[ From: Gordie's Story by Steve Boehne ]
There was a shapers tree published in Surfing magazine around 1980 that showed the infant origins of our surfboard industry’s shapers up to that point in time. I acknowledge that there were decades of unknown Hawaiian shapers in the early pre-history of our sport, but in the known times since 1900 surfing started in Waikiki with the official ambassador, Duke Kahanamoku. Amongst Duke’s peers there was a great waterman and surfboard shaper named Able Gomes who taught Gordie how to shape his first board. Gordon Duane, Gordie is very proud that his name appears in the shapers tree in the third tier right below Duke Kahanamoku’s.
The second tier just above Gordie is made up of the first surfboard shapers of the 1930’s and 40’s including Californians; Pete Peterson, Tom Blake, Joe Quigg, Lorrin Harrison, Dale Velzy and Bob Simmons. All these guys were introduced to shaping by the Hawaiians in Hawaii. The third tier were guys who started shaping in the 1950’s. They included (amongst others) Gordon Duane, Renny Yater, Hobie Alter, Hap Jacobs, Johnny Rice and Greg Noll.
Gordie had the perfect background to become a surfer-shaper. He was a star water polo player in high school and after high school; he worked as a cabinetmaker in his uncle’s cabinet shop. There he learned to use wood working tools and to appreciate quality craftsmanship. In 1950 at age 20, Gordie joined the Navy where he was soon stationed at the submarine base in Pearl Harbor Hawaii. Before long, he was renting boards from the “bath house” at Waikiki and learning to surf. He surfed the famous Queens reef where he met Duke, his brothers, Rabbit
Kakai and Able Gomes. Able offered to help him make his first surfboard. After WWII there were thousands of surplus Balsa wood Navy life rafts. Gordie got one of these from the base special services officer and used the base wood shop to slice and laminate the balsa wood into a balsa blank with three red wood stringers. With Able’s help and his well developed wood working skills, his first board came out perfect and rode like a dream. From that time on he was hooked on the surfing and a life of surfboard shaping.
After service in the Navy, Gordie settled in Huntington Beach where he surfed and made balsa boards in a garage for a while. His surfing friend, Jack Haley had a connection with the concessionaire at the HB Pier and arranged for Gordie to rent 4 rooms under the pier for only $10 per month. Gordie set up his first surfboard shop.
He stored and glued the balsa wood in the first room, routed the rocker out on the beach where the wind could blow the massive amount of balsa dust away, shaped in the second room, glassed in the third room and had a “show” room in the fourth. Gordie figures that he probably glued, shaped and glassed over 6000 balsa wood surfboards before Gordon Clark introduced urethane blanks
Gordie drove up to Dana Point and purchased one of the new foam blanks that “Grubby Clark and Hobie were making. When he tried to shape it, the thing would bow like a swayback horse. Gordie told Andy Jersick to run up to the Chevron Station on PCH and buy an inner tube. Gordie proceeded to saw the blank down the center, then glue the two halves back together with a wood strip down the center. He used the inner tube rubber bands to clamp it all together. From that time on Clark Foam came with wood stringers.
When His friend Harold Walker started making foam blanks, Gordie became his main customer. Harold was working in a boat shop in Costa Mesa when he learned about urethane foam from Chuck Foss who later also made Foss Foam blanks. Gordie made the original “plug” for Harold’s first mold. Then Harold rented a dilapidated building with a dirt floor that used to be a chicken ranch up on Beach Blvd. Gordie would meet Harold every night and together they would make four or five blanks. When Gordie went to shape the first blank, he was surprised to find chicken feathers flying out of the shoot of his planner. Apparently, the feathers had blown into the mold and become mixed into the blank. For a while Walker claimed that his blanks were as light as a feather.
General Veneer (lumber co.) on Firestone Blvd, in South Gate was where all the shapers bought their balsa wood. Gordie met Velzy, Yater, Noll and all the other shapers of that time at General Veneer. There was always a competition to get the best wood after each shipment arrived. Gordie had an advantage because HB was closest to South Gate. One day he had come in early and hand picked all the best light balsa wood. He spent $700 and bought 2000 bd. ft. He rented a trailer for this massive load and filled it plus his station wagon with wood. Just as Gordie was leaving, Velzy arrived with a moving van and paid $5000 for all the balsa General Veneer had. Velzy was the biggest surfboard manufacturer in the world. Gordie was blown away; he just couldn’t believe anyone could shape that much balsa wood.
