Originally published 3/27/2012
You aren’t likely to find a more polarized environment than the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Meteorologically, economically, socially — this place plays with residents’ emotions like ping-pong. Summer to winter, ballin’ to broke, smothered to lonely, stoked off your ass to bored outta your mind — how deep do you wanna get in the hallowed hollows of this beachbreak Mecca?
Similarly polarizing Dare County in terms of heritage/business, the “Wave Magnet,” (aka Cape Hatteras Lighthouse) to the south has spawned every ASP World Tour surfer the coast has ever produced via the middle-aged ESA Eastern Surfing Championships; while, to the north, U.S. Fiberglass (aka Wave Riding Vehicles) holds court as the largest surfboard manufacturer on the Eastern Seaboard. In between those distinguished reputations exists a contrarily backwoods, tight-nit, entrenched-like-a-Stumpy Point-tick boardbuilding culture that survives financial flux and fashion trends as easily as it does Cat.3 hurricanes and mosquito plagues.
These craftsmen came here for the solitude. The serenity. But mostly, they came for the surf. Many moved away. Some died. Only a few remain — for the very same reasons they stranded themselves here in the first place — like so many shipwrecks rotting into the shifty sands of the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
Most sources verify that Don Bennett was, in fact, the first to build a surfboard on the Outer Banks. Born in New Bern, Don learned to surf during summertime camping trips here with his family, buying his first pop-out in 1963. A year later, he was building his own boards and renting them out of a Kitty Hawk beach box. Over the next couple years, the “Surfboards by Don” sign drew attention and he began taking custom orders. By 1968, Don moved to nearby Virginia Beach to grow his business before a factory fire forced him to Nags Head. Frequent trips to California provided work, inspiration and perspective, but his mind drifted even further west. In 1976, the 31-year-old moved to the North Shore, where he spent the next 17 years shaping and working for labels like Lightning Bolt and Brewer. Still, the wanderlust didn’t subside and in 1993, he fell in love with Indonesia, bought the 46-foot Moggy, and now spends his days chartering trips between Bali and Lombok. But not before scattering the seedlings for one of the most eccentrically soulful boardbuilding cultures in the country.
One of the first sprouts, Floridian Jim “Biggie” Vaughn, started visiting the Banks as a college student in 1967 (“when Moby Dick was a minnow and Blackbeard was a grom,” he giggles). He relocated permanently in 1975 to open Whalebone Surf Shop with his wife April — their skull-and-cross-boards flag decidedly emblematic of the spooky-core Banks experience. “I was the new kid in town and the only real competition,” remembers Biggie. “Don could’ve made life miserable for me because he was an outstanding shaper. Instead, he took the path of pure aloha. He would pick me up and drive me down south, teaching me the nuances of Frisco, the Lighthouse and Rodanthe.”
Biggie wasn’t the only Gator Stater to fall under the island’s spell. By 1968, South Florida’s Ted James, Sr. had already begun production of Fox Surfboards before taking on Florida partner John Parton and moving his end to Hatteras Island in 1976. Legend has it Ted named the company after a fox he found abandoned in Mexico, which he smuggled home and nursed to health, often taking it surfing with him. Ted continued to expand and operate the company until his untimely passing in 2004. By that time, he had long since pioneered the local sailboarding niche and Fox Watersports soon became the go-to shop for windsurfing (and later kiteboarding), which started booming here in the 1980s. Still family-owned and operated while keeping its surf roots intact, Fox mows out custom boards for a tight, mostly local clientele to this day.
Meanwhile up north in Nags Head, the acid-smear “Surfboards by Don” sign was gathering dust when a Virginia Beach surfer, inquisitive tinkerer and Wave Riding Vehicles shaper named Mickey McCarthy began doing some soul-searching with his wife Betsy. They found all the soul they needed here, plus a legitimate saltwater canvas on which to take advantage of the most exciting and rapidly changing time in surfboard design history.
