Think Tank Five provocative surfers on the art and science of wave riding.
This TSJ e-Book, Vol. 1.1, is made possible by the generous support of:
Five provocative surfers on the art and science of wave riding.
Carl Ekstrom. Photo: Jeff Divine
JOURNAL ORIGINALS - COLLECTION NO. 1 / THINK TANK
CONTENTS 5 Think Tank: Introduction By Scott Hulet 6 Bazooka Tom Morey Fires Back into the Past, Forward into the Future 14 Ghost Dance By C.R. Stecyk III 22 Derek Hynd: Bottling the Moment An Interview by Andrew Kidman 46 Prototype Carl Ekstrom and Patent Number 3337886 By Chris Ahrens 60 The Inventing of Stanley Pleskunas By Chris Ahrens Photography by Mark Gordon
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ince Volume 1, Issue 1, The Surfer’s Journal has explored the farthest frontiers of the experience. Along with pioneering travel, surprising profiles, and vivid history, our readers have become intimate with our most Avant Garde tribal members. All of them are lifelong wave riders. While we surely appreciate virtuoso surfing performances from the world’s best, we give equal credence to the creatively gifted. This first stab at pure digital delivery is a gift to you, the subscriber. Culled from our rather vast archive (available, as you might already know, as part of your suite of subscriber benefits), this first TSJ E-Book spotlights some fellows that only the surfing life could have possibly birthed. Our realm is rife with artists, designers, thinkers, and inventors. The five gathered here are beyond emblematic—they’re archetypal. When TSJ launched 20 years back, Tom Morey was on the short list for inclusion in the premier issue. You could call him a blend of Bucky Fuller, N.G. Herreshoff, and Max Roach (Tom’s an accomplished jazz drummer), but that would be a disservice. Morey is a one-off. One of the very best at Malibu when that really meant something, Tom managed to pair beach life with academia, earning an engineering degree from USC. Surf inventions and provocative board designs ensued. Soon enough, the Boogie Board was unleashed on an unsuspecting public, becoming the most widespread and democratic way for the world to go surfing. The piece included in this volume—titled “Bazooka”— reads like the title, with history’s exhaust fueling forward propulsion. Morey riffs on the future of surfing, constantly returning to the benefits of non-parochial thinking and the dangers of hype. No one’s Pollyanna, Tom derides the spectacle of a modern surf contest as, “kinda like vomit or some type of fungus.” But don’t read that as bitterness on his part. He has higher goals for the surfing species: “A few people will start [surfing]…not for reputation or gain. And these precious souls will help revolutionize the thinking of man.” Craig Stecyk made his TSJ debut in the second issue, but was a decades-long colleague of publisher Steve Pezman. A fine artist, writer, and photographer, Craig’s roots trace back to Santa Monica in the 1960s, where he caroused with the likes of Dale Velzy and Miki Dora. Constantly evolving but always his own man, Stecyk thrives in the frontera between historical veracity and modern phenomena. Quite simply, he has forgotten more about surf culture than any young surf journalist could ever hope to learn. He knows where the bones are buried, and how to avoid the poison oak that guards them. In “Ghost Dance,” Stecyk investigates guerilla bicycles
suitable for Point Conception wave poaching; the nuclear realities of San Onofre; the connection between a certain Bush Oil Company and the demise of Stanley’s Dinners; the meaning of eclipse in Hawaii; Pete Peterson’s legacy, and the strange arc of Los Angeles’ notorious Samoan street gang, the Boo Yaa Tribe. Craig became a regular contributor to the Journal, and remains one of our most valued operatives. Derek Hynd germinated as a rocking schoolboy division ripper from Sydney, Australia’s arch-competitive Newport Plus surf club. Armed with a quiver from Terry Fitzgerald, he attacked the nascent IPS pro tour, burning his way into the top five. Counter-intuitively, a horrific mid-heat surfing accident claimed one of his eyeballs but sharpened his focus and resolve. He has been, by turns, a coach, a marketing director, a journalist, and a hugely experimental surfer who gets better with each passing year. Another regular Australian contributor, Andrew Kidman, spent a period of time with Derek, and knew exactly where to steer the conversation to yield a broad and riveting interview. In a look at two legendary California inventor/designers, longtime TSJ writer Chris Ahrens draws portraits of Carl Ekstrom and Stanley Pleskunas. Carl’s surf provenance is unimpeachable. Early WindanSea surfer, shaper, laminator, colorist, fin man, furniture designer, Andy Warhol’s surfboard consultant, artificial wave co-inventor, vocal proponent of asymmetrics… Ekstrom’s interests are catholic and his curiosity unquenchable. Ahrens’ catalogs his accomplishments—and hints at where he’s going—in this inside view. Stanley Pleskunas takes surfboards seriously. Hardly a household name, you won’t find him in the Encyclopedia of Surfing. Quiet and hardcore, such specious motes of fame are lost on him anyway. He is real, he is deep, and he does what he does out of self-determination and passion. His C.V. includes the invention of tubular battens for sailboards, two-into-one concave, power rasps, and surfboard-specific calipers. It’s our hope that these e-books become stand-alone documents you can store on your laptop or device before a trip. With a handful of them loaded, you’d have a wealth of intelligent, stoking brain food on hand for the inevitable down time. Enjoy this first collection.
—Scott Hulet Editor, The Surfer’s Journal
Prototype Carl Ekstrom and Patent Number 3337886 By Chris Ahrens
NOTHING IN NATURE IS PERFECTLY SYMMETRICAL.
As for manufactured items, screwdrivers and pencils are designed to be even on both sides, while golf clubs and electric guitars are not. Surfboards are almost always symmetrical, something that would make sense if surfers rode in a parallel stance and didnâ€™t put more pressure on the frontside rail than the backside rail. While surfing his home break of WindanSea in 1964, 23-year-old Carl Ekstrom realized that he liked one board better going left and another board better going right. This led to the revolutionary idea that you could have the best of both worlds by using a different outline on each side of the board. Following that revelation, he entered his shop to methodically build the first intentionally asymmetrical surfboard, which, with its
uneven tail, looked like a mistake to most surfers and shapers whose unattainable goal was perfect symmetry. By 1967 Ekstrom held patent number 3337886 on the asymmetrical surfboard, proving he was first to conceive of the new design. And, while he would sell about 500 of these surfboards (one of them going to pop artist Andy Warhol for an art show he planned in New York before getting shot), they never really caught on with the masses, leaving the boom for years later when the offshoot sports of windsurfing and snowboarding embraced the concept. They found that the majority of their market was not advanced enough to feel the difference, and that it was easier for a retailer to sell and inventory a familiar design. During snowboardingâ€™s infancy, Ekstrom was dissuaded from pursuing a patent on the asymmetrical
The meticulous design world of Carl Ekstrom, Rancho Santa Fe, 2008.
snowboard by an agent who said that snow was another form of water, and he wouldn’t be able to get that patent since he already had one for the asymmetrical surfboard. Carl still wonders at the agent’s logic. About the time that Carl began paddling out on his newly designed board, I was a 16-year-old surfer living inland. What I knew of him had come mostly through reading his name a couple of times in Surfer magazine and hearing friends mention that he made great boards. But I had never seen one of those boards up close, or met the man who built them. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in La Jolla Shores, a few friends and I walked from the sand up Calle de La Plata in search of food. On the way, we stopped at a small, tidy surf shop. As with all surf shops of that era,
there was nothing in the window except handmade surfboards, three of them, as I recall, placed horizontally in a rack. Also typical of the times, the shop was closed on Sunday, and so we pressed up against the window, viewing gloss and polish perfection; me coveting a board with a beautiful condensed foam and wooden tailblock, rubbed out all the way to the rails (something not everyone bothered with in those days) sculpted like Italian marble with the name Carl Ekstrom cleanly displayed on it. Years would pass before I fully understood that that name was the gold standard of the surfboard industry. Born in 1941, Carl had what he terms “a great family.” The youngest of four children, who, in order of age are: Jack (aka Woody), the now-deceased Bobby, and sister, Anna.
