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Orpheus Rising

Conversational excerpts selected from “The Life and Work of Richard Brewer.”

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When this 24-page profile/interview combine was published in 1999, readers were accustomed to such full-throated portraiture in the TSJ editorial well. Few could ignore the significance of a cradle-to-now look at pinnacle gunsmith Dick Brewer as interpreted by writer Drew Kampion. The piece stands as a lively and crucial archival document, fully illustrated with appropriate period photography from the likes of Grannis, Stoner, Brewer, and Divine.

The roughly 10,000-word feature was neatly bisected with a traditional narrative anchoring the front half and a Q/A component stapled onto the back. Brewer, private if not secretive, allowed Kampion “unprecedented access” (to leverage a journalistic cliché), and the through-line of a shaper’s life provides a variety of launch points.

The end result was akin to sitting at a patio with the two, eavesdropping as Brewer drops science, history, and humble-brags. There’s gold here, if you’re into that sort of thing. You are, aren’t you?

Below, we’ve excerpted the interview portion. The full feature is, of course, available in our archives for download, free to subscribers. —Scott Hulet


Cheap kensho, that’s what the Roshi told him. You’ve had cheap kensho because you didn’t have to work for it the way we work for it. You ate the mushrooms or dropped the acid or whatever, and that prepared you, and now you’ve come here and seen the white light. You are the first man from the West to wake up. We have been wondering if a western man could wake up.

*

Drew Kampion: What sticks out in your mind from that winter of 1967-1968?

Dick Brewer: That was a big year at Honolua. Hakman was perfect on a 7’8″ board at the Bay. Jimmy Lewis and Larry Strada were glassing. Strada was creative. He had me shape their tails à la Greenough for flex, but they weren’t foiled. Les Potts shaped the first 11-inch nose on a 7’10”. Before that we were hung up on bigger noses. I lived in an apartment on Prison Street in Lahaina or in a camper at Honolua. I remember smokin’ in the camper with Reno and the rest of us, and McTavish comes up and goes, “Hey, y’goin’ out, mate?”

 

DK: How did what McTavish show you blend with what you were doing with the guns at Bing’s and at LSD?

DB: I put roll in the Bing Pipeliners because I’d already been into concaves since the Surfboards Hawaii days. I’d already established that the most positive bottom is a concave—it’ll bite better—and that the fastest is a flat bottom and the loosest is a slight roll. We incorporated the vee in November of ’67, when McTavish and Nat showed up on Maui, which then took the place of the roll. I played with concaves again then.

“Duke Kahanamoku came to my shaping room one time and he said, ‘You have great powers, my son. Don’t abuse your powers.’”

DK: Have you been involved in an equally creative and intense time since?

DB: Definitely. That Maui time was intense, but when Lopez and I got to Kauai right after the Maui thing, we’d already gotten boards down to 6’4″, so we weren’t choppin’ six or eight inches off the nose. Then we really got started getting into trying thick tails, thin tails, boxy tails. I had a 7’6″ pintail, kind of a radical-looking pintail, a single-fin, and it drew long, round lines. Then we chopped the tail off to about a six-inch squaretail, put a contemporary-looking fin a little further up, and we surfed it, and it squared the corners. It wasn’t round or concentric like the pintail. But up front it still felt the same. Then we rounded off the corners of the squaretail, and it still squared the comers, but it was a little looser in between. So then we rounded ’em more and more. The more we rounded ’em, the looser and S-ier the board got. When we finally got to a round tail, it had no square, and it actually slid in between the moves. So, we suddenly knew the difference—how it felt all the way from a pintail to a squaretail to a rounded squaretail to a full round tail—on the same board. Anyway, once we knew all that, Gerry Lopez decided he wanted to cut the tail at two angles and leave that little point back there. And so, right after that, Gerry invented the diamond tail.

 

DK: Can you run the same test with today’s thruster configurations?

DB: Yes, you could. We were moving the single fin. Al Merrick used to move his fins three times on the same board on the same day and try ’em. I remember me and Gary Linden, we’d find an Al Merrick with the four fins and measure ’em and put ’em on like that and check ’em out, then we’d measure somebody else’s and put them on like that. It was the same thing when the thrusters came. Simon Anderson laid the whole thing out, but people were riding small thrusters. When it finally came to building big thrusters, where do the fins go? And, now we have a formula that basically works for anything from a 4’6″ up to a 12’6″. And it’s actually a linear equation.

