Surfers spend inordinate amounts of time idolizing the up and coming rider or mesmerized by the most progressive shaper. Yet they rarely give a second thought to the person they interact with most – the surf shop owner. And yet it’s the surf shop owner that fights the good fight to preserve our culture so we might experience it a stone’s throw away from our local break.
Whether it’s the sudden closure of a sole supplier, the invasion of mass produced imports, the encroachment of corporatized big box “surf shops,” or even a worldwide economic meltdown, these unsung heroes leave it all on the field so that we might still have that local shop experience. The kind of experience that’s on a first name basis; where surfboards exude history; and where local knowledge is held in high regard. The kind that is the last bastion of surf.
Few are more intimate with this concept than Robert Howson, owner and operator of Harbour Surfboards in Seal Beach, California – arguably one of the standout shops preserving the surf culture. Located right on the main street walking distance from the local break, the first thing you’ll notice is the quaint facade and the hand written surf report updated at each crack of dawn. A friendly greeting is always given by the handful of staff that have all been with Harbour for some time – and actually surf. You’ll immediately be drawn to the rank and file of the works of art that are each and every Harbour surfboard. What you won’t find is the latest fad in so called “beachwear” but rather practical clothes from reliable names that surfers, not the general public, appreciate. And although it may all seem natural, Robert and his staff work tirelessly to provide this sort of tactile experience.
Robert was born in London, England, in 1962. Son to a Pan Am Airlines pilot, his family would relocate often. He caught his first wave in Waikiki in 1974 and spent a few winters paying his dues on the North Shore. His family ultimately settled in the Bay Area where he attended junior high school. He began to put more time into his surfing upon entering Serra Catholic high school in 1976. Upon graduating, he attended Long Beach State and joined the university’s surf team eventually becoming the team captain and president. At this time, Robert had shaped his own boards until he was given the opportunity to ride a surfboard shaped by Rich Harbour. He grew to appreciate how an expertly crafted board could improve his surfing as quickly as Harbour grew to appreciate his talent. No sooner did he become a teamrider for Harbour in 1982.
Passing the Torch
While being a Harbour teamrider, Robert paid his way through college, ultimately graduating with a degree in Polymer Science, by working at Huntington Surf & Sport (HSS) under founder Aaron Pai. By this time, HSS was well on its way to becoming the Surf City mainstay that it is today. In contrast and on par for the era, the Harbour surf shop resembled any other beach hangout with locals congregating after sessions to share surf stories, beer bottles strewn behind the counter. Rich would periodically ask Robert how HSS had done during the week and be dumbfounded by its high turnover.
Wanting to focus on shaping, in 1987 Rich offered Robert the responsibility of assuming the front-end retail shop. He was quickly able to increase the volume of business. However, this also increased Rich’s workload who was still responsible for managing the money. Since this was taking more time away from shaping, Rich offered to sell the shop to Robert. A recent college graduate with little by way of savings, Rich even financed the sale himself. In March of 1993, Robert assumed ownership of Harbour surf shop.
On thlast-bastion-of-surf-5e heels of the resurgence of longboarding, Robert’s timing was impeccable. The preceding decade saw a major shift in surfing. Surfboards became increasingly smaller allowing for more aggressive maneuverability. Robert recalls selling boards no longer than 7 feet during this time. Grommets abound wanting nothing more than to learn the latest radical maneuver and wanting ever smaller and thinner boards.
By the late ‘80s and through the early ‘90s, an increasing number of surfers began surfing longboards. Many of them were longboarding during the ‘60s, had gone on to professional careers, and wanted to get back into surfing the way they knew how. However, many were also the agro sort from the ‘80s having matured and wanting to try different styles of surfboards.
With the invaluable experience shaping performance surfboards in the preceding decade, Harbour was able to transfer that knowledge into their surfboards creating surfing vehicles that satisfied a broad spectrum of generations.
On December 5, 2005, the surfing world was rocked to its core by a now ominous seven page fax from Clark Foam. Without warning, the veritable sole supplier of foam blanks had closed its doors. Robert recalls surfboards immediately being marked up by as much as $200 in anticipation of an impending drought. Despite having a reserve of blanks on hand, Harbour along with other shapers scrambled to buy whatever blanks Clark had on hand. Leveraging a long-standing relationship, Harbour was able to procure a sizeable quantity of higher quality blanks.
