Circus rat to Rocket Fish. Epoxy to Hanjin container loads. Clyde Beatty defies easy criticism.
By Brian Gillogly
Light / Dark
Spring 2010. Jim “Pilk” Pilkenton, a phone company repairman who moonlighted as a Huntington Beach surf instructor, Rodney Dangerfield impersonator, and captain of the Clyde Beatty Jr. Surf Team, called Clyde Beatty in the People’s Republic of China.
“You pick up and move halfway around the globe, don’t know the language, don’t have a support group,” Pilkenton said. “And you kick ass.”
Beatty enjoyed the sentiment. It was, to a degree, consolation for the small but vocal backlash within the traditional surf community for “selling out to the Chinese” and “betraying his purist roots” by going full on into surfboard mass production.
Five years prior, Beatty, then best known for his introduction of the modern-day epoxy surfboard and the development of the 1970s Rocket Fish design, was offered a position with the mainland Chinese company Dragonfly Sports Equipment Ltd. His job was to oversee their factories’ manufacturing of surfboard construction materials and the production of surf and paddleboards. The slump in the surf industry at the time made it seem like a no-brainer. He could continue to pay the mortgage on his Oxnard, California, house while still feeding his passion of simply making each board better than the last.
Though his rep back home was tarnished, the irony, as Beatty saw it, was that his move to the PRC was as good for surfers as it was for his meager bank account. The Chinese operation was only copying the offshore factory scheme established years earlier by Australians in Thailand. And, computerized numerical control machines (CNC) were merely taking the place of the once industry-wide “ghost shaping” system, whereby a stable of shapers would copy the signature board shapes of the day’s prevailing gurus. Only the machines would do it much more accurately. There would also be no compulsory “transfer of intellectual property,” as has been the case with other industries in the PRC.
In essence, top surfboard manufacturers from around the world would send the computer program for their production models, the factory would reproduce the blanks with precision, and the characteristically obsessive Beatty would make sure the polyester or epoxy shell was top-notch. Dragonfly would not sell any surfboards under its own name.
The intended result was that surfers would have a board truer to the hand-shaped original. “The CNC program does not lie,” as Beatty says, meaning that he thinks, contrary to popular surfing opinion, that he’s giving them an overall better craft underfoot. And while much of that is the product of the computers, machines, and factory-line process, it is also due to Beatty’s half-century of relentless experimentation, hands-on experience, and unbridled creativity.
Summer 1975. It was late morning on Route 66, just outside of Winslow, Arizona, then a bus stop of a town made famous by the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Beatty had taken the lyrics’ advice seriously, running hot air in his late-model Chevy Vega to “keep from overheating the engine” in the sweltering outside temperature. Also in the car were three of the Clyde Beatty Jr. Surf Team members and Beatty’s dog. On the roof were five surfboards. Their plan? Drive all the way to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the site of that year’s US Surfing Championships, and make their mark.
Passing into a desolate stretch of desert, a sharp pop rang out from one of the tires. The car began to swerve before it crossed over into the opposing lane, hit a ditch, and rolled over. Fliers for Beatty’s surfboard business were still floating in the breeze as the crew emerged from the disfigured mini-wagon to check for bumps and bruises. The dog walked sideways, and Beatty noticed a gash in his arm. They all agreed that it could have been much worse, the only real casualty being Beatty’s personal board, a single-fin that was suddenly rudderless.
The obvious next move was to return home to Huntington Beach and lick their wounds. Beatty, however, quickly came up with an alternative: Hire the mechanic at the auto-body shop in Winslow to fly them in his light plane to Albuquerque, New Mexico. From there, they’d rent a car to drive to Hatteras. A twin-fin fish that Beatty had shaped and brought along to sell would have to suit as his contest board.
The short version of what followed is that Beatty finished fifth in the event while discovering the virtues of the split-tail twin, but decided adjustments to the design were in order. A few months later, he debuted the Rocket Fish, an elongated twin initially shaped by his childhood friend Steve Brom, who had been a production shaper for David Nuuhiwa’s down-railed fish. Particularly noteworthy are the longer fins uniquely arranged in a toed-in, flared-out position.
