CONVERSATIONS WITH: WARD COFFEY

O'Neill
Ward Coffey shaping a surfboard

Ward Coffey is sitting on a stool in his two-room workshop on the Westside of Santa Cruz. It’s late in the morning and he was up early helping his two sons, Ben and Sam, get their quivers ready for an upcoming trip to Australia. Surfing and family go hand-in-hand in the Coffey house. Ward first paddled out in 1973, tagging along with a group of older friends. Growing up in the East Bay, he learned to surf at Ocean Beach, later moving to Santa Cruz where he founded Ward Coffey Shapes and raised a family. He’s seen a lot of cultural shifts both inside and out of surfing and holds a unique perspective. For him, watching his two sons, Ben and Sam, grow into their own as surfers has been a rewarding sight to see. As sunlight beams in from the small windows in the workspace, we turned the tape recorder on…

 

Ward, thanks for sitting down with us. Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up?

I was born in Spokane, Washington of all places. Haven’t been back since, but that’s just where I happened to pop out. I grew up in Alameda, in the East Bay.

 

What was the vibe like in the East Bay back then?

Alameda was a neat town. It’s an old place and has that sort of vibe. There’s a beach on one side facing the bay and then it’s got a marina with a bunch of boats. It has a naval element so there were always big ships coming in and out of port. It had a bit of that “Leave it to Beaver” quality too. Everyone knew each other and there was always something to do. Playing baseball and all the traditional sports. Then I started skateboarding.

 

You started skating first?

Oh yeah, in the late ‘60s. I started skateboarding and got into sailing. Then, it was the summer after eighth grade, my older brother’s friends on the swim team took me surfing. We went over to Ocean Beach. The wetsuits were full beavertail-style tops with long johns. Like two sizes too big on me (Laughs). It was foggy out and you couldn’t see at all. Those guys took off. So, I paddled out, got tumbled and rode a few waves. From there, I just started getting into it. My brother’s friends kept taking me to the beach. It was mostly Ocean Beach back then ‘cuz it was really close to Alameda.

 

What was the beach scene like at that time?

It was a lot different back then. Kelly’s Cove, with all the rubble from Playland, the old amusement park they knocked down was still there. The Hell’s Angels guys hung out. All the hippy busses and whole San Francisco scene was going off too. It was different. And once you went over that way to surf, it was a total trip. But I got really into it. Surfing’s super addicting.

Ward Coffey shaping a surfboard

When did you start going down to Santa Cruz?

Well, I graduated High School in ‘78. Kept surfing Ocean Beach and coming down here to Santa Cruz. The summer after I graduated I went to Hawaii and worked on a boat. When I came back to California, I knew I wanted to spend more time in Santa Cruz and start checking things out. I ended up getting a job and a room to rent in one weekend. Boom, it just happened.

 

What did you like about it here?

It’s just such a neat place. Tons of artisans everywhere. Guys doing metal work, making guitars, building boats… there’s just tons of creating going on. The West side had these warehouses with artists living in them and I was just like, these are my people man! These are the guys I want to hang out with and learn from. Then I met these guys on Laguna street right behind the lane. They were into making boards and stuff. I wanted to make one and this guy just showed me how to shape it out and glass it up. It was really cool. I felt like I was really doing it.

 

When did you decide to start shaping full-time?

The idea of owning my own business and setting up my own shop was a progression. It started out working for somebody. Then, it was a lot like playing in a band. Like you’re in the band but sometimes you want to write your own songs. That was always bubbling up and eventually evolved into me doing my own thing. I had a big push from a lot of people who just wanted me to make them boards. I learned a lot from other people and was shaping a ton. I had an idea of how I wanted to do things and how I wanted to make boards. So that was the start I guess. After I met my wife, we realized we made a good team. Things just started coming together and we realized we could do it.

 

What’s your experience been like shaping boards for your boys as they’ve grown up?

Shaping boards for Ben and Sam has been one of the most rewarding things for me. But, I really didn’t make them custom boards for quite a while. They rode foamies and just had fun. Got tumbled, got their butts kicked, but come up and still wanted to do it again. It wasn’t really until Ben was surfing Steamer Lane and really wanting to crank bottom turns that I could see the boards were failing. That was when it was time for a custom board. It was really neat learning to scale down small boards for kids. Both of them grew up longboarding and had much different styles. Ben was a tall, skinny dude so he had more of an upright stance. Sam was always super compact.

Ward, Sam and Ben Coffey preparing for a surf.

What were things that you noticed about Ben’s style early on?

Obviously, a biased opinion, but he’s always been silky smooth on how he moves through the water. And how he rides waves and stuff. It was natural, nothing really taught. When he was young, all the kids wanted to conjugate off the point at The Lane. They don’t really get any waves and if they did, it was a quick ride and then they’d get pummeled. Ben gravitated more towards Indicators and the long walls coming down there. When you get on a wave and you’re able to get your rhythm going and get flowing.

 

And Sam?

Sam was always a bit smaller and super compact. He was skating early and wasn’t afraid. When Ben and I would be surfing Sam would charge and come out, even if he wasn’t ready. He wanted to do it. That was rad to see. Him really progressing into his own.

 

Are there specific shapes of yours that Ben and Sam have gravitated to over the years?

Well, they both ride pretty similar equipment. Especially these days now that Sam has grown and they are closer to the same size. For Sam’s boards, he’s gravitated towards more of a dumpster diver shape that we’ve scaled down to a 4’10” or a 5’ board. A little fuller nose with a little lower rocker is kind of what suits him. Ben’s boards are more of a performance short board shape just scaled down a little bit. Fuller noses, little more tail rocker. From skateboarding, the kids wanted to do more turns and above the lip surfing. They needed boards that were pretty loose and pretty skatey. That was kinda their whole deal. One’s a goofy foot and one’s a regular foot, the biggest thing I had to teach them, we’d be surfing Cowell’s and they would keep running into each other. (Laughs) So it was like, okay… you sit on that side and you sit on that side. You guys can split the peak and not crash into each other. That was pretty hilarious. There’s mainstay shapes that are always around but we’re always working on new stuff, especially with all the above the lip surfing the boys are doing. It keeps things fresh. The main thing is keeping those magic boards magic. (Laughs)

 

Was it important to you to raise a family in Santa Cruz? What made this a home base?

Well, my wife and I pretty much have the same values. We like to keep everything pretty close to home and that’s the way things worked out with the business, where we live and what we like to do. I’ve lived no more than four or five blocks away from work and four or five blocks away from the ocean. We both feel that way so we set up our lives around that. When we wanted to have a family, we wanted to go to the beach as much as possible and have the boys be able to come in and out of the business as much as they want. The whole basis has evolved around that idea.

 

What does your early inspiration come from?

The inspiration purely comes from being in the ocean. When you’re out surfing, or on the beach and doing stuff, watching people ride waves all day, you just get different ideas.


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