EKSTROM ARCHIVE EKSTROM ARCHIVE
Carl’s father, Oswald Ekstrom, just up the road from WindanSea, 1946.
Carl with early asymmetrical, 1965.
Thirteen-year-old Bobby Ekstrom (left) helping to look for enemy ships during World War II. Bobby was a mascot guard at Coast Guard headquarters located on the beach south of Big Rock, 1943.
Carl’s oldest brother, Woody, at La Jolla Cove, 1944.
Carl remembers his childhood fondly. One memory he would rather forget, however, is of stepping on a line of brass nails attached to a brass strip, waiting to be fixed to the nose of the redwood plank that Woody was repairing in theEkstrom family backyard a block away from WindanSea on Gravilla Street. He was four years old at the time. Having been mentored by his father, Oswald, who was so skilled a painter he could paint a car with a paintbrush with no visible brush strokes; his older brothers; Peter Parkins, who first built and rode skateboards in the late ’40s; early foam pioneers John Blankenship and Don Okey; big-wave legend and master craftsman Pat Curren; “Pal” Al Nelson, Buzzy Bent, the Hawaiianborn Patterson brothers, and Dale Velzy, Carl became a respected board builder before leaving his teens. Always one to help a friend, Carl would in turn influence shapers throughout the world and surfers like the original Mister Pipeline, Butch Van Artsdalen, whom Carl rescued from a lucrative professional baseball career by paddling him out for the first time in 1955. Woody, who is 13 years older than Carl, was one of the best surfers at WindanSea during the ’40s and ’50s,
often venturing a few blocks south to surf high-tide Big Rock, or north to the big-wave spot, La Jolla Cove. While riding a huge swell in the mid-’40s, Woody lost his board and found himself stuck in a rocky cauldron called “The Hole,” where he ducked wave after massive wave before they crashed on the rocks and blew spray 30 feet into the air. In the past, Woody’s peers had retrieved lighter boards from the surf by using pole spears to fish them out. Even if they could heist the heavy plank from the water with a spear, there was not a splinter worth saving, and it was Woody who now needed help to shore. He was in a fight for his life when he noticed some steps in the cliff that fishermen had carved there years earlier. Between sets, he struggled up the slick stairs, massive plumes of whitewater chasing him all the way. When he finally got home his mother was upset with him, having heard that her oldest boy had died in the ocean that day. As with all of the Ekstroms, Woody was adventurous and may have been the first person to attempt kite surfing when he was pulled through the water on his wooden plank, tethered to an eight-foot box kite, made for just that purpose. The kite experiment was a failure, apparently,
Carl leaning on the rail, proving his design, 1971.
Woody at WindanSea, 1946.
Carl in his La Jolla surf shop, 1970.
My brothers were funny, funny guys. There were times we couldn’t even finish our dinner; I mean, it was really something else. Some people say Bob was the funniest person that they ever met. There was this zany sense of humor, crazy but really interesting. and according to Carl, “Woody was dragged through the water to shore, leaving his board behind to save his friend’s kite.” In an era when 40-year-old business people fly in from Kansas for a weekend to ride rubber boards in the soup of some mushy beachbreak, it may sound almost abusive that a seven-year-old kid was paddled out to ride tandem as Carl did at WindanSea. Perhaps worse still in the minds of the safety brigade is that by age 11, young Ekstrom was finding his way beyond the hefty WindanSea shorebreak into the lineup. Surfing was discovered, not taught, in those days, and Carl was on his own riding what he remembers as a “horrible board” infamously known as “the box,” a cut-down plank made of balsa and redwood
that weighed nearly as much as he did. Later, Ekstrom would own one of the world’s first foam surfboards, an experimental item built by John Blankenship. And so, like most before him and few afterward, he was basically left alone to learn how to surf and stay alive amid powerful waves, rip tides, and heavy locals. It was a tough apprenticeship with guys like Buzzy Bent, Don Okey, Don Russell, Jerry Robinson, John Blankenship, and Peter Parkins calling the shots. By his mid-teens, Carl had taken his place among the best surfers at WindanSea, a feat that meant he was one of the best on the California coast. While never as serious about surfing as his bookended brothers, middle brother Bobby Ekstrom, a notorious practical joker, was nonetheless a fixture at WindanSea. In 1954, a big swell was approaching WindanSea, and the Ekstrom brothers heard that Bev Morgan and his friend, the legendary Bob Simmons, were coming down to ride it. Carl clearly remembers standing on the beach after surfing with his friends that day, conversation casually drifting between him, the gifted Hawaiian Ronald Patterson, and a man who would become one of the finest board makers of all times,
Mike Diffenderfer. Suddenly Diffenderfer turned toward the ocean and said, “Hey, it looks like he’s bodysurfing,” referring to Simmons who had lost his board and was apparently gasping his final breath on earth. “When I looked up to see where Diffenderfer was looking, all I saw were lines of empty whitewater. “Later in the day, rumors circulated that Simmons had been seen surfing North Bird, but Morgan knew better, since he had looked up in the rafters of the WindanSea shack to where Simmons’ clothes were folded, just as they always were when he was surfing WindanSea. The next day the surf was so big that the rights were closed out all the way to Big Rock and beyond. Giant kelp balls had broken loose from their beds and were bobbing in the lineup, and I remember thinking that Simmons’ body could be among them. “Three days later a lady spotted Simmons near shore before his body rolled back out to sea and was lost from sight again. Later that morning Don Okey told my
I bought the lot and built our (Rancho Santa Fe) house in 1970. It was framed and I finished it from there. It has no trim. Everything is 45°. I came up with the floor plan and worked with architect Tony Ciani. I’m looking at volume and interested in things being modular. The house is all based on an eight-foot module, a grid pattern.
brother Bobby where the body would wash up, and that’s where they saw it, visible through the waves on the inside lefts at WindanSea. Lifeguard Knox Harris dove in to get Simmons, but the body washed over him and onto the beach. Somebody yelled, ‘Grab him,’ and it was my brother Bobby who grabbed and held on to keep him from washing back out to sea. He said his fingers felt sticky, like touching masking tape, for a long time after that.”
Ekstrom home and studio, Rancho Santa Fe, California.
