Surveying the outsize presence of a living icon.

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“Renny Yater: Turning 90 and still shaping.”

I recently received an email with that line in the subject and an attachment of photographs featuring contemporary Yater-built boards that the sender was planning to show or possibly sell in an upcoming club swap meet. As I absorbed the boards’ subtleties, I began to think about the thinning generation of living elder shapers whose work influenced surfboard beginnings in the 1950s, focusing on Renny’s unique nature as a multifaceted artist among them. 

Growing up in Pasadena, California, his ocean roots were planted in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Laguna Beach, where his family owned a summer home at Emerald Bay. There, Renny was drawn to surfing and quickly made Laguna his full-time residence. He was integrated into the then-small cadre of surf denizens, including Hobie Alter, Tom Morey, Dick Metz, Hevs McClelland, Ron Sizemore, and “Peanuts” Larson, among other notables within the town’s incubator. 

Renny began making his own boards while hanging with Hobie in the Alter family’s garage overlooking Brooks Street. He’d go on to shape for his friend when Hobie opened his Dana Point shop. Later, while attending Pomona College, he encountered fellow student Gordon “Grubby” Clark, who, being curious about where Renny disappeared to every weekend, followed him to Laguna, found Hobie’s operation and group of fellow fanatics, and soon became a component of the small crew. From that culture dish, Hobie, Grubby, and Renny would all go on to become instrumental to the burgeoning surf industry. 

After a stint working for Dale Velzy, Renny moved north to Santa Barbara in 1959, where he opened the first Yater Surfboards shop and, in the ensuing decades, served as a figurehead of the area’s brand of low-key point surfing and innovative surfboard design. He also began fishing lobster out of a dory, working the coastline as far north as the Hollister Ranch, where both he and George Greenough (also a lobster fisherman) were the first to be allowed surf access as part of the then newly formed Santa Barbara Surf Club. 

In recent years, Renny joined several of his closest surf compadres in buying adjoining home sites on the point at Zacatecas on the tip of the East Cape of Baja California Sur, Mexico, lured by drivable access to pleasant summer waves in semitropical water. It’s where he is currently, at the very moment of writing, on an extended stay. When in California, he continues to shape extremely desirable wave-riding crafts that reflect the appealing signature flair that marks all his efforts.

A comment by the late Bob Cooper, a Renny contemporary, sums up the man’s graceful, yet pared-down, style of surfing—and everything else he does: “It gives me goosebumps just watching Renny walk down the street and turn a corner.”

[Feature image by John Severson]