We had been so naive, going about our everyday lives, free to hop on a plane to catch the next swell in Lombok or pack the car with boards for a weekend in Baja. We had endless dimension discussions within the deep blue walls of the shaping room. Sure our board orders were lagging a bit, but that was typical of an order placed during peak winter season. A broken fin or lost leash simply meant swinging by the local surf shop — a sure-fire remedy.
We had no idea how good we had it.
Then March rolled into our lives with unmatched ferocity. COVID-19 engulfed us and the world shut down. And though we have begun to emerge, albeit trepidatiously, our lives have been altered dramatically, and along with it, our access to the things many of us consider essential.
“Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we couldn’t get enough boogie boards because so many people were going to the beach every day,” remarked surf shop manager Grayson Nance. “We would get 200 boogie boards and they’d be gone in a week. And then all the manufacturers were out of boogie boards. So it was just chaotic.”
Still, Nance, whose father Roger Nance owns a Santa Barbara-area surf shop called The Beach House, is grateful for the business. “It’s a good problem to have for our industry, for sure. Especially as a family-owned business. People have been coming in and specifically saying they’re trying to shop local and not online. That, combined with the fact that you can’t get the stuff online because they’re sold out, so people are being forced to come into the surf shop, which has been huge for us.”
Despite the recent challenges that have shuttered many other mom and pop shops, The Beach House, which has been in business since 1962, has not only been able to remain open, but has seen items flying off shelves during this time of crisis. “There’s a lot of new surfers, obviously; there’s a lot of people that are getting in the water again who haven’t for a long time,” he said. “But it seems like the biggest shift has just been towards new surfers, which caters to the softboard crowd.”
As this new crop of COVID surfers helps sustain business through these tough times, Nance sees the potential for longer-term relationships, too: “If that first-timer who just started surfing during the pandemic comes here to get their surfboard, we help them get their wetsuit and, next thing you know, they’re coming back to us when they need their next board or their next wetsuit or booties […] I think that we’re going to see a lot of that even in coming months and in the coming years.”
For now, they are stocking the shelves and stoking out customers as best they can. Their inventory has taken a blow from various supply-chain kinks, including months-long factory closures in China slowing down production. This makes formerly insignificant mishaps – like a shipping container full of boards, wetsuits, leashes, and deck pads that was rumored to have fallen overboard recently – a significant snafu. Another factor is basic manpower. With a limited number of on-site staff in all essential businesses, operating at production rates of pre-pandemic times is impossible. Nance, who has a long-standing relationship with one of the country’s largest harbors, shares an additional challenge stemming from being short-staffed: “I’ve been even hearing from the ports in Long Beach that they have container ships just stacked up, waiting to come in full of surf stuff.”
Surf stores are offering what they can to get you through these tough times. “As much as we can get in here, we can sell,” Nance says. “We try to get more from the manufacturers and it seems like they’re cleaned out as well. So it’s all the way back to the beginning of this supply chain [….] They’re out of surfboard blanks and leashes and fins and everything else.”
Channel Islands Surfboards, another Santa Barbara-based company, halted production in the first few months of the pandemic only to later open at a limited production pace, leaving the few workers who are in the shaping room slammed with cuts to complete and boards to send to the glasser. “I have literally been head-down, buried in work,” said Channel Islands shaper Michael Walter. “It’s literally the busiest I’ve ever seen it.” Walter has been shaping with the company since the early 2000s. This uptick in demand, coinciding with the typical uncertainty and adjustment that accompanies a changing of the guard as the Merrick family regains ownership (Burton recently sold the brand back to the Merricks), has resulted in a lucrative, though stop-and-go year when it comes to pumping out boards to the masses. Merrick reported that sales are up exponentially.
Shapers running smaller-scale productions have been faced with a lack of materials. Long-time longboard shaper Renny Yater is having trouble sourcing blanks because the factory is lacking materials to make them. When he does get a batch, it’s then the glassing stage that gets stalled, again due to lack of manpower and supplies.
The experience, though not unique to Yater or CI, is not affecting everybody. Pyzel Surfboards owner and shaper (and world’s best brother) Jon Pyzel, has been working with limited staff and shop hours but has not been largely affected by kinks in the supply chain. “For me, nothing has changed at all,” he told me. “I work with Arctic Foam mostly and they have been great with making sure we have everything that we need. We have yet to experience any lack of availability as far as board building materials go. If anything, it may be a little slower as far as shipping us stuff, but that is it.”
Along with boards, shipping issues have hit the fan on gear orders too, according to Jamie O’Brien’s camp. “I feel bad because we’re working hard at our house trying to ship out our merchandise to people that ordered it,” said Jamie O’Brien, of pumping out Stay Psyched merch orders from his home office at Pipeline. “There’s all these delays in shipping and whatnot. But at the end of the day, it’s just being transparent with people and like, that’s what it is, man… Go with the flow; we all got to get through it together.”