FROM THE VERY FIRST, PAT CURREN WAS A LEADER
at WindanSea. Known for his big-wave surfing, enviable lifestyle, and unique ability as a board maker, Curren was a heroic figure who could do anything, including making the world’s best big-wave guns, spear fish, and sail boats, and living on next to nothing. He had been among the first Californians to surf the North Shore of Oahu and always took the biggest sets from the deepest position at the newly ridden Waimea Bay. As a craftsman, Curren was respected by surfers who knew his name, which was most of them during the 1950s. Still, even he could learn a few lessons from the Ekstrom clan. Recently, I overheard Curren telling his lifelong friend Carl, “I remember being in your garage about to gloss a board when your dad came in, asked to see the brush, and did the best gloss job we had ever seen.” To this day, Pat trusts few people other than Carl to glass the most coveted big-wave guns in the world. Curren and his sometimes partner, Al Nelson, with whom he shared a reputation for having the most fun and
Fresh asymmetrical boards in his living room.
making the best boards, took on a worthy apprentice in the then teenaged Carl Ekstrom. “They really liked me because I would tell them not to do too much work on the boards so I could finish them off myself. This gave me more experience and them more time to spend in Mexico,” says Ekstrom with a grin, before the self-depreciating laugh he applies to end such revelatory sentences. By the early ’60s, Curren had outgrown the waves in Southern California and was on his way back to the Islands. First, however, he would raffle off all of his things, including an old car won by Peter Parkins and a bicycle with two front wheels and no back wheel that Carl won for the price of a ticket. With Curren leaving such a vacancy, Al Nelson stepped in to fill the gap and was eventually joined by Carl under the banner Nelson/Ekstrom. Both Nelson and Ekstrom shaped, and Ekstrom did most of the glassing. “In the early days, Nelson would sometimes sell an old car and a board together, which he called a ‘package deal.’
U.S. Patent for Ekstrom asymmetrical surfboard, 1967.
‘Pal Al, the workingman’s friend,’ he was called. Al would glue up a wooden blank and begin shaping it in someone’s garage until the owner came in, wondering what he was doing there. ‘Oh, Ed said it would be okay,’ he would reply, continuing to shape with no idea of who Ed was. Al had been raised in China and he didn’t think like the rest of us, and sometimes he considered our thinking flawed,” recalls Carl, trying not to choke as he laughs at memories of Nelson driving a car with a completely flat tire. “‘Most people think when you get a flat it means you should stop, when in reality it only means that you have a flat tire.’ I once thought the fillings were going to fall out of my teeth,” remembers Carl with a hard laugh. Along with Curren and a handful of others from La Jolla, including Wayne Land, Billy Graham, Bobby Burns, Rick Naish, Dean Perry, Al Thomas, Butch Van Artsdalen, Ricky Grigg, George Lanning, David Cheney, and Bob Wineteer, Nelson had helped pioneer some of the North Shore’s biggest surf in the late ’50s. Like Curren,
Richard Kenvin on a 7'0" Ekstrom asymmetrical. WindanSea, 2008.
Richard Kenvin is a powerhouse surfer, and he rides all kinds of surfboards so you get a pretty good test. He told me he’d never find those unique (riding) characteristics in a symmetrical board. It rides like an egg backside and a fish frontside. Nelson’s adventurous spirit would soon get the best of him. When it did, Nelson sold out to Ekstrom and the company became, simply, Carl Ekstrom Surfboards. Never desiring to be a large surfboard manufacturer like Gordon & Smith, who dominated much of the industry in San Diego, Ekstrom aimed for no more than ten boards a week and a “start-to-finish hands-on approach.” He owned and operated the company from 1965 until 1970, with numerous designs to his credit by that time. Over the years, WindanSea bred more than its share of characters with legends like Woody Brown and
Model of asymmetrical longboard with canted center fin, 2006.
Bob Simmons enriching their reputations there during Carl’s youth. As he came into his own, a new group would push the surfing world further both in and out of the water, gaining notoriety for hilarious pranks, hard living, and dominating waves of all sizes. While Butch Van Artsdalen and Mike Hynson became the best known from WindanSea, the Patterson brothers made an equally big impact with those who knew them and saw them surf. Bobby was considered the best of them. In the late ’50s, an argument arose between the surf crews from Oceanside and La Jolla. WindanSea’s champion was Bobby “The Flea” Patterson (so small of stature and light on his feet that the board didn’t know he was there), while Oceanside backed the “Guayule Kid” Phil Edwards. Carl was greatly influenced by both: Patterson’s radically smooth style and Edwards’ stylishly powerful elegance. With no formal surf contests in existence to settle the score, the WindanSea guys would haul Bobby up to Carlsbad to do battle with Phil at
Guayule (a Carlsbad break now called Terra Mar). Carl, who never did witness those duels, had seen them both ride WindanSea during their primes and had this to say about comparing the two: “Phil would set something up and then do a move you’d never seen before. He could push through eight feet of soup and make it out of positions that seemed impossible. As for Bobby, I recall him riding a round, little board that everyone called “the egg.” His turns were as fast or faster than anyone’s, and I had never seen surfing like that before.”
BACK IN THE LATE 1950S, THE SURFBOARD MARKET was somewhat saturated in La Jolla, and Nelson introduced Carl to Dale Velzy, who by then had opened his Velzy & Jacobs shop in San Clemente. Carl was invited to join the crew that Dale had gathered to mow the popular balsa pig boards. As is his habit, Ekstrom gave Velzy his best work, which was probably unnecessarily good for that period’s “production” shaping. While Dale appreciated
Prototype work in process.
Carl’s eye for perfection, the 17-year-old had to quit working there because he had been taken to jail once for underage drinking and once for curfew. Decades later, when Velzy needed a classic balsa board repaired that was considered unfixable, he turned to Ekstrom, who took his time, testing different methods before he had insured that nobody would ever know the board had been dinged. “You’re a perfectionist, which makes you too good and too slow,” Velzy kidded Ekstrom, three years before his death. By the early 1960s, everybody was “going surfin’” and the center of the California surfboard industry was Hermosa Beach. Carl often rode his bicycle the 100-plus miles from La Jolla to Santa Monica Bay, where he found work as a shaper with Con and later Jacobs Surfboards. Other shapers like Nelson and the flamboyant George Lanning also worked in the South Bay, along with the Patterson brothers who had relocated from La Jolla to Dana Point and were now world-famous for their glassing skills. Being somewhat nomadic in those days, the La Jolla crew found themselves floating between WindanSea, the North Shore of Oahu, and Con, Bing, Jacobs, and Rick Surfboards. Ekstrom, who is one of surfing’s great
storytellers, has gathered some of his best material from that South Bay period, but insists on keeping it out of print “to protect the guilty.” In 1967, “the shortboard revolution” had hit the surfing world like Mao’s Cultural Revolution, causing quantum change while destroying history in its wake. As many traditional surfboard brands went out of business, held fire sales, or recycled some of the most beautiful foam boards ever built by cutting them down and reshaping them, Ekstrom was ready for the change. Without a logjam of “obsolete” inventory, Carl was able to bend with the times, building shorter boards, which he preferred anyway, and finding favor with surfers who wanted to turn harder and ride closer to the curl. The brain trust that rode Ekstrom’s shortboards include area luminaries Dickie Moon, Bob and Bill Andrews, Jon Close, Jerry Lund, Rusty Priesendorfer, Kurt Ledterman, and Henry Hester. Carl, who continues to suffer from combining brutal honesty with great integrity, no doubt lost work for saying exactly what he thought. “People would ask me to build them vee bottoms [while Carl knew that the extreme vees, which were the rage from Australia, spun out]. I would
Carl’s self-designed light racks make for a portable shaping room artful in its simplicity.
