2015 JWAA Award Recipient : Rennie Yater

Words + Photos by David Pu’u

Quite awhile ago, I had asked a geology professor of some note about Rincon, and he told me that the point break had likely existed in it’s current configuration, more or less, for a couple thousand years.

That reference perspective is what is known as a geologic time frame.

I got to speak with surf industry pioneer Reynolds (Rennie) Yater recently at his shaping room in Santa Barbara. Having been one of the fathers of the surf industry, and one of the original surfers to carry the sport up the California coastline, Rennie’s view is a rare commodity, in that it is a first person narrative account.

Being a very detail oriented person by nature and trade, it has been my experience having known and worked with Rennie in the surfboard business that he remembers things, details large and small, that paint an accurate and interesting canvas regarding the development of surfing and the surfboard, which spans a time frame from the 1940’s to date.

I asked Rennie a series of pointed questions and we took a little 65 year look at Rincon from his perspective. He recounted that it was Bob Simmons who first brought word back to Orange and San Diego counties about Rincon. He said that Simmons was prone to studying geodetic maps of the coast in search of new waves, a process that many of us use in global surf exploration (prior to Google Earth).

The year was approximately 1950, and Rennie had been working for Hobie building wood boards, which at the time were generally in the 10-foot length and weighing more than 40 pounds, when he and Simmons took a trip up coast to Rincon.

The guys down south—mentioning Dora and Cabell—would watch for a west swell with size and push to land in local waters, and then follow it up coast. That is how surfers “found Rincon” when Yater and Simmons tracked back upstream and happened upon an empty Rincon, which was estimated to be about six feet.

By Rennie’s account he did not paddle out that day, but Simmons did. It was a lot of work pushing 10 feet of redwood and balsa into Rincon, and in a few waves Simmons was done, and the young men headed back down to Orange County.

Soon after, Yater had made the switch over to Velzy’s shop, and gradually transitioned out of wood and into the newer materials of polyurethane foam and fiberglass and polyester resin, all materials that had developed out of World War II and were aimed at military and marine applications. The guys repurposed the material, and surfboards became lighter and more manageable as a result.

He moved up coast to the Santa Barbara area around 1959 and pursued commercial fishing and surfboard manufacturing. Rincon over time, became a testing ground for what would in hindsight be decades of surfboard development overseen by Yater and those who worked directly under or were influenced by his surfing, board building, ocean centric lifestyle and work.

We spoke about the wave at Rincon enabling Rennie to see what a board was doing rapidly and with accuracy, due to the long predictable and powerful (by Orange County standards) nature of the wave, that wraps around the long right hand point break.

Rennie described the generations of design he saw through the years. Surfboards do that—evolve according to design tenet changes related directly to how a wave is going to be surfed by a specific generation of surfer. The two moderate each other; board and surfer, all under the watchful eyes and skilled hands of the surfboard designer-builder.

These are the design generations that Yater has seen at Rincon:

  • Wood Surfboard (Redwood to balsa- redwood combo to balsa)
  • Polyurethane foam longboard
  • Transition board
  • Shortboard revolution
  • Modern longboard and mini longboard
  • Contemporary shortboard

To this day, Rennie is still building boards and his mastery and diversity that spanssuch a long time frame, are unparalleled, for the most part.

I asked Rennie to tell me what some of his strongest memories were of Rincon, and of course the conversation morphed to that of weather and swell generators, and the historic swell year of 1969. He gave me a brief rundown of the swells at Rincon, as well as the conditions and manner in which he and others rode the place at arguably a size and quality that are exceptionally rare to find in the history of the sport.

Getting to spend time with Rennie is always a treat and something to be cherished. Not because he is this warm engaging guy—though I see him that way—but because he exemplifies close to 80 years of direct ocean experience, and will tell you exactly what he saw and how he came to those places, like Rincon.

In so many ways, board builders design the future for us as surfers, and Rennie has been at the helm via his planer, and design-building ability, which in my eyes, makes him possibly one of the premier first hand living narrative accounts of both Rincon the surfing industry and sport in the world today.

His Legacy is endemic in so many surfers and craftsmen, that it is literally impossible to count them all. I would imagine that the experiences of those people are literally what help paint the tapestry, which is modern surf culture today.