by Eddie Solt Jr.
For over four decades, Pat Ryan been contributing to the evolution in surfboard design.
The San Diego native moved to Manhattan Beach in 1965, when he was 11.
“I remember riding my little Sting Ray, cruising down to Hermosa on The Strand. The Biltmore was there all boarded up. A little further down was Taco Bell with all the Hell’s Angels guys,” Ryan said. “Seeing all that was like, wooo.”
Ryan rode his Makaha and Continental skateboards in San Diego and got into surfing when he moved north.
“My first board was a 9-foot-8 Hobie with a yellow slipcheck band around the middle my sister air brushed on,” Ryan said. “My sister’s boyfriend would take me to the Hermosa Beach Pier.”
Hermosa was home to the miracle mike of surf shops. The young gremmie soaked it up.
“I hung out at the Greg Noll store at 1402 PCH. One day a salesman couldn’t make it and lo and behold I became a salesman for the day.”
Ryan moved into production at Noll’s innovative “all-in-one” (handling all areas of surfboard manufacturing) factory at 6th and Valley.
“One of the things I used to do at like 15, I’d make fin panels and while they were jelling try to cut out the whole panel with a linoleum knife before it hardened,” Ryan said. “Inevitably, it’d go off on me and the big strong guys like Greg Noll would grab the big ol’ linoleum knife finishing my job — they got over that soon.”
Then came the new technique of fabricating fin panels in separate layers, allowing the layer to go off and be sanded in between lamination. “They finally broke down and got a band saw,” Ryan laughed,
Ryan’s first time picking up a planer was during the initial stage of the shortboard revolution. He was under the guidance of two “perfectionists,” Noll and Hawaiian big-wave legend, George Downing.
“They really researched and knew what they were after,” Ryan said. “George Downing had a specific way of shaping by drawing up the stringer, cutting it out, placing it in a block of foam and shaping the foam to the stringer.
“It was the perfect time to learn how to shape because no one really knew what they were doing,” he said.
The two prevalent strains of thought were centered on the Australian, wide-tail V-bottom developed by Bob McTavish and Dick Brewer’s Hawaiian down-rail boards. Ryan enrolled in the Brewer school.
“The down-railers from Hawaii beat down the V-bottom’s from Australia like the Beatles beat down on the Dave Clark Five.” Ryan laughed.
Ryan, Eddie Talbot, and Mike De Noune (whom Ryan describes as “super talented” and as good as anybody) would travel up and down the coast surfing the evolving equipment.
“We were the three amigos,” Ryan said.
Coming from the longboard era, Ryan, like most surfers learned to surf knee paddling into waves.
“As boards got shorter and shorter, I always knee paddled, Ryan said. “The last board I ever had shaped by somebody else was a 7-foot-1 Kip Okamoto. I took it on a surf trip with Talbot up to Rights and Lefts at the Ranch.”
He and Talbot showed up to perfect four foot waves and Ryan soon realized that knee paddling into waves was a thing of the past.
“I was a decent surfer, I guess by then, but I never learned how to paddle prone,” Ryan said. “I ate it every possible way in perfect waves. It was very humiliating.”
With the shortboard in and longboards out, many of the old guard began folding their cards.
“I started shaping for Greg Noll,” Ryan chuckled, “but he soon went out of business.”
Ryan’s involvement with Noll in the shaping room began when surfboard manufacturers were being increasingly bombarded by competition from backyard shapers who where more aligned with the shortboard and terms like “the fourth dimension,” and “involvement.” A combination of a collective rebelliousness against the status quo and “the man,” including mainstream b surf labels, the ability to quickly evolve equipment and experiment without jeopardizing current model sales, and the general atmosphere of the era that embraced an “underground” feel, had the five big name South Bay manufacturers– Noll, Rick, Bing, Jacobs and Weber packing bags or downsizing.
“For surfboard manufacturing, it was the darks ages after the golden ages of the ‘60s when a 100 boards were made a week,” Ryan said. “Just about everybody pretty much closed down.”
In the aftermath, in 1972, E.T. Surf was opened up by Talbot with Ryan manning the shaping bay and producing beautiful boards.
“The 70s where a cool time,” Ryan smiled. “I had it pretty easy”
Fishes, swallow tails, stingers, guns, kneeboards, squaretails, pintails, bonzers, and other ‘70s design were a cakewalk for Ryan, but he felt the real advancement since the shortboard revolution was Simon Anderson’s Thruster.
“The first one I made, the trailer fin was actually bigger than the side fins and it had a big fat square tail, pretty straight.” Ryan said, “I could lift it out of the hole and fly going so much distance.”
Al Merrick stands out as one of Ryan’s biggest shaping influences..
