I sat down to lunch with Carl Ekstrom recently. This legend from early Windansea grew up in the shadow of Bob Simmons, learned his shaping chops from Dale Velzy and Hap Jacobs, invented the asymmetrical surfboard, co-designed the Flowrider, and continued on to a successful industrial design career. At 69-years-old, Ekstrom hadn't made a surfboard meant for commercial retail in decades. Yet because of a happy alliance with Richard Kenvin and his Hydrodynamica projects, over the last couple of years Ekstrom developed a series of mini-Simmons, asymmetrical surfboards. And soon, a few of them would finally find places on surf shop racks. A month ago, you couldn't buy one of these boards. The idea of a dollar amount being placed on Ekstrom's history, knowledge and skill got me thinking about the cost versus the value of a surfboard, and whether the two ever found a balance.
By lunch, our interview was basically over, so Ekstrom was telling stories. He mentioned a visit to Dale Velzy he'd made around the turn of the century. Velzy was sick with cancer at the time, but according to Ekstrom, the old cowboy was still the incredible huckster he'd always been. In fact, when Ekstrom and a few friends entered Velzy's house, he was involved in a deal concerning two antique Hawaiian planks. Velzy presented the aged wood boards to his visitors and told them he'd discovered them in the islands and that "Hollywood-types" were paying big bucks for these sorts of surf relics. Before the boys could ask too many questions, the phone rang. Velzy picked up, and the visitors listened to Velzy's half of the conversation:
"Nope, already sold."
"Yep, both of them."
"Around 1,500 bucks each."
"Oh, you'd pay $2,500. Well, I may be able to dig up another."
"No, no. I'll call you."
The collectors' market for surfboards was in it's infancy at the time, and the visitors--distinguished shapers themselves--found it all peculiar, this commoditization of water-worthy surf craft. After the phone conversation, however, Velzy and the boys caught up, reminisced and farted around. He showed them some of his recent paddle boards, and then they made their ways out to Velzy's backyard. This is when Ekstrom noticed Velzy's faded wood fence, and the small number of slats missing from it. He took a closer look at the fence, and the grain on that redwood looked awfully familiar. Ekstrom now had a pretty good idea of where Velzy would "dig-up" that third Hawaiian plank he'd just sold over the phone.
After lunch Ekstrom wanted to drop by his favorite surf shop. It's called Surfy Surfy and was opened by the St. Pierre family, who own and operate Moonlight Glassing. As you can imagine, they have a pretty deep history with surfboards and surfers, and the shop can't help but exude that. In fact, on display but not for sale, was a well traveled board that had been resting in the Moonlight factory storage space last time I saw it. A 1970s Mike Hynson shape--blue, masterfully pin-lined, down rail, single fin—it displayed a distinct rendition of Charley Chaplin on its deck. Hynson shaped the board for Peter St. Pierre in 1969, when Peter was glassing for Bill Bahne. Most of the groovy surfers of the era glassed images of Jimmy Hendrix or other iconic hipsters onto their boards. As a goof on all of that hippy-dom, Peter rendered Chaplin into the spot where a Buddha would have fit. He sold or lost the board somewhere along the line--forgot about it completely in fact. Then, three decades later, he got a random call from a friend who was shopping at a yard sale, and saw a great old board with an interesting glass job. As the friend described the board, Peter immediately knew he'd glassed it, and then he realized it had been his personal Hynson. The friend paid $30--a small price for an antique Hynson, but a very small price for a 30-year round trip.
Peter's son J.P. runs Surfy Surfy. He showed me around the shop, we looked at boards by the Campbell brothers and by Daniel Thompson. Somehow we got talking about the number of boards professional surfers managed to go through in a year. In a recent video, Bede Durbige mentioned that he gets about 40 a year. Taking that number as an average for pros, J.P. pointed out that there are only 52 weeks in a year, and given the frequency of good swells and travel, he wondered how could you ever get to know a special board. A few years back, Moonlight glassed a number of Channel Islands' surfboards and cooperated with them on many levels. On account of this, Rob Machado stopped by to have a beloved, but battered board scanned. It was a modified Flyer based on Tom Curren's 1984 model. Machado loved the board so much, he later joked that when he wasn't riding it, he placed the board in a "hyperbolic chamber." Machado hoped that by scanning it, the board's magic could be recreated. Instead, J.P. suggested that he simply fix the dings on the original, and that Machado continued to ride it. Rob won a number of contests on it, and said that it "felt like cheating." Once the Flyer was beat up again, he returned to Moonlight with the same request for a scan. J.P. said, "Naw, why don't you just let me clean it up a bit?" Machado earned something like $70,000 on that board, and this he says, at a time when first place purses on brought in $10 to $15,000.
Now, money intersects value on a variety of levels when it comes to surfboards, but not all of them. Because Ekstrom grew up in Bob Simmons' shadow, he gets a lot of questions concerning the "mad genius" who died over a half-century ago. Yet among his long-time peers, Ekstrom also hears Simmons stories. One holds that a young Bob Simmons was shaping in his parents garage with an electric planer. It made a lot of noise. His mother eventually opened the door, and said, "Bob, would stop making that racket, your father is dying." His mother shut the door, and Bob picked up a hand planer and to quietly continue honing the board. Later, his mother opened the door again and informed him, "Bob, your father has died." Without a word, Bob picked up his electric planer again, flipped the switch, and went back to work.
It's just a parable. Who but Simmon's mother or the man who vanished at Windansea in 1954 could verify the story? But among people who value surfboards, it says something.
Because he invented surf retail--Velzy is credited with opening the very first "surf shop"--and apparently, the collector's market as well, I spent more time thinking about his example. He'd designed one of the most influential boards of his time, made fortunes and lost them. At one point he drove a gull-wing Mercedes up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, visiting each of his bustling shops. Ekstrom's tale about that last visit to Velzy was intended to reveal the savvy business mind behind the creative cowboy persona. Velzy knew the value of a surfboard better than anyone. And to my way of thinking, an authentic Hawaiian olo might fetch tens of thousands on the auction block, but only five years after Velzy's death, I'd much rather possess one of those phony redwood-fence jobs.
After our visit to Surfy Surfy, driving down PCH ourselves, Ekstrom added a postscript to his Velzy story. He repeated the reason he and his group of friends went to visit Velzy as a group: because Velzy was still mobile and alert, but dying. And Ekstrom said that after they said their goodbyes that day, one of Ekstrom's friends slipped back into the house and asked Velzy frankly, "Is it true? Are you dying?" The friend thought it was just another Velzy ploy to raise the value of his current boards, while pulling a hell of a prank while he was still alive. Velzy admitted however, that yes, it was true--these would be some of the last he'd create.
It's one of the greatest shames of the art world that artists' work is most prized once the artists themselves are gone. The special aspect of surfboards however, is that their riders develop a relationship with each board in a way that just isn't possible with art of the wall-hanging variety. The value of a board is most often established on a personal level, between the artwork and its rider, and has little to do with money.