Clyde Beatty Jr. Surfboards and its distinctive tiger logo were suddenly on the map.
A graduate of California State University Long Beach’s graphic-arts program, Beatty designed the emblem as a tribute to his father. Clyde Beatty Sr. was an international celebrity, known for his daring stunts as a big-cat handler with Ringling Brothers Circus and, later, the Clyde Beatty Circus.
“I learned to ride an elephant before I ever rode a wave,” Beatty says.
Born in Los Angeles in 1952, the junior Beatty spent much of his youth with the circus, a fact that greatly impressed his classmates back home in Ventura, California. The reality, though, was not so glamorous. “Everybody worked,” says Beatty. “That was the motto.”
His father was insistent that Beatty not follow in his footsteps as a big-cat trainer, due to the inherent danger of the trade. “My dad had a lot of injuries,” Beatty recalls, “a lot of close calls from his cats. They were never declawed or defanged.” Instead, Junior dedicated his free time to training to become a performer on the trampoline and, eventually, the trapeze.
That budding career was derailed at age 12, however, with the passing of Beatty Sr. from stomach cancer. Beatty and his mother settled into a quiet existence in West Los Angeles, where he nurtured an affinity for surfing that had begun two years earlier in Ventura.
By the late 1960s, Beatty’s natural athleticism had earned him a spot on the Blue Cheer–Hobie surf team, and his friendly attitude made him a natural as floor salesman at the Blue Cheer shop at the crest of Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. He surely could have parlayed his success in sales into his own retail operation, as Eddie “ET” Talbot had done after working at the Greg Noll showroom on the South Bay’s fabled “surfboard row” years earlier. But Beatty had other ideas.
Specifically, he was fascinated by surfboard construction. Being a team member and a salesman was a means to get his foot in that door, to study the work of master shaper Mike Perry, laminator Bob Petty, and other craftsmen at the Blue Cheer factory.
“I wanted to pierce the veil of the factory [process],” Beatty says. “I wanted it all. I wanted to make my own surfboards, start to finish.”
Late summer 1976. Beatty entered the water on the North Side of the Huntington Beach Pier looking very much an artist-surfer: bushy blond curls and, oddly, flowered Katin trunks pulled over his fullsuit. He slapped down his favorite Rocket Fish with its fins up, cooling the wax and revealing his airbrush mural of Ben Aipa doing a cutback at Ala Moana.
Paddling through the pier to just outside the surf line, Beatty watched as a series of clean, overhead left-handers were picked off by a local pack. Moments later, Beatty, too, was in their mix, taking off, driving down to the bottom, smacking the lip, and occasionally lining up a tube ride under the watch of strolling passersby and Pilkenton on the pier above.
When one particular wall lined up straight through the pilings of “the T,” a right-angle protrusion from the pier, Beatty took the bait and maneuvered handily, only to lose his footing before he was out through the other side. As the wave receded, he found himself dangling in the air by his leash, which was hung up on a cluster of barnacles encrusting a piling. His urge was to laugh at the odd predicament, until he heard Pilk yell that a set was coming. With not a second to spare, Beatty managed to tear off his leash and swim to safety, sacrificing his magic board.
During this period, when the surf was flat, Beatty could be found at his board-building factory, initially in the suburb of Westminster, a few miles inland from Huntington, and later with shaper Guy Okazaki in Culver City, near Beatty’s one-time Santa Monica haunts.
His arts-focused education surfaced in sophisticated pen-and-ink treatments of fish, dragons, and other fanciful images on the underside of boards, which proved more artistic expression than market-driven imperative. Colorful airbrushes and elaborate pin lines went against the black-wetsuit and clear-board ethic of the era.
“My color palette was too [broad] for the times,” Beatty says. “I eventually had to rein it in.”
The right side of Beatty’s brain, nevertheless, found opportunities to flex. In 1973, a CSULB assignment to build a functional living structure introduced Beatty and his project group to Kris Vollmer, a local expert in paper-based materials. Vollmer’s assistance with an all-weather “geodesic dome” of industrial cardboard earned the group top marks. In turn, Beatty agreed to help Vollmer explore his idea of building a molded surfboard of “bulletproof” ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic.
