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The Collected Cooper

Memories of an eccentric pioneer.

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Bob Cooper was an eccentric among California surfers in the 1950s, an oddball tribe itself back then. He was a Mormon who somehow remained true to his faith while still maintaining a surfer’s off-center life amid the variety of rare aesthetics that defined that sparse clan who chased waves above all else. As such, his distinctive body language on a wave, his life habits, and his curiosities all reflected a one-ofa-kind human.

Shortly before I began surfing, I recall being hauled to a boat show in Santa Monica by my father, who ran a workshop in Long Beach that manufactured adjustable fantails mounted on rails and molded fiberglass bait tanks. There I noticed that the adjacent booth was occupied by a surfboard maker (this being the mid 50s, mind you), and manned by a weird guy with a beard who was wearing Mazatlán sandals and a Mexican sarape. The boardmaker was Robertson Sweet, one of only a handful that existed along the coast then. The man in the booth was Cooper. That memory stuck with me until I found out who he was a few years later.

An iconoclast from head to toe, Cooper mostly cruised the coast from Malibu northward. He ended up first with Yater, then joined Morey-Pope to produce his signature model, The Blue Machine, which featured a unique asymmetrical fin setup. In 1969, Cooper decided to migrate to Australia, and he started liquidating his stuff. That meant selling his collection of old surfboards. Having been the first to find interest or value in them, he’d acquired each one at a time, and they included a box-board found forgotten in storage, a one-of-a-kind Simmons twin-fin, and a redwood plank serving as a garden bench in Santa Monica Canyon, among others. This was at least 20 to 30 years before that form of collecting was generally recognized. He offered it lock, stock, and barrel to Surfer magazine founder John Severson, who agreed to $150 for the lot. And so, the Cooper Collection served as office décor for the next 20 years.

Over time, Cooper established himself in the Australian surfing community, got married, and started a family. His California patina transferred and he became one of that country’s significant figures, firmly established in a Coffs Harbour surfboard business that he owned for 25 years. During that time he traveled back to the States once with one of his sons to tour the coast, introduce him to Dale Velzy, and give him a sense of his California roots. But he couldn’t bring himself to stop at Surfer, where he had basically given John his treasured surfboard collection. 

Cooper, 82, died comfortably on Saturday, February 15, 2020, at home in Queensland, Australia, surrounded by loving family members.