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Jeff Hull continues the Santa Barbara Channel wilderness boat legacy.
Words by Christian Beamish | Photographs by Corban Campbell
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“Built for these waters“ goes the company tagline for Jeff Hull Custom Boats in Ventura, California. “These waters” means the Santa Barbara Channel and the offshore islands of the Southern California Bight, where heavy windswell can set in with running avalanches of foam and close-interval misery, and where either direction—heading out or heading in—poses particular design considerations. As Tom Morey once said, “It’s all surfing,” and nowhere more so than in small craft operating in coastal waters.
Not only do these vessels need to be able to run at high speed and handle an often-breaking following sea, the region’s commercial and sport fishery necessitates boats that can do so laden with thousands of pounds of catch. While a number of notable builders have successfully designed boats for the wilds of the Bight, the Radon family in particular occupies a special place in the firmament of West Coast boatbuilders, with generations of fishermen in California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii trusting their lives and livelihoods to the family’s crafts. And it’s in the tradition of the Radons’ unique and capable designs that Jeff Hull builds boats today.
Just how the 38-year-old Hull, a surfboard laminator by trade, has come to be one of the most sought-after boatbuilders on the Central Coast is a story first and foremost of character, followed closely by vision, skill, and a sprinkling of luck.
Growing up in Ventura, where there’s surf throughout the year as well as a longstanding tradition of high-level shredding and surfboard building, it’s not surprising that Hull gravitated to shaping and laminating soon after high school. He learned the trade at the venerable Walden factory, and, after an apprenticeship there, opened his own surfboard factory while earning a college degree.
This was the early 2000s. Boards were high performance and business was good, and so the glass-shop balance sheet was very much in Hull’s favor. A growing list of shaper clients like Dave Johnson, plus overflow Channel Islands stock boards, made regular surf trips to Puerto Rico, Panama, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and the North Shore possible when he wasn’t working 15-hour days six days a week in order to grow his trade and reputation as an honest and capable craftsman.
Hull had a sweetheart by his side in all of this. He met Shannon Marie Donahue in high school, and once they became a couple, it stayed that way. They married in 2008 and soon after bought a half-acre plot next to Shannon’s parents’ half-acre in the Meiners Oaks area of Ojai. The homestead—with their three kids running about, the pigs, the chickens, the garden, the oak trees and the open space, and dogs Roscoe and Nala—is today a nexus for a wide group of friends from high school and church, and from the surfing, spearfishing, and, of course, boat worlds.
Anyone who lives and surfs in Ventura or Santa Barbara counties knows the utility—many would say necessity—of owning a boat to access the premium surfing grounds right at home. It was at the same time Hull and Shannon married that Hull joined the club, purchasing a hard-used 24-foot Radon, a former urchin boat in need of a significant overhaul. By jumping into that project, and through a friendship with Point Arguello Yacht Club Commodore Jeff Chamberlain (the “Yacht Club” is a loose affiliation of friends with small craft developed by the likes of George Greenough, Bill Anderson, Brian Wilson, and the Radons), word got around that Hull—already considered one of the best surfboard laminators in the area—had space in the surfboard factory parking lot for boats.
When the opportunity arose shortly after for another 24-foot Radon to be completely rebuilt from the hull up, Hull offered to be the project manager so he could learn the process start to finish. Working with two longtime builders from Anderson Custom Boats in Goleta, Hull handled communication and payments with the purchasing client while watching the completion of the build, a process he says “basically fast-tracked everything” to the path he’s now on.
“I’d always thought that if the surfboard shop got healthy enough, I’d have more time to work on the boats,” Hull says. “But what really happened was that the surfboard shop had to be unhealthy enough—alcoholic sanders, guys nailing me for unemployment. Then I had that campout at Grubby’s house with Renny Yater and [Tony] Channin.”
Hull is referring to a trip he made to Grubby Clark’s ranch in Oregon while he was glassing boards for Gerry Lopez with esteemed laminator Roger Anderson. Some of the most experienced hands in the surfboard business—Clark, Yater, and Channin—told Hull, in effect, to forget surfboards. The real money was in boats.
Whether laminating a hand-shaped surfboard from an area custom builder or popping a freshly laid-up semi-custom from a mold at hisadjacent boatworks, Hull is all about regional solutions.
“Everything changed after that,” Hull says.
Neighboring business-owners weren’t happy with the parking lot turned boatyard, Hull admits. With the generator running and la música Banda cranked up to be heard over the work, the project took more in the way of its presence than the mere footprint of a couple of parking spaces. And so, not long after, Hull secured the lease on a new site in midtown Ventura near the railroad tracks, complete with an office and a warehouse that he converted to shaping, laminating, and sanding rooms to keep that side of the business going. He then put in covered bays for boatbuilding around the perimeter of the roughly 10,000-square-foot yard.
