The Birth Of The Bodyboard Industry: The Tom Morey Story

“The thing you have to realize,” says Tom Morey, “is that my revelations didn’t come to me in a flash. It wasn’t like God spoke. It wasn’t like a TV dramatization of Thomas Edison discovering the light bulb. It all took a lot of time.”

The embryonic concept of the bodyboard began at Doheny State Beach on a summer’s day in 1969. Like most inventions, it happened by chance. Morey was walking down the beach with his surfboard under his arm when he saw a boy riding a wave on a board made of several four-foot-long, four-inch-wide polyethylene logs.

“He held the contraption together with PVC pipe, the kind used for plumbing; from a distance it looked like an air mattress,” remembers Morey. “There was nothing like it at that time. You could either buy a $3.97 styrofoam board that was shaped like a Buck-Rogers-embellished turd and would break immediately or you could buy an air mattress that leaked and wouldn’t turn. This kid had something unique. I went up to him and said, ‘God, that’s a pretty neat idea because it can’t sink, but your shape is all wrong.'” That young surfer probably didn’t realize it at the time, but he had provided the catalyst for bodyboarding to be born.

When Morey had that fateful encounter at Doheny, he wasn’t a stranger to the surf industry or to inventing. After graduating from USC with a degree in mathematics in 1955, Morey worked at Douglas Aircraft, where he experimented with composites and plastics.

After a few years there Morey grew tired of working for a big company, quit his job, borrowed $6,000 and went into the surfboard business. He came out with several innovations, but he still wasn’t happy. So in 1971 Morey left the surf industry and moved to Hawaii to pursue his long-time passion: playing jazz drums.

Soon after arriving in Honolulu, Morey began toying with the idea of making a surfboard that would be “ultimately fast.” He designed a six-foot-long board with a fiberglass bottom and soft polyethylene deck that would be ridden prone.

“I finally got this board together, and it was just as I had designed it, but it was weak,” says Morey. “While just paddling out in a Waikiki tidepool, a little four-inch wave broke the nose off. I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’ve got some thinking to do on this. This design just isn’t working.'”

A month later Morey moved to the Big Island to the town of Kailua where he lived just down the street from the surf break Honols. One hot July morning he awoke to perfect waves. The only problem was, he didn’t have a board to ride.

He knew he wanted to make something out of his last nine-foot piece of polyethylene foam, but he didn’t know what. “I grabbed a knife and cut it in half,” says Morey. “There was no turning back at that point. I looked at the foam and then at the surf and began fooling around with a hot iron and an electric knife. I found that I could shape the foam using the iron if I put a sheet of newspaper down on the foam first. Later that night, I drew a few curves on the foam with a red marking pen and went to bed.”

Morey rose early on July 9th, 1971, and cut and ironed out his planned shape. He left his board as wide as possible and left the nose square so that it would have more structural strength and so he could hold onto it. “I decided I’d shape the rails like those on a Hot Curl surfboard,” says Morey. “Those were the boards from the 20s and 30s; built before boards had skegs. I cut 45-degree Hot Curl rails into my board. They looked great, but I still wasn’t sure how it would ride.”

Morey grabbed his board, ran across the street to Honols and the sport of bodyboarding was born. “I had a ball!” recalls Morey. “I could actually feel the wave through the board. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. On a surfboard you’re not feeling every nuance of the wave; you’re feeling how this seven-foot piece of fiberglass is chattering against the wave. But with my creation I could feel everything. I was thinking to myself, “This thing turns, it’s durable, it can be made cheaply, it’s lightweight, it’s impenetrable…God, this could be a really big thing!'”

Morey was so pleased that the very next day he shaped a smaller board and sold it to a neighbor for ten dollars. “I had to know if anyone would buy it,” said Morey. “After that sale I knew I would be able to sell it everywhere.”

During this time, Morey had become involved in the Bahai faith — a religion that stresses the principles of universal brotherhood. The Bahais believe everything done for the service of mankind is elevated to the state of worship, so when Morey asked to borrow some money to fund a move to the Mainland in order to market his board, his fellow believers were eager to help.

“One Bahai friend, Jack Spock, lent me 200 dollars,” says Morey. “Then another friend, whose name I’ve forgotten, gave me 100 dollars. A couple of guys had vehicles they wanted to sell, so I fixed their cars. After we sold the cars, one guy, Ray Olivaras, split his earnings with me. Another guy, Roger Glick, let me keep the 250 dollars as an investment.” Altogether Morey borrowed 1,000 dollars from his Bahai friends. He was ready for the Mainland.

Morey moved to Southern California in late 1971 and slept on the floor at the home of a college buddy, Bob Turney, while he tried to sell his idea. One trip was to Wilshire Foam in Los Angeles, where the company owner Ed Colvack was interested in the idea. However, Colvack wouldn’t pay Morey more than two percent of the gross, wouldn’t begin manufacturing the board for two years and wouldn’t let Morey into the factory because he had proprietary equipment there that he didn’t want his competition to see. Morey thanked him for his interest and left. It was a dead end.