“The Outer Banks looked like a mistake on the map,” recalls Mickey, “the Atlantic Ocean with this little thread running through it. It was like the outback, real isolated with almost no surfing population. By the late ’60s guys were coming through. There was Governor Surf Shop and Bob Holland’s store [and, briefly, John Conner’s mobile home-turned-shop in Hatteras]. Although we didn’t have a heritage like Florida, there was an energy here that the Floridians needed. They found their niche in these waves and decided to camp here for life.”
Cocoa Beach’s Scott Busbey was among the first to set up camp — albeit down south in Buxton, a mile from the Lighthouse, and it was less of a camp and more of a commune — a cosmic waterfall where far-out experimentation exploded like Atlantic rage on a barnacle-encrusted groin. “Scott, Pete Dooley, Greg Loehr and Rich Price had this psychedelic surfer/artist community down in Hatteras Village,” remembers Mickey, “making Natural Arts out of an old ice plant and taking boardbuilding to an art we’d never seen before. We were used to these clunky boat rails, but the Floridians’ boards were real technical, detailed and beautiful. Scott was a master at laminating colors and tints and perfecting these fine pin lines, long before airbrushes made everything easy.”
But it wasn’t long before Busbey was shaping himself. In 1978, a year after giving Natural Art a permanent home in Buxton, he christened In The Eye Surfboards. Profoundly influenced by Busbey and friends, Mickey sought to do the same in town with partner Mike Hamil — a VB-by way of-Florida-by way of-England innovator who was known for his Catri-inspired stinger pintails. In 1980, the duo bought Don’s old shop, ideally located right across the street from the iconic Nags Head Pier, re-naming it New Sun Surfboards. “We didn’t have a lot of talent to pull from,” says Mickey. “So we had to train our own. I had three apprentices, and of course, I had Murray Ross, a Northern Virginia schoolteacher who’d come down on the weekends. He had a lot of contacts up north to sell boards to, and he was the one who taught things he learned from Southern California shapers back in the ’70s to Ted Kearns, Scott Perry, Steve Head, Rascoe Hunt and Mike Rowe. But over the years, everyone went his own way.”
New Sun polisher/sander Mike Beveridge was one of the earliest to bounce. Before finding his ultimate business base in Salvo, Mike switched sides to the Virginia Beach-born Wave Riding Vehicles brand from which Mickey came, which was gathering serious steam in northeastern North Carolina, thanks to Bill Frierson. The California Navy brat moved to Virginia Beach in 1965, becoming a Hobie Surfboards teamrider through Pete Smith and Bob Holland before Bob White handed him a planer in 1967. Frierson had actually opened a small shop in Kitty Hawk in 1970, but North Shore pilgrimages and winters spent in Florida building Sunshine Surfboards took precedence. Frierson soon bought WRV with Les Shaw before selling his half in 1997 to start Frierson Designs. But he had long since laid the blueprints for what is now the largest surfboard manufacturer on the East Coast, with a distinctly Tarheel appeal.
But a little variety never hurt. And while Frierson and company schemed, Biggie tapped his wealth of contacts to acquire better equipment to properly complement the surf here. “I can remember going to the early Kissimmee tradeshows,” remembers Biggie, “trying to transmit to shapers like Rusty, Pang, Minami and other Californian and Hawaiian companies that it wasn’t flat-water surfing here; it was hollow, powerful, and we needed more rocker and gunnier equipment. They’d pat me on the head and pander to me, ‘Oh yeah, brah, we know you got waves.’ Then Mickey shot some photos from Kitty Hawk Pier in 1982 and Surfer Magazine had a virtual feast on them. Then it was, ‘Ho, where dis, brah? No, you need waaaay different boards!’ Mickey’s photography brought light to what we had here.”
