At the annual Boardroom International Surfboard Show in Del Mar this past weekend, shaper Al Merrick, the visionary behind Channel Islands surfboards, was given the Icons Of Foam award, joining a list of past honorees which include John Bradbury and Renny Yater. His team riders have won a combined 20 WSL / WCT World Titles, and his son Britt continues the family craft of shaping boards for top talents like Dane Reynolds, Jordy Smith, Zeke Lau, and more. SURFER editor Todd Prodanovich sat down with Al and Britt for an exclusive panel discussion on Al’s early career, the path he forged at Channel Islands, the concept of ‘the magic board,’ what’s in store for CI’s future, and more.
Todd Prodanovich: Al, you and I were talking, and you have some history here [in San Diego].
AM: I grew up here in North County, in fact. I went to San Dieguito High School, and graduated in 1962. I moved up to the Santa Barbara area about 1965. I was a Swamis and Beacons guy.
What drew you to Santa Barbara in the first place? Did it have anything to do with Rincon?
AM: [Laughs] Yeah, probably a little bit. I went on a trip there with John Price who owned Surfboards Hawaii at the time, and I experienced some of those waves. I went and got a job and soon moved up there.
What drew you to shaping in the first place? What was the catalyst for you?
AM: It was about the time we were going from longboards to shorter boards – a shortboard being 7'2''. I just got really interested in making boards. I had worked with John Price a little bit. I had re-shaped some of my boards, and I just got interested in making boards for myself. I started off and eventually borrowed 300 dollars, bought [some] resin and a barrel of cloth, and made boards in my garage in Carpenteria. The rest is history.
Do you remember the first board you made? And was it symmetrical?
AM: [Laughs] Of course it was symmetrical. I made a board I called The Shoe, which had extreme nose rocker and a squared off nose. That's the first board I remember making.
Britt, when did you pick up a planer and join the family business?
BM: I probably spent hundred of hours at his shaping room door just watching. He never said anything, I never said anything. It kind of felt like holy ground. I just watched, and didn't ask a lot of questions. In my late teens, I picked up a planer and started trying. I learned by observation. When I got my hands on the tools, I would remember my dad's movements and the way he held his hands, the way he moved the tools. To this day, when I shape, I picture my dad's hands. Those images of his movements are just ingrained into me.
What's the biggest lesson you've taken from your dad in terms of shaping? If someone out here wanted to shape a board, what could you tell them that would save them a lot of headaches?
BM: Just go buy one. [Laughs]. My dad would always say when he was making boards that, even with all his success, he was never satisfied. He always felt like he could make a better board. He never felt like he finally got there. I think that mindset helped me. And then my dad always tried to teach me to be humble. He's always been a very humble guy. I think that if you have ego in your shaping, things get kind of creepy. But if you keep it humble and keep it real, it's still fun. And it should be fun. I enjoy it.
How much did being based in Santa Barbara affect the boards you were making? Rincon's gotta be one of the best testing grounds for surfboards in the world, right?
AM: Yeah, undoubtedly. Rincon had a giant influence on me. My big shaping influence is Dick Brewer. I was fascinated when he was making the mini-guns. I tried to make boards for Rincon along the vein of the mini gun. I got interested in watching what the kids around town were doing, and trying to make boards for them at Rincon. I think all my boards and my fins outlines and rockers have been influenced tremendously by it.
You guys have had some iconic team riders over the years. Who was the first surfer you made boards for who really pushed your shaping and brought it up another notch?
AM: I think Shaun Tomson was a really big influence on me. He really helped with my twin fin designs when he brought over a board from MR. I looked at that and we started making boards for Rincon. He actually brought a board over from Simon [Anderson], and we looked at that, too. So Simon and MR also had a big influence on the work that I was doing. I kind of developed the three-fin off of Shaun. Tommy [Curren] was a young lad then. I gave a smaller version of those boards over to him, and we went from there.
When did you meet Tom Curren? He must've been pretty young when you started making boards for him.
AM: I remember making boards for Tommy when he was about 12 years old.
And when you started making boards for him, was it pretty clear that he was going to be a special talent?
AM: You know, I don't know whether I was out of my mind or not, but I told everyone this: Tommy was going to win a world championship. So he did [Laughs]. He was a phenomenal surfer, and he had the right attitude for it. We used to surf a lot together; I took him to contests and watched him develop. It was wonderful.
Is there any board you shaped for Tom that stands out in your mind as pivotal in your career?
AM: His surfing jumped when he went to three fins on the bump-wing squash. It ended up being called The Red Beauty – a lot of you guys know that board. And then another board I think was pretty iconic was The Black Beauty, which he ended up winning Bells on.
With someone like Tom on your team, what did that do for CI as a brand?
AM: I think it grew with Tommy growing, with him surfing contests and his name getting out there. Tommy was a tremendous asset and a tremendous reason why CI became the name that it did.
Kelly Slater is someone who you've also made a lot of boards for over the years. How did you meet Kelly, and how did that relationship start?
AM: Kelly was influenced by Tom's surfing, too. He was from the east coast, of course. My team manager at the time was from the east coast, and he knew Kelly. He hooked us up. I had watched him surf in a contest at Santa Clara and was just amazed by his surfing, so it was a really easy thing for me to do. He came out to contests and would stay with us, like what Tom did. We developed a great friendship, and now, he'll probably go down as the world's best-ever surfer.
