INTERVIEW BY JAMES O’MAHONEY
INTRODUCTION BY JAMES O’MAHONEY
PHOTOS BY JAMES O’MAHONEY AND COURTESY OF RENNY YATER
Currently the reigning pope of surfboard shaping, Reynolds Yater, is a man that has lived through the golden era of southern California – the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. He never stopped to bath in glory. He just maintained a strong work ethic and focus on his next project. This makes for a simple and rewarding life. Blessed with perfect health due to ‘good genes’ (he says) this young salt hasn’t slowed down.You won’t see him in the tabloids. He’s untouchable, unassuming and looks good in a tux barefoot.
“I’M PRIVILEGED TO HAVE BEEN ABLE TO LIVE THROUGH ALL OF THOSE ERAS OF SURFBOARDS. I WAS PRIVILEGED TO MEET SIMMONS. I WAS VERY INFLUENCED BY HIS STUFF.”
I am here with Reynolds Yater. Renny, do you have a middle name?
Is that Southern nobility?
It comes from the Wood family, originally from Virginia.
Where were you born?
Los Angeles. I can’t remember the name of the hospital, but it was called St. Francis, maybe.
You’re 74. You look better than I do. That sort of pisses me off. Is that genes?
[Laughs.] Yes, of course.
What grade school did you go to?
I went to a lot of schools. I bounced around. I think the first one was in West Los Angeles.
When did you move to the beach?
My folks bought a lot in Emerald Bay in 1935. My dad was the general contractor on the house we built. It was completed in ’37.
How old were you then?
I was five or six.
You were pretty close to the 101?
You could hear the traffic all the time.
What was it like then?
It was very neat. There were only 35 houses built on the entire bay at that time. Now there are 300 or 400.
So you got into the ocean when you were five or six?
I was bodysurfing, slam, dump, shore break. I was skinny.
When did you first see someone surfing?
At Salt Creek in 1944.
Was it ten guys or one guy?
It was probably two. An older guy in Laguna introduced me to bodysurfing at the Point at Salt Creek. He got two or three of us kids together and said, ‘You have to get out of this horrible beach break in Laguna. There’s a much better place.’ He took us down to Salt Creek. We were ecstatic. Coming off the point was pretty neat.
[Laughs.] Did you ever go to a mat?
Yes, and those pillows. Remember those?
Where you take a pillowcase and fill it with air?
Right. At Salt Creek, I made this thing, I didn’t know what they called it, but it turned out to be a skimboard, a belly board. It just seemed logical to have more surface under your chest, especially when you’re as skinny as I was. It was piece of plywood. I just took it down there and it worked.
Did you put any kind of finish on it?
I used varnish or shellac. That was state of the art.
The term ‘surfer’ didn’t even exist?
It didn’t even exist.
I remember ‘beachcomber’ or ‘beach bum’ were the only words connected with people at the beach. The only good guy at the beach was the lifeguard. What did you do every day at the beach?
I was big into fishing. I’d go fishing off the rocks by myself a lot.
What did you snag the most?
All that domestic stuff that you catch down there. In the summer it was corbina. In the winter, it’s just that rockfish that you catch there.
Did you eat it?
Some of it. Some of the gobies aren’t too good.
Gobies are the big gold fish, right?
Yeah, Catalina gold fish.
What about bugs and abs? That was pretty shallow fishing back then.
You could peel them off the rocks at low tide. Blacks were thick. I was into catching my own stuff and eating it.
What kind of outfit did you have?
It was Calcutta bamboo poles, and a reel without a lot of filament. It worked though. The fish were so dumb. There were so many of them.
You never skateboarded then?
They hadn’t invented the thing.
I want to talk about WWII food.
Everything was on ration.
Liver and onions was a staple?
Yeah. There was wild spinach that grows on the cliffs in Laguna and that stuff was good. You wouldn’t think a kid would like spinach. I really got into it. During World War II, I’d get my food from the water.
When did you first surf on a board?
I was 14 years old at Doheny on a 90-pound plank.
Why didn’t you start surfing before that?
I was young. With a 90-pound surfboard, you needed two people to carry it to the water, and I had to get my dad to take me there, although you could get a driver’s license during the second World War when you were fourteen. I got my license when I was 15.
