Gordon Clark’s speech at the Surfing Hall of Fame

Believe it or not this is my first speech to a surfing audience since the 1960’s. I rarely gave interviews. This was part of a very successful business strategy. Do not compete with your customers. My customers were all competing for recognition and publicity.

I am not here for my surfing. There are some awesome surfers represented here.
I want to make it clear that I am not here for the promotion of surfing. I never did any of that stuff – zero. No sponsorships, no contests, no movies, no surf clothes, no organizations.
I am being inducted into this Hall of Fame strictly for the development and production of the core of the sport itself – the surfboard. I believe this is a first for this hall of fame.

Being inducted just for the development and production of thing you are standing on when you are riding a wave is actually a great honor. I will try to explain why.
Most of the people writing about the development of the surfboard get it wrong. The modern surfboard was actually developed for the most part in small steps and an awful lot of people have been involved. An incredible number of materials, construction techniques, and designs have been tried. Some worked and some did not. Some things were used for a while and then discarded. There have been steps backward. I give a lot of credit to everyone who tried. Ultimately the very top surfers tell us what works best so in a sense they are the final designers. To be a top surfer it is obvious that you must ride the best surfboard.

It would take hours to explain all of this so I will give an example that will shock you.
In the late 1940’s Bob Simmons, the first guy to use fiberglass, had in his shop all of the materials necessary to build today’s latest high performance shape so-called epoxy board. The board would have been a brownish color but comparable in weight and strength. The fiberglass was not a strong as todays but the brownish resin was actually stronger. The extruded polystyrene foam was invented by the giant Dow Chemical in 1941 and has changed little over the decades.

It was not until about a decade later, 1958 to be exact, that enough of the pieces were put together to make a commercially available, shaped foam long board that actually surfed better and lasted longer than balsa. It used a different resin and different foam. That exploded the sport. It was yet another decade or so until there was a short board due in part to improvements in fiberglass and polyurethane foam.
I will give a more contemporary example of the aggressiveness of the research for a better surfboard. Simmons did not have a computer controlled shaping machine. The first one was invented in 1980 before there was an IBM PC or Mac. Bill Gates was still writing basic computer language code and Steve Jobs was just moving out of a garage.

Anyway, considering the number of people involved in the development of the modern surfboard, it is a great honor to be the first one picked for this Hall of Fame.
I am 82 years old. When I got to watch surfing grow from a small number of surfers in California and Hawaii to what it is today. I got to watch most of the modern surfboard development unfold.

Here are a small number of highlights: My first surfboard weighed 90 pounds. I got my first job building surfboards as a teenager. It was working for Tom Blake. Tom invented the fin for the surfboard and the hallow board. The fin – kind of a big step one might say. My second job was working for Hobie. Hobie’s incredible lifetime record of achievement includes several things that are still used in a modified form in the manufacture of today’s surfboards. Hoyle Schweitzer and I built our first surfboards together in our college dorm room. We were trying to copy the great surfer/shaper Matt Kevlin’s balsa prototype of the modern long board. Hoyle later went on to invent and be granted the patent on windsurfing. In 1969 Dimitrije built his “winterstick” or the first snowboard out of some high-density surfboard foam I made for him. He glassed it like a surfboard. Bruce Brown was my next-door neighbor when he made blockbuster “The Endless Summer” movie that spread surfing around the world.

One of the most fascinating things I got to do can is best understood by watching old and new surfing movies. Notice how the improvements in surfing and improvements in the surfboard are tied together. My job was to apply my limited resources to follow this development. To do this I got to communicate with several generations of board builders, shapers, and some of the top surfers. I learned early not to ask “what do you want” but instead had to dig far deeper, talk to many people, studied statistics, and then make a decision where to apply my resources. I surfed a lot, had worked in every step of board building, and had a great college education so the communication and understanding the design theory was easy. Eventually I developed a wealth of knowledge based on information from many sources. For me this was very stimulating. I loved this part of my work.

Last I would mention that surfing is the most fun thing I have ever done. That was my biggest trade secret. I knew that what we were making worked well and if we improved the surfboard it would be more fun.

(posted by RK)

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