Of course I knew who Rusty was. Everybody did. He was the formidable goofyfoot from La Jolla Shores who looked like Tom Selleck. He was imposing, standing 6-foot-4 and clocking in at a trim 220. We surfed together occasionally at Windansea, where he kept company with heavies like Mike Croteau. At Black’s, he’d be outside with Gary Keating.
The first conversation we had was at PB Surf Shop, owned at the time by Gordon & Smith. I went in to look at a used Skip Frye. The shop was like a small chapel of some religious cult, with surfboards and beachwear overseen by a crew of hot young locals, Rusty among them. I didn’t have all the money, but enough that I thought I was certainly within range. Rusty shook his head, impassive as a gun turret. The simplicity of the gesture ended the transaction on the spot. Rusty seemed like the embodiment of self-assuredness—a quiet giant who, in spite of avoiding the spotlight, somehow stood out. It was as though he alone knew what was to come.
There are hundreds of surfboard shapers on the West Coast. Local favorites you’ve never heard of, ghost shapers for the big brands, garage-soulers hand-shaping out back for neighbors and friends. It remains a labor of love that rarely breaks even. Beach towns are littered with the ghosts of dead labels that were once part of a bustling scene. Natural Progression. Bahne. Del Cannon. All gone. Longevity is rare, and transcendent success occurs so seldom that a single name will generally cover references to an era, a style, a place. Hobie. Hansen. Yater.
Rusty is one of those rare animals—a shaper with the historical depth to back up the street cred and the intelligence to roll with the cultural changes. His process has always contained a healthy amount of curiosity, beginning at a time when there was no shortage of solid influence. In the San Diego of his youth, some of California’s best surfboard builders were within conversational distance. Carl Ekstrom, Mike Hynson, and Frye were pushing the envelope as the shortboard revolution found its footing. The multi-shaper factory system was up and running at G&S, and testing grounds like Black’s, the Shores, and Sunset Cliffs were a short drive from anywhere in the city.
Early in his run as a surfboard builder, Rusty commissioned different shapers to make boards for his personal use. He absorbed design details like an intellectual shop towel, arriving at conclusions about craftsmanship and functionality. Working for Larry Gordon, he participated firsthand in the start-to-finish business of building boards, preparing him for running his own factory, glass shop, and stable of talented shapers.
Documentation became an integral part of Rusty’s workflow. With a tight record of each board, successful designs became reference points. Feedback, meticulous measurements, and control points meant refinements were repeated and improved. With Rusty’s sense of observation and what could only be called pathological attention to detail, a system began to emerge. Tools that didn’t exist were improvised for measuring rocker, tail lift, and bottom contour. Dozens of rail templates were cut and labeled. Standouts at the heavier breaks flew as test pilots. It didn’t hurt that Rusty himself was a top-tier athlete and a commanding presence in the lineup wherever he surfed.
Late 70s collaborations with Peter Townend and Shaun Tomson established Rusty’s rep as a pro’s shaper with a specialty in pushing design parameters to match demanding conditions. By the time Rusty met 16-year-old Mark Occhilupo on the contest circuit in 1982, a perfect storm of observation and execution was in place. Occy’s model was specifically tailored to the young Australian’s powerful approach: low-apex angular rails, volume carried forward to a beak nose, and a slight wing-like bump that pulled the tail outline in. It worked. Occy racked up impressive victories on the design, culminating with back-to-back wins at the Op Pro in 1985 and ’86. Shaper-surfer associations weren’t news, but here was a board designed from scratch and specifically tailored to a pro, built around his own unique strength-to-weakness ratio. Rusty continued this method even through the computer-shaping age, building boards for world champions like CJ Hobgood, cutting-edge freesurfers like Josh Kerr, and pure punters like Noa Deane, to name just a few.
Over the years, Rusty has employed, influenced, and mentored dozens of talented shapers, from Johnny Cabianca, currently shaping for Gabriel Medina, to John Carper, owner of the JC label. An incomplete roster for the Rusty shaping team includes Pedro Battaglin, Rick Hamon, Mike Russo, Hoy Runnels, Stu Kenson, Steve Barto, Roger Beal, Greg Laurenson, Terry Goldsmith, Roy Sanchez, Scott Raisbeck, Hank Warner, Robin Prodanovich, Clint Preisendorfer, Bill Johnson, Chris Borst, Bill Shrosbree, David Barr, Mick Button, Greg Sauritch, and Dave Parmenter.
The history of modern surfboard design is scarred by endless schisms and doctrinal disagreements that, to an outsider, can seem picayune. But to a true believer, they mean the difference between corporate indifference and hand-hewn performance. Some shapers are artists, putting rocker, rails, and volume together by instinct, each board a unique combination of dimensions and capability. These unicorns are made by hand, with a saw, planer, and sandpaper. Some shapers are engineers, working for a kind of clarity and precision, programming a tight first draft through to the final product.
