Coming Full Circle

Posted online: June 2015

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LEFT TO RIGHT: A pioneer of skateboarding’s mid-1970s explosion, Don “Waldo” Autry pivots past vertical in a concrete spillway below Mt. Baldy. This widely published photo was clicked by Jim O’Mahoney, now the curator of the Santa Barbara Surfing Museum and 2015 recipient of the Skateboarding Hall of Fame’s Icon Award; part-time Santa Barbara resident and 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, 43, is widely considered the best all-around surfer in history.

by Keith Hamm 

The concurrencies of surfing and skateboarding began when some bored Southern California surfer grumbling about flat seas jerry-rigged a surfboard simulator from a roller skate and a board. Though evidence of such tinkering dates to the 1940s, it’s safe to say that countless men now well into their 60s resolutely believe that they single-handedly invented the skateboard in the 1950s. What we do know is that surfing and skateboarding went hand in hand, especially in beach towns like Santa Barbara, where smooth down-town sidewalks lead to warmish waves at Leadbetter Point.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 3.04.56 PMSkateboards were still rudimentary deathtraps when their spiritually refined birth mother—the surfboard—guided Southern California’s early surfers to spots north of famed Malibu. Renny Yater was among them, and in 1959, he opened Yater Surfboards. Since then, he’s built a reputation as a master surfboard shaper, and, now in his 80s, Yater still puts in workweeks at his shop off Milpas Street, alongside his son, Lauran.

Skateboarding didn’t come into its own until the early 1970s with the arrival of the fast and grippy urethane wheel. Shortly thereafter, skate parks cropped up across the United States—including Santa Barbara’s Golf N’ Fun near La Cumbre Plaza and Sparks in Goleta—and skateboarding expanded from sidewalk soul surfers to bowl riders, downhill daredevils, and vast numbers of young women. Riding the wave in 1976, George Powell founded Powell Corporation on the industrial east side and introduced the Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 3.05.22 PMQuicksilver slalom board with Sims Skateboards founder Tom Sims. Their brief partnership put Powell on the map, and in 1978, he teamed up with pro skater Stacy Peralta. As the Powell•Peralta Bones Brigade skate team dominated the 1980s, surfboard shaper Al Merrick became one of the industry’s dominant figures, having built on accolades earned while shaping for 1977 world champ Shaun Tomson (a South African now living in Montecito). Today, Merrick’s Channel Island Surfboards, headquartered in Carpinteria, is the planet’s biggest manufacturer under a single brand and the board sponsor for giants Tom Curren, Santa Barbaran Bobby Martinez, and Ventura’s Dane Reynolds, among others).

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Santa Barbara-based artist and activist Peggy Oki (pictured above)—then a Santa Monica surfer girl skating with the now-legendary Z-Boys team—claimed the tall trophy at the inaugural Santa Barbara City Championships on May 18, 1975. Coincidentally, a crowd favorite at that contest was a 10-year-old local named Tommy Curren (pictured above left), who has since become one of surfing’s most revered and influential living legends. (And just five years ago, Curren’s daughter, Lee-Ann, was a shortlist contender for the women’s world title.)

At the same time, surfboard innovations prompted more aggressive wave riding. During that heyday, skaters were generally dirtier and more anti-authority than their wetsuit-clad counterparts, but the cultures did continue to share the common goal of eating, breathing, and sleeping sideways through life—literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, the number of female practitioners had dropped dramatically since the love fest of the previous decade. These days, it’s tough to tally just how many trends have come full circle within the surf and skate cultures. In terms of equipment, check the lineup during any good weekend at Rincon and you’ll find all sorts of wave-sliding crafts—from stubby soft-top twin fins to 11-foot pintails and everything in between (along with surf mats, body boards, stand-up paddle boards, and hand planes for bodysurfing). Meanwhile, students skate around Isla Vista on throwback banana boards, street urchins ride precisely tuned maple decks and titanium trucks, and fanatics of downhilling exceed 50 miles per hour on proprietary urethane.