My shaping space is something I can knock down and put against the wall. The PVC pipe frame and 8' neon lights are from Home Depot. It’s like a big erector set. I can raise or lower them. A shaping room is all about the light. tell them, ‘If I make you one, you’ll hate me in six months.’” It wasn’t so much economics but divided interests that caused Carl to close up shop in 1970. Within a few years you could not find the Ekstrom name on any new board. As for his own surfing, he was forced into smaller and smaller corners until he finally quit entirely. According to Tom Ortner, one of WindanSea’s most respected riders since the mid-1970s, “Carl was one of the best at WindanSea, but the crowds drove him from the outside to the inside (Right Hooker), then just to the north at Simmons’, and, finally, it became crowded too.” He rode his final wave in 1989. Always one to embrace change, Ekstrom moved his shaping room to Mike Eaton’s shop in San Diego, where the two longtime friends enjoyed comparing design notes
for a couple of years and even got some work done. While concave noseriders, pintails, twin fins, and eggs were being shaped and occasionally glassed by Ekstrom, his concept of a radically asymmetrical surfboard remained on his mind, and for other shapers as well. Over the years, Gary Linden, Gary McNabb, Tim Bessell, Al Merrick, Greg Sauritch, and Rusty Priesendorfer would dabble in asymmetry. Still, nobody worked the design out to its logical conclusion, which would involve not only a more radical outline, but also a new bottom design and fin placement. One of the best examples of asymmetry over the years was a twin-fin ridden by former world champion Peter Townend in the mid-’80s. By the late 1980s, longtime WindanSea surfer Tom Lochtefeld had envisioned the FlowRider, a standing wave similar to one formed when a river flows over a rock. Having known of Ekstrom’s innovative design brilliance since his adolescence, Tom asked Carl to model the first machines, something that required his unique combinations of visualization, engineering skills, patience, and a craftsman’s hands. Ekstrom worked with Tom for 12 years, occasionally involving his close friends Buzzy Sipes
Carl in Elva Porsche racecar with fiberglass body he reconstructed, 1987.
Shoe framework developed by Ekstrom, 2006.
and Stan Pleskunas to help with the complicated building and design of the machines. Eventually, Ekstrom moved on to pursue other projects. It was during this period of intensive wave and surfboard focus that Ekstrom’s asymmetrical designs resurfaced once again, this time being tested by top snowboarders, skateboarders, skimboarders, and surfers, including Kelly Slater.
Carl Ekstrom resides in one of the West Coast’s most exclusive zip codes, Rancho Santa Fe, not because of great wealth, but because he had the foresight to buy the property and construct the post-and-beam-styled home in 1970 when land and lumber were cheap. Surrounded by 3.5 acres of eucalyptus trees, Ekstrom’s shop reeks of thoughtful spare design. The place is somewhat isolated, and if anyone pulls into the narrow, tree-lined driveway, it’s for a reason. Scattered about the interior of his workspace are some of the fruits of his labors. Carbon
fiber clogs designed for Dansco sit on a table alongside a helmet for the Army. His resume includes development work for Disneyland, original furniture designs, and, of course, asymmetrical surfboards. The tiny plastic surfer, who he’s employed for years as his favorite wave-pool test pilot, stiffly awaits his next go out. There are few distractions in Ekstrom’s world, and he likes to keep it that way. To that end, he does not own a cell phone and has never used a computer. “Although I think computers are great tools, I prefer hands-on modeling because of the tactile experience,” he explains. The Ekstrom front room features a dining room table, six chairs, a couch, a chair, and five asymmetrical boards. The only conventional foam/glass boards in sight are a scale-model asymmetrical and a 7'10" that he built for himself and then loaned to Dickie Moon who immediately offered to buy it for more than market value. Augmenting the front room decor are three tiny radical asymmetricals built for the FlowRider out of soft materials and PVC,
MICHAEL ARTHUR DIVINE
Ekstrom’s Tambour chair model made of aluminum, foam, and fabric, 1977.
Ekstrom’s river model for water park, 2007.
I’m a form follows function guy. If things are functional they’ll actually have their own kind of beauty. I’m trying to keep things as simple as I can and end up with just the key elements. a copy of the check Andy Warhol wrote for two boards, and photos of friends that never quite get hung on the walls. Carl lives quietly without children or pets, in that eccentrically-sparse, highly-designed environment with his doting wife of eight years, Denise, who seems to understand that she has chosen a life with a driven inventor genius who needs to spend much of his life in his shop. I met Carl in 1983 when we worked a surf contest together run by La Jolla native Eric Shelky. Since then, I have spent a decade trying to convince surf entrepreneurs to team up with Ekstrom to develop and market his new products. The first one to do this will change the surfing world and make a fortune.
Carl loves friends and dining in restaurants. When Al Nelson runs into him at La Especial in Leucadia, Carl remarks, “What are the chances?” To which Nelson replies, “Of finding you in a restaurant? I’d say about 50-50.” During the meal, Ekstrom will bend the conversation to whatever interests you: politics, architecture, waves, and/or new ways of riding them. I prefer new ideas for surfboards and wave making. When not on those topics, he defaults to one of his endless amusing stories. His store of them is so full that I once based an entire published volume [Joyrides] on the tales he told me during one long car ride. Regardless of where the conversation drifts, however, it inevitably returns to the concept of asymmetry. It was about two years ago that I began feeling dissatisfied with the fish and its stiff backside turn, which some claim has been cured by using four fins. Suddenly asymmetry made great sense to me, and I could see the advantage of a fish with a split rocker. Although he never showed it, I think Ekstrom was becoming annoyed with
Cutting an asymmetrical plan shape on his second board in 20 years, 2008.