While Biggie stockpiled big brands, Frierson stockpiled big talent for his groundbreaking new factory/warehouse project on the Currituck County mainland, just over the Wright Memorial Bridge from the Outer Banks. “When WRV opened their factory [in 1987] and became a Clark Foam distributor, it was a huge relief,” says Mickey. “We no longer had to drive to Virginia or California to get blanks. Tri-fins were in the early stages and everyone was experimenting and trying to get their boards in tune with the area. It was a great era. There were maybe 20 shapers in the general area: Steve Hess from Secret Spot, Mike “Fatboy” Price, Wayne Whitley, Sr… And Jim had people he was loyal to over the years like Ken Bradshaw and Gary Linden come do promotions, surf, shape and talk design.”
By the Summer of 1986, Murray Ross had birthed his own protege in sander/polisher Ted Kearns, and two years later moved the both of them into Mickey’s New Sun operation as a silent partner, while born-and-bred local and original New Sun teamrider Rascoe Hunt became the laminator. By 1990, building inspectors caught a whiff of what they were doing on the beach road and cracked down, forcing them into a light industrial zone at Ocean Commerce Park. “Damn if New Sun wasn’t the first business in this complex,” laughs Rascoe. “Just about every surfer we knew helped gut and build this place: framing, sheetrock, trim, painting… God knows how many free surfboards Mickey had to make for dudes that first year.”
Throughout this time, a hot surfer/shaper named Lynn Shell had been splitting gigs between In The Eye and WRV before earning his sleek “Shell Shapes” label on the hugely reputable T&C, and later HIC Surfboards, which required a consistent, proximate glassing base. By 1992, with Mickey shaping less and shooting more, Ted and Rascoe subbed out New Sun’s glassing half, scraping together 30 grand to form Gale Force Glassing, a contract company that soon morphed into a full-fledged surfboard label with a growing demand for not only Shell Shapes but Ted’s longboards, to accommodate the global resurgence of that style in the early ’90s. Shortly thereafter, however, Rascoe bought out Ted, who became a sheriff’s deputy for the next few years while still getting dusty in the shaping room. Eventually, Ted resigned from the force and returned to work for GFG in 1998. After all, business was booming.
South Bay, CA, transplant Robert “Redman” Manville was a big part of this boom. An immensely respected production shaper for top craftsmen like Weber, Takayama and Stewart, Redman’s remarkable work ethic was matched only by his knowledge and contacts, not to mention his stacks of modern templates which past and present WRV shapers still use to this day. With Redman helming a dream team that included shaping partner-in-crime Jim Fuller, glosser-turned-factory manager Patrick Herle and esteemed laminator David Rohde, WRV was soon shipping boards to Hawaii and beyond for big-name chargers who swore by Redman’s big-wave guns — while the Friends of the Porpoise logo was quickly becoming the sticker du jour for the air-boosting, tail-sliding contingent, most notably Noah Snyder, the Outer Banks’ first professional surfer. Aside from WRV, Redman routinely moonlighted for Randy Hall’s Rodanthe-based Hatteras Glass label, even after he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Redman was determined to fill his orders while passing down as much insight before he passed in 2004… and perhaps after, as well. Unexplainable phenomenon, including CAD malfunctions to tools flying off shelves to a suspiciously routed tornado, have rattled U.S. Fiberglass’ corrugated cages ever since and nearly every employee here insists that Robert Manville’s ghost still haunts the factory.
“Redman forgot more about shaping than most guys learn in an entire career,” says Jesse Fernandez, a Florida pro surfer/ longboarding savant who moved to the Outer Banks in 1990 to work for WRV as a shaper beside Redman, but settled for a glassing job after getting leapfrogged by VB transplant Tommy Moore. “When he died he had hand-shaped close to 50,000 surfboards. There are only a handful of guys in the world who’ve done that before getting on machines.”
Fernandez had done plenty of his own homework within various factory walls from 1982 to 1996 — sanding, hot coating, glassing, listening, learning and building Local Motions with Ricky Carroll. Upon learning of Redman’s condition, Patrick Herle approached the Floridian at a tradeshow and invited him to rejoin WRV as a shaper once Shaw and Frierson split the company. Considering how intimate he’d gotten with Hatteras tubes throughout the ’90s, Jesse’s answer was obvious.
