Renny Yater's Practical Progression

Reynolds ‘Renny’ Yater designed and built the Yater Spoon in Santa Barbara in 1964, a board that Mickey Dora dubbed as “bitchin’” the first time he rode it. Today, the board reigns as one of the lightest and most maneuverable boards of its era, marking it as a centerpiece in progressive surfboard design.

As a result of its navigability compared to other models of its time, the Spoon provided a platform for a smooth and low-key style of California surfing in which Yater was both purveyor and performer. Eventually, the board made its way the east coast, popping up in New Jersey, New York, and Florida, and though he could have followed the blazing trails of the ‘60s surf market expansion set by fellow boardmakers Weber, Noll, Hobie, and the like, Yater kept his board building business relatively small and hands-on.

Yater began shaping surfboards in the early ‘50s out of curiosity and necessity. In 1956, he was an early employee of Hobie, glassing boards in Dana Point, and by 1958 he was running Dale Velzy’s glassing operation in San Clemente. In 1959, he moved to Santa Barbara to further his fishing career and, at the same time, ended up opening a surf shop.

Now in his early eighties, he still moves about the shaping bay with a certain discreetness. He’s restrained in his movements, elegantly circling around the board with precise motions that only a well-practiced craftsman could obtain. His high rotator cuff is shot he tells me, making it difficult for him to paddle, but being on his feet and shaping eight hours a day doesn’t hurt him a bit.

Most days Yater works alone. The built out garage that is his shaping operation is hidden from street view. Inside, his set up is minimal, completely void of any kitsch, with only a few sentimental objects of nostalgia lingering in his office. It’s just the essentials: his tools, a phone, and a framed aerial view of Rincon, his home break, among them. The space fits his energy: quiet, focused, practical, efficient.

The following interview and photos took place in Yater’s shaping room and office in Santa Barbara in March of 2014.

Chelsea Burcz: What made you start surfing to begin with? It wasn’t as easy back then.

Renny Yater: I grew up in a small town, Laguna Beach, which is all slam dump beach break type surf. There was no log longboard surfing in Laguna at that time. Surfing was very, very minute in its development. There was a small culture of surfers in a place called San Onofre and a little bit around Dana Point, but I mean it was just a handful, a hundred maybe, hardly any of them. Once and a while I’d see them going through town with surfboards sticking out of the back of the car, wondering, where do they do this? But had never seen it done.

When I was about 15 or 16, I’m was down near this place called Salt Creek with my dad, which is just towards Dana Point, and a couple of them show up on a very good day with these big boards. That was the first time I’d ever actually seen it being done. It got my attention, and by that time I started driving a car, so a buddy of mine went with me and we watched again. We figured out how to get a board, which they sold for, back then, around $65 -- a whole finished 10 foot 70 lbs to 90 lbs surfboard. I found one used, I bought it for $30. I got my dad to take me down there and I launched the thing. It was actually at Doheny State Park, just underneath Dana Point, it was my first time surfing and it was probably 1947. It’s actually pretty hard for a kid that young to handle those kinds of boards, it was a sport that you had to be at least 20 to 25 years-old to do. It was difficult, two of us had to carry the thing, one on each end, just to get it in the water. And then you’d knee paddle out and turn it around, stand up, and ride it straight to the beach. That’s the way it was done then. I eventually got pretty interested in it.

Around 1948 or 1949, surfboards were starting to change. Fiberglass was introduced after the second World War, as it was a WWII government project product at the time. It was opened to the general public use after the war. We started to see surfboards getting different shapes on them, people were getting a little more creative about it. Then fiberglass covered them, and that got my attention pretty good. I thought, I’m going to try to shape one of these boards myself. We knew where to get balsa wood in Los Angeles, there was a distributor since the stuff comes from Ecuador. I eventually got enough of it and learned how to glue the wood together -- and this was prior to electric tools for hand shaping. We had to do it with draw knives and big, long planes, and of course hand saws. It took a couple of weeks to make one.

