Al Merrick just wants to shape.
by Joel Patterson
Al Merrick looks comfortable in a shaping room. The one he happens to be in when photographer Steve Sherman and I arrive is about ten feet by twenty feet and painted powder blue. The white carpet on the floor renders the fine flakes of shaved foam from the six-four rounded pin he’s shaping almost invisible.
Al is taller than average, with gray-flecked dark hair and the tan of a lifelong surfer. He’s wearing his “shaping clothes”: an old T-shirt, shorts, tennis shoes, a weight belt, and a surgical mask. My traveling companion and I squeeze into the room one at a time to shake Al’s hand, and although he’s certainly not overjoyed to see us, he seems friendly in an introverted sort of way. Al agrees to let Steve shoot some photos while he puts the final touches on the board he’s finishing up for a teamrider.
[IMAGE 1]Regardless of acute lower-back pain that he says recently had him bedridden for a couple weeks, the 57 year old moves effortlessly around the room inspecting the rails of the board that lies bottom-up on the rack in front of him. With a one-foot square piece of spongy, egg-carton-looking packing foam attached to the back of some fine-grit sandpaper, Al takes another half-millimeter out of the concave in the same hypnotizing way an old family doctor scribbles a prescription-a sort of warm, reassuring slow motion.
He blames his back problems-which at times have completely immobilized him, leaving him stranded on his bedroom floor unable to move for nearly an hour at a time-on overdoing yoga as a young man. “Anyone who thinks yoga isn’t a competitive sport has it wrong,” I hear him say under his mask. Somewhat bitterly, Al goes on to explain how whenever someone gets into some sort of activity, it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to compete with those around them, regardless of the particular activity’s reputation. This is an interesting comment coming from a man who’s become the undisputed heavyweight champ in the dog-eat-dog world of surfboard shaping.
With our photos done, we offer to take Al out for some lunch. After dusting himself off with the nozzle of an air compressor and changing into “non-shaping clothes,” he chooses a fish house across the street from the Santa Barbara pier, a short walk from his shop. We’re seated near a window. Al orders a Caesar salad and an iced tea, Steve and I order entrees that come with fries.
While waiting for our food, we begin to fire off questions designed to provoke sound-byte-worthy responses, and as he fields our queries, I begin to understand how Al has risen to such a prominent spot in the world of surfing. He listens.
“If you’re making boards that just work for you and try to feed them to your team guys, and you’re telling them this is what they have to ride, that’s just a dead-end street,” he responds when asked about his shaping philosophy. “I’ve always felt that working with team guys is real important.”
It’s not hard to recognize that Al is aware of his greatest resource as a shaper-feedback from his team. “You kind of have to feel your way through your team,” he explains. “Some guys hear ‘trade in,’ and they go get all the boards they can. Say it’s some guy who just wants to try boards, and he’s not really giving me good feedback … I just don’t have time for that. But if it’s someone I perceive as being serious, who’s really trying to learn and advance their surfing, then I’ll try to work with them. It guess it just depends on the person.”[IMAGE 2]Consider, if you will, the list of surfers Al’s been able to bounce ideas off and participate in experiments with: Shaun Tomson, Willy Morris, Tom Curren, Rob Machado, Taylor Knox, and the guy we all know as quite possibly the most influential surfer of modern times, Kelly Slater. When Al speaks of Kelly, it’s obvious that their relationship has gone light years beyond the typical shaperurfer interaction.
“I don’t think people like Kelly come along very often,” Al says with the pride of a father in his voice. “As far as his surfing goes, what he’s been able to accomplish, and where he’s taken surfing, he’s special. In my mind, he’s brought surfing to the level it’s at now.”
When asked to give an example of what he means, Al responds: “In my memory, Kelly’s the one who made airs a real thing. Until the late 80s, in places like Huntington for example, everybody would do some turns outside, and then they’d wiggle back and forth to get to the inside, then they’d drive down the line and do an air.” Al chuckles a bit before continuing: “Kelly would do an air on the outside, and all of a sudden … whoa! The doors start to open.”
In Santa Barbara County, where he’s spent the majority of his life, not everyone’s as behind the technical advancement of certain types of maneuvers, but Al sees the progression of his sport in a different light: “I’ve always really been interested in the new surfing. There are guys up here-you know, Rincon’s a conservative break-who don’t really like to see guys doing tailslides or airs. But I encourage them to do that. I think it’s great.”
“I think, more and more, WQS and WCT guys will be doing airs as much as any other maneuver. You’re gonna definitely have to be able to do airs and land them. We specifically do team workouts where they the team have to do airs or they don’t get a score. You don’t get a score unless you do an air and land it.”
But Al doesn’t limit his view of the future simply to airs. Recently, he’s been shaping tow-in boards for Santa Cruz big-wave-charger Ken Collins, which has required him to think differently about big-wave boards and has opened his eyes to the concept of further exploring the face of the wave. “The tow-in thing has made me start thinking about how I can reconfigure a surfboard so that it acts like it has a lot less volume and is able to do a lot quicker transitions, but so a guy can also get into the wave with it.” Al takes a break from separating his croutons out of his salad, smiles, and says, “We may end up with a surfboard that looks like a snowboard.”
“As far as the long-term future of surfing,” he continues, “I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. We’re still in a real Neanderthal-type state right now. I don’t think we’ve really gone where the possibilities can take us. The sky’s the limit. You can see it when you watch guys surf tow-ins-a 50-foot wave on a six-six or a seven-foot board. I’ve always felt that surfers are only limited by their equipment. You get a guy with a really active imagination, like Kelly, and it’s just his equipment that keeps him from going where he can imagine.”
We finish our lunches, our waitress takes our plates away, and as I reach out to shut the tape recorder off, Al suddenly gets an intense look on his face, as if he’s just had a revelation worth sharing.
“You know what I’ve learned recently from going through my problems with my back?” Steve and I are quiet. “I learned how much I love to shape. I love shaping. You kind of get tired of any job, you know? But man, when I couldn’t shape for a couple weeks, I was thinking, ‘If I could just shape. I don’t care if I can’t play golf, I don’t care if I can’t surf, I just want to shape.'”
[IMAGE 3]”I talk to Al a lot about my boards. His mind is always working, which’s what makes him so good. I consider him a lot more than just a sponsor. I can talk to him about anything.”-Taylor Knox
CALLOUTS”Anyone who thinks yoga isn’t a competitive sport has it wrong,
“If you’re making boards that just work for you and try to feed them to your team guys, and you’re telling them this is what they have to ride, that’s just a dead-end street,”
“In my memory, Kelly’s the one who made airs a real thing.”
“I’ve always really been interested in the new surfing. There are guys up here-you know, Rincon’s a conservative break-who don’t really like to see guys doing tailslides or airs. But I encourage them to do that. I think it’s great.” here-you know, Rincon’s a conservative break-who don’t really like to see guys doing tailslides or airs. But I encourage them to do that. I think it’s great.”