But the best shapers are a combination of the two: precise and interpretive. What was—is—Rusty after? The same thing as any designer of fast things: the mystical overlap where speed meets control. Rusty has never seen himself as a stock shaper. He took an empirical approach to design, analyzing the problems he observed and then replicating the solutions, creating a 50-year catalog of wave-riding equipment with the instincts of a mathematician and the delicate touch of a sculptor.
The first board I owned was a 9’3″ Ekstrom asymmetrical. At that time, Carl was the man in La Jolla. I bought it for $30. The nose was pretty beat up, so I had it fixed. That was the board I caught my first wave on, in the fall of ’66. I’m a goofyfoot, and it was made for a regularfoot, but it didn’t matter. All I knew how to do was go left. One day, I was out at the Shores on my Ekstrom—I’d been surfing a few months, just trying to get a wave—but every good wave had somebody on it. I finally just put my head down and took off. Suddenly, somebody crashed into me. When I came up, [I saw] it was Tom Ortner, who at the time was probably the best surfer in La Jolla. Tom was a very mellow gentleman, but he looked at me and said, “Go in.” So I went in, demoralized. I stood on the beach for a while, looking north past Scripps, past the rocks. It looked like there was something out there. I didn’t know what spot it was, but walking around the rocks I got about a half-mile up the beach and paddled out. And the lefts were the best lefts I’d ever surfed. After the surf, I walked back to the Shores and into the little market, and at the magazine rack they had Surfer magazine. It was the Black’s cover, the Dickie Moon cover. What a coincidence. So every chance I had, I’d go down to Black’s.
There used to be a surf shop over by Tourmaline, around the corner from Pernicano’s pizza. It had to be the La Jolla Surf Shop, Bear Mirandon’s shop. There was sisal sea grass on the floor. Rusty was cherubic, really young, and he walked in with his dad, who was this huge guy. They were there to pick out his first board. What was really cool about Rusty was that he drilled into something that he loved, which was shaping and design and all the details, and he got deep into it. He didn’t care about the money or any of that; he was just purely focused on what he was doing and learning.
In the spring of ’67, I was ready for my first new board, and my parents were going to pay for it. I almost bought a Nuuhiwa Featherweight, but all the good surfers in La Jolla were riding the Mirandon brothers’ boards. They had a shop up above Tourmaline. I went in and ordered an 8’10” twin-fin. I thought, “This thing is fuckin’ futuristic.” It was like a longboard, but it had a deep, deep swallowtail, two vees, and on the outside of each vee panel was a full-sized cutaway fin. For where I was with my surfing, it was a great board. That summer, I worked at Mayfair Market in downtown La Jolla for $2 an hour. I saved for months and bought my second new board. I think it was around $200. It was another Surfboards La Jolla twin-fin, a 7’8″. My surfing skills had improved and I’d been surfing Black’s a lot. After I rode it—and I gave it a fair chance—I thought, “This board’s a pig.” It had a very rolled bottom; it was slower than shit and just terrible. That was the winter of 1967-68, when the shortboard revolution started. Dan Evans helped me build a third twin-fin, but it was a 6’3″ with a squaretail, chopped off but not as wide as all the hot guys were riding. Corky Carroll and Rolf Aurness were riding boards with these 20-inch squaretails with giant regular surfboard fins. I thought, “Well, you have two fins, [so] you probably need less area.” Dan and I made these semi-keel fins. That was October ’69. There’s a picture of me somewhere doing a backside turn. Pretty steep. I was starting to surf pretty well. I think I got second in the high school contest. And then Christmas break came and my parents announced, “Hey, we’re moving to Carmel in two weeks.” I had a girlfriend. I had all my surf buddies. I think that’s the only migraine headache I’ve ever had.
Timeline: Surfboard Labels
1971 to 1972
Starlight. Shapes and glasses at the Bridgman house in La Jolla. Two hundred boards. Elliott Rabin, Rusty’s dorm-mate in Tioga Hall at UCSD, also glasses the boards.
1972 to 1974
Gordon & Smith. Stock shaper. Larry Gordon glasses the first Music! boards, but tells Rusty that he’ll soon have to decide where his future is headed.
Music! Rusty starts the label upon return from his first trip to Australia.
1976 to 1977
Pure Fun. Works with Hank Byzak to make a dozen boards.
Encinitas. Works with John Kies to pick up experience.
1977 to 1978
Sunset. Works seasonally for Ed Wright, the original owner, as a ghost shaper. 1978 to 1985 Canyon. Borrows $10,000 to buy into partnership with John Durward.
