Terry Martin

by Peter Van Allen ·

Terry Mar­tin is a Cal­i­for­nia surfer/shaper who has worked for Hobie Surf­boards since 1963. He has shaped an esti­mated 70 thou­sand boards for every­one from 60s leg­end Corky Car­roll to Tyler War­ren. We recently caught up with Terry to learn more about his life of surf­ing and shaping.

What was it like when you were grow­ing up?
I grew up in San Diego, but I didn’t see the sport until I was 14. We lived inland. We went down to the beach … well, you know, my dad called them “break­ers”. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know about rid­ing waves. We just went to the beach and dodged the white­wa­ter. We moved from Impe­r­ial Val­ley to Point Loma.

When I was 14, I’d go to the beach. I saw four guys on pad­dle­boards. I thought, “They ought to be fur­ther out. They’re awfully close to the break­ers. They’re gonna get caught.” Then, the swell came in and they started pad­dling to the beach. Two of them caught the wave. They stood up … stood up! I was dumb­founded. I went, “This is the neat­est, funnest thing I’ve ever seen. I gotta do this. This has really gotta be fun. I mean, you’re just using grav­ity here.” I was enam­ored and I ended up buy­ing one.

What was your first board?
I was doing lawn jobs. At one place, the guy had a pad­dle­board. He said, “Yeah, it’s my son’s. He’s in the mil­i­tary. Are you think­ing about get­ting one?” I said, “Well, ah, yeah.” He said if I did a cou­ple weeks’ worth of yard work, he’d give it to me. “In fact, just take it now,” he said.

I rode that thing every day. It was a 13 foot pad­dle­board, square rail, hol­low with a point in the back and a cork on the front. I just knew I was in the group ‘cause I had a pad­dle­board. I rode the white­wa­ter, but the board had no rocker. I was small; I would just ride the white­wa­ter until I was just exhausted. But to me, it didn’t count because I wasn’t rid­ing the swell. I couldn’t keep it from pearling. I said, “I’m not going to call myself a surfer till I’ve caught the swell and rid­den it all the way in. Then I can call myself a surfer.”

Is that what started you on the idea of shap­ing your own board?
Yeah, there were no shops then, so you either bought someone’s or you made your own. I wanted to design some­thing that would work. I’d never made any­thing like that, but I had a strong desire. I made a board out of balsa and red­wood. It was 10 feet. No fin.

There weren’t just pad­dle­boards in those days. There were also “planks” made of balsa, redwood—maybe spruce, mahagony. It was at the begin­ning stages of the light­weight board, so you could maneu­ver. I learned how to surf in one day. Until then, you stood up, you had a clas­sic stance, you put your arms out to bal­ance. You just looked like an old poster.

Do you remem­ber your first wave on that board?
Oh, gosh yeah! I took off on that first wave. It had no fin, so the swell picks up the back of the board and spun it right around. I went, “Oh, man! Maybe this isn’t going to work.” On the sec­ond wave, I used Body Eng­lish. But I went right off the back because the board was so much shorter and lighter than what I was used to.

The third wave, I stood in the mid­dle of the board. And, boy, I was off and run­ning! I don’t even remem­ber turn­ing. I don’t think I’ve turned yet! That first day, I was so elated. After about a week, I was doing things even these good surfers couldn’t do because, instead of 80 pounds, it was 20 pounds.

What was the reac­tion from the other surfers?
They were like, “Hey! This kid’s get­ting pretty good, pretty quick. He just started and we’ve been doing this for years.” One of them (long­time San Diego surfer Sunny Mag­giore) pad­dled over and made me get off. He said I was cheat­ing. I’m going, “Wow.” I was demor­al­ized, but I was so stoked by what I’d just made. Even though he said that, I thought, “I’m gonna go fig­ure this out. I’m gonna ride it.” Day after day after day, my folks were so mad at me. Surf­ing was not the thing they wanted me to do. Any­way, Sunny was a small guy. He could ride any­thing. I couldn’t get my board back because he was hav­ing so much fun. When he came to give it back, he said, “I want one of these.” I could have made another one of those things blindfolded.

In those days, we weren’t using power tools. We’d just use a big old jack plane—just mow­ing wood, using saw horses. It was an all day process … or maybe two. I didn’t know any­thing about fiber­glass, so I put var­nish on it—a bunch of coats—and water­proofed it. Waxed it and went surf­ing. Fab­u­lous. I knew from talk­ing to Bud Cald­well, the yard fore­man at the Ket­ten­burg Boat Works, to use four to six coats of var­nish. You didn’t have the extra weight of fiberglass.

Was this the begin­ning of your shap­ing career?
It really started simul­ta­ne­ously with surf­ing. Sunny got his, then his friends started ask­ing. At that time, guys were surf­ing at Sun­set Cliffs. It was reefs and chan­nels. You pad­dle out, catch a wave, pad­dle back through the chan­nel. Never get wet. Sunny was doing all kinds of things (on the board Terry shaped). Next thing you know, some­body else came to me … and some­body else. And that was a long stint of mak­ing boards.

