Tuesday, 3 July 2012


The first time I met Nathan Pratt, it was at a Denny’s in Santa Monica. In the center of it all, hallowed ground in both surf and skate culture, I had no idea what to expect. Gruff, grizzled pioneer? Jaded, been there, done that scenester? No way.

Nathan exudes surf history. All six plus feet of him vibrates with it — keeping him in constant motion. Tan and clearly still well acquainted with long hours in the water, he held court as we walked his dog and drove around the old neighborhood.

After forty years of watching evolution and innovation unfold around him, Nathan knows it because he lived it. He remembers every board he’s ever owned, and probably every one of the thousands upon thousands that he’s shaped. To watch him put together the Shortboard Revolution show at the California Heritage Museum was to see a perspective measured out in the subtraction of feet and inches — hands-on and in the first-person.

For Nathan, it was all about performance. And if he’s taught me anything, above all it’s that the future is now.

Joe Conway:Tell me about how this show came about, What was the concept?

Nathan Pratt: I wanted to cover the era from post-Gidget to aerial surfing, which is contemporary, modern surfing. It’s the whole deal of “How do we get from longboarding to where we are today?” ’67 to ’84 ---18 years of surfing.
There was a lot of upheaval in world at that time, What set this particular revolution off?
Look at the world in ’65: it was very Perry Cuomo. Then, in ’67, it really hits the fan.’67 to ’69 -- California was experimental, hippy dippy, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. So it all went together. Kids were trying all sorts of different things, and doing that with their surfboards, too. Like, “Oh, somebody has a board that’s eight-foot, wow, that’s super short, let’s ride it.” Then, “If eight-foot works, let’s try 7’6.” ’66 to ’67, the big surfing craze crashed. From the middle of ’67 to the end of ’69 -- say 30 months -- boards went from night to day. That’s where the show starts.
So we’re talking about the boards getting shorter, but what did that really mean? What was the objective of sawing them down?
Maneuverability. They’re trying to be able to do tighter turns, get deeper in the tube and just get more radical. Everything was really about high performance. Before Gidget and the crash, surfing happened on top of the board. Noseriding was a big cultural phenomenon; it was all about toes on the nose, right? Hang ten -- cross-stepping, moving horizontally on the board. Then surfing went vertical, to now, beyond vertical, where the surfer and the board are one.
But ’67 was the tipping point?
Well, Greenough’s fin design, obviously that changed modern surfing. It went from being the fat, D-shaped fins to the high aspect dorsal fin. That started everything.
Inspiration from nature.
Right, and in ’67 a whole group including Rennie Yater went down to Australia and the Australians had already started chopping their boards down -- shorter, wider, V bottom. Greenough started going down in ’65 and Nat Young, Midget Farrely and Bob McTavish had picked up on it.
Then at the same time, in winter ’67 Mickey Dora was in Hawaii and he had Chris Green make him that pintail. Then there’s a Dick Brewer mini gun. That's how change happens -- the guy down the road suddenly goes, “Ah, look at that.” The Mickey board almost has the beginning of a tucked in nose and the narrow tail, it’s not all the way there, but you can see the beginning of that strain of surfboard design.
This is very much your era, you grew up right here -- right?
Yeah, my dad got out of the Marine Corps after the Korean War, my parents moved to L.A. in 1956 and I was born. My parents rented a house right on Main Street, just up the block here before they got a house down behind the circle. My mom used to take me to the beach in a basket when I was two-weeks-old and then I learned to bodysurf at the Venice Breakwater.
What kind of boards did you start out on?

I started out on a longboard that my dad kind of reshaped for me, this little tiny four-foot number. Then I took my older brother’s balsa longboard -- this was a crime -- a 9’6” balsa and took a handsaw to it and cut three feet off the nose and reshaped it.

Awesome. So you got started shaping pretty early?

Yeah, it was a do-it-yourself world back then. I actually used a cheese grater as my original surform to shape it -- it worked, actually. The first professional board I bought was a Roberts surfboard, a pig, and that was like late 1969, or actually ’70. Then Jeff Ho’s shop opened up in 1971 -- the Zephyr shop -- so I was hanging out there, watching Jeff shape, doing the clean up kid thing.