 

DK: So things have evolved.

DB: Down through the years, the evolution of the modern board is—we went through the flat deck, the boxy rail, the bottoms essentially flat with vees during that period. When Simon Anderson brought in the thruster, the flat deck and boxy rail was still kind of a state-of-the-art, however, shortly after that, Al Merrick, Gary Linden, and a few others started doming the decks, and we were finding out that with a really light board, you didn’t need that much foam once the surfer got the board planning—and a pro surfer has enough energy to keep the board planing in a skim, despite the small amount of float. It’s not a matter of float, it’s a matter of skimming power, and that is essentially what the pro’s doing when he catches a big wave—he’s already planing on top of the water, and he’s got a lot less drag once he catches the wave.

“When it finally came to building big thrusters, the question was where do the fins go? Now we have a formula that basically works for anything from a 4-footer up to a 13-footer. And it’s actually a linear equation.”

DK: But not me.

DB: Right, he’s actually pulling it onto a plane with horsepower, and it’s not floating. When you start getting into float, that’s when you start getting into 19 1/2″ and 3 1/4″ for a decent Waimea float, and everybody finds it out. They’ll start out at 18 1/4″ and 2 1/4″, like their shortboard, but by the time they’ve ridden Waimea four or five times, they’ll be up to 19 1/2″ and 3 1/4″. Believe me! [Laughter.]

DK: And lovin’ every quarter inch of it. So what’s the minimum board? We were riding five-sixes and five-tens in 1970, but they were fatter.

DB: Reno was the first one that said, “Dick, what’s the minimum board?” And I said, “Reno, it’s you.” So, we drew around Reno on a blank, and it came out 5’4″ and around 16 1/4″, maybe close to 17″ wide, and then he stayed up all night shaping it after we cut it out. This is before he went to the World Contest in Puerto Rico in ’68. It was less than two inches thick and later on we found out—after seeing him ride it—that it was the minimum board. But it was a matter of finding reality

 

DK: Then you went on to tri-fins.

DB: Right. Back in 1971, Alden Kaikaka was down to a 6’0″, and I think he reached a peak of mobility in surfing that I’ve never seen reached since, and he used a three-fin shape that was 19-inches wide and 6-feet long, and he put one small fin in the center, and in the finals at that Ala Moana contest, he did thirteen 360s and helicopters and made the wave! At that contest, I won the Seniors, Gerry Lopez won the Pros (the 4As they called it), Reno got second, and Alden Kaikaka got first in the 3As. So, it was a clean sweep for Brewer. But shortly after that, Reno and Gerry Lopez went off with Jack Shipley and started Lightning Bolt, and I went off and started Dick Brewer Surfboards.

 

DK: This was about the time you were working on those three-fin boards with Reno?

DB: Right. I knew there was something there, and we got into it, but I suddenly realized I was already five or ten years ahead of the surfing world in development. So I put it aside until I had time and money to work on it. You needed time and money to work on these projects in research and development, because there were so many gray areas in design, so at that point, I decided to get into my single-fin Waimea boards, which eventually evolved into the modern, single-fin Roger Erickson-type boards. In the last four or five years the noses have gotten narrower, but that basic thing was evolved quite a while ago. And after that, I got into the gun thruster with Darrick Doerner, and we did a lot of “evolvement.” That would have been around the late 80s or early 90s.

“I suddenly realized I was already five or ten years ahead of the surfing world in development. So I put it aside until I had time and money to work on it. You needed time and money to work on these projects in research and development.”

DK: Speaking of guns, have you ever considered restarting Surfboards Hawaii?

DB: With the right investors and the right lawyers, we could put Surfboards Hawaii back together. However, I do have a business partner now who is an attorney—Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Wineries—and he’s a very, very generous person. Duke Kahanamoku taught him to surf back in the 50s, and Jess has given me a lot of personal advice on how to do this thing, and we do have a new logo. It’s gonna be the lei—so it’s called Plumeria. And, basically, we’re starting out to work with Laird Hamilton, Darrick Doerner, and Buzzy Kerbox on tow boards with the Plumeria lei.

