Innovative but prickly surfer from Hollywood, California; stepfather to surfing icon Mickey Dora; one of the most talented and least-liked surfers of the prewar era. "He ran circles around most guys up and down the California coast," boardmaker Joe Quigg said of Chapin, "because most surfers in his generation were laid back. To them, surfing was like going fishing. Gard was this wild, radical guy tearing up the ocean."
Chapin was born in Hollywood, probably in 1918, the son of a doctor, and began surfing in the early '30s. The heavy solid-wood plank boards in use during the period allowed for very little maneuvering, but Chapin, after developing a drop-knee stance in order to lower his center of gravity, had greater command over his board than virtually anyone on the coast. By the turn of the decade, Chapin—tall, blond, well-muscled—was regarded by many as the best wave-rider in the state. "Gard was fantastic." La Jolla regular Woody Ekstrom later told writer David Rensin. "He'd drop his knee all the way to the deck of his board and just whip the thing around. Nobody else could do it. He'd be going north, drop his whole leg, and then he'd be going south."
Chapin was aggressive in other ways, too. At a time when surfers often paddled into a wave together in groups of three or more, he was notorious for shouting and pushing others out of his way as he rode along. "He talked a lot; Gard was a funny guy," one surfer later recalled. "But we gave him a lot of space; everybody was a little afraid of Gard."
Ulcers, exacerbated by binge drinking, kept Chapin out of military service during World War II. Just after the end of the war, Chapin, a woodworker by trade, briefly worked with surfboard design genius Bob Simmons; the two have been cited as the first to use fiberglass as a board-making material.
Chapin married Mickey Dora's mother in the early '40s; he brought Mickey to the beach regularly when the boy was in his preteens, and greatly influenced Dora's personality. He also beat his stepson, and when Dora was 12, Chapin on a whim insisted that the boy be circumcised.
A car accident in 1947 left Chapin with a long-term neck injury, which, in turn, cost him his job. Over the next few years he dropped off the surf scene. While on a skindiving vacation to La Paz, Mexico, in December, 1957, Chapin finished dinner one evening, set off in a dinghy, and five days later was discovered floating face-down in the bay. He was buried in La Paz. Dora later told Surfer magazine that his stepfather had been murdered, though there was little evidence to support the claim.