Growing up, were you aware of what was happening with all of these boards you’ve collected for the show?
At the time, no, because I was just dealing with my one little pocket in Santa Monica. Really, it’s only as you get older that you get to appreciate all this stuff. Because then your perspectives really open up and you really see what everyone else was doing.
Santa Monica and Venice had a heavy reputation back then -- Dog Town…
Well, there was super heavy localism. I mean, California all through the 60s and 70s was very localized. Back then, there was no such thing as riding a board from out of town. Wherever you lived, you rode the boards made in your area. Sometimes those demarcations came down to quarter mile increments. Back in the old days, you could look at a guy’s board and know his whole story.
What innovative shapes came along as the lengths dropped down?
You had, in that period of time -- ’69-’70 -- a lot of overlap of stuff happening simultaneously. Everyone had their own designs for local areas. The guys up in Santa Barbara were riding guns for a long time. Then in Oxnard you have the Campbell brothers with the Bonzer starting in ’73 and at the same time in Santa Monica we were riding swallowtails and down in San Diego they were riding eggs.
From the longboards to the V bottoms to the eggs then into the mini guns then into the sideslip mini guns -- really sideslipping down railers, Hynson down railers. All these periods were 12 months apiece or something.
Was there a pivotal moment that defined that era for you?
In ’72 Ben Aipa came to California for the World Contest in Oceanside. And he brought Larry Bertlemann and Michael Ho with him. He did a deal with Jeff Ho for Zephyr, making swallowtails, so the first swallowtails outside Hawaii were Zephyrs -- and Bertlemann… forget it! So much better than everyone else! At that point Mike Purpus was considered the king -- the Mike Purpose cutback. But, Bertlemann was ten times better. He went surfing up at California Street and Bud Brown shot that session: Purpus versus Bertlemann. The footage of that surf session, that changed surfing.
How old were you when you started working at the Zephyr shop?
I was 14. First, I hung around the shop for a long time, just hanging out, being a grunion. Skipper [Skip Engblom] was there in ’71 and he finally gave me a job sweeping up. Then I learned to do ding repair, and then I learned how to buff and gloss boards, then sanding from Skip, laminating, airbrushing from Stecyk and finally shaping from Ho.
Did you just want to be around a surf shop or did you want to learn to shape?
I wanted to make boards. That was my dream -- to make surfboards. I’d sit around for hours, I probably watched a thousand surfboards be shaped. Back then that was the dream of every kid: To be able to make your own surfboard -- that was the ultimate. So, when I started shaping my own boards and opened Horizons West that was a dream come true.
What was it like making surfboards in that environment?
Intense. Skip was running the shop every day and Jeff was kind of the mad scientist behind the whole thing. I was used to being in a design environment that was constantly changing, so I just thought of change as being the norm. Every six months there’s some new design, some new concept and you’re applying it to the boards and applying it to your surfing. Or coming back in and wanting something, and saying, “what do we need to do to modify the board to make that happen on a wave?”
Did that carry over into the line up?
It was really competitive. I think that’s what was unique, maybe – that it was a very condensed, competitive environment. That little stretch of beach right there is basically all the top surfers from L.A. This is the largest urban surf community in the world: It was top of the food chain stuff.
Was it all performance at that point? Or was style more important?
Some people put style over performance. We said “no”; If you don’t have performance, it doesn’t matter. You had to have good style and you had to have good performance. Period.
Did you at any point start to realize that you were involved in something really remarkable?
Not at the time, it was just business as usual. In the early years Jeff was designing all my boards and Craig Stecyk would airbrush them -- I never even got to see them ‘til after they were done. He sprayed whatever he wanted; one time I came to get a little double swallow and it had a giant “VISITOR” airbrushed down the deck. One-foot letters down the middle of the deck -- like off a parking space! I wish I had kept all these boards, that’s the sad part; I sold them all.
Part of it was that I was involved in it, but on the other hand, in the early years I was the guinea pig. I just kind of took whatever people were throwing at me. So whatever Jeff and Skip and Craig wanted to have or do, I just went with it.
And then in the midst of all that the skateboarding/Z-boys thing really blew up.
It was kind of funny, because at the time – you’re a kid, you don’t know any better. So, you think this is normal. You don’t really think it’s a big deal. There’s this guy Craig who shoots pictures and we do stuff that they put in magazines.
Then everything blew up, got really big, the whole skateboard business went out of control. I was left and the skate team was scattering to the wind. Jeff wasn’t shaping that much and my surfing had gotten better -- I was older, 17 at that time -- so then I started to design my own stuff and then in ’76 I started shaping my own stuff.
When Jeff said, “I’m closing the shop down.” I said, “OK, I’ll take over the factory” – the shop was on the corner and the factory was three doors down.
When was that? How old were you?
That was fall '76. I had just turned 19 and I had my money for going to the North Shore that year all saved up. So, I had to decide whether it was the North Shore or my own surfboard company. The choice wasn't hard. Jeff sold the shop to Ocean surfboards and had a big order of boards for Japan. I shaped all the boards and had Jeff's signature down perfect. I took over the factory and built out Horizons West which opened in May 1977. Ocean was totally surprised when I took the plywood down and there was a complete surf shop. They went out of business a year later and we eventually grew to take the whole building.
So when the whole skateboarding thing was happening, you guys were surfing a ton too…
Twice a day.
And that was about bringing surfing out of the water and onto the streets, but then the pendulum swung back the other way.
It’s gone full circle, yeah. When skateboarding really took off -- the whole Zephyr thing, that was ’75 -- we were copying Larry Bertlemann, doing the surfing thing. And then the guys started skating pools, doing off the lips and carving – that’s all surfing.
When Tony (Alva) started doing aerials -- that really was something new. And as soon as you see someone doing it on a skateboard, you’re like, “Well, I should try to do that on a surfboard.”
So that was the moment, right there, when the influence shifted.
Then Dan McClure invented the Ollie on a surfboard. He was a really good skateboarder, and he hung out with Alan Gelfand [inventor of the ollie] and those guys who rode for Stacy [Peralta]. And then his brother John, who was the better surfer of the two, copied him. John perfected aerial surfing -- he wasn’t doing the flyaway for the camera, like everybody else. He was making it, and he was doing all the tail slide moves in '82-'83 that became mainstream in the '90's. And the next generation of the best skateboarders were here too. It went from Tony Alva and Jay Adams to Christian Hosoi.
And that was the next incarnation of skateboarding… now you have guys trying to land kickflips in the water. So you’ve seen all this progression, lived through it, What’s kept you interested and invested in it all this time?
Well… it’s fun to make surfboards. Designing surfboards is great. When you’re a surf guy, that’s the ultimate thing. You can have an idea and turn that into a board and have it under your feet in 48 hours -- the next day. You can even make a surfboard in one day -- we called them “one-day wonders.” Shape it in the morning and you’re riding it that night. That’s it.http://business.transworld.net

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