 

DK: Kind of a new beginning on the cutting edge?

DB: The people I’m working with have kept me there. And all my ideas from the past, the work I did with concaves and different kinds of bottoms and skurfers, has finally come together in tow boards. The hard-core guns are still gonna be Dick Brewer Surfboards. Y’know, it’s a fact that Brewer guns have dominated the North Shore of Oahu for 40 years. My trips to the North Shore are rewarding, even though all kinds of labels go on what I shape. I get good money for it. And I also do balsa boards on Oahu because I have a cabinet shop there with every kind of woodworking tool you can imagine at my disposal. I work with Erik “Bones” Forgerson, who glues up and chambers the balsa, and he rides ’em good at Waimea. What we’re doing is the basic Brewer bottom, which is “tried and true” for 30 years or more on big waves, but there are little things being done to make ’em behave better. Jack Reeves, the glasser at Sunset Beach that I’ve worked with for the last 30 years, is still there, and he’s definitely one of the best in the world.

 

DK: Have you felt ahead of the curve over the years?

DB: Oh, yeah. There’s been five and ten years at a time when I felt like I was on hold—where you felt like you’d plateaued and passed up the surfing world, and now you had to sit back and just do the status quo for a while. Even I have done that. And those were boring times, when surfing was stagnant. As far as research and development went—you were already past the market. You just didn’t see any sense in going anywhere else.

 

DK: Somewhere along the line you got into windsurfing and shaping sailboards.

DB: Everybody on the North Shore was windsurfing in 1979 and ’80, and I just got caught up in it like everybody else. And what I learned making windsurfers taught me more about speed for surfboards.

“I want to build your board. Don’t be afraid to talk to Brewer. Cause when you get to Sunset and Waimea, you’re gonna need a Brewer, and you guys are afraid to come and talk to me, a lot of you.”

DK: You also got into making Skurfers, right?

DB: Rick Holt and I worked on this skurfer thing about ten years ago with a young pro down at the Waialua River—Eric Perez. We actually started out shaping little foam surfboards and got to the point where Rick was clamping high-tech materials to a small board with the rocker shaped into the bottom, and things we started learning helped me when I made the first tow boards for Laird, cause I knew that the back foot should be less than an inch thick, and it is—it’s only 5/8 of an inch thick where Laird’s back foot is on this board, and it seems to be an important part of effective planing on a real big wave. It has to do with being too high above the water and that creates too much torque. You’re basically better off standing right on the water. Picture yourself being six inches up and how much torque your forward or backward forces would have on tipping the board versus being right on the surface. And there’s a lot less foam to absorb the shock when you land. But we’re actually into something called “reverse camber’ on tow boards now, which came from snowboards, and makes them more alive and gives you spring. So I’m into that with Laird and Darrick Doerner right now.

 

DK: How is Laird’s tow board different from your conventional big-wave gun?

DB: It’s narrower. It’s essentially a ten-foot thruster template with two feet cut out of the middle. It’s 7’5″, 15 1/2″ wide, and 2 1/8″thick—for Laird.

 

DK: And he’s riding a wave how big?

DB: Fifty to 60 feet. But he’s had boards down to 6’1″. In fact, he’s got a 6’8″, less than 2″ thick for small waves, and he’s really a big boy. But he’s riding a 7’5″ on the biggest waves—full concaves. Laird has boiled it down to where the real points are going rail-to-rail, which are slalom waterski moves and on a big wave—dig your rail, rail-to-rail pump power. He says that inside a giant tube, there’s no way to compare the bite that you get with a full concave under your back foot—with a strap. There’s no way you can compare any kind of vee or flat bottom with what a concave feels like. That is the bottom line—that once you’re inside a giant tube, you want this tip-down concave sitting right under your toes.

 

DK: This tow-in thing is a new universe.

DB: That is a new universe, and I’m here to build your board. And you pros out there, I want to build your board. Don’t be afraid to talk to Brewer! Cause when you get to Sunset and Waimea, you’re gonna need a Brewer, and you guys are afraid to come and talk to me, a lot of you. I don’t care, you can put any sticker on it you want, just paint it and glass it. But I want to build your board, cause you guys’ll need Brewers when you get there.

