RICH HARBOUR SURFBOARDS
By Thomas Takao
It was a warm and sunny Saturday morning, the overcast had burned off. The swell was up and running 3 to 5 ft., out of the west, northwest through the San Pedro Channel. I happen to be in Seal Beach, California this particular morning talking with Rich Harbour.
Rich Harbour is part of a rare breed of surfboard shapers, those who saw it happen in the beginning and contributed their innovative designs for the progress of surfing. It was Rich’s destiny to make surfboards for his friends and all his customers, and he is thankful for the opportunity. All those who own and ride a Harbour surfboard are appreciative of his craftsmanship and the peace of mind they get from his shapes, be it surfing or hanging on a wall.
He is a master surfboard shaper who has been in the same commercial shaping room (when this story was written in 2003) for forty-two years (since 1962). There are a few other shapers in this category, but Rich has a year or two ahead of them. This distinction of being at the same commercial shaping room longer than anyone in the board building industry is a unique accomplishment.
Rich Harbour was born in 1943 at the Long Beach Hospital. There weren’t any hospital in Seal Beach so Rich’s mom went there because it was the closest. Growing up in the coastal town of Seal Beach meant having a fun time body surfing during the spring heat waves, the warm summer days and the Indian summers of fall. Mat surfing was another way to enjoy the waves and they were available through rental. There was Gerhart Stanlin also known as G Stanlin who had four surf mat concession stands, one by Dolphin St., two on either side of Seal Beach pier and one on 1st St.
Being close to the ocean, Rich and his older brother were out in the water whenever they got the chance. His older brother had been mat surfing five year before Rich tried it. The mat were made of rubber like canvas material and had 4 to 5 cylinder type ridges running from the front to the back and was about four and half feet long and three feet wide. Rich got good at mat-surfing and learned where to go on a wave and how to get more speed from his positioning.
Rich’s older brother was a good mat surfer and had work for Stanlins for a couple of years. So, when Rich asked Gerhart Stanlins for a job, Mr. Stanlins had no problem with having another Harbour work for him. This was back in 1957- 1958 when he was 13 thru 14 years of age.
Around 1959 Rich’s mom kept asking Rich why don’t you try surfboard riding, since a few of the other kids were doing it and it looked like fun. So, taking his Mom’s advice Rich borrowed a balsa surfboard and paddled out. He stood up on the first wave that he caught and rode it all the way to shore. After stepping off onto the beach, Rich was hooked and has been surfing ever since. Rich wanted to buy that balsa board, and the owner of the board was going to sell it to him. But something happened to change the owner's mind and the deal fell through.
So Rich’s dad, who was the Captain of the Seal Beach Police Department and oversaw, and managed the City’s Life Guards asked Jack Haley who happen to be the Head Life Guard at Seal Beach during this time period which was 1959, if there were any available. Jack was an all-around waterman and a good surfer. He had won the first U.S. Surfing Championships in 1959 in Huntington Beach which is south of Seal Beach.
Jack said he would try to locate a used board for Rich and would ask around. It wasn’t long before Jack found a guy who wanted to sell his foam board, one of the first around the Seal Beach area. Jack notified Rich about the board and they went over to the guy’s house and checked it out. After purchasing the board for around $50.00 Rich had his first surfboard.
After riding that board for a few months, Rich felt it was too long. So during the summer of that year, he cut the tail section of that board just in front of the fin and reshaped the tail. After doing that project, Rich got confident in doing repairs for other peoples surfboards. At the end of summer Rich started a repair business in his father’s garage. Later that year Rich went to the hospital for Thyroid problems and had to stay in the hospital for over a week to take care of the illness. When he came home someone had stolen his surfboard out of his yard. This was something totally unexpected and Rich was devastated.
Not to be without a surfboard, a fifteen year old Rich Harbour decided to make his own surfboard. He purchased a blank, resin and fiberglass and proceeded to build his first surfboard in his Father’s garage. He was more concerned on putting the glass on right than the shape. Rich wasn't using a sanding coat of resin on his second coat during his first glass job. Without a surfacing agent in the laminating resin the surface of the cloth would stay tacky and gummed up the sandpaper. Jack Haley came by after Rich was finished with the board. After looking over the surfboard he suggested using surfacing agent in his sanding coat to improve the glassing . On his next boards Rich started using the surfacing agent and it made a big difference.
After finishing his first board he took the board out at the pier in Seal Beach. It didn’t ride well and some of the kids made fun of the board and Rich. Determined to improve his skills Rich and his brother bought a couple of blanks to make themselves a couple of surfboards. One of the blanks was orange foam, the other white. Using a little imagination he cut wedge pieces from both boards. The piece started out as a three-inch wide section at the tail to 0 inches at the nose, then re-gluing the wedges to the other blank. A white blank with an orange wedge center section, a orange blank with a white wedge section.
After shaping and glassing them, those two boards turned out pretty good. There was still much to learn since there weren’t very many surf factories in the area back then to learn from. In Huntington Beach there was Gordon Duane of Gordie Surfboards, in Dana Point there was Hobie Alter of Hobie Surfboards and in San Clemente was Dale Velzy. To the north in the South Bay were Jacobs, Vardeman, Bing and Rick Surfboards to name an abbreviated few.
This was the beginning of Harbour Surfboards. It would be three years later that he would move into his first shop on Fifth St. and Marina Drive in Seal Beach. It was a small shop across the street from Bernstein Salad Dressing Factory. With a couple of boards on display and a small table to write down the orders Harbour Surfboard was in business. There was a shaping and glassing room in the shope. The shaping room double for a sanding room and the laminating room was also the glossing room.
The shop was too small for a business that was growing faster than expected. So after 9 months Rich relocated from there to Main St. in Seal Beach and has been there ever since. The small shop that Rich vacated would become the shop of Haley Surfboards. Jack Haley moved in a short time after Rich and started selling Haley Surfboards. Jack’s store manager at the time was Chuck Dent. Haley Surfboards would close shop. Jack would open a restaurant in Sunset Beach named Captain’s Jack and was successful. Chuck Dent would go on to open his shop in Huntington Beach.
Rich mention ”When I stepped into the surfboard manufacturing business. I couldn’t have script it any better, it was perfect timing”. After learning the technical part of board building from his repairs, shaping and glassing. Rich was confident in making a surfboard for anyone who wanted one and the demand was there. The early Harbour Surfboard were shaped and glassed by Rich Harbour. Surfing was taking off in 1962. There was surf music, surf magazines, surf movies, surf television shows, surf parties, fashion statements and a life style that evolved around the swells from the winds and storms of the Pacific Ocean.
Surf Clubs were popping up and down the coast. Surf trip were happening and that meant driving down Pacific Coast Highway. Those who lived in the South Bay traveled south to San Onofre and San Diego. Those living in San Diego and North County would go north to Malibu and Santa Barbara. Along the way from either direction was Seal Beach, the home of Harbour Surfboards.
Things got busy and Rich decided someone else would do the glassing while he shaped. Mel Ross filled the position with his fine craftsmanship. As mentioned earlier things were taking off in surfing. Orders were stacking up and to meet the demand, more shaping help was needed. Dean Elliot came on to shape for Rich first and was followed by a few other shapers. John Graye was one of those guy who walked the miles around the shaping racks. The summer months were busy and orders were continually stacking up.
Needing to take a break Rich went over to Hawaii in the winter of 63 / 64. Being the first time over to Hawaii Rich wasn’t sure what to take. Hearing stories of big wave Rich took over a gunny shape board. Well it wasn’t big most of his stay and but there were plenty of small to medium size waves, if only he had brought his hot dog board with his gun, next time he would.
While there he met Dick Brewer and they developed a cordial interest. Rich needed addition help and Dick wouldn’t mind since the wave were flat in the summer on the North Shore and this would keep him busy during the summer months. It was the summer of 65’ and 66’ that Dick shaped for Rich.
Besides surfing Rich started fishing. In the fall of 1967 Rich went fishing with Harold Walker and Mark Martinson. They didn’t catch anything all day. So on the way in they spotted a striped marlin. Harold maneuvered the boat and Rich let out the bait. Wham! The rod did a C and the fight was on. Doing a couple of pumps while reeling in, the first of many as the fight wore on.
The marlin would take off and Captain Walker was on it, watching to see if it was running out or in. The first hour went by and Rich’s shoulders, arms and back were starting to feel the toll. After the 2nd hour Rich was tired but was close to landing the marlin. The line on the reel was full on the spool and Mark took the leader and carefully grabbed the bill and gaffed the marlin, with a heave ho onto the stern of the boat. One 102 lbs. Stripe Marlin was landed.
Rich was in his mid-twentys when He, Robert August, Mark Martinson, and Dave Nelson were rooming together at Robert’s Parents house. Living in Blackie August’s house was an experience in the winter of 68 / 69. With a full moon, a very high tide and a big winter swell knocking on the door steps of the California coast line.
Things got wet and wild. Staying in the front bedroom just behind the living room Rich woke to the sounds of a loud noise. He got out of bed and looked out the window. Through the moisture covered pane Rich could see the foam of the waves splashing on the window. The tide was high that morning and the waves had made its way over the beach, smashing the front of all the homes along the beach.
There were no surf reports back then and basically local residents didn’t have a clue until it happened. The experience of the winter storm had disappeared and spring turned to summer. The longboard started to fade and the short board evolution began. Surfboards became shorter and shorter.
Meanwhile Rich met a lady named Helen while living there at Blackie August’s house. One thing led to another and they started dating. It was September when they met and she would become his wife the following August. Harbour Surfboards would continue to get more popular as the years went on at the same location he started in the 1960’s on Main St.