Board Out of His Mind

coverwebThe surfing industry honors Doug Haut’s sacred shaping career

Professional surfers make big celebrities these days. But without the shaper there wouldn’t be a board to ride.

Before there were international photo shoots, big-money sponsorships, fluid-seam wetsuits, fluorescent surf trunks or Reef Girls, there was the surfboard. In all its simplistic glory, there was a hunk of wood trimmed to carry an upright human being across a wave. From balsa wood boards to today’s foam phenoms, surfboards have come a long way in the hands of their unsung Gepettos—the shapers.

A wizard behind the resin-stained curtain, Doug Haut has epitomized the art of surfboard shaping for 50 years, and, at 71, he’s an under-the-radar Santa Cruz fixture.

This weekend, Saturday, March 19 and Sunday, March 20, the surfing industry’s Sacred Craft Expo is being held in Santa Cruz—hitting north of Ventura for the first time since its inception in 2007—and it’s paying homage to Haut.

cover2DougFor Scott Bass, the director of the expo that eschews the mainstream clothing hoopla and rockstar glam of surfing to promote the board and the local shaper, coming to town and honoring one of our own was a “no-brainer.”

“Santa Cruz is Surf City, I don’t care what anybody else says,” Bass asserts. “I don’t think there’s a house in Santa Cruz that doesn’t have a surfboard or a surfer in it. I knew at some point I had to pull the trigger and give Santa Cruz the chance to see this event and honor Doug Haut.”

With the Rittenhouse Building in Downtown Santa Cruz infiltrated by some of the greatest surfboard manufacturers in the world, Sacred Craft (sacredcraftexpo.com) will celebrate the surfboard through exhibits, seminars and live entertainment. “At the end of the day,” Bass contends, “nobody knows what kind of trunks Nat Young was wearing in the 1966 World Contest, but many people know his board was the sacred Sam.”

While Haut has shaped a fleet of special edition retro boards for display and auction (two have already sold for $5,000 each), five shapers he handpicked will compete in the Sacred Craft Tribute to the Masters Shape-Off to replicate his old school “Bump” shape.

Because imitation is the best form of flattery, Santa Cruz’s Bob Pearson, Ward Coffey and Steve Coletta will be joined by Kauai’s Mark Angell and Santa Barbara’s Wayne Rich in a contest to see whose version of Haut’s classic nine-foot, six-inch longboard will reign as champ.

Still, who is Haut? What’s inside the mind of the man behind the designs?

The Haut Report

Doug Haut doesn’t dig the spotlight. He appreciates it, but he doesn’t seek it. As his best friend and owner of NHS Richard Novak says, “this whole Sacred Craft thing is freaking him out.”

I am constantly warned by those who know him that he’s quiet, humble and not into speaking to the media. I learn firsthand that he’s a busy guy splitting his time between shaping and playing (fishing, duck hunting and surfing), and nailing him down for an interview is like tracking down Sasquatch.

Each time I went to the Haut Surf Shop on the Westside or coordinated a meeting with him, he ended up MIA. One time it was due to a film crew interviewing him for a documentary about local artist Jim Phillips, then it was because of a hunting show, and another time it was a quick surf session on the Eastside that stole him from me and my handy recorder.

I needed help. I needed to have someone give me the daily Haut Report. So I enlisted one of his young protégés at the shop to spy for me. I scribbled a note with my cell phone number on it and instructed that when Haut comes into the shop “please call Linda”—I made sure to emphasize—“from Good Times” not “for good times.”

cover3DougHautFinally, I received the call one morning: “Haut is in the shop now if you want to swing by and catch him!”

With my truck hugging the curves of West Cliff faster than Slater can win another championship, I made my way again to Swift Street and one unassuming surf shack.

A baby blue wood shed, the inconspicuous Haut Surf Shop boasts a sign that reads: “Hours vary with swell.” Angus, the one-eyed black cat, is the resident greeter alongside shop manager Jeff Langston, and the absence of vast space and clothing makes it an anomaly.

