It’s funny: part of me feels like I shouldn’t write this piece. Who am I to discuss the life and work of a legend? But then the other part of me, the human part, feels like I have no choice. Dick Brewer’s passing affected me like it affected every surfer: immensely, because Brewer, also called “the Einstein of Surfing” by renowned shaper Owl Chapman, and “one of the ten best shapers of all time” by Surfing magazine, made a profound, lasting impact on not only the designs of surfboards ridden today, but on the process of designing boards itself. If you ride a shortboard or a gun, you are especially impacted by the life of Dick Brewer.
But besides board design, Dick Brewer’s life left us with much to reflect on. Brewer was a complicated individual whose time on Earth was as complex and difficult as anyone else’s, and his outlooks reflect as much. Looking to Brewer, we learn the importance of listening to one’s heart, of being an individual, of collaborating with others. It may sound corny, but it’s true.
These are the themes that may contribute to the many, many praises sung about Brewer today. It’s hard to find another shaper who is as well regarded as RB. In the words of Henry Knapp, who runs the Shred Sledz blog, “there are few shapers who can claim to have influenced modern surfboard design as much as Dick Brewer.” Brewer was literally blessed by The Duke and there’s even a rumor out there that JFK possibly commissioned Brewer to make him a surfboard.
And in the words of Matt Warshaw, “Brewer influenced virtually every shaper of the late sixties and seventies, and was mentor to Gerry Lopez, Reno Abellira, Terry Fitzgerald, Mark Richards, and other notable surfer/shapers.”
But RB’s dedication to pushing the limits of what is possible in surfing is not only inspiring, but really the standard through which we should uphold ourselves in all aspects of our lives from now on. Everyone, whether they are a shaper, surfer, or simply a regular human anywhere on their journey in life, has something to learn from the life of Dick Brewer.
I say everyone because, at the core, Brewer’s life is as human as yours or mine. It’s easy to see legends, especially legends who designed boards that at one time ruled Waimea Bay, as larger than life. But Brewer, especially, comes across as more mystical than the average person. Matt Warshaw, when asked about RB’s influence said Brewer was “the shaper everybody knelt down before. He stands alone in just about every regard.”
I could go on forever listing Dick Brewer’s countless achievements and innovations to the surfing world, but there are other articles, like this one by Drew Kampion for The Surfer’s Journal, that do just that. So, I’ll highlight just a few: the ones I feel like not just surfers and shapers, but normal people too, can most gain insight from.
Though, if you have time, I highly recommend researching the life and designs of Mr. Brewer — his story weaves an impressively intricate web with many other surfing legends (think Reno Abellira, Jack Reeves, Terry Fitzgerald, Greg Noll, who also all contributed much to the way we experience surfing today). But even standing alone, Brewer’s life paints a vivid picture of surfing’s golden years and of the realities of big wave surfing of the time.
Initially, one observation I picked up when “researching” Dick Brewer’s life story was (and it probably goes without saying) he was extremely intelligent, but perhaps even more importantly, he valued his time. He was driven to work for the missions he did care about, which is to say, he put effort into very specific ventures. But he was also perfectly fine waking away from things that no longer served him. In fact, Brewer dropped out of college.
He was studying mechanical engineering, but by leaving, Brewer went on to open Surfboards Hawaii in 1961. In doing so, Brewer set a new standard for high performance on Oahu, including at Waimea, Sunset Beach, Makaha, Pipeline, and even around the smaller-wave haven of Honolulu.
Brewer boards were ridden to victory at two Duke Invitationals, some of the most prestigious contests of the day. Even Miki Dora, the notorious Malibu legend who usually scoffed at contests, made a point of attending those.
And though his boards did well in contests, Brewer loved surfing for the pure act of surfing and its affect on the individual. He once was quoted as saying, “when we’re really sincerely trying to get better and improve… we do get better! We get pure!”
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This quote stands out. Knowingly or unknowingly, Brewer points to an undeniable component of human nature. Often, we get so caught up in doing what’s “right” we forget to do what we care about. We feel a sense of guilt from pursuing our passions, or pursuing paths that may not be deemed acceptable to most of society. But what we forget is that when we drop some things to make room for what we really want to do, entire communities reap the benefits.
Brewer also shaped for Hobie and Bing (introducing some legendary models such as the Bumble Bee). He later had to end things with Bing, as his designs became a little too far out for Bing’s visions at the time.
But again, this unwavering dedication to self was not without reward, as the heart of Brewer’s radical contributions to surfing lie in the late 1960s, in my opinion. In 1967 and 1968, two things were brewing in the surf world: experimentation with acid and the beginnings of shorter board designs. For both of these reasons, LSD Surfboards, or Lahaina Surf Designs, was created. Some of the first “shortboards” were also created. And Brewer was working with surfers to design these boards. The shaping process itself, and the connection between surfer and shaper, was influenced by Brewer and his “test pilots” Reno, Chappy, Gerry Lopez, to name a few.
To say Brewer impacted the design of boards today would be an understatement. Moreover, modern guns ride the way they do because of Brewer’s progression to the board’s outline, rails, volume, and foils.
But for all of his larger-than-life achievements, Brewer like many people, was not immune to darkness. He suffered intense loss when his son was killed in a car accident, struggled with heroin addiction, and lost the rights to his own name in the board-shaping business, among others.
But instead of succumbing to grief or the spiral of addiction, Brewer moved to another Hawaiian island and practiced yoga and meditation to recreate himself. This was perhaps the most interesting aspect of Brewer’s life story, to me. Someone in Brewer’s position, who had already accomplished so much, could have easily stopped then.
But, in typical Brewer fashion, doing a lot was not doing enough. The limits must always be pushed. And when pushing the limits becomes too much, if you lose yourself, you can always begin again.
Improvement was a core value to Dick Brewer, and not for money, status, or fame. Holding oneself to the highest standard possible is not only admirable, but what makes someone a legend at the end of a day, a decade, an era.
If we all were to live the way Dick Brewer lived, by constantly pushing ourselves to innovate, to connect ourselves to people with similar passions, to stand by our beliefs no matter what the cost, the world would truly be a better place.