my pestering about building a better fish, as week after week over lunch, which for him almost always consisted of huevos rancheros, I would relate how fish have great drive frontside but are too stiff backside. My other board, an egg, has little drive frontside and an easy backside turn. He understands what I’m getting at and begins to draw the solution on a napkin as we speak. Again, I suggest an increase in rocker in the backside rail, which he has, no doubt, already factored in. When a break in his frantic work schedule suddenly appears, Carl researches the various fish on the market and builds a PVC scale model of an asymmetrical fish with a shorter, curvier backside rail with more kick (thank you). While the model is a work of art, his first board in 20 years proves his genius. At Scott Bass’ 2008 Sacred Craft Surfboard Exhibit, in a booth operated by his longtime friend and fellow surfboard designer Tim Bessell, Ekstrom displayed his new board, which proved a hit with the toughest crowd in the world, the craftsmen who also build surfboards by hand. A wide variety of manufacturers, from surfboards to shoes to furniture, contact Ekstrom when they need a difficult material or fabrication problem solved, or with
questions about a particular material’s suitability for a new application. His knowledge, more frequently than not, comes from hands-on experience rather than book learning. Morey Boogie inventor Tom Morey will call when in the process of designing something revolutionary. Essentially, when he has something figured out but it’s still rough around the edges, Morey will ask him to “Ekstromize it,” which translates to giving the item a superior look. Despite being so respected for his inventive presence in the surf world, Carl quickly deflects any genuflection with, “Any success I’ve had is because of talented friends and family that I trade good information with.” After building a board so perfect that it looks like it was made at the Mercedes factory, Ekstrom is seeking out the perfect fins. Bill Bahne cohort Curtis Hesselgrave has some beautiful foils, and Ekstrom is intrigued by Marlin Bacon’s bamboo fins, which are the rave at Swami’s. Before the new bamboo fins are tested, WindanSea player Richard Kenvin decides to try the new design. The surf at WindanSea is a solid six foot and the regular crew —Joe Roper, Tim Bessell, Ted Smith, the Bacerra boys, Peter Lochtefeld, Debbie Beacham, George Taylor, and
Unless I’m production shaping, I take things very slowly because I don’t want to over shape. I pull it all in and get everything good and square before I turn the rails. Once you start getting compound curves in there it’s pretty hard to go back and fix something. Jon Roseman—mix it up with a group of 20 or 30 others. The new gremmies like Griffin, who at 13 years old is already shaping fine boards, seeks and gets Ekstrom’s advice on board building before paddling out with a friend to chew on the scraps that hit Turtles or Right Hooker. Richard paddles out, catches a set wave and drives off the bottom, aiming for the top. Once there, Kenvin holds the rail for an unexpected long time before leaning into a sweeping cutback, leaving little doubt in the lineup that he is, at 47, probably still the best in the area. It isn’t all the board, of course, but when RK exits the water, he has this to say in his usual understated manner, “…I couldn’t do what I was doing on any other board. There are no flaws in this design, except that I would like to try a
shorter one.” The length problem will soon be rectified with a six-footer that is in the works. Looking at the outline of the board, Carl and I jokingly call it a fish-egg, combining the best of both boards, just as Ekstrom had envisioned four decades earlier. While it hasn’t officially earned the Ekstrom seal of approval, I christen the original offering the “Caviar Collection.” Legendary designer Allan Byrne suggests that a bottle of champagne be included with each purchase. Apparently, Carl has been successful in his goals for the new board, which are to “modify the fish design so that it has a better tendency to transition rail to rail.” While wave machines and asymmetry are what Ekstrom is best noted for, it would be an injustice if his legacy were pinned on those two items alone. While he embraces his past, he is fascinated by the future, especially when it involves new ways of riding waves. Carl has ideas for installing and controlling various types of dynamic flex as well as new thoughts for stand-ups and tow-ins. As in the past, Ekstrom Surfboards will probably never catch on with the masses. Yet, there he is, in his shop, quietly working away to his own satisfaction.
The Inventing of Stanley
A mean hand with a fly rod, Stanley practices the catch and release of striped bass in the San Luis Reservoir. On September 9, 2001, Pleskunas landed a 38 lb., 9 oz. white sea bass on the fly. The fish, caught off of Monterey, netted Pleskunas a world record.
CHRIS AHRENS PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK GORDON
hile we the people have gone from multiplier pencil boxes to wristwatches that speak seven languages, the lesser we, the we of the surfing world, have basically remained shackled to materials from the mid-1940s. Progress has been slow and not always that steady, in many cases moving in reverse as witnessed by 10', 10-ounce, single-finned noseriders, which first premiered in 1965 and reappeared some 25 years later only to be followed the next decade by 1970s-era, gloss-and-polish, single-finned eggs. At this rate, we should discover the Thruster again by 2020. Maybe we’re afraid to face the future, or maybe surfing has become more fashion than function and, like fashion, is doomed to replay itself every 20 years or so for those who weren’t there the first time. Maybe television and Play Station 2 have permanently damaged the part of the brain where new ideas are formed. Returning en masse to elliptical single-fins makes about as much sense as riding Simmons’ spoons on the North Shore in the ’60s. Nothing major has been done since the Campbell Brothers invented the Bonzer in 1973. As closely as I can recall, these were my exact thoughts as I made the final turn from Highway 156 into the Central California town of Elkhorn. That’s where my car crapped out, and I popped the hood, jiggled a few wires, and waited for the usual string of small town car guys to appear. Within 10 minutes, my Mazda B2002 pickup had bumped and jumped and was diagnosed with everything from a weak battery to acute appendicitis. And, nothing. We were stuck in Green Acres. Speed dial the Pleskunas home. Within minutes, Stan rolls up in his 1953 robin’s egg blue Studebaker pickup, the type of vehicle that street racers used to call “sleepers,” cars that faked you out with their stock appearance before shutting you down hard. Just like Stan to hide a 350-cubic-inch engine beneath the hood of something cute enough to lead the Mother Goose Parade. He wanders over, smiling, dressed in plaid hunting jacket, work Levi’s, and sports cap, looking every bit the master mechanic, which he could be if he wanted to be, and the saltwater fly fisherman, which he is. Stan, it occurs to me, is also a sleeper. Tracy and I are having a “moment” brought on by eight hours in a mini truck, torn speakers playing a single Tom Waits tape, a gutful of Gatorade and string cheese, and no transportation back to the nest. Stan greets us both with a hug and a joke about a duck before checking under the hood, a gesture that inspires
“My friend Charlie Coffee calls this the Holy Grail of shortboard design.” Here, Stanley polishes the mold that started the “Shortboard Revolution” of the mid-’60s, George Greenough’s “Veloce.” Frank. right, and Rita, left, are unimpressed by the icon’s significance.
enough confidence between us to envision pulling into his driveway within half an hour, which we do, huddled up next to the Triple-A guy, who is towing our vehicle. Scrub oak, poison oak, milk thistle, blackberry, a smattering of mobile homes, and small, Western-style wooden houses line the winding one-lane road that any decent developer envisions as six lanes of asphalt shadowed by multi-use developments named for the habitat buried beneath them. The plan: Scrape everything but one blackberry bush and name the entire complex Blackberry Hill Center. From their kitchen window, Stan and Kelly, his wife of 17 years, have an entirely different view of things. They see a tangle of ancient trees, acres of mud flat, and
the Elkhorn Lagoon, home to the greatest variety of birds anywhere on the West Coast flyway. At night they hear more than they see—crickets, owls, and bullfrogs telling stories to the stars. The rented house, which has suffered few major modifications since its christening in the early 1960s, is divided roughly 50-50 between their cozy home and Stanley’s workshop, a last outpost where men feel comfortable smoking, swearing, chewing tobacco, discussing socket wrenches and horsepower. And even though it is located a few hundred miles north of Orange County, at least a small portion of our surfing experience is determined right here. Everything from surf wax to the waves we’ll someday ride has been conceived, designed, or refined in this space.
