We paddled out for Dale Velzy yesterday afternoon. When I say we, I don't mean a group of friends, or even a couple hundred. I could guess how many people were there, but it wouldn't do any good. There were thousands on land, several hundred in the water. It didn't seem possible, but we joined hands in a single file circle that must have reached a quarter-mile across. It was quite possibly the biggest paddle-out ever held, rivaling in size those held for Rell Sunn and Duke Kahanamoku, drawing into the waters at Doheny State Beach the most impressive list of legends assembled in one place in recent memory. There were old surfboards, old cars, old people and an old plane.
But a ceremony of that size begs a question: Why?
It may seem simple, ignorant, maybe even blasphemous, but still it's there. What was so special about this man, compared to the rest of surfing's late legends? What did he do? Why was he so important?
There isn't a single answer for questions like those, but many answers. If you wanted to distill it, though, Velzy was the last of a breed that simply doesn't exist anymore. He wasn't just a surfer, or just a hot-rodder, or just a cowboy, but a person—a person whose life was lived so completely and with such a degree of genuineness that you couldn't help but respect him, even if you'd never met him.
Leaving out the other influential elements of his life, Velzy was a great surfer at a time when being great required more than just style. He was born in 1927 and took his first steps in Hermosa Beach during the Great Depression. He was the son of a mechanic who was the son of a woodworker. He began surfing in 1936 at the age of nine when surfing was still a Great Western Adventure. At the age of 10, his genetic instinct to build saw him shaping balsa/redwood-laminate surfboards for himself and his friends underneath the Hermosa Beach Pier. He is widely credited as being the first surfer to hang ten. During World War II, Velzy served as a merchant marine, then came back to Manhattan Beach, where he began shaping surfboards commercially and opened the world's first surf shop, Velzy Surfboards. He went on to shape and sell surfboards in Hawaii in 1950 when the North Shore was still country, and in Malibu in 1953 before Gidget had brought the crowds, eventually teaming up with Hap Jacobs to open Velzy-Jacobs Surfboards in Venice Beach. In 1958, the two opened a second shop in San Clemente, then went on to hang their shingle in San Diego, Newport Beach, Hermosa and Honolulu. Velzy's enduring contribution to board design was his Pig surfboard, which took the surfboard's wide point and moved it back toward the tail, making it much more maneuverable.
There would be no surf business without Dale Velzy, and hence no surf life as we know it. He was the first to put a name on a surfboard, the first to sponsor a surfer, the first to open a surf shop and the first to print a surf company t-shirt. Velzy was no businessman, but he knew how to live, and at the height of his industrial success in the 1950s he smoked giant Cuban cigars and rode from shop to shop in luxury cars. Velzy bankrolled one of the most impressive surf teams in history, with Miki Dora, Mickey Munoz, Dewey Weber, Mike Doyle and Donald Takayama all riding for him. He bought Bruce Brown (The Endless Summer) his first camera and paid his living and travel expenses for a year. Sure, it all caught up with him in 1959 when the IRS shut down his surf shops, but Dale was a cowboy at heart, and didn't care.
He left Southern California in 1966 to go ranch in Arizona, but came back to San Clemente in 1970, if only to do a bit of the same. He held a ranch on the outskirts of town, but continued shaping, a craft he never stopped practicing, up to the time of his death. He shaped contemporary surfboards, balsa board collectibles and some of the most sought-after paddleboards on the market.
These are the facts of what Velzy did. But what Velzy was is something else entirely. Velzy had the heart of a cowboy, a heart not rooted in belt buckles and shotgun shells, but in the ethic to work hard and live well. He had a penchant for cigars and whiskey, but he also had a gruff smile that seemed to always be on offer. He loved his children and lived with his wife Fran until the time of his death. He was loved across cultures—both as a surfer, as a cowboy, and as a hot-rodder—and managed to seamlessly blend the three passions, so that at the ceremony held in his honor, hot-rodders and surfers were bumping elbows with cowboys and barflies.
Dale Velzy's battle with cancer was fought with the same grit that characterized his life, and when it came time to go, he kicked out with the same genuine grace that he lived with. He died two weeks ago at the age of 77.
Yesterday, when we all paddled out, why did we do it? Whether we knew it or not, we were there because we were saying goodbye not to a man, but to a time, to an era. Those legends that were gathered there—many of them won't see each other again. And that time that they enjoyed together, laying the foundation for our sport—it's gone too. Though of us left here in the water have no choice but to remember it, and honor it, and continue on in our own ways.
So, this much was proven yesterday: Dale Velzy's gone, but he's not forgotten.