“Getting a surfboard from Dicky Keating is like getting a violin from Mr. Stradivarius,“ I said proudly to the group of surfers ogling my new board. Everyone was so excited I thought that I should have passed out cigars. Dicky protested when he heard me say that, but his modesty has always been one of his most endearing strengths. And besides, I think I’m right.
At age 70, Keating has been surfing 68 years. His parents Bob and Leah Keating, and his uncle Dick were pioneer surfers in Northern California back in the early 1940’s. One of the family portraits shows Dickey at age two laying happily on a board right there at Pedro Point where he has always lived.
He isn’t a big name in the surfboard industry although O’Neil did put out one of his shapes, “The Dicky Delight,” back in the 60’s. Among big wave riders Dicky is a well- respected pioneer. He won the first California Big Wave Contest in 1964. He finished ninth in the first Duke Invitational. Fred Van Dyke wrote about him in his first book, 30 Years of Riding the World’s Biggest Waves, and recently paid him the ultimate tribute by giving him the title of “a true waterman.” Dicky gave up surfing in contests decades ago so that the rest of us could win one every once in a while. Like all really great surfers he knows that the world’s best surfer is the one who is having the most fun.
I’ve written several articles about Dickey and his surfing family over the years. We always called him “the incredible floating man.” He fishes for a living, he surfs for fun, and he sleeps on a water bed. He is floating practically all of the time! He probably has ridden several hundred thousand waves. He’s ridden them all large and small with style and grace.
For 56 years he has been building his own boards and every few years, a few for his friends. He doesn’t merely shape the board. He’s too much of a perfectionist to let anyone else do the rest of it. The board he just finished for me is the most beautiful board I have ever seen. And, since I started surfing with Dicky 53 years ago, I’ve seen a lot of boards.
My new board is the culmination of Dicky’s life in, on, and under the ocean. It is also the direct result of a “research” trip he took to the islands in the late 60’s where he deliberately rode many different sizes, shapes and styles of boards. “I wasn’t trying to look good. I was just trying so see what each one could do best,” Keating said. Then he incorporated the best features of them all and combined them into a shape, recognizable on the first wave, as one of those magic boards that comes along every once in a while.
The shape is classic. It is nine feet long, 22 inches wide, with one fin and a five-1/4- inch square tail. But there are many subtle refinements. There is a slight concave in the nose for lift and stability on the nose. It has an almost imperceptible vee in the tail. The hips are high, about six inches above center. The rails are thin, softer in the middle and harder in the rear. It will carve easy sweeping turns but have a bit of extra squirt.
I’ve been riding that board since 1996. I knew exactly how it was going to ride because I rode the prototype that Dicky made for himself. I immediately tried to buy it from him. So did several other surfers. Everybody that tried it instantly had big stick envy. It was so sweet and responsive. To keep the local peace, Dicky built and sculpted a replica for his daughter.
Gary Zerrilla, another Pedro Point surfer who has long lived on Kauai, created the amazing artwork on each of these boards. Gary is a skilled carpenter and craftsman but he also earned a Masters Degree in Art from Stanford University. The surfboard is a great canvas for his photo-realistic style of airbrush art. He did a board a few years ago that had orange and black and red-hot lava flowing from the tip to tail. It was so hot-looking that if you licked your finger and touched it, your finger would have sizzled.
Gary has come up with a secret technique that can make a board look exactly like carved balsa or koa wood, even to the way the grain changes on the curved rails. He also creates exquisite bamboo and banana leaf boards. When he painted a board with a liquid look for super model Christy Brinkley, I knew that it would be as luscious and translucent as a tropical lagoon.
Although the modest DK logo (with Pedro Point etched in the background) is familiar to veteran surfers from Santa Cruz to San Francisco and Gary has painted a number of boards in the islands, neither are well known. They don’t produce large quantities of boards for large companies with humongous advertising budgets. But they are both true craftsmen and artists. I always think of surfboards as being functional art. In a world so full of mass produced disposable schlock and soulless pop-outs, our culture doesn’t usually seem to reward true craftsmen and artists with enough recognition and appreciation.
But I know that I will always treasure this beautiful sculpture. When I wax it, I feel like Daniel Boone must have when he polished his ornate flintlock rifle named Betsy. I know the satisfaction that glinted In Jim Bowie’s eye when he put the edge on his custom built knife. When I ride it I know the kind of rip-the -cover-off- the-ball power of Wonderboy, Robert Redford’s custom baseball bat in The Natural.
Dickey and Gary are hidden local treasures. Every beach has local craftsmen and artists who create these purposeful hydrodynamic sculptures. They don’t do it just for the money because no one can afford to pay for all their expert knowledge, the extra time, the care and the pride they put into each custom board. The decades of friendship and surfing adventures that come with a custom board cannot be bought.
A deep love of the sport is part of the reason they do it. The satisfaction that must come from creating something truly beautiful must be one of the main psychic benefits. Like the booming local food movement, locally made surfboards help the local economy. Local shapers are also essential to the innovation required to progress surfing. They are not constrained by business economics to sell large numbers of boards and bottom line mentalities.
Any surfer who is serious about progressing their surfing and wants to get better at it, must advance past those soft top beginner boards as soon as possible.
Local custom board makers, people like Dicky (DK Surfboards) and Gary, or Rick Eastman (Wander Inn Surfboards,) Steve Iverson (Iverson Surfboards) or Craig MacArthur (Cowboy Surfboards) are like precious seashells on the beach between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. All you have to do to find them is keep your eyes open and spend a lot of time at the seashore.