CB: Did anybody teach you how to shape?

RY: I watched somebody do it and then I figured it out myself. That’s kind of my nature of things. I probably hand shaped one all the way through in the early ‘50s, somewhere right in there. Other people saw me doing it and then they’d want me to do one for them. That’s the way you got a surfboard built then, you just found somebody who could do one and you’d try to get them to shape the thing, and maybe they’d fiberglass it, which was pretty hard to use then. I wasn’t doing it for a living, I was doing it as a hobby. I got started in the fishing business somewhere around 1953.

CB: What kind of fishing were you doing?

RY: I was diving for commercial abalone in California. I did that for four or five years, then I graduated into doing lobster trap fishing and I spent the rest of my life doing that. Hobie was starting to make surfboards as a living, probably somewhere around 1952 or 1953. He got to a point where he was a little too big to be doing it in the garage in his parent’s house in Laguna Beach. So they bought a lot up in Dana Point, his dad helped him do all this, and they got a three car garage, right around 1954. I didn’t go to work for him until 1956. One of his fiberglassers didn’t show up for a couple of weeks and he needed somebody to do it, I knew how to glass but not what we call ‘production’ glassing. So I said you’re going to need to teach me how to do these boards, and eventually we were doing about six boards a week. That doesn’t sound like much, but that was a job back then.

CB: How did you meet Hobie?

RY: Well, we’re from the same town and I saw what he was up to. In front of his house you could surf a surfboard a little bit. It was doable. It was probably the only place in Laguna at the time. It was natural for him to go out and try his boards right there. So our paths crossed. Later on, when Velzy moved down from South Bay, Manhattan Beach area, and opened up a shop in San Clemente, I moved over and started working for Dale, in 1958 I think. I did his fiberglassing operation.

CB: Were you shaping your own boards on the side?

RY: A little bit, but I wasn’t trying to be in the business to do that solely. In that area, at that time period, surfing was basically a summer sport. It kind of faded out in the winter, mostly because this was pre-wetsuits. The water would get cold and we wouldn’t get much surf in the winter. So it would get real busy in May, June, July and would start to taper off in September and October. In the winter months it’d be bleak.

I did that for a couple years, and then the foam entered the market. That made a huge change in the industry. I was still involved with fishing at that time, it was my primary source of income. I decided to relocate to Santa Barbara in 1959 for the sole reason of getting a job with a winter fishery. I’d prepare in the late summers and do it all winter, and then phase out in March. I had the summer months with really no income, so I thought I’d make some surfboards. At that time, there might have been up to 10 guys that surfed in Santa Barbara. That was all. They all just came up to ride the Rincon during the winter months and you wouldn’t see anybody in the summer at all. So the prospect of trying to open up a surf shop here and selling boards was pretty bleak. But we made it, just barely did.

CB: What pushed you to open the shop if there weren’t many people surfing here?

RY: I was watching Rincon, and I could see that this place was really going to be something of interest someday. When I first came to Santa Barbara, I was mainly making boards for clients that I had when I worked for Velzy. You did that a lot in that era, you would drive a long ways to get a surfboard. It was easy to drive like that, it’s just hell now.

CB: So then the market started to grow?

RY: Yes, as surfers knew I was here, it grew. Then, of course, UCSB grew. When I first came here I think there were 1,500 students enrolled, and it wasn’t on Isla Vista yet. Now it’s up to 20,000 or something like that, and a lot of them surf. Back then, I think there was two, maybe three. By the end of the first year into the second summer, I was busy, and by the third summer I was really busy.

CB: And you were still fishing?

RY: Yes, I was burning the candle at both ends for many years. I was around age 32 or something like that.

CB: When was the Spoon designed?

RY: That board was created in ‘64, so I had already been up in Santa Barbara for about five years. It was the end of wood board era and the beginning of the foam. When I left Dale and came here, I did a handful of wood boards but everything was turning to foam.