At that age, did your shap­ing ever get in the way of school?
I made a promise to myself in sev­enth grade: I would never ditch school and I would never get an F. I never did ditch school and I came awfully close. but I never failed. It could be 8 to 10 feet, oily glassy, and I’d go to school. I worked on week­ends. I lost out on all the social stuff that you learn by going to school. Peo­ple didn’t mean as much to me as surf­ing meant to me. I didn’t have a date till I was 18.

What was the first surf­board com­pany that hired you?
Hobie Surf­boards. I did this on my own for 11 years. At that time, I worked in a ship­yard, I worked as a Fuller Brush sales­man and as a car­pen­try appren­tice. Worked on bridges and every­thing. None of it inter­ested me. I was in Ore­gon for five months. All they talked about at lunchtime was CB radios and hunt­ing bears. I really like any­thing to do with the water. I would have loved to have got­ten a job maybe mak­ing surf­boards. I got so frus­trated with con­struc­tion. I held off mak­ing surf­boards full-time because I didn’t think you could make a liv­ing at it at that point. I got frus­trated and I thought, “Okay, it can’t get any worse than this other stuff I’m doing.” I had a wife and a baby.

I told Hobie, “If you give me the oppor­tu­nity, I’ll do my best to be your best employee — because I really love this sport. I know my boards aren’t what yours are like, because I don’t know all the secrets, but I’ll try to make them work.” I worked hard—10 hours a day. I com­muted an hour each way from San Diego to Dana Point. Then we moved to Dana Point. I worked there from 1963 until now. I shaped boards on my own here and there, but mainly with Hobie. All the Hobie boards were sim­i­lar at that time. By then we were into foam and fiber­glass. There were seven shapers at Hobie. I wanted to make a board as if he made it. I wanted to be con­sis­tent. I was one of his main­stays, so I could shape a whole slew of surf­boards every day. I could do five, or I could do 10, because I wouldn’t get tired of it.

Was it like today where surfers would come in and ask for a spe­cific shape or dimen­sions?
They did but on a real small scale. The think­ing had to evolve. Corky Car­roll could ride any­thing and he’d look good on it. He’d come in with a model of some new thing — Corky Car­roll Super Mini or what­ever. I’d shape it and he’d just daz­zle every­one on the beach. Then, a kid would order one and it wouldn’t work at all. So that can ride against you. The rider dic­tates how the board should be shaped. Today, guys know exactly what they want and you bet­ter be on your game or you’re not going to be doing his next one.

How did the Peter Pan Slug model come about?
Peter Pan (Pana­gi­o­tis) had the Water­shed Surf Shop in Rhode Island. He would take any­thing. We made a board for a guy. He wanted his name on it. Then he reneged on the thing. So we had a great big giant thing … cus­tom shaped. My boss called Peter Pan: “We got a board here, a great big —”

“SEND IT!” he said. Some­one bought it right away. Then another. He called back and said, “Make it uglier. Give it a nose patch. Make it split-pea soup green. Ugly.” Good grief, we sold it just like that. Peter Pan called it The Slug. We sold so many of those things because it just worked good. It was a down­railer in the nose, down­railer in the tail. And a big ten­nis ball rail. Floated well and rode well. And Peter still orders those things.

How many boards do you think you’ve shaped over the years?
I don’t know. I did count one year. I got to 1,700 after nine months. Then the shop where we were burned down. That was the only year I counted. I think with the (recent) crunch, it’s slowed down.

I’ve read esti­mates that you’ve shaped any­where from 50,000 to 70,000 boards in your career.
That sounds about right.

What are your favorite boards to shape?
I like them all. I’ve done it so long I’ve made all of them—little boards, big boards, tan­dem boards. I’m still doing this because I like it and they keep ask­ing me to make these darn things. I love the poly­ester foam. The only thing I haven’t made so much of is the stand-up boards. I don’t like epoxy. I’ve made a few, but avoid it if I can help it. It doesn’t like tools. I like sculpt­ing; I like shap­ing and that stuff just does not like you to mess with it.

What do you do in your spare time?
I get a piece of fid­dle­back maple for mak­ing a didgeri­doo. It’s an instru­ment devel­oped by the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple of Aus­tralia. I have jam ses­sions with my son-in-law. He’s a nat­ural. I can go buy a didgeri­doo for $300 or $500, but I’d rather make one. It’s the same with surf­boards. I want to make it. It’s great when it’s going so good and to know I made it. It’s a God-given gift.

Find out more about Terry and Hobie Surf­boards here. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Glenn Sakamoto. Vin­tage pho­to­graph cour­tesy of Bill Stew­art.