"It is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears.
We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea--whether it is to sail or to watch it--we are going back from whence we came."
- John F. Kenned
Reynolds Yater, Yater Surf Boards
At least that holds true for many of us who have an inexplicable need to be near the ocean. One such person is Reynolds Yater. Native to California, he was born in 1932 and grew up in the sleepy little beach town of Laguna Beach. His childhood was shaped by the sea, where free time was spent bodysurfing and fishing. Those were the days before "surfboards". Yes, there was a time, less than a lifetime ago, that “surfing” did not exist as a common household word. Most likely, if you were to ask anyone in the world what they know of California, they would most often include “surfers”. As Central Coast Californians, many of us recreate, meditate or earn our living on or around the Pacific, the largest of the earth’s oceanic divisions. This massive body of water covers one third of the total surface area of the entire planet and laps at the western boundary of what also happens to be my home state. As many of you already know, surfers have their very own culture, which includes fashion, music, literature, films and their very own language. The surf industry in the U.S. generates an estimated $7 billion annually according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. And Renny Yater was there at the very beginning.
Although the act of surfing is ancient and well documented in the Hawaiian culture, it really only became well known in California during the 50s and 60s. Hence, many of its founding fathers are still alive and hanging ten. Renny still surfs today, here in Santa Barbara, but more often down in Mexico where the water is just a bit warmer. However, his earliest surf experience was on Doheny Beach in Dana Point. At age 14, Renny had his Dad drive him and his 90 pound Pacific System Homes Surfboard down to the beach to catch some waves. This little honey cost a whopping 35 bucks used. Brand new boards cost $55. This was the era when surfboards were made of wood and could weigh over 100 pounds. The strength that was required to haul a board of that size would automatically define who would and could participate in this water sport. An early surfer would have to be strong, determined, and passionate in order to feel the “stoke” (slang adjective for feeling an exciting rush) from riding a wave. Santa Barbara is also a winter surf zone, so only the passionate and stoically tough could endure our water temperatures. No wetsuits back then! You would also have to have a suitable transportation, thus Renny’s ’31 Model A was converted into a surf wagon.
Reynolds Yater was there at the very beginning of the surf industry, starting out in Laguna Beach when surfing was still pretty “primitive”. He did the fiber glassing for legends such as Hobie Alter in Dana Point. Hobie would make 6 boards a week from raw wood. By Thursday they were shaped, then Renny would start glassing them and they would be ready to sell by Saturday. This was Renny’s first introduction to the surfboard business. Later, he moved on to work with Dale Velzy in San Clemente. Here Renny was shaping the boards. At the time there were so many orders that they wouldn’t have time to clean out their work stalls, so he would be buried up to his waist in wood shavings. Dale Velzey called Renny “the best, most consistent shaper he ever had.”
After learning and perfecting surfboard craftsmanship with his Southern California counterparts, Renny came to Santa Barbara at the end of the 50s as a lobster fisherman. As this was a seasonal business, he relied on his board shaping skills to augment his income during the summer. By the end of 1959, he opened his own store, aptly named Yater Surfboards, on Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara. Our waves here on the Central Coast, inspired the design of theYater Spoon, which was one of the most innovative designs for Long Boards throughout the 60s. This thin, light and maneuverable board was the perfect match for long, point break waves like those found at Rincon, just south of Santa Barbara. Legend has it that Renny rode the biggest wave ever recorded at Rincon in 1969. However, he won’t directly take the credit and brushes the claim off with “It’s just the way the picture was taken.”
In the late 60s and early 70s, Renny designed the Pocket Rocket with Hawaiian surfing in mind. This was at the early stages of the short board revolution. Surfing legends, such as Joey Cabell, Gordon Clark, Mickey Dora, Phillipi Pomar, Kemp Auberg, Bob Cooper, Bruce Brown and John Severson have all been Yater fans and customers. Renny is a living legend, featured in the John Severson’s surf classic Big Wednesday (1961). HisYater Spoon and Santa Barbara Surf Shop t-shirt also adorn Robert Duval in the movie, Apocalypse Now (1979). In addition to his well known craftsmanship, Reynolds Yater has an impeccable reputation in this world of surf. He is not only known to have an incredible work ethic, but also to have a genuine humbleness in light of his celebrity. This quality of character is mirrored in his commitment to his craft. He continues to create exceptional boards that still require handcrafting. This has been maintained by keeping his business small and local, and is remarkable when you consider we live in an unprecedented era of mass production and marketing, where branding can take precedent over quality.
The surfing industries’ roots may be in long boards, but its line up now includes, short boards, big wave boards and stand up paddles. However, Renny has such an understanding of the sport and the physics behind wave riding that he continues to be an innovator today. Yater surfboards continue to adapt to the latest trends. New designs include the Fun Shape and The Buddha Board as well as beautiful surf boards that are designed to be individual pieces of art.
There is a wonderful room devoted to Yater surfboards at The Beach House Surf Shop in Santa Barbara. As you walk through The Beach House, you are surrounded by surfing lore. The Beach House owner, Roger Nance, has quite a collection of retro surfboards suspended from the ceiling including the original Yater Spoon. Boards like these are sentinels for the rugged history of this sport and hang in the midst of the other cultural icons such as bikinis and skateboards, that spun out of our surf culture. Even if you don’t surf, I hope you will stop by The Beach House and take the time to pick up one of Renny’s boards. Feel the smooth surface. Admire its shape designed to catch the perfect wave. You will be holding a part of California’s culture personally shaped by Renny’s 80 year old hands.
Renny Yater, quietly, but consistently, contributes to this multi billion global industry with the ultimate in cool: the uncompromised quality of a hand made product. That is what I have chosen as the subject of Reynolds Yater’s portrait. Him, working his craft, experienced hands, deftly, and affectionately finding his best work. Timeless.
By Holli Harmon