“Butch Van Artsdalen had some vials of ‘purple hat’ Owsley, so me and Jackie Eberle dropped and paddled out at Waimea Bay. For the first year of the psychedelic thing, that was what we all took when Waimea broke, or big Honolua.”

DK: Your surfing and shaping career has spanned eras—from elephant guns and prehistoric adventures on the North Shore to the thin blades and tow boards of today. Where have you found your maximum resonance?

DB: I would say, right now. Because I’ve got all of my understanding of fluid flow and aerodynamics and knowledge available to me. I’ve got Al Merrick and Pat Rawson and Rusty helping to do the groundwork, whereas back in the Dark Ages, I didn’t really have anybody else that was at my level trying new things. My goal in reaching out is to be involved in the research and development of the modern surfboard, and it’s an ongoing thing. It’s not boring. Really getting involved in my gun thrusters with Darrick Doerner and others took all my interest for the last couple years, but, at the same time, young surfers like Myles Padaca, Elija Young, and Joel Fitzgerald have really stimulated me to upgrade my shortboards and my mini-guns, and to bring in some of the new ideas that Al Merrick and Rusty and Simon Anderson have brought into surfboard design. So, my shortboards and even my guns are all a blend of what everybody else is doing. But they’re also a blend of everything that I’ve done for the last 40 years.

 

DK: You’re still associated with the late 60s—the era of acid and other psychotropic substances. How did you first get exposed to that, and when was your first trip?

DB: You know, I didn’t really trip out as much as a lot of people. My first acid trip was when Butch Van Artsdalen had some vials of “purple hat” Owsley, so me and Jackie Eberle dropped and paddled out at Waimea Bay. For the first year of the psychedelic thing, that was what we all took when Waimea broke, or big Honolua.

 

DK: A vile of acid at Waimea Bay. What was that like?

DB: Well, you either find reality or you don’t find anything. I saw Jackie Eberle lose it and never come back. And that’s when I started slowing down on the stuff.

 

DK: Everybody I knew who took it had a few breathtaking moments, but overall it just woke us up to the world again.

DB: And that’s what made me finally go to a temple with a real Buddhist priest on this island, and he told me, “Mr. Brewer, just you come every morning at 6 o’clock. We sit.” And I came and sat for an hour every morning for a year with the priest in a little temple in a plantation town called Wahiawa. It’s gone now. I drove from Hanapepe where my surf shop was, up the hill a couple miles to the temple every morning, and then I’d go surfing. It became a real religious thing.

“I’d flicker in and out of that consciousness. Afterwards, the roshi led me out into the garden and just left me out there behind the zendo, and I remember I felt so light. I felt like a gazelle.”

DK: When you encountered this man, what did you think?

DB: You know, you couldn’t tell when you were sitting there in the zendo. You’d see him across the room…and it wasn’t until I had kensho

 

DK: What’s kensho?

DB: That’s enlightenment. He said I had “cheap kensho.” I took the drugs, cheap kensho.

 

DK: So you didn’t have to go through the process. You swallowed a pill, so to speak.

DB: Well, I had this religious experience sitting there, right? You’re at the place where it’s like a white light? I was at the white light. It was very beautiful. Then when they rang the bell—they rang the bell every hour, and everybody followed each other around the room, because you get into this state of consciousness where you’re not even thinking, for days—and when the bell rang, a crack went through the beautiful white light. And I wanted back there. They said I started crying like a little baby. Someone told me that. They heard me cry, and they went, “A baby!” I wanted to be back there. And, y’know, I’d flicker in and out of that consciousness. Afterwards, Dr. King led me out into the garden and just left me out there behind the zendo, and I remember I felt so light. I felt like a gazelle—y’know, how when you get high you’re so light? I could hear the trucks driving way down the hill on Ala Moana Boulevard. I was aware. But I remember when they brought me in to sit in front of the Roshi, he was sitting here right in front of me with this light garment on, and the wind was blowing, and he was like a python snake. He was so loose! His joints were just all stacked up on top of each other—like they say, no tight muscles—where the wind would blow his consciousness, and I was right there with him. Just for a short time. Maybe it only lasted a month, but I was there. I know I was.

