BING COPELAND AND RICK STONER "The Best of Time"
A story of a Voyage to New Zealand with
Rick Stoner and Bing Copeland
By Thomas Takao
"Rick was the most generous and caring person I've had the pleasure to be associated with." Bing Copeland
From the shaping room of Bing Copeland comes the story of his early beginnings in becoming a surfboard shaper. It started as a voyage to adventure and turned into an experience that would change the outlook of surfing in a country steep in quality craftsmen who built surf skis. Two Americans and a surf club of New Zealanders, together they catalyzed a new beginning.
Bing Copeland and Rick Stoner with the help of Peter Byers and the Piha Surf Club built the first foam surfboards in New Zealand and by doing so, made a milestone in surfboard building history. Building their first surfboards didn’t seem all that important when it happened, but now looking back after two generations of surfboard builders made that moment more significant than before.
Their story exemplified the spirit of the surfboard builders. To go, to surf, and to build a better surfboard and build they did. After returning from New Zealand Bing and Rick would go on and start their own surfboard companies. From those companies came board builders who would teach others and they in turn would continue to teach the craft. Back in New Zealand men such as Peter Byers, Jock Carson, Charles Lake, Jim Mowtell, Peter Waye and others would do the same for their fellow country men.
This story began in the 1950’s, which many from that era believed to be the best of times. Where redwood surfboards had given way to the balsa surfboards and the smell of polyurethane was in the near future. To go back to that time period will refresh the memories of those who were there and to give insight to those who weren't. The sail to New Zealand by way of Polynesia is also around the corner, so grab a shroud and come on aboard with Bing and Rick as they begin their voyage in Hawaii. It was late summer of 1958 and a mild offshore wind was blowing through palm fronds with a few surfers out at Ala Moana. The waves were breaking across a reef that was altered by the Army Corp of Engineers. With the white water breaking behind and a wall of water rolling in front, the surfer were balancing the moment.
The wave ends and fades into the channel. In the channel we have Jinni, the double-ender sloop sailboat leaving Oahu with its crew waving to the guys in the water. On board we have the owners of the boat, Bill and Jean Schallenberg with their one-year-old son Billy and their crew of Bing Copeland and Rick Stoner. Teeming with the resources of youth and the spirit of adventure the two Southern Californians were looking forward to the downhill sail and another summer within the same year.
Ala Wai Yacht Harbor and Bing on the bowsprit
Putting away the fenders as they motored out of the channel, Bing would hoist the mainsail while Rick got the jib in place as Jinni slowly motored out pass the channel buoys. With their surfboards, trunks, T-shirt and a few other items the two friends were beginning their civilian life with an adventure to the South Seas to see the jewels of Polynesia where these islands have lured many an artists, sailors, writers, doctors, and the full spectrum of individuals seeking a change in the tropics.
They had fulfilled their duties in the US Coast Guard on Oahu where for the past 2 years Rick and Bing had reported to duty onboard the “Bering Strait” a 311 foot Coast Guard Cutter which was tied up at the Sand Island Coast Guard Base across the harbor from the Aloha Tower. Living aboard the ship when they were in port and occasionally camping out in their woody and surfing local breaks on weekends. Their daily routine consisted of their assigned tasks and at 4 p.m. would be off work and leave the base in uniform. While one of them drove their woody station wagon, the other would change into his trunks in back. At one of the signals along Nimitz Highway when the light was red they would switch places. By 4:30 they would be in the water surfing Ala Moana until dark, then returned to the ship before curfew and start all over again the next morning. At times they would go out to sea and cruise the outer Hawaiian waters.
The Bering Strait was originally stationed in Seattle, Washington, from 1948 to 1954. She was used for law enforcement, ocean station, and search and rescue operations in the Pacific. From 1954 to January 1971, she was stationed at Honolulu, Hawaii. Prior to enlisting in the Coast Guard in October of 1955 Bing, Rick, Mike Bright, Sonny Vardeman, Steve Voorhees, and George Kepo'o came to Hawaii in the summer. (George was born in Hawaii and was returning after a couple of years of being on the mainland to visit family)
They flew over from the mainland after having heard the many stories from the legendary Dale Velzy. He would captivate his young audience with his travels to Hawaii. Standing around with their eyes and mouths open, listening to Dale tell his stories of large waves that could envelope you like a room of water. The water so warm, it was like taking a bath while surfing.
