makaha

portrait, shaper

Dave Parmenter

Dave Parmenter signed off his response to my last email as follows: "...please feel free to write with any questions or queries on the true history of surfing and surfboards." In a way, that sums him up perfectly.

There is a saying.

He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool - shun him. He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a child - teach him. He who knows and knows that he knows is wise - follow him.

Say what you want, Dave Parmenter is one of the wise ones. He understands both surfing and shaping in immense depth, having enjoyed successful careers at both. He's a straight talker and, even as he sets to work on a blank in front of us, he's frank about the failure of the surf industry to define the parameters of its central engineering challenge in quantitative, scientific terms.

One of his first obsessions as a child was planes, in particular the British-built Spitfire that won the critical battle for the skies of Europe during World War II. "It's just the most beautiful thing," Parmenter told us. "That and the Winchester 1895 rifle." 

He compares the innovations in surfboard design to the challenges faced by the earliest attempts at flight. The movement of the vessel through water or air is similar. But where aircraft engineering has adopted a sober, technical and precise language to express the intricacies of physics that dictate its limits, surfboard engineering has taken the low road. This, Parmenter acknowledges, is because people's lives generally don't depend on the calculations involved. 

In fact, Parmenter tells us, shapers have often adopted technical terms from aircraft engineering without their appropriate usage. "People were using deliberately obscure terms like drag co-efficients and laminar flow," Parmenter explained. "Even before I was a commercial shaper, I was an aviation nut and I knew it was all bullshit and pseudo-science. When I came of age and started to become a figure in the surf community, I tried to make shaping like we would in aviation: accessible and understandable to the average person."

This has been something of a life mission for Parmenter. His website welcomes enquiries from people all over the world, from those about to build their first board to shapers with a hundred plus under their belts. "Any 300-hour pilot will get in a plane and they can talk about it later and say: 'Yeah, it flies like this,'" Parmenter continued. "With surfboards you can't get anyone to agree on anything."

In spite of his yearning to formalize the science of surfboard shaping, Parmenter advocates for a more ground-up revision of the industrial manufacturing hierarchy - one which would likely have the opposite effect. "We need a protestant reformation in surfing," he said, pulling out a saw and beginning to trim an outline from the blank. 

"In the way that Martin Luther said 'fuck the Pope and the Vatican: everyone has the right to interpret their own religion for themselves.' We don't need Rusty and Al Merrick, as great as those guys are, we don't need these monolithic companies and all their marketing. All our surfboards really came from the backyard revolution which was basically flipping off the surf establishment of the 60s."

Lowering his voice slightly to the level at which conspiracy can be discussed in confidence, Parmenter went on: "That was actually pretty hairy. When boards started getting short,  it was not in the interest of the big manufacturers like Greg Noll. They had rows of 10'2" noseriders and overnight they couldn't sell them - they became obsolete. People were stripping them down and re-shaping them. They ran huge smear campaigns, even in Surfer magazine, against backyard builders saying: 'don't fly by night, go to a reputable shaper'. The big companies put Grubby Clark at Clark Foam under a lot of pressure not to sell blanks in low volume to the small guys. And he just said 'fuck you.'"

Having read with interest the precise and charged language in Parmenter's writing, and especially now hearing it in person, I was interested to talk with him about how language is used to express the surf experience. I particularly loved the following sentence on his website, describing one of his shapes, a 12'6" cross-country paddle board "...tailored for Central California cloudbreaks with displacement hull and chine rails to outrun patrolling white pointers." The words 'outrun' and 'patrolling' infuse the description with a sort of Vietnam-era paranoia that powerfully evokes being hunted by the "white pointers" cruising by some distant wave, far from the shore. Language seems to be a topic that interests him considerably.

"In surfing it's a huge thing and nobody knows about it," Parmenter explained. "If you're familiar with Orwell's essay on Politics and the English Language, he talks about euphemism and the dumbing down of language. Like when we say 'the village has been pacified.' Orwell railed against language being reduced down until you can't even think or express anything. Surfers, especially in California and Hawaii, all speak in about twenty-five prefabricated sentences. It obliterates thought because nobody takes the time to choose words. '-How was it? -It was gnarly, dude, pretty fun out there...' People don't pick for words that have that carriage of meaning or even humor. After a while, like big Joe Stalin, the lie becomes big enough that you start to believe it..."

It was a huge pleasure to meet and interview Dave. We want to thank both Dave and Phil Browne from Glide Surf Co for letting us visit Heavensap to badger Dave while he was supposed to be cranking through a not-insignificant stack of local orders. 

Words by Ed Thompson

Photographs by Julien Roubinet