Tales From the Surf Ghetto

Meet the ragtag band of craftsmen, entrepreneurs and weirdos at the heart of OC's surf industry

Tales From the Surf Ghetto

"I need a fucking customer, or I'm going to fall asleep," Matt "Slim" Doherty says to no one in particular as he cracks open a fresh beer. An airbrusher with Lost Surfboards is sitting on a white plastic chair nearby, eating his lunch out of Tupperware and nodding his head in acknowledgement.

A breeze whips along Los Obreros Lane, bringing with it the mixed smells of the ocean, resin, burnt wood and engine exhaust. It's a warm Thursday in early July, and though the street name translates to "the workers," it seems like no one is working. Usually, there are the familiar sounds of a wood sign being sanded, an engine being tinkered with and blow darts being shot—or at least a loud conversation coming from the back patio of the sports bar on the corner. But at this moment, there's mostly silence beyond Doherty's increasing frustration.

Along the narrow street, cars are double-parked among the garages, each of which is home to an individual business. Los Obreros is but one alley of businesses within the Los Molinos Business District in San Clemente, but few who know about the area call it by its official name. It's largely known as the Surf Ghetto, though some of the area's inhabitants aren't too keen on that moniker. The city prefers Surf Alley. Some call it Soul Alley.

Doherty is standing outside his tool-repair shop, arguably the heart of the alley, sipping on his beer. He's tall and lean and seems to wear the same black T-shirt, black jeans and black boots combination every day. He has an unlit cigarette between his fingers. His long, straight brown hair is dancing in the wind, much like the large American flag nearby.

Before Doherty can find himself a comfortable place to nod off, a matching father-son pair walks up the alley: Christian and Greyson Fletcher. Both are wearing dark jeans, black tees and skate shoes; Christian's dark shades, black hair and neck tattoos set him apart. The Fletchers are surfing royalty, particularly in Orange County. In the mid-'80s, Christian was a seminal figure in introducing aerials into the trick repertoire. When he wasn't surfing Trestles, he was hanging out in this alley, having his boards airbrushed by a punk rocker from Chino at the Astrodeck warehouse. His father, Herbie, still owns Astrodeck, a traction pad and sandal company, located a few miles from the alley. The Fletchers remain regulars in the area.

Christian is meeting with Timmy Patterson, of the T.Patterson surfboard label, to re-create a design the pair first worked on 20 years ago. It's sketched out in pencil on a piece of paper in his pocket.

Though Doherty and most of the other businesses have signage, the surfboard shapers in the alley prefer to be discreet. If you're a newcomer and are looking for Patterson or Matt Biolos or Ron House or Hamish Graham, you had better have a keen eye for things like stickers on doors or on cars outside buildings, perhaps the occasional T-shirt.

Without the anonymity, Patterson says, "We'd never get any work done."

Patterson is in the first stall, smoothing out a blank with fine-grade sandpaper, when the Fletchers walk in. He looks like he walked in off the beach and started working; he's barefoot and wearing light-blue board shorts and a T-shirt. The music blaring from the speakers is some type of electric house mix.

Christian pulls out the piece of paper to remind Patterson of what he's looking for. The original board was 3 feet, 10 inches long, but Christian is a few pounds heavier and years beyond his prime; this board will be 5-feet, 3-inches—still a small board for a guy taller than 6 feet.

"This is going to be radical," Patterson says.

After Patterson saws off the front four inches of the blank, the conversation turns to the recent south swell. Christian does most of the talking while Greyson observes and Patterson works.

"I was surfing Lowers, and I saw this kid trying flips, and I asked him, 'Why?' 'Because that's what's next,' he told me," Christian recalls. "Then he asks me what I'm working on, and I say, 'I'm working on surfing on the water.'" Christian laughs at his own story, understanding the irony.

Patterson laughs, too, but his eyes are set on the blank in front of him. With each pass of the sandpaper, he molds the exact board his client has in mind. Every board has a unique identity. This one, with a blunt nose and stinger rail set-up, looks like nothing you'd find on the racks in a surf shop. While machines will do some of the work, a hands-on approach is required to finish every job.

Walk from garage to garage, from shaper to mechanic to carpenter, and that same characteristic of the job will be true. Whether it's Doug Perrault gutting and rebuilding a 1966 Volkswagen Bug or Dennis Miller and his crew working with blowtorches to weld an extravagant 17-foot wrought-iron handrail or any of the numerous shapers creating a ridable piece of sporting equipment from a block of foam, it's all done the old-fashioned way: with hands, rich with years of expertise.

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