After high school was out for Sonny, Mike and Rick, (Bing had graduated the year before) the hot days of summer took over and the waves of Hawaii were on their minds. They were going for sure. The day before the departure the guys stopped by the shop and said their courtesy farewells to the man who was like a father to them. They were joking around, laughing, and having a good time with Dale. In Dale’s mind they were his test pilots flying off to new horizons. Telling them he wished he could go, but somebody had to mind the store.
They were off and flying and flying and flying, Mike Bright recalls the flight seemed like they were flying at 30 feet off the ground and traveling at 10 miles per hour. The flight lasted 12 plus hours before the island of Oahu appeared in their cabin windows. After landing they walked down the portable gang way adjusting to the humidity while their minds were still rattling and rolling from the flight. Their stewardess greeted them with an Aloha and thanked them for flying Trans Ocean Airlines as they headed for the terminal and their baggage.
Going by Steve’s direction the guys found a place about half a mile from Makaha Point. The Quonset type house they rented was located on Holt Street. While living at Makaha the guys bought a 1937 Plymouth sedan. One day they drove around Kaena Point to get to the North Shore. Following the tank tracks, the dirt road went along the side of the mountain. The side of the road became cliff and plunges into the breaking waves below. At one point making a turn around a corner, one of the wheels hung over the side of the cliff while making the turn. Nervously they all shifted their weight to the mountain side as the Plymouth slowly rounded the corner.
The dirt road turned paved as they made it to Waialua. Around the traffic circle at Haleiwa and out to Sunset Beach, stopping frequently at every gas station along the way to re-supply the car with reused oil. Whenever they drove over a puddle of water, the hole in the rear floorboard acted like a blowhole and the muddy water would splash the guys inside. They arrived at Sunset Beach in one piece. To capture the achievement of getting there, a picture was taken and then they all went surfing. On the returned trip they took the long way around.
Bing and Rick liked the Hawaiian life style so much that they decided to go into the Coast Guard on Oahu and Sonny Vardeman and Steve Voorhees would enlist in the Navy at Pearl Harbor. Mike Bright had moved into town and prepared for the first Catalina to Manhattan Beach Pier paddleboard race in California later that year.After enlisting Bing and Rick pitched in and bought a woody station wagon. The woody served as a motorhome, it had two foot lockers on one side of the back area and a mattress on top of the foot lockers. There was another mattress on the floor next to the lockers. That way they both could sleep in the back of the woody without disturbing the other. For privacy, there were rolled down blinds made of reed placed on the rear window and behind the seat. During their tour of duty, many of their friends would fly over and visit. Some would stay and find jobs while others would surf and go home.
All of the surf spots that are ridden today on the North Shore were new back then and some of the spots hadn't been ridden before, such places like Waimea Bay wasn't ridden until November 5, 1957. Bing Copeland, Greg Noll, Mike Stange, Pat Curren, Mickey Munoz, Del Cannon, and Bob Bermel paddled out into the lineup at Waimea Bay for the first time ever and rode the waves. As they pass the Channel Buoy a loud "HEYYY" could be heard from their friend Bill Coleman who was sitting in the lineup at Ala Moana. With their memories of the last few years and Waikiki behind them they were on their way to Tahiti and places beyond.
Bing working on his car. The woodie and Bill Coleman's camper parked on the future road and sidewalk.
The boat sailed south, cutting the afternoon glare on a starboard tack. As evening approached and the kerosene lantern turned on, everyone settled in on their routines. The couple and child in the Vee berth in the forward part of the boat with Bing and Rick in the main salon make-shift settee. Each would have a watch of 3 hours while maintaining the helm. With morning’s light to the east, Maui was 20 miles to the stern and Hilo Harbor of the Big Island was 12 hours away. The group spent the afternoon around old town Hilo picking up additional items for the trip, laying over till morning before saying Aloha to Hawaii, Jinni sailed down the Puna Coast before entering the vastness of the Pacific. After leaving Hilo Jinni would not see land again until 29 days later. The first week and a half was steady sailing, adjusting the sheets and boom occasionally. No sign of civilization except for a light-bulb floating by one day. Just open ocean in every direction, no other boat was seen on the way down.
The balsa Velzy "pig" surfboards had been lashed onto the canvas dodger that shaded the helmsman from the tropical sun. Having time to think about anything that came to mind, Bing stares out to the horizon while steering the course. Looking just above forward he sees the two skegs from the Velzy surfboards hanging down. The glass bead around the wooden skeg shines in the afternoon sun. Bing starts remebering the days when he first started surfing in 1949 when he was 13 years old at the Manhattan Beach Pier with friend and fellow board builder Greg Noll. Learning how to paddle and catching a wave. Standing up and falling backwards. Catching his first wave and standing up and riding.
