Greetings, Shredderz! Today’s post is a bit of an anomaly. I pride myself on writing everything that appears on this humble blog, but this post, a word-for-word transcript of a Dick Brewer profile written by Derek Hynd in 1990, is an exception. I decided to transcribe this article for two reasons: first and foremost, it is a rare in-depth profile of the legendary Dick Brewer, who is considered by many to be the most influential shaper to ever pick up a planer. Secondly, the article, which originally ran in in the August 1990 issue of Surfer Magazine (Vol 31, No 8), is not published online, and magazine back issues can be hard to come by. This piece pairs a great writer and a fascinating subject, and the result is many illuminating stories about not only Brewer’s colorful career, but other significant moments in surfing history. If you read anything on this blog, make it this article.
A long, strange Trip for Surfing’s Master Shaper
Written by Derek Hynd, originally published in Surfer Magazine
Finally meeting Dick Brewer face-to-face was no great revelation. Over the past 15 years it was like I’d peered through the windows at a sort of Kurtz-like figure. I’d grown up in Terry Fitzgerald’s revered shaping bay; stayed with Jack Reeves and smelled his glass shop; played chess on calm North Shore days with an edgy Roger Erickson; seen Owl Chapman as Jonathan Livingston Seagull — these had all, to some degree, been Brewer-related experiences. They left me picturing, but not touching, this peerless icon of surfboard shapers. But, as Dick Brewer sat on the bleachers at the Billabong Pro last winter — going unrecognized among today’s pros and silly young girls — and compared Tom Curren and Mark Occhilupo to the likes of Jeff Hakman and Jackie Eberly, nothing surprised me.
Brewer had the look of a major artisan, and the gravelly voice of dull truth. He knew so much, but his eyes never blazed; his brow never furrowed. The banal mask this aging man offered was a perfect portrait of gorged experience — physical, mental and chemical. Twenty-three years after Surfer Magazine allegedly misrepresented the truth of the mini-gun revolution, Brewer’s monologue was both complex and dry.
The time, early January ’90, was extraordinary for the gamesmanship between Brewer and Mike Diffenderfer. Arguably the two greatest shapers in history, both wanted back into the mainstream, in light of pro surfing’s rekindled interest in big surf. After a decade of relative obscurity, Brewer had left Kauai for the North Shore, temporarily dumping his realtor responsibilities on his dismayed wife, while Diffenderfer had taken a break from forays on the PGA Seniors’ Tour. It was astounding that Ed Clapp, boss of reestablished Surfboards Hawaii, had secured the services of both men. The teaming was incredibly powerful, if somewhat baffling. Clapp must’ve been a hell of a salesman, because the idea of Brewer working alongside Diffenderfer seemed highly implausible, given their history.
According to Brewer, Diffenderfer had authored the controversial Surfer Magazine article in 1967. [Editor’s note: Diffenderfer says he did no such article for Surfer, and a search through issues from ’66-69 backs his claim. Brewer may be referring to a 1968 article by Drew Kampion entitled, “The Super-Short, Uptight, Vee-Bottom, Tube-Carving Plastic Machines,” on the evolution of the shortboard, which does not, in fact, mention Dick Brewer.] Regardless, it was Brewer who had done the R&D on Maui and Kauai with Gerry Lopez, Reno Abellira, Jeff Hakman, Jock Sutherland, Joey Cabell and Gary Chapman. The period was both the high point and low point of Brewer’s career — the downside generating a distrust of the surf media that still cuts deep.
“It’s haunted me ever since that Surfer didn’t give me the credit as the driving force behind the mini-gun,” he rumbled, amid the commentary and spectator chatter at the Billabong Pro. “Diffenderfer came to the North Shore in ’67 and to Maui to play golf. He was just coming back to surfing, saw what was happening, and shaped a few boards. But he wasn’t involved in the development. He had an old grudge. Then he wrote a story trying to prove he had something to do with the whole thing. People accepted it as material fact in Surfer, and it was like Dick Brewer didn’t exist.”
The thing was, after cutting a high profile through the early-and-mid-sixties, by late ’67 a lot of people really didn’t have a clue where Brewer was. He’d already left Maui for Kauai in order to “create away from the entire surfing world.” He’d found his Bohemia, but left himself wide open in the process: “Nobody got the real story ’cause I was private and isolated. I didn’t realize at the time what the mystique was doing. It made it easy for other people to come and steal my concept. So, in a way, I caused a lot of the problem.”
Brewer — along with his cutting crew of teamriders — retreated from the major California labels because name manufacturers wouldn’t contribute to the development of the modern surfboard.
“When I saw Barry Kanaiaupuni take a Brewer gun and do full layout cutbacks at Sunset Beach in 1964, I knew we were getting to the essence of what, to me, surfing was really about. At that point it was a matter of building smaller guns with more maneuverability. But getting the whole Establishment behind the idea was a problem. It was a dark time in history.”