So you owned your first board…
Yeah, it was a Pacific Systems surfboard. Brand new they were $55. I got mine used for $35.
They were making boards in the ’30s. In ’32 they did the swastikas.
Before that they had to glue their own up.
David Simmons bought my Peterson board used at the Pacific Homes factory. That was the first surf shop, right?
Where did you go to high school?
I spent the last two years of high school at John Muir in Pasadena. It was a combination school with the last two years of high school and the first two years of junior college. That was one of the first schools that initiated that system in California.
Did you get into any mischief?
No, I was a loner. I didn’t hang around other kids.
[Laughs.] Who did you go to the prom with?
[Laughs.] It was a girl named Emily. Wait. Did I go to the prom?
Was Emily hot?
What was your first car?
It was the last Model A series. It was a ’31, which I converted into a surf wagon.
When you changed your car into a surf wagon, how did you do that?
I put a single seat in it and made a bed next to it and put racks on top.
[Laughs.] Who did you surf with then?
The older guys. I was really young. It was all the guys you’ve heard of.
They were all senior to me. Then, of course, Mickey Dora came around. They called him Chapin at that time. I surfed with him quite a bit because we were the same age. We had something in common. I was never down with other kids my age from Laguna.
Did the older guys beat up on you?
No, it wasn’t that way. There was no animosity at all.
Did you ever ride a hollow?
One of my friends did. They were horrible things.
What did they call them?
Then he put a fin on it because other guys were putting fins on them. Then he sawed off the tail because they said it worked better if it had a squaretail, but that didn’t work any better.
You were a lifeguard, too?
Yeah, in Emerald Bay and Laguna.
How old were you then?
16, 17, 18, 19.
Were chicks the priority then?
[Laughs.] Um, well…
What percentage of the time were you watching the water as opposed to watching chicks?
[Laughs.] That’s really hard to answer. When the surf is big, you have a responsibility. When it isn’t, there’s nothing to do.
Did you have any memorable saves?
Yeah, there were a couple of idiots. I had to go out and get them around the rips and teach them things. What we really tried to do was close the beach when it got serious. We would try to keep people from going in.
Did you ever have a scary one?
Yeah, when they washed over the rocks you had to let them go. They were too far gone. That was very rare.
Did you have the round rope and a lifesaver?
No, we used those tubes.
Who was the first person you ever saw walk the nose?
Was it on a plank?
No. No one did that back then. With those planks, the only thing you could do was try to control them off the tail.
So Hobie had a surf shop.
Yeah, the shop was on the P.C., and it’s still there.
Who did you hang with down there?
I hung out with Phil, Hobie and Patterson, a lot. Joey Cabell and I surfed a lot together. Those were the guys that surfed pretty hardcore around there.
When you were working for Hobie, were you sanding or glassing?
I was doing fiber glassing. Bobby Patterson, unreliable Hawaiian, wouldn’t show up sometimes. Hobie did exactly six boards a week from raw wood to finished product. He delivered on Saturday morning, usually. He’d start out on Monday, gluing the blanks on his press, and he’d probably have that all done in one day. Then he went to the routers with a kind of crude router system, top and bottom. He turned the rails, on Wednesdays. Phil Edwards would come in after school and do rough sanding. He’d sand them all. They were pretty rough. I would get them Thursday morning. I had to do the glassing and have them done by Saturday morning. I had two days. I was still glassing on Saturday a lot of times.
You were young and skinny.
Yeah, and it was crude glassing.
You’ve been in the surfboard trade since the early ’50s?
I didn’t make any money at it for several years. Working for Hobie was my first introduction to production surfboards.
When did you meet Velzy?
I saw him surfing at San Onofre or the Trestles before he moved to San Clemente.
Did you surf with him?
Yeah. Someone said, ‘That’s Dale Velzy.’ At that time, I was like, ‘So what?’ Dale came to San Clemente in November ’57. I’d been working for Hobie, and Dale needed somebody to glass boards down there. I was parting ways with Hobie at the time, so I went down there and talked with him. We rented a little room in a two-car garage on the street below what’s now the industrial section, and we set up a glass operation. That was in early ’58.
