California, Hawaii and the East Coast Monday, June 26, 2017

Renny Yater Interview

By Evan Rhodes photos by Ansel

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I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the legends of the sport of surfing.  Yater surfboards have been revered since the 1950’s.  Renny is most famous for his Yater Spoon which was first made in 1964 and is still popular today.  The Yater Spoon was featured in Apocalypse now, the 1979 Vietnam War drama starring Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall as Lt. Kilgore.  This interview took place on Thursday, Feb 18 at 8:30am at his shaping shop in Santa Barbara, California. 

Q: How long have you been shaping boards for?
A: Since 1953, so what is that, fifty years?

Q: what was your inspiration to start shaping?
A: For myself, nobody made boards for other people then, you just did your own boards in those days. Back when Hobbie and Velzy or those 2 or 3 guys were getting started. I did that kinda before them.

Q: So you couldn’t just roll to Costco and pick up a couple boards?
A: No that wasn’t even dreamed of then.

Q: Did you ever think you would see boards in big shops like that?
A: No, of course not. You know that they were heavy boards then too. You gotta realize those were 100 lbs surfboards.

Q: How many hours does it take to shape one of those?
A: What the old boards?

Q: Yeah
A: Days, days because they had hard redwood rails and pine, you know mixed pieces of wood in them like that. It really took a long time. And they didn’t have exotic tools then that we have now.

Q: So what were your tools?
A: Just adds and big long planes, big long door planes, things like that. The skilled 100 player was invented I think somewhere around the Second World War, maybe just after. That was the first electric plane.

Q: Did you have to fight in any wars?
A: No, luckily I was exempt in the Korean War, physical handicap. So I didn’t have to go in.

Q: What’s your handicap?
A: I had some problems with my knees.

Q: What did it mean to you when Apocalypse Now Movie wanted your surfboards?
A: Well they came up and just bought some boards out of the rack. I didn’t know what they were doing when they did that. I didn’t realize that you know a year later or two years later actually quite a few years after that, that they actually did the movie. They just bought boards out of the racks and then went and painted them, so they didn’t build them themselves, they bought boards out of the rack.

Q: But they could have picked any board but really liked your design.
A: That’s true, but why they did I don’t know.

Q: Have you ever seen the redwood boards that the Hawaiians road when they were the first surfing in Hawaii?
A: Oh yes I’ve seen those, yeah sure. They’re over there in the museum over there in Hawaii, in Honolulu. 

Q: What do you think of the kids riding the little wooden boards?
A: Wooden Boards?

Q: The Alia boards.
A: Oh that’s just a you know, it’s a challenge to do it. They don’t work any better. Obviously they’re really hard to ride, you know and getting them into a wave. It’s just the fact that you can do it. It’s not something you’re gonna see as spread out or get really popular.

Q: It’s kind of the opposite of the Yater Spoon.
A: Yeah surfers want to try it and prove that I can do it. I guess you can take surfing back all the to riding those big planks again but I don’t see anyone doing it. And paddle boards and all that.

Q: What are you up to these days when you’re not shaping?
A: I used to ride bikes; dirt bikes a bit but haven’t been lately. And I go down to my place in Mexico 3-4 times a year hopefully. You get some warm water.

Q: How long did you have a surf shop for? Were you the first surf shop in Santa Barbara?
A: I think so, yeah in fact I know I was when I opened up in Anacapa Street in, took my business license out in ’59, December ’59 there wasn’t a, uhhh there was one other guy making boards just can’t think of his name right now, Tom, can’t think of it right now, anyway and he was doing balsa wood boards, and this was in the era we were switching over to foam in late 50s early 60s and I opened a business license out and got a place down in Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara. I was there for a couple of years and then eventually went over to Summerland. Was there in Summerland for about 3 years I believe then went back downtown to Santa Barbara, Grey Avenue. But yeah I was the first one to have an actual surf shop. There wasn’t many of such a thing anyway in Southern California. Maybe a half a dozen.

Q: Do you have any stories about moving over from balsa to foam? Because I know when there are transitions some people get squeezed out of the market. It just sort of changes stuff.
A: It didn’t squeeze anybody out of the market then. The change was that they were, the foam was lighter and we had to adjust to that. Actually we thought it was too light in the first place so we put a lot of glass on the boards and then realized that we could actually redesign these boards a little bit better. Make them thinner and not so bulky and to adapt more to full. And that’s kind of the transition that happened there.

Q: What about Rincon? Has that wave changed at all?
A: Not really, I think when they put all that heavy rock on the freeway there or on the road, it kinda pushed the shore break out a little bit farther. It used to be in there farther. It used to be a little bit longer ride. Way down in the cove. But actually out on the point it’s not one bit different. It changes from year to year a little bit depending on the run off out of the river mouth out of the material that comes out.

Q: Who are the best surfers that have ever surfed out there?
A: Well good Lord there’s been hundreds of guys that are good.

Q: Tom Curren
A: Tom Curren, you’re thinking this era was really good.

Q: Remmy Yater….
A: (Laugh) And then of course the younger surfers you know.

Q: What were your favorite moves out there that you go for?
A: Try to make the wave from farther out instead of just taking off on the edge. It’s all a matter of the equipment as it evolved you could go deeper into the wave or go faster down the line.

Q: Was the swell of ’69 the biggest swell ever?
A: It was one of the most ride able ones. The problem when you get big surf is lots of times the weather is right on it also then it becomes really harsh. We’ve had surf that was probably bigger in 82’ 83’ that El Nino cycle, but it was unbelievably harsh weather at the same time so it just made it totally unridable. That was unusual that ’69 wave.

Q: Your favorite movies?
A: Well the early movies were fun because they were travel logs and you were seeing stuff you’ve never seen before. Where today’s movies are real high performance movies which is nothing wrong with it but you get so concentrated on one place, one surfer in high performance surfing. Which is all right but it gets a little bit monotonous to watch after a period of time. I think the travel log movies, Bruce Brown and Severson were probably set the classic era of surfing in movies.

Q: Favorite place to get food after surfing?
A: Not really

Q: Best surfing memory?
A: I surfed Honolua Bay all by myself in “62 in fact 2 days in a row. Nobody else out there. Not very big you know maybe 4 or 5 feet but that was pretty neat.

Q: When were you born, birthday?
A: 1932 in Los Angeles

Q: Do you have any words for your fans out there?
A: Thanks for buying my boards for a lot of years.

Special Thanks to the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum(, and John Severson, Roger Nance, The Beach House, Lauren Yater and of course Renny Yater. Renny is headlining the Sacred Craft expo 2010. Renny Yater at Sacred Craft | 2010 Consumer Surf Expos——-
So much more than a tool, the surfboard has become a philosophical icon, a sacred craft, a culturally pervasive symbol of freedom, adventure and enduring ...


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