Then in 1950 noticing a surfboard shop opening under the pier Bing was drawn to the shop by the surfboards on display. Talking to the owner of the shop and asking if he could clean up around the shop and watch how he built surfboards. Dale Velzy looks at Bing and replies: sure kid, cleanup the balsa shaving and put them in the trash. Go to the store and get me a soda and after that I'll have more for you to do. That was the beginning of Bing Copeland and Dale Velzy's relationship. Going over to the shop after school was out, check the surf and hang around, Velzy's shop was Bing second home.
Dale started teaching Bing how to cut plan shapes, taught him how to sand, repair surfboards, and some glassing. Through his teen years Dale taught him things his real father thought he really didn't need to know. By this time Dale had moved up from the pier and had a shop on the hill. There Bing would work and sleep in the office at times while in High School. One Friday night the door was locked and Bing wanted to get in. He was climbing through the window when the police came and took him to jail. The police called Dale to let him know what had happened. Dale explained Bing was his worker and he had permission, a scary moment for Bing. A wind shift and the mainsail flutters. Bing adjusts the course after recollecting his time working for Dale. He settles back and looks towards the horizon.
Bing at the Helm
Each day at high noon Bill would get out his sextant and walked to the bow. The routine of celestial navigation was important Bill needed to know where they were in the ocean. After making the adjustment he lined his sextant and proceeded to shoot the sun. With the sighting recorded in the log and on the chart, the day’s sail continued. Near the Equator Jinni enter the doldrums and drifted for 8 days due to the auxiliary motor being out of order.To pass the time away during those boring days, Captain Bill (who was a radio announcer in Honolulu who had the booming voice to prove it) read great stories from his collection of books as they drifted along the Equator.
Once out of the doldrums Jinni started sailing again. The bow lunged forward as the speed increased. The wave from the bow moved along the hull and the wake disappeared into miles made good. Days became weeks and still on a starboard tack, with the island of Tahiti getting closer. An occasional bath routine was called for now and then. Going up front and taking turns, it was Bing turn to have a refreshing rinse on the bowsprit net, leaving Rick holding onto the forestay of the jib while taking a picture of the moment. At night the star filled the sky and the Milky Way flowed over the horizon. The Southern Cross greeted their arrival to the Southern Hemisphere. With the Marquesas to the east, the crew of the Jinni sailed on knowing they were near to their destination.
Going over the charts and double checking the course made good, Bill scheduled his arrival for mid morning. Off in the distance, a small speck of land appears, with each hour it raises on the horizon. Until its distinct landscape says you have arrived. Going over the chart for reefs and shoals, Bill steers Jinni into Papeete Harbor.After Med-mooring their lines to the dock at Papeete Harbor, Bing and Rick let their legs reacquaint with the land. The rocking sensation as they walked from being out at sea, would soon disappear. After the procedure of protocol was done, Bing and Rick started planning where to go and how to get there from the harbor. They would spend 2 months taking in the sights, seeing a movie once in a while and get acclimated to the French way of doing things.
During their stay at Papeete Harbor, the two met a 65 year old retired harbor pilot from Brisbane, Australia. He had built a schooner “Windsong” and had sailed it to Tahiti with a crew of 3 Australian lads. The crew of Windsong called him Skipper and that was the only name Bing and Rick would know him by. After a long day of seeing Papeete the guys would go over to Windsong to visit, exchanging stories and enjoying each other’s companies in a faraway port.
It was turning summer when they left Tahiti for the island of Moorea, where many people think of it as the most beautiful place on earth. The jagged peaks of its mountains skirted by tropical vegetation and laced by white sand beaches flowing into lagoons of multi-hues of blue. There, Bing and Rick spent their days paddling from the boat to a reef at the harbor entrance to catch some waves. Riding the waves just the two of them, during a lull (the time when there are no waves) they sat on their boards and viewed the surrounding scenery discussing how the guys in the South Bay were missing out. Going in for lunch and back out for an evening session made for a dream come true.
Soon it was time to leave the island of Moorea, after motoring out pass the reefs, they put up the mainsail and were on their way. Not far from Moorea Bill notices the spruce mast had cracked. He decides to return to Tahiti for repairs. Making Tahiti by nightfall they waited till morning to take care of the mast. The couple decided to stay in Tahiti and would continue sailing on at a later date. Luck would have it, Bing and Rick’s Australian friends on the schooner were leaving for home the following day.