1985 to present
I’d been working at G&S since about the fall of ’68. It was kind of seasonal, so I worked summers and then I worked construction during the winter. I was at work the first part of the summer one day, and this kid came in and ordered two boards. I’d never experienced this, but he wanted to watch me shape. No one had ever asked me that before, but I thought, “What the heck—just let the kid watch.” He was this big, goofy kid, just kind of giggling with a big, dumb smile on his face. His folks were getting ready to move to Hawaii and he wanted a couple of boards to take over there. I really hadn’t done that many Hawaiian boards, but I had an idea of what he wanted, so I made them. He was really interested in the templates and how I laid out the format for the board and rocker. We were basically running the blank in those days. I have a photo of him with those boards in my shaping room. He was young, a teenager. Not intimidating whatsoever. There was a shyness to him, but he was eager. He wanted to see what was going on. I could tell that the realm he was in at that moment was heaven to him. He was ready to learn everything about the process of shaping boards.
After I started shaping, I’d have well-known shapers make me boards. I wanted to watch, but I didn’t always get to. My parents moved to Koko Head on the South Shore of Oahu when I was halfway through 12th grade. My dad had taken a position with NOAA. That was 1971, and I spent the summer there. Dick Brewer was my hero back then. I ordered a Brewer at a shop in Kapiolani—Town & Country. I asked him if I could watch him shape. They called me back a couple days later and said, “Well, Dick doesn’t wanna do your board ’cause he knows you’re a shaper.” They had my deposit, so I asked, “Well, is there any way I can meet Sam Hawk?” Sam made me one of the best boards I’ve ever had. It was a 6’10” or 6’11”. It was almost a diamondtail, but had a nose that was an inch narrower than the tail: 15-inch tail, 14-inch nose. And it looked kind of weird to me at first, but I rode it and I freaked. I surfed Ala Moana the rest of the summer on it. Then I came back to La Jolla for my first year at UCSD.
La Jolla local emeritus
It was 1971, first day of classes at UCSD, fall quarter. Rusty, late for class, came in and sat in the empty seat next to me. He’s a lefty and I’m right-handed, so we were bumping elbows. I looked over at his sketchbook and he was drawing perfect lefts. I’d been drawing perfect rights on my notepad. I said, “You surf?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Let’s go surfing.” So we left class, went down to Black’s, and had some fun waves, and a friendship started. Rusty lived in the dorms on campus. I did too. Dan and Paul Bridgman were making boards in La Jolla right about then, under a no-name label at their house on Starlight Drive. There was a big garage, and Rusty moved in and started shaping. That’s where the Starlight label came from: the street we were on. We lived there and made boards from the middle of ’72 to the middle ’74. I glassed every board, maybe a hundred or so, with the Starlight label.
I was always a pretty good student. I got into UCSD no problem. But I failed miserably because Black’s was a hop, skip, and a jump away. [Laughs.] On summer break, I got a job at G&S. I started at the PB Surf Shop, but they got busy at the factory, so I said, “Well, I can shape.” And I ended up shaping there seasonally for three years. I met Skip [Frye], [and] I got some of Skip’s boards. I met Mike Eaton because G&S had the Bing license, so I got a Bonzer. Before G&S, I’d made friends with Mike Croteau. Mike was my height, but he weighed about 250, solid muscle. Mike was part genius, but part kid; I’ll leave it at that. We became friends and he made me some boards.
La Jolla local emeritus
PB Surf Shop, my first job, shop grom. My first task was to rehang all the wetsuits that Rusty and Keating had thrown on the ground the night before as a place to take their dates. It was a regular thing for me. We didn’t like each other at first, but we grew on each other to the point where he was like my older brother. When we first met, he was intimidating and arrogant. If you showed up at a party with a cute girl, he had no problem sweeping her away. He was the consummate Southern California surf god. It was him and Keating. Those guys were royalty at the beaches in La Jolla, along with Tony Staples, Tim Lynch, Bolton Colburn. They were the A-Team. Then there was Mellow Cat [Kurt Ledterman]. That was a high time in surfing back then.
Eric “Bird” Huffman
shop owner & surfboard historian
When I first got to know Rusty, he was very imposing. He was a big guy; he worked out. He was quiet, but he had a look about him. He had that Magnum P.I. look that we all used to laugh about, but he was very serious. You wanted to be careful what you said around him.
lifelong friend and Black’s local
He was gnarly. He was a third-degree black belt. One big day at Black’s, one particular individual dropped in on him on a really nice left at South Peak. Rusty had to straighten out. Another set came. Rusty just glides into this wave—he has those long arms—and this guy drops in on him again. I thought, “Oh, no! I know what’s gonna happen now.” And, sure enough, Rusty paddled right up to the guy and just popped him in the face with a short jab. And the guy just crumpled and limped onto the beach. He may have just washed in. I won’t say the guy’s name, because he still surfs Black’s.