When did you start liking music?
I sort of had an ear for it when I was really young. I liked big band and swing music.
You started dancing as a teenager?
You once told Kevin Ancell and I that you could have gotten serious about dancing.
That’s because I was stuck in Pasadena. I’d go to the Pasadena Philharmonic and those kinds of things. You couldn’t get to the beach, so you had to do something else.
Dancing is cool. Zoot suit time.
Well, a zoot suit was a person that was really dedicated to that kind of stuff. They were the rappers of that time.
What do you like better wine or beer?
Beer when it’s hot and wine when it’s cold.
You had a little crush on that singer June Christy?
June Christy was good. I didn’t have a crush on her. I just thought she was good singer.
If Bob Cooper wouldn’t have married her, you wouldn’t?
Well, mainly, I was interested in Kenton’s band and June was the lead singer. She was always at the Rendezvous Ballroom.
Would you be standing there eyeballing her or would you be dancing?
I was back and forth. The place was just packed.
The Rendezvous was cool. I went there, too, later. It was a neat place.
What year did you go?
Who was playing there then?
Dick Dale and The Surftones. That was right when surf music started.
I never went there then. I just didn’t like the music that much.
Well, Bruce Brown did.
Bruce used a lot of surf music in his movies.
When did you meet Sally?
1953. She was going to S.C.
She was a socialite, huh?
She was going to Laguna like all the girls did then.
Was it like Lady and the Tramp?
[Laughs.] You might say.
When you came to Santa Barbara in ’59, you made some boards.
I saturated the town with six boards.
Then there was nothing.
That was it.
You had to go fishing.
Actually, I went fishing first. The secondary thing was the surfboard thing. I didn’t have anything to do in the summer, so I had to resort back to my talent of shaping boards.
The surf populace was so thin.
There were so few here. There were two guys at the college, and the rest were kids in town. Tom Roland was the shaper of Santa Barbara before me and I don’t think he made six boards the whole time he was shaping.
Was he making planks?
No, they were wood boards of the late ’50s era.
Yeah, just like Hobie’s and Velzy’s.
When was your first logo board?
That was in 1960 up here in Santa Barbara. I silk-screened the logo directly to the board instead of making a laminate.
Where are the best waves?
I would say Honolua Bay.
I started going there in ’62.
How many guys were out?
I had one whole day by myself. The next day I went, there was a Chinese guy out. He came down and paddled out. I was like, ‘Do you live here?’ He says, ‘Yeah, I’m the only surfer on the island. I’m the resident surfer.’ I rode the North Shore and all that, but the Bay is really neat. Of course, I barely survive Rincon at it’s best. I rode what they call Scorpion Bay awful good.
You’re credited with riding the biggest wave ever recorded at Rincon.
I don’t know about that.
It’s just the way the picture was taken.
How many waves did you get that day?
If you got six waves that whole day it was a big deal. Getting out and dealing with it was tough.
You’d ride down to the call box?
You’d try to pull out and get over the next wave. If that didn’t work out, you just had to straighten it out and get in. Then you had to go all the way back out to the Indicator rocks on the point and try to get back out again. You just didn’t make it lots of times. You’d get washed past the river mouth. Once you got into that zone, forget it. You were not going to make it. You just had to come in and start over again. Lots of times when it’s that big, there’s not enough of a gap between the sets.
How many guys were out?
Maybe a dozen, at the most.
Rincon at that big is a different wave.
Rincon at low tide, you’ll get your head taken off, right?
What’s your worst wipe out?
I don’t know. My board hit me when I was trying to make it through the bowl from the Point at Makaha. At the bottom of the boil, the board hit me in the ankle of all places. That finished me off for the trip. I was over there with Severson doing ‘Big Wednesday.’ I just sat and watched Waimea.
No near drownings?
I got hit in the head at Malibu. I dug a rail on a one-foot wave, and went off on the inside. I tried not to go underwater very far because I’d hit the bottom. The board just slid across and nailed me right in the back of the head. I had to get half a dozen stitches. I had to run a few blocks down to the county building and they stitched me up.