So Bing and Rick sign on and placed their boards on the cabin top and lashed them downed to the handrails that went around the cabin. Windsong would sail to Bora Bora, to Rarotonga in the Cook islands, then to Fiji and on to New Zealand before returning home to Australia.Sailing into Bora Bora surrounded by the magical allure of the landscape with its vivid pastel sky, sharp defining peaks and turquoise blue lagoons. There to greet them was a crystal clear sandy bottom of the lagoon as they dropped anchor. Relaxing on the deck and gazing at the landscape that entrenches their mind like a spell. Time standing still as the island's beauty inspires the stay.
After taking on water and picking up supplies at the local market. On the counter a faded sun bleached postcard. Walking down the dirt road to the lagoon the skipper says “Rarotonga, that’s where were going next.”Arriving a week later at the harbor of Avarua the crew did some sight-seeing around town. The island is surrounded by a lagoon that extends out a few hundred yards to the barrier reef. The local people were friendly and the crew of Windsong reflected the same.
Word spread among the local young women, that some good looking guys from America and Australia had arrived on a boat. Before Rick, Bing and the three Aussie knew it, the young women were on the dock giggling and smiling and the guys smile back. The Skipper was disturbed by the whole situation and decided to take a different tack. So on the second day in Rarotonga he put water in between the girls and guys, by moving the boat from the dock to anchoring out in the bay. They would stay a couple days more, before Windsong would weigh anchor and leave with the tide.
After Rarotonga, it was off to Fiji. It would be years before anyone would surf Tavarua’s Restaurant and Cloud Breaks. So the thought never entered Rick and Bing’s mind while they made the stop in Fiji. The last leg of their trip ended in Auckland, New Zealand on November 27th , 1958. A change for New Zealand surfing was soon to happen. Tied up to the docks at Auckland Harbor, the guys started their cleanup around the boat. It would take most of the afternoon to stow away the sails and washed down the deck. Settling in for the night the two waited for the next day to find surf.
The next day they met 2 guys and asked where the surf was. The 2 locals told them the waves were on the Tasman side of the Island and offered to take them the next day. After talking it over the two yanks decided to stay in New Zealand. Getting their gears ready for the ride to the other side. Bing and Rick thanked their skipper and mates for the time aboard the schooner and the places they shared together.
The following morning the car was parked out front of the dock. The two gathered their gear and surfboards and were off. At first the guys were getting in from the driver side before noticing the steering wheel. It would take a few times before getting use to the change of where the driver sat and driving on the opposite side of the road. A mountain range separated Auckland from Piha, their destination. Driving down the hill to the Surf Club at Piha the two noticed the waves breaking and Bing figured the size was around 4 to 6 feet.
Pihi beach and Pihi Surf Club
The car pulled up to the parking lot of the Piha Surf Club. There were a few of its members there to welcome the strangers to their Club. The club members were friendly and cordial. One of the members was Peter Byer who would show the two yanks around during their stay at Piha. The guys gathered around their visiting guest and looked over the Velzy pig boards that they had brought. Some might have seen a Malibu boards on film at a movie, going back a couple of years before Bing and Rick showed up at the Club. Wayne Warwick writes in the mid 60’s about Bud Browne visiting the country in 1956 to show his film the “Cavalcade of Surfing”.
Wayne goes on to say the only people interested in such a film were the lifesavers who went along to the Berkeley Theatre at Mission Bay in Auckland, to see how surf riding was done on the other side of the world. Some of those present at that screening recall how many in the audience laughed at the way the surfers were riding along the waves. Instead of riding straight into shore the way they did it, those in the movie walked up and down their short ten foot Malibu boards and did bottom turns and cutbacks.
Some even suggested that such a style was not practical on New Zealand waves. It must be remembered, however, that New Zealanders were still riding unmanoeuverable fourteen foot boards and to turn and ride along a wave was a considerable achievement.
To shed more light on the events prior and after Bing and Rick’s visit, the Piha Surf Life Saving Club wrote in their history journal: In the early 1950’s there was a number of builders constructing hollow boards in the fourteen foot range. Jock Carson of Mt. Maunganui was one such person and his boards were regarded as some of the best on the market. Peter Waye of Auckland, still an active surf rider and lifesaver, had his first plywood board built for him in 1956 by Donald Mcleod of Takapuna.
