This story begins ten years ago in the year 2000. My transition from Northern California to San Diego, specifically Pacific Beach, specifically one block up from a great surfing beach, was complete. The beach is called Tourmaline Surfing Park, and it was the first officially designated surf park in California. No swimmers or bodysurfers, and no Boogie boarders, either.
The important part of this story is that I surf at Tourmaline, and there is a monument at the park to the great local surfers from Pacific Beach, and on the top of the monument is a photograph of the most famous local surfer who made the big time, which of course is Skip Frye. And this is a Skip Frye story.
Back in early 2000, when I was just learning how to surf, Skip had a surf shop called Harry’s right on the beach, just down from Crystal Pier. That building was soon to be torn down and replaced by the Tower23 Hotel, which was a sad thing for Pacific Beach surfers. (However, the hotel has a great bar, which Skip’s shop did not.) The point of this is that back in 2000, I had a chance to get Skip to make me a custom surfboard with my name on it. I went into his shop, and he showed me a board or two. But I didn’t know who this guy was, selling boards in a shop about to be torn down. So I bought a board from a real surf shop, South Coast Surf Shop, which was across the street. I bought a very good and well-known surfboard, a machine-shaped CR3, number 104285. The total cost, $550 out the door.
Well, since then, I have regretted that decision. Once Harry’s was gone, easy access to Skip, a very private guy, was limited. I’d see him down at the Tourmaline parking lot or out on the waves. Maybe once every couple of years I’d say, “Hey, Skip, any chance you’d make me a board?” with a slightly plaintive voice. “No, I’m not making boards much these days” was the usual reply.
One of the most important things about surfing is looking cool. By now, you’ve probably picked up that surfing on a Skip Frye–shaped surfboard at Tourmaline is pretty cool. It doesn’t make you a good surfer, but the locals know that at least you’re on a great board, and a valuable one at that. You probably won’t drop in on someone taking off on a wave and risk damage to the board. That makes you safe to surf around.
Since I did not have a surfboard made for me by Skip Frye but I sure did want to look cool surfing at Tourmaline, and since, if truth be told, I’m not the best surfer, I just had to buy myself a used Skip Frye surfboard. That wasn’t easy in itself. Let’s just say it takes a lot of time on craigslist and a lot of cash, and then, sure enough, you’ll have an old, beat-up Skippy to surf on. I finally persuaded a local to part with one of his for only $800. After Roper’s (the local surfboard repair shop) fixed it up for $200, it surfed quite well. I’d been using that 9ʹ6˝ Eagle model for five years as my main board. While it was great fun, the problem was that it was a bit too short for my favorite surf break, which is Old Man’s Reef out at Tourmaline. To get into those big waves early, you need a very long board. Over the years, I decided a 10ʹ2˝ Eagle would be what I wanted, if Skip ever offered to make me a board.
Because, after all, that is the secret. I asked everyone with a Skippy how they got him to make it, and the answer was always cryptic. That’s because you have to get Skip to want to make you a board. And how do you go about doing that?
Rumor has it that if you have an old Skippy and mention to Skip that you are surfing on one of his boards, he will say, “Okay, but is your name on it?” When Skip makes you a board, he expects you to keep it, surf it, and not sell it or put it on the wall. This is not about money, it’s about the Aloha Spirit. A Skip Frye board, when he makes it for you, is a valuable object. If you were to sell a brand-new Skippy that had never been in the water, you could get three or four (or more) times what you paid for it. But if Skip ever found out, you could forget him ever shaping you another.
As I mentioned, I had a chance ten years ago and I blew it. About five years ago, for my 50th birthday, I had another local shaper make me a board. It was a beautiful board, burnt orange with black and brown squiggles. At 10ʹ4˝, it certainly was long enough to get into a wave. I told the shaper to put on all the bells and whistles, and he did.
Unfortunately, that made the board way too heavy for a little guy like me. It was so heavy I could barely carry it up and down the steep hill to the beach (I walk there from my house), and when I was riding it, it was so big it didn’t even know I was there. I sold it a year later. It’s still floating around on craigslist. For someone (else), it’s the perfect board. Someone about 6ʹ4˝, and 290 pounds.
The big push started last year. My consulting business was slow, which allowed me to surf between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., which is when Skip is usually out there. When surfing with Skip, always show respect. What that means is, you don’t drop in on Skip or paddle over to where he is, and you don’t make eye contact. Actually, that last one isn’t true. Skip is a very nice person and is always making eye contact and smiling.