CB: What was the thought process behind the Spoon? How did you arrive at that design?

RY: I took a trip to Australia after the season closed here and stayed for maybe a month. I took a couple of surfboards and I was disappointed in the way they worked there, and on the way back I was thinking, I’ve got to make this thing better, I’ve got to do something about this. We were at a stale point in surfboard design, I thought. We were not moving forward. At that point, we were able to make surfboards lighter but the design was still the same.

It occurred to me that at the nose of the surfboard, the only part of it that’s in the water is the bottom. The deck of the surfboard never touches the water, you’re only standing on the back. The front of it is just there. This was a big problem with boards back then, they all weighed 24 lbs to 30 lbs. Pushing them around and maneuvering them was the hardest part. Catching the wave wasn’t that bad, they caught the waves pretty good, it’s just that when you made a turn one direction, cutting back was difficult. So I thought if I could reduce the weight of the nose of the surfboard in some way, without changing the design of the thing, why not? I scooped out the deck of the thing, I took out 2 lbs at most. I made sort of a prototype board. At that time also, George Greenough was starting to fiddle around with fins that were shaped like fish fins, raked back dolphin fins, and things like that. He started experimenting and putting them on surfboards and getting guys to try it. That got my attention, and we started to do what he was doing but not as extreme, cutting the back end of the fin out to relieve the pressure on it, and also moving the fins up for the very first time, from the tail of the board up under the board. So I tried that as well on the first prototype. I made the board as light as I could with the fiberglassing, I didn’t care how long it lasted, I just wanted to get out there and try it. I was really impressed with how it worked.

It was summer, and we had no surf up here that summer, so I gave the first one to Mickey Dora. He was personally a good friend of mine, we both surfed together back at Doheny in San Onofre way before I moved up here. He’d go to Malibu and surf there and I’d go to Malibu, and our paths would cross a lot. We both thought the same way about surfing. So I gave him the first one, I told him to take it down to Malibu and ride it and give me some feedback on this thing because I couldn’t use it up here. (This is before we discovered the Ranch and all that coastline.) He calls me back and says, “This thing really worked. This is bitchin’!”

So on it went. I said, “How can we make it better?” And he said, “Keep them light. And let’s try some other fins.” So I fiddled with them some more, and it just progressed, it just got better. I concentrated on the design of that surfboard and people swung that direction rapidly. Within a year, I was making nothing but those boards. I was what they called a purist, I didn’t do copycat work. It was very trendy to do a lot of pigment panels and colors, those beautiful things you saw on boards all through the mid ‘60s and through the longboard era, pretty surfboards, wonderful rainbow fins all made out of wood, gorgeous stuff. I didn’t do any of that. I was just interested in how the board worked with the wave, especially in our surf up here at Rincon. I was targeting all that, it was a winter surf zone, and so I made boards for it. And we’d test it right here.

CB: How much has the model changed over the years?

RY: Well, you have to go back. The end of the longboard era, that just stopped pretty abruptly, and we progressed into shortboards. We turned our backs on that completely. We went to the V bottom board, and then it went shorter, and as you know even shorter from there on. In about 1980, longboards started to come back in, mainly because we had figured out how to make surfboards light. We also had figured out how to make the boards faster by using flatter bottoms and more turned down rails. We figured out a lot more fins, not only one fin, but multi fin surfboards. Why not bring these ideas back into longboards? Why can’t we bring that technology that we learned with shortboards and compromise the way we were doing longboards and see how that works? That was reintroduced by those of us that were still interested in doing longboards, not the shortboard surfers who weren’t. There was a handful of us who were still making surfboards but came out of the longboard era and were willing to go back to redesign on it. I was right on the cutting edge of doing that, making experimental longboards but light.

