Surfboard

Dumpster Diver


When Dane Reynolds created the Dumpster Diver, he wasn’t out to make the most popular surfboard. He didn’t intend to unseat a model, the Flyer, that had held that honor for more than 10 years. He just wanted something that was more fun and higher-performing in the small punchy surf of his home breaks. Something he could drive hard out of a turn and hit the wave’s lip with enough speed to do the aerials that have established Reynolds, at 26, as the most go-for-broke surfer in the world. Something that would turn like a swallow and float the landing after doing an airborne 360. So he walked into the manufacturing facility of his surfboard sponsor, Channel Islands Surfboards, in Santa Barbara, Calif., and began to talk with one of the shapers.

Channel Islands is the world’s largest single-brand surfboard manufacturer. It was founded in 1969 by a California shaper named Al Merrick. From the beginning, Merrick was committed to rider-driven design, sponsoring the best surfers and relying on constant feedback to create the boards that allowed the athletes to win, or in Reynolds’s case, fly.

What Reynolds really wanted was to take a standard, lance-like shortboard, cut out the midsection, squash the nose and the tail together, and fatten it up. Make the tail big and square. According to Aaron Smith, Channel Islands’ production manager, the company’s shapers looked around for a raw blank, the partially shaped slab of foam from which all surfboards are born, and just couldn’t find anything. “Hey,” Reynolds said, “this’ll work.” He fished a foam scrap out of a trash bin, and the two repaired to the shaping room. As Smith tells it, the whole time the shaper was planing the foam, he was muttering, “Dude, this is ugly. This is really, really ugly.”

Reynolds didn’t care. He surfed the board, and he loved it—at least after a few last tweaks of his own. “When it came back in,” says Smith, “it looked like he had smashed the corners of the tail with a rock to change the outline and repaired it. It was even uglier.” The Dumpster Diver was born.

In mid-September 2009, Reynolds rode it while devastating the best surfers in the world, including 10-time world champion Kelly Slater, at a legendary surf spot called Trestles near San Clemente, Calif. Reynolds made it to the final heat and lost only to Australian Mick Fanning for second place, his best ASP World Tour finish ever. But he emerged the crowd favorite, and everyone wanted what he had.

“We kinda got caught a little bit with our pants down,” says Smith. “We were scrambling.” The development team at Channel Islands laser-scanned the brutalized surfboard to generate a detailed 3D image, using an advanced CAD program (the same used by the auto industry to design cars) to reconcile the asymmetries between right and left sides—and smooth out the hammer dents. They sent a computer file to their computer numerical control (CNC) cutting machine. Something that looked like a surfboard—sort of—came out. The machined shape was sanded smooth by hand and fiberglassed. The Dumpster Diver was in stores approximately eight weeks later: $680 at Jack’s Surfboards in Huntington Beach, Calif. Channel Islands sells a line of more than 40 surfboards, and 18 months later, the Dumpster Diver now accounts for 15 percent of all sales.

Surfing as a business, like surfers themselves, defies convention. In the U.S. it is a $2.6 billion industry, according to Angelo Ponzi at Board-Trac, an action sports market research company. The lion’s share of that is soft goods. Brands such as Quiksilver and Billabong sell surfwear in chain stores such as Nordstrom and Macy’s, as well as in specialty surf shops along the coasts. Look around any landlocked city in the summer, and many people dress in the baggie shorts and flip flops popularized by surfers.

Surfboards alone, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn. (SIMA), account for just $160.6 million in sales. But those involved in the business agree that it is the boards and the surfers who ride them that drive the industry. Outliers such as Reynolds are the tail that wags the dog. Yet there is another more profound irony: The boards themselves make for lousy business.

Surfboards are usually very beautiful objects. There is nothing you can say about a sailboat, an airplane, or a ski that you cannot say about a surfboard. The artistry follows the function, and the beauty is in the marriage. The grace of line is an expression of potential force. That’s how it seems to surfers when they run their hands over the bone-smooth surface. Ponzi says there is a “passive market” of surfboard purchasers—roughly 30 percent—who surf once a month or less, and may just hang the things on their wall.

If surfboards weren’t so appealing, perhaps no one would go into business making them at all. “We don’t make any money off boards,” says Robert Howson of Harbour Surfboards, a specialty shop in Seal Beach, Calif. “We make a 12 percent to 15 percent gross margin. It’s really poor.”

So why sell them? “We love them, for one. And beach surf shops use surfboards to justify the brand. They confer authenticity in the same way that the big surfwear manufacturers who sell in chain stores across the country need the surf shops on the coast to give them authenticity.”

Authenticity is hard to value on a balance sheet. Even getting hard data on how many surfboards are sold is tricky. The numbers cited above are acknowledged estimates.

The retailers who sell boards in specialty shops up and down the coasts concede that often a kid will come in and want a Dumpster Diver, or a Lost Surfboards Sub-Scorcher, but can’t afford it, so he’ll go to his local backyard shaper and get a similar board for half the price. Matt Warshaw, author of The History of Surfing, says that until the last few years, owning a name brand model rather than a custom board was uncool. “It was a nostalgia thing: You’ve got this grumpy guy in a shaping room somewhere making your perfect board. It was a matter of pride. It was your board. Custom. Having a brand with the same label as someone else was really lame.” What changed had to do with a cult of personality and “quiver mentality,” says Sean Smith, SIMA’s executive director. “You could have the same board Kelly Slater rode to win his championship. You would still have custom boards, but now it’s cool to have that brand in your arsenal.”

How many surfers are still shaping boards in Orange County industrial parks or garages in Hawaii is impossible to know. Smith thinks they number in the thousands. Says Surfer Magazine editor Brendon Thomas: “The need for custom shapers will never go away. Someone who understands the local waves.”

“Local shapers are the heart of the industry,” Channel Islands General Manager Scott Anderson concedes. “We don’t try to compete with them. The biggest asset we have is to be able to take a design that works well on the World Tour and make it available to anyone, globally.” Anderson claims that Channel Islands has the best consistency in the industry. Still, he acknowledges that staying profitable is a challenge. “We promote a 20-point margin at retail,” he says. “As far as the manufacturing side, if we make 28 to 31 points, we’re happy.” When asked precisely how many surfboards his company sells, he demurred. “The more boards you sell, the less cool you are. The more success you attain, the more people don’t like you. It’s just surfers, man!”

Heller is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor. His first novel, The Dog Stars (Knopf), will be published in August.

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