Cher Pendarvis, The Shaper
[1970, Cher Pendarvis glassing 5'2" Fish. Photo by Thomas Threinen.]
San Francisco born artist, board builder and surfer historian Cher Pendarvis rode her first wave on Florida’s Gulf Coast in 1964 on a board she restored. In 1968, at age seventeen, she moved to San Diego, where she had lived briefly as a child, and into the hotbed of talent surrounding the fish, a design pioneered by radical kneeboarder Stephen Lis. She came under the influence of underground heavies Tom Threinen, Larry Gephart, Larry ‘Bulldog’ Duff, John ‘The New Break Kid’ Riddle, Bunker Spreckels, Skip Frye, Mikey Casey, John Brockway and Ben Ferris. Legendary rippers that even the initiated may have to look up.
Cher began building her own sub-six foot bullets to navigate the local reefs, at a time when people were riding eight foot v-bottoms and single fin guns. Cher recalls east coast legend Mike Tabeling visiting San Diego in the early '70s and being inspired by the fish, “Mike was a very good surfer, very smooth. He picked up on how to plane and skate the fish and thought they’d work very well on the east coast. He liked the wider ones, like twenty two inches. The ones we rode, even the short ones, were twenty one inches or narrower. Tabeling was tall, over 6 feet [6’4”] and was riding longer fish in comparison, 5'6"-5’10".”
James Blears won the 1972 World Contest on a fish shaped by Mike Sheffer which Cher made the fins for and helped glass with Tom Threinen. In the late '70s when she was working in the art department at Surfing magazine, she encountered another east coast legend and fish enthusiast, New Yorker Rick Rasmussen. She remembers him as, “friendly, he had a nice demeanor and was interested in fish surfboards.” Two nods for Cher and the fish’s connection to the east coast.
Occasionally Cher would encounter chauvinistic attitudes toward women being in the water, but her level of shredding squashed most beef. An early female pro, Cher rode for Channin Surfboards where she also worked designing logos, pin-lining and glossing boards. The Surfing Heritage Museum and the California Surf Museum consider her the earliest female shaper and board builder they’re aware of. Cher is cautious to claim herself but says, “I never knew of other women who worked on surfboards back in the earlier days, except for my friend Laura Powers who was a glosser and resin pin liner at Con Surfboards.” She also mentions Jeannie Chesser (mother of the late big wave charger Todd) as someone close in age, a well-respected airbrush artist on Oahu whose been working on surfboards for years. While it’s not polite to ask a woman her age, Cher’s sun streaked reddish blonde hair and freckled face give her an ageless girlish demeanor, mixed with a maternal grand-mère vibe. But before the hodads get any funny ideas, she’s been happily married to innovative surfboard designer Steve “Pendoflex” Pendarvis for the past twenty three years. Both are longtime 976-SURF and later Surfline reporters, checking the surf seven days a week for more than twenty years. They live a humble seaside existence making art, surfboards and penning articles while trying to fit in as much daily water time as possible. Cher was recently featured in Bill Stern’s California’s Designing Women 1896-1986 book as one of the top 46 female designers who’ve contributed to American commercial design and fine craft.
This interview with Cher was conducted over the phone in the spring of 2014.
[1970, Cher with a 5'2" Fish.]
[1966, Hard Bottom Turn on 9'6" Weber Standard Speed, Harold Iggy shape at Sunset Beach.]
Michael Machemer: When were you first exposed to surfing?