Beginning in 1962, Brewer built smaller (9′ – 9’8″) guns called Summer Semis. By the time hd developed the Jock Sutherland Pipeliner model for Bing Surfboards in ’67, the search for added maneuverability on “speed tankers” was on. The Pipeliner was 21-1/2″ wide, with a 17-1/2″ tail and kick in the 16″ nose, and both speed and maneuverability were increased when the fin area was reduced by 50%.
But the missing link was finding the formula for Sunset and Waimea guns. In 1966, again at Bing, Brewer built the first Bumble Bee model (named after the paint job) for Jackie Eberly. It was the first pin-tail gun: 10’4″ and ultra-light, with significant tail rocker. “If you lifted the back third of that board it would look almost identical to Roger Erickson’s today. Jackie Eberly did fades and turns at Waimea Bay on that board that were [pause] unbelievable.”
Meanwhile, at Sunset, Gary Chapman (Owl’s older brother) was giving Brewer product feedback. At a time when guns were averaging 10’8″, Chapman said, “Dick, I want a 9’7″.” Brewer complied. The new stick worked. Barry Kanaiaupuni also rode it and said he liked it.
The most dramatic drop in board size, though, came the following year. The initial breakthrough was sheer chance. Brewer recalls: “I’d made a 10’10” for David Nuuhiwa that broke in tow at the nose at Banzai Pipeline. He wasn’t around a few weeks later when Randy Rarick found it at Surf Line Hawaii.” Point of evolution: Young Rarick simply rounded it off at the nose, turning the board into an 8’6″. Brewer continues: “The tail block was of a state-of-the-art gun, and the board worked unbelievably. That opened up my mind. We had to fully go into mini-guns. It was probably January ’67. Gary had gone, ‘Hey, I hear the Aussies are building smaller boards,’ and I said, ‘Well, if it’s going to ride big waves it’s got to be a small gun, not a small tanker.’
“Well, Nat Young and Bob McTavish turned up in Hawaii. Nat had the panel vee, McTavish had the spiral vee, and we incorporated the concept into our pin-tails immediately. It was obvious. I shaped Ted Spencer a board, and loaned McTavish my shaping room, where he shaped Hakman a seven-footer based on his deep-vee principle.”
On Maui, one session went down at Honolua Bay that left Brewer both in awe of his team’s capabilities and disgusted at the surfing media’s power fo distortion: “It was 15′ the morning we got there [with the Australian deep-vee riders]. Me and Reno were sitting in the camper, and Nat came over and said, ‘Are you guys going out?’ and we went, ‘Yeah, we’re goin’ out.’ So Nat went out just before we did — tried to grab the nose goin’ ’round the Bowl, but the lip broke on the back of his board and snapped it in half. There were maybe three surfers in the lineup. So Reno and I went out. I never lost my board…never made a mistake. Reno rode, like 10 waves on a board 9’9″ long, 18” wide, that weighed maybe 14 pounds — a spear with a single-layer glass job that barely weighed anything. I mean, if Tommy Carroll saw that board now he’d wanna ride it. After those waves Reno broke the board in half, but the only thing the mags showed was him carrying the pieces, with the caption ‘Back to the drawing board.’ I mean, all day people were just breakin’ boards, breakin’ boards. Paul Witzig was there to do some filming. He came to Maui — and the Brewer team was the driving force at Honolua Bay, man — but Witzig only showed footage of the Australians in his movie. One of the shots of Nat Young shows the nose of my board coming out of the tube twice, with Nat out on the green water doin’ el rollos. Was that a frustrating time in history? What do you think Reno and Hakman thought?”
[Shreditor’s Note, which did not appear in the Surfer article: I asked John Witzig, Paul’s brother, about this in an email, and he disputes the idea that the American surfers were left out simply because of a pro-Aussie bias. John points out that Paul loved Reno’s surfing, and his guess is that Reno appears elsewhere in The Hot Generation, the movie in question.]
By April 1967, Brewer was building surfboards for Bing: “Hakman, Sutherland, Cabell…they all showed up. We were on acid and freaked out, and there were colors all over the glassing room — you can image what it was like — and there were all those mini-guns in the factory. That’s all we were making….mini-guns. Then Bing walked in and went, ‘What’s happening?‘ They didn’t look like surfboards to Bing. He threw us all out. I don’t think the guy was too tuned-in.”
So Brewer sought his own space on Maui, taking Lopez and Abellira with him. Cabell and others followed, while Hakman and Sutherland were already there attending school. Nineteen-sixty-eight was the year of Brewer’s life, despite the downside: “If they’d only come and asked me or Reno or Lopez — anybody who was really involved. But they got their views from the outside.”