I spot Haut in the back room, clad in a red T-shirt devoid of any logos, about to heat up his lunch. Like a hawk, I corner him before he can hit the microwave. “How long is this going to take?” he asks in a friendly but unenthused manner. “Only 15 minutes or so,” I say, hoping for longer. And for the next hour the infamously private Haut opens up.

Haut Stuff

As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, Haut could have never guessed that someday he’d be highly esteemed in a sport he’d yet to witness. Still, his Wonder Years in the Midwest held some clues that he’d do just fine in the California surf culture.

cover4Steamer“I’m an Aquarian,” the iconic surfboard shaper reveals, “I’ve always been involved in the water since I was knee high. We used to always do lake vacations every summer, and I hung out at the swimming pool just like you hang out at the beach, swimming and diving.”

When Haut’s family moved to California in the late ’50s, he was on the Los Altos High School swim team but would head to the Santa Cruz beaches to bodysurf. And then, love at first sight.

“I saw a guy standing up and I said, ‘That’s for me.’” His first surfing steps would solidify a life path. “Oh, I was obsessed,” he remembers. “The adrenaline rush was just insane. It was like, ‘Wow, here I am, moving.’”

He learned to surf at Cowell’s Beach at the age of 17, at a time when there weren’t tiny groms running rampant because “back then you didn’t have a kid carrying a 30-pound board down the beach; it just wasn’t happening.”

As an 18-year-old sitting on East Cliff Drive watching the waves one afternoon, Haut would have a life-changing encounter when a 16-year-old local, Richard Novak, spotted him. Driving by in his ’54 Ford convertible, Novak saw a newbie and decided to investigate who was on his territory.

“Haut was sitting there at Pleasure Point and I pulled my car over to see who it was,” Novak recalls. “At that time when you’d see someone you’d just start talking to them because there wasn’t anybody to play with. If you wanted to go surf Outside Pleasure’s or Steamer Lane at the reef you had to find somebody to go with because there was no cord, no wetsuit—so you needed somebody in the water. Doug had just moved from Wisconsin. He was just sitting there and he was pretty cool. Even then he was quiet—he was a mischievous guy, but he won’t ever say that.” It was 1958 and the start of a friendship that is still strong today.

cover5_topdogsA year after meeting, Haut and Novak scraped their money together to make their first surf trip down to Rincon Point in Santa Barbara. Gas was between 11 and 18 cents per gallon, and they and their friends had the coastline to themselves. Since then, the two have traveled the world together, including yearly surf trips to their second home of Oahu’s North Shore.

As a teen, Haut worked for Jack O’Neill. At first, he was doing wood inlays and making fins before being introduced to shortboard construction—patching dings and working on fabrication, sanding and glassing. Soon after, he says, “I wanted to learn how to shape, so I started shaping my own personal boards and built boards for friends.”

“Doug killed my shaping career,” Novak laughs. “I thought I could shape until I rode his boards and realized how good they can be.”

Contrary to Novak’s assertion that Haut went to San Jose State “to major in girls,” Haut explored his artistic side while majoring in marine biology—drawing specimens and configurations in his biology, geology and geography classes. He’s still a unit shy of graduating with a degree. “I probably should have gotten into watercolors and oil painting, but I got into carving surfboards,” says Haut, whose mother was a painter in those other mediums. “I kind of look at my work now as carving sculptures.”

After spending his first Hawaiian winter in 1959, in 1963 Haut returned to work at Inter Island Surf Shop in Honolulu, where he was mentored by elder shaper Mike Diffenderfer. “I used to sand all of Diffenderfer’s boards, so I got the feel in my hands,” he remembers, holding out his rough, chalky palms. With a lot of shapers making boards for the store, the novice was exposed to all sorts of approaches. “I used to sand everybody’s boards, so I’d pick up all these techniques from all of these different guys and put them all together into my own style.”

cover6_shopBringing his experience back to the cold waters of Santa Cruz, Haut started shaping for George Olson, went on to operate out of a barn in Soquel, and then opened up the first Haut Surf Shop on Portola Drive in 1965. In 1969, a worker accidentally kicked a bucket of acetone into a floor heater and the shop went up in flames during the night. As a result, Haut opened the current shop on the Westside of Santa Cruz that same year.