Cher Pendarvis: I was born in San Francisco but moved to Hawaii when I was five. My mom and I would watch the surfers in Waikiki and other spots and we played in the waves. Back then there was nothing. The Manoa Surfrider and Royal Hawaiian were the only large hotels. It was like a park that went from Kapiolani Park all the way down and there were some small businesses, places you could stay, things like that. We lived up on the hill side beyond where Kapiolani Park is. If you go mauka, toward the mountains, there was a little blacktop road and some houses. This was 1955-1956. My dad was a navy officer, deployed on a ship so my mom and I stayed in Hawaii. I was always really attracted to the ocean and my mom secretly wanted to surf. She was a little bohemian being an artist but my two dads were both military men. My real dad was a little more understanding but my stepdad was not at all, he’d say, ‘no daughter of mine is gonna surf!’ He didn’t like surfers. He had lived in San Diego and I think the bohemian ways of surfers bothered him, which made it hard getting to the beach later on.
MM: Do you recall seeing any of the famous Waikiki surfers of the time?
CP: I was five and six years old and don’t remember the names of famous surfers. I wasn’t hanging around with them, we were watching more. My mom would take me down to this park and we’d go in the ocean where we could and swim. I remember the surfers’ styles and the kinds of boards. People prone riding paipos and small alaias, names I know because I’ve been to the Bishop Museum and learned a lot about the boards. I remember the small wood boards and the really big wood ones. It made a huge impression on me.
MM: Were people riding hot curls?
CP: I don’t remember the bottoms but some of them were wider and flatter and others had more pulled tails that could’ve been hot curls, especially later in the '50s.
MM: When did you first start surfing?
CP: I had been playing in the shore break, body-surfing and started stand up surfing on borrowed boards in the spring of 1964 when I was in junior high. I was a conservative, shy young woman, and it took courage for me to ask someone who I did not know if I could borrow their board when they were finished surfing. When my step dad retired we moved to St. Petersburg, Florida and that’s where I got my first board. In the spring and summer before 10th grade, I worked at a surf shop that my friend’s dad owned called The Red Baron.
[1969 Cher with 5'8" arch tail twin fin. Photo by Tom Threinen.]
[1969 Cher with a blank. Photo from the Pendarvis archives.]
MM: What kind of board was it?
CP: A 9’7" O’Hare (Pat was a pioneering Florida shaper) that had been broken in half. It had a great big D fin and might have been a pig; it was already old when I got it. I spent the spring patching dings and sanding in order to earn the board and asked my stepdad if I could bring it home. He said, ‘well if you earned it you can bring it home’ so I showed him the receipt and he let me keep it. I continued to teach myself surfing. Later, there was another shop nearby run by a fellow named Joe Nuzzo, a guy from California who for some reason came to that area of Florida and opened a surf shop. When I was in high school I did some artwork and also some ding repair for him. St. Petersburg was really a retirement town but there was a small, dedicated surfing community.
MM: Did you see other girls surfing in Florida?
CP: There were a few other surfer girls the area, Jane and Linda, and I remember there being a couple of good women surfers in the Cocoa Beach area. I was just in Florida for a few years. In some ways, it was behind what was happening on the West Coast, and a safe place to be during the psychedelic era. In other areas, a lot of people were getting into trouble. I was a hardworking kid, dedicated student, surfer and artist. My home life was not safe with my stepfather and when I was seventeen I got married and moved to San Diego.
MM: And got involved with the developing fish scene and building your own boards?
CP: Yes, those were very inspired times. I learned about shaping and glassing from Tom Threinen, Stevie Lis, Mike Casey, Skip Frye and my husband Steve Pendarvis, all of whom I watched shape and build surfboards. I am grateful for their inspirations and encouragement. Steve showed me the concept of rail bands, which help keep the shape in balance. I am very proud of my husband, who is a one-man-band, making his beautiful, innovative Pendoflex boards one hundred percent by hand, start to finish.
[1969, January. Cher off the lip. Photo by Tom Threinen]
[1970, Sunrise Bottom Turn, Cher on a 5'2" Fish.]
MM: Where were you getting foam from back then?
