Snake southside HB Pier on one of those clean days
"The Little Spark That Grew"
By Bruce “Snake” Gabrielson PhD.
Guess it’s my turn to tell my tale. I remember my first surfing experiences back in the mid-50s as a beach gremlin at the foot of Bayshore Drive in Long Beach. One of my uncles was among those who surfed the gentle waves in that area during the early days. Every now and then someone would lose their board and the kids on the beach would try to retrieve it. Sometimes they would get a push in ride from whoever lost their boards. These early memories were the beginnings of the spark.
By the late 50s to very early 60s, local Chuck Linnen, a lifeguard in the bay area of “Snake”volleyball player, great surfer, and popular with the girls. We all wanted to become surfers and be like him. More sparks to start the flame.
I first started surfing across the inlet at Ray Bay by the Power Plant in Seal Beach in 1960. Chuck surfed there so of course I tried my best whenever he was around. Finally, one day I had enough courage to paddle into the middle of the channel where the “big” names were surfing. Wouldn’t you know it, I caught my first good wave and surfed right past Chuck. I could hear him hooting all the way and when I was paddling back out, he came over to me and said “I had rode a great wave.” Chuck became my friend and helped my spark turned into a small flame. He has been my friend through college and later years and is still my close friend today.
Around 1964 I met Dewey Webber through my wrestling activities. He was widely recognized as a famous surfer and knowing him really made me want to get better. Dewey subsequently got me my first new board, a Webber noserider. By then I was in college, feeling competent of my surfing skills, and had even entered some bigger contests. My surf partners were John Geyer from Newport Beach, a member of the Surfboards Hawaii Surf Team, and Raul Duarte from Huntington Beach. One thing led to another and John was able to get me onto the Surfboards Hawaii Team in 1966.
In the spring of 1967, Gary Wurster and I started surfing for Soul Surfboards in Huntington Beach. I had a WSA and USSA ranking by then, was known as the Huntington Beach “Snake” (another story), and was serious into board designs and what the various designs could do. Dale Velzy was the shaper for Soul, and I spent a great deal of time working with him in his stall on new board designs.
The industry was just going into the short board era, so we were both experimenting a lot. He came up with something and I tried it out. I was trying to figure out how to get a flexible turning board and a nose design that didn’t grab and spent a long evening working with Dale on the design. It was glassed in a couple of days and when it didn’t work, I came back to Dale to get something changed for a new design. I remember the evening well. First he asked me to go get a bottle of Peach Brandy. When I came back, he handed me his planer, sat down on a chair in the stall, and opened the bottle. Then, after slowly taking a drink he paused and said it was time for me to get serious and shape my own board.
That was the beginning of the fire. My Surf Gooroo was sitting there, helping me shape, checking everything out as I went, and telling me stories about his surfing adventures. I’m sure he was also imparting to me both wisdom and his particular brand of surf culture. Obviously, I listened and learned.
Dale left Soul several months later and Steve Boehne became the new shaper. I left about a month later. It wasn’t that Steve didn’t shape good boards, he did, but without Dale it just wasn’t the same. Another friend of mine, Steve Walden, was just opening his own shop just up the street. My surf partner Charley Ray and I liked Steve and decided to surf for him as his first team riders. I still wanted to shape, but no money for equipment and no place to work had pretty much shut down my fires for awhile.
I surfed for Steve about two months. Then one evening I got a call from Dale to come over for a visit. He was meeting with Dale Rogers of Rogers Foam and they had been talking about me. When I got there, Dale told me he had some things to give me. He opened my van and started loading racks, his shaping stand, florescent lights, sanding blocks, templates, and various other things. Among his templates was a nose template, tail template, gun template, two longboard templates, and a mini-longboard template, all made out of unfinished plywood. When I asked him about those, he said they were his early day templates and that he wouldn’t need them anymore. He also said that I might want to use them someday if I ever shaped a balsa or one of his longboard designs. Except for those I’ve donated to various museums, I still have most of these templates today.
Finally he brought out his planer. As he gave it to me he also gave me one of his serious “go forth and prosper” speeches. I wasn’t really sure if he was blessing me or just saying to have fun and make some money. I was stunned to say the least. My shaping mentor had just put me into the surfboard business in a big way. I raced back to tell Charley that we needed to get a place to make boards and that our break had come.
Nearly everyone in Huntington was impressed with my good fortune. Years later Dale told me that he planned to retire and that Rogers suggested he give his shaping equipment to someone was just getting started and needed a break. I was high on their list, and, being Dale’s most recent protégé, both thought I should inherit the trove. My spark had turned into a full-fledged bonfire.
