Dave Parmenter: The Early Years To Nowtro

[Dave Parmenter backhand bottom turn. Photo by Andrew Kidman.]


At 53, former Top 16 pro surfer turned shaping journeyman, Dave Parmenter has resurfaced on California’s Central Coast and is making his boards available to the public for the first time (a few are currently blessing the racks at Pilgrim Surf + Supply). He even has a website, www.Nowtro.com where his performance-oriented models are explained and any ‘retro’ misconceptions clarified. If you’re reading this you’ve probably wished at some point that you had one of his surfboards or were intrigued by his character as expressed in numerous Surfer magazine articles or maybe you even remember him paddling out on a longboard in his 1988 Op Pro heat. Whether considered an act of rebellion or theater, Parmenter’s demonstration has been noted as the cry that sparked the so called ‘retro revolution’ (Joel Tudor was 12 at the time). His forward-thinking designs like the Widow-maker, championed by surfer/shapers Andrew Kidman and Neal Purchase Jr., Stubb-Vector the first high performance funboard and his stand-up paddle boards have influenced surfboard culture for the past twenty years. A stickler for shred, you won’t catch him shaping any “iron peacocks” as he puts it, an aviation term referencing airplanes that look beautiful but can’t fly. Tom Carroll has been ordering customs since 1988 and Tom Curren had a quiver of Widow-makers in the '90s, the latter can be seen along with Stephanie Gilmore, Mick Fanning, Ellis Ericson riding Aleutian Juice single fins in Andrew Kidman’s upcoming film ‘Spirit of Akasha.’ Stephanie can also be seen riding a 6’0 channel bottom in Kidman’s Single book. This interview was conducted by phone in mid-January of 2014.

Mike Machemer: I read Phil Edwards was a big influence on you as a kid in terms of being a surfer/shaper?

Dave Parmenter: Definitely, that was seminal. I grew up in Newport Beach body surfing, riding mats, paipos and graduated to stand up surfing on February 5, 1974, which wasn’t very long after Phil’s heyday. I wasn’t really into the whole “Five Summer Stories” thing with the Gerry Lopez worship and paeans to Pipeline. It was great to see, but what I really loved was Bud Browne’s film “Going Surfing” with all his archival footage. It just seemed like guys had a hell of a lot more fun back in those days. There were a lot of characters, a lot of hijinks and humor. The thing with the 70’s, Lopez and the whole North Shore scene was that it seemed to be a crime to be fired up and have mojo and be rambunctious. Kind of like how Rabbit Bartholomew and all those guys were during the ‘Free Ride’ era. I appreciated Lopez obviously, but from an early age was drawn more toward other surfer/shapers like Sam Hawk, Reno Abellira, Terry Fitzgerald, George Greenough, Dick Brewer and in the longboard era Phil Edwards, Mickey Munoz, Woody Brown, Joe Quigg -- guys that seemed to transcend building surfboards and went on to build things like catamarans and canoes and model gliders. To me, that’s the difference between a mountain man and someone who’s a city slicker. That model goes beyond this California pose thing or posing on the North Shore, and actually becoming frontiersmen. They’re designing, building boards and doing everything. That really captivated me, as well as the fact that longboard surfing was so beautiful. I really liked the footwork, loved the elegance and that everybody had their own style. Starting with Phil as a role model in the back of my mind, I was always more interested in the shapers and designers, especially guys who made guns like Brewer - that benchmark was never far from my consciousness regardless of how mercenary I could be competitively. Even when I was on tour I was still riding longboards whenever I could get them. I think I was one of the first guys to crossover as a competing pro; in 1985 or 86 I entered the ‘malibu’ contest at Bells Beach when I was in the Top 16, made the finals and got to surf with legends like Frank Latta, Mark Warren, Nat Young on longboards at Bells.

MM: Did you learn to surf on a longboard?

DP: No, I had a 6’5" single fin that was shaped by Pete Schroff, way before his Schroff New Wave thing later on. It was called a ‘Cheetah,’ a beautiful area round pin, almost a diamond tail, down-rail single fin. I’ve always loved 6’5”’s ever since, still my favorite size boards. There was so much going on at the time, we had the Surf Theatre in Huntington Beach where you could go see surf movies every week. I was being exposed to two or three epochs because the difference between 1967 or 1968 and 1974 is only a couple years - just like yesterday - and a lot had happened. I was living right at 18th street in Newport Beach right at the Newport Pipeline, we had the surfboard industry there in southern California, all the media and I was exposed to everything. I was a fanatic, soaking it all up and basically came away wishing I was in the longboard era. Luckily, surf shops in the area had a fossil record of all the boards, especially the transition era ones. You could beg, borrow or steal, sweep the shops, and maybe get a board for $25, ones that people had discarded in their haste to keep up with the shortboard revolution. I learned to ride a lot of weird longboards and mid-range transition boards, S-decks and all the garbage people didn’t want. I was curious and had already begun to compile a storehouse in my mind.