Today, Haut Surf Shop is still perched on the corner of 345 Swift Street. It still sells boards and basic hardcore surf merch without the frills.

The H in NHS

With Haut Surf Shop moved to the Westside, good friends Novak, Haut and Jay Shuirman kept their presence on 41st Avenue by taking their DIY surf expertise—and the first letters of their last names—to start up a little Santa Cruz business called NHS. Originally they wanted to call it “Sticky Fingers Resin Company” but, Novak says, “the Rolling Stones beat us to it.”

Initially a surf company, in the mid-’70s the brand famously ventured into the skateboarding world as a commanding force. While it would spawn Santa Cruz Skateboards and the world-recognized dot logo designed by Jim Phillips, NHS couldn’t hold on to Haut, who wanted to solely stick with surfboards.

Recalling that fateful decision to leave what would become a monumental skate label in order to pursue his shaping, Haut sighs, “You could have gone in all kinds of different ways and I just went the way that was most comfortable to me. It is what it is.”

cover6_ShuirmanWhile Novak had the business drive, Haut was more of a quiet craftsman. It’s a dynamic that can still be seen in other parts of their relationship.

“He walks slow and I walk fast,” Novak laughs. “Like when we get into an airport, sometimes I’ll look back and he’ll be looking around daydreaming.”

Beaming at the thought of his old friend getting the recognition he deserves after all these years, Novak gets sentimental.

“He’s a good man and we’ve had a really good life,” he begins. “If we were young now I’d go nuts—too many cops, too many people, the little league parents have taken over surfing with all these contests. When we were young you went surfing because you enjoyed it.” He adds, “You picked your friends because they were nice people, not because of their surfing ability.”

Straight from the Source

Though the ’80s saw Haut in the contest limelight, placing fourth in the U.S. Championships, his true calling remained in the shaping bay. Today, he’s a grandfather who still shapes five to 10 boards a week, and he oversees a small team of about six employees. An avid reader of fantasy fiction books, and fearful of Facebook, Haut, like his shop, is all about no-bull, all-roots surf lifestyle.

A favorite moment from my sit-down chat with him? When I ask him what music he listens to and he surprises me with a quick rendition of “What is Love?” from A Night at the Roxbury. No joke. “I’ve got that song in my iPod because it’s a perfect beat for walking,” he laughs.

The following are some more gems, straight from the man himself.

You grew up in Wisconsin and now you’re being awarded for succeeding as a California surf bum.
[Laughs.] Well, if you do it long enough I guess you gotta be something!

cover8Saw Your advice to young shapers today?
I’m really impressed with the young shapers today but I wish there were more of them getting into the industry. I’m kind of worried that, especially the fabricators, they’re not showing up to work. It’s a good opportunity, we’ve got a good industry going here and I’d like to see it continue. There’s nothing to be ashamed of about working on surfboards. It’s not a high-paying career but it’s satisfying. There’s a reward in that aspect that you’re doing something that’s creating a lot of fun for a lot of people.

What about the current artistic state of shaping and surfing?
It’s getting lost. The glamour, the ego—I see a lot of kids getting ruined because they’re taking the essence of surfing and screwing it up. You’re out there to have fun and be one with the ocean instead of competing against each other. People yelling and fighting, that’s not surfing.

Your advice to young surfers?
Just enjoy it while you got it. Keep the competition on the backburner. There’s a lot of guys making money surfing but it’s an illusion because the percentage of surfers that get to that level, it’s pretty hard. If you go out for exercise and have a good time, because that’s what it’s all about, then you’re a winner.