One of Gordie’s friends, Don Triece was the art director of Knott’s Berry Farm. Don designed and drew Gordie’s first logo, a surfer made from circles similar to the Michelin Man, which was dubbed “circle man”. In 1958 circle man was upgraded to the now famous Gordie shield logo featuring the “free spirit” surf man inside a curling wave and the slogan “The Only Way To Travel” written across the top. This Shield logo was considered very avant-garde in the new modern art world of the 1950’s. The slogan was probably barrowed from a famous 1950’s TWA airlines TV commercial where a cartooned passenger sang out: “ TWA; the only way to fly”. Take a look at Jack O’Neil’s logo. He simply turned Gordie’s logo backwards and copied it for his wetsuit logo.
H.B. was a tough place to surf in the 1950’s. The easier spots like Malibu, Palos Verdes Cove and San Onofre were more popular with the old flat, heavy balsa boards. The HB surf pioneers were a tough, aggressive group which included Blackie August (Robert’s dad), Les Walen, Jack Haley, Bruce Brown, Walt Wessel, George Stremple, Dick Thomas, John Gray, Rocky Freeman, Don Stuart, Del Cannon, Lloyd Murray, Russ Jordan, Harry Schurch, Lynn Lockyer, Juan Montoya, Sandy Rittle, Walt Sawyer, Dave Francie, Danny Robishaw, Timmy Mcgilraph, Frank Ciarelli, Scott Robson, Buoy Wright, Harlow Lebard, Bill Vas, Andy Jersick, Gordon Clark, Sam Buel, Denny Buel, Chuck Burgess, Louie Tarter, Willie Lenahan, Danny Lenahan, Jack Haley and Gordie. Many of these guys were in the HB High School Graduating classes...
The surf was always bigger than anywhere else at the HB pier, many a balsa board broke in half against the pilings of the pier and Gordie remained very busy. Wetsuits hadn’t been used yet for surfing and the water was cold. Jack Haley would go the bull fights in Tijuana on Sundays and bring back a big bota bag full of cheap wine. The Monday morning surf session at the pier was always looked forward to because he would tie the bota bag to a piling and all the guys would share the wine as anti freeze.
Gordie’s shaping pros were becoming well known. Many of the best surfers would come to him for their Hawaii boards. In fact, Gordie made Dick Brewer’s first surfboard. For a while in Hawaii, Velzy boards and Gordie boards were the two most popular boards. All the Velzy guys hung out together and surfed a spot just North of Sunset. After a while everyone just called the spot Velzyland. The idea came from the newly opened Disneyland theme park. The Gordie guys mostly surfed a spot just South of Sunset, which everyone called Gordieland. Sunset itself was everybodyland. In 1960 the Kammie market opened across from Gordieland and the spot in years to come became known as Kammieland.
Gordie was one of the first to shape the forerunner of the modern short board when Owl Chapman and John Boozer came to him for shorter, faster boards to ride at Pipe Line. Everyone was trying to ride Pipe with standard 9’ to 10’ long boards. They were too long to fit in the hollow wave and too slow to make the section. Gordie made those guys 8’ baby guns especially for big Pipe Line before short boards were discovered. Butch Van Artsdale was named Mr. Pipe Line and John Boozer was named Mr. Afternoon Pipe line.
In Huntington Beach, the Gordie shop under the pier became a big hang out spot and the scene of many late night parties. It made sense, if you were a surfer and went down to the pier to check out the surf, before long you were hang’n with the guys at the Gordie shop.
Those were fun times with friends and full of goofy pranks. Gordie had a pair of shears in the glassing room he called the “duty shears”. During the big south swells when the guys would ride their boards through the pilings of the pier (shoot the pier) they would often get tangled in the fishing lines hanging down from the fisherman up on the pier. A big, nasty saltwater hook is enough to piss any surfer off. The angry surfer would run up to the Gordie shop and grab the “duty shears”. It was now his duty to cut off every fishing line interfering with the surfer’s right of way.
