Bing Copeland surfing Waimea. Photo: BC

Bing Copeland surfing Waimea. Photo: BC

The Inertia

Bing Copeland grew up in a surf shop. He and Greg Noll started surfing at the Manhattan Beach Pier in 1949 when he was 13 years old. Soon after, he became a sort of de-facto apprentice to legendary shaper Dale Velzy. Bing would help cut templates and sand the balsa boards Velzy made in his little shop in Manhattan Beach, the first of its kind. He was learning what would eventually become his craft, but it wasn’t until years later that he would build his first board from start to finish.

In 1955, Bing and his friend Rick Stoner joined the Coast Guard Reserves in order to avoid being drafted for a four-year stint in the Army. After that, they left California for Hawaii, where Bing, Rick and a small cadre of surfers spent their days living in a quonset hut and honing their skills on bigger and bigger waves. “Then, when our money was running out, Rick and I both went active in Hawaii and got to stay there,” Bing tells me over the phone. “So, from 1955 to ‘57, we were in the Coast Guard in Sand Island, which is just outside of Waikiki, so when we weren’t working for the Coast Guard, we were surfing.”

“When we had 30 days leave, all the all the other guys that weren’t surfers in the Coast Guard would go home to their families and stuff like that, but Rick and I would go in our station wagon to the North Shore,” he continues. While they were there, they befriended a couple who owned a yacht at the local yacht club. “We just got to talking,” Bing explains. “He was a disc jockey in Honolulu. It was him and his wife, and they had a little one-year-old boy. They gave us a key to the showers that are in the yacht harbor there, so we could park our station wagon in the back.” They also sailed with them, “during the weekend races and stuff like that, as crew.”

They got along so well that, when Bing and Rick got out of the Coast Guard, the couple reached out and asked if they’d like to join them on a sailing trip. Bing and Rick were back in California at the time, working as lifeguards in the South Bay. The couple came through to California and said, “We’re leaving to go around the world. Are you coming with us or not?’”

Of course they were. They flew back to Honolulu and set sail. The voyage went to Tahiti and then Moorea, then Bing and Rick hitched a ride on another vessel that took them to Roratonga, Bora Bora and Fiji, before finally landing them in Auckland Harbor, New Zealand in November of 1958.

Bing and Rick, shortly before leaving Honolulu for Tahiti. Photo: BC

Bing and Rick, shortly before leaving Honolulu for Tahiti. Photo: BC

While they were there, Bing and Rick’s surfboards caught the eye of a few Kiwis on the dock. They were long balsa boards made by Velzy, the “Pig” model that had taken California by storm, but hadn’t yet made it to this side of the world. “They didn’t have modern-day surfboards in New Zealand at that time,” says Bing. “They had surf skis, like the 12-foot paddleboard-style with foot straps. They would sit on it with a double-bladed paddle, catch a wave and stand up and go straight off.”

So the Kiwis saw the boards and struck up a conversation. “They said there’s surf on the other side, on the Piha side,” remembers Bing. “We said, ‘Yeah, we’d like to see it.’ So they said, ‘Okay, we’ll take you.’”

The New Zealanders came back around the next day and drove them out to the beach at Piha, right in front of the local surf lifesaving club. “So we introduced ourselves to the guys at the club and said we’d like to try their waves,” Bing tells me. “They said, ‘Oh, our waves are very dangerous, but we’ll send a couple of guys on their surf skis to watch you guys, take care of you.’ So we said, ‘That’s fine, whatever.’”

When they paddled out, the waves were five-foot, maybe a few six-foot sets – nothing Bing and Rick couldn’t handle by turtling the boards. When they made it out, though, the New Zealanders were nowhere to be found. “The guys couldn’t get out with the surf skis,” explains Bing. “So we rode six or eight waves apiece. We did go-behinds and kick outs and, you know, just kind of showing off.”

“When we came in there were these New Zealand guys neck deep in the water, going “Give me a go, mate!” They all wanted to try our boards,” he continues. “So our boards literally never left the water during the daylight hours for the next couple of weeks, because somebody was always riding them.”

Bing on the yacht with his Velzy Pig, before setting sail, then again with the same board 50 years later. Photo: BC

Bing on the yacht with his Velzy Pig, before setting sail. Then again with the same board 50 years later. Photo: BC

Eventually, though, they were going to need those Pigs back. “What the hell,” they thought, they’d spent enough time in Velzy’s shop to know how to build a board. It was time for the New Zealanders to have some of their own.

They made friends with a man named Peter Byers, who had a tomato farm in Piha. He would go into town to sell his produce, so Bing and Rick hitched a ride to find materials. “We couldn’t find balsa or anything,” recalls Bing. “We found Styrofoam and epoxy resin and fiberglass. We got back out to the clubhouse and on the beach we glued up these Styrofoam blocks with a quarter inch plywood stringer.” They had the Velzy Pigs to make templates from, but no tools to speak of, let alone a planer. They ended up shaping the Styrofoam with cheese graters and sandpaper.

“So we built about a half a dozen boards on the beach, in fiberglass, in the clubhouse,” says Bing. “We sold the boards that we built and bought tickets on the Orient line to come back to California back to our lifeguard jobs. That was our first surfboards we built in New Zealand in Christmastime of 1958.”

Soon afterwards, they opened a little shop right on the beach in Hermosa Beach, “right around Christmas of ’59,” says Bing. “That’s when I started building boards.”

Editor’s Note: A version of this story and others from Bing’s career can be found in the book Bing Surfboards. The Inertia’s Cooper Gegan works with well-known shapers to tell the stories of the first boards they created.


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