Over time, the industry inevitably recovered. Moreover, the vacuum left by Clark Foam’s closure allowed alternative technologies to flourish among them surfboards shaped from expanded polystyrene and epoxy resin resulting in a lighter, more buoyant and stronger surfboard. Harbour embraced and implemented these new technologies to great effect. Most impressive, they also refunded the markup charged to customers during the Clark Foam crisis.
With these new raw material alternatives also came technological advances in surfboard shaping itself. Increasingly, the use of computer numerical control or “CNC” was employed to assist in the shaping process. Machine tools assisted by computers were now able to cut foam blanks within a margin of error never before witnessed in surfing’s history. However, surfers were up in arms pointing to CNC as anathema to the very soul of the surfing ethos.
Robert eloquently explains how this reaction is misplaced. He points to the surfer we can all relate to that wants to replicate his or her magic board. They plead with the shaper to dig up the original template used to create the board. Although the shaper might still have the template, there are nuances measured in eighths and sixteenths of an inch that allow a surfboard to perform the way it does. Nuances which are virtually impossible to replicate precisely using bare human faculties. Additionally, a surfboard as a tool has no moving parts. As such, all refinements required to achieve the same “magic” must be done during construction. This renders precise replication a near impossibility without the aid of CNC.
The fact is, the majority of surfboards are now shaped with the aid of machinery. Even the raw material blanks are brought closer to the finished shape using CNC – the same blanks used to make custom surfboards. And while shapers like Rich Harbour continue to offer boards shaped entirely by hand, such as the five 50th anniversary Harbour longboards, they undoubtedly command a premium.
Yet despite the cost effectiveness and efficiency provided by technological advances in surfboard manufacturing, local surf shops like Harbour would soon find themselves caught inside during a rogue set the likes of which they had never seen.
The Great Recession
Tied to the mast, Robert had to navigate Harbour through the longest and deepest economic slump the U.S. had seen since WWII. Beginning in December 2007, the bursting of the real estate bubble and collapse of once impervious financial institutions rocked every corner of the economy; the surfing industry being no exception. During this time, the crevices of the surf shop business model otherwise glossed over in the heydays would now become disturbingly apparent.
For starters, the cost of the beachfront real estate surf shops like Harbour have long occupied would nip at its heels. With consumer spending back to 1998 levels, Robert still bore occupancy costs and overhead of 2010 levels. When many of the local surf shops opened its doors, local land values were nowhere near where they are today with current market prices enough to stifle even high-end retailers.
Although the use of CNC can reduce the cost of surfboard production with the appropriate volume, oversees manufacturers took the trend to its extreme by mass producing so called “pop-outs” and flooding the domestic market with inferior product at drastically lower prices. To the untrained surfer, there was little difference between the craftsmanship and experience behind a Harbour surfboard and the generic pop-out sold at mass merchants. Ironically, it’s the nuances inherent in locally made surfboards that allow both the beginner surfer to advance quicker and the advanced surfer to fully realize his potential. Ultimately, profit margins on surfboards have become the least profitable of all the goods sold at a surf shop and remains as such today.
On the other hand, higher margin apparel were being pulled back by manufacturers opting to use their own retail channels effectively cutting out the middle-man. Additionally, apparel only “surf” stores would increasingly attract lifestyle customers that were more interested in the appearance of surfing than surfing itself.
Together, factors such as these drove a number of local surf shops to extinction and many larger multi-store businesses to pare down their locations.
Keeping the Faith
Through it all, Harbour remained. Robert credits the perseverance to the surf culture and tactile experience that Harbour surf shop has always been about. Through thick and thin, surfers have always come back to Harbour rest assured that what they’d get is what they’d always expected from their local surf shop.
And although Robert remains traditional about the surf shop experience, he is also optimistic about changes he sees in the surf culture. In particular, what he refers to as the “crossover” surfer. No longer is there a defined boundary between “shortboarders” and “longboarders.” Rather, surfers have become more accepting of different shapes which are best suited to given conditions. Ultimately, surfers are realizing that surfing is about having fun.