Al Merrick took surfing from a fringe activity to a legitimate, "eat your Wheaties" sport. In 1968, after watching Bob McTavish surfing a Greenough-inspired shortboard at Rincon, Al decided to exclusively shape shortboards.
Working from his garage with a barrel of resin and a bolt of fiberglass cloth, Al went on to start what would become the world's largest surfboard company. He named it Channel Islands Surfboards after Santa Barbara's coastal island chain. Al’s boards became industry standard, and with the invention of the Thruster in 1981, Al’s “Tri-fin Hulls” kept Channel Islands at the highest peak of surfboard performance for more than 40 years.
With boldly colored shortboards and a brash young team of surfers, Al separated his company from the black wetsuits and clear boards that previously defined Santa Barbara surfing. In doing so, he created the modern surfing arcitype. Merrick introduced training regimens and practice heats to elevate the level of his athletes, and maximize their sponsorship opportunities.
As a result of his efforts, more professional surfers (including Shaun Tomson, Tom Curren, Kelly Slater and many more) have ridden Channel Islands surfboards than any other brand. Al Merrick elevated the level of professional surfing equipment and shows the importance of the surfer-shaper relationship.
EXCERPTS FROM AL'S INTERVIEW
WD: Do you remember the first board you shaped?
AM: Yes, it was called the shoe. It had a real pronounced kick in the nose of the board and yes, that was the first board I made called the shoe.
WD: Were shortboards a big departure from what was being ridden?
AM: Oh yes, big departure because what was being ridden were longboards where you walk up and down, ride the nose, drop leg turns, longboard surfing. And then all of a sudden you went where you're pretty stationary on the board and turning from basically one spot and the turns were much more extreme, especially at Rincon where you could turn more extreme on the face.
WD: Can you talk a little bit about why Rincon is unique?
AM: It's such a consistent type of wave. The point hasn't changed in forever as far as I know it's the same as when I first surfed it in the early '60s. It just produces a wave that has a long line to it, open face is steep enough that it's good for a high-performance. It's very consistent all the way through so it's -- you can replicate things.
WD: What was your approach to building a surf team?
AM: Well, I wanted to see the kids become athletes...think of themselves more as athletes than partiers or just surfers hanging out on the beach like I did when I was a kid. It was fun. We do a lot of workouts and we go the beach break and do most of our workouts in the beach break because the kids were going again traveling down south, surfing contests and stuff and I wanted to see them develop their surfing. I developed a lot of different methods to increase their performance and heats, learning the cadence and heats, learning the timing, learning to understand what their score maybe on a wave so they could determine where they needed to go to next, how to read the water and then we did a lot of physical things too, running the beach, running the stairs.
WD: How close was the team?
AM: We had a big patio and we, oh, gosh, the team was probably 15 or 20 kids. We'd show videos of everyone surfing and how we can improve and what we could do. It was fun times.
WD: Can you talk about the surfer/shaper relationship?
AM: You've got to be an interpreter as well as a shaper and understand what they're saying as far as what's working and what's not working. And that takes some time. Just having that relationship with the surfer shaper relationship is beneficial having it long-term because you're going through so many ups and downs both in their surfing and you're shaping and you're hoping to come to a place where you can make incremental steps forward.
WD: Where does Santa Barbara fit into surfing's history?
AM: It fits really well. [laughs] Like I said, we're our own area for a long time [00:38:00] until finally people for some reason recognized Santa Barbara and thought it to be a surf capital. I've never seen it that way. We have such unique waves up here. All up and down from Rincon all up North.