Just after college, I wanted to pick up some more shaping work for the experience. I called around North County. I called Sunset. I made a few boards for John Kies at Encinitas Surfboards. I shaped ten or 12 boards or so for Hank Byzak at Pure Fun just to do it.
La Jolla Shores local emeritus
When Rusty was going back and forth to Hawaii, he really turned that corner where he basically dumped his neighborhood friends to become a surf star and shaping star. He literally went, “Fuck you guys,” and that was that. He was off to be whatever he wanted to be. [Laughs.] He wanted to be the most famous shaper in the world. He set a course and did it. It was clear and apparent at every moment that’s what he was doing.
1976 world champ
I met Rusty in Blaine Broderson’s driveway in La Jolla. Rusty started shaping a little earlier than me, making boards in his backyard. I’d started shaping my own boards in ’71. Our real cerebral connection was design. I’ll tell you a story: Rusty talked me out of my Skil planer, because when the Skil thing went south, I had one that had only shaped maybe 100 boards. He said, “You don’t want to shape anymore, do you? I’ll shape you a new board every year for life if you give me that planer.” He is a man of his word! By ’72, when I was in San Diego, I was smart enough to go, “I don’t know what California’s like, but I think I’m gonna get a Californian to make me a board for California.” The interaction between us as shapers led to Rusty coming to Australia in ’74. He lived in Coolangatta for about six months with a couple of other guys. Rusty came back to the US—and I’m not exactly sure when he and Durward partnered up—but I moved to America permanently in ’79 and started riding for Canyon. It was Shaun Tomson, myself, and Dave Parmenter. It was a pretty formidable team. Canyon became a big brand, and Rusty was the head shaper. That was when Canyon had their factory on Santa Fe Street [in Pacific Beach]. Scatti [artist Steve Scatolini] did that incredible Bowie painting on the bottom of one of my Canyons. That was one of the first boards that had a Rusty logo on it. I was the one that told him he needed to start putting his logo on his boards. Rusty sent me sketches and asked my opinion. That’s how the beginning of the logo developed.
Rusty had drawn a couple of logos—just the R-dot. These were pencil sketches on a dinner napkin. The original sketch was maybe 1 inch, if that. He said, “See what you can do with this.” I took that napkin to Kaypro Computers, where I had access to a [stat] camera, and took it from 1 inch up to about 10 or 12 inches. I kept blowing it up, taking it down, dealing with the contrast so I could get it nice and black. There were a lot of holes, and I filled those in with black ink. It was kind of rough, so I took some Wite-Out, cleaned up the edges a little bit, and got it to pretty much the logo that he’s using today—the rough-edged R-dot. But it was straight off his pencil sketch. That’s what gave it the rough, chunky edges.
1977 world champ
I was introduced by Peter Townend back when Rusty was working with John Durward at Canyon. I was looking for someone to do my models. I worked intensely with Rusty at the time. He was shaping boards for very demanding situations—for Hawaii, for California, for the world tour. I think it brought him up to speed really quickly with boards that had to be at the very cutting edge. Rusty was very receptive, very open, very humble—no ego. Also, very accurate. Some of the best shapers that I’ve worked with are very accurate guys, and Rusty had his own system of “decimal inches.” I’d never bloody heard of it before. How could you have a decimal inch? But he did. I think that might come from aerospace. He was also an educated guy. He’d been to university. Obviously, many of his contemporaries came up the hard way and they didn’t really have an academic background. I don’t think academics is crucial to success; I just think it helps you have an open mind and think about life a little bit differently and more deeply. We just had a really good relationship, and I just had so much fun. We’d go surfing together at Black’s or Sunset Cliffs or the Shores. It was just a very cool time in what you could call the “early” period of his career.
writer & shaper
I was judging for the NSSA, for Ian Cairns and Peter Townend in Huntington Beach, driving three weekends a month to contests all over Southern California. Rusty was sitting on the judges’ panel a lot. I met him there, and as I got to a point in competitive results where I felt like I needed to have a different type of surfboard, I approached him and asked him to make me a board. That would have been in March 1983, and I think by that summer I’d won six contests in a row on it. It was 6’0″ and a half. It was maybe 20 inches wide, the nose was 13 inches, the tail was 16 inches and a half. It was a bump-wing pin with a tri-fin setup, but the two outside fins were glassed in and the rear one was a box, in case you wanted to change the fins or ride it as a twin-fin. Today it would look like a kneeboard or an alternative board. It was so much wider than boards today. But a very centered outline, a flat deck, a beak nose. I still have that board.
Rusty was making boards with John Durward at Canyon. I remember Durward. Before he started his first factory, he was glassing boards in his garage. Anyway, Rusty joined up with Canyon [so named because Santa Fe Street is in Rose Canyon]. It’s still there, where [the] G&S factory is right now. But that era, right in about 1982 or ’83 when Rusty shaped boards for Mark Occhilupo, he took off. People started thinking maybe it was the boards that made Occy so great, so a certain degree of notoriety could be attributed to that.
I’d been riding Rusty’s boards for several years and loved them, and just picked up a nice Canyon designed for Black’s. I think it was, like, a 6’6″ round pin. This is when world champions were starting to ride his boards, something like four or five or six of the top 16. He knocked on the door at my parents’ house. When I opened it, he said, “Where’s that board?” I said, “It’s in the back.” So he walked right by me, grabbed the board, and said, “See you later.” He just walked out. I said, “What are you doing?” Looking over his shoulder, he replied, “I’m shaping your new one under the Rusty label.” He wanted me to represent his new brand.
1999 world champ
I was riding one of Jim Banks’ boards when I first started getting good. Jim was a big-wave rider from Australia, and his boards were not bad at all. But the first year I came to California, I met Rusty. He was the kindest, most tranquil man I’ve ever met. He’s such a big man, but he was just so calming. He simply said, “I can make you a board, Mark, and I think you’re gonna really like it.” He didn’t even have to talk me into it. He was so confident. I just went, “I’m in. Shape me a board.” I hadn’t heard much of him at all. I was a grommet. I felt like he must be a really good shaper because I could feel his aura. And he made me a board that completely changed my surfing. I remember the first time I rode that board, at River Jetties in Newport [Beach], I just couldn’t believe it. I remember I couldn’t even sleep that night. I fell in love with the board, blown out of my mind how a board could be that good. That year, I won the Op Pro. That board was magic, and I won a lot of contests on it. It had a thickness from the tail right through to the nose, even through the whole board, which I think is really important so you can hold the rail way better, especially if you’re a bigger guy, like me.
Gordon Merchant, the guy that started Billabong, and I hit it off ’cause we were both shapers. But later on he seemed to be threatened by me. Luke Egan, one of the top Billabong riders, told me Occy and some of the other Billabong guys got the same word from Gordon: “If I find you riding a Rusty board, even without a logo, you’re off the team.” It’s a shame, ’cause Occy and I had such good chemistry. But just after that, CJ and Damien Hobgood were starting to climb. We started sponsoring them when they were 14, so around 1993. Their father was a very cool guy; he surfed. I think he was a dentist. He’d bring the twins to Fiji, and we’d shoot movies with them.
2001 world champ
We had boards shaped by David Barr and Rick Hamon, and we would beg Rusty to shape us boards. And when he did, they would be magic. There weren’t that many of them, so you hung on to them and treated them extra good. I remember my brother had a surfboard from Rusty that he liked, but I loved it. I’d tell my brother that I’d do anything for that board. It was, like, a 5’11”, thin—just exactly what you would expect. A lot of lift in the tail, glass-on fins. I couldn’t lose a heat on it. I remember one day the waves were really fun and I went home to fix this ding on the tail. And for whatever reason, I was letting it dry or cure, and I jumped in my car and I backed over the surfboard. I was just beside myself. It was probably the most crushed I’ve ever been.
Kalani Robb stayed at my house in ’94, when my place was brand-new. I built him a bunch of boards. And he could barely say thanks. I think it was the last time I shaped for him. So Rick Hamon made his boards after that. As I said, Rick’s one of the best. Kalani’s a cool guy, but he was kind of full of himself. I took him to Fiji several times, and he surfed brilliantly. He got fourth in the world one year, riding our boards. So I bought him a motorcycle. I quizzed him on what kind of motorcycles he liked, and I bought one and gave it to him for Christmas. A month later, he fucked himself up on the motorcycle and had to pull out of the tour the next year. I remember telling my marketing director we had to get Jamie O’Brien on our team. We had a big sales meeting down in Baja California, and we announced it at the meeting. He was a great team rider and shined for several years riding for us. He rode my boards most of the time at Pipe for three years. He exceeded my expectations; he just kept getting better and better and surfing bigger and bigger waves. He was a little bit on the bigger side, maybe about 180, and we made him a series of 6’2″ round pins, maybe 18 3/4 to 19 inches wide, about 28 liters. I was intrigued. His rockers were high, especially in the tail, and I used him as a benchmark for a while. He wasn’t one of those guys who would talk about all the different aspects of how the boards were riding. He just rode the boards. I don’t think he was into that phase yet when he started surfing pool toys at Pipe, but it was always fun to watch Jamie surf because his surfing was creative. Just when you thought he was going somewhere, he’d go somewhere else.
When I first met Rusty, I was a little intimidated. He’s got this enormous presence. He’s this bear of a man. But as I got to know him, I found him to be incredibly welcoming. When you talk to him, you have the sense that he was actually listening, processing the information. He’s open to your input and ideas, as opposed to telling you he knows what you need. We came up with this little single-fin, the Bali Single, by rooting around upstairs in the loft where his archive is. We pulled out some of the 1980s models and created this little single-wing swallow in the 5’3″, 5’4″ range, kind of based on a twinnie outline. Nobody could have prepared me for how radical that board was.
A year ago, Pedro [Battaglin] brought Caio Ibelli on. Pedro shaped a lot for him before I started working with him, and now I think we’re really connecting. He’s a brilliant surfer. He connects his turns with such fluidity. Wade [Carmichael]’s the opposite. He throws big gouges, where Caio is one continuous, tight move after another. But he charges, too, as people found out at the  Pipe contest. His boards all have elliptical thumbtails, all the way up the ladder, and they have a ton of tail rocker. Modest concave, but very heavy tail rocker and pretty darn heavy nose rocker, too. Caio’s go-to board is a 5’7″, but he wants 5.25 inches of lift in the nose, which is like the early Kelly Slater years. This got me thinking. I used to do everything proportionately, but in the last year or two, I’ve come to realize that shorter guys on the shorter boards need more tail rocker. Ten years ago, I used to do a 5.6-inch in the nose and something like a 1.6-inch in the tail. Now I’m doing 2.4 inches in the tail—a significant amount.
With Rusty, you never felt there was any drudgery involved or that there was a perception that this was hard, grinding work. It was just enthusiasm. That was a different time, when boards weren’t 95 percent finished [from the start]. Boards weren’t created on keystrokes. Surfboards were created by grunt work, grinding through those Clark Foam blanks. It was physically demanding work. I think the accuracy required and the craftsmanship was just at a different level. The magic comes in the last 10 percent of the shape, but to get there without a CAD machine took a lot of work. Rusty was working really hard, but maintaining that stoke level. I thought he was both humble and confident. He was very thoughtful, very open to suggestions, very aware of the basic principles. And very methodical, very scientific. He wasn’t a crazy breakthrough mad scientist like Tom Morey or Ekstrom. He was more of a surgeon than a scientist.
Back in the day, not only did he shape ridiculously long hours, but he shaped in a storage unit behind the Burger King in PB. I can remember sitting outside his shaping room, waiting for him to come out at nine o’clock at night so we could go do stuff, which could have been anything from going out for a drink to actually going over to Canyon and airbrushing. He’d just have to get that last board done. He would shape seven boards a day. He started early and ended late, with a surf break or two in between. He would drive to contests up in Huntington or Trestles—all these different pro contests—get there early, and spend the entire day in the pit under the stands with the contestants, talking about surfboard design. And that goes back forever. He was trying everything. For years he had this giant book on naval architecture that was about 3 inches thick. I used to look through it, and it was filled with math equations and formulas. He used to peruse that and think of ideas and try to translate them to surfboards. He realized that boats are powered through the water and surfboards are powered by the water. I think a lot of shapers at the time were just thinking of surfboards as small boats. He realized that they weren’t, that they were something different.
I never studied Rusty’s work enough to make a value judgment, because when he started to develop I was going through my ghetto period. I think as far as a business and having a brand, he took it to the next level. There was Gordon & Smith and Hansen, and then the modern deal came, developed and metamorphosed, and Rusty stepped into that—into the next dimension, especially here in San Diego. I don’t know anybody that was as profound in that area. His shaping is different. He shapes a different board than I do. He’s more modern. More hardcore—maybe that’s the word. He was shaping for Hawaii, for the world, for foreign waves.
His understanding of mathematics and how that relates to design and shaping is a crucial component as to why his boards work so well. I don’t think it’s any individual characteristic, like the way he does the bottom or the rails or the foils. It’s the combination of all those factors that he puts together to make a truly well-balanced surfboard that’s functional and not extreme in any way. He has an uncanny ability to look at an individual’s physique, watch him surf, and see his ability level and how he addresses the wave, and know what’s the best shape or design for that particular guy. I’ve never had a board from Rusty that I didn’t feel immediately was perfectly fit for me, whether it was the ability to paddle or catch waves or put it on rail or cut back or drive. He knows how to match the right board with the right person.