Surfing was growing by leaps and bounds; many of the hot young surfers were skipping school to go surfing and then hang’n at the Gordie shop afterwards. The Truant officer blamed it on the shop, but it was just the overwhelming allure of surfing. The city council wanted to close Gordie down. They passed a “no surfing after 10 am” ordinance and Gordie was the first person to be arrested for surfing in HB. Gordie was a tough son of a gun and he would give the authorities fits. Gordie wouldn’t back down to Vince Moorehouse; head of the lifeguards or anyone else who tried to boss him around. Gordie is a straight-ahead guy, he will tell you right to your face what he thinks about you good or bad. He didn’t walk away from a fight and probably started most of them.
Sometimes, when Gordie was busy shaping, the guys would make resin bombs by adding too much cobalt and MEK to the resin. They would throw the batch off the pier. When it landed, it exploded like a land mine. It wasn’t as easy to use resin in those days, there were several fires caused by the extremely flammable early polyester resins and acetone.
In 1959, while Gordie was out of town visiting his friend Rennie Yater, there was a mysterious fire that gutted the Gordie shop under the pier. Gordie lost over 100 surfboards in the fire and was nearly ruined. The sight of the boards lying out in the sand with their noses burned off was a traumatic site for him. In addition, he lost his lease under the pier. In searching for a new location, John “Frog” Van Oeffelen, team rider and long time friend, found an old oil field welding shop for rent up at Pacific Coast Hwy. and 13 th. Street. He and the gang helped Gordie move into the new location. There they entered the 1960’s and a new era of the polyurethane foam surfboard. The new shop was typical of surf shops in the 60’s, it smelled of the grass matt on the floor and laminating resin. You could only buy surfboards and sometimes a T- shirt. There were no sunglasses, skateboards or other superfluous junk. You bought paraffin wax at the supermarket.
This was about the same time as the Gidget movie. Surf music and the Beach Boys made surfing popularity explode. In fact, Gordie produced an underground surf film, “Sacrifice For Surf” that featured the HB pier and his favorite spots in Hawaii including one of the best sequences of a young Dewey Weber ever filmed.
Gordie made several very special show boards with multiple stringers, curved intersecting stringers, nose and tail blocks and radical abstract color designs. These boards were all displayed at the worlds first surfing trade show, the Surf O Rama at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
Gordie also advertised in the very first “Surfer’s Annual” the forerunner of Surfer Magazine created by his friend John Severson. From the exposure at the Surf O Rama plus advertising in the new Surfer Magazine, Gordie gained many dealers in Ca. and the East Coast.
Most of the Surf shops of the time became so busy shaping the boards that they now began sub contracting the glass work out to specialty glass shops. The demand for Gordie surfboards was now bigger than ever. He quite glassing the boards himself and sent his shaped blanks to Jack Pallard’s glass shop in Redondo Beach to be glassed. Later, he sent the boards to Bill Holden’s glass shop in Costa Mesa.
All the surf shops were experiencing stupendous success. Velzy was driving around in big expensive cars and enjoying the high life, but through miss management he lost the whole thing in the early 60’s. Business pressures built up for Gordie too. Between 1956 and 1980 he built around 46,ooo surfboards. In his little shop in HB, he had a show room for local surfers; he shaped the boards, and handled an unrelenting schedule of packing and shipping boards to his dealers. Gordie was CEO, advertising director, shaper, salesman, custodian, packer and shipper.
He said the pace made him “grouchy”. He just didn’t have time to hang out with buddies or baby sit shoppers. Well, Gordie was never known as a super tactful guy. When he was busy, if some kid or “looky-loo” guy wondered into the shop Gordie would say: What do you want? If the poor guy didn’t come up with the right answer fast, Gordie would say: “Well then get the ---- out of here”. Once when Bob Carbonell came by to visit, Gordie barked at him and Bob responding to Gordie’s grumpy nature said “The next time I want to feel bad,I’ll catch the flu”. Bob stormed out of the shop, but was back the next day for cocktail hour. Gordie wasn’t everybody’s best friend, but everybody respected his craftsmanship and his fine surfboards.
Gordie’s shapes are unique; His “plan shape” (outlines) were always graceful with smooth flowing lines. He hated big noses, fat rails and thick boards. He always made boards designed for good surfers, not beginners. The blanks were sculpted, foiled out to thin noses and tails. Rails tapered in a perfect parabolic radius. Gordie didn’t make a lot of templates over the years. He just changed the dimensions of the boards as styles changed. I’ve seen the Mark 5 template used on a 1960 board with a 15.5” nose and a 16.5” tail, and then the same Mark 5 template was laid out as a 1966 era nose rider with an 18.5” nose and a 15” tail.
