Al Merrick and Channel Islands Surfboards

Al Merrick

Photo credit: Jimmy Metyko

Al Merrick and Santa Barbara Surfing History

Al Merrick is a renowned surfboard shaper from Santa Barbara. Merrick’s Channel Islands surfboard shop was at the forefront of revolutionary advances in the sport of surfing during the 1980s. 

Merrick was born in New Jersey in 1944. His family relocated to north San Diego County when he was seven, and he started surfing at the age of 14. He moved to Santa Barbara in 1965 and was surfing at Rincon in late 1967 when Australian Bob McTavish debuted his newly created short surfboard in California. Merrick started shaping in the 1960s for friends and local Santa Barbara surfers, inspired by the performance opportunities of the new smaller boards, whose average length dropped from just under 10 feet to 8 feet and then steadily decreased from there. By 1969, he was producing boards under the Channel Islands brand and selling them through local surf shops.

During the 1960s, Merrick gained design experience working with fiberglass hulls while building boats at the Santa Barbara boatyard with Harry Davis. Merrick's boards quickly gained a reputation for their speed, maneuverability, and durability, and he soon became one of the most sought-after shapers in the surfing community. Merrick opened his first retail Channel Islands surf shop in 1969 at 16 Helena Ave., and spent countless hours experimenting with different surfboard shapes, designs, and materials to create the perfect board. 

In the 1970s, Merrick began shaping for Santa Barbara natives Davey Smith, a pioneer in aerial sports, and young Tom Curren, a rising star. The fortunes of Merrick and Channel Islands grew in step with Curren's pro surfing career—at age 15, he was winning pro-am competitions and was hailed as the savior of California surfing. In this period, Merrick also began shaping boards for 1977 world champion Shaun Tomson, which was largely due to the notoriety of Curren as a Channel Islands rider. Tomson rode one of Merrick's boards to victory at the 1975 Smirnoff Pro-Am Surfing Championships, and the surfboard shaper's reputation skyrocketed. Over the years, Merrick continued to work with many of the world's top surfers, including Tom Curren, Kim Mearig, Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, the Malloy brothers, and Matt Mondragon, who rode his boards to victory winning countless championships.

Al Merrick Surfboard Shaper
Photo credit: Jimmy Metyko

Merrick combined the best features of surfboard design innovations to refine the performance of his boards. For example, his advanced double-concave tri-plane hull design derived from the introduction of the tri-fin board by Australian Simon Anderson in 1981. Merrick’s unassuming fine-tuning of the tri-plane led to the design becoming the near-universal board choice by the mid-1980s. 

Merrick's success as a shaper was due in part to his willingness to innovate and experiment with new materials and designs. He was one of the first shapers to use computer-aided design (CAD) to create surfboard templates, and he was also an early adopter of new materials like epoxy resin and carbon fiber. Merrick's willingness to embrace new technologies helped him stay ahead of the competition, and his boards continue to be some of the most sought-after in the industry.

Tom Curren Channel Islands
Photo credit: Jimmy Metyko

Riding Merrick's boards, Curren won three world championships, while the shaper also served as Curren's mentor and occasional agent. Kelly Slater won the first of his 11 world championships riding Merrick's boards shortly after Curren quit the professional tour in 1991. Lisa Andersen, a four-time world champion (1994–1997), Kim Mearig, a 1983 world champion, Sofia Mulanovich, a 2004 world champion, and numerous more elite riders, such as Rob Machado, Taylor Knox, Shane Beschen, Bobby Martinez, Tim Curran, Lakey Peterson, Conner Coffin, Parker Coffin, Yadin Nichol, and Dane Reynolds, all rode Channel Islands boards.

In the early 1990s, Merrick switched to shaping boards using a computer-programmed machine, although each board was still hand-finished. By the middle of the 2000s, Merrick and a small group of Channel Islands surfboard shapers, including his son Britt Merrick, were using machines to assist with turning out well over 10,000 boards every year and selling them to shops all over the world.

In addition to his success as a shaper, Merrick is a devout born-again Christian and an active member of his local church. He also supported local surfers and sponsored numerous events and contests in the Santa Barbara area.

Australia's Surfing Life magazine named Merrick the best shaper in the world in 1992, 1993, and 1994. He was ranked #11 in Surfer magazine's 2002 list of the "25 Most Powerful People in Surfing," and Merrick was listed among the "10 Best Shapers of All Time" in Surfing magazine. The 2006 film documentary Flow: The True Story of a Surfing Revolution chronicled Merrick’s contributions to the sport of surfing during one of its most pivotal eras. In 2007, Merrick was admitted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame.