Dale Velzy the godfather of today's surf boom

Daredevil, cowboy, slacker and seducer, Dale Velzy was the coolest man on the Californian coast - and his boards ruled the waves for decades. Andrew Gumbel pays tribute to the godfather of today's surf boom
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The Independent US

Back in the mid-1950s, when cool cars had fins, and surfing was still regarded by the mainstream culture - if it was regarded at all - as the eccentric pursuit of a handful of daredevil swimmers in Hawaii, there was nobody cooler along the coast of southern California than Dale Velzy.

Back in the mid-1950s, when cool cars had fins, and surfing was still regarded by the mainstream culture - if it was regarded at all - as the eccentric pursuit of a handful of daredevil swimmers in Hawaii, there was nobody cooler along the coast of southern California than Dale Velzy.

In Malibu and Manhattan Beach and San Clemente - all the wave-curling hotspots later memorialised by The Beach Boys - Velzy was the man all the other men wanted to emulate and all the women wanted to date. He had a reputation as a cowboy and an eccentric and a lover of fast cars. And he was also one of the men responsible for turning a minority fad into an out-and-out craze.

Velzy, who died last week at the age of 77, was one of the pioneers of surfboard design, turning out a succession of revolutionary longboards in the 1950s and 1960s with names like the Pig, the Bump, the Wedge and the Concave Nose. He helped to oversee the transition from the heavy redwood boards of his own boyhood to the lighter and much more manoeuvrable balsawood boards that turned surfing into an international phenomenon and made southern California its epicentre.

More than that, he lived the surfer dude lifestyle and helped to define it. When the sun-kissed kids weren't beating down the door of his shop to snap up one of his custom-shaped boards, they were fantasising about living his life. He was tall, good-looking, rippling with muscles and tattoos. He drove a knockout convertible - a Mercury in the early days, later replaced by a Mercedes - and rarely wore either a shirt or shoes.

Women were a constant theme in his life. "We had all the girls we wanted," he later said. "We'd just toss the boards in there and roll off with the puss."

He was also just a touch odd in intriguing ways. As a boy, he had picked up the nickname "The Hawk" because his eyesight was sharp enough to spot coins dropped by beach-goers up to 100 yards away. As an adult, he developed a preference for an unorthodox way of travelling to the beach - on horseback.

As one of his employees said of Velzy in one of the histories of surfing: "He could drink more, surf better, get laid by more girls and drive more bitchin' cars than any of us ever dreamed of. A lot of people have forgotten what an incredible surfer he was. Dale was right there at the top."

Where his personality paved the way, the growth of a new sport followed. In the mid-1950s, he took a liking to the photographer and documentary maker Bruce Brown, who was just then starting out on his soon-to-be-legendary quest of chronicling the surfing craze, and came up with the $5,000 he needed to make his first film in Hawaii, Slippery When Wet. That, in turn, provided the sport with one of the best promotional vehicles imaginable.

He also expended considerable energy in hooking young kids on to the sport - as early as possible. He himself had started out as no more than a "little squirt", as he once put it, and soon devoted himself to building boards that monitored the development of his own son, who was the fruit of the first of two short-lived marriages.

"He was really smart," fellow designer Joe Quigg told the surf historian Malcolm Gault-Williams. "He was the first guy to sponsor surfers, the first guy to advertise in a big way, and the first guy to put surfboards - and thus surfing - within the reach of the average kid on the beach. Yeah, if you ask me, it was Velzy and his gremmies [acolytes] who started the whole mass surfing phenomenon thing in California."

Surfing more or less came to Velzy from a very young age. Growing up on Hermosa Beach on the southern stretches of Santa Monica Bay, he spent much of his childhood watching surfers on their thick unwieldy boards, waiting for one of them to fall off, before standing on the stranded board until the surfer swam up and kicked him off. "As I got a little stronger and older, I'd jump on 'em and try to push the board out to them," he told the surf historian Craig Stecyk. "That was fun and they got to liking me."

