Wild Coast Whomp

Subcultural surfcraft star at Waddell Creek State Beach bodysurfing gear celebration.

Goat Trails

Story and photos by Ryan Masters
Subcultures attract weirdo deviance and dreamy genius. But swim down into the murky waters of a sub-subculture and you frequently find something else…true art.

It is early in the morning of a cold spring day at Waddell Beach near the Santa Cruz-San Mateo County Line. The waves are marginal. The wind is already beginning to whip and snap the coast. And thanks to long overdue upwelling, the water is skull-cracking cold.

Heinous conditions for a surf event, but this isn’t really a surf event. It’s the Wild Coast Whomp—a gathering of pleasantly demented people who design, manufacture and ride exquisitely crafted bits of wood, cork and fiberglass.

Inspired by San Clemente’s Handplane Hoedown, the Whomp is a celebration of the watermen and waterwomen who bodysurf the frigid, lonely miles between Santa Cruz, San Francisco and beyond. The brainchild of Jason Hackforth (Superbiscuit), Brian Himilan (Longship Design), Matt Evarts (Shelter Handboards) and Gary Hogue, it features a wide assortment of experimental surfcraft, most of which fit on your hand.

“There’s this San Francisco-Santa Cruz bodysurfing connection that we wanted to bring together,” says Hogue. “So about a month ago we just picked a beach right in the middle and put the call out.”

Not exactly a practical spot for bodysurfing in spring, but, symbolically, Waddell Creek is an excellent choice.

“Yeah, I think next year we’re going to do it in January or February and pick a better break,” Hogue concedes.

But who cares? The water is too damn cold to surf long anyway and the real attraction today is the diverse and artful collection of trippy surf vehicles displayed in the parking lot.

Longship Design
Brian Himilan is an artist and surfer who grew up tinkering in a woodshop. Under the name Longship Design, he creates a wide assortment of handplanes and bellyboards, as well as traditional Hawaiian alaia and paipo, out of a rich, yellow poplar sealed with a finish of linseed oil.

He likes the wood for its hardness, durability and workability. He also likes the fact that early American settlers used the wood to make log cabins and Native Americans used the trunk of the tree for their dugout canoes.

Fittingly, Himilan’s boards have a timeless quality. They are simple and functional, but possess absolutely gorgeous lines and subtle concavities. The wood glows. They demand to be touched. They would look as good on your wall as they do trimming across the face of a wave.

The essence of Longship Design is to tap into the fundamental joy of wave riding; to encapsulate hundreds of years of surf riding in wood. Himilan has also incorporated some inspired modern touches. For example, he modeled one of his pieces after a Panda Express fast food tray.

After experimenting with dozens of designs and ideas, Himilan hit upon what he calls the perfect board. At first glance, it’s a basic-looking kickboard. But to the artist, it represents the completion of a full circle.

“I could travel the world with only this one board,” he says. “You can ride just about anything on this. It’s universal; Japan, Africa, Polynesia—all of these cultures rode something similar.”

Himilan’s personal motto is “Any waves, anywhere.” His mission? To bring joy to life with a piece of wood.

“Surfing is a beautiful gift,” he says. “No matter how you access it.”

California Surfcraft
Before Dave Hahn moved to California and fell in love with surfing, he was a conductor on Broadway and a pianist for Harry Connick Jr. Today he is the inventor of the Bodypo, a sustainable alternative to the traditional bodyboard made out of fiberglass-reinforced cork.

“I didn’t feel good about paddling out on a big slab of petroleum so I set out to find a better alternative,” Hahn says.

After some trial and error, he hit upon cork. It’s impermeable, rot-resistant and sustainable. It’s LEED-certified as a rapidly renewable resource. It’s also made up of 85 percent air, giving it excellent buoyancy in water.

Cork comes from the bark of the Cork Oak tree, which is regularly harvested without any harm to the tree. A single Cork Oak tree can continue to produce cork for over 150 years.

Yet Hahn doesn’t use just any cork in his boards. It’s a high-density, aerospace-grade composite cork, sustainably grown and processed in Portugal, then shipped to California for construction.

“This is the stuff they use for heat shields on rockets,” Hahn says. “The only problem is we’ve overwhelmed out supplier and torn through their entire supply of corkboard. We’re waiting on a new shipment from Portugal right now.”

The boards are created using a vacuum-bagged sandwich composite construction, similar to the construction method used in skateboards, snowboards and skis. Layers of cork are sandwiched between layers of resin and fiberglass and vacuum-bagged over a mold.

