New York's Pioneer Shapers: Bob 'Hawk' Hawkins
[Hawk setting his rail for a juicy one.]
Early New York shaper Bob “Hawk” Hawkins made his first surfboard in 1957 out of a piece of Styrofoam which he routed a stringer into and laminated with epoxy resin. The two other pioneering New York shapers, John Hannon - credited as being the first surfboard manufacturer on the East Coast - and Charlie Bunger, didn’t start building boards until 1959 and 1961 respectively. Hawk was also the first person to make surfboards available to New York surfers importing Velzys from California and selling them out of his house. In 1959 he took a solo trip to Hawaii, ordered a custom 10’2 balsa gun from Pat Curren and rode big Makaha point surf. The following winter Hawk returned to Hawaii and married the late Jeanne Hawkins, an early New York female surfer who won the 1960 East Coast Surfing Championships hosted by Hannon at Lido Beach. Hawk had two shops on Long Island, one in Massapequa and the other in his hometown of Halesite but "quit shaping" in 1963 to pursue a full-time career clamming, although he continued to make boards for himself and occasionally worked for Bunger. He did two brief shaping stints during the late '60s, the first at Micris Surfboards a short-lived label run by former TWA pilot Lou Evangelist and the second for Surf Jet/Design One where models by Butch Van Artsdalen, Rodney Sumptner, Charlie Bunger, Hawk and others were pumped out and to date remains the largest surfboard building operation ever in New York. By the 1970s Hawk put down the production planer and was simply enjoying the golden age of Long Island clamming but still making boards for himself and friends. In 2000 he started working for Bunger again which is where he met up-and-coming shaper/glasser Mark "Petro" Petrocelli. Recently the two have teamed up and Hawk is now shaping boards out of the Faktion space. He’s been working off his old '60s templates doing a classic 9’6 nose rider with 50/50 rails and a big square tail as well as an 8-foot mini-longboard with super pinched rails. Petro, notorious for never riding boards over six feet, is considering getting one because they look so good. This interview was conducted in September over the phone.
Michael Machemer: When did you first start surfing?
Bob Hawkins: I started in 1957 at Gilgo. I was 18. I grew up in Huntington, Halesite which is right by the harbor but we spent summers in West Hampton. Eventually I got a job lifeguarding at a couple of the Westhampton beaches.
MM: What kind of boards were you riding?
BH: I had a thirteen foot rescue paddle board similar to what the lifeguards used. A tear drop with no fin and hollow like a Tom Blake paddle board. The same year I started surfing I actually made my own board out of Styrofoam which we finished with epoxy. I shaped that at one of my friend’s little boat building repair shops in Halesite.
[Early Hawk Surfboards ad with friend George Fisher surfing top left.]
MM: How big was the board, did it have a stringer?
BH: It was around nine feet. Yeah, I routed a redwood stringer into it.
MM: Was the board based off of Blake or anything you’d seen before?
BH: Not really. It was based off one of those Hawaiian boards made of koa wood that had a rounded nose and were pretty parallel, pretty straight with a wide tail around twelve to fourteen inches in the back.
MM: Who were some of the guys surfing back then?
BH: There weren’t many people around back then. When some of the lifeguards started a couple years after I did, there was an area in Gilgo where we set up a surfing beach back in the late '50s. Guys like George Fisher, who has passed away since. He died in a terrible motorcycle accident. John Ketillo another lifeguard who surfed and Ronnie Smith are a few I can remember off hand. Russ Drumm who’s older than me, maybe by ten years was also surfing. His son is Rusty, he worked in the shipping department at Surf Jet. In the '60s, I surfed with Reuben Snodgrass, a really great guy from Ronkonkoma and that whole crew out at Shinnecock by the inlet. My younger brother used to surf with us too, Richard Hawkins, he was in that crew, there were so many different guys. Dale Snodgrass, Reuben’s son was a very good surfer and paddler who won a lot of the cross bay paddling contests. Reuben also had three daughters, Donna I can remember, the one who used to always win the women’s contests. My wife Jeanne Hawkins actually won the first East Coast Surfing Championship when they had it at Lido Beach. Think it was 1960. John Hannon used to organize and help run the contest before relocating it to Gilgo Beach.
[Hawk racing an inside one. It looks like he’s punching the guy paddling out, and while you can’t believe everything you hear, Hawk was someone you didn’t mess with. Gilgo Beach, 1962.]