While Busbey eschewed the concept of teamriders down south, Lynn Shell tagged Noah Snyder protege and eventual stepson Jesse Hines with HIC Surfboards sponsorship, which would ultimately prove to be the catalyst for Hines’ stellar professional career. Photogenic pros Matt Beacham and Jeff Myers gave credibility to homegrown WRV builders via video parts and cover shots while Whalebone teamrider Billy Hume tapped Biggie’s rolodex to sample West Coast shapers like Tony Channin and Marcio Zouvi.
WRV drastically expanded its worldwide presence throughout the ’90s, with some of the surfing’s premier competitors and big-wave riders seen sporting their logo. Before long, one shaper was flying west with another in the terminal. Tommy Moore moved to San Clemente to work with …Lost Surfboards while building his own brand but was relieved by Bob Yinger in 2006. Originally from Pompano Beach, FL, Yinger had lived in San Diego for 19 years, working for Rusty for eight. He had made Benji Weatherly’s boards for a decade and had shaped for the Irons brothers, among others, so Yinger was enthusiastically welcomed on the home front, and he remains the #1 guy for the most successful surfer in North Carolina history, Ben Bourgeois.
“Then the shit hit the fan,” interrupts Rascoe. “Between the Asian takeover, Clark Foam closing and the Recession, we lost a lot of business. Our entry-level funboard sales were done and it got harder to sell boards wholesale. Ted vacated GFG for the Big Island in 2008 to build TK Shapes and I didn’t want the responsibility of another shaper’s mortgage on my back.”
So after three decades spent doing everything else imaginable in a factory, bearing witness to dozens of Dare County transplants sparking their own brilliant legacies, the born-and-bred Nags Head native finally, reluctantly, became a surfboard shaper by default. Like those first renovations on New Sun’s (legal) factory, everyone pitched in to nudge Rascoe Hunt toward his destiny: McCarthy, Rohde, Shell, Ross, Fernandez, Mike Rowe, Mike Clark… the perfect model for the calloused camaraderie that defines this society as a whole. “Welcome to the Outer Banks. We’re loser-friendly,” barks one bumper sticker. Perhaps. But whether it’s surgical implants for a deaf surfer or a fundraiser to benefit hurricane victims — these people take care of their own. Probably because they know how tough it is to live here.
“Our waves,” states 2M, “that’s what draws the shapers here. To refine designs in a unique place with a good canvas to work with. It’s not easy to live here. It takes sacrifice, dedication. You have to love it at its ugliest and be resourceful, crafty — often doing something on the side to survive: carpentry, cleaning pools, fishing, restaurant work.”
But when it’s six-foot and offshore and detonating twenty yards off the beach and there isn’t a soul in sight, it’s all worth it. And for every Ted Kearns lost, a Mike Rowe is found. For every Redman tanning under a local’s house, there’s a brand-new Tim Nolte on a neighborhood rack. Vitamin Sea and Bert’s go the way of the Betamax while Rodanthe Surf Shop/ Hatteras Glass and Secret Spot are revived under new ownership. Hot ‘n Nasty airbrushes fade while Pat McManus logos burn bright. You lose a Steve Head and a Scott Perry; but you gain a Mike Clark, a Graham Leggat, a Scooter Halladay, an Ed Tupper…
“We’re just country,” laughs Rascoe. “We’ve always been a little behind Florida or California, but we have some amazing surfboard builders, a wholesale blank supply right over the bridge and a playground like no other. It’s so cool to see guys like Noah, Matt, Jesse, Billy, and now Brett Barley come from this little sandbar and blow up the way they have.”
“But how cool would it be,” he ponders, “to see Brett Barley, just once, shooting through a huge Pipeline tube on a Busbey shape?”