Peter Waye is the son of Barbara and Hadyn Waye. Hadyn was a huge man, a former wrestler and a legend at the Piha Surf Club for his tough-man ways. Peter was just as tall but lanky and the epitome of the wild-man surfer. Peter was a member of the North Piha Surf Club and a successful competitor at body-shooting and surf skis. His prowess and confidence at riding big surf on boards is legendary. He won the senior men’s section in the inaugural national surfing champs in 1963. He represented New Zealand at the world champs in Puerto Rico in 1968.
Waye also took up board building, first in his parent’s backyard at Sandringham, using blanks supplied by Peter Byers.
Returning to the parking lot at Piha Surf Club, Rick and Bing told them they would like to try out their waves. They responded by saying the waves were dangerous. Rick and Bing looked at each other with a slight smile on their face as the members suggested sending a couple of their guys with surf skis to look after them while they surfed.
So Rick and Bing paddled out and proceeded to amaze the guys in the water with them and the others on the beach. Each rode eight to ten waves, bottom turning up the face of the wave, walking up towards the nose, dropping back down and doing a turn before a cutback. If the wave started to close out, the guys in the lineup would see a flying kickout, something unseen before, a truly radical maneuver in their eyes.
Letting the other know when either were to go in, Bing and Rick caught the same wave and went in, expressing the fun they had while riding the white water in a prone position next to each other. Upon returning to the beach, they were surrounded by guys wanting to “give their boards a go”. “I believe our boards never left the water during the daylight hours, for the next few weeks” recalled Bing.
They were so well received by the club member of Piha Surf Club, that they would stay awhile and enjoy the surf and companionship. After talking it over with all who were there, their new friends would allow Rick and Bing to stay at the clubhouse. The hospitality didn’t stop at the beach. Some of the members would invite the two to their homes and fed them well. Bing remembers eating their share of Peter Byers stewed tomatoes with sausages, often referred to as snags.
In return for all the hospitality Bing and Rick received from the club members, the two thought of making boards for the guys. Having grown up helping around Velzy’s shop in Manhattan Beach, California they knew the basics and were willing to give it a go. Setting up shop in the back of the clubhouse, they looked around the clubhouse for materials to use and some epoxy was found. The next thing they would need was Styrofoam.
With Peter at the wheel the threesome would drive into Auckland for supplies, stopping at the marine boat supply for the fiberglass and epoxy resin. After getting the sheathing material for the boards, they were off for the Styrofoam. After strapping down a few blanks with rope that they had, it was back to Piha. Another run for supplies would be made in a couple weeks. Bing shaped 4 of the blanks, Rick shaped 4, using the tools that were available, the saw, the clamps, the draw knife, cheese grater, the block plane and wooden blocks with course sandpaper. They proceeded to shape the blank using sawhorses for their shaping racks and using the light of day and the ventilation of the outdoors. Bing and Rick glassed the boards using another set of sawhorses located nearby.
When Bing finished his shape and began glassing, Rick would start his board and follow suit in glassing his shape after Bing. The wooden skegs were built on a table which was also used for the epoxy to be located and a place for the tools. The first few boards took longer to finish since a routine was being established. Surfing in the morning and working mid-morning to the afternoon, the days of summer went by. A total of eight surfboards were built, each would be in the water the day they were completed. Those were the first foam surfboards built in the New Zealand and they were destined to surf the waves of Piha.
Taking some time off from board building Bing and Rick were invited to the 1959 National Surf Life Saving Championship at Oakura Beach near New Plymouth. An article mentions that Bing and Rick competed successfully in the paddleboard event. After the presentation ceremony Bing and Rick poised for a picture in their Piha beanie and swimwear. Having spent another summer in New Zealand, Bing and Rick took back with them many wonderful memories, including and not limited to the tomato fights in Peter Byers tomato fields.
After Bing and Rick left New Zealand, Peter Byers continued making surfboards. Setting up a small surfboard factory in Beach Valley Road and supplied blanks to other would-be board builders. Peter Byers is credited in starting the surfboard building industry in New Zealand. It was in February of 1959 when Rick and Bing bought passages on the Orient Line and returned to California to begin life guarding for the Los Angeles County Beaches. In October of 1959 Rick and Bing opened their first surf shop located on the Strand near the Hermosa Beach Pier in Hermosa Beach, California. Both would go on to start their own surfboard companies and contribute to the growing surfboard building industry in California.