CP: In the late 1960s we were looking for any kind of foam we could find to make a board, including making boards out of longboards that were stripped down. In those days it was hard to get foam and we’d sometimes get foam that was made for insulation instead of blown for surfboards. There were a few blank manufacturers in Orange County; occasionally some of the guys would get rides up there. For instance, Stevie Lis was making his own boards way before he was able to drive, same with my husband Steve Pendarvis, who made his first wood paipos as a ten year old kid. Before Mitch’s opened in the late 1960s, we would get blocks of refrigeration foam, or reuse foam from old surfboards, and get other materials from the boat manufacturers, like fiberglass and resin.
MM: There aren’t stringers in refrigeration foam, was this also for flex?
CP: We made stringer-less fish because it was lighter, they were short, wide and fairly thick so you didn’t really need a stringer. Yes, the thinner shapes had more noticeable flex. Also, to save money sometimes we would use seconds. My 5’5" fish (aka Magic Fish) which I rode for a number of years is stringer-less, and the board only cost me $18 to make. I was shaping, co-shaping and sharing duties, sometimes I thought when I shaped alone I overworked my boards. We often collaborated with family and friends, as we do today. I had really good design ideas because I was so curious about why things worked the way they do with different fin foils, rockers, rail designs and concaves. I did glassing and made fins and was comfortable with the materials because I was already repairing my own boards and others' boards. I felt honored when male surfers I respected asked me to work on their boards. This surfboard work helped earn my way through college. One of the most gratifying experiences of my life has been making a surfboard start to finish and having a family member, friend or myself having fun riding it. After all these years, it is easier for me to see the balance and dimension of a shaped blank as it is being worked on, and I am more confident with my eyes and vision. My earlier shaping in the late 1960s and 1970s was with only hand tools, a saw, sanding blocks and screens. When making fins, I laid up the glass sheets, and cut my templates out with a saw. I foiled the fins using a small disk sander, and by hand. I also enjoyed glassing and laminating with resin color.
[1971, Cher on a 5'2" fish. Roundhouse cutback.]
[1972, Cher's Fish and art at home]
[Cher's cutback at Cliffs. Photo from the Pendarvis archives.]
MM: Was the first board you shaped a fish?
CP: It wasn’t a fish, my second board was. The first one was a rounded diamond tail single fin. Around the same time, we also made a twin fin which was before we were standing up on fish. It was a 5’8" arc tail that had little twin fins on the tail. It didn’t have a whole lot of drive but was fun to ride. I’ll never forget my first ride on a fish; it was a 5’2" down rail board, a twin keel. I’d been riding the 5’8" twin fin and a 6’1" rounded pin single fin, a chip that was 19 ½” wide and then moved down to a 5’2" keel fin fish that was loose, skatey with a lot of drive and flew on top of the water.
MM: With Gephart keels?
CP: Larry wasn’t making his wood fins yet. These were fiberglass ones that I laid up and made very similar to the template Stevie Lis was making at the time. Larry was making fins for his own boards but making them out of fiberglass. Stevie’s first fishes had fiberglass fins. One of my fish is an early Lis; it was Stevie’s big wave board, a 5’2". He built the entire board and it has fiberglass fins. People got into the wood keels because they were lighter and liked the way they looked, this happened later in the 70s. Lis had the people at Mitch’s make some fin blanks using his templates so you could go up there and get fins if you didn’t make your own. Friends were experimenting with wood to make skateboards with and I think that gave them the idea of making wood fins. Before the fish, we also made these hard, down-rail boards that were real thick. Bunker Spreckels was good friends with my neighbor Warren Brown who was making interesting boards with his roommate Mike whose last name I can’t recall.
[1973, Cher on a 5'8" Lis fish, Costa Azul, Zippers before discovery. Photo by Thomas Threinen.]
[1974, January. Cher on a 5'5" Fish at Punta Mita. Photo by Thomas Threinen.]
MM: Was Bunker shaping?