What separated Rusty from the pack was that he was the first guy to have a factory that produced Rusty surfboards with his signature, yet there were a lot of [different] guys shaping the boards. In the past, at G&S or Caster or wherever, there were different people shaping those boards, but you weren’t under the illusion that it was shaped by the guy that owned the company. Rusty was the first guy to actually have his stable of excellent surfboard shapers making the models that he developed, and everyone just assumed they were riding a real Rusty. They were all real Rustys, but Hoy Runnels, Rick Hamon—those guys are insane [too].
I was working at Channin, and Tony was looking for more glassing work, so he pulled me down to Rusty’s place. I was later told by [Robin] Prodanovich that I started off at a negative because I’m an older shaper, and [Rusty] had trouble with some older guys before. Tony and Rusty worked out a deal. They gave me three blanks, showed me what he wanted done, and I brought them back the next day. Rusty said, “Yeah, these are pretty good.” I think the next batch was eight or nine, and I brought them back the next day, and he said he really couldn’t find anything wrong with them. This was back in the beak days. Anyway, I just started taking whatever my little [Ford] Courier would carry, which I think was 14 blanks. I’d go down there and pick them up, then bring them back about two days later. He was pretty happy. But Tony wasn’t, because he wasn’t getting any work. Later on, I said, “Look, Tony’s not gonna let me shape your boards at his factory for free.” At that time, Rusty was over on Santa Fe. They had two bays with five shaping rooms, which were all occupied. It was Roger Beal and Steve Barto and some other people. When the third unit next to him came up, that’s where I got a shaping room. I was all alone in that bay. This was 1989 or ’90.
I came out to make a few boards in San Diego and borrowed Rusty’s shaping room. The place was a mess. How tall is Rusty? Six-three? I’m 5-6. [Laughs.] So there’s about a foot in height difference, and he had these super-high racks—maybe nose level for me—and the bases were some kind of big truck rims with the metal posts welded to the center. I’m used to a really refined room where everything is exactly perfect and within reach, where everything works like it ought to, so I can go really fast. I don’t have anything extraneous in the shaping room. In Rusty’s shaping room, it was just a sea of stuff. He had all kinds of gizmo pieces of sandpaper cut, little sanding blocks, little handmade tools, and other stuff. I worked there for a few days, but it was kind of frustrating. I cleaned it up as best as I could without intruding on his space, and I explained to him a lot of the philosophies I had about the work environment and the tools. My shaping was 15 minutes for the template, 15 minutes to rough it out, and 15 minutes to finish. The last thing you want to have is 50 pieces of oddball sandpaper on the shelves, or gobs of templates that you’re tripping over, or knee-high foam dust.
When I shaped for Rusty, my pencils were disappearing. This was happening every day. They were the perfect thickness, with soft lead. As it turns out, Rusty was taking them. I told him, “I used to be a draftsman. I know all the pencils to get.” So we went to this stationery place in San Diego and got a case of those pencils. They were German or British, and on the barrel of the pencil, drafting was spelled “D-R-A-U-G-H-T-I-N-G.” The graphite was thicker than most pencils, so you could round it on a piece of paper or a piece of foam and do a nice soft line. You could really press hard into the blank and it wouldn’t gouge anything. Once Rusty found out about them, he bought a bunch. So maybe in some small way I influenced him.
Bob Boche yelled over [one day], “Hey, Rusty wants to see you.” I’m like, “Oh, shit.” So I went up and Rusty was waiting. He says, “Hey, I heard you need a planer.” I was like, “I sure do. Mine just died.” He said, “Well, I got a planer for you.” I’d never really spoken or interacted with him. He’s always been really nice, but he was the king, you know? So I was kind of jittery. He went to this closet at the factory, and it was just loaded with Skil 100s. He pulled one out and said, “What do you think of this one?” I go, “I’ll take it.” I was just going to run off, but he stopped me and said, “Well, don’t you wanna see if it works?” I was like, “Oh, yeah.” [Laughs.] So I went to plug it in, and when I pulled the trigger it shot a blade. Nobody got hurt, thank God, so he tightened down the blades and I said, “I’ll take it.” And he goes, “No, no. Let’s make sure.” So I went to plug it in and turn it on, and he said, “Wait.” He ducked around the corner, just in case. The thing worked like a champ. He gave it to me. Those planers were going for, like, $1,000, and he let me have it for maybe $100. It choked me up—it’s choking me up right now—because he didn’t owe me anything. Those planers were hot property. I’ll never forget.
Rusty gave me a really in-depth primer on the business when I was considering going out on my own. I still have yellow legal pads with all this stuff. He penciled in everything: all the costs, all the overhead, all the benefits. It was his entire approach, how you look at it as a businessperson. To me, his methodology as a very surgical shaper was enormously influential. I would say I definitely carried that on into my shaping. In fact, every single board I cut out, I still picture him looking over my shoulder, just thinking of all the things that he taught me. I remember once having a problem with a planer when I worked down there. I said, “This thing’s not running anymore.” Rusty sat me down and made me take it completely apart and replace the brushes or replace the switch. He said, “You gotta learn how to do this, because you’re gonna have to do this.” It’s like “teach a man to fish, he eats forever.” He was always good about preparing me for the long haul.
Eric “Bird” Huffman
Bill Caster, Ernie Higgins, and I opened Windansea Beach and Surf in 1982. In the early 90s, everything went to hell in a handbasket. I was losing my shorts. I couldn’t pay myself a salary at all. I was living off my wife. There were two people that stuck by me: One was Bob Hurley at Billabong, and the other was Rusty. I went to Rusty and said, “Hey, I’m losing it. I’m gonna be out unless you can float me product,” and he goes, “Bird, whatever it takes, I’m here for you.” I can’t talk about it; I’m gonna start crying. But to know that I had the Big Man, Rusty, cover me on boards, well, I could sleep at night. And for the two or three years it took me to get my feet back on the ground, and to know that those guys had my back and they had that much faith in me that I could do it and that I wouldn’t flake out and not pay them… To me, that’s one of my largest memories of Rusty: his trust.
I don’t think Rusty’s gotten the credit in surfboard history for refining the thruster. One of the things that’s interesting is, starting in the 80s, you could go anywhere in the world apart from places with troglodyte localism, like Lunada Bay, and it didn’t matter: A Rusty was always welcome. It was like having a Wayne Lynch board. You could take one of his boards anywhere and no one would look at you sideways. His boards had universal respect. Anywhere in the world, people just recognized his boards as the gold standard. If you had a Rusty, it was like showing up with a Brewer or a Parrish.
I can’t really describe it in one word; it has to do with intelligent precision. Rusty has built so many surfboards for so many people and come up with so many designs, and continues to do that to this day. For him, I think it’s no different than getting up and eating and doing whatever we all do that is satisfying for us. I don’t think Rusty can exist without building surfboards. I mean, I just think that’s in his DNA. I think that as we all get older, we’re not able to surf as much or at the level we were, and that’s disappointing. I think he surfs through his team riders, and the local guys that he follows and respects. Through it all, through all the ups and downs, his unwavering characteristic is the ability to progress and move design forward in the evolution of a performance surfboard. If you think about how we were surfing in the early 80s, when his boards were so popular, and you think about Occy and Tommy Curren, and you think about how guys on the WSL are surfing now and what they’re doing today, his designs have paralleled that evolution of performance. He’s changed his designs to adapt to their surfing. That’s hard to do, and do consistently. Yet that’s something he’s maintained.
He only takes, like, one day a year off. He is so gnarly behind the computer, shaping and designing. I don’t think people realize that. They probably think he just sits in a corner and reminisces. No, he is totally active in designing custom surfboards. And he’s shaping as well as he’s ever shaped.
As the sun sets on the West Coast, golden light reflects off the ocean and fills the beach towns and freeways with a glow like powdered bronze. For a few minutes, everything looks like a Renaissance painting—beautiful and timeless.
But time has a habit of moving on. Hot young surfers disappear from the pro circuit, and up-and-coming surfboard builders wake up one day to find themselves described as legacy brands.
At this time of day, as the surfboard factory winds down, Rusty can be found in his office, ensconced behind a pair of monitors—now more late Orson Welles than early Tom Selleck—programming a stack of orders. His back is to the corner, looking out to the room. This is his querencia, the spot in the corrida taken by the bull after lapping the ring before the fight. From here, Rusty can survey in photos the evidence of a life lived on his terms: bottom turning while running down an Indonesian reef at 50 years old. An aerial shot of Black’s from the 1930s, before houses lined the bluffs. A 2014 SIMA award. An original John Severson silk-screen movie poster. The first sketches of the famous R-dot logo, framed in a running sequence from inception to final version. Leaning in a corner, a dozen early Rusty models going back 40 years, to the days when serious surf was navigated on a single-fin swallowtail.
Quietly, a Kenny Burrell guitar lick from “Stolen Moments” fills in, audible but not loud enough to break the concentration. The factory is still, the sound of one or two guys wrapping up filtering in from the back shaping bays. I ask Rusty a question I’ve already answered for myself: “Once I get too fat or too injured to do anything interesting, you’ll find me up in the penthouse bar at The Huntley Hotel at sunset, looking out at my hometown, thinking about how wonderful it was to grow up at the beach. Where will you be?”
“I’ll be right here,” Rusty says, looking up from the computer screens. “Shaping.”
[Feature Photo by John Durant]