 

DK: But it’s gone away?

DB: Yeah, but they want me to find enlightenment. They want some Western man to find it. To them, Alan Watts and Timothy Leary couldn’t sit in front of the Roshi at a high level of consciousness like I did. To them I was the first Western man that had enlightenment, as far as they knew. This was the real deal, y’know what I mean?

 

DK: They told you this?

DB: Yeah. They weren’t even sure that Western man could even get there. The priest that taught me, Khomi, said that you’re born enlightened, that your parents hang you up. He made me aware—that we don’t have to go sit or do some thing to reach it, that all you can be is yourself.

“When I’m at Sunset Beach making boards for Waimea and Pipeline and Sunset, it puts me right on the cutting edge every time. And I go there about once a month.”

DK: Do you find shaping in itself is a kind of alternative state?

DB: There was a time when I thought I was making shaping a Zen discipline, but I don’t make it that any more—that everything we do we should try to do perfect, and do it right, which is really the Zen way of doing things, that you need to pay attention and cut aside distracting thoughts. I find my attention span is shorter as I get older. I do need to sit and meditate again. After I had my experiences and my life went into such chaos, maybe I hesitated to go back and try to do a meditation thing until my life gets in such perfect order that I won’t have any outside disturbances to bother my meditation. And then it’s kind of like, hey, it’s gonna come together…for 20 years! I think maybe I should start meditating again, whether or not everything’s in order.

 

DK: Then it will be in order.

DB: Then it will be in order.

 

DK: Speaking of order, you’ve almost always worked “underground,” as if posing an alternative paradigm to how the surfboard industry works.

DB: And it’s still going on. It makes the guy on the beach at Sunset, who gets a Brewer and pays for a shape job, feel like he’s real close to the source. It keeps me close to my customers—right on the cutting edge. When I’m at Sunset Beach making boards for Waimea and Pipeline and Sunset, it puts me right on the cutting edge every time I go there. And I go there about once a month.

 

DK: That’s the way the Hawaiians would have done it, a thousand years ago—if there was a shaper, he’d be a part of the community.

DB: Duke Kahanamoku came to my shaping room one time. It was 1967, and Jock Sutherland had won the Duke on a Brewer with the Duke label on it. He said he was very proud that one of his boards had won the Duke meet, and he said that in the old days a surfboard builder was considered a kahuna. He said, “You have great powers, my son. Don’t abuse your powers.”

 

DK: So if a shaper is a kahuna, you’d have to be a kahuna.

DB: Which is considered a holy man in the Hawaiian culture. But I never tried to play that role. My thing is, I’m not playing any role. I’m just a designer and to still be communicating and contributing to humanity at this time in history makes my life worthwhile.

“Nobody was perceptive enough to see that there was something at the end of the rainbow. Whereas I was then, and still am totally, committed to the design aspect of the modern surfboard.”

DK: So you communicate through your shaping, and you’ve trained a lot of other shapers.

DB: Yeah. Gerry Lopez was my first real student. He was a natural. The first board he shaped was an excellent surfboard. With Owl Chapman, it took some time, but Owl stuck with it, and he’s got a big-wave board thing together that works. Reno, it took some time, but Reno did learn how to shape. Sammy Hawk was a natural. Mark Anderson on Maui was a natural. Jimmy Lewis was a natural. These were all my students. When Mark Richards came to me, I was not actually wanting students, so I charged him [$2,700]. He came back a year later and said his Dad had paid for the shaping lessons and said that when he left he was a hacker, and when he came back he was a shaper. He became creative on his own, and he was one of the best, just like Terry Fitzgerald when he came along—he was one of the best surfers I’d ever seen. I knew they were talented.

 

DK: If somebody came around right now and wanted to learn how to shape, would you teach him?

DB: Only if he had some experience. It’s just too hard to start from the beginning. They have to fundamentally know what they’re doing.

 

DK: What’re your observations of Gerry Lopez as a student?