A lot of the guys that quit surfing, mainly because they went into wars, came back and now they’ve got a family, kids, and the kids started surfing, and they all of the sudden started saying, are longboards going to get popular again? They’d think, ‘I could do that.’ So there was a resurgence in interest from a lot of those that quit or just left it behind and then decided for some reason to come back to it. That grew really well all through the ‘90s. It peaked somewhere about five or seven years ago. There was a lot of production of longboards again. As it all goes shorter, the age group goes that participates with it goes down. It limits the age group that can do it.

CB: And the Spoon is still a favorite.

RY: It’s a board that’s meant to be ridden a certain way, it has a look of the ‘60s, and it’s just a period piece of furniture. It represents the era. It’s modernized, yes, but it’s not taken too far. Now I also make high performance longboards, which are light, mulit fins, concave, all the things we do today with longboards. So it’s a separate board from that new era.

CB: Is there anything in surfboard design today that interests you?

RY: Concave bottoms. This starts, of course, in shortboards. You get them faster, faster, faster, which really works well. Then we bring that back into longboards, and, yeah, it really does work. It’s hard to get guys who are riding traditional longboards to try to do it, it’s a little over their heads, it’s something they need to adapt to, that type of attitude. It’s the “I’m a single fin longboard surfer, you’re not turning me on to that.” There’s attitudes about longboard riding, but there’s also younger shapers that have decided to concentrate on longboards.

I’ve always been interested in design and in the way boards work, that’s primarily what my goal is, not so much how they looked, but how they worked. I was always really interested in new materials. Anything that’s new, anything to progress forward. Let’s not go backwards, let’s go forward. Obviously, I’m going backwards making the Spoons, I can make them really nice, I know how to do it, ya know?

I get calls to do '60s boards, and I say, ‘Oh alright… I’ll do it.’ But it’s not turning me on. I’ve been there, done that. I want to go out there and really concentrate on a new design, learn how to ride it, get more out of the wave, that’s what I’m looking for, and then to see other guys do it. That interests me.

CB: That’s what interested you from the beginning...

RY: Yes, and I progressed through the shortboard era. I was a part of it. A lot of the guys who made longboards, they bowed out. They didn’t go on with it. They just sort of faded away.

CB: Was the Pocket Rocket your answer to short board era?

RY: I was getting into shortboards and I was paying a lot of attention to what was going on in Hawaii. I was going over there every winter when I wasn’t fishing for a couple months in Honolua Bay at the base of Maui. They had really quality waves that you could really work out, it was really an advantage to progress shortboards over there compared to over here on the coast. Ideas came out of the islands rapidly. I was paying a lot of attention to that. Now those boards they make over there are a little difficult to ride over here, we have slower waves, mushier waves, they don’t have the trade wind type conditions and that stuff, so you’ve got to compromise the design a little bit here. So that went into the same testing ground here at Rincon, that was around ‘69 to ‘71. We rode a lot of that board.

CB: Are you still surfing regularly?

RY: It’s a little hard for me to do it in cold water, I’ve got horrible rotation cuff problems because of my fishing career lifting stuff. I know what’s wrong, I’ve had it all scanned and done. Here I am, 81 years-old, do I really need all this surgery and nine months of recovery? And 60% of it works and 40% of it doesn’t. You have that to look forward to!

CB: And you’re still working at your craft that requires you to be on your feet all day.

RY: Shaping surfboards doesn’t bother me one bit, it doesn’t hurt one bit. It’s the overhead rotation. And everybody that surfs today is going to get it eventually because prone paddling is really hard on them, it’s just overhead rotation all the time. I’m mostly surfing in Mexico. I’ve got a place down there, I’ve had it for twenty years. I try to get down there three or four times a year. It’s easy from here, and not that expensive really. I leave here at 6AM and I’m there by noon. That’s pretty neat.

CB: What has kept you small scale when you could’ve grown?