There’s a similarity between laminating surfboards and laying up boat hulls in fiberglass and resin—as well as the overlapping design elements of rocker, plan shape, and foils—that made for a natural evolution from boardbuilder to boatbuilder. But as with Hull’s previous leap into owning and operating the glass shop, starting Jeff Hull Custom Boats meant doubling down on knowledge—starting with the Radons.
Utilitarian in the extreme, Radon boats were developed by Ron Radon in the 1960s to safely and swiftly get to and from the islands to dive for abalone and urchin.
Design-wise, the low-slung forward deck area on Radon boats—along with their spare cuddy cabins and deck areas aft—belies their complex bottom characteristics. Where most vessels have a consistent dead rise, or the amount of vee through the length of a hull, the dead rise on Radons is variable, meaning the bottom shape changes from bow to stern. Ron Radon once had a dream about how whales evolved, how nature developed the most efficient form to move 60 tons through water from a single power source. Thus, Radon boats possess a broad area through the bow that displaces water and has multiple chines, like pleats on the underjaw of a blue whale, cushioning the boats when landing off steep crests.
Not surprisingly, the qualities of speed, stability, and maneuverability make Radons a valuable maritime commodity in the commercial- and sport-fishing markets. And as many fishermen also happen to be surfers, Radon boats have come to be associated with a particular breed of wave rider: rugged seafaring types looking for space in remote lineups. With today’s swelling of the surf ranks, and the emergence of a moneyed class of would-be surf adventurers, Radons remain much-sought-after acquisitions.
The Radon legacy has continued through his three sons: Don, Mike, and Ron Jr. Mike and Ron Jr. eventually settled to design and build boats in New Zealand and Oregon, respectively, with Don continuing to live and work in Santa Barbara.
Hull contacted each brother individually, ostensibly to ask what he needed to know as a young builder eyeing a career in the trade. He also wanted to gauge the Radons’ feelings toward him as a potential competitor, and as someone who might have an effect on the brand’s reputation in the quality of his work.
When a potential customer wanted him to make a mold off an existing Radon, Hull sensed it wasn’t the right thing to do without first running it by the man who had designed the boat. So, he contacted Don to ask permission.
“He said it was okay to build the mold,” Hull explains, “if he could use it.”
With Don’s explicit blessing, Hull also got encouragement from Mike in New Zealand, who advised him to build the boats strong and take care of his customers. But it was Ron Jr. in Oregon—widely considered the most talented designer and builder of all the Radons, including their departed patriarch—who proved to be the most supportive.
Ron Jr. explained that one of his prized 29-foot molds might potentially become available. Of course, Hull wasn’t the only boatbuilder in the world eager to get a hold of the holy grail of work-boat molds. But Hull’s good nature—the easy way he has of clearly expressing what he would like to do without making a crisis out of it—forged an ongoing relationship with the more established builder. The two stayed in touch, and Hull made a point of visiting the Radon shop in Oregon. Eventually, Ron Jr. sold Hull the 29-foot mold, from which boats between 25 and 29 feet can be built.
It’s Hull’s function-lust that led him down the Radon rabbit hole. The design upsides—seaworthiness, fuel economy, load capacity—hit the Channel’s maritime resource punch list squarely between the eyes.
But perhaps most important in all of Hull’s interactions with Ron Jr. was his question about what he needed to know to run a successful boatbuilding business.
“[Ron Jr.] said, ‘If you want to build these boats, you need to learn to make your own plugs and make your own molds. And the best thing you can do is hire me to make your next mold,’” Hull recalls.
A couple of years ago, Hull saw a need for a 22-foot boat that would serve sport fishers, spearfishers, and surfers. Building the 22-footer became the focus of his tutorial in mold building under the guidance of Ron Jr. The two built a plug—the form of the hull over which the mold is laid up—that Ron Jr. says has everything he’s learned in more than 50 years of building and tinkering with his father’s basic concepts.
It’s a boat that can surf the windswell. Hull describes coming home from the islands in a heavy afternoon blow as “going left for an hour and a half.” Ron Jr. says the boats should be maneuvered in swell: “You go left or right when you’re surfin’—you don’t go straight! That 22 will blow minds with how different it rides compared to the 27 or 29. It’s going to be soft and dry. That boat is all about ride. It could go 50 or 60 mph without issue. It’ll jump swells and land with a ‘shhh’—no slamming or nothing.”
“This thing is so badass,” says Clint Malone, one of Hull’s lead builders who has 25 years in the trade, of the 22-footer. “It’s got the belly of the old-school Radons, which gives it the surfing capabilities coming back [from the islands].”