Beatty and Vollmer’s attempt to build surfboard molds, using three Brom shapes as “plugs,” proved financially unfeasible and destined for a bad reception. “In those days, the surf community just wouldn’t go for anything that wasn’t hand-shaped,” says Beatty.
Still, the pursuit of a better strength-to-weight ratio continued with Beatty’s idea to try MPV (modified poly vinyl), an existing product famously in use on the Pirates of the Caribbean boat ride at nearby Disneyland. The application, however, showed mixed results. According to Beatty, “Together with fiberglass cloth, it made the boards extra strong, but it was hard to work with and there were problems with availability.”
Boards made with an epoxy-Styrofoam mixture seemed a more likely route. Pete Peterson first fashioned a board out of Styrofoam in 1930, but it wasn’t until 1981 that it seemed viable, and Beatty had heard about sailboard manufacturers using it to reduce weight. The downsides, though, were considerable: the learning curve in shaping delicate Styrofoam (rather than denser polyurethane foam), the extra expense of the epoxy, the tendency of the board to discolor in the sun, and the difficulty repairing dings.
Together with Brom, who had crafted windsurfing pioneer Jim Drake’s first sailboard using Styrofoam and epoxy, Beatty got to work, paying considerable attention to the cosmetic problem. He would eventually settle on adding opaque pigment to the epoxy to reduce its reaction to UV rays.
Slowly, Beatty made converts with his epoxy-Styrofoam “Light-Wave” boards, but, in the process, found an enemy in industry heavyweight Gordon “Grubby” Clark of Clark Foam. Clark used his considerable clout to steer the surf community away from the new epoxy process, calling it “toxic” and “noxious.” Beatty countered that this particular epoxy was no more toxic than polyester resin.
Regardless and despite a small number of believers, true to surf fashion of the era, widespread use of epoxy was hard to come by.
Summer 1984. Beatty took a reprieve from the domestic foam wars to compete in the Newquay Pro-Am Surf Classic in Cornwall, England. Arriving at Heathrow, he rode the train to downtown London and then stopped in a pub for refreshment and directions. When he asked the latter of a Scottish man next to him at the bar, Beatty was rewarded with a lengthy, mostly unintelligible response in a thick, slurred brogue, no doubt heavily influenced by the drink.
Johnny Bamford, an oil platform worker sitting nearby, had been listening in on the conversation and advised Beatty to ignore everything he’d just heard. “If you follow those directions, you’ll end up in Scotland,” Bamford said. He told Beatty that he was from Tintagel, near Newquay, that he was on his way home, and to follow him to get there.
Once arrived, Bamford put Beatty up in a spare room and introduced him to his brother, Ben, the local lifeguard and an avid surfer. Ben and Beatty surfed together before the event, and Ben became quite impressed with Beatty’s opaque yellow epoxy-Styrofoam Rocket Fish.
Two days before the contest, Beatty was on the inside at Trebarwith Beach when he was bucked off his board by backwash. When he came down, one of the fins pierced his wetsuit and sliced into the back of his thigh. Ben told Beatty not to look, as raw muscle was popping through the wetsuit. The local ER performed an intricate repair, including interior and exterior stitches, and advised Beatty to keep it dry.
Beatty surfed in the contest anyway, wrapping multiple layers of cellophane and tape around the stitches, and competed in a series of heats. Of course, the stitches got wet, but Beatty still managed a respectable fifth place in the finals.
What came next was more unexpected. Bamford offered to set up a makeshift surf shop in his mother’s barn to answer the newfound local interest in epoxy-Styrofoam boards. Calling around, Bamford and Beatty discovered that SP Systems, a small British plastics company, had a murky brown-colored epoxy for sale. Beatty explained to them that a clear, light-stabilized epoxy resin would be ideal, something American resin companies considered “too niche, too small a piece of the resin pie to even consider [producing].” To his surprise, SP Systems offered to try to develop their own clear epoxy. The end result was successive epoxy formulations (SP-113, SP-114, SP-115) that were increasingly resistant to UV light and extra strong.