DB: Gerry was my best student, and Gerry Lopez taught me how to do yoga. I recognized Gerry as being a very talented young man. You know, he was number one Junior in Honolulu on Brewers. So was Reno and Jimmy Lucas, Michael Ho, Mark Foo—they were all number one Juniors on Brewers, at a time in history when I was totally giving my energies to the young surfers as well as the North Shore regulars, which the surfing world didn’t seem to know about. I spent a lot of time at Ala Moana, and I remember having a meeting with Rochlen and Schwartz at Surfline and telling them, “Hey, these young dudes I got are gonna be the future of surfing.” And I was talking about Reno and Hakman and Gerry Lopez. And I remember Fred going, “Well, Gerry Lopez is unproven at this time in history.” He was a real mouthy kind of guy. But my problem at that time was, just like every other time—with Hobie, with Bing, that nobody was perceptive enough to see where surfing was going, that only me and Hakman, we perceived it. But none of these people could see that there was hundreds of millions of dollars a year of “groupie” clothing and accessories that eventually were going to be involved in this surf industry.

 

DK: So, how has it gone?

DB: But nobody believed in me enough to stick with it more than a year. They’re going, “Well, we didn’t make a bundle of money this year, so why do it another year?” That was kind of what I was putting up with for about ten or fifteen years there. Surfline couldn’t see the light, and then Shipley went off and did his Lightning Bolt thing, and it was the first big-time thing, right? Instead of all them (getting together). Hakman was there, Sutherland was there, David Nuuhiwa was even there—we could have put this whole thing together under Jams and Surfline Hawaii, or under Hobie, and it wouldn’t have been all Australian money, like Quiksilver and Billabong and Rip Curl. You know what I’m telling you? It could have been American clothing companies. But Hakman took all his energy and went down to Quiksilver because the Americans weren’t enlightened enough to see that there was an opening there. And every time I’d end one of these years getting screwed by some investor that bought Dick Brewer or something—go ahead and print all this—nobody was perceptive enough to see that there was something at the end of the rainbow. Whereas I was then, and still am totally, committed to the design aspect of the modern surfboard. And if I’d sat back and become a businessman any time in that era, I’d have a lot more assets right now, there’s no doubt about it.

“We’re the first free souls. We’re looking for our real selves, cause the enlightened you is the best surfer in you. That’s what we’re really all looking for.”

DK: Have you had periods when you actually hung up shaping and thought that part of your life was over and set off on a different path?

DB: Yeah. There was a time when I was studying Zen with my teacher; I thought about going back into engineering or selling real estate. I didn’t realize my teacher realized all these things, but he started talking about all these little things I’d done with fins and bottoms and things, and he says, “Mr. Brewer, this surfboard design thing, you must finish what you start.” And this was one of the few pieces of advice that I got from a real Zen person, that since I started this surfboard design thing, I must finish it.

 

DK: You’ve had great success as a shaper. What events in your life have brought you a sense of failure?

DB: In my relationships in business, things have not been perfect. If I had to do things over, when Nat Young came to Maui in ’67, I would have given him my board—if I had to do it over—and let my own surfing become “back seat” on Maui at that time in history, because he would have really come alive if he’d had my 9′ pintail.

 

DK: Anything else that comes to mind where you feel you’ve failed?

DB: You know, I’ve given my whole life to this sport, and I make a good living, and so I’m content. But I somehow feel deep inside like I should put the Surfboards Hawaii thing back together the way I started out.

 

DK: The surfing world has created a pretty unique niche for its elder statesmen and artisans. It seems to reinforce what Nat talks about—that surfing is a tribe, that it has tribal qualities to it.

DB: It does have tribal qualities. Chuck Shipman [longtime Sunset Beach resident and sometime event organizer] told me several years ago about a meeting of the world’s philosophers at the Ilikai Hotel in Waikiki, and this philosopher got up and gave a talk and said that the only people fit to rule the world were the surfers. Cause they could paddle out in the ocean and forget about everything. And there’s something to that—that we’re the first free souls, that we’re really looking for our real self, cause the enlightened you is the best surfer in you, that’s what we’re really all looking for, and that’s why we were looking at so many different lifestyles and what-not, to find the real us. The Barry Kanaiaupuni that’s in us. The Hawaiians, when they first got here, were natural, relaxed. There was something about their being when they surf. The people surf just the way they are, and that…the surfers are enlightened people.