With ten vessels in various stages of construction or restoration and about eight others parked on trailers awaiting service at any given time, the yard at Jeff Hull Custom Boats Inc. is a chaotic place. Hull jokes that he doesn’t surf anymore, though Shannon manages to represent the family regularly at C-Street, often arriving at the office, where she runs the books, with her locks dripping saltwater and a kid or three in tow. Still, even running at full tilt, there is an underlying order to the boatyard, held together by Hull and pushed along by his crew.
While the design elements are based on Radon concepts and Hull’s own influence, the actual assembly of each vessel is possible only through Hull’s hardworking and dedicated team, of all ages and backgrounds. Like Malone, Port Hueneme’s Johnny Klinshaw is a lifelong surfer with decades of experience in boats, specifically rebuilds. Chesnie Lawrence, who grew up in boatyards in Roatán, Honduras, does expert fairing work. Former pro skater Ray Aguiar sands and does other odd jobs. A younger man, Mason Leong, is cross-training in rigging and motor installs. Jack Arpert, now based in Ventura after an extended period of trail-crew work in Alaska, does laminating and carpentry. Auggie Prulhiere, a recent high school graduate from a New York City school that has a boatbuilding apprenticeship program, brings another set of capable hands to the crew.
These days, the yard is abuzz with the news of an impending move. In early 2021, the Hulls bought the buildings and yard at the former Ventura Steel off Highway 33, about 2 miles from the coast. Owning the property establishes them as players in the boatbuilding industry for the long haul, with the surfboard factory and resident shapers to stay on as well. The space will also enable designated building bays for the boats and stations for motor installation and rigging. Hull envisions a new level of productivity, not unlike an automobile factory, with hulls steadily coming off molds and panels for cabins, bait tanks, bulkheads, and other components premade by his guys on site and ready for assembly.
Of course, the boats will still incorporate the lines and curves that have become characteristic of the Ventura and Santa Barbara fleets, and orders will still be very much customizable. The vessels being built under the Hull name may have work-boat roots, but they come with yacht-like finishes—not so much in brightwork and glossed mahogany, but in exceedingly smooth gel coats and perfect-finish paint. They are “factory” in the best sense of the word, built to outlive their owners if properly maintained. For about the price of a tricked-out Sprinter van, a buyer can get the 22-footer complete with motor and trailer, and if dreams of possibility are what drive such purchases, it’s no wonder there’s already a years-long waiting list of cash-in-hand clients.
Hull’s nearly 15 years of firsthand experience building and piloting Radon-style boats on the Santa Barbara Channel recently coalesced in a one-off build for craftsman-artist-surfer Jay Nelson and Kauai-raised surfer and photographer Kanoa Zimmerman.
The two partnered with Hull on a yearlong project to build a 16-foot Radon-esque vessel, starting by laying out and building the hull in marine ply over a long weekend. Instead of using set plans, they began only with known dimensions and the builder’s most essential asset, which is “boat sense,” or an eye for correct proportion.
“It’s kind of like [in shaping surfboards],” Hull says, “when you put the blank against the wall [and look at the outline] and think, ‘Do I want to cut that?’”
The result is a swift little tank of an oceangoing boat, easily trailered and stored. After an initial shakedown, a first crossing to the islands proved the quality of the design. The boat met the short-interval chop with confidence, and, watching from another vessel, it was plain to see how the Radon-influenced bottom both cuts and absorbs the crests and the hollows of swells. Running at speed, the little boat planed over the chop, seeming to make surface conditions almost irrelevant.
If one-off construction is like hand-shaping surfboards, then building boats off molds is like surfboards created with software and a CNC machine, allowing builders to reproduce proven and beloved designs. And Hull’s association with the Radons ensures an extremely high-quality baseline of proven performance in the hulls he builds off their molds.
But in over a decade of full-time, full-immersion boatbuilding, Hull has also developed a design catalog of performance characteristics honed on many crossings and a lot of gunkholing at the islands. Building one-offs is where he gets to implement those design ideas and is an important part of the Hulls’ long-term plans. Akin to hand shaping, one-off construction is where improvements and possible breakthroughs occur, owing to Hull’s ability to think deeply about process and to closely observe the function of particular innovations. Like the surfboard craftsman that he is, Hull pictures curves and their effect on the water. And, most importantly, when he comes up with a significant idea, he has the ability to build it out by hand. If a design is a success, he can then make a mold and offer up a wholly new boat.
“It’s really cool to think that these boats we’re building are going to outlast us,” Shannon says as she pilots their 26-foot Radon out to the islands while Jay Nelson and Hull make the crossing in the 16-footer. “The whole thing comes at a cost, obviously. But it also comes with such a great reward. The cost is the mental energy. The brain never stops, the phone never stops. But it’s brought so many people into our lives. I feel like anything he puts his mind to, it’s going to happen. I’m wildly trusting at this point. Anything he wants to do—from the surfboards to boats—if he’s into it, he makes it happen.”