ATH: Finding a Way to Surf?
Surfers in Turmoil With the Loss of a Major Supplier
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN, The New York Times, December 30, 2005
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - The thefts began shortly after the day surfers call Blank Monday, when the surfing community from San Diego to Santa Cruz and beyond felt caught in the undertow of what Grubby Clark had done.
Mr. Clark, a reclusive surf industrialist whose given name is Gordon, is responsible for producing foam cores, or blanks, for most of the nation's surf boards.
On Dec. 5, Mr. Clark abruptly went out of business.
The sheriff's office in Santa Cruz County cannot say for sure that it was the closing of Mr. Clark's company, Clark Foam, that led to a rash of surfboard thefts in the charming but tattered bungalow neighborhoods near The Hook, one of roughly 65 famous surf breaks that have drawn free spirits here since the late 1930's.
But Sgt. Fred Plagement, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, said that the thefts "followed the publicity regarding the unavailability of polyurethane blanks."
At roughly 1,000 blanks a day, Clark Foam had dominated the business of producing the buoyant foam innards of surfboards, some $175 million to $200 million worth a year.
All along the coast, board prices have gone up an average of $100, said Pete Johnson, the owner of Kane Garden Surfboards in San Diego.
Surfers and shapers have been hoarding their remaining blanks. "This is the last Mohican," said Michel Junod, one of Santa Cruz's most respected shapers, referring to his lone torpedo of white foam.
The thefts were an expression of the turmoil that has gripped many California surfing spots since Mr. Clark sent out a jarring, seven-page letter to his customers announcing that he was shutting down Clark Foam, his 44-year-old business, starting immediately.
"The Howard Hughes of the surfing world," in Mr. Junod's words, Mr. Clark said in his letter that his decision was based on many factors, including the cost of complying with state and federal regulations.
In 2003, Mr. Clark received a notice from the Environmental Protection Agency for, among other things, failing to safeguard workers against the accidental release of toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, a liquid catalyst and known carcinogen used in making polyurethane foam.
There was also the cost of workers' compensation, insuring machines of his own design and "a claim being made by the widow of an employee who died from cancer," he wrote.
"For owning and operating Clark Foam," the letter began, "I may be looking at very large fines, civil lawsuits, and even time in prison."
Both the E.P.A. and the Orange County Fire Authority, which monitors factories for hazardous materials, said, however, that Mr. Clark had recently been in compliance.
"We were kind of dumbfounded," said Capt. Stephen Miller of the fire authority.
Mr. Clark, a former chemist and engineer who is considered both a shrewd businessman and maverick pioneer, has not spoken publicly and his office in Laguna Niguel refused to comment. But reaction from the surfing community was swift.
"It was like a close out wave that nobody can ride," said Steve Coletta, 58, a Santa Cruz shaper, referring to an ominously unridable wave that sometimes roars up without warning after a storm.
As in other towns ruled by waves, Blank Monday was memorable here. On the verge of Christmas, "Not for Sale" signs sprang up at local surf shops.
At Fiberglass Hawaii, which sells materials for surfboards, 426 blanks were snapped up. "Pretty much the whole town showed up," said Barry Barrett, the general manager.
David Balding, a 35-year-old glazer and surfer, was asleep when thieves sneaked into his carport and stole five of his prized boards, including an 11-foot $1,400 Lance Carson, named for a revered shaper.
"Maybe they thought, 'Shoot, prices are going up, so I'm going to grab these,' " Mr. Balding said.
The rise of Mr. Clark, who earned his nickname as a young man for his devil-may-care attire - he is now 74 - paralleled and, in many ways, fostered, the growth of American surfing.
Before foam, surfboards were made from wood, including balsa, which was hard to get, limiting production, said Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing.
In 1958, a year before the surfing movie "Gidget," Mr. Clark, a laminator, teamed up with Hobie Alter, who made surfboards and sailboats.
Ensconced in a secret foam-making plant in Laguna Canyon, they developed the first commercially successful polyurethane foam blank.
"It was like shaping a stick of butter," Mr. Alter once said.
With the use of foam, surfers numbering in the tens of thousands on the mainland boomed into millions.
In a world of colorful hell-raisers, Mr. Clark was known as a ripper, a term for fearless, hypercompetitive surfers.
Remarkably efficient at customizing blanks for small backyard shapers, he was both beloved and feared.
"He was smart, aggressive and had a good rapport with shapers," Mr. Junod said. "But one thing about surfers is, they want the easy way out. They just want to go surfing. So people would submit to his pressure."
As theories persist about what prompted Mr. Clark to call it quits, many say the company's demise, though difficult in the short-term, presents an opportunity to rethink the way surfboards are made.
"Surfers are supposed to be environmentally sensitive, but the boards are questionable," said Steve Pezman, publisher of The Surfer's Journal. "They're a part of the puzzle that doesn't really fit the ethic."
Pete Reich, a specialist with the E.P.A. in San Francisco and an avid surfer, said blank makers and glassers are exposed to toxic fumes, and the people who sand and shape surfboards contend with noxious particulates.
Of the possibility of new methods, Yvon Chouinard, a surfer and mountain climber, said, "My attitude is, It's about time."
Mr. Chouinard's company, Patagonia, has developed what Mr. Chouinard says is a less toxic process.
Many surfboards wind up in landfills after six or eight months, said Randy French of Surftech, a Santa Cruz company making boards out of epoxy composite and one of Mr. Clark's few major competitors.
He said that some of the current shortfall will be filled by suppliers in Australia, Brazil and South Africa.
Looking out over The Hook, Boyd Halverson, wearing a wet suit and barefoot on a cold rainy Saturday, braced himself for what he called an "ice cream headache" from frigid waves. Mr. Halverson, 27, who repairs damaged boards, said that the demise of Clark Foam would be good for his business.
Mr. Coletta, the shaper, who was sitting on a three-month inventory of blanks, regarded the situation the way he might a long, glassy right point break. "Before, no one found the need to experiment with new materials, to get the feel right," he said. "I'm really stoked."