MM: All this longboard talk, I can’t help but think of the 1988 Op Pro when you paddled out on one in your heat against Richard “Dog” Marsh.

DP: That was a misunderstanding. People always ask me why I rode a longboard in the OP Pro that year and I just say it was because I couldn’t find one of those inflatable alligators in time. It was getting near my heat, which I’d been worried about from the day before: the waves were small, the tide was going to be high, the crowd was asleep and the announcers were bored. My decision to wear the lampshade was mostly related to my internship with Peter Townend and Ian Cairns. They taught me about how to be a pro surfer. They kind of invented it in its present form, and one of the things instilled in me being mentored by them was, first – Don’t Be Boring! That’s the primary rule of pro surfing, whether you’re like a bon vivant swashbuckler like Rabbit Bartholomew or a Brad Gerlach, or a mystic folk hero like Miki Dora, just for god’s sake don’t be boring. You have your props, your act, your wardrobe and your whole persona just like a wrestler or a rock star. Ian intimated that the crowd loves to hate people and if you can’t be a Tom Curren, you may as well be this character that everybody boos and can hate with relish. I realized at that OP Pro that even though I was gonna have to jump out of the trench and get machine gunned down, I was going to at least do it wearing a lampshade

MM: When did you shape your first board?

DP: My first board was a strip-down in Newport, age 14, and my first full board was shaped when I moved to Cayucos on the Central Coast in June of 1976. My mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I told her I wanted to make a surfboard. So I asked for a blank and a gallon of resin and we went and bought it and I shaped a board. It was a 6’6” single-fin pintail that didn’t look too different from what I’m making now. Shaped it in a garden shed with no power tools, just a Surform and my mom’s Hamilton Beach turkey carver to cut out the plan shape. I was good with a Surform, having learned to use one in wood shop making skateboards. Between, 1982-1984 I would periodically shape a board and it would always be a single fin.

MM: Why the single fin?

DP: The single fin represents the perfect renunciation of programmed, repetitious, and chaotic multi-fin surfing and a return to a form of surfing that is as free and unscripted as real jazz. Essentially a neutral surfboard design, the single fin responds to rider input with far broader and crisper nuances of sensation than a contemporary tri or multi-fin. Though the myth and old wives’ tale claims they are ‘stiff’ handling surfboards, the inverse is true – they are actually much looser than multi-fin surfboards but require real ability and proper technique to generate Thruster-like speed in low-voltage waves. I am thrilled that so many surfers are revisiting the single-fin design now, but I hope that it is for the right reasons. It would be disappointing to see this trend evaporate into a vogue or pose. Today’s ultra-refined and streamlined shortboards have to be surfed with one and only one kinetic ‘style’ or they will not go, and so all too often on that equipment it feels like it is someone else surfing, as if you are just shadowboxing along with the images you are hypnotized into mimicking. On a properly designed single fin the difference is that it feels like YOU are surfing.

MM: How did your Widow-maker design come about?

DP: When we were kids in the 70‘s we had these little Lexan fins available at surf shops called Control Fins, tiny little Widow-maker fins that had a flange base with double-sided adhesive. You could stick them anywhere on your board and I had placed them behind the single fin. In “Morning of the Earth” there’s a shot where Owl Chapman is holding a wide-tailed single fin at Rocky Point with two small half-moon fins behind the center fin, kind of an anti-matter Widow-maker or something. So later in the 80’s I started experimenting with that, thinking I wanted a single fin but couldn’t deny that we were in the Thruster age and addicted to the bite of its turning axis, especially off the top. I wanted a board with all the neutrality and feel of a single fin off the bottom but when i hit the top part of the wave, I wanted to go through the lip instead of under it like in modern surfing. I needed a little bit of side fin bite for that classic Thruster turning axis and leverage that you just don’t get on a single fin. Right out of the box it worked great, never really had to do much tinkering with placement. I kind of reasoned out the fin setting with the first board. I started making bigger and bigger guns and seeking out the biggest surf I could find, riding a lot of waves in the 12 to 20 foot range for the next five years or so until I moved to Hawaii. All the guns were Widow-makers. I think my shortest Thrusters at the time would’ve been 6’9”. One thing the pro tour did was it exposed me to a lot more waves with voltage. You leave your home break where it doesn’t happen all the time or when it does the conditions are just brutal, and then you go and surf places like Margaret River or the North Shore or Cape Town. Spending time in waves over 10-15 feet you start evaluating what your boards are doing and realize what you’re happy with. The first time I surfed Jeffreys Bay I was just appalled and frustrated with my surfing. I had been picturing in my mind surfing like Terry Fitzgerald, Peers Pittard, Jonathan Paarman, Reno Abellira and Bobby Owens. Wanting to draw their 70’s lines - but on Thrusters you can’t really do that, which you see today in spades. They’re not really doing justice to the wave. Sure, it’s clever surfing but they’re not making the wave look like Jeffreys Bay. They might as well be surfing a beach break, but just longer. When you watch Fitzy takeoff, he covers more ground with one turn than guys today do with ten. Today’s pros are just too lazy to get used to riding bigger boards, so they wind up riding their 5’11”s or 6’1”s and they get away with it because they get towed out the back.

