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Surfing pioneers & innovators

Surf culture

Tom Blake

Tom Blake was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1902. He sadly died in 1994 from natural causes. Tom was a revolutionary force in the evolution of board design. He is also one of the most important watermen of this century and an outstanding contributor of lifesaving inventions.

Tom was a natural waterman, and became a world class swimmer and even raced against legends like the Duke. This got him into lifeguarding. While lifeguarding in 1924 in California Tom took to surfing. Enjoying it as much as he did he started frequently living in or travelling to Hawaii every year.

During this era surfboards were still very heavy and very long, made from solid redwood. Tom experimented and built the first hollow board from redwood in 1926. A significant time in surf history! A weight reduction in boards of around 150 pounds down to 40-70 pounds! His board was used worldwide, and was even adopted as a paddle rescue board lifesaving institutions of the time.

Tom was also a very skilled surfer and won the first Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships in California in 1928, of course riding his hollow board! Tom is also credited with building the first waterproof camera in 1930, used extensively now in surf photography and films.

Maybe most significantly Tom Blake was the first to put a fin on a surfboard in 1935. He also went on to be a stunt double in movies and wrote books.

A man who has done everything! Surfers everywhere should feel grateful for Tom Blake's dedication to surfing and its evolution.

George Freeth

George (Irish-Hawaiian by descent) led a short, but brilliant life. He tragically died aged 35 after contracting influenza. George is recognised as being the first professional surfer, and one of the first to surf the US mainland coast (Southern California). He is also famous for being the first official US lifeguard and trained more world champion swimmers than any other man of his time.

Freeth was an innovator and experimented with board design. He was one of the first to experiment with shorter boards by cutting his typical 16 foot Hawaiian board in half. This was a great success and in 1907 a Californian railway company hired him as a pro surfer gimmick to promote their services, and so George Freeth became the first in a long line of pro surfers to be used in a commercial setting. A trend we are all familiar with today.

Bob Simmons

Known to some as "The Father of the Modern Surfboard". Simmons is perhaps most famous for is balsa boards in the 1950's, although he is also credited with developing the first foam and fibreglass board. He was one of the first to experiment with new materials around the time of the 2nd World War, materials like fibreglass, styrofoam and resin.

In his youth, Simmons, from California, injured his arm in a motorcycle accident. While in hospital a patient suggested surfing to strengthen his weakened arm. Due to his injury he was excused from going to war during the 2nd World War, and so while other surfers were away at war, Simmons could still surf and shape his boards.

Simmons lived on his own in an old converted Ford car. He'd travel up and down the coast, surfing and shaping boards for money. He also studied weather charts and hydrodynamics, to which he applied to his surfboard designs.

In 1949 he developed a board with a styrofoam core, encased in a thin layer of plywood, with balsa rails and covered with fibreglass. His new foam and fibreglass boards were cutting edge and fast.

Unfortunately Simmons died aged 35 while out surfing Windansea in San Diego, he had disappeared out in the swell and was found by lifeguards a few days later. Simmons was a great contributor to the evolution of the surfboard.

Joe Quigg

A great shaper that worked closely with Bob Simmons. His contributions helped Simmons to build some of the first lightweight fibreglass boards. Joe Quigg, with the help of Matt Kivlin and others went on to create the Malibu board, which helped popularise surfing throughout the 1950's. He is also said to have invented the first glassed on fin in 1946. That same year he designed the first pintail surfboard, specifically designed to attack Hawaii's big waves. A great, inspirational and revolutionary board shaper.

Dale Velzy

Known as 'The Hawk'. Dale Velzy was a legendary surfboard designer and boardsports retail pioneer, who helped launch the surf market and popularize the sport in the early 1950's. Dale was the first to open a surf shop, brand boards, brand promotional clothing and sponsor a female surfer. Quite impressive!

Dale started out as an excellent surfer, but Dale also had a great talent for shaping boards and an even better knowledge of marketing. In 1949 he opened the world's first surf shop called 'Velzy Surfboards' under the Manhattan Beach Pier. He did so with another famous shaper named Hap Jacobs, and the two formed a great partnership. Jacobs would later continue on his own under 'Jacobs Surfboards'. By the mid 50's Velzy had a chain of surf shops in Southern California and Hawaii. He also had his own surf team, which Miki Dora rode for. This a trend that is commonly seen today with brands like Quiksilver, O'Neill etc…

Dale's phenomenal knowledge of marketing and the power of the media saw his company being the largest surfboard brand in the world by the end of the 80's. Unfortunately… later problems with the IRS brought his empire to an end… woops!

Dale sadly died recently after a long battle with lung cancer aged 77. Dale Velzy is one of the most respected men in the surfing world and a key figure in surf history.

Jack O'Neill

Some of you may be surprised to learn that 'that guy' you see on some O'Neill brand posters with the beard and the eye-patch is in fact a real person. His name is Jack O'Neill, and yes he is the founder of O'Neill, one of the biggest surf and sportswear brands in the world.

