Velzy's Pig

Dale Velzy, mid-1950s
Dale Velzy (right), mid-'40s
Velzy surf shop, Manhattan Beach, 1950
Velzy pig, mid-1950s
Velzy (front), Manhattan Pier, 1951

The Malibu of popular legend was mostly created by four people: Dale Velzy, Dewey Weber, Terry Tracy, and Miki Dora. Three were from broken families. Tracy and Weber attended junior college, but barely; they were beach-educated. All four were entertainers. All four, to varying degrees, were hustlers. They commuted to Malibu (with just one or two exceptions, none of the break’s best-known riders were actually Malibu residents), and by 1953 they’d become First Point regulars, just as Quigg and Kivlin and the rest of the original postwar Malibu crew were ready to move on.

Dale Velzy would become the defining mid-fifties boardmaker. He was the oldest of the new group, a grinning tattooed former Merchant Marine and part-time pool shark from Hermosa Beach who loved hot-rods and horses nearly as much as he loved to ride waves. Everyone wanted to pal around with Velzy. He occasionally rode with the Boozefighters motorcycle gang, but was just as comfortable having drinks on the verandah with British actor and sophisticate David Niven. Velzy and Niven surfed together often in Waikiki during the early fifties. “He was always using the word ‘splendid,’” Velzy later recalled. “He’d say to me, ‘Oh that was a splendid wave you just had!’ And I’d say, ‘Niven, don’t say splendid, say bitchin’—that was a bitchin’ wave!”

Velzy began surfing in 1937 at age ten. He was wiry and athletic, graceful at times, but more interested in pushing limits: he was likely the first surfer to hang ten, and unquestionably the first to decorate a surfboard with a pair of resined-on black lace panties. When the mood struck, he was also a hard worker. Woodcraft was a Velzy family tradition; his father's hard-tooled chessboards were sold at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, and his cabinet-maker grandfather built the oak casket Teddy Roosevelt was buried in. Velzy himself, in the late '40s, was earning enough as a backyard boardmaker that he decided to try and make a real vocation of it.

Velzy rode Malibu often—driving up the coast in a beautifully chopped and channeled 1940 Mercury—and knew that Quigg, Simmons, and Kivlin had all the beaches in northern Los Angeles County pretty well locked up. So Velzy decided to work closer to home, in an area called South Bay, which included Hermosa, Redondo, Manhattan, and Palos Verdes. Barefoot and bare-chested, using a pair of sawhorses and his grandfather’s tools, he worked beneath Manhattan Pier in 1949, until city officials noticed the wood shavings fanning out across the beach and shut the operation down. Undeterred, Velzy rented a tiny storefront just up from the pier. He had a two-tone “Designed by Velzy” surfboard logo made, and at age twenty-two became owner of the sport’s first licensed boardmaking outlet. From the beginning, business was good: there was always at least a board or two to work on, and in a good week he and a hired laminator cranked out as many as ten. Rent on the storefront was $45. Each board sold for $55.

It was a stripped-down operation. Future generations of beachgoers, in fact, wouldn’t have recognized Velzy's place as a “surf shop” at all. There were no shiny new boards lined up on racks. No display cases. No beachwear. No stickers or surf wax. No countertop, telephone, or cash register; not even a storefront sign. “I didn’t want people to notice that much,” Velzy later said. He had as many orders as he could handle anyway, and thought it best not to give city inspectors any reason to take interest in his small, dirty, health-code-violating work place.

In 1952, after putting his business on hold for a year to live in Hawaii, Velzy opened a second shop on a beachfront lot just south of Malibu Pier. Simmons was by that time living in San Diego, Quigg would soon move to Honolulu, and Kivlin was about to start training as an architect. Right away, just like in South Bay, Velzy had plenty of work. He also did himself a favor and got his hands on a new chain-driven electric planer, and this big, shrieking, first-generation power tool saved him a lot of time and sweat while “hogging out”—rough shaping— each glued-up slab of balsa. Not long afterward, a woodworking genius from Waikiki named Abel Gomes designed a router jig for Velzy that allowed him to easily maintain a consistent thickness and rocker from board to board, which was another huge time-saver.

In 1954, Velzy closed the Malibu operation and opened a shop in Venice—closer to the customer base—with new partner and fellow South Bay boardmaker Dudley “Hap” Jacobs. Velzy had been making Quigg-style chip boards for nearly five years, and one afternoon, weary at the thought of another, he instead shaped a board with a narrow nose, continuous rail curve, a lowered wide point, and a round tail. It was a funny-looking board, kind of homely, with its bulbous rear end—“a real pig,” Velzy thought, smiling.

That's what he called it, and the Velzy pig turned out to be a game-changer. Lighter versions weighed just over 20 pounds, and the reduced nose area allowed the board to spear through the water with fewer catches and snags and to come around a beat or two faster during turns. To keep the wide tail anchored into the wave face, the pig had an oversized stabilizing fin, about the size and shape of a croquet wicket, but raked back so that the trailing edge actually stuck out past the board’s rear end. Like the chip only more so, the pig proved that board speed wasn’t just a matter of improved planing (as Simmons believed), but also a function of how well the board handled in and around the pocket—the concave zone just below the curl. This was a tricky place to ride. It was steep and fast-changing and bordered by whitewater, which was then considered almost unrideable. But the pocket, clearly, was where the action was. Get up there high enough, aim back down, shift forward a little, and it was like releasing a catapult.

At Malibu, the chip-riders on their wide straight-railed boards could make it from the top of the point all the way to the cove. But Velzy and his gang, on their new pigs, could cover half-again as much ground by riding up into the pocket, blasting back down, swinging around through the trough, then back up the face and down again—five or six times in a row before the wave finally gurgled up onto the beach. For good measure, while in trim, they also learned how to shuffle up to the front end, where they’d pose near the tip for a moment or two before retreating back to the sweet spot. Les Williams and a few other chip pioneers had already sketched out the new lines. The pig simply allowed for an even tighter turning radius. At the dawn of the performance era, this was pretty much all that mattered.

By the summer of 1955, the pig was the hottest board on the coast, and the Velzy-Jacobs shop in Venice was taking up to thirty orders a week. The Simmons board was obsolete. The chip was on its way out. Pig boards were about to become so commonplace that the name itself would disappear; by 1957, an American surfboard was a pig by default.

Velzy and British actor and sophisticate David Niven surfed together often. “He was always using the word ‘splendid,’” Velzy later recalled. “He’d say to me, ‘Oh that was a splendid wave you just had!’ And I’d say, ‘Niven, don’t say splendid, say bitchin’—that was a bitchin’ wave!”