Mitch Abshere’s twin-indie enterprises, Captain Helm and Captain Fin, aim to create a new surf village atmospheric. Can you feel it?
Story by Jed Smith
Fourteen years ago, Mitch Abshere stood on a train platform in Orange County preparing to kill himself. Only 20 years old, he had been on the cusp of a pro longboarding career and seemed to have everything to live for.
But even at this tender age, Mitch had already developed a destructive appetite for booze and for the past six months, had been on one big bender.
“I fell in with the wrong people. I was pretty much a drunk and a punk. I think I had a lot of mental issues as well,” says Mitch. “I just couldn’t see a way out or a reason to live.”
As time counted down, it happened. He heard the voice. And not just any ol voice – the tender falsetto of Jesus Harvey Christ. “It was the voice of the lord saying, ‘It’s about me and you. Don’t worry about everyone and what they say or have done to you.’ I was tripping out. I stepped back, hopped on the next train and went home.”
When I call Mitch, he’s at his daughter’s soccer game in San Diego. Shrill squeals and the blows of a whistle fill the background. As the game ends, I’m kindly asked to wait as he calls out, “Who wants pizza?”
Mitch has never looked back since that day at the train station. And with a wife and two kids, and a place among the born-again god-botherers, he could be forgiven for having lost his edge. He hasn’t. If there is one thing that has endured since his days in the infamous 1990’s Socal alt. surf scene (other than his love of tattoos), it’s his passion for indie surf culture. Something he’s channeled into an influential and increasingly successful chain of concept surf stores, Captain Helm and a signature Fin and apparel company, Captain Fin.
“My whole thing is, I really wanna be a part of bringing the fun part of surfing back, having a good time and not taking ourselves so serious. It’s out of control. Are we changing the world? Are we bringing clean water to countries? No man, we’re making some shorts and t-shirts,” he says.
Captain Helm stores are more surf culture museum/high-end thrift store/party venues than mega retail outlet. His idea was to steal back some of surfing’s character by compiling only cool shit from across surfing’s diverse landscape that in some way told surfing’s story. But, more than that, Captain Helm was created to resurrect the idea of the surf shop as a place to hang out.
“That’s my thing, having a community of people to hang out and chill, nothing more than that,” he says.
While his fin company, Captain Fin, which also produces teos, hats, beanies, towels, movies, wetsuits, and most recently a pair of shoes with Andrew Doheny and Vans, was to provide a novel canvas for surfers to exhibit their art, it also offers some handy fin templates, something Mitch has been a student of for over two decades.
“Making fins is so hard and they do an amazing job. Really, really good,” says Al Knost, one of several high profile loggers who use the fins.
But, if Mitch wanted to bring about a surfing movement, he chose a strange time to do it. Just days after the almighty declared judgment day was upon the American economy, he launched both his projects.
“My friends thought I was an idiot but I’ve always been: What’s the right time to do anything?”
As the shwoosh of hair falling to the ground and sizzle of stomach ulcers forming could be heard around America, Mitch had an epiphany: these poor bastids need a pick-me-up. What better way to do it then with a good cup o’ Joe and some free pancakes? So began Captain Helm’s famous free breakfasts, which continued into free barbecues, free bands, free tattoo nights, skate jams, film nights, vintage van exhibitions, motorcycle swaps and thumper parties. A year later, he hadn’t sold shit but Captain Helm was now the hang spot he’d envisioned and in Southern California at least, a movement was growing.
“My whole thing is, I really wanna be a part of bringing the fun part of surfing back, having a good time and not taking ourselves so serious. It’s out of control. Are we changing the world? Are we bringing clean water to countries? No man, we’re making some shorts and t-shirts.” – Mitch Abshere.
Meanwhile, Mitch had gone about quietly plying his network in the fringe and mainstream surfing communities seeing who’d be interested in collaborating on art or design projects. Beginning with his old friend Joel Tudor, Mitch soon had contributions being drawn up by Al Knost, Dane Reynolds, Andrew Doheny, Kid Creature, Tyler Warren and Tanner Guduaskas (just to name a few). If there is one way to establish your brand, hitching it to some of the most credible and influential surfers in the world is a good place to start. Though Mitch denies it was ever that strategic.
“It starts off with friendship and from there I will see whether they’re in it for a pay cheque or because it’s the cool new thing to do. If they’re into it, like, love it, then we’ll do something together,” says Mitch.
But building a brand off art contributed by surfers has its own challenges. Mainly, they’re not artists. But that’s not what it’s about, says Mitch, arguing that surfer-artists should be judged less on their artistic merit (which, for the record, he holds is high regard) and more on what they’re doing for surfing.
“Say with Dane, I think he’s a great, funny guy doing cool stuff. And I think it opens doors and minds,” he says. These days Mitch increasingly finds himself having to turn down offers to collaborate, even when it means forgoing big dollars from cashed-up surf companies. So far, Vans is the only big company that has managed to tee up a collab with Captain Fin, while he’s also had to refuse having Captain Fin merch stocked in certain retail stores. “You have choices to go into the huge stores where your brand can be blown out. A lot of what I try to do is be in stores or be a part of stuff that I believe in or like,” he says. Recently, Mitch opened his third store, following the original in Oceanside, San Diego and the second in Costa Mesa. It’s in… Tokyo. C’mon, don’t act so surprised. “What’s so good about Japan and that’s so sad about America is they understand history and that there is a story behind these products and these things. That’s the part where I’m on there side. I want to somehow tell the story of all this stuff, so people can get behind it and not just onto move onto the next thing every 10 minutes,” he says. Mitch lets out a breath. “So many brands are just out there to make a buck. They have no story to tell.”