Birdwell Blog

The “surf industry” is a broad and sprawling term that includes everything from Wavestorms to the WSL to surf wear to wax. According to Wikipedia, the average surfer in the US is 34 years old, earns $75K, and owns four different surfboards. At last count the surf industry had grown from $6.52 billion in 2004 to $7.48 billion in 2006. I could probably get more up-to-date numbers, but I’m far less interested in how big the surf industry has become than how small, soulful, and homespun it once was.

          At the birth of the surf industry—more like the embryonic stage—we have a barefoot and shirtless Dale Velzy shaping balsa boards under the Manhattan Beach Pier in 1949. Tattooed, charismatic, a lover of hot rods and hanging ten, Velzy came from a family of woodworkers. He carved out his famous “Pig” designs on a pair of sawhorses with his grandfather’s tools. Velzy lived in Hermosa Beach but made frequent runs up to Malibu, where he’d test pilot his boards across the long, tapering waves of First Point.

 

 

          As Matt Warshaw tells it in “The History of Surfing,” Velzy’s open-air shaping room came to an end when city officials noticed the wood shavings blowing across the beach and shut his operation down. Unfazed, Velzy rented a tiny storefront just up from the pier, got a logo made—“Designs by Velzy”—and at age 22 became the owner of surfing’s first licensed boardmaking outlet.

          So began the surf industry.

          The Velzy shop was far less glossy and accessory-filled than the surf shop as we know it today. It was a stealth affair. He was all about the boards. Quality craftsmanship was king. And limited production—he generally made fewer than 10 boards a week, and sold them for $55.

          Buzzwords like “authenticity” had yet to reach the branding lexicon back then. “Branding,” too, was nonexistent. Velzy was just doing what he knew and loved. Shaping was a way to feed—and enhance—his surf habit. Enhancing the surf experience for others was the byproduct.

 

 

          Velzy’s shop spawned other shops, a whole slew along Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach—Jacobs, Bing, Dewey Weber, Rick, Noll. This stretch became known as the “Miracle Mile,” and the South Bay was hailed as the epicenter of the surf industry. Surf shops became much more than just retail outlets. They were like clubhouses. Story was talked. Swells were predicted. Gremmies were hazed.     

          These were still longboard days, but longboarding had swivel-hipped its way into hotdogging. Weaving up and down, stomping the tail, jitterbugging to the nose, and maybe even lashing a cutback entered the fray. Hermosa Beach’s Dewey Webber was one of the star players. Nicknamed “the Little Man on Wheels,” Weber surfed with a bowlegged, showy style—lots of fancy footwork, lots of big, whiplashing turns.

          There were photographers. Doc Ball’s 1946 book “California Surfriders” featured photographs of the nascent South Bay scene. Hermosa Beach’s LeRoy Grannis lived at 22nd Street and Strand. An ace lensman, he’d lure august ’60s surfers like Lance Carson, Henry Ford, Donald Takayama, Rusty Miller, and Miki Dora out to his local break. He shot a lot of Dewey Weber—his water shot of Weber carving a stylish, spray-shooting cutback is iconic. 

 

 

          And there were teams. Noll had Dora. Bing had Takayama. Rick had Dru Harrison. The surfer/shaper relationship flourished. The board business expanded to surf wear, wetsuits, accessories. Surf films and magazines helped to spread the good word. Breaks got crowded. Locals got territorial. And on and on and on up to the present.

          The surf industry was born from a deep love of surfing, which is to say that it was born from love. And on that note, I’ll leave you with these excellent words from Warshaw—

          “The dependable thrill of going from land to water. The promise that a lot of daily accumulated hassles and worries won’t be able to follow. The meditative effect of staring out for long mindless periods at water and sky. Three hundred waves, give or take, move across a given surf break over the course of an hour. Every surfer, everywhere, along a span of millennia, has been raised and lowered by that same atavistic rhythm.”

 

 

Subscribe to the Matt Warshaw’s “Encyclopedia of Surfing” at https://eos.surf

Buy Leroy Grannis prints at https://www.mbphoto.com/artists/2-leroy-grannis/series/

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