In both cultures, a do-it-yourself ethos is also hot once again, with feral skateboarders building renegade spots with salvaged bags of cement as surfers stock their biodiesel rigs—Ojai’s Malloy brothers come to mind—with homemade sunblock for sojourns to uncrowded waves.

The most conspicuous return to ancestral form, though, is that on any given wave, or at any given skate park, you can find the fairer sex thriving. “It’s really cool to see women and young girls pushing the limits in both skating and surfing,” says Santa Barbara’s Lakey Peterson, 20, who grew up skating and now surfs at the highest professional level. “It’s all going in such a good direction.”

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A handful of Santa Barbara’s finest enjoy a rare get-together on the bluff above backside Rincon. ABOVE, Left to right: Surf-brand fashion designer Shawn Stussy, former Santa Barbara Country Surf Club president Andy Neumann, Surf Happens surf school founder Chris Keet, surfboard shaper Renny Yater, 1983 women’s world champion Kim Mearig, and 1988 world amateur champion Chris Brown. Photograph Branden Arroyan

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 3.25.05 PMWhile Conner Coffin (pictured middle left), 21, expresses the Curren-esque style of the classically trained, kid brother Parker Coffin (pictured far left), 19, displays the precise artistry of a master technician. Both are described as humble and great fans of good food, which they actively seek out while lapping the planet on surf trips. Check out their Young Wise Tails blog.   

The growing crowd surrounding Skater’s Point didn’t know it at the time, but Saturday, September 10, 2005, marked a cool moment in Santa Barbara’s long and deeply woven history of surfing and skateboarding. That’s when local Lakey Peterson, 10 at the time, took first place in the 10 to 15-year-old girls division at the city’s annual skate contest. She did it again in 2006. These days, the 20-year-old Peterson (pictured near left)—who rode waves when she was 5 and picked up skateboarding at 8—is touring with the best competitive surfers on the planet. Last year, she finished the season ranked sixth in the world.

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In September 1978, George Powell (above right)—a Stanford-trained engineer whose masters project was a breakaway surfboard fin—joined forces with world-champ skater Stacy Peralta (above left). In the ’80s, their small company, Powell•Peralta Skateboards, expanded into one of the industry’s most influential, manufacturing pro decks and Bones wheels right here in Santa Barbara, where the factory still hums today. Among other innovators, Powell•Peralta’s Bones Brigade skate team hatched a fledgling Tony Hawk, now the world’s most recognizable skater. After a rough patch in the 1990s, Powell•Peralta reemerged with more iconic skateboard art from Santa Barbara-native Vernon Courtlandt Johnson and a feature-length 2012 documentary directed by Peralta, entitled Bones Brigade: An Autobiography.

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Cofounder of Santa Barbara Montessori School, Jim Fitzpatrick built his first skateboard in 1957 and grew up surfing Topanga Beach, mentored by the legendary Miki Dora and Surf Guide magazine editor Bill Cleary. Fitzpatrick worked in promotions at Powell•Peralta and helped launch the International Association of Skateboard Companies, which set up a grassroots campaign to build public skate parks. In 1997, armed with thousands of supportive letters, he lobbied state legislators. “It was classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Fitzpatrick remembers. Shortly thereafter, lawmakers passed a bill that opened the floodgates for skate park construction, including Santa Barbara’s Skaters Point. Photograph Bruce Bernstein

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In their 1963 Surfing Guide to Southern California, coauthors Bill Cleary and David Stern wrote that “the 15 miles of coastline between Point Conception and Gaviota is…closed to the public…and the 24-hour guard at the entrance gate is deputized to arrest trespassers. We have listed the surfing spots anyway, in the event the current situation should change.” Half a century later, the “situation” remains essentially unchanged. Photograph Steve Bissell


[SUMMER 2015]

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