“It turns out, a Californian, Al Merrick, with Tom Curren perfected the thruster,” Ryan said.
Working very close to the Becker Factory, Ryan points to Phil Becker as his other influence.
“Phil is an unbelievable shaper. At first I tried to make my boards look like Phil’s,” he laughed. “They never came out like his, so no one could tell I was trying to emulate.”
By the late ‘80s, Ryan got involved “pretty hardcore” in the windsurfing scene for a decade. He was shaping wind-surfboards for one of his friends, Evan Kim, who insisted he get out there.
“I did quite a bit of slalom racing because I was gifted with the build,” he said. “I’d look at the report and spend a lot of time at County Line, C-street, or in Baja loving it.”
A longboard renaissance began brewing in the ‘80s, by the early to mid-90s it exploded.
“It was a good time for making boards as it brought back longboard shapers in the bay and surfers out in the water after 20-years,” Ryan said. “Bill Stewart deserves a lot of credit for designing the hydro-hull and making longboarding a lot easier.
Around this time, Talbot opened up “Just Longboards,” a longboard specialty store that celebrated the past and embraced the future, right next to ET Surf. In an age when most shops expanded to incorporate more apparel and accessories, “JLB” was a constant reminder of yesteryear, back to the days of the first surf shop owned by Dale Velzy near the Manhattan Beach Pier, when the lines between showroom and shaping room were blurred.
“I had the best time with the shaping room right next to the showroom,” Ryan said. “It was great being the salesman again, like in the 60s, communicating with the customer.”
Ryan also picked up Australian Bob McTavish’s account. Ironically, the V-bottom shortboard innovator from 20 years earlier, was a main figurehead in the longboard revival. Ryan was the exclusive U.S. shaper for McTavish Surfboards.
“Bob came over and asked me to shape his boards and work with him,” he said. “He’s a genius designer with a different style of surfboard and I’d talk to him a lot.”
To solidify the deal with McTavish, Ryan went Australia and scored epic once-in-a-lifetime surf at “the pass” in Byron Bay.
By the early 2000s, the surf industry began being infiltrated by foreign produced “pop-outs” surfboards made of light-weight, stiff, and overly buoyant epoxy and marketed as almost indestructible. While many major big-name shapers sold their trademarks to this the pop-outs, Ryan started “the Plastic Trash Revolt” and penned a manifesto that was heavily circulated in the industry.
“I did it, made my point against the pop-out board, got out of it, and let it go,” he said. “I had and have no time for negatively, but in retrospect you don’t see those things out in the water—that says it all.”
After hand-shaping over 25,000 boards, Ryan felt it was time to advance his shapes with the assistance of a KKL shaping machine, which during their early period was also controversial. But his elbow tendonitis began taking a toll and he favored the accuracy of the machine.
“It was time for a new era,” he said. “The timing was right as the software got simpler and I had to compete with everybody else who had a machine.”
Ryan never saw the machine as a way to increase surfboard production. He’s known around the industry as a very quick hand shaper who can shape a board just about as fast as a machine.
“If I had to make one last board, the last board I’d ride forever, would I start out with a piece of foam and a template? No! I’d make my board on the machine,” he said.
“The shaping machine opened up a whole new era of surf design and advanced surfing in general over the last 10 years. The machine looks at concaves and subtleties more precisely than a shaper and treats surf designs on a different and much more detailed level,” he said.
After a stint in Gardena, Ryan is back shaping just one building over from where he got his start 40 or so years earlier. His boards are as diverse as they come and he’s working on “some fun stuff.”
“Right now, I’m working with lifeguard and paddler Tom Seth on a prone 9-foot-6 paddle board.” Ryan said. “It’s almost like paddling downhill because it’s so fast.”
After breaking his neck four years ago, Ryan needed to be out in the water but was physically not ready to paddle around the line-up. So he took up stand-up paddling.
“It was a real long recuperation and I was really weak,” he said, “Stand-up was a great way for me to get back into the water.”
Pat is back patrolling the local waters on his self-designed KingFish, which borrows from all his decades of foamsmithing.
“The Kingfish is board that you can take off stretching five from the nose and then step back and cut loose on the tail,” he said. “It lets the old guy pretend he’s a shortboarder with the stingers, making a seven footer feel like a six footer.”
When the surf is down or suffers from lack of shape, Ryan’s daily routine includes some sort of water time activity. He’s been training on his race SUP up to six days a week.
“With paddling and SUPs, you have many different modes — sight seeing mode, exercise mode, small surf mode, big surf mode,” he said. “With paddling there’s tranquility; I’ve seen common and bottlenose dolphins and ran into a pod of orcas at the R-10 buoy and quickly got out of there.” DZ
Eddie Solt, Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org