Merrick, Al


Low-key surfboard shaper from Santa Barbara, California; founder and owner of Channel Islands Surfboards, and the boardmaking industry's dominant figure since the 1980's. Merrick was born (1944) in New Jersey, moved with his family to north San Diego County at age seven, and began surfing at 14. He moved to Santa Barbara in 1965, and was in the water at Rincon in late 1967 when Australian Bob McTavish introduced his newly designed short surfboard to California. The performance possibilities offered by the smaller boards—average length dropped from just under 10 feet to eight feet, and continued to fall steadily over the next two years—inspired Merrick to begin shaping; by 1969 he was making boards under the Channel Islands label, and selling them through local surf-retail outlets. (Merrick's development was interrupted in 1968 by a possession with intent to distrubute marijuana conviction and subsequent eight-month prison term.)

Merrick came to the attention of the surf world in the late '70s, when he made boards for 1977 world champion Shaun Tomson; at that time he also began working with aerial pioneer Davey Smith and junior-high-school phenom Tom Curren, both of Santa Barbara. As Curren's reputation grew—at 15 he was winning pro-am contests and being hailed as the savior of California surfing—so, too, did the fortunes of Merrick and Channel Islands.

Merrick pushed his advanced water-channeling double-concave tri-plane hull design in the late '70s and early '80s, but his boards generally haven't been innovative so much as models of synthesis and refinement. It was Australian Simon Anderson who introduced the tri-fin board in 1981, for example, but it was the soft-voiced Merrick who did much of the subsequent fine-tuning that saw the design become the near-universal board choice by mid-decade. "I'm a designer but I haven't discovered anything," Merrick admitted in 1987. "I'm just using what's been around before . . . and I'm sure I'll take more ideas from somebody in the future."

Curren won three world titles using Merrick's boards, with the shaper also acting as Curren's father figure and part-time agent. Just after Curren left the pro tour in 1991, Floridian marvel Kelly Slater rode Merrick's boards to the first of eleven world titles. Four-time world champion Lisa Andersen (1994–97) used Merrick's boards, as did world champions Kim Mearig (1983), Sofia Mulanovich (2004) and dozens of topflight riders including Rob Machado, Taylor Knox, Shane Beschen, Tim Curran, Yadin Nichol, and Dane Reynolds.

Merrick, a devout born-again Christian, opened his first retail shop in 1978, and in the early '90s he became one of the first shapers to switch over to computer-programmed machine shaping, although each board was hand-finished. By the mid 2000s, Merrick and his small cadre of machine-assisted Channel Islands shapers (including son Britt Merrick) were producing well over 10,000 boards annually, and distributing them to retail outlets around the world.

Merrick was named the top shaper in the world by Australia's Surfing Life magazine in 1992, 1993, and 1994. Surfer magazine named him #11 in their 2002 ranking of the "25 Most Powerful People in Surfing," and Surfing magazine included Merrick among their list of the "10 Best Shapers of All Time." Merrick was inducted into the Surfer's Hall of Fame at Huntington Beach in 2007.

Flow, a 2006 documentary, chronicled Merrick's shaping history and features footage of some of Channel Island's best team riders.