Thursday, June 24, 2010
Palo Colorado’s Brent Bispo, 45, has been surfing along Monterey County’s coast since 1976 and shaping boards since ’88. That means he has a combination of surfing and shaping experience that matches that of any county resident in the water, giving him an ocean of understanding which translates nicely for people riding one of his creations.
Having peered down the faces of big waves many surfers haven’t even thought about, he understands the importance of building boards with sufficient size, strength and buoyancy to withstand the forceful pounding of, say, a Ghost Tree monster, but not at the expense of sacrificing maneuverability that means everything at the bottom of a massive (and massively dangerous) wave. Because he has negotiated the technically tricky (and mentally tough) crags of the Pacific Grove coast, where he grew up as a member of a tough-and-testy crew, he knows how powerful the native waves are in ways Southern California shapers can’t – and how to apply more fiberglass to further fortify boards while keeping them nimble enough to carve tight turns in close quarters.
Since area shapers are rare, the sight of his salmon skull logo immediately provides some identifiable local credibility in a sport where territorial instincts are intense. Therein lies a more surprising benefit of riding a Bispo board around here: You’re less likely to have your windows waxed.
Erik Landry, California state lifeguard and established big wave surfer, was hassled a lot when he first moved to Monterey from Malibu. Someone even stole his burlwood dolphin mailbox. As Landry tried to minimize bad vibes, a particular purchase helped him. “One of the first things I did [when I moved here] was order a few Bispo Boards,” he says. Ultimately, his mailbox was even returned.
Three decades of saltwater experience has allowed Bispo to adopt nuanced knowledge of a range of conditions. He can digest variables like wind, height, swells and the subtleties of sandbars and wave direction while factoring in a full-moon tide. He’s a special breed who can deduce most everything he needs from a buoy reading: A straight west swell at 17 seconds… the angle is good for that one spot with the rocky inside tube section, but it’s probably not a high enough tide. Better wait an hour. It will get good as the tide fills in.
The right board, like the appropriate golf club, must match that situation. Finding that sweet spot takes time; it’s a science that requires serious studying. Should I ride the 10-foot rhino chaser or the 8-foot-6-inch gun? I’m going to need some paddle power, but a smaller board may fit the curve of the wave better.
Customers can approach him with specific needs and have them met: Whether they are into overhead waves at Marina, the huge risers at Mavericks or close-outs at Carmel, Bispo implicitly understands the conditions and can customize accordingly, designing rail shapes that are much more easily described than done.
One of Monterey’s best big-wave surfers, Armin Yeager, ordered his 12-foot triple stringer big wave gun from Bispo – an endorsement, given Yeager’s goal to slide down waves that look like mountains, that means he trusts Bispo with his life. He knows Bispo’s taken on those towering challenges, as Richard Mole, a well-respectedsurfer who’s been buying boards from Bispo for the past 25 years, points out.
“Unlike some successful craftsmen, “ Mole says, “Brent rips. That’s one of the requirements I have when choosing a shaper.”
Bispo first started shaping to help feed a surfaholism that once had him wintering on Oahu’s North Shore to get more waves in. Since $200 a month from his sponsor Quiksilver wasn’t enough to live on, he got extra money by sweeping up leftover foam for legendary surfboard maker Michael Willis. It’s safe to assume he learned something as he did.
Another mentor, 62-year-old Steve Colletta, further cemented Bispo’s abilities. Bispo now takes notes while sharing a shaping room in Watsonville with the sage-like shredder, who has crafted more than 20,000 boards for legends like Adam Repogle, Kierman Horn and Chip Dorey.
“You can bet that he soaks up as much knowledge as he can from him,” Yeager says. “He chooses his mentors wisely.”
In Colletta, Bispo has someone like him, a rider who also tests his product regularly – Colletta can often be found in 12-foot waves, arching smooth turns and burrowing through deep tubes.
“[He] still surfs insane,” Bispo says.
A rabid work ethic has helped earn Colletta’s admiration. “He can be a little stubborn at times,” he says of Bispo, “but you’ve gotta respect someone like that.”
Bispo has braved brutal commercial fishing gigs in Alaska and hustled to build custom hot tubs in Big Sur for William Randolph Hearst III to support himself – and keep surfing. He’s also a certified first responder for the Big Sur Fire Brigade.
The size of his experience rivals the size of his courage, which can come in handy when the 5-foot-8-inch surfer is bullied by bigger riders.
“One time I was surfing Steamer Lane,” he says. “I was waiting patiently, and then it was my turn for a wave, but this big guy tried to burn me. So, I elbowed him off the wave and rode it. When I paddled back out, the guy couldn’t believe I did that. I just told him, ‘Hey, you lost.’”