So Board With the USA

Seeking low wages and lax environmental laws, OC boardmakers reluctantly find themselves in Asia

One of Biolos' biggest customers is Ron Abdel, owner of Jack's Surfboards—which has stores in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, and Corona del Mar. His shops sell only hand-shaped boards made in the U.S.

"At Jack's, we boycott the China boards," Abdel says. "Real surfers come here and want real boards. Many people come and approach me saying they have surfboards for $170. But if you sell those to the customers, they don't go anywhere in the water—those boards don't work. I see a lot of people who buy Chinese boards from Costco and want to trade them in to us, but we never take them."

But Abdel adds that selling hand-shaped surfboards is so unprofitable, it's essentially "cosmetic," a way to draw people into the store. "There's no money to make in boards," he says. "We only make $100 per board. A new longboard from Lost costs us $800 and we sell it for $110 more, but we give a commission to the kid who sells the boards. We make all our money on clothes."

Selling clothes, in fact, is what also keeps Biolos and Lost Enterprises in business. His company licensed its clothing line to Irvine-based La Jolla Sport USA Inc. five years ago. "We also license Lost Energy drinks to Hansen's, and the sales have been through the roof," Biolos says. "But the drink is mostly just marketing our name—we make most of our money from clothing."

With the exception of Lost T-shirts, which are assembled in the U.S., Biolos adds, just about all that clothing is made in Asia.

* * *

Placebo-man: Lost's
mechanical mascot for
the OC company's
new line of Asian-
made surfboards.

Surfers trace their roots back roughly a millennium to ancient Hawaiians who rode unwieldy 20-foot solid-wood boards. Islanders held a monopoly on the sport until the 1930s with the introduction of hollow wooden boards. The advent of plastics made boards even lighter and paved the way for Gordon Clark's 1961 founding of Clark Foam, now the largest manufacturer of foam blanks. Clark made it possible for anyone serious enough about surfing to make his own board.

With the rise of surfing's popularity in Orange County during the 1950s and 1960s, a whole generation of surfers hit the waves riding boards of their own making. "In the beginning, all the board makers were famous surfers," says Mike Bruno, an avid surfer and amateur board shaper who lives in Orange. "If you wanted a new board, you'd either make it or one of your friends would make it. All these guys knew each other and would show up at each other's surf spots all the time. People like Gordon Clark, Greg Noll, Robert August, Dale Velzy, who just passed away, and Hobie Alter—they all made their own boards."

Each surfer had his own style of riding waves, Bruno adds, which dictated the craftsmanship that went into their custom-made boards. That spirit of artisanship, Bruno says, explains why serious surfers will never buy cheap plastic boards imported from Asia. "What's missing is the relationship you form with the guy who's shaping your board," he says. "A good shaper will ask you questions about your lifestyle and what kind of wave you surf. If you surf a steep, hollow wave like at 56th Street in Newport, you need a board that will make that wave."

Bruno agrees that there's not much money to be made from shaping surfboards, regardless of whether you're a small-scale shaper or a major manufacturer. But he insists that as long as there are waves, die-hard surfers like him will still be shaping their own custom-made boards out of styrofoam. "The foam is so soft, it's easy to manipulate," he says. "When you're making a board, it's like being out there in the water waiting for a wave. You are thinking about that wave everytime you run the sandpaper across the board. You feel every inch of the board, trying to even it out, trying to feel how the water will interact with the outline. You can make sure there's a lot of pitch in the nose so you can ride a steep wave."

To Bruno, in other words, shaping surfboards is an art form—an irreplaceable human skill—that can't be replicated by computers or assembly lines. While he agrees that there's almost no money to be made from his craft, he doesn't believe cheap Chinese imports are truly hurting big companies like Lost. "Lost isn't really there to mkae surfboards, but to make money," Bruno says. "O'Neill started out making wetsuits, just like Rip Curl and Billabong—they started out with clothes and suits. For these companies, boards are an afterthought—they're making all their money on clothes."

While Biolos is the first to admit that he makes the vast majority of his profits on clothing, he insists that something crucial to his business—and to Orange County's home-grown surf industry—is being lost because of globalization and the rise of cheap Asian imports.

"Gordon Clark, the Patterson brothers and other guys who are now in their 70s and 80s invented this process here in Orange County," Biolos says. "You can still see some of these guys at the beach. We have a direct lineage to that tradition, but we have the strictest rules and the highest manufacturing costs in the world. . . . The times are changing, whether you like it or not.

"Telling the market that it's okay to manufacture in China, it's one of the final nails in the coffin."

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