Dale Velzy

Hot-rod surfboard maker
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The Independent Online

Dale Velzy was an icon among surfers even before he was portrayed as "Bear", guru and shaper, in John Milius's 1978 film Big Wednesday. "Velzyland", a break on the fabled North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, is named after him. But he was born and began his pioneering and hugely successful board-shaping business on the west coast of California, in Hermosa Beach.

Dale Velzy, surfboard maker: born Hermosa Beach, California 24 September 1927; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Mission Viejo, California 26 May 2005.

Dale Velzy was an icon among surfers even before he was portrayed as "Bear", guru and shaper, in John Milius's 1978 film Big Wednesday. "Velzyland", a break on the fabled North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, is named after him. But he was born and began his pioneering and hugely successful board-shaping business on the west coast of California, in Hermosa Beach.

The son of a lifeguard and the grandson of a carpenter who built cabinets for Teddy Roosevelt, Velzy began surfing in 1936 and soon started making balsa/redwood boards for himself and his friends beneath Hermosa Pier. His major innovation was the so-called "Pig" model of 1955, a wide-hipped board about 10 feet long that became the prototype of the modern longboard and was the premier platform for hotdog surfing. "Those boards changed everything," Velzy later recalled. "We just went nuts from then on." He has also been credited with being the first surfer to "hang ten" (i.e. to walk to the front of the board and stand with both feet wrapped round the nose).

After working in the merchant marine service during the Second World War, he opened Velzy Surfboards, his first shop, and what may have been the world's first surf shop, in Manhattan Beach in 1949, after the city shut down his operation under the pier. Within a decade, in association with Harold "Hap" Jacobs, he had opened outlets in Hawaii, Malibu, San Diego, Newport Beach, and Hermosa, selling boards under the "Velzy-Jacobs" label. His shapes, such as the Bump, the 7-11, the Banjo and the Wedge, became the benchmark of design in the Fifties. "There was a time when you couldn't even sell a board in California unless it looked like a Velzy," said his fellow shaper Joe Quigg.

With his prominent nose and handlebar moustache, signature Cuban cigars and a gull-winged Mercedes, he cut a swaggering hot-rod figure as the first captain of the nascent surfing industry. His partner Jacobs said, "Dale is the greatest salesman in the world. Once he even sold my own personal board." Top-flight surfers, such as Duke Kahanamoku, Mickey Dora, Mike Doyle, Dewey Weber, and Mickey Muñoz, rode - and thereby popularised - Velzys. According to Quigg, "Velzy was the first guy to sponsor surfers, the first to advertise in a big way, and the first guy to put surfboards and thus surfing within reach of the average kid on the beach."

His influence extended into the realm of surf movie-making. In 1958 he bought a camera for Bruce Brown, a young would-be film-maker who was sweeping his shop, and paid all his expenses while he shot his first film, Slippery While Wet. Brown went on to make the surf classic The Endless Summer (1966).

At his peak, Velzy ran five shops and two factories - in which all the boards were hand-made - and sold as many as 200 boards a week. But his business suffered a wipeout when all his stores were padlocked shut and most of their contents auctioned in a tax dispute with the IRS in 1959. He opened up again in 1962 but sold the business a few years later and moved to Arizona.

He returned to southern California and shaping in 1970 and was working freelance almost until his death, making collectible wooden boards and custom paddleboards. Velzy's classic boards now sell for several thousand dollars.

"All I've tried to do is to have fun and do whatever it was as good as I could," Velzy said.

Andy Martin

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