MM: Some say your Stubb-Vector design was the first funboard?

DP: Well, obviously it wasn’t the first funboard. It was the first high performance funboard. At the time, the ‘funboards’ or ‘beer belly’ boards were pretty much maligned and written off as kook boards, although of course people made ones that were well designed. Mine differed in that the intent was to make a ‘hybrid’ board for good surfers instead of making one whose intent was merely to make surfing easier for ordinary surfers. I went back and dredged up some of that Michael Peterson, Queensland thing and combined it with everything I learned as a pro surfer on Thrusters and what I learned from shaping with Rusty, like his incredible ability to refine things meticulously from board to board, quantitatively. That was from about 1992 on.

[Inside Parmenter's home.]

MM: What other shapers guided you along the way?

DP: John Carper, who was working for Rusty at the time, would shape to jazz and dance around the blank like Errol Flynn with a sword. For Carper shaping was energetic and almost jazzercise. A lot of shapers I saw would be stumbling around, ‘the coffees not kicking in, argh, the wife, the kids, I gotta shape these boards, baby needs new shoes’ and I was over that. Carper showed me shaping could have mojo and showed me you didn’t have to be a grumpy sloth bear. Another person who taught me a lot was Greg Mungall, probably the best craftsmen I’ve ever known in the industry. A power surfer from Florida who won the 1979 Katin Team Challenge, he wound up staying in California, marrying Lance Collins’ daughter and spent a lot of time on the Central Coast with us guys. He had a fin business, but could do everything and still does. He works for Rusty now, I believe. He taught me how to shape EPS, and everything about glassing and fins I learned from him. When I was starting out he used to have challenges for me, like ‘Hey Dave, how long does it take you to shape a board, two hours? Ok, I bet I can glass a board in two hours.’ And he would do it. He’d say, ‘Nothing is written in stone, it’s just plastic. You can do whatever you want to it. Watch me glass this EPS blank with polyester resin!’ ...Then he’d paint it with Elmer’s glue, let it dry and glass it with polyester resin. He was one of those guys that demystified and broke apart a lot those orthodoxies about board building that were sacred cows at the time. A great guy and brilliant craftsmen.

MM: You were integral in the development of the SUP, any thoughts on the current state?

DP: It started as a Polynesian thing, Makaha iOS and self-policing on where and when you did it. For me the attraction was solely about getting away from surfing a conventional surf spot. ...But after a few years of being a craze it just got away from us and became something else. The dorks commandeered it. It was the same with the leash, same with the modern longboard - where misuse of a tool inflicts yet another plague on the beleaguered surfing population. It’s actually worse than the abuses possible with a longboard because out-of-control SUP boards are far more dangerous. It’s always the same old thing, assholes who don’t know their place. Charles Lindbergh was the pioneer and champion of aviation as a force to bring Mankind together, but he wound up turning his back on it later in life and becoming something of an environmentalist. I just always knew that one day it would be like that, after barnstorming this new sport around the world, but one day forced to turn my back on it in the same way that he did against aviation because it had been used against mankind instead of for it. There are many SUPers out there who have inflicted their own Guernica upon the civilian surfing population…

MM: Tell me about a surfer from the past whose surfing has been overlooked?

