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Boardmaker Rivalry takes the industry to new heights

By Matt Warshaw

A rudimentary form of surfboard retailing began in 1949, when longtime Southern California surfer and board maker Dale Velzy opened a small factory storefront in Manhattan Beach. His operation took off five years later, when he opened a larger store in Venice Beach, with fellow shaper Hap Jacobs, and they introduced the ever popular Velzy-Jacobs ‘pig’ model.

Velzy quickly had competition from a 21-year-old boardmaker from Laguna Beach named Hobie Alter, who was as sober and organized as Velzy was flamboyant and impulsive.

Alter was the son of a successful and politically well-connected orange farmer, and he didn’t start surfing until he was 16. the summer of that year he was making and selling his first plank, and a few months later he was taking personalized orders from friends and diligently plowing balsa in the family garage.

Alter built 80 boards in his first three years as a shaper, nothing close to Velzy’s numbers, but far more than any other boardmaker in Orange County. Not only were the boards well designed – even at this early stage, before Alter offered a sticker, before he even signed his work – they were reasonably priced at $ 45 and always delivered on time, unlike the typical work of Velzy-Jacobs. .

In 1954, after two or three discreet surveillance visits to Velzy’s store and with a gift of $ 1,000 from his father, Alter purchased a dilapidated vacant lot in an unincorporated “shopping district” in Dana Point. / Pacific Coast Highway which only had two other stores.

Alter then built an L-shaped building, with a small but bright retail space and a windowless cement-walled factory attached to the back. He had been the local boardmaker of choice for about a year, and his new business, Hobie Surfboards, was in the dark when it opened.

The factory was designed to make six boards a week, and that was almost exactly the rate of production: 1,500 Hobie boards sold in total between 1954 and early 1958, at a time when the total number of surfers in California was no longer there. hardly more than 5,000.

Almost all of the planks had a see-through fiberglass finish (like Velzy’s), which allowed the wood grain to show off beautifully, and Alter has now ink-inked a small “Hobie” logo on the near deck. of the tail. The boards had to be neat, because there was hardly anything else in the showroom: no beachwear, no posters, no coveralls; not even decals or surf wax.

Velzy came down from Los Angeles in 1955 to open a new outlet in San Clemente, on the Pacific Coast Highway, just five miles south of the Hobie’s store, for the express purpose of siphoning off potential customers from San Diego.

And so began the rivalry of the first great American boardmaker. Customers have lined up behind one or the other, Hobie or Velzy, pledging allegiance not just to a brand but to some form of surf leadership.

Alter was serious and respectable, and his shop was as clean as Alter himself was. Velzy smoked cigars, wore a diamond ring, and kept a roll of hundred dollar bills in his back pocket.

In 1957, to celebrate a significant sales year, Velzy paid cash for a Mercedes 300SL. Stopping outside his San Clemente store, he opened the driver’s side butterfly door and walked towards the factory, jingling his keys in one hand and holding a half pint of bourbon in the other.

Their selling styles also differed. In a bit of ad copy, Alter described his advice as having “evolved through careful and original changes, using proven principles and extensive experience.”

Velzy, as even his most staunch supporters would admit, was a con artist. But a sweet and sympathetic con artist. He approached a divorced woman in a mink coat who was looking to buy a board for her teenage son, touched her elbow, leaned over, lowered her voice and said: Madame.

True to form, Velzy was not only bad at accounting, but spectacularly bad, as he ignored creditors, snubbed the IRS, and threw out all notices and warnings. Then, in the late 1960s, his entire operation on the continent, five outlets in all, collapsed overnight.

Velzy recalled that federal agents “were hitting all the stores at the same time and padlocking the doors.” Showroom panels, tools and machinery, his beloved gull-winged Mercedes; everything was confiscated and put up for auction.

Local surfers, meanwhile, “smashed windows (in stores), walked in and took decals, sharpeners, blanks, posters, whatever they could get their hands on.” . Velzy would revert to making commercial boards, but he was never a pivot again.

The Velzy Surfboards collapse was a sensation in the surfing world, but it didn’t cause any disruption in the supply line, thanks in part to Alter.

Hobie Surfboards had by then become the undisputed leader of the sports industry. Alter’s books were in pristine condition which helped. More importantly, where Velzy had style and manual skills, Alter had vision.

The sport developed a lot in Alter’s first three years as a manufacturer of commercial boards, but nothing to do with what was to come, he believed. Building surfboards by the hundreds instead of the tens was the goal, and to that end, Alter helped design a project that would change boards, literally, from the inside out.

This column is an extract from the “Encyclopedia of surfing”. Writer Matt Warshaw is a prominent surfing historian, former editor of SURFER magazine and author of “Encyclopedia of Surfing” as well as “The History of Surfing”. To find out more about how you can help support his work, visit eos.surf/donate.

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