Born in 1923 in Colorado, Jack soon moved to California where he started off as a fisherman, a salesman and all sorts of other jobs. All the while he loved to surf and bodyboard. But even Californian surf can be cold in winter, and with only bathing trunks to wear, the ocean was not a pleasant place to be! Frustated with having to freeze his nuts off in order to surf, Jack went about designing a solution…

…Jack is the creator of the wetsuit, back in the early 50's Jack first came accross a fabric now widely known in the surf world as neoprene. Strangely enough he discovered it on the floor of an aeroplane! He ordered masses of the material and started stiching it together to make vests, and later suits.

In 1952 Jack opened his first surf shop in San Francisco, California, and appropriately called it 'Surf Shop'. In 1959, O'Neill relocated to Santa Cruz where O'Neill as a brand is more popularly known to originate from. In the early 60's the boom of interest in surf meant that more and more people needed wetsuits and Jack opened his first warehouse manufacturing wetsuits on a larger scale… and the rest is history!

…And if you were curious, Jack lost his eye in 1971 in a surfing accident involving one of the first ever surf leashes, ironically invented by one of his son's!

Wally Froiseth

In the 1920's a very young Wally Froiseth moved to Hawaii and took to surfing. Even at a young age Froiseth was fearless in the midst of big waves, and despite several poundings, battled on to become a master of the Hawaiian big surf.

Through surfing Froiseth became good friends with surfing legend and pioneer Tom Blake. And along with his friends Froiseth developed the 'Hot Curl' surfboard, a board designed specifically for big surf. He and his friends experimented with different board shapes, removing and shaping the rail and tail of the board, to give the boards more speed. His surfboard innovations were key to the development of surfing in the 1930's.

Froiseth is also well known for helping to bring up and inspire the young George Downing (Froiseth was married to Downing's Aunt in the 40's when Downing first moved to Hawaii in his teens).

George Downing

During the Second World War George Downing, a teenager then, moved to Hawaii to live with his aunt, who was married to surfing legend Wally Froiseth. Downing inspired by Froiseth took to surfing and soon became very good, especially in big surf! Downing was fascinated by surfing, and took to studying the science behind it all, from the waves themselves to surfboard design

Downing was one of a few pioneers of big wave surfing, and certainly became a driving force in it's popularisation, or accessibility. Downing created one of the first quivers, and in 1951 he constructed a surfboard that would influence all big wave surfboards to come. He is also credited with creating the first changeable fin system, known today as a 'fin control system'.

Downing was a fantastic surfer, and certainly an influence in the growing Californian interest in Hawaiian surf in the 50s.

George Greenough

An unusual character to say the least, if not only for the rumor that he never wears shoes, or maybe because he rides waves on an air mattress! Hey, each to their own eh?! But all the same a great pioneer, and for a number of reasons too.

Greenough was born in 1941 in California, and moved to Australia in 1964. He in part revolutionalised how people surf, when in 1965 he created the 'kneeboard' that he called 'Velo'. This board was designed to 'flex' and had a powerful flex-fin and tail that meant the board could be turned sharply and had incredible acceleration. This board was a catalyst for the ensuing shortboard revolution.

Greenough later used his Velo board along with his innovations with waterproof cameras to capture the first still and motion shots 'in the tube' or in the barrel of the wave.

Bob McTavish

Born in 1944 in Australia, McTavish is a key figure in Australian surf history. Not only for his innovations with the shortboard design, but as a very talented surfer. Bob was a totally committed surfer, he searched for surf spots, pushed the boundaries and did what he could to earn enough money to keep surfing. Naturally this involved shaping and designing surfboards, to which he became one of the best at in the world!

In 1965, Bob teamed up with George Greenough and Nat Young to design a shortboard named 'Sam', which Nat Young won the World Championship on the following year! This board was inspired by Greenough's 'Velo' kneeboard, combined with Bob's own experiments with shorter boards. The board featured a very thin rail, a high-aspect fin and a flex-tail. 'Sam' and Nat Young's 1966 title winning performance on it inspired a new era of performance surfing known to most as the shortboard revolution.

Bob also later designed the first 'vee-bottom' and 'broad-tailed' boards, which he appropriately named 'Fantastic Plastic Machines'. And again later in the late 90's he started shaping longboards, just in time for the renewed interest in longboards.

Dick Brewer

Another one of the most influential surfboard shapers. Brewer was next in-line to take the shortboard a step further after he met Australian's Bob McTavish and Nat Young in 1967 riding their revolutionary vee-bottomed shortboards. Back in Hawaii, Brewer was already an accomplished shaper. He shaped the first mini-guns and pocket rocket boards with softer, lower rails and pin-tails, apposed to the Australian square-tail shortboards. These new boards performed very well in the pocket of the wave, created as such, to suit the bigger, more shapely Hawaiian waves.

Simon Anderson

Born in 1954 in Australia, Simon was a professional surfer and a shaper. He is the man credited with the tri-fin design, a surfboard he called a 'Thruster'. In 1981, frustrated like many with the limitations of the twin-fin design (in the looseness of its design, i.e. the board would slide on the wave). Simon's tri-fin design solved this, adding more stability and allowing for greater control in the pocket. The three fins combined the best features of the single and twin-fin designs, and naturally became hugely popular. This idea however had been toyed with for years by the likes of McTavish and Brewer to name a couple, but never perfected until Simon came along. His tri-fin design was the biggest innovation since fibreglass and polyurethane foam.

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