An Interview With The “Stab In The Dark” Winning Shaper
Warning: Spoiler (not film) inside.
By now you’ve heard the news (and if you haven’t now you have). Channel Islands are your Stab In The Dark winners, for our fourth edition of the series, starring Mick Fanning.
After sitting out the last two years due to contractual conflicts with Stab’s Mystery Surfers (Dane and Jordy both were on Channel Islands, hence their noninvolvement, or, in Dane’s case, novel contribution), this year CI’s murdered out steeds were some of the first to arrive at our Los Angeles office, as we prepared for our typhoon chase through Japan with Mick.
Holding the crispy-outlined blades Britt Merrick had entered into this year’s epoxy-focused edition of Stab In The Dark, they positively radiated energy, spring, life. Almost purple in hue, and with a raw, matte sanded finish adding to their fierceness. We knew straight away they’d sing under Mick’s feet.
This year marks Channel Islands’ 50th anniversary. The iconic Santa Barbara board builders, and more specifically the Merrick Family that have built it from its literal cottage beginnings, have been responsible for more world title surfboards than any other shaper or board builder in the world. Five decades of dominance, five decades of pride—in craft, in creativity, in culture, in community, and in the never ending pursuit of better surfboards.
This year’s Stab In The Dark winner features three generations of Merrick DNA—Al’s rocker, Britt’s shape, and CI grandson Isaiah’s handiwork with their thoroughly impressive Spine-Tek construction.
Stab sat down with Britt a few days before he flew to Australia to claim his victory for Channel Islands, though he was unaware at the time of their win. We started at the beginning.
Britt Merrick may just be the most successful shaper over 6’5.
Stab: So I had this conversation with Isaiah earlier, where he was talking about hanging out in the shop with Al and you and your mom, and just sort of coming into an understanding of what you guys did at Channel Islands. Sort of the magnitude of it. Would you mind telling that story again, just about your experience growing up and becoming aware of what Channel Islands was?
Britt: My parents started Channel Islands in 1969. And I was born in 1972, so my whole life has been Channel Islands. I don’t have anything that predates it.
When I was a kid, my parents were working so hard to build the business. They started with nothing. My parents borrowed $200 to buy a bolt of cloth and a barrel of resin and that’s how they started. They were super poor, so that was big deal to them. It’s still the only loan they ever took out for Channel Islands Surfboards.
Your mom’s contribution to building Channel Islands can’t be overstated. What are some of your memories of her during those early days?
When I was growing up, my mom was one of the only ladies in town who waited in line—none of my other friends had a mom that waited in line—for government cheese and milk. We lived in a house that had holes in the walls. My mom would hang pictures over the holes. When it was windy, she’d have to take them down so they didn’t blow off and break. There was grass coming up through the floorboards.
My mom had a second job, working at Sambo’s as a waitress, so there was nowhere for me to be other than at Channel Islands. I was either in the front retail space with mom, where she was hand making clothing for people. She made Hawaiian shirts, and dresses and bikinis and shorts.
Or, I was in the back room with my dad when he was making the boards, one at a time, front to back, start to finish.
What did that place feel like to you then, that dark-walled room with bright white lights and power tools running?
My earliest memories are being in the foam dust. Feeling the foam dust between my toes, predates the feeling of sand between my toes. I have earlier memories of that.
I was just back in the glass shop just now and one of the glassers and I were talking about something, and he opened up the door to let some air into the room because of the smell. I was like, “Nah, dude that’s my smell. Resin, that’s my childhood.” Reminds me of growing up and being young with my parents. That’s all I’ve ever known really.
Isaiah said the same thing. He’s like all I can remember is just thinking ‘What is that smell? And now that’s the only smell I know.’ Watching him put together those boards and talking to him about the lineage and legacy… I know it’s not the most obvious thing to a kid when you’re growing up, deciding you’re going to take after your dad, or take up the family business. But what was that process like for you, sort of coming into the business, deciding you were interested in making surfboards?
Well, I was always involved in the business for as long as I can remember. I was emptying trash and sweeping out shaping rooms and just working my way up. Doing everything. The first profile milling machine we had for rockers, I ran that way before shaping machines. Did work in the retail store, marketing, everything you could do.
