50 Years, 20 Titles, 3 Generations: Al Merrick’s Iconic Brands Isn’t Resting on its Laurels
A version of this article previously appeared on Surfline.
Written by Jamie Brisick
Portraits by Kevin Roche
In 1969, Al and Terry Merrick borrowed $200 from Al’s parents, bought resin and cloth, and started Channel Islands surfboards from their garage in Carpinteria.
The rest, as they say, is history. This summer marks CI’s 50th anniversary. But they were not about to pop the champagne bottle or launch some self-congratulatory ad campaign.
“It’s not that we aren’t really proud of the 50 years,” said Britt Merrick, CI’s lead shaper and designer. “We are really proud—we just see it as the story’s continuing. We don’t want to write the postscript yet.”
Britt and I were standing atop the bluff overlooking Rincon Indicator. The sky was cloudless. A carpet of shimmering blue stretched out to the islands where the brand gets its name. Seagulls soared overhead.
There were ghosts wafting up from that beach below us. In the ‘80s, I participated in the fabled Channel Islands team workouts—unprecedented at the time, and even more so in Santa Barbara where black wetsuits/clear single fins reigned supreme. Al was ushering us into the high-performance age, one that his designs would contribute to in a big way. Designs that would go on to assist CI’s team riders to earn 20 world titles and counting. Today, CI remains the world’s leading surfboard brand. It is rare for a board company to dominate for all these decades. And rarer still for a father to hand the shaping reins over to his son.
“The ethos that I took from my dad is that shaping isn’t a self-centered thing. The goal is to always serve the surfer, and to further their experience,” said Britt, a tall, sturdy man with a spectacular beard and an upright demeanor much like his father’s.
Britt’s childhood memories are caked in foam dust. He spent thousands of hours watching his dad shape boards for the best surfers in the world. There were test-piloting sessions at Rincon with Shaun Tomson and Tom Curren in which they’d show up with a half-dozen fresh shapes and have at it. Afterward, in the living room of the Merrick family home, boards spread across the carpet, young Britt listened closely as Shaun and Tom shared their feedback. By the time he shaped his first board in his late teens, it all rang familiar.
“I felt like, ‘I know how to use a planer. I know how to use a surform. I know how to use my sanding block. I know how to approach this part of the nose and the tail flip here,’” said Britt.
We talked about how surfboards are so much more than just the little fun sticks that we ride across waves. I told him how the best chapters of my life have often been accompanied by a magic shred-sled (chicken or the egg?), and Britt told me how in the days after his daughter’s passing, he healed himself in tiny waves at Rincon, on a board that he will never forget.
“There was something really deep about, ‘This board is letting me surf one-foot Rincon, and that’s somehow helping me and healing my soul—I love this board for the rest of my life!’ I could tell you where it’s at in my barn at home right now. And so I know that surfboards in the right context mean a lot to people, so it means a lot to me to be able to contribute to that.”
I asked Britt what he enjoys most about shaping.
“Surfing,” he told me. “My dad got into it because he loved surfing, and connected to that is the love of surfboards. I really deeply love surfboards and I’m slightly obsessed. I wake up in the middle of the night—it happened to me last night—thinking about rockers and seeing foils and seeing it all come together.”
“Everything is subservient to the rocker,” said Britt. “The rocker is the single most important part of a surfboard. Period.” Britt told me that his father explained rocker in terms of hydrodynamics. “He taught me that my eyes and my hands and my tools had to become water. So he would always shape with two hands. He might only have a tool in one hand, but the other one was water feeling what the tool was doing, following the tool path. Your eyes and your mind become water—and what is the water doing?”
They could have shipped production off to Asia and made far more money, but they chose not to. Instead, CI remains committed to not only the longstanding traditions and culture of domestic board building, but to the dozens of surfers they employ in their Carpinteria factory who are able to support their families by shaping, laminating, finning, and sanding the boards we enjoy. Considering the rising cost of materials and the increasing headwinds from California State regulations, it’s no small feat to pull off building boards in their hometown. But CI would have it no other way.
“We love the experience, we love the art, we love craftsmanship, we love the joy that it brings to people,” said Britt. “It’s the experience of hands-on making a surfboard, feeling the materials, putting that love into it. And this love and joy for the art of board building is something I have passed on to my 18-year-old son Isaiah who has been working here a few years now doing our in-house airbrushes and installing the spines by hand for our Spine-Tek-built boards.”
Longevity is not an easy thing for the surfboard builder. It’s physically taxing. Numerous regulatory bodies demand strict compliance. Board design evolves, leaving seminal designers behind. CI began in the age of long and lateral-minded single fins—and here they are today at the vanguard of the tail-blasting, air-twirling, high-performance shortboard. How have they managed to pull that off?
“Here’s what my dad taught me: Never be satisfied. You’re only as good as your last board. He never sat back and said, ‘O.K., the boards are good enough.’ I remember my dad saying, ‘Kelly is a better surfer than the boards let him be.’ He believed that. So he was driven—not by ego or fear, but by passion.”
We pride ourselves in being able to build what you dream up. Use our custom Board Builder to design a surfboard that is uniquely yours. We provide the shape. You customize the look and dimensions. Your personal CI is delivered in about six weeks.