Stan and Kelly live quietly and productively in Elkhorn along with their dogs, cats, goldfish, and, for now, dozens of barn swallows, some of who have been named by Kelly. These migratory birds frequent the Pleskunas home every spring, symbolic in a way of the houseguests who find shelter there, in or out of season. The property runs more slanted than flat, with cleared patches accommodating things like Stan’s frog pond, Kelly’s vegetable garden, and a school bus awaiting an overdue Baja trip. It reads like an old memory, a black-and-white snapshot you can no longer take south of Point Conception. Dinner is served with such hospitality that I am completely comfortable saying whatever comes to mind and grabbing seconds with bare hands, without asking. We eat heavily, drink lightly, and discuss mutual friends, the most mutual of which is Carl Ekstrom, a man admired by everyone at the table. “Morey did better than you,” says Stan, laughing. “He broke down right in the driveway, took one look around, and said, ‘I should be out of here in six or seven months.’” Stan omits repeating the response that I would bet anything he made, “That’s fine by me.” After dinner, Stan plays a 1950’s Smithsonian film about inflatable aircraft for me. He is fascinated by the idea of blowand-go machinery, and after expounding upon its many practical uses, injects a few ideas of his own: a car that winds up like a kid’s toy and runs without fuel, a dolphin suit that would enable a person to ride beneath the waves, portable surfing reefs, tanglefree lobster traps. Some ideas seem to germinate spontaneously, maturing as he speaks, leaving little doubt that I am in the presence of a thinker, quite possibly, and I know he’ll be uncomfortable with the term, a genius. The evening ends as it began, with laughter and the promise of an ocean fly fishing trip with Stan’s buddy Dave the next morning. The new moon dimly lights up the slope leading to and including the lagoon. There is no “look at that waterfall” type of splendor here, but dirt-lot back street openness, a workingman’s paradise that revitalizes the lungs, the heart, and the imagination. But wasn’t Southern California invented to remove us from such harsh elements? Isn’t progress supposed to arrive with streetlights, stoplights, trimmed hedges, and SUV’s? Doesn’t human comfort come at a cost to all other species? Not in Stanley’s world, a place that leaves a sky full of stars, an ocean full of fish, and people with advanced, non-polluting toys and machinery to make the best of them. The next morning on Dave’s boat, Stan exhibits his mastery of fly fishing, something that recently yielded him a world-record 38-pound, nine-ounce white sea bass caught on 16-pound line tied to a giant squid fly streamer built by Stan in his workshop. While enjoyable, all of this casting yields only a few small caught-and-released sand bass. By mid-afternoon, he is under the hood again, zeroing in on the elusive car problem, while I sit in the front seat, lamely answering electrical questions, attempting an opener for this article on my scratch pad. Take One reads: “Stan Pleskunas is an artist, defined more by the way he lives and thinks than the objects that decorate his home.” That would be okay if he hadn’t
already made it clear that he doesn’t consider himself an artist. Take Two: “Stan Pleskunas is an inventor, falling in line behind Blake, Simmons, Kivlin, Velzy, Clark, and Greenough.” Marking these words with a star, they, too, are deleted when, a few hours later, Stanley mentions, “The whole world’s made of the same stuff, there’s nothing new. When someone steps up and says, ‘I’m an inventor,’ I immediately take a step back.” In a way he contradicts himself with his next statement, saying, “One thing that I hadn’t seen before I made them were tubular battens for sailboards. That was a major thing for sailboards, and now they’re being used in America’s Cup boats.” Flatly stated, Stanley Alexander Pleskunas was born to Joseph James and Margaret Elliot Pleskunas in 1952. His father, who had never graduated high school, taught nuclear physics. His mother was and is a psychotherapist and a writer. After serving their years in Idaho, when a job took the Pleskunas family there, they returned to Point Loma in 1965. As of August 2002, Stan was 50 years old, an even six feet tall by 200 pounds, with a tuft of electrified dirty-blond hair and a friendly smile, which doesn’t thoroughly mask the feeling that it would be unwise to cross him. No traces of a violent temper anywhere, mind you, but a toughness that would not be worth testing. He was introduced to the world of waves in San Diego’s Ocean Beach the same year that he moved home. There, he and another “non-inventor,” a sixth-grader from a different junior high, Steve Lis, discovered bodysurfing. “Both Stevie and I were into building, and we built skimboards and plywood belly boards. Once, we were out bellyboarding at Osprey on what I remember as a six-foot day, but was probably only a two-foot day. A guy lost his board at high tide and it went into the cave. When he didn’t go in to get his board, we swam in there and got it. Later, we peeled the glass off of what became the first board that Stevie ever made, a Fish, which had been influenced by ‘Bear’ Mirandon whom we’d seen stand-up surfing at Big Rock at a time when nobody else was doing that. My first board was shaped in woodshop in the seventh grade. I was trying to make something really different. It had a double concave in the bow, going to a single concave in the back, and it didn’t work.” By the time that Stan and Steve were old enough to paddle outside, their adopted home breaks at Sunset Cliffs were littered with futuristic backyard boards ridden by outstanding surfers like Benny Ferris, Johnny Riddle, Jeff Ching, and Larry Gephart, all of whom had fallen under the spell of Adolph Bunker Spreckels III. Nearly every day at the Cliffs would find someone with handles on their edge board, keel fins, flat bottoms with razor-sharp edges, foot wells. As kids thrown into the cosmic mix, Stanley and Steve watched, surfed, and learned. One thing that Stan eventually had to unlearn was localism. “We broke a couple of windshields, flattened a few tires, and threw rocks at Mike Hynson when he came down wearing a mink coat and a chartreuse wetsuit. I would put my dog, Nemo, next to my pack on the trail down toAb. He wouldn’t let anybody down that he didn’t know, and so it was a really effective way
(above) Stan at Fiberglass Hawaii, in Santa Cruz, with his crushed tungsten/carbide power rasps. (top) Stanley’s first board made for Laird Hamilton.