CP: Bunker did a little bit of shaping and had great ideas, but other people usually made his boards. I rode two edge boards, one was a handoff from Bunker and the other one Warren and I shaped together that was more of a step up, but had razor hard down-rails all the way around. For this board, I made a set of eleven fins that fit in the fin box, ranging from a low, longer based keel, to a small, narrow based finger fin.
MM: What year was this?
CP: Around 1969-1970.
MM: What was Bunker like?
CP: He was very intelligent and very, very fun to surf with, a free spirit. He played really interesting guitar and would sing; some of his lyrics were pretty poetic. You know how some people will rap about particular situations, this wasn’t exactly rap but he’d be able to make a song about whatever was going on with the crew at the time. It was pretty fun. The last time I saw Bunker was the year before he passed away. I was over in Hawaii visiting Rell Sunn and went to the North Shore to see friends and saw Bunker at Rocky Point. He’d gotten his money some years before and had dramatically changed his lifestyle. Once he inherited all that money he died too soon…or a lot too soon. I saw him surfing and then we hung out and talked on the beach for a while. He told me he wasn’t happy about the way things had been going and he wanted to make some changes in his life, changes that would’ve been for the better. It’s really too bad what happened that night, overdosing. It’s super sad, especially having known him surfing here in San Diego and in Hawaii.
[1977, February. Rell, Lisa, and Cher at Rell's Makaha home. Photo from the Pendarvis archives.]
MM: What was he riding that day at Rocky Point?
CP: He was riding a board that had the Brewer rails of the time, a rounded pin single fin, about 19 inches wide, with low rails and a pointed nose.
MM: You mentioned going to Hawaii to visit Rell Sunn, did she ride fish?
CP: She usually rode single fins and might have had twin fins in the '70s, but mostly I remember her riding single fins. One year in the later 1970s I brought my 5'8" Lis fish to Hawaii and we had fun riding it at Makaha. Rell surfed a lot of Harold Iggy’s boards, who’s a wonderful Hawaiian shaper. In Hawaii, we were riding boards with quite a bit of thickness, down rails all the way around, but a little softer up front with vee behind the fin.
MM: When did you guys meet?
CP: I met her in 1975 and we were friends for all those years until she died in 1998. There’s just so much inspiration from the way she lived her life, so much fun and she had a wicked sense of humor. I remember surfing big Sunset with her and I rarely wore a leash, even after they came in style and she’s like, ‘you gotta wear a leash!’ One of the things I learned from her was how to go through waves at big Sunset, how to dive and pull your board using your leash down under the water. I’d visit her in Hawaii and we’d do some diving and a lot of arts and crafts as well as surfing and cooking. We both loved to bake.
MM: Who were some other female surfers who’ve inspired you?
CP: Joyce Hoffman lived in the San Diego area for a few years. I saw her competing in a man/woman event at Ocean Beach and it was probably one of the finest surfing days that I’ve ever seen in OB. She was on one of her first shortboards and just driving turns, so strong and such an amazing athlete. She was surfing I think for Hobie then and was staying with Judy Dibble who’s another legendary lady surfer. Judy was a big inspiration for me during the longboard days. She ended up quitting surfing when the boards got super short. Something I learned from her in the late 1960s was how to paddle out through a beach break. This is when boards were longer and she was riding an 8 foot board at Avalanche, a left that breaks hard when it ledges. I remember seeing her pop over the whitewater and grab the nose of her board. She’s the only person that I saw do that. I was riding a board similar in length, but didn’t stay with it long because we started making fish and going really short and I was game for that.
Earlier in my teens, I was also inspired by Shelly Merrick and Joey Hamasaki who I met at a contest in the 1960s, and Linda Benson, who lived in north San Diego County. She went to Point Loma High but moved up to Encinitas with her family. I saw her in the magazines and some Bud Browne films and she surfed different from the other girls. She just surfed how she surfed and I admired that about her. She didn’t compare herself with other women or other guys. She just surfed and was the first woman hotdogger.
