I was recently interviewed on “The Boardroom” podcast by a surf-industry colleague, Scott Bass. We riffed on growing up surfing in Southern California, the notion of surfing values and the ethical implications of bringing surfboards—and by extension, surf culture—to isolated coastal communities.
Bass asked, “If we go to a place that doesn’t know anything about surfing… and we leave behind boards… who are we to say that this thing that we love so much is going to improve your life?” He went on to imagine the traditional balance in an “untouched” community being thrown off by the introduction of surfing (though I can neither think of a place in the 21st century world that wouldn’t at least have some idea of what surfing is, nor see how the act of riding waves could be bad for coastal people).
“It’s not like we’re bringing in meth,” I said.
“What if you sold the board?” Bass offered “...I’m thinking about free markets. This kid has a need, it’s a commodity, you sell (the surfboard to him or her) …because (on the other hand) there’s something behind the give: ‘I want you to enjoy Western culture.’”
Now, Scott Bass is a good man—thoughtful and generous. He is the founder of the Boardroom Show, a surfboard builders’ expo held each year at the Fairgrounds in Del Mar that focuses on the art of hand shaping (as opposed to mass-produced, cnc-shaped, or molded surfboards manufactured overseas, typically in Asia). So, his comment about “free markets” caught me off-guard.
It’s quite possible that neither of us actually know what a free market is—we’re surfers after all, not economists. But I’m reading Wendell Berry just now, his book “The Art of Loading Brush,” which is a continuation of his life’s work chronicling the intricacies of small-scale farming in his region of Kentucky. And in the first couple of chapters he has demonstrated how the free market in agriculture has resulted in the widespread separation of American farmers from their land, a vast disinheritance. He quotes an Eisenhower Administration official in the 1950s telling farmers “get big, or get out.”
Reading about the destruction of agrarian life in America—conservative, in the sense of providing for oneself, saving and not exceeding the productive capability of one’s land—has me thinking about similar forces at work in the admittedly less-important world of surfing. Just as big agribusiness consolidated vast tracts of land for monocrops of soy and corn, resulting in the demise of the family farm and the loss of many feet of top soil across the nation’s prairie states from six-decades of intensive chemical fertilizer and insecticide use, regionally based surfboard building is subsumed by corporate-financed, mass-production of boards, endorsed by the biggest names in surfing.
For a number of reasons, I shy away from calling out the 11-time world champion Kelly Slater on his investment in Firewire Surfboards, manufactured in Thailand and shipped worldwide: for one, I admire his otherworldly surfing talent—someone that in tune with the ocean has something special happening; two, I don’t know him personally, so I cannot know the reasons behind, or leading to, the decisions he’s made; and three, Firewire isn’t the only company to “go big” with overseas production. But I can’t help thinking it’s a slap in the face to the shapers who made the equipment that allowed Slater his place in the surfing world—Matt Kechele in Florida, who gave him his start, Al Merrick here in Carpinteria who honed-in the title-winning boards, and others like Simon Anderson and Hank Warner who have made him boards along the way as well.
I’m on the side of the craftsman who has learned his or her craft through years of labor. Is it naïve to think there is a particular value in learning a trade such as shaping, in developing one’s knowledge of surfboards and the ability to bring that knowledge forward in a well-proportioned design? That there is value in the work of it, one board at a time, that is entirely lost when the product is manufactured by workers with no connection to surfing or the distant lands the product is shipped to? No, it is not naïve, and the alternate mode—the “build ‘em cheap overseas” mode—becomes a mere commodities race, a capitalists’ numbers game in which the units come to resemble each other in vacuous, space-age craft with all the flair of a Prius. Naturally, the surfing on these boards assumes the same conformist characteristics.
Do I envision market regulation that would support the artisanal hand shaper and the cultural legacy of surfboards that are associated with a particular region and its waves? Frankly, I don’t know enough about how such a scheme would work to advocate for it, but I do know that surfboards built in a Thai factory and airfreighted out to fill the racks of surf shops in California and across the world have an impact on the longstanding traditions of surfing—it’s a dissociative experience down on the beach when a guy or gal goes running by with one of those weaponized brands under arm. They have no reference point as to what that surfer’s influences might be, other than a relentless marketing machine.
A surfer-vaquero I know told me once that cowboys can tell what part of the country another cowboy is from by the details of their dress and equipment. If I’m advocating for anything it’s that small-scale board building is artful, and that is reason enough to support it. Small-scale board building is about personal relationships and community. Small-scale board building also creates its own culture, separate from the larger, corporatized surf industry, which I think is what Scott Bass may have been warning of when he suggested we think twice about leaving our surfboards for kids in a remote village. But more than the surfboard (even the corpo-model) left behind, we do well to remain suspicious of the market forces and underlying agendas that work on us, just as they seek to work on those seemingly as-yet-unaffected village kids.