When Greg Noll introduced the Miki Dora “Da Cat” model with a step deck, Gordie answered back with his Lizard model step deck, a nose rider that featured an elliptical concave on the deck that was easier to step into than the Da Cat model. His regular nose rider model had a similar elliptical concave under the nose. When the Aussies introduced V-bottom short boards, Gordie created the Assassin Pin tail V-bottom. This was the beginning of the short board era and the Assassin became shorter and shorter working it’s way down from about 9’ to 7’6”.
In the late 60’s Velzy really got into the “wild west” cowboy scene. He loved to wear his cowboy outfit, ride horses and shoot his lever action 30-30. Velzy spent many days wondering around in Death Valley, the Mohave Desert, and Arizona.
Gordie often accompanied Velzy on his explorations of old ghost towns and mine shafts. Gordie laughs as he recalls a time when they wondered upon an old graveyard outside a ghost town in Arizona. Velzy was hunting around for weathered pieces of wood for a project he was building at home. He pulled a couple of big slabs of wood out of the ground that had been there for a 100 years marking some crusty old miner’s graves and loaded them into the truck. When Gordie saw them in the truck, he said: “Man you’ve got to put those back. We’ll be cursed, those guy’s ghosts will follow us all the way back to Huntington Beach and haunt us for ever”. Velzy saw the potential hazard and reluctantly returned the grave markers back to the rightful owners. He just couldn’t remember which was which. It was this time while Gordie was into hunting and guns that he chose the name Assassin for his new pintail V-bottom short board. Gordie was thinking that the surfer would assassinate the wave with this predatory surf weapon. Unfortunately, Shortly afterward, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated which put a dark shadow over the word assassin. Gordie muses now that the name Assassin was probably a big mistake, but who could see the future in 1967?
During the busy, golden years of the 60’s, Gordie hired several different shapers to help him keep up. He was very particular about the quality of the work and he would inspect every board to see that it met his standards. Gordie says that the first guy he hired was Mike Oday. He is a soft-spoken guy who did top quality work for Gordie on and off for years. He eventually became the head shaper for Bob Russell of Russell surfboards in Newport. Finally, he quite shaping, got a job with the Phone Company and retired to Oregon.
The next guy, Larry Felker was amazing; he could shape 10 boards every night. Larry would shape all night and sleep all day, but Larry was out of control. He would get his paycheck on Friday and spend it on booze and gambling all weekend. Once Gordie got a phone call to come and pick him up in down town Santa Anna. Larry was gambling, got drunk and beat up. He had spent the night sleeping in a back alley. Larry had a wife and two kids. When his wife found out he had a job at The Gordie shop, She brought a tent and the kids and camped in the yard behind the shop all week until the paycheck came. Gordie had strict instructions to hand the check over to her.
Del Cannon was another guy who learned and shaped for Gordie. Del was a hot surfer and well known in the growing surf industry. Del eventually left and opened his own shop in San Clemente. Later, he closed his shop and became a commercial fisherman in Hawaii.
Don Stuart, Bruce Jones, Steve Boehne, Jim Fuller and Randy Lewis can all thank Gordie for their first shaping jobs. Randy once said, “All I ever wanted to do was to shape high quality Gordie long boards”. Some went on to make surfboards under their own labels. The Gordie shaping alumni all agree that he was a tough guy to deal with, but he taught you a lot about shaping, he was fair and there was always a paycheck at the end of the week.
Gordie’s best years were the 60’s where the classic boards were suited to his meticulous wood working abilities. Nobody could shape a rail just like Gordie; they were unique. At a time when others made templates with long straight rails, bulgee hips, and fat noses, Gordie’s templates always had a continuous curve with a slight point in the nose.
The hot surfers knew that a Gordie board would ride just right. As the 1970’s eclipsed the 60’s, the short board eclipsed the long board. You would not be caught dead carrying a long board across the beach at the pier. Gordie like Greg Noll, Jacobs, Bing and many of the other big name shops of the 60’s found intense competition from hundreds of new start up shops. The name of the new game was not quality; it was CHANGE. Shape designs were changing so fast that the board you just bought was old fashioned 6 months later. Consequently, prices dropped by half; quality became secondary and the new experimental outlines though often crude and unbalanced made the old long boards look prehistoric. Despite this, Gordie had the most fun in the 70’s as he and Randy Lewis shaped the boards for the rambunctious Hole in the Wall Gang.
