Photo by Jeanne RiceBob Nealy revolutionized surfing—or bastardized it, for you hardcores—but doesn't hire surfers. Surfers are terrific people, he says, wonderful customers—some of his best friends are surfers, really—but surfers like to surf. And while that makes for great color in the business section—a sandal-clad work force that punches out when ocean swells roll in—it doesn't do a whole lot for you when there's inventory to move.
Nealy himself doesn't surf much anymore. The joke is that some people didn't think he surfed much even when he surfed; he was never one for wasted effort. Back in the '60s, that earned him a reputation for laziness and the prediction that he would never go far. Now, as the owner of San Clemente-based Surf More Products, "lazy" has been replaced by "methodical."
Not a lot—and everything—has changed in between.
He still likes being in San Clemente, still believes in incremental progress, still has a predilection for Hawaiian shirts and an aversion to footwear. "But I'm the one who laughs now," says Nealy, 53. "Those same friends come visit me in the office, and they're the ones in the starched shirts, and I'm the one dressed like this."
"Bob had to create Surf More," says Bruce Reynolds, who went to Newport Harbor High with Nealy in the '60s. "He needed a job where he could go barefoot."
Surf More started in Nealy's garage in 1973, with Nealy making just one item: surfboard leashes. Now the company sells enough surf products to fill a 16-page catalog and ships merchandise all over the world.
Oh, and Surf More helped create modern surfing.
Back in the days when boards were big and roamed free, surfers swam as much as they surfed. In those days, you waited for the perfect wave out of common sense: you had already expended energy pushing your plank out to the break line. Once there, you knew if you took a wave and wiped out, the real work had just begun. Without a leash, the board went anywhere, everywhere—a lumbering, tumbling piece of flotsam (unless, of course, it became jetsam). You were bound to follow in a time-consuming, exhausting exercise, an exercise many saw as integral to the sport.
Nealy's introduction of the Velcro leash made surfing more accessible. Freed from having to chase their boards, surfers caught more waves and were emboldened to try more outrageous maneuvers. The leash "flung open the doors to experimentation," wrote former Surfer editor Drew Kampion in Stoked: A History of Surf Culture. "You could try a wildly spectacular move knowing that if you blew it, you wouldn't have to swim, allowing surfers to work on improving their surfing technique. Suddenly, everyone was going for it."
Nealy developed his device after trying the uncomfortable leather leashes that either fit "too loose or like a tourniquet." He'd heard the stories of leashes made with surgical tubing that, when pulled taut, acted like a rubber band and bounced the board back at the surfer. The eye patch legendary surfboard creator Jack O'Neil wears is not for effect but rather the result of a board that snapped back into his face tip-first.
Nealy studied the problems and designed his leashes with a longer cord of urethane, using the Velcro straps from his old Air Force life preserver to make a more comfortable fit.
During a summer break in 1973—Nealy has taught high school history for more than 20 years, and still teaches part-time at Capistrano Valley High School—he showed his design to friend Dick Mets, then manager of Hobie Sports in Newport Beach. To Nealy's surprise, Mets ordered 50. Nealy went straight to work, buying supplies from a local hardware store, setting up shop in his garage, sewing each bungee cord onto a Velcro band with a Singer sewing machine he bought from an Air Force buddy. High school students helped package and label the leashes, and Nealy began marketing the leash to surf shops from LA to Mexico. Nealy credits a student with his decision to place an ad in Surfer magazine, a move that spread the leash worldwide.
Acclaim was not immediate or total. Purists derided the leashes as "kook cords." Attaching yourself to your board was viewed as cheating, the surfing equivalent of the designated hitter. However taxing chasing a board through the ocean was, the swimming was an important part of the ritual. "You had to get beat up by the waves to become respected," Nealy speculates. "All part of paying your dues."
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But by the early '70s, there were enough new surfers who cared less for tradition than for jacking up the number of rides before class. Leading the way was reigning world champion Corky Carroll, who had always taken a pragmatic approach to the sport. "The way I saw it," Carroll says, "it was more waves for me and less for them."
Nealy says, "There were probably some tongue-in-cheek comments referring to it as a geek cord, but that attitude was very short-lived because people understood the value and the safety of the leash."
Nealy continued to make improvements and to branch out. Some innovations were less successful than others: one surfer found himself unable to unsnap a new Nealy leash design and had to leave the water and hike across PCH—board attached—to the nearest surf shop to have the leash cut off.
There are now Surf More board waxes, board bags and a just-introduced waxless board as well as boogie-board wrist leashes and ankle leashes. But Nealy's first product remains his biggest. It has revolutionized the sport, drawing more surfers into the water in a self-perpetuating cycle that ensures Nealy's continuing success. "You have to have a surf leash nowadays," says Surf and Sport manager Dana Burley. "There are so many people in the water now that it would be too dangerous to have all those boards popping up."