[1974, Cher on a 5'5" Fish. Frame grab from old super 8, courtesy of Tom Threinen.]
MM: I’ve heard you’re quite the shredder. Weren’t you an early female pro?
CP: Ha, it’s hard for me to talk about my level of surfing. Well, years earlier Skip Frye told me he’d gone to contests and saw what other women were doing and what I was doing riding fishes and other boards and said that I was one of the best women in the world at the time. I just stared at him going, what!? I couldn’t believe it. I was just surfing with the guys on a daily basis, with people like Stevie Lis, Jeff Ching, and Larry Gephart. Skip has always been supportive of my surfing since we met in the 1960s. He encouraged me to join the WISA and I competed in the first-ever pro event for women, the Hang Ten Women’s Pro at Malibu in September of 1975.
[1973, Cher on single fin. Photo by Warren Bolster. Note from Cher: 'Warren Bolster kindly took some photos of me surfing our reef at Azure Vista in the '70s. This was one of the few sessions that I was not riding a fish, but a single fin. Sometimes we/I would come down with two boards, a fish and a single fin and switch boards as the tide changed. I love this area and reef with all my heart. Warren kindly shared some photos from the times. RIP Warren, we miss you. Aloha.']
[Mary Lou Drummy, Cher Pendarvis, Laola Lake, and Rell Sun in a 1975 Hang Ten Ad]
MM: This is when you were riding for Channin?
CP: Yes. I remember surfing North County in 1974 on my 5’5" Magic Fish and lost my board on a wave and swam in. There was a guy out on a balsa Diffenderfer slipper and I saw him pulling into these little pockets. He comes paddling my board back out and says, ‘Young lady when you want a real surfboard come see me. My name is Mike and I’m a shaper at Channin.” I’m thinking, this is one of my favorite boards and he’s telling me I need a real surfboard!
MM: Was it Mike Diffenderfer?
CP: No, Mike Casey. He was a really good friend of Diff’s and introduced me to him. I didn’t have a board for bigger waves and Mike ended up selling me a 7’6" rounded pin Channin/Diffenderfer. He then recommended me to Tony as a team rider. I started surfing for Channin, and Tony hired me to design logos for his brands. Tony said that if I ever needed work, he'd give me a job. During a few summers, I assisted Sam Cody, the pin liner and glosser. Sam is a meticulous craftsman, and it was an honor to apprentice with him. I was the only woman on their team and at the factory. Tony would tell me that I sold more boards for him than the rest of the team because I was really enthusiastic about surfing and the designs we were doing. I had made fish down here in San Diego, had my Stevie Lis’s and a couple other fish and brought some of my rail and tail design ideas and incorporated them into the boards Mike Casey was shaping for me at Channin.
MM: Did Mike Casey shape the fish that Jimmy Blears won the 1972 World Contest on?
CP: No, Mike Sheffer did. He was a college friend who was a little older, a neighbor and surfing buddy in San Diego. He told me once that he was inspired by my surfing on a fish and said that if a woman could ride it that well he’d like to have one. In 1972, when Jimmy Blears came to San Diego to compete in the World Contest he stayed with Mike, who had recently shaped a new fish for himself. Our friend Tom Threinen and I glassed it and I made the fins and did the artwork. Jimmy borrowed it, had fun and rode it on the day of the final at OB Pier. The waves were racy and small and it was exciting to be there when Jimmy won the contest on this homemade Ocean Beach fish.
[1977, Cher at Rocky Point. Channin Ad. Photo by Aaron Chang.]
MM: What was it like being a woman in the line-up, were the men welcoming?