Hahn also only uses Super Sap 100/1000 bio-epoxy resin. A USDA Certified Biobased Product, Super Sap 100/1000, boasts a 37 percent bio content and emits 50 percent less greenhouse gas than traditional petroleum-based epoxy resins.

“People look at them and expect them to fall apart because of their preconceived notions about cork,” Hahn says. “But they are solid. And really, really fast. You can outrun Ocean Beach bombs on these things.”

This is not idle boasting. There is a growing “Cork Crew” in San Francisco who swear by Hahn’s creations and they’ve also become popular in Brazil.

“We set out to make a more sustainable, affordable bodyboard,” Hahn says. “I’m looking for ways to grow the margins so I can start selling them in stores.”

So far so good. According to Hahn, he has sold 50 Bodypo in the last month alone.

Jason Hackforth is a Santa Cruz local who started bodysurfing in high school. When a buddy swam out with a rainbow-colored handplane that “looked like a flip-flop,” he was blown away by the device’s performance and fell in love.

In the winter of 1995/1996, Hackforth found a busted surfboard in the garbage and shaved it down into the first “prehistoric and scaly” protobiscuit.

“I sucked at it. I had idea how to glass. It looks terrible, but I still have it,” he says.

Over the next 15 years he made 11 more, quietly refining his design and improving his shaping chops before hitting on the X-11 or Superbiscuit.

After attending the Handplane Hoedown in San Clemente and seeing the commercial success of companies like Enjoy and Slide, Hackforth’s brother convinced him to begin marketing the Superbiscuit in 2012.

Despite the X-11’s success, Hackforth has continued to experiment with shapes inspired by sources as disparate as 1970s speedboats and a board by Brooklyn-based shaper. All of his handplanes continue to be made from the recycled foam of broken surfboards in Santa Cruz.

Gary Hogue (Instagram: @stoke_farmer)

Gary Hogue is the mad genius of the bunch. He rolled into the Whomp from San Francisco on a motorcycle laden with bizarre looking handplanes.

Originally from Newport, Hogue cut his bodysurfing teeth at the Wedge, which automatically qualifies him as nuts. He’s spent the last 40 years catching waves on an ever-growing quiver of handheld wave vehicles inspired by the work of Australian surf mystic and pioneer George Greenough.

The night before the Whomp he stayed up late to finish “The Moth,” a black monster of a handplane with a giant camera boom protruding from its snout like an antenna.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work, to be honest,” Hogue shrugs.

Hogue is a big man who is not afraid of big waves. One of his newest creations is a tiny, black plane called, “The Shrew.”

“The bigger the wave, the smaller the gun,” he says. “You can catch eight-foot waves out at OB with this thing.”

This summer “The Shrew” will be put through its paces. Hogue plans on giving it to surfers such as Wedge Mel, Tim Burnham and JT Nicholson to test on the first big swell that hits Newport.

Shelter Handboards
Matt Evarts of Shelter Handboards is the classicist. The grandson of a La Jolla bodysurfer, he believes every surfer should have a handplane and a pair of fins in the trunk. “Get more days,” he says with a smile.

Evarts’ redwood handplanes are made of handpicked wood from Boulder Creek and strapped with recycled bicycle tubes.

“Shelter is not just about being stoked,” he says. “But about finding some peace amid the chaos of life.”

Evarts buys his blank boards from a guy name Dave. Dave’s life work is milling redwood one log at a time on an old Wood Mizer band saw. Dave gets his material in small batches from reclaimed and salvaged logs or hazardous trees that have been taken down by private landowners.

Evarts sorts through Dave’s supply and hand picks every board looking for character, grain types, and color. As a result, each handplane is one of a kind.

Shelter Handboards are generally finished with Vermont Natural Coatings, which is eco-friendly and as durable as any polyurethane without the pollutants. As Evarts explains, “It’s made from whey, really.”

For Evarts, bodysurfing is about looking at the ocean in new ways and about exploring miles of un-surfed coast—it’s about possibility.

“Surfing is about joy,” he says. “When you have a handplane and some fins, you’re ready to ride waves that you haven’t thought about riding in the past. It widens the playing field to include just about anything that breaks.”

More Goat Trails by Ryan Masters:
Bodysurfing: The Ecstatic Motion
Lost and Found: Sea to Summit on Big Sur’s Cone Peak
No Left Turn Unstoned in La Honda