[The age old question: What board do I ride? John Nolan (left) and Bob throwing a shaka. West Hampton Beach, 1959.]
MM: What do you remember about Hannon?
BH: We were sort of competitors and it wasn’t always that friendly with him. He’s kind of character. I think he was more of a snow skier than he was surfer but he did surf though. Hannon, Bunger and I were making boards at the same time and he was one of the first. He and Charlie battled it out over the rentals thing at Gilgo and Charlie got it. That was pretty intense for a while.
MM: Aside from being a pioneering New York shaper I’ve heard you brought some of the first surfboards back from California and sold them to local surfers.
BH: I went to the West Coast I think back in 1960 and ended up working with Gordon Clark at Clark Foam and met a lot of characters. Through that whole situation I could get into shops and meet various people. When I came back I started selling Dale Velzy’s boards out of the house. I actually never met Velzy; I called him and sold his boards for a while, basically to individuals. I didn’t have a shop back then but later opened one in Halesite in Huntington and a year later opened one in Massapequa on Merrick Road.
[Hawk holding 9’6 five-stringer Velzy. Summer of 1962.]
[Leaving the water on yet another uncrowded 1959 day holding an 8’6 Velzy double ender, his wife Jeanne’s board.]
MM: Were you still selling Velzys?
BH: No, I just sold my own boards. I made boards for a couple of years up to 1963 and then quit the surfboard thing and starting clamming on the bay.
MM: Did you have other guys helping with your boards?
BH: I had a good friend of mine Bob Halligan who worked on the bay but was also a surfer and worked at my surf shop. He would do everything, he used to glass, sand, rubout, everything but shaping. I had another guy John Jorgenson, a really bright fellow who did glassing, rubout, sanding and everything else except shaping. John is still around but Bob passed in 1994.
MM: What was the deal with shaping for Micris Surfboards?
BH: I worked with Micris after I stopped making my own boards. Jim Phillips left to go out on his own and I worked at the Greenlawn shop which was right by the railroad tracks. Lou Evangelist was a pilot bringing foam back from the West Coast. I think he had two kids and combined their names to form the name Micris. I wasn’t with him for more than a year if that, doing everything, shaping, glassing and sanding.
[Competition Surf spread from the Sixties, Hawk on the nose.]
[Early magazine spread of Hawk frothing in the Gilgo shorey.]
MM: The Surf Jet shaping gig was after this? I’ve heard it was a pretty big operation.
BH: Huntington Hartford was behind it he had all the bucks. He was an entrepreneur and millionaire. I only met the guy once. I worked for Charlie Bunger and he had a couple of shops, one was in the lumber factory in Lindenhurst where I worked in the mid '60s. In the late '60s Surf Jet gobbled him up and a bunch of other names and that’s how that started. The factory was on Grand Blvd in Deer Park, a big industrial area. It was the largest surf factory on Long Island ever, that’s for sure. They made my boards, the Hawk boards were part of the Surf Jet logo and they were making six or seven different models. They made the Bunger board, the Rodney Sumptner model, and the Butch Van Artsdalen and Fred Hemmings ones. We were shipping them all over the country. They did big volume there, we were doing eight boards a day and there were at least three full time shapers. I shaped my own boards and Butch Van Artsdalen and Fred Hemmings styles. They had Bruno Huber who came from Hannon and various different guys like Rich Coultist and one of my friends from Huntington Ray Barnes. Ray was one of the big innovators in the shaping machine and went to the West Coast and worked on them.
['60s contest line-up held in the Hamptons with Hawkins, Cusano, Eastman, Drumm, Gippetti, McCabe et al.]
MM: Were the Surf Jet boards early computer shapes?
BH: No, they were all hand shaped. But they had a thinning machine I guess what you would call a predecessor of the shaping machine that thinned the blank. You’d take it and it had the nose and tail thinned out but no template on it. That’s how we got them and I think we made ten dollars a board. I was shaping the Butch models and he would come to New York. I had him over here a few times and he was quite the character.
MM: Did Butch surf in New York?
BH: I didn’t surf with him much he didn’t like the surf here. After what he came from he didn’t bother with it too much. The Surf Jet thing was over by 1970 and I pretty much went into clamming full time. It had gotten really good on the North Shore of Long Island, this was the heyday of Long Island clamming in the 70’s and I did well.
MM: Were you still shaping on the side?