Talk about the surfer-shaper relationship.
We still make the equipment and I hope we continue to make the equipment, but with the economic climate and the way the materials cost—’cause it’s all part of oil because it’s petrochemicals—it gets to the point where stuff that’s made now is made so cheap overseas. But then you don’t have the contact with the shaper that’s so critical. A shaper can guide you along to where your surfing is evolving to. That’s a pretty nice thing to have. Through a surfer’s evolution of surfing you can build him more complicated equipment to do more things for him, which is cool.

Favorite surf spot growing up?
Probably the Rivermouth. Back in those days that place was phenomenal. But it’ll never be that way again because of the way the sand has built up. In the old days the water used to come up to the cliff, there wasn’t a beach there. When they put that jetty there at the harbor, it trapped the sand so that over the years it kept building up. Those were the days, back in the late ’60s— oh my god, it was so good!

A lot of people in town don’t know that you’re the H in NHS.
I know, a lot of people don’t know! [Laughs.] But it is what it is. How can you advertise that sort of thing? Both of those guys used to work for me when we conceived this whole corporation! They were in sales and production.

cover9shopDo you regret leaving NHS?
Yeah, I kind of regret it on the monetary side of things. [Laughs.] That was kind of a bad move. But, you know, I’ve had a happy life. I’m totally proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve contributed.

After all these decades, what career highlights stand out for you?
My stay in Hawaii would be number one. My whole time in Hawaii was one of the highlights of my life. And my family that’s always stuck behind me. I did pretty good in the competition circuit too, but that’s when I really learned how bogus it was, because I was in it.

So why did you return to live in Santa Cruz?
That’s a good question. I’m kind of attached to this town. It has a magnetic attraction and it’s kind of hard to get away from. I got bored [in Hawaii] because it was like going around in a circle; Island Fever or Rock Fever. This town has a very high magnetic attraction to it, and if you’re open to it you know what I’m talking about. It’s Santa Cruz, “Saints of the Cross.” It’s a real high place.

What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a shaper?
I don’t know. I ask myself that question all the time: If I’d stayed in Wisconsin, what would I be doing right now? I just don’t know. I did really well in all my woodshop classes as a kid and I loved making furniture, so I’d probably be doing something with my hands like cabinet work or something.

What is something you look forward to?
Instead of a surf contest I’d like to see surf exhibitions where you take five or six guys from different sponsorships that go out there and have a heat, but there aren’t points. You’re giving a show for the people watching from the cliff. You see these guys surfing and everyone gets out of the water a winner, and you have a big party at the end of it and it’s all fun. That’s what I’d like to see before I go. I’d like to see exhibitions happen up and down the coast.

Anything you’d like to say about this Sacred Craft Expo nod?
I’m really appreciative that they picked me, and I will enjoy this moment. I want to thank everybody that made me who I am, all the boards I’ve made for people, all the influences I’ve gotten from people. It’s a great honor for me.

Words of wisdom?
Just follow your dream and work at it.

The Sacred Craft Expo is all day Saturday and Sunday, March 19 & 20, at the Rittenhouse Building, 1375 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $10. Sacredcraftexpo.com. Haut Surf Shop is located at 345 Swift St., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 426-7874.

Photo Captions
1. & 2. Doug Haut at Haut Surf Shop. Photo by Kelly Vaillancourt.
3. Doug Haut surfing The Lane in the mid-’60s. Photo courtesy of Richard Novak.
4. Doug Haut and Richard Novak in Big Sur during the late ’60s. Photo courtesy of Richard Novak
5. 1965 Haut Surf Shop on Portola Drive. (L-R) Jay Shuirman, Betty Van Dyke, Gene Van Dyke, Doug Haut. Photo courtesy of Richard Novak
6. NHS founders in 1970. (L-R) Richard Novak, Jay Shuirman, Doug Haut. Photo courtesy of Richard Novak
7. Doug Haut getting his saw on. Photo by Kelly Vaillancourt
8. Doug Haut doing what he does best. Photo by Kelly Vaillancourt

To read what happened at the debut Santa Cruz Sacred Craft Expo click here>


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