eyes and run your hands between these fins and it feels like channels worn in granite by mountain water.
Critics say that Bonzer is a gimmick. Eaton is the first to admit that no one quite knows how the Bonzer works, only that it does. Promotional literature vaguely refers to the venturi principle in the tail, and consequent "squirt." That's the word most Bonzer brothers use to describe the feel of the board, so it seems to be a good one.
Eaton is a grandfather (in the sense that Chuck Berry is a grandfather) who has shaped all sorts of boards for over 20 years. He considers the Bonzer and other multiple-fin designs to be the most rewarding of his shaping experience. Multiple fins make a smaller, wider, faster board possible. Still, Eaton is the only shaper doing the Bonzer. Shop owners, he says, knock them because they're tough to shape, tough to glass, tough to sand, and altogether more extensive. Anyway, "most surfers are basically conservative; anything new they're down on."
Eaton's shaping room is four steps away from Frye's. They can squat and draw diagrams for each other in the foam dust; that's as close as it gets. Eaton's shaping style is miles from Frye's.
"I try and give a guy what he wants when he comes to me," says Eaton. What they usually want when they come to Eaton is speed. He gives it to them in lean, hard doses. He is generally known to shape THE primo Mexico gun; he is a specialist in the big-wave experience. He frequently surfs the islands (he is there right now), and his boards have been seen in the surf mags under the feet of "Wildman" Jim Neece, who once signed a contract with a California film company to ride a wave of 40 feet or larger.
Eaton's approach to his craft is analytical (he likes to develop a few models). His approach to a surfboard blank is startling. A four-year-old can break a blank in half, but Eaton leans it against his shaping stand, and, soccer-style, kicks it behind his back up onto the rack. He may cut, then rough-shape and fine-tune as many as 20 boards in rotation ("I like to work methodically"). He shapes with power; sabre-saw for plan-shape, electric planer for rough-shaping, disc sander for smoothing flats. In tight t-shirt and blue jeans, he prowls back and forth around the emerging shape like a spotlit stoned guitarman turning, turning — once left for each time right — to keep his cords untangled. With every sweep of the planer he varies the speed and depth of cut with small levers. The shape of the Eaton rail is built into his hand, and that's how he checks it, after shaping the whole deck and rail line in broad sweeps. He forms the Bonzer tail with a tool of his own design, a power sander built from a ball-bearing rolling pin.
The finished blank, signed and numbered, with the customer's name written on the stringer, is placed in a foam-rubber padded rack — there isn't much to bump a blank against that isn't padded. The blank then goes to the laminating room, where it is glassed with one layer of six-ounce on each side, and colored. The fin or fin-box is put on. The board goes to the sanding room for power and hand-sanding. Then to the glossing room for pin-striping and a smooth, hard finish. Before the board is sent out of the G&S factory to the East Coast, South America, Japan, Europe, or a local shop, it is buffed and polished and wrapped in plastic.
By noon, the wine of power planers is gone, the bright neon lights are off, and the shaping rooms are empty. The ankle-deep white foam shavings have been swept from the concrete floor. The shapers, who are also surfers, come in at 5:30 or 6:00, turn out their boards and leave early. Frye says it is the only way he can spend enough time with his family and still surf. Not that surfing is the most important thing. But there are usually a couple of surfboards in the back of his microbus which he is testing and there is no way to know how many surfboards he or Eaton or any of the great shapers have gone through. It's certain they're not hung up in any one shape.
"There's no such thing as the perfect board," says Eaton.
Only perfect surfers.