On the road in "Sharemerica": Deep in the curl of San Diego surf culture
Editor’s note: Local photographer Bryan McCormick recently left Las Vegas on an open-ended journey into the nation’s “sharing culture,” which he plans to document in words, pictures and a variety of other media, along with the places he visits. These are the ongoing chronicles of his adventures. In this installment, Bryan makes delves into San Diego's surfing culture — specifically the community of board-makers and shapers.
“David Eggers actually was one of the best surfers that the industry has ever produced. … He had a God-given talent for surfing. … He could have been multiple world champion if he’d had a better support group."
For regular readers, this was the unexpected connection I had previously alluded to between Salton City, California (my first stop on this journey) and San Diego surfing culture. Captain Jim’s, in Salton City, had been David’s father’s bar, and he had headed out to help him run it after his all-too-brief surfing career was cut short by drugs and alcohol. He had died at age 45, clean and sober, just a couple of weeks before I got to Salton. This was how my conversation with board-maker Tim Bessell began. Lamentably, there tends to be a high correlation between thrill-seeking in surfing and thrill-seeking in darker corners of society. The huge amount of money showered on sponsored youth, notably at the height of 1980s drug culture, could all too easily go wrong.
When I walked in to Tim Bessell's shop, that wasn’t how I expected the conversation to start. But addiction and mortality are important themes in Tim’s work. I should mention that Tim does not confine himself solely to designing and shaping surfboards. He has a body of work as a fine artist — the shop is half fine art and half boards, with a line that sometimes blurs.
Tim was incredibly generous with his time. I hadn’t pre-arranged an interview, and this was now the week before Christmas 2015. He was just a little busy getting orders out the door before he shut down for vacation. By sheer luck, he had a half-hour to spare.
Tim began as a shaper at age 13 and has by his estimate made something like 48,000 — you read that correctly — surfboards over his career. In his teens he made surfboards from scratch, shaping, glassing and sanding in his parents’ garage in North County. He got a job at 15 with Sunset Surfboards in Encinitas. He took over for Kenneth “Kenny” Mann, a legendary sander (who died last November while surfing at Swamis). Tim worked until 18, before going to school to study psychology, art and architecture. In his senior year, he left and decided to start Bessell Surfboards. His dream was to be one of the top board manufactures in the world, and by the 1980s he was. In the recession in the early 1990s, as the business shrank from 100 boards a week down to a trickle, he began a surf clothing line that was very successful for five years. He eventually went back to making surfboards. Three years ago, he obtained a license for Andy Warhol images on surfboards, which he said is the best thing that ever happened to his business. The boards he makes, all shaped by Tim and finished by hand, are more art objects than the utilitarian board you might see strapped on top of a car. Prices are in the very high single-digit thousands.
The flooding of the global market with cheap boards made in China seriously hurt the domestic industry starting, around the late 1990s. At one time, U.S. makers were globally dominant. Today, there is no way a regular board can be made end-to-end in the U.S. and compete on price. Tim wasn’t bitter about that; it was a shift that required adaptation. But it did drastically alter the landscape for not just himself but everyone else. And that means something important — fewer craftspeople are employed and trained. Many shops gave up on boards and shifted to accessories and clothing lines.
Tim has gone from employing five shapers down to having one shaping room, in which he mostly does the work himself every day. However the design of the boards, its hydrodynamics, along with custom fin design, is another area where U.S. makers still have an edge. They have shifted from mass manufacture at scale to small bespoke focus. In Tim’s case the graphic design of the board as well as its surfing characteristics mean a big edge. How many of those boards are surfed on versus displayed as wall art is an unknown.
Estimates put the number of active surfers globally at around 17 million, with Brazil, the United States, Europe, Japan (a big market for Tim) and Australia the largest markets. The top 500 Instagram accounts by followers contain more than a few surfers.
One area that all of the makers are now into is green materials. Toxic foams were once common, and the resins and dyes were hardly eco-friendly. Broken boards are commonplace in the surf, and at 17 million surfers that is a lot of potential for ecological damage. Surfers at heart become ecologists. Without clean water and beaches, the $10 billion a year industry would vanish. It’s pragmatic, but also clear that there is a love there and respect for the environment. In a way, surfing honors the waves that are surfed.
If you want to see something pretty close to a religious experience for surfers, stop in at Bird’s Surf Shed near Mission Bay in San Diego. If there is a single hub to the surfing world in San Diego, this is it. As you can see from the image here, the boundary between commerce and art blurs. There is a story, as Eric “Bird" Huffman said to me, for each of the boards and why and where they are placed. At much more than a thousand in this one spot, that’s a lot of story.
Skip Frye and Alana Nichols. Skip is a legend in the surfing world, with more than 50 years of making, shaping, surfing and activism. Alana is a multiple-gold world adaptive sport champion in not one but three categories. Legends happening into the shop are a daily routine at Bird's Surf Shed.
A detail from Tim Bessell's shaping room.
A few of Tim's boards up on display.
Skip Frye checks out the board Robin Prodanovich is delivering to his customer, designed specifically for use at Black's Beach.
Tim Bessell works his magic.