DP: On the topic of surfers who don’t get a lot of credit, Cheyne Horan would be one I’d like to nominate. There was just something about his surfing on a single fin before his boards got really bad that I think has been overlooked. There’s some single fin surfing he did buried in the films of the late 70’s and early 80’s that’s just unbelievable. He was a positional surfer, totally opposite to me as a down-the-line surfer, and I remember there was an article written by Michael Tomson in Surfing after he won the 1982 Op Pro, heralding Cheyne as the “New Surfing.” Controversial at the time for a number of reasons, but in hindsight quite true. Cheyne found a way to reconcile the three types of surfers: speed surfer, power surfer and positional surfer. Cheyne was one of those rare surfers who could do it all, but invented new maneuvers or incorporated new lines such as employing the ‘floater’ as a speed-gathering, wave-making option. His surfing was based on being in a certain position of the wave rather than hauling ass down the line or just methodically doing big bottom turns and top turns like everybody else. And it was certainly all based on single fin thing. This really had a lot of influence on me. I’d actually seen him surf in person at 54th street in Newport in 1982/83 on a really good day there in hollow, bowled up waves kind of like what you guys get in New York. He was surfing a Lazor Zap-py thing and it was just astonishing to me, the difference in his surfing compared to the guys out there on twin fins and early tri fins. He could haul ass down the line and do big cutbacks or surf in the pocket doing these little snaps to set up the barrel, which I’d never really seen anybody else do like that except for Michael Peterson. Even at Bells in 1984 when he won on his winged keel, though his weird board was clearly holding him back …. there was just something about the lines he drew. He really just went too far with his equipment but there was always something about the way that he surfed in this prime that has stuck in my mind over the decades. I still think he’s really overlooked because he got written off as being such an extremist, but in his day some of the surfing he’d done, when you look at it as single fin surfing, it was a perfect bridge between the jazzy riff-oriented stuff that MP did, but Cheyne bridged to the new era with a lot of maneuvers that people are doing now.

[Tom Curren on one of Parmenter's six-channel single fins. Original photo by Andrew Kidman.]

MM: You liken single fin surfing to jazz, what kind of music do you enjoy listening to?

DP: I like classical and jazz, that’s what I listen to when I’m shaping. Russian composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev; I really like Dvorak’s New World Symphony some of the movements remind me of paddling a race. Not so much into chamber music or baroque, I love any classical music that has that grand cinematic sound, still an orchestra but not pandering to the form. Like from the Erich Korngold era when he was scoring movies like The Sea Hawk (1940), of which George Lucas and John Williams revived with the “Star Wars” score. I love folk and real country music like Merle Haggard. As a teen loved the energy of The Sex Pistols but grew out of it and and frankly bored by rock music at my age. I thought the parody music in ‘A Mighty Wind’ was better than most of the music that’s out there today.

[Portraits in the doorway of his shaping bay in San Luis Obispo.]

MM: What are some of your favorite films?

DP: I grew up in love with movies, infatuated with them, doing what Spielberg did shooting super 8 films using friends and family and trying to tell stories. I made surf films that I used to show at school that were all meticulously edited and synced to music. I wanted to be a filmmaker and was deeply in love with film long before I got into surfing or being a pro surfer. To this day I know far more about film and film history than I do about surfing or surfboards. Not to get too deep into film theory, but I go to see movies for escapism. For ‘broccoli movies’ or things that plumb the human condition I get from literature. I read widely, but the writers who’ve influenced me the most were Ray Bradbury, George Orwell (more of his essays than novels), and growing up in Steinbeck country I couldn’t avoid being drawn to him. Always resisted the attraction people feel for Hemingway or Kerouac. My tastes in literature are much more anglophile. Anyhow, there are ways you can escape in a film that you can’t with a book. I hardly see any modern ‘Hollywood’ films but every once in a while a gem comes along. The last thing I saw in the theatre was “Europa Report” which I loved. Kind of a nerd’s space film, like a “2001: A Space Odyssey” but with found footage. One of my favorite films is Kurosawa’s “Derzu Uzala” (1975) and the greatest moviegoing experience I’ve ever had was seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” the night it opened in 1981. It probably changed my life more than any film and impelled me to really go out and travel. I was 21 and kind of adrift, not really knowing what I was doing or how surfing figured into it. As a film fanatic, I loved that ‘Raiders’ was a Whitman's Sampler of all my favorite film genres: a safari film, a war movie, a thriller, a treasure hunt, a western, and a quest fable - all executed by guys at the absolute top of their craft. It had more of an impact on me than seeing “Free Ride” because it made we want to leave home and go join the pro tour. I was captivated, in the same way that generations of Victorian and Edwardian adventurers had with the novel “King Solomon’s Mines” and the promise of overseas adventure. I identified with the duality of being an academic or intellectual versus being a man of action. Even though the film was designed to be entertaining in a cartoonish way, I saw a role model in Indiana Jones, somebody could be layered in professorial tweed and teaching a college class and one minute and the next could have dirt under his fingernails and scrapping with Nazi thugs halfway across the world.

[14 year-old Parmenter filmmaking with Super 8mm.] 

 [Shaping bay in Kauai. Photo by Andrew Kidman.] 

- interview and words by Mike Machemer