Beatty brought the new resin stateside and soon was making inroads where he’d never thought possible, including Santa Barbara, just north of his childhood home. Longtime SB shaper John Bradbury proved a critical connection.
“John shaped some sweet [epoxy-Styrofoam] boards for Martin Potter,” says Beatty, “and I airbrushed and glassed them in John’s garage.”
Eventually, in 1984, Beatty moved his factory to Santa Barbara and, along with East Coast friend and collaborator Greg Loehr, spent the next decade or so making believers in epoxy-Styrofoam boards.
One interested party was Andy Irons. In 2005, Huntington Beach’s Casey McCrystal shaped Irons’ first epoxy boards and Beatty glassed them using a next-generation epoxy produced by Loehr’s Resin Research. Irons’ boards, however, came to illustrate one of the main misconceptions of epoxy-Styrofoam surfboards.
“His sponsor told me he wants his boards 5.5 pounds,” says Beatty. “I explained to them that it probably should be a little heavier, because epoxy-Styrofoam has more flotation, but they insisted. Turned out he could only ride the boards in early morning heats when it was glassy.”
Beatty’s triumphs in board construction and design, however, have not always translated into profits. This was particularly true in the early 2000s, when the US surfboard industry hit a rough patch, in part due to the acceptance of shaping machines.
“I could see the writing on the wall,” Beatty says. “Business as usual just wouldn’t cut it.”
Spring 2020. “There are rumors that I’m locked in a Chinese mental institution,” says Beatty. “And I have 500 wives and 2,000 kids. If that were true, I’d never get any work done.”
While most of the gossip surrounding Beatty’s time in China has proved unfounded, Dragonfly Sports has provided him an income manufacturing surfboards. Initially, he was brought in to set up four modern factories—one each for epoxy-Styrofoam boards, polyester resin/polyurethane foam boards, raw blanks, and molded boards—to service major surf and paddleboard labels in the mainland US, Australia, Japan, Europe, and Hawaii. Eventually he transformed into a long-term consultant, overseeing all phases of board construction.
An unexpected plus is that Beatty was able to surf China’s Hainan Island, known as the “Hawaii of Asia,” when it was still British expats’ best-kept secret. Hainan’s celebrated Riyue Bay is a one-hour flight from his home, and closer still are obscure local breaks, where he has taken his crew of “homegrown” shapers to give them in-the-field experience of how and why different board designs function.
“Before I came [to China],” says Beatty, “they thought surfboards were beautiful furniture. Now they understand how thickness-flow and board flex work.”
Beatty admits that this understanding of the workings of the modern surfboard was especially vital to his shapers a few years ago, when they began getting more orders for custom, hands-on shaping jobs from small surf shops.
“Nowadays, I tell the shop owners to give the custom work to their local factories,” Beatty explains, “and we’ll concentrate on big orders of precise machine-shaped boards.”
Beatty, however, counters the notion that his factory crew are merely cogs in a big wheel. He seems genuinely in awe of their work ethic and pride in their craft. A believer in the broader notion of “family,” whether applied to the multinational circus folk of his youth or present-day boardbuilders, he is grateful, too, at how the workers have accepted him as one of their own. “They invite me home to dinner,” he says. “Their kids call me shu-shu, or uncle.”
Shaper and former professional surfer Richie Lovett, who has tasked Beatty with overseeing reproductions of his models in the PRC, notes that “everyone at the factories [holds] his word in high regard and thoroughly respects his work.”
That’s not to say that Beatty’s stay in China has been problem free, especially in regards to his health. A serious foot infection, eventually attributed to walking in street runoff in leather sandals, and a bout of pneumonia in early 2020 gave him scares. Marijuana, which he has long used to self-medicate a “nervous stomach,” is highly illegal in the PRC.
Those who cheer or jeer Beatty’s story, a career marked by constant experimentation, might yet wonder if his motivation, deep down, has been to find a hook, something to draw attention, to set him apart. He insists, however, that it’s more practical than that.
“If you think you’ve already got the perfect thing and you’re not willing to change anything,” he says, in what also seems like a nod to his critics, “then you’ve already been left behind.”