BH: I still did, I made my own boards and a couple for my friends but didn’t have a shop. Actually Squeak Saunders at Phoenix was finishing some of my boards for a while but I did very few. Then around 2000, I went back to shape with Charlie Bunger over at the Babylon factory and probably shaped with him until the fall of 2011, making all of his longboard orders and a lot of his fun shapes.
MM: Now you’re collaborating with a younger shaper like Mark Petrocelli of Faktion Surfboards...
BH: Yeah, Mark is doing a really good job. I hadn’t shaped in a few years. Well, I made three longboards for my grandchildren who live in West Palm Beach, Florida and shaped Matt Ward a longboard about two years ago. Matt has one of my relatively new ones which was finished at Mike Becker’s place Natures Shapes. I also shaped a 5’10 modern Mini-Simmons for my wife’s son in law Matt Horsley.
MM: Were you aware of Simmons early on in your shaping or have any particular shaping influences?
BH: Oh yeah, I had heard of Simmons. I’d actually met Phil Edwards when I was working for Clark Foam. He was picking up blanks at the factory and for some reason I went for a ride with him one day. I got to know him, he seemed like a really nice fellow and I always liked the way he shaped. Phil’s probably one of my influences. When I went to Hawaii in 1959 and got involved with big wave riding I had Pat Curren make me a gun, a big wave board. He had his own little clique that he hung out with. When you ordered a board you went into sort of an office, a location in Waikiki and Pat was sitting behind this desk with two of his cohorts. They were all characters back then, you know how it was. It was very strange two guys on either side of him; I thought it was the surfing underground. I didn’t know what the hell it was and I had to leave a deposit.
[Hawk on the nose during a '60s solo sesh.]
MM: Do you remember how much the board cost?
BH: I think the board was a hundred, maybe a hundred and forty bucks. He actually made it pretty quickly because I needed it very quickly and it was done in a week and a half, a 10’2 narrow balsa wood board with a narrow little square tail. I gave it to Bob Halligan and he had it when he passed away. I’m not sure where it is now.
MM: Did you ever surf with Curren?
BH: I didn’t’ surf with Pat but surfed with Fred Hemmings a lot and his sister Cynthia. I surfed on the West Side at Makaha a lot where I’d see Ricky Grigg, Peter and Fred Van Dyke, that whole crew. It was pretty deserted, especially on the west coast there was really nothing there. I stayed in Waikiki in an apartment on Cartwright Road which was only a few blocks from Waikiki. I’d surf with Donald Takayama; I have super 8 film of him. I met Miki Dora but didn’t surf with him. One day on the North Shore at Sunset Beach and was talking to him he seemed like a pretty nice guy. Dora was mellow, not like he was supposed to be in the water. I told him where I was from and he was pretty stoked over that. This was in 1959 when I was there by myself but met a bunch of guys from Australia, god knows what their names were but they were a bunch of pretty crazy people, I’ll tell you that. I went back to Hawaii in 1960 and got married and didn’t go back until the 1980s and surfed in Kauai.
[Makaha 1959 on the 10’2 Pat Curren gun.]
MM: What about encounters with traveling surfers coming to New York in the 1960s?
BH: I surfed with Nat Young over at Fly’s one day. We went over on a boat. Nat was a really unbelievable surfer, he’d catch waves so far outside you couldn’t believe it. A great paddler too, he was long and lean. I surfed with Mike Doyle at Threes, which I found. A lot of people say things about that but I discovered that place. People tell you different, they’re full of crap. I was the one who first surfed there. It had pilings but now there’s a big long jetty and it doesn’t break anymore. We sat and watched it one day on the outgoing tide, it was going slack soon and it started to break a little bit and there were these pilings which were part of the old pier and I said to everyone, “it doesn’t look too bad let’s go out and try it.” So I went out and that was the beginning of it. This was back in the early '60s. It looked a little treacherous. A lot of boards would get wrecked there because of the pilings and rocks. It was a nasty place.
[Hawk surfing legendary Suffolk County spot Threes, a place he discovered and first rode in the early 1960’s, on his backhand without a leash. A jetty was built and it no longer breaks.]
MM: At 75 are you still surfing?
BH: I surf basically on Fire Island across from where I work on the bay. I tell people it’s usually only a shore break to keep them away.
[Hawk templating a classic nose rider at Faktion Surfboards, 2014. Photo by Mark Petrocelli.]
[A vintage 9’6 Hawk from 1961.]
- Words by Michael Machemer ; photos courtesy of Bob Hawkins