“After about a month of living with Turney I headed down toward San Diego,” says Morey. “I had spent my 1,000 dollars and was beginning to worry. I thought G&S might be interested in the idea because I had done business with them when I made surfboards and they trusted me. So I went to G&S with a board I had made at Turney’s house. It was made of some lightweight, Chinese EVA foam. It was pink and I had glued a sheet of eighth-inch plywood to the bottom of it.”

After watching Morey pull the board out of the trunk of his 1950 DeSoto, G&S salesman Bill Yerkes took owner Larry Smith aside and warned him, “Larry, you’re never going to get thirteen dollars a piece for these things.” But Larry Smith took a chance with Morey and offered him a job.

“I put together a deal where I would get five percent of the gross, a truck to use and 280 dollars a week,” says Morey. “They also gave me a 500-dollar advance, which was a hell of a deal because I didn’t have buck-one at the time. I felt like I had really made it.”

By this time Morey had come up with a name for his board: The S.N.A.K.E. Machine. S.N.A.K.E. was an acronym for Side, Navel, Arm, Knee, Elbow — all the parts of the body you use while riding. “I tried the name out on some girls around the G&S building and they went, ‘Ick, I don’t like snakes,'” says Morey. “So I thought maybe that wasn’t the greatest name for it. I then came up ‘Boogie’ because boogie was the trip before bee-bop. Boogie swung and it felt nice and it had a wiggle and a jiggle to it. It was perfect.”

While working at G&S in late ’71 and early ’72, Morey couldn’t find a suitable skin for his board. He knew in his heart that he couldn’t ask a customer to buy it for what he needed to charge in order to make a profit. The board didn’t look polished enough. So the Boogie went onto the back burners and Morey began working on different projects for G&S. It was beginning to look as if Morey’s dream might never see the light of day … that is, until the unexpected happened.

“Right before I had moved over to the Mainland in late ’71,” says Morey, “my wife and I had split up. I didn’t want a divorce; I just wanted out of that situation. But eventually she wanted to remarry somebody else so we got a divorce and sold our six-acre r
anch in Hawaii. I got 26,500 dollars for my half of the property. I quit my job at G&S and went to visit my parents in Florida. I invested 5,000 dollars in the stock market and promptly lost it. The money went fast and by the time I returned to California in 1973, I only had enough to make a down payment on a little house in Carlsbad.”

After living in Carlsbad for a while, Morey decided to give his Boogie one more try. He returned to Wilshire Foam and connived his way back into the factory by claiming that he had to use the bathroom.

Walking through the factory, he noticed a huge stack of scrap skins lying in the corner. “The company would skin a block of foam and these scrap pieces were like the crusts on a loaf of bread,” says Morey. “One of the engineers said I could have a couple of them to experiment with since they were just throwing them away.”

By the time Morey had reached home, he knew he was onto something. “When I attached skins to the core, the board became slick to the touch, and when I put it in the sun, the light shone through it,” says Morey. “I remember saying to myself, ‘That’s it man! That sucker is it!'”

Instead of trying to sell his improved invention to a surf shop or a company, Morey decided he would put a mail-order ad in Surfing Magazine. “I charged 37 dollars because that was how old I was and I knew that price would cover my nut,” says Morey. “Bob Mignogna, an advertising salesman now Primedia group publisher, let me run that first ad on credit. He didn’t know how badly I needed that credit. Then I had to wait for something to happen. Finally, on the very first day that I could have possibly received a response, I went out to the mailbox, slowly walked around it and peered inside. There was all the usual crap — bills and junk mail — but there was also this little white envelope from some beloved believer. He had sent his 37-dollar check. All Right! I was in business! The next day there were five envelopes in the mailbox! Five times 37—that’s 185 dollars in one day!”

Tom Morey’s dream had begun to explode.He called UPS and found what size board would be the easiest to ship. He discovered that he couldn’t mail them from first- or second-class post offices but that the third-class post office in Bonsall, a town eighteen miles away, would take the large parcels. Despite the hassles, business was booming. So much so that it began to harm Morey’s health.

“After some months of making my boards I was really getting wiped out from the fumes coming off the contact cement,” says Morey. “I had boards outside lying on the lawn and on the hedges and there were bugs collecting and the boards would blow around and stick together and I couldn’t get them apart and the back yard was filling up with trash and the foam dust from the garage would always find its way into the house and my second wife was pissed and the neighbors were starting to stare. It was crazy. So I decided I’d start selling kit boards that the buyers would have to assemble themselves, sell them for only 25 dollars and raise the price of the factory board to 45 dollars, thinking that the higher price would discourage people from buying the factory boards and I wouldn’t have to smell any more fumes. The kits had skins, a core, tape and instructions. The only thing the buyer had to provide was the contact cement. Unfortunately, after a year or so, I was still selling a ton of finished boards, even at 45 dollars , and I was still getting sick from the fumes. I had to find someone reliable to help me.”

