White moved to Santa Barbara in 1956 from Hermosa Beach to study engineering at UCSB. He lived at Miramar, near Hammonds, where he earned the nickname “White Owl” when a friend saw him puffing on a White Owl cigar at a college party on Miramar Beach. During his time as a student, White worked as a lifeguard at Carpinteria State Beach and took up dory racing.
In a 2008 interview with local Santa Barbara surfer and filmmaker David Pu’u, White recounts getting his first surfboard at the age of 12 in 1951 in Venice Beach from shaper Bob Simmons. He and some friends bought some old World War II balsa life rafts in San Pedro and brought them to Simmons to shape for $5 a piece. The boards were about 8’ or so. White and his dad glassed the boards themselves at home. He bought his next surfboard a year later from Dale Velzy: a redwood board with a detachable fin.
In 1961, White set out to launch a boat-building business. He used a small business loan to rent shop space at 2320 Lillie Avenue in Summerland, next to Renny Yater’s shop. The space was attached to Shanty, a popular local burger joint. Instead, he enlisted Brian Bradley, and local Carpinteria grom surfer Stan Veith, to help him use the space to shape surfboard blanks. And so White Owl Surfboards was born, with the tagline “Fine surfboards by craftsmen who care.” Other local shapers soon joined the team, including Bruce Fowler, Curtis Jackson, Tom Rowland, Brian Bradley, and eventually Marc Andreini. By 1963, the name evolved to become just Owl Surfboards.
In 1964, White opened a second Owl surfboard shop in Santa Cruz, California, at 24 Front Street. Veith moved up to Santa Cruz to run the shop, which began to sell more and more boards and rent boards for $5 a day.
Meanwhile, White expanded the Lillie Avenue shop to include surf apparel and wetsuits for sale. The shop grew as a hangout spot for young surfers from Carpinteria, Summerland, and Montecito. Local Hammond’s surfer Greg Tally tells a story about his mom dropping him off at the Owl shop as a kid, where he would hang out with other local surf groms, Peter and Marc Andreini. White taught the kids how to do ding repair and recruited them for an informal White Owl surf team. Marc Andreini recounts, “Jeff was so good to us... We were just little kids finding our way. But he took us in and made us a part of his deal. He really cared about people and about kids. When somebody has that kind of outlook on life, it makes things happen.”
Marc Andreini surfing in a White Owl surf contest at Stanley's in 1966
In 1965, White made his next enterprising move in the local Santa Barbara surf scene when he founded a downtown surf shop named Surf n’ Wear on Carrillo Street, which focused on selling surf apparel and accessories as well as surfboards. By 1974, Jeff had opened Surf n’ Wear surf shops in San Luis Obispo, San Jose, and Goleta. Around this time, he asked Marc Andreini if he would shape boards under the Owl label.
In 1975, Roger Nance started working at the Goleta Surf n’ Wear shop and eventually became manager. Nance had moved to Santa Barbara from Santa Cruz to attend UCSB. He remembered White with admiration from the Santa Cruz shop. Nance and White formed a partnership in 1978, which led to the opening of new Surf n’ Wear shops in Thousand Oaks and Santa Maria. They also briefly partnered with Matt Moore of Rincon Designs to run a shop in Carpinteria. That same year, Nance and White kicked off the annual Rincon Classic surf contest. A few years later, all Surf n’ Wear shops except for the flagship downtown shop were sold.
Roger Nance at the Carrillo St. Surf n' Wear in the 1970s
In 1987, White and Nance seized on a timely opportunity to open another downtown store on the waterfront at 10 State Street. The stars aligned at this spot in 1991 with the return of Marc Andreini, who resumed shaping boards under the Owl surfboards label to sell in the new Surf n’ Wear’s Beach House location. By 1993, White and Nance had bought Williams’ share of the business and expanded the board room at the shop to sell Yater surfboards as well as some Bradbury boards. In 1999, Surf n' Wear's Beach House became the official Yater Surfboards showroom.
Jeff White soaking in the ocean air circa 1985
White’s love of swimming and ocean sports ultimately had a profound healing effect as White began to suffer from multiple sclerosis. With his characteristic positive and grateful spirit, White defied his physical limitations to swim in the ocean in front of his Carpinteria home every day. His love of community and the ocean lives on in the surfing history legacy he created through the simplest of things. As White recounted, “I really liked making surfboards. It wasn’t like going to work. It was like playtime. You liked the people you were surrounded with, you liked what you were doing. It’s a thrill to sell a surfboard.”