to keep people out. Now, I’m super sensitive to locals, and it bums me out to have been such a goon. The localism thing always comes back to bite you.” While Stanley was no more easily categorized as a gremmie than he is as an adult, he has become, like it or not, an inventor, a substantial limb on the Blake family tree on one side of the family and a branch firmly connected to those underground surfers with unsightly surfboards, who are always filing down fins and trying to perfect flexible tails, on the other. Quite simply, Stanley invents, so Stanley’s an inventor. And while he doesn’t yet have anything as monumental as fiberglass, foam, the wetsuit, the leash, or even a third fin to his credit, his unseen hand has touched surfing in many ways. It is quite possible that he built the first commercially-viable surfboard shaping machine, the Pleskunas Design Shaping Machine, which was first employed by Nectar’s Gary McNabb in the early 1980s to accommodate Simon Anderson’s thruster phenomenon. Orders from Linden, Rusty, and Merrick followed. He designed machines for pouring surf wax for John Dahl at Surf Research, causing him to triple his production, and built a similar machine for Zog’s Sex Wax taken from Zog’s own design. I had known Stan for a while, realized that he was a capable builder and a smart designer, but had no idea that he had accomplished so much. In fact, it took Dave Dominy, a friend and customer that Stan designs and builds sailboard parts for, to call and mention that I should do a piece on Stanley. Stan talks about himself as if he’s a bit player in any project he’s involved with, whether or not it was primarily his from start to finish. His wife doesn’t have that problem. If Kelly’s within earshot, she’ll generally present the entire picture without hesitation. She knows that her husband has worked with little pay and even less recognition. When asked who else was making power rasps, Stanley hesitates and Kelly chirps in, “Nobody.” She also overheard when I asked for a short list of his designs, saying,“There is no short list.” It’s a green light, freeing Stan to talk about his accomplishments. “The power rasp came about when I was trying to shape EVA foam, and I needed a really sharp rasp and started using tungsten carbide. They don’t get dull, and if you use them on foam, they will last indefinitely.” With Kelly out of range, he is soon sharing the credit again, saying, “As far as squares go, Randy French had a double reading square, and I just improved on his idea.” Walking outside, past the fishing boat that Stan is building beneath a tarp in the backyard into his workshop, he seems anxious to show me something. But there, amid the foam dust and the metal shavings, I find an opportunity to inject my own little ray of negativity concerning the backward motion of our sport. While he agrees that the industry as a whole is stagnant, he excuses this current generation saying, “I think that there’s a lack of opportunity. When we were kids, we would go to Mitch’s, buy a blank, glass, and resin all for about 50 bucks and have a new board in the water that week. Sometimes we’d shape the board, seal it with latex, paddle out, and ride it until it broke. We learned a lot by doing that, and at that price, we could afford to experiment.”
Stan hands me a surprisingly light, rectangular piece of blue foam, claiming that this closed-cell material is much harder than conventional foam, takes on no water, and so can be shaped and reshaped, allowing for the hardening or softening of an edge, mowing an additional 16th-inch from the bottom, turning a round tail into a swallow tail or whatever, benefiting any rider interested in trying to perfect a particular design. The project that he calls “Shape Up And Paddle Out” has the hoped-for dual purpose of sending kids back into the garage (providing they can get Mom to move the Lexus) where they can build a surfboard without all that smelly, messy, and flammable resin, for slightly more than a hundred bucks. “Josh Loya rode one and ripped on it, although he claimed that it was a little softer than he’s used to,” says Stan. Realizing that I could do an entire article on this project alone, I interrupt and move him on to the foils he’s working on with Laird Hamilton. The mere mention of Laird’s name flattens my already limp-kneed reverse direction theory of the surfing world. “Laird’s doing Star Wars stuff now,” says Stan. “I built an air board a long time ago, but it didn’t work. I think that he was the first guy to stand up on one of them and make them work. Recently he asked me to help him solve some of the problems he was having with the boards falling apart. He had a foil that came out of the water ski industry attached to a beautiful board shaped by Jimmy Lewis. They were taking a surfboard and trying to bolt a 25-pound aluminum foil to it. They didn’t know how to put the two things together and have them hold up. That was the main problem he came to me with. “I used technology from the snowboard and the wakeboard industry (Stan once built and designed wakeboards for Rusty) and tied everything together. Now, he’s able to loop the board, and, where before he could only get four or five go-outs before the boards started breaking up, he’s now used the same board for a couple of months. He’s got three boards that I’ve helped put together, but what I’m most interested in working on is the design of the foil itself.
t first, I can’t figure out why Stan is a difficult interview. He’s open, articulate, humorous, quotable, and tells fascinating stories. But, if you didn’t know better, you might think that all of the things he’s done were done to the person he’s always pointing to, the person who happens to be standing next to him at the moment of conception. This may be a healthy way to think, and it doesn’t come across as false humility, nor does it seem to be rooted in what all of you pop psychologists will want to brand low self esteem. I truly do think that he sees himself as a composite of the many people who have influenced him along the way, not the least of which is his grandfather. “The man who works only for pay is only half paid.”—Benjamin Elliot “My grandfather is the basis of my whole thing,” says Stan, obviously enjoying the memory of the man whom he called Gramps, and the rest of the world knew as Benjamin Elliot. It is primarily because of him that Stan became Stan. Gramps grew up in Point Loma at a time when going the few miles to San Diego’s downtown meant an overnight journey by boat, and
(above) Tracking lights for catching swordfish. (top) A shipment of Stanley’s shaping calipers headed for Mitch’s Surf Shop in La Jolla, California.
a low tide turned into a gunnysack full of abalone from the Sunset Cliffs tide pools. He was a master machinist and a woodworker, employed in San Diego’s burgeoning aircraft industry where he began by doping biplane wings. “He taught me how to learn, showing me that there’s a book for just about everything I wanted to know. He had all the tools. He had his own tools, his father’s tools, and he had my father’s tools, and so basically I had three lifetimes of tools. “After my father died, I lived with my grandfather through junior high and high school. He was ill, and I stayed home from school a lot, making sure that he had his meals, that his bed was made, and his shoes were tied, that sort of thing. But no matter how sick he got, he would always go to his shop, to the day he died, sitting there, turning the crank on his lathe. He taught me about how things work. If I had an algebra problem, he wouldn’t have me sweat over the book; he’d give me something to build. It forced me to use pi and other formulas that I couldn’t relate to in the form of algebra books. When I wanted to build a go-cart, he asked, ‘Do you want it to go fast?’ I’m in junior high at the time, so, of course I say, ‘Yeah, I want it to go fast.’ So, we put a big gear on the motor and a little gear on the wheel, and it went fast, but I’d have to push it to get it started. It didn’t have any low end, and I’d say, ‘That’s not very much fun, I’ve got to get out every time I want to start it.’ Then, he’d ask, ‘Do
you want to take off fast,’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I want to do that.’ So we’d switch the gears around, and I’d take off fast and spin the tires but only get up to five miles an hour. Suddenly, leverage started making sense, there was a reason for why pi worked, and I understood it. It became a tangible thing, not just words in a book, coming out of some teacher’s mouth. Pi’s the magic number. Numbers themselves are magic. You can get a deck of cards and be totally engrossed and intellectually challenged for hours and it’s just numbers.” Again, I try to pin him down on his accomplishments, and again he wiggles free, crediting friends and good fortune over hard work and skill for his success. “There was always a piece of wood or a surfboard blank, whatever I needed. And there was always somebody there to teach me how to do things. “Terry Hendrix filled in right about the time that I lost my father,” says Stan. “He taught me about building molds, how to apply gel coat, all sorts of things. He was, and is, into the most bizarre, flexible surfboards. Hendrix is an original, way ahead of his time, and through him I became very interested in what George Greenough was doing. It was right about the time that those photos of McTavish at Honolua Bay came out. I saw all the movies and read all the magazines and made a million Greenough spoons, but none of them worked until the two that I made: one for myself and one for my brother, Peter. I was so stoked
that I drove up to Santa Barbara and poked around until I found the Wilderness Shop, and there was George, getting into that cop car he owned, and I asked him, ‘Are you George?’ He said that he was and I said, ‘I’ve got this board that I want you to check out.’ I take the board out of the car and hand it to him. He picks it up, gives it the once-over, and as he’s standing there holding it by the rail he says, ‘Well, how’s it work?’ I tell him it’s unreal, that it goes upside-down, and is the fastest thing I’ve ever seen. He hands me back the board without really looking at it and says, ‘Sounds like a pretty good board to me,’ and drives off. “Through Charlie Coffee I eventually became friends with George, and while I never really worked on anything with him, he would let me hold the dumb end of the tape measure for him once in a while. He was very generous with his techniques and his thoughts. We did a lot of sailing together, and eventually, when he was no longer able to ride his spoons because of the crowds here, he moved permanently to Oz. I ended up with many of his old sailboards and a small lathe that was too heavy to ship. He’s the guy who broke new ground for surfing in design and construction. In fact, at the rate the surfing world’s going, most of the things he did won’t be understood for another 30 or 40 years. I was 18 and my younger brother, Peter, was 14 when we told our mom that we were moving to Costa Rica. She said okay,
(above) “Carl Ekstrom developed the outline and rocker for these boards to ride the Flow Rider. I developed the molding process.” (below left and right) Applied science: Bennett Williams with compressed, molded, tow-in board. Santa Barbara.