The period building up to the 1968 World Titles in Puerto Rico produced one of the most famous surfboards of all time: Abellira’s purple-brown, speed-wrenching 6’7″ round-tail. Brewer remembers: “I knew he was going to blow minds because that was the first round-tail. I’d say Reno, Lopez and I were all involved in that board. It had a single four-oz. on the bottom and a single six-oz. on top. Reno weighed 130 pounds dripping wet, and the board came out under nine pounds. It had a natural rocker — something Lopez and I were into. He and Cabell had just started going into the ‘S-deck,’ straight rocker tails, but that board still had natural rocker. We sawed the pin-tail off, then started fully rounding the corners. A lot of people were aware of it, but Reno’s board became the basic design for the Weber Performer. It was the evolvement [sic] of what we were doing — sawing, rounding things off to make them looser.”
Brewer’s high points pulsed in five year cycles after 1967, up until 1982. His surge to 1972 began two years earlier at Rocky Point. Despite a profound distrust of outsiders, Terry Fitzgerald — or a wild-styled young Australian — connected with Brewer, and heralded a major shift in design and attitude at Sunset Beach.
Brewer had seen Fitzgerald on the sand at Rocky Point in ’70, and noticed his board’s thin rails, which were key to Brewer’s own refinements of the time. “Fitz was blown out ’cause people on the North Shore couldn’t accept where hew as at. He was different, and he had to prove himself., but I recognized the guy as the best surfer in the world — the best I’d ever seen, in fact — ’cause of his speed lines. I’d definitely put Fitz in a category with BK out at Sunset. There was also Sammy Hawk — he had a year right after Fitz in ’71 when he was just charging.
“Anyway, I invited Fitz to say on Kauai with me for a couple of weeks, and that turned into six months. Fitz’s contribution was taking some of the vee out from behind the back fin, giving him more punch off the bottom and eliminating slide on bigger waves, while we were more into the spiral vees. His concept is still a main principle of thruster sand single-fins to this day.”[Shreditor’s Note: A while ago I wrote up this board that Fitzgerald shaped for Dick Brewer. It is to date one of the coolest boards I have ever featured here, and I highly recommend checking out the post.]
The new-generation Brewer crew were Fitzgerald, Hawk and Owl Chapman — a pack of crazies who often stroked out at maxing, pre-leg-rope Sunset at dusk. But the key member was Jack Reeves, master glasser; still as much a part of Brewer in 1990 as Brewer: “Jack…Jack’s the best glasser around, and he has, without a doubt, been intrinsically involved in the development of the fin and the foil.”
The Brewer / Reeves’ forte is balsa. And, at this stage in history, Brewer’s idea of ultimate surfboards would be limited-edition balsa guns, possibly under the Surfboards Hawaii label. The subject had turned to balsa because Pat Curren’s name had cropped up, and what Brewer wanted was an old, wooden Curren gun, just to hang on a wall and show people how beautiful they were. Right now, Brewer sees balsa as the key to further big-wave-surfing refinement: “On a big wave, balsa is definitely faster down the face. Darrick Doerner, on a 9’2″ balsa thruster, would be awesome.”
Interestingly enough, Diffenderfer is thinking along the same lines. Two heavy prospects.
Back at the Billabong Pro, Dick Brewer was trying to better define his board-building talents: “I’m not carpenter,” he murmured, with a mixture of derision and pride, “I’m an engineer; a precision man; a qualified tool-and-die maker. I can make anything out of steel.”
Brewer’s father owned a tool-and-die company south of LA and, by age 13, Brewer was running everything in the shop. He also worked part-time in the motor-racing industry. Brewer lived 15 miles inland from Palos Verdes, and was introduced to surfing at age 16. Brewer studied mechanical engineering at Long Beach State, but dropped out to move to Hawaii. He’d only just built his first board in 1958.
Brewer opened Surfboards Hawaii in Haleiwa in 1961, selling Dewey Weber boards and building his own: “Mud Warner bought the first Brewer — he was a Waikiki canoe captain, which was just as good as being governor…maybe better. What happened was, Mud caught a famous ride at Makaha where he grabbed a rail on the inside; Buffalo Keaulana saw it and wanted a Brewer, then it snowballed. Soon Buzzy Trent had one.” The label foundered in 1964, at the height of a nine-month shipping strike that led to Brewer’s floating years as the shaper with all the heavy teamriders.
Right now, Brewer feels another phase coming on, as he enjoys surfing from a different perspective: “I have a clothing sponsor; I’ve made a lot of money from real estate [since ’75], and I’m able to take a lot more time being creative and building boards.” After spending the late eighties developing big-wave thrusters for the likes of Darrick Doerner and Roger Erickson, Brewer’s ready to attempt a push into small-wave credibility.
For this article I’ve only focused on the fulcrum of the Dick Brewer experience. Christ knows, a million tales are floating around, spanning three decades, and, had I asked the aforementioned surfers their opinions, Dick Brewer’s story would’ve spanned three issues.
But there was still one question left. When I asked Brewer to name the best shaper of his time, the deadpan man was quick to give me two dry initials: “RB.”
Photo at the top of the page via Dick Brewer Surfboards website