In 1975 Morey took an extended vacation to Costa Rica. While there he kept hearing about a Bahai sea captain named Jim Faivre who had a penchant for knives. Although they never met while in Costa Rica, Morey discovered when he returned home to Carlsbad that Faivre had moved to a house only a few blocks away. Faivre was a barrel-chested guy, who had tattooed arms, a goatee beard, and always a big knife strapped to his belt.

“I invited him over for tea one afternoon,” says Morey, “because I thought that maybe he would like to become involved in my company. I took him out to the garage and he said, ‘let me see what my knife will do to this piece of foam.’ He cut it slick as snot. It was better than my sabre saw had ever done. I immediately saw how I could put his knife in a piece of wood, slant it back and then slide it along the template. It would save me a ton of time. Faivre had been a carpenter and he needed money. I knew I had found my man.”

Morey gave Faivre a few things to do and the results exceeded all expectations. After a while Morey would simply come up with an idea and Faivre would figure out how to make it. He was able to make the shapers for the Boogies out of two-by-fours, bent nails and sharp knives.

By the end of 1975 Morey decided to form a corporation, and he sold one third of the stock to Faivre for 10,000 dollars. Morey retained control over the rest of the company. The two of them, along with a few employees, were getting faster and faster at producing the boards, but they still needed to be glued and the fumes remained a problem.

“I was talking to an engineer in the back room at Wilshire Foam,” says Morey, “telling him about my problem, when he took me across the room to where they were heat-welding two pieces of polyethylene together. He said he didn’t see any reason why the same principle wouldn’t work for our boards; it would only be a matter of applying the heat evenly. Well, Faivre came up with a way to heat the foam evenly, and sure enough, polyethylene, when heated, turns to glue. I didn’t need any glue! I didn’t need to smell any fumes! The boards were glue!”

After that final and greatest hurdle had been overcome, Morey’s company took off. In February, 1977, they moved out of their small industrial work space on Oak Avenue in Carlsbad and into a larger factory on Roosevelt Street.

By that time Morey’s small enterprise had grown into a business that supported several full-time employees. Jim Faivre was handling production with the help of Jim Floyd. Craig Libuse had been working on Morey Boogie advertising since 1973. Rick Lawrence was doing sales, and two local teenagers, Bobby Szabad and Rick Broderson, quit their jobs at the Oceanside drive-in, also in ’73, to work on Morey’s production line. Louise Hoolihan was Morey’s secretary. And Patti Serrano came on in January ’77 to handle promotions.

“They way I met Bobby is interesting,” says Morey. “Bobby had called my home to see why he hadn’t received the board he ordered. I quickly made a board and, since he lived nearby, I drove it over to him. His mother was a good-spirited Hawai’ian and he was a good guy, so we hit it off immediately. A short while later I approached him as he was getting out of the water and asked him to work for me. He started on the production line and eventually worked up into a sales position.” This was typical of Morey’s business practice and philosophy. He would bring in people who had an interest in a particular field, but no formal training, and help them develop their skills.

“It was a wild time,” says Libuse, “I was the only non-Bahai employee in the upper echelons of the company. It was a very tight religious group. Tom was the local Bahai leader; he would moderate their fireside chats — which is what they call their services. The model numbers he gave his boards were taken from the Bahai calendar for the year they were manufactured. His first model in 1971 was labeled with the Bahai year of 121, and he changed it each year on the first day of spring.”

After a period of record growth, a cash flow crunch paralyzed the company in late ’77 and early ’78. “We couldn’t pay for the growth that the company needed,” says Libuse. “The company would try to get a bank loan, but when the bank officers would come down to the factory, they wouldn’t see a booming business; they’d see a group of long-haired teenagers huddled around a contraption made out of two-by-fours, bent nails and knives. They wouldn’t take us seriously. The company had orders it
just couldn’t fill. All the pay was needed just to fill the next order. We were growing too fast. I remember it was always a race to get to the bank to cash your check when you were paid, because if you waited, chances were your check would bounce.”

In addition to the cash crunch, the partnership between Faivre and Morey was beginning to wear thin. “Faivre now controlled half the company,” says Morey. “After he paid for his third of the company, he decided he wanted more control. There was a ton of love and good fellowship that existed between us, and his contribution to the Boogie as we know it was immense. A good part of why we made it was because he was a true, dedicated believer who taught me much, especially how to do it now instead of later. But our business arrangement wasn’t equitable. So we had some offers from outside companies, and the Kransco offer looked the best, so we took it. It was time to get out.”

The change was hard both financially and emotionally for Morey. He had moved back to Hawai’i but was still trying to play a roll in the company. “I have a particular genius, and when my ideas are hot, very often I’m the only person who can see it,” says Morey. “You can’t convince a manager that doesn’t have this skill that your idea has got to be a particular way.”

Does Morey have any regrets? “Well, if I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t go into the Boogie business. I would probably just stay with my basic talent as a jazz drummer. I would build an entirely different kind of drum set with fiberglass shapes and different kinds of cat skins. And when you hit the drums, they would light up in different colors. Yea…that would have been something….”

Morey’s voice trails off into wistful dreaming — the kind of dreaming that is capable of affecting the lives of millions of people throughout the world.