Forgotten California. Spectacular fall morning along the Central Coast. Reminders of our not so distant past, Stanley’s 1953 Studebaker pickup stands alongside the Pleskunas’ barn.
gave us our dad’s social security checks, and we lived like kings down there. I was more of the builder, and Peter was a really good surfer, so I had the perfect test pilot. I tried to be as objective as possible, watching him ride all these weird boards I’d made. He’s great. He’s always opened me up to so much, and I think that this whole deal should really be about him, because he was the driving force behind the surfing thing for me.” Stan lists Captain Robert Hamstead, with whom he made twelve trips around Baja, as a major influence. He calls Carl Ekstrom “an incredible mentor, teaching me the finer points of shaping and glassing, and turning me on to all kinds of materials that I never knew existed. The biggest single project that I was ever involved with was on the Flow Rider, and that was because of Carl.” Earl Elms, a world-class sailor who once allowed Dennis Connor to crew for him, and a man who, according to Stanley, “could build anything with a nutcracker and a spoon,” was a big influence in helping him battle his normally perfectionist methods. “I’d be stressing over one five-thousandths of an inch and he’d say, ‘Just drill the hole.’” Mentors or not, there’s no denying the work, and that Stanley has enriched surfing in ways rivaled by few others. When pressed, he finally confesses, “One of the things I’m most proud of is that in an indirect way, I touched a lot of people’s lives in surfing. At one time, eight or 10 machines were doing 90 or 100 boards a week, an indirect result of my work on the shaping machine. It would do the deck curve, the bottom curve, the V, and thickness, all in three passes. I was trying to take my winnings from selling those machines and put it into a CNC machine, because I could see that is where it was going. I put a lot of my effort in that direction in sailboard fin manufacturing along with my friend, Chuck Ames. In some tiny way, it makes me proud to know that I’m on that board with that guy who’s riding it. I think that’s far more relevant that my surfing background.”
marine mammal deterrent pinger is a six-inch-long by one-inch double-ended plastic device that beeps for 300 milliseconds and then shuts off. Why they work is a mystery, but each year they save the lives of thousands of porpoises by alerting them that death in the form of a gill net is in front of them. “There’ve been three major studies done in three different countries, and my pingers have proven to be 92 percent effective in reducing porpoise catch,” says Stan. “I commercial fished for a very short period of time. I grew up with those guys in San Diego and they came to me saying, “Stan, you’ve got to make a pinger.” They had a crummy product made by people who didn’t know anything about fishing or the ocean. Through Carl, I met Walt Walters, an ex-Navy fighter pilot who knew a lot about electronics, and helped me get going.” Last summer, Stanley flew to France, where his pingers are being widely received by environmentalists and the European fishing community, causing his business, Fumunda Marine, to take off. Stan rarely surfs anymore, living as he does in a cold and crowded surf environment. His wave riding is done primarily in his mind; a place where perfect waves break over artificial reefs and hundred-dollar surfboards glide over a pollution-free sea. On the rare, hot summer days when he does paddle out into the physical ocean to catch a few waves, it’s on a longboard. “You aren’t the guests who wouldn’t leave; you’re the guests who couldn’t leave,” says Stan, laughing while lying on the damp grass of his front lawn, voltage meter in one hand, socket wrench in the other, beneath the engine of the Mazda. He’s hot on the electrical trail, and he doesn’t want to lose the scent. When not helping friends fix their cars, saving porpoises, getting Laird into heavy water, or designing new playthings for the average surfer, Stanley works with Gary Ross of The Stanley’s Reef Foundation (not named after him, but after the break, Stanley’s, that was buried by a freeway overpass a few decades ago). Stanley has done some blueprints, brainstormed with Ross on what they both realize is a reef capable of making perfect waves, and is helping to solve California’s coastal erosion problem. “I’ve been making boards and fins for a long time, but now I want to make some waves,” he says. “I like wave pools and the idea that you can put all the guys from different sports together to ride a wave, but it’s not really surfing. I love the technology, I love the concept, and I think that there should be waves in Las Vegas. But I don’t like the idea of turning waves into a commodity. The whole magic of surfing is that you’ve got to wait for it all to come together. “Here’s how I see the Stanley’s Reef project. The beaches are disappearing because we’ve dammed all the rivers and there’s no sand coming down them anymore. We need to catch the sand and keep it there; otherwise all the beaches are going to become cobble. Shoreline erosion is one of the main problems that the Army Corps of Engineers is interested in solving. They know that jetties don’t work, and they’re really interested in what we’re doing. The reef can trap the sand and keep the energy of breaking waves farther out in the ocean, where they do less damage to the shoreline. Gary has come up with something that does all that; trapping sand, causing waves to break, and
The Rocker Stick was developed by Stanley for transferring bottom rocker. Stanley is more at home in his shop than almost anywhere else.
even creating habitat for fish. But, there’s an element in the thinking of some conservationists that says not to put anything into the ocean. They could kill the idea without ever understanding it. This reef will be totally alive, and everybody and everything is going to enjoy it and benefit from it. I think that everyone who ever bought a bar of wax should put a nickel into it and make it happen. The design that we’re talking about isn’t unsightly; you won’t even see it. “We’re not dumping sandbags somewhere hoping that they land on top of each other. It’s designed to be built in a harbor, floated to the site at high tide, sunk, and anchored. If it goes wrong and needs to be adjusted, we can float it back out and haul it out of there or adjust it for swell direction—make the right
or the left better. It’s a tinker toy reef where the sky’s the limit.” After two days of forced labor on the Mazda, Stan finally agrees to let me turn things over to a mechanic in the neighboring town of Watsonville. He had loosened the jar and narrowed the problem, which turned out to be a worn out something’rother attached to a frayed whatchamacallit, and slightly beyond the reach of Stan’s automotive tools. Three days after arriving, Tracy and I leave the Pleskunas home under our own power. After a few turns, we are again locked into Mule Variations and the madness that is Interstate 5, headed south, bound for a new swell and a surfing experience that will in some way be better because Stanley Pleskunas has had a hand in it. :
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