The first time I met the surfboard shaper Terry Martin, he was wearing frayed khaki shorts, a paint-splattered tee shirt, and fur-lined Ugg boots. His movements were loose and energetic. His voice and facial expression revealed a sort of “aww shucks” optimism. In short, he oozed that patented SoCal surf stoke that outsiders can never quite wrap their heads around; the Golden Retriever eagerness that East Coasters sometimes perceive as insincere, shallow, or even fake.
But the man I met was the opposite of those things. He was perhaps the most sincere person I’ve ever known — in love with the surfer’s quest for the perfect ride in a way that might read like a Hollywood cliché, if it weren’t so grounded in history. Because Terry Martin was not a copy of some extra on Gidget. He was a true original. The most genuine of genuine articles.
“I’m still as excited about your board as I was about the first one I made, when I was 14,” he told me that day. “I can’t wait for you to get out in the water, then you gotta come back and tell me how it went.”
Martin was 68-years-old when we had that conversation, at the tail end of a historic career. He’d made more surfboards than anyone in history, for just about every surfer on earth, and ridden out every rogue wave the industry could throw at him. He was the John Henry of the sport — making boards by hand when the big brands turned to cheap, machine-cut products, then outlasting those machines as the industry slowly pivoted back to its artisanal roots.
Estimates put Martin’s career output at 80,000 boards. For what it’s worth, everyone I know feels like that’s undershooting the number. Still, he maintained a certain energy — a passion for his craft that’s woefully rare after so long in any industry.
That first board Martin shaped for me was what surfers call a “magic board.” Surfboard creation is a beautiful alchemy — a dirty one, based on petroleum products and chemicals, but beautiful nonetheless. Sometimes, the elements come together just right and the board and the surfer form a perfect partnership. I remember giggling like a child at Orange County’s Salt Creek beach when I first discovered what the board I’d gotten from Terry could do.
I took that magic board to Namibia, South Africa, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Australia. If people asked about it, I sang Martin’s praises and told the story of his place in surf history.
“He’s literally the most stoked person I’ve ever met,” I told my friends, “and I swear the boards are better because of it.”