I heard that when you work with your team riders, you kind of teach them as you make the boards so you can communicate with them. Do you feel like in working with Kelly, you took it upon yourself to teach him how surfboards work?
AM: Yes. I actually encouraged him to shape toward the end there. I wanted him to understand what was going on underneath the board, and the rocker of the board and the outline of the board, so that he could relate it back to me. To me, shaping for high-caliber pros like that, it's a matter of communication. Not everyone says the same thing the same way. When I can learn, and when they can learn more about the boards and then relate their observations back to me, we can get closer to what they're really saying, which helps me advance. Of course, as a shaper, I always thought that I'm trying to catch up with those guys in trying to make boards for them that would accommodate where they wanted to go on the wave. I needed more of that communication. The more I could teach them about a board, the closer they could get to where they needed to go on a wave.
Britt, you've worked closely with Dane Reynolds on a number of his models over the past few years. What's that dynamic like? Is Dane pretty hands-on with the board-making process, as well?
BM: Yeah, Dane is super hands-on. Dane has been shaping the last few years, and he's pretty good. He really understands the way that a surfboard works. We've worked on communication, like what my dad was saying. You learn to read a surfer and what he means by what he says. But Dane really understands the way that a surfboard works. He knows exactly what he's feeling, so he can simply point to a part of the board, whether it's rocker through the middle of the board or the exit rocker or a bump in the outline, and say, "I want a little less here, a little more there," and it accomplishes just what he wants. So that makes it easy for a shaper: when you have a guy like Dane who knows what he's feeling and what he wants and how to translate that into a board. And then it becomes really fun, as well.
In the most recent issue of SURFER, you spoke with features editor Justin Housman about the future of high-performances surfboards and you had a really cool anecdote about how Dane can detect the most minor adjustments on the Black And White.
BM: Dane and I were working on his new shortboard model. I had done a hand-shape originally, and he liked it, so we started doing a few different scanned versions of it. Soon, he was testing it at Rincon and at different places around the world. One day he came to my house – that's where my shaping room is – and he had the board. He turned it over to the bottom and showed me this part of the rocker, and he said, "I feel like it needs a little scraped off from right here." He was just pointing to the rail rocker under his front foot. I went into the shaping room, grabbed a sanding block, and mimicked his hand motions. "You mean like this?" I asked. "Yeah," he said, "about that much." The next board I shaped him, I did just that. It was the only change. And it worked unreal: it eventually became the model. That's a pretty high level of understanding and intuition. Literally, it was five swipes from the center of the board to one foot up on the rail rocker with sandpaper that made all the difference.
You guys also worked with Dane on the Dumpster Diver, which became one of the best selling boards in the last decade. Where did that idea for more foam and wider outline come from?
BM: It was called the Dumpster Diver because it was a blank that was in the dumpster, and Dane pulled it out [Laughs]. It was pretty much Dane's idea. He really liked step-down boards – smaller, shorter, wider, that sort of rocker. It was a matter of Dane thinking about what he wanted, and being into it enough to grab a blank out of the dumpster to try it out.
What do you think about the trajectory of surfboards right now?
BM: I really like it. Surfing is meant to be fun. If you're not having fun, you shouldn't be doing it. Speed is fun. Flow is fun. Any time you get a board that has speed, flow, and can catch a lot of waves, then you're winning. My dad and Kelly swung the pendulum all the way over on low volume, lots of rocker, and the pendulum has swung back and forth a few times. But I think right now, people appreciate the feel of flow and inherent speed in a board. I know that’s something Dane is really big on. He doesn't want to work so hard at generating speed, he wants to feel the speed and then manipulate it to do a good turn. My dad always said that if you're not going fast, you can't surf well. Boards are more going toward flatter rocker and a lot of speed for general people, and I think that's a good thing.
Working with team riders at the caliber you're working with, you get a lot of feedback, and they'll tell you when you make them a magic board. I imagine one of the most frustrating things about being a shaper is how hard it is to recreate that. When you're making a board, and it's glassed and you have it in your hands, do you know the magic ones when they're out the door, or is that as surprising to you as anyone when they come back and tell you it’s magic?
AM: That's a good question. Sometimes, you can see a board come together right. A lot of times you can be surprised, too. I've made really good boards for Tour-level surfers, and some didn't like them at all. And then they give it to another surfer of their caliber, and it's a magic board, the best board they've ever had. It's a hard one to call. I always say that surfers are extremely educated consumers. Not in the sense that they know all the dimensions and so forth, but when they put a board under their arm, and they feel it, they know if it's the right board for them.
BM: Most of the time, it's surprising. We've discovered over the years that a lot of boards that are twisted and really weird along the bottom end up being the magic ones. The reason that we in surfboard manufacturing and among surfers use that phase, 'magic,' is because there's something mysterious in those boards. It's so mysterious that we can't replicate it the way that we wish we could. That's the thing about magic: you can' t predict it. You can't always see it. You don't always know it until later on. But once in a while, you put a board under your arm, you bounce it a little, you feel it, and have a sense that it will be a good one. Most of the time, it's not [Laughs].
What's your favorite CI board to make right now? What do you enjoy shaping most?
BM: For me, high-performance shortboards are my favorite to shape. For guys like Dane and Zeke Lau, that's the most challenging element for me. It's pretty easy to make a board that's fast or to make a cruisey board with flow, but to bring all of the dynamics together, and to have them work at the highest caliber, really demands a lot from me. I enjoy that the most.