History of Surfing Blog


January 29, 2017

velzy_cig-4I am grateful, almost daily, for Dale Velzy. Not so much because of what he did for board design, although that too. Mostly for the style, the grin, the flask in his back pocket, and the fact that he was one-third cowboy and didn’t give a rat’s ass if that wasn’t “surf.” I am also deeply grateful for writer Paul Holmes, who sat with Dale during the last couple years of his life—Dale’s, that is—to gather material for “Velzy is Hawk,” a biography that speaks to my heart in the way that bios on Tom Blake and Mark Occhilupo and Clay Marzo never did. Here are a few excerpts from “Hawk.” Great stuff, but find the book online and buy it—the Word of Velzy is a gift that keeps on giving.

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One day just after I opened a guy in a suit and tie walks in and says, “What are you making here?” I told him I was making surfboards. He says, “Are you selling them?” I said, “No, not really, I just make them for the guys down at the [Manhattan Beach Surf] Club.” He tells me he’s with the city and that if I’m making surfboards for sale I need a business license. I tell him, “I haven’t got one.” He says, “Well, you need to, and you need a California state resale number as well.” So I go to the State Board [of Equalization], and they say, “What kind of business is it?” “I make surfboards.” “What are they?” So I told them, and that’s how I got the first resale number for making surfboards.

We were dealing with square pieces of wood. We’d go to General Veneer [a Los Angeles building supply outlet] and hand-pick the bundles, looking for pieces with some curve in them. Each piece was three-and-a-quarter inches thick and five inches wide, and you’d need four or five pieces to make a board. So if you found five pieces with some curve you were real happy, because then you’d have some rocker to work with.

He had a book on oceanography, another on hydrodynamics and drag, another on powerboats, and all these Navy books showing how much stress was put on propellers. That was the kind of stuff he read, just all this way-out stuff. And if it wasn’t in the books, he figure it out himself with math. It was all way over my head—and who gives a shit anyway? He knew better than to talk to me about it, because I couldn’t even spell let alone do the math. He’s say to me, “Velzy, those boards your making just put a hole in the water.” And I’d say, “I want them to put a hole in water so they won’t spin out.” See, we wanted to be as close to the curl as possible. We wanted to be locked in [to the pocket]. Simmons didn’t want that. He wanted to be way out front so he wouldn’t fall off and have to swim. He hated swimming.

Simmons was ornery and smart and he was a hell of a ping-pong player. Every Tuesday night we’d go to this place in Hollywood, on Highland Boulevard, where they had 50 tables upstairs. People were real serious about it. Simmons had his own custom paddles, and the first time we went he said, “I’ll spot you 19 points.” So I bet him five bucks, which was a lot of money in those days. Well, he nailed every shot and beat me. We played for months, and by the end he was still spotting me seven points.

When Simmons traveled, he’d always bring his own food. A lug of oranges, a lug of peaches, or tomatoes, or a big sack of raw cashews. We’d be driving back from ping-pong and he’d be eating tomatoes, one after the other, and the juice is dribbling all down his chin, down his shirt, and all over the goddam seats in my car. It was a mess. But that was Simmons. He was a funny guy.

I got drafted in 1950. I went downtown, to the induction center, and said, “Hey, I served my time in the Merchant Marine, I’m exempt!” And they said, “Oh, that was World War II, this is for Korea.” Then they said, “You’re not married, are you?” I said No, and  they said, “Well, if you were, you wouldn’t have to go.” So I married my girlfriend Joan the next day. Went back downtown, showed them the marriage license, and they said, “No, that’s not good enough, you have to have kids too.”

[After six weeks of basic training at Ford Ord, Velzy got shipped to Ford Bliss, Texas. Just before deployment to Korea, he fell from the tailgate of a truck and wrenched his back.] I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks and wasn’t getting any better. Eventually my unit shipped out without me. I ended up staying that hospital for three or four months, and by then they were getting heavy casualties coming back from Korea and they needed the beds, so they got rid of me. Gave me a medal and sent me home.

One day I told Hap [Jacobs, Velzy’s boardmaking partner], “I’m going to make something different. I’ve made thousands of them [chips] and I can’t stand it any more.” So I drew a planshape backwards, using the nose from one template as the tail, and the tail from another template as the nose. Then I smoothed out the lines and there it was—a board with a narrow nose and a wide tail. It looked like the outline of a pig, if you were looking down on it from a fence rail. That’s what we called it: the Pig. And as soon as we went down to the beach and tried it, and saw how it turned, we knew we were onto something. You could spot the difference the minute a guy got onto a Pig. It was that quick. Everyone progressed. The first half of the summer, people would see guys in the water and they’d say, “Whoa! Who just made that turn?” And it’d be Mike Doyle, Kemp Aaberg, Lance Carson, Mickey Munoz. You could spot ’em from the beach because of the turns they were making. People had never seen surfing like that before.

Bill was a great friend. Big, good-looking guy. He’d been a cook in the Merchant Marine, and then on a tuna boat, but he got tired of going to sea and being gone all the time. [Bahr became Velzy’s glasser at the Manhattan Beach shop.] There were always a lot of girls hanging around the beach, and this one gal took a liking to Bill. Every day she’d come around the shop to talk with him while he was glassing. She was separated from her husband, a cop. I knew the guy. One day the guy comes around and says to me, “You tell Bill Bahr to quit hanging around with my old lady.” I laughed it off, and said to him, “Why don’t you tell him yourself?” I told Bill, but he didn’t seem too concerned. A few weeks later Bill is over at the gal’s house, lying on the couch. This guy, the cop, has a key to the house. He comes walking in, tells Bill to stand up, and drills him—three shots to the chest, three in the back. Killed him. The guy walks out of the house and turns himself in. We never found out what happened, if he did time or what. Anyway, Bill was always messing around with someone else’s wife. Finally he got caught. I’d warned him about it.

  • Rory Wicks

    Matt, you have to hear the stories about Dale and the Yeakel family, who owned the fourth house on the Strand south of the Manhattan Beach Pier from 1948 to 1959 (when my parents bought the house). When Dale lived underneath the south side of the Pier, he not only sponged off the Yeakel family, Bob Yeakel gave him the money to start commercially building surfboards to bring to Waikiki to sell; and when Bob passed away in an aircraft accident around 1960, Dale to all extents adopted the surviving Yeakel son, the great late Dugan Yeakel, Dugan loved Dale; and gave me the great opportunity to meet Dale!

    • Matt Warshaw

      I never met Dale, but feel an unearned closeness just for having spent so many years on the beach at 8th Street, and hanging around the Pier parking lot, Highland, Manhattan Ave, all the places Dale hung out. Always figured Dale had a heart of gold, your post here makes it real, thanks.