CP: It was interesting in those days, women "didn’t surf" and it was pretty much like the Wild West. It can be challenging getting in and out of the water at certain reef breaks in Point Loma and dangerous if you’re not careful, so it wasn’t conducive for many women to surf. I first surfed the Cliffs in the late '60s on my 9’8” Surfboards Hawaii Model A and it was a big deal getting your board down the cliff. It used to take two people. You’d have to hand your board down to someone or take their board up. Before going to particular reefs I wanted to get my surfing to as high a level as possible. I started going on the smaller days and the guys were mostly gentleman but there were a couple who didn’t like women in the water. There were rarely other women in this one area in those days. At a favorite spot where I like to surf, it could be kind of like a war zone. There were different cliques but I had surfing friends among these different groups of guys, even though I didn’t socialize with them that much outside of the water. As Stevie Lis says, “we saw how much Cher loved surfing so we accepted her" which is pretty cute. I remember one of the big dog guys was taking off on me, he was riding a gun and I was riding this little 6’1" single fin and was taking off deeper and further out. This guy paddling out, who’s now my friend, starts yelling, "Stop cutting her off, she’s ripping!" It took an elder to get this guy to stop, even though he was only two years younger than me. But yeah they accepted me, and we shared waves together and I really cherish that, because they were so core. It was pretty quiet out there in the lineup unless there were people yelling at each other. I was quiet and very observant and learned how to read the boils on the reef from watching Jeff Ching. The boils move a certain way when a certain type of set is going to come.
MM: Is it true you were out surfing that famous day in 1970 when Jeff Ching stood up on Stevie Lis’s fish?
CP: Yes. I’ll never forget Jeff's surfing, how fluid and quick he was. Jeff had wanted to ride Stevie’s fish for a while and when he did, got right up. He said with the fish, it felt like he was surfing on his feet, and afterward when he went back to his other boards, it felt like the tails of his other boards were dragging in the water! Jeff is originally from Hawaii but went to San Diego State, the same school I did, but he studied math and physics.
MM: What had Ching been riding prior?
CP: He was riding long boards when he first came and prior to the fishes, narrow Hennessey guns in the seven foot range, seventeen or eighteen inches wide. Jeff lives up in central California and is really into snowboarding now.
MM: What have you been riding lately?
CP: Late last year my husband Steve made me a new 6'4" Winger Fish Pendoflex with birch wood fins that have a little bit narrower base than a keel. We had fun making the board and fin template together. The rails are tapered and it surfs very smooth and is amazing backside. Skip shaped me a 9'3" Fish Simmons on December 12-13, 2013, and we finished it for the New Year. It is a Frye-Pendoflex. Recently, Skip came to the Cliffs and helped christen it, he loved the ride and said the flex was perfect. As you know, Stevie Lis and my Steve made the wonderful 6'8" Lis-Pendoflex which I am so thankful for, amazingly thankful. This board is very versatile and is so much fun to ride. A 50th surfing anniversary quiver miraculously happened!
[Cher with Pendoflex 6'4 and 6'8 Lis Pendoflex. Photo by George Barnes.]
[Cher Pendarvis with 50th Anniversary quiver decks and bottoms. Photo by George Barnes.]
[2013, December. Skip and Cher with a Fish Simmons for Cher. Photo by Steve Pendarvis.]
[2013, September. Stevie with 6'8" for Cher. Photo by Cher Pendarvis.]
[2007, Skip and Cher with Cher's Fish. Photo by Steve Pendarvis.]
[1987, Steve and Cher in Baja Sur. Photo by Michele Jacquin.]
[2004, Steve Pendarvis longboard cuttie in San Miguel.]
[2005, Cher Pendarvis, Rincon, Clean Water Classic. Photo from the Pendarvis archives.]
[2005, Steve Pendarvis at Lennox Head, Australia. Photo by Cher Pendarvis.]
[1990, Steve and Cher, Homeland. Photo by Ryan Roulette.]
[2014, January. Steve & Cher Pendarvis. Photo by Ryan Roulette.]
[Cher painting the Dove of Peace.]
[Cher cutting template. Photo by Steve Pendarvis.]
[Pendoflex 6'4" Winger Fish foil & fins.]
- Words by Michael Machemer