His father, who worked as a boatbuilder and lifeguard, made his first board for him out of a couple of planks when he was just eight years old. As he surfed more and encountered more riders with different-shaped boards, he used his maternal grandfather's cabinet-making tools to teach himself the rudiments of his future craft. After a stint in the Merchant Marines during the Second World War, he set himself up in business repairing and reshaping boards out of his parents' garage. In those days, another pioneer called Bob Simmons had just begun experimenting with balsa, and Velzy soon adopted the idea and ran with it. As Velzy himself put it: "Simmons made them light. I made them turn."

From Hermosa Beach he moved to the Manhattan Beach Surf Club, just a few miles to the north, and from there he set up a thriving business in Venice Beach, then a distinctly unfashionable faded beach resort more notable for its ubiquitous oil derricks than for the boardwalk eccentrics and sideshows for which it is known today.

His system became as well know as it was unorthodox. If a customer came into the shop, he would size up his or her physique and skill level and promise to have a custom-made board ready by the following Friday. Come Friday morning, he wouldn't wait for the right people to walk in the door and claim their boards. He would sell whatever he had to the first person who walked in, and then improvise if a customer came later to redeem his or her order.

"Anybody who walked through the door with cash in hand could buy any board on the rack - you just changed the name on the tag, handed Velzy the cash, and the board was yours," the surfer and writer Nat Young once said. "If you got there a little late, the board you ordered might already be sold." As demand was never less than soaring, Velzy could afford to play it any way he felt like.

Velzy enjoyed the craft of board-making and the money it brought him, but his primary love was always the surf itself. Often, he tested out new designs himself - including one ill-fated idea for a foot-controlled tiller that almost ended his amorous exploits for ever. The tiller slipped off his foot and slid up his leg where it gashed open his scrotum and pulled out one testicle by a length of epididymis, like a chestnut on a string. The testicle was later reattached in hospital.

Undaunted, he was always looking for the next innovation. To the horror of some of his more purist friends, he embraced the idea of surfing in wetsuits very early on. (The die-hards referred to them dismissively as "rubbers" - the American term for condoms.) And his deepening knowledge of hydrodynamics enabled him to take design risks that others regarded as downright insane - until they saw that they worked wonderfully where it counts, out in the waves.

By the mid-1950s, his business was cutting seriously into his surfing time, so he acquired a partner, Hap Jacobs, who minded the shop while he was out in the waves. Financial management was never their strong point, though, leading to a débâcle in 1959 when the tax authorities swooped and closed them down.

When Velzy drove up to the padlocked door of his shop and saw the sign saying "closed for non-payment of taxes", his first reaction was: "What taxes?"

It took Velzy more than 10 years to resurrect another business of his own after that setback, but he kept busy designing and shaping boards for others right up to the 1990s. He may have become less visible, but he was no less revered. He was right on top of the transition from longboards to shortboards in the 1970s, and kept thinking creatively into his old age.

"Velzy is the master," another surf enthusiast called Lance Carson said in the mid-1990s. "A couple of years back, Dale sent his first Malibu Express boards to this glass shop. With the shaped blanks he attached a detailed diagram and instructions on where to place the fin. When the guys at the glasser read it they said, 'No way, Velzy really messed up, he's got it backwards.'" But, of course, he hadn't.

With the passing years, Velzy settled down with a steady girlfriend in what he called a "cowboy palace of a house" in San Clemente, halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.

After he died of lung cancer in a nearby hospital last Thursday, his name was on the lips of all the old-timers, and quite a few younger surfers, up and down the Pacific coast from Santa Cruz to the Mexican border. Already, a surfing spot in Hawaii has been named Velzyland in his honour. His friends are planning a paddle-out service somewhere off-shore in the coming weeks.

"All I've tried to do is to have fun and do whatever it was as good as I could," he once told Malcolm Gault-Williams. "Looking back, there's nothing that I'd do different, except that I'd just do more of it. As far as my boards go, I figure they speak for themselves."