RY: I could have, yes, but I was really interested in my fishing and I was just going to take it on through until I quit in 1997. The surfing business, I can make it work in between and manage it. Even when I was gone, I had a staff of people at one time, probably six people working for me. And it all worked as long as I didn’t let it get too big, which several others did. I wanted to keep my hands on it, and if you went bigger, you really had to get into it, and just do nothing but that and manage it. Velzy, Smith, O'Neill up there in Santa Cruz, they all did a very good job, but they all did it on a more grandeur scale. I personally see each board that goes out of here. Or I even shape them, well 90% of them.

CB: What’s a typical day for you like?

RY: Well, shaping surfboards has changed. You don’t do it all the way through anymore with the technology that we have, the CNC machines and things like that. We use that, and it’s extremely advantageous, especially when you get into complicated board designs like the Spoon, and shape it over and over again, to get it really accurate. When we get into these concave bottoms with hard edges and certain kind of rocker, it’s difficult to do one offs all the time and get them accurate. We bring in this new technology to do it, which helps me, since I can’t shape that many boards. I come in here and work eight hours, I couldn’t possibly do it anymore. So I either need to hire somebody to help me, or machine work to help me. Well, the machine work is accurate, there’s no question about it. You duplicate it just exactly the way you want it, and then I work off of that. So that has helped me get away from having to take the boards all the way through.

I also don’t have to do the fiberglassing part of it anymore. That’s a really intense end of the industry, the nastiest end, it’s a messy operation and it’s difficult and hard to keep consistent. The industry’s turned to specializing where those who do that, do nothing but that. The whole industry’s divided up into those who shape and work off of machine shaping, those who have nothing but machine, and those who service and supply the people that make boards. That’s the way it’s done in this entire industry right now.

I come in every morning, I don’t have to manage any employees or do any of that anymore. I’ve backed off from that, and I don’t want to get it any bigger, I’ll back off even more probably. I mean I could take on a lot of shops, if I wanted to. I’ve got four. I’m happy with the way it is.

CB: Your son shapes with you as well?

RY: My son is a good shaper, he shapes with me occasionally. My grandson is a professional halfpipe skier, he went to the Olympics, Torin Yater Wallace. My wife passed away recently, she was in the swimwear business. She had a little store here in Santa Barbara called the Bikini Factory, it started back in 1972 and was open until recently.

CB: I read that you used like to ride dirt bikes.

RY: I got interested in that through Gordon Clark. He got interested in it before me. And a lot of us back in that era, for some reason, got interested in dirt riding. Bruce Brown, obviously, got into it big time. But maybe there was a cross over, we used to really admire a sport called flat track racing. They used to do that pretty heavily down here Los Angeles, they had an oval called Ascot, it’s a half mile and it was really popular. This was back in the Triumph and BSA, those kind of bikes. Matchless kind of bikes. And we used to race them, through all the dirt tracks, all the horse tracks, and through the country. We rode in the open desert, with enduro type racing and cross country racing, Hare and Hound, and those types of races. It was alternative you might say, doing something similar but doing it in a different terrain. Instead of challenging waves, challenging the dirt. It got my attention, I started doing it a little bit. I got a little serious about it but if you get really serious about it it’s a dedicated sport. You have to really get dedicated to do it.

CB: Do you have any forecasts on how surfing will continue to progress?

RY: Surfing is a huge sport, and it’s so diversified now, even to stand up paddle. It’s just expanded to the point where you think, how much further could you do it? How many more things can you figure out how to ride a surfboard on? We’ve figured out how to ride 60 ft waves, and we’ve figured out how to ride practically nothing with stand up paddle boards. We’ve figured out how to tube ride, and all over the world, get aerials -- how far can we go? They’re riding tidal boards in rivers. I don’t know what’s next. They’ve put a sail on it, and even expanded the idea of the surfboard onto snow. It’s expanded out to all these different venues.

- Words by Chelsea Burcz, photos by Sebastian Slayter

Pilgrim Surf + Supply carries Yater surfboards, view here.