Reynolds “Renny" Yater is considered one the most important figures in surfboard design. Yater began his surfboard shaping career in the mid-50s fiberglassing balsa wood boards for Hobie Alter, and then working with Dale Velzy. In the fall of 1959, he opened Yater Surfboards in Santa Barbara, where he would earn a reputation as a tenacious shaper with a great eye for detail, as well as the area’s best surfer.
Around 1964 he shaped the Yater Spoon, which was considered the lightest and most maneuverable board at that time. The Yater Spoon was especially unique in that it was less than 10ft long and had a lighter nose, which made the boards better suited to the world-class waves at Rincon.
In the 1970s, he did not restrict himself to designing short boards, choosing instead to stick to his values for surfboards the way he liked them. Now in his mid-eighties, Yater is still shaping while many of his contemporaries and protégés have long retired.
WD: How did you get started shaping?
RY: I just did it normally myself, my own boards way back in Laguna Beach; way back a long time. [laughs] Then I started working for Hobie. He was losing the glazer that he had, Bobby Patterson. He was a Hawaiian guy. He was good but he would not show for work a lot of times. Then [Dale] Velzy moved out to Dana Point in '57 I think it was. He wanted me to come down and set up a glassing up shop for him. Well there was a bit of a conflict between me and Hobie me doing that, finally I did go down there and set up a glassing thing for him. I think it was in '56 or something like that. I worked for him, eventually I started shaping for Dale a lot.
WD: What brought you to Santa Barbara?
RY: I actually came up here at commercial fishing, that was my primary reason. It's a seasonal fishery. I had four, five months in the summer where I wasn't doing it [fishing] so I just started to making surfboards up here anyway. Nobody was making surfboards [in Santa Barbara] at the time. It was a normal thing to do. It's easy for me to do.
WD: How did fishing and surfing overlap?
RY: ...George Greenough and I wound up working up there, The Ranch Company didn't mind us doing it... working off the beach up there. He started in '63. I came back in '62 or '63 and I came up and fished a couple three years. He probably did it for four years up there, five years maybe. Worked off the beach. And then it sold and then it became too complicated and we couldn't do it anymore.
WD: Did you and George talk about shaping?
RY: We were in the car a lot driving up there and back...and we rap a lot about it, especially in fins because he was really big into fin designs at the time. So we'd take some up and try them and things like that. It was a good testing ground obviously, better than down here a lot of times. And the conversation would stay mostly on that. Of course we were talking about fishing all the time because that was what we were doing.
WD: What was The Ranch like back then?
RY: It was an interesting era being able to do that up there at that time. Now it's completely different. You can't do that. Well, you couldn't work off the beach anymore. You have to own property to do it. None of us did at that time. It wasn't even developed into parcels yet. It hadn't been subdivided. That was when the Hollisters owned it.
WD: Do you remember when you first saw Rincon?
RY: [chuckles] ...Bob Simmons, he brought me up here when I was about, I'm going to say 16. That was the first time, probably... I'm saying '48, something like that, 1948. There was nobody there. The first guys that surfed it was Simmons and the other guy Matt Kivlin, Joe Quigg... from Malibu. They figured out that there was winter surf up here when there's nothing down there other than Palos Verdes Cove.
WD: Then surfing became more popular?
RY: When I moved up, it was changing over to foam. We were just trying not to make wood boards up here, because they weren't popular...heavy. Once foam got started, it got more popular. Then of course the college, there's more kids that want to surf because of the college. Then there's local kids too mostly, that’s what I cater to mostly was the local kids.
WD: Did the local kids help drive the change in surfing?
RY: They grew up fast but the shapes didn't change a whole lot real quick until probably, I'm going to say the latter part of '60s, mid-later '60s. Greenough was a lot responsible for that.
WD: How did others influence the sport?
RY: When Mctavish came over with a V-bottom idea, there's a lot of guys that got to try that. We'd cut off the boards just above the fins, tried to make V-bottoms. They didn't work very good but we were doing something with the old [balsa] boards, which were worthless then, absolutely worthless those things. We'd start over again and make them out of good foam. That moved on quickly for about a year, a year-and-a-half. Until then, boards started to get shorter... in '69...really started to progress into shorter boards then.
WD: It was the start of the Shortboard Revolution.
RY: Every year it was a different design. I was paying a lot of attention to what was coming out of Hawaii, tried to adapt that type designed more for California use...not so radical because we don't have as radical a wave. [I] toned it down a little bit more and made it more useful for here, for our surf here.
WD: How did Rincon dictate design changes?
RY: It was fast-moving at that time. It's really predicated on where [boards] are being used. If you go down into South Bay [Los Angeles], [it] was a lot of Hap Jacobs. They built boards that worked really good in that area down there. When you bring them up in Rincon, they were clumsy. They felt a bit too wide, too big. The rails were too round. They were too straight. They didn't fit into a nice small hollow wave.
WD: Is that how you defined yourself as a local shaper?
RY: I concentrated on just boards for these waves up here. I don't think my boards work as well down there obviously. They were all designed for that kind of surf. Surfboards started changing. Even in the longboard era before it went away... I'm really on the design for the boards from Rincon and the Ranch, a lot of that. As it went into short boards, the same thing happened with what they worked better here than they worked anywhere else.
WD: What is it about the waves at Rincon that made for such important performance shifts in equipment?
RY: Rincon just happens to be a really good layout. When it's good, it's really good. You got the indicator. You got the river mouth. You got the outside of the cove. Then you got the inside of the cove. You got really four places to surf there...definitely three. It's rare that it's rideable all the way through. You've got to overrun the wave to make it. There's time there when the longboard is really good, and then there's time where the shortboard is dynamite. It’s an unusual place like that. Most places you ride one kind of surfboard. For Rincon, you could ride both boards.
WD: Is that the same reason why so many good surfers came from this area?
RY: Yes. I guess it is odd why such good surfers came out of this area because there's so little surf here. When you think about the summer, it's just bleak, just bleak. I wonder why it's even done here sometimes. See, you begin to wonder why they come out of this area. Well, it's because the wave is good.
WD: So it’s quality over quantity?
RY: Yes, it is a really good wave and that's what makes it such a good testing ground. They all came out of that same place...most all of them. That or Hammonds, which is also good, and that even breaks less. When you get out to Ventura, the wave just isn't as good..it isn't the same kind of surf.
WD: What was the Al Merrick and Channel Islands influence?
RY: Channel Islands really put the place on the map a lot. Heavy exposure there with all his team support, stuff like that. That probably did more for it as far as exposing it than any other person or reason because it was quite popular before he came up here, but the shortboard here really put it on the map. When it came into shortboards, it wouldn't have progressed along as rapidly as it has since then.
WD: What keeps you shaping?
RY: I've always liked designing the boards more than any other part of it, and making them work for our attitudes at the time. Working with different people, their input to it. That's interesting. That really is. I was pretty quite interested in the material end of it. At one time I worked a lot with Gordon Clark in the foam development on this thing, trying to make these things better. That part was really interesting, the chemistry of it and trying to do different materials, see how they work...like what you're looking at here right now [pointing to a beautifully shaped, un-glassed board]. That's pretty interesting. You do all these things and then, all of a sudden, you get something really good. And it moves it forward, which is good.