An artist, surf historian and board designer, Kirk Putnam has a deep respect for the sport and those who make it their lives. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s KP worked in the shops of some of surfing’s biggest names. As the sport grew from a cottage industry, customers didn’t just want to walk into a surfboard builder’s workshop and order a board. Retail became a major part of revenue and the business model shifted. Kirk was at the center of that shift, and in the process become a walking encyclopedia for Santa Barbara surf history.
Kirk was shop manager for both Al Merrick and Renny Yater. He also worked and rode for Liddle Surfboards for years, riding Greenough-influenced egg-shaped displacement hulls with round bottoms and thin rails. These crafts require a different mindset to surf. As such, Kirk could be considered one of the earliest proponents of “alternate” surfing because of his love for displacement hulls, surf mats, and longboards throughout the eras.
Kirk currently creates boards with Scott Anderson under the A.P.E. label, and continues to be a historian and banner keeper for the old guard of surfers. A personal friend of George Greenough, Kirk has more recently focused on exploring the possibilities offered by Greenough’s edge-board designs. As an artist, Kirk works in many mediums including pen-and-ink, and he also builds custom-made resonator slide guitars from jerrycans.
WD: What place does Santa Barbara hold in surfing history?
KP: That's a good question. George [Greenough] being from Santa Barbara, and him being so influential in the shortboard revolution, it makes Santa Barbara pretty important. It's funny that it all happened in Australia, but really George is from Santa Barbara. Everything he developed really was mostly done in Santa Barbara. As he moved to Australia, the Australians saw what he was doing, they grasped right on to it. The timing was perfect.
WD: How does Rincon play into that?
KP: Rincon is just really, really special. It has a huge history from the very beginning because it's such a good wave. Through all the generations that's the testing ground. The way when it winds up on a good day... Everybody wants to ride on Rincon, unfortunately. [laughs]
WD: Who is Renny Yater?
KP: Reynolds Yater, [laughs] he's my former employer. My idol, a father figure, somebody I really look up to and I have almost my whole life really. Craftsman…I owe a lot to him of how I run my business. Renny's worth ethic is what I looked up to. How you just put in the work, get up and go to work, everyday. Do the work. He’s just a very consistent, honest, hard-working guy that I really respect.
WD: Who is Tom Curren?
KP: Tom Curren became three-time world champion. First of all he just became a little grommet that was just like a little spider monkey. He had custom suits that Pat Curren had made for him, his dad, and he made him these little tiny Yater little mini gun boards. He was so small, we used to let him hold onto our legs and paddle out at Hammonds reef.
He could barely paddle out, once he got out there you could just see what he was going to be. He just got good so fast and he was so small. There wasn't a lot of kids that did that back then that were that young. Tommy was just in the water every single day, before school, after school. Pat and the whole family lived in a motorhome, this big Mercedes motorhome. They were head of their time on that, and they’d just park it right there at Butterfly. The first thing in the morning, Tommy was in the water before school, and after school, and just surf from the shore break at the Biltmore pier.
Just watching him, you could just see later on how good he was getting. It was so cool to watch that, to go surf, watch him grow up surfing.
WD: How many surfboards is too many?
KP: I think you can never have enough surfboards! [laughs] The secret is to just get enough so your wife can't count them, then you can collect all you want.