Another interesting story about the Wave Trek factory behind my parent’s place on the corner of Garfield and Delaware in Huntington Beach. The little red four room building is actually the oldest building still standing in Huntington. It was built by an original settler, a Mexican farmer, in the early 1890s. It’s siding is rough-cut boards from the saw mill in Santa Ana that existed during that time period. My parents house was built on a ¼ acre parcel of land next door to the grand children of the farmer in the early 1940s.
The building was partially on both house plots, so my father pulled completely onto our place with a tractor rather then having it torn down. It sat there for a long time with no electricity and running water until I finally came up with the idea for my new shop. We had just an electric extension cord and a hose at first, but finally got the place fully wired and water pipes installed as our business expanded. The smallest room just happened to be the right size to shape boards, so this became my shaping stall. Several years later, John “Whitney” Guild came to work for us and we moved the shaping room to a larger room. Whitney stayed in the small room.
Charley Ray and I decided on the name Wave Trek based on the TV series Star Trek. At first I shaped and Charley glassed, but I finally learned to do everything. While I shaped a lot of boards, I was less interested in shaping strictly off-the-shelf boards, and tried to focus my concentration on boards for Wave Trek team riders. We had some of the best around, and I worked with them, just as Velzy had worked with me, to produce designs that did just about anything we wanted them to.
Some of those who I shaped boards for included Tim Wirick, Mickey Dora, and Mary Setterholm. I’ve included a few stories about these surfers that might be of interest to readers.
Tim Wirick was one of the top surfers from the Torrance area beginning in the 60s. He became part of the Wave Trek Team around 1970 and stayed with us for many years. I still see him every now and then when I get to Laguna Beach. Tim liked one board design so much that even after he broke it, we put it back together and he continued to compete and place in 4A events with it. We called it the Gray Ghost because of the gray pigment hiding the break. It was heavy, but although I tried hard, I just couldn’t duplicate the design exactly to his liking.
I’ve told the story about Dora’s one-day board a few times before and it’s posted on Tom McBride’s website. One day Charley and I were checking waves at the pier when Dora walked up to us out of the blue and started talking about how he didn’t like the board he was riding and would like to find a new sponsor. We knew he was fishing, but then again this was DaCat.
It didn’t take us long to convince him to ride for Wave Trek. His only problem was he wanted a custom board that day while he was there as he wouldn’t be back to HB for awhile. We were getting ready to head to the shop anyway, so with Mickey in tow, we headed back and got to work. I shaped the design he wanted, the equivalent of what would now be a fun shape, and then with no one else around, glassed it, fill coated it, sanded it, glossed it, and buffed it, all in about 5 hours. Spending 5 hours with Mickey was as interesting as building a 5-hour board. He was something else.
Mary Setterholm was one of my surf protégés early on. Although she was very good when I met her, I could easily tell she would eventually become a champion surfer. As with our other riders, I spent time with her in the stall working out designs that we thought would perform well for a girl her size. I remember one design that she really liked, and that she wanted some special coloring in the glass job. A female unique board was nearly unheard of back then. I recall we glassed it with pink and purple, and she told me a few years ago that this was likely one of the first wahine surf board.
I’ve been asked how Greek and I were so close, even when we were in competition with each other. The majority of Wave Trek team riders were also Greek Team riders at one time or another. Also, Greek was and still is a tremendous board designer. He and I understand that a good design is a good design, no matter who shaped it. Greek had just developed a superb low rail design that John Van Ornum was riding when he started surfing for Wave Trek. I tried it out and was so impressed, I had Greek shape one for me. He had no problem with this. It had a Wave Trek label and glass job, but had his name on it. I subsequently placed 3rd at the US Championships riding that board. By the way, VO is one of those who I subsequently taught how to shape his own boards.
I continued to shape and make boards until 1978 when Wave Trek was hit with a robbery that my insurance wouldn’t cover. Someone took out part of the back window and carried out all the finished boards we had plus some equipment and blanks. Laroy Dennis and I were making all the boards by then. I just couldn’t afford to replace everything, so folded up shop. I still continued to shape until the early 80s, but only a few custom boards for friends and ex-team riders. I moved from Huntington Beach to Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, in 1980.
Today I’m long retired as a shaper, only shaping a few personal boards for myself or for close friends each year. I still have and sometimes use Dale’s original templates and equipment, and these will probably end up in museums someday. Also, besides my own shapes, I still get boards from Steve Walden and Greek. Interesting about this surfing life how I seem to have gone full circle on boards, rider, shaper, surf shop owner and now back to rider, all the while with Snakes on my boards.
In a way I owe Dale for much more then just my skill and interest in shaping. Dale’s generosity gave me both a skill and a job I could do while I attended college. I went to college 9 years and subsequently graduated with a Doctorate in Engineering. I told Dale a number of times over the years that he had helped put me through college. I’m not sure he ever figured out just how.
Dr. Bruce Gabrielson and Dale Velzy Bruce shooting the Huntington Beach Pier