But something that I always stopped and took time to do was to watch my dad shape. He had this doorway in his shaping room on Helena St., right on the harbor in Santa Barbara. And the doorway is still there. They’re about to tear down the building, but the doorway is still there, and I want to get it, because I spent thousands of hours just standing there, watching my dad shape when I was growing up.
There came a time in my teenage years when I was like, “I want to do that. I want to put my hand to that. I want to experience that.”
And it was really cool. I had spent so much time watching my dad, that when I picked up the planer it felt natural. When I was holding my sureform, I knew the movements. It just came into me, from watching my dad for all those hours. That’s when I shaped my first board, in my late teenage years.
But I always felt like, “Gosh, am I’m I really going to do this?” I’ve had a lot of diversions along the way, different work that I’ve done… But man, surfboards are, like, in my blood. When I go to sleep at night, I dream about rockers. I honestly do. Last night, literally, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I was thinking about this shortboard that I’m working on. I woke up and I’m like “Oh, yeah. That’s sick. I like that curve there, between the fins.” It’s in my blood. And honestly I’ve tried to escape it and I can’t. And I’m stoked.
Never gets stale?
No. No dude. No, I love it.
There was something I was going to ask you, right in the middle of that. Oh! It’s almost like you studied shaping, more than you practiced it at first. You had a foundation, studying the practice of it, instead of actually just learning by hand and by trial and error. You watched someone do it right a million times. When you picked it up you knew the process, you knew the passes.
I know he’s fairly critical, and he expects greatness from you, but was your pops supportive of you taking up a planer?
No, yeah. Yes, no. Man my dad is, I mean, he’s…I don’t even know how to begin to answer this.
When I first started to shape, all he told me about the first board that I shaped, was “Okay, it’s good enough to glass.” And that’s all he said. And I remember I went home and my mom said, “I heard you shaped a board today that’s gonna get glassed.”
I was like, “Who told you”? She said, “Dad did.” “What’d he say?” And she’s like, “He said it was good enough to get glassed.”
I said, “That’s it?!”
My dads’ a man of few words, especially when it comes to surfboards. For years, we shaped in rooms right next to each other, and I’d get stuck on something or be struggling with something and I’d come in and say, “Dad can you look at this and help me?”
He’d always do the same thing. He’d walk by the board and then he’d pick it up at the nose and look down at the bottom and he’d make this face [makes face of vague disapproval], and then he’d grab the sanding block and fix it. Just, ugh.
It was really good because it pushed me, and it still pushes me. My dad said about his own shaping, he told me “Son, I’m never satisfied. I’m never satisfied”. And that was kind of ingrained in me. I think he reinforced that it was never quite good enough, so I was always trying harder.
The 29 by Channel Islands.
Your dad always seemed to take his surfer’s performances really personally, but not looking for validation, but hoping for honest, critical, detailed feedback.
My dad loved the surfers for whom the boards were never quite good enough. Those were his favorite guys to shape for, because it pushed him. So there’s something about that part of building boards, the pursuit of it. I love that.
So the board you submitted to Stab In the Dark this year, it’s got some serious Merrick DNA in it. Care to elaborate?
So, the board we made for Stab In The Dark is from a rocker that my dad had been working on for years, that kind of keeps evolving. We have a few of those rockers that my dad made that were just epic, that we keep tweaking and changing here and there a little bit. And this was one of them.
The story behind it is, it’s the rocker that became the Fever.
Patty Gudang was looking for really good all around board for the tour. He didn’t want to have a different board for every wave, for every stop; he wanted something that worked all the way around the world.
He and our shaper Mike Andrews worked on that model, and came up with The Fever which is just an unreal board. And so we made that for this project and I think it worked well.
This year featuring epoxies and proprietary construction [all boards certified Eco-Boards], you guys submitted your newest composite tech, which you guys are building here in Santa Barbara. Give us the deets.
We made it in this Spine-Tek technology, that’s really cool. Obviously, it’s EPS foam and epoxy resin. It’s Entropy Bio-resin. It’s 1.9-pound EPS foam blank.
But the spine is the magic thing about it. Everyone’s always trying to harness like the right flex for EPS. There’s something about EPS that we love, and there’s a lot about EPS that we don’t love. And a lot of it has to do with the flex. And that feel, you know. Epoxies often have kind of that rigid, high-frequency vibration to it that doesn’t translate well to a lot of surfing.
With the spine, we’ve been able to tame those negative sort of flex characteristics and bring out the best characteristics.
And what the spine does is allow the board to load up and store all that kinetic energy and then really release. It snaps right back to that original shape. Where the rocker is like projecting down the line.
It seems like with the Spine-Tek we’ve finally been able to harness the best things about the flex of the EPS and shed off some of the liabilities of it.
How long have you been doing the technology in the factory here?
It was developed in conjunction with Shapers Australia. So they developed it in Australia, came to us. We started working with it early on, and we’ve been doing it here for a couple years now, building and putting the boards together in the factory. It’s all done right here in house.
And you’ve got the third generation of Merricks on the factory line making them?
You know, my son, Isaiah was showing some interest in surfboards the last few years. And so I started him the way I thought it should be started. I started him with a planer, and a raw blank, in the shaping room. I gave him a few pointers and told him to kind of just go for it.
He really had talent for doing that. My dad looked at the board that he did and said: “This is the best first effort I’ve ever seen.” Which, like, if my dad would say that about one of my boards. I would just melt. Like, “Oh, my gosh.” He doesn’t B.S. If he says that, he’s serious.
So Isaiah shaped a little bit, we shaped in the room a bit, and my dad and him got in the room together. My dad taught him some stuff, which was really cool. But then I wanted him to learn about other aspects. We got him in the glass shop. Learning all the aspects of lamination, hot coats, and sanding, all that stuff. He took an interest in airbrushing, so he’s been airbrushing.
And we saw a place for him participating in the tech, the Spine-Tek. And installing that in the blanks. He’s doing that and it’s cool because he’s getting a good, well-rounded experience with board building.
So this is the 50th Anniversary of Channel Islands? You’re one of the few legacy brands that are still run by family, that are active… But Channel Islands is a heritage brand, but very much a performance oriented, forward-looking one.
Yeah, I mean it’s amazing that it’s been 50 years for Channel Islands. It’s just hard to even wrap your mind around. And when I think about the humble beginnings of it, how my parents started, how hard they’ve worked through the years… The hard work parts that are evident, but also the serendipitous parts of it you know what I mean? Shaun Thomson and my dad connecting. Tom Curren being around. And then Kelly Slater. And all the incredible surfers he worked with through the years. There’s a certain degree of serendipity or fate or like luck. Whatever you want to call it.
We’ve just been super blessed to work with incredible surfers. So to be able to do that now for 50 years and then to get to be part of that, what my parents started, that legacy… and passing on the love of the craft.
We just love surfboards. A good surfboard just makes you happy. Right? That’s an incredible thing. And to get to be a part of that, and participate in that and think about it? Like people have life-changing experiences on surfboards.
Everybody that I can remember, the first time they stood up, or the first time they trimmed, or the first big barrel or whatever it was—that was a life-changing moment for them. And that happened on something that we make. It’s so cool to be a part of that joy, that happiness that they experience.
Yeah, it’s got to be a special feeling to know that the product that you’re making, people are lusting over, just looking forward to each board—the kids that when parents get them a new board it’s the biggest thing that’s happened to them in their lives. I know I had that same experience at, like, 14 getting my first Merrick.
I feel like it’s easy to lose track of that if you’re thinking about the money, or the industry, or whatever. You know?
Worrying about pros liking your boards or whatever.
You can lose sight of the fact that the average consumer is getting their favorite thing they own from you guys.
Yeah, absolutely. In that way it’s meaningful, like if a good surfboard makes you happy, if more people were happy, that’s actually a world-changing thing. A good surfboard could change the world.
If I want to make money, there’s other stuff I can do. And there are other ways I can fill my time. But I love this thing. It’s a really beautiful thing and my dad and mom really instilled that in me, that this is a passion thing. They love surfboards, and surfing, and surfers.
“When I first started to shape, all he told me about the first board that I shaped, was “Okay, it’s good enough to glass.” And that’s all he said. And I remember I went home and my mom said, “I heard you shaped a board today that’s’ gonna get glassed.”
If you’re in San Francisco join us for the US Premiere, Feb 7th at Avenues San Fransisco (3606 Taraval, San Francisco, CA 94116). Doors open at 6pm.
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