Occasionally, when we “happened” to be in the same vicinity, I’d ask him if he was shaping boards. Of course, he answered that he wasn’t taking any orders. I’d only ask him that about once every six months or so. But I wanted him to know my face and to know I wanted him to shape me a board.
Over the years, whenever a Skippy was available at a reasonable price, I’d pick it up. I had a total of six boards, but three were old ones, collector’s items. One was from the late ’60s, one was from the ’70s, and one was from the early ’80s. To me, they are true works of art, and I’m keeping them forever.
A short while back, Skip happened to be at my neighbor’s house, just down the alley. I asked him if he would authenticate my old boards, and he said he would be interested in seeing them. He clearly remembered shaping them and told me the story on each. I’ve got some great pictures of that day.
As I previously mentioned, business was slow, so I was surfing a lot out there with Skip and the local 9:30 a.m. gang. Ten years in P.B. has been long enough to make friends with many of the regulars. While we’re in the lineup, a common point of conversation is Skip Frye surfboards. Most of the guys (everyone is in his 50s or older) have known Skip for 10 to 40 years, and many grew up right here in Pacific Beach. They all are riding on Skippys that have their name inscribed under the fiberglass.
By now, when Skip saw me, I could see he was starting to recognize me. We’d say “Hi” when paddling by. I’d clearly pull back from dropping in a wave if he was even in the vicinity. He might not know my name, but he knew who I was, a regular Tourmaline surfer and one who wanted a Skip Frye board with my name on it.
Then one day last April, I cornered him in the parking lot, before he could get away. Okay, I wanted to know, exactly how do you get on this magic waiting list? Do you want fistfuls of dollars, what? I’ll wait two years, but just please put me on the list. It’s the only thing I want for my birthday. Please put me on the list!
Well, he said, there isn’t really a list. He said he’d had a window in January — I should have asked him then. But he wasn’t taking orders now. That was a blow. If only I’d known in January that he had an open window!
The next day we were both out surfing at Old Man’s Reef, just Skip and I. We were talking about how you know when a good set is coming, what signs to look for. Things like watching the great surfers turn and paddle out real fast — they always know something. Or watching a sailboat in the distance: when it disappears and reappears, something big is coming. You can listen, and when you hear yelling out at P.B. Point, you should paddle out. That’s because usually the set hits the point first, then Old Man’s. I mentioned my favorite was to watch the pelicans fly surf along the waves. On a small day, they always pick the biggest wave to push them along in flight.
Skip looked at me quite directly, as though he were thinking about something else. He paddled over to me. He said three big surfboard blanks had just been delivered to his shop, now in an industrial complex. He knew I’d been jonesing for a board, and he was going to shape me one. He’d decided to make me a ten-foot Eagle.
Just like that.
Okay, I said, what are the mechanics of this? How does it work? (As we were way out in the ocean, I wanted to lock this up!) Do I give him money now, or what? He said he just needed my phone number, and then he’d call me when he’d finished shaping it.
Being afraid I’d screw it up, maybe crash into him on a wave, I took the next set in. I ran back up the hill to my home, got a business card, and wrote my name and phone number on it in big letters. Then I ran back down the hill to the Tourmaline parking lot, just as Skip was getting into his SUV. “Here, wait! Here’s my card!” Okay, he had it. He’d call me when it was shaped. That could be up to two years, remember.
This was on a Sunday. I’m not a religious man, but I did pray for rain, and it did rain on Monday. When it rains, the water gets polluted, so we stay out for a few days. On Monday afternoon, Skip called me. The board was shaped. I need to come on down to the shop and talk about colors and glassing. This was less than 24 hours since I’d talked with him in the parking lot. Since he had the blank in his shop, he’d decided to knock it out. When people ask me how long I was on “the list,” they don’t believe me when I say about one day.
Tuesday I was in his shop. His shaping shop is great. There are photos of famous surfers all over the walls and Skip Frye surfboards galore. And my new board was sitting on the shaping rack, looking very good. It’s a triple stringer, double concave bottom, his classic Eagle shape. And best of all, there on the top, written onto the middle stringer, was my name, “Russell.”
The Holy Grail has been found, and that’s pretty much the story. The glassing took another week. The board is tangerine orange, and it’s spectacularly beautiful to me, and apparently to other people too. I surf it every day. It is now, of course, my number-one board. It’s perfect for our Old Man’s Reef wave and is quite versatile. You can surf it on small days because it’s big enough to catch small waves. And it is fast. You can surf it in the big stuff too. I’ve seen Skip surfing 10-foot waves on his big 11-foot Eagle. It’s still summer right now, but that big surf is just around the corner, and boy, am I ever ready for it!