Gordie sponsored the “Hole in the Wall Gang” Surf team of HB. The Hole in the Wall Gang was not named after the Butch Cassidy outlaws made famous in the Cat Balou movie, but was named for a hole in the retaining wall holding the sea cliff opposite the Gordie shop. Water from the gutter in front of the shop flowed through a pipe and exited to the sea through the hole in the wall. This is where the Gordie guys surfed. The Gang was a strange assemblage of seasoned HB surfers who weren’t part of the regular contest circuit, but like the typical Gordie rider of the 60’s they surfed hot, partied hard and carried the Gordie tradition of non conformity.
Wall Gang: Gordie - Jim Fuller - Duncan McClane - Bob Carbonell - John Taylor - John Van Oeffelen - Randy Lewis - John Sweeny - front row Lonnie Buhn - Morgan Floth - Bobbie Farley - Cindy White - Chris Cattel - John Boozer - Robert Koogan. not pictured: Gayle Chips - Vickie Reese - Hal Sachs - Butch Cash - Bill Rainforth - Bob Milfeld - Guy Grundy
The 4th of July was a big weekend in HB. The fireworks shot off the end of the pier brought crowds of people down to the beach. The HB police were overwhelmed by the mobs that in past years often rioted and burned police cars. Finally, in desperation, the HB police called in the Military police to help them patrol. The Gordie shop was always the scene of a big Hole in the Wall Gang party. As the beer was consumed, the fun loving gang got wilder. (Fun loving is in the eye of the fun lover, the cops just saw them as rowdy) There were at least a hundred people in the yard behind the shop. One of the gangsters threw a quart beer bottle over the fence; unfortunately it landed on the hood of a passing police car. Luckily, the sergeant driving the car was a friend of Gordie’s. The sergeant came charging into the shop with his MP assistant. Gordie saw his friend, but had some bad memories of the MP’s back in the Navy days. He yelled out “M.P.’s are not welcome in my shop, I had enough trouble with the likes of you at Pear Harbor; you can wait outside!” The sergeant asked who threw the bottle, just then Chris Cattel, who actually threw the bottle, wandered in the back door with a guilty look on his face but about 6 guys pointed out the back door. As the sergeant went out back, one of the guys grabbed the Serge’s hat and locked the door. The partiers out back explained that they were having a private party and that the police aught to go back downtown and regulate the out of towner’s there.
The Sergeant wanted to make someone pay so he grabbed Rooster Elliot and locked him in the back of the cruiser. When he left to go locate the MP, the gang freed Rooster from the cruiser and he got away. The Sergeant and the MP were so frustrated from this run around that they just got in the cruiser and left. The rest of the police battalion was so busy that no one could break free for a second assault on the Gordie shop. The next day, the Sergeant promised not to prosecute if he could just get his hat back quietly. With great relief, Gordie quickly complied with his friend’s request.
The Hole In The Wall Gang was a ruthless bunch of competitors with a tenacious nature and refused to lose a single trophy to the competition. Because of the depth of ability in the group, they immediately started winning contests, taking home the trophies and putting the Gordie shield in the forefront of the competition scene. They drew strength from team enthusiasm and the requirement that each sign up for multiple events. (If you loose in one event, you could still earn team points in the next). The Gang competed in W.S.A. contest in California, Hawaii, Texas and North Carolina.
In 1977 the Gang won the national team trophy at San Onofre and was given a commendation by the city of Huntington Beach. So, Gordie and his gang of ruffians went from being chastised by the city in the 60’s to commended in the 70’s...
When the woman who Gordie rented his shop from died, Her estate sold the property off to developers. Gordie was forced to move out. March 1980 was the end of the Gordie shop and the end of an era, but not the end of Gordie Surfboards. A few of Gordie's old shapers are licenced to make Gordie surfboards and the name lives on. You can see beautifully crafted Gordie boards in the Infinity Shop in Dana Point (www.Infinitysurf.com ) or contact Don Stuart about 50's replica balsa boards.
The above article by Steve Boehne is beautifully recreated with a wide range of images at: