Surfing legend Bing Copeland has had an incredible front-row seat to not only the birth of surfing, but the evolution of the sport and Southern California as a whole.
The founder of his namesake company Bing Surfboards, which is headquartered in Encinitas, Copeland spent much of his life building his famed boards by hand to worldwide acclaim. Despite the fact he now resides in Idaho, where he’s currently busy taking care of his ailing wife, Copeland keeps close ties to the North County scene and the craft he helped grow into the ubiquitous platform it enjoys today.
Now 80 years old, Copeland reflected on the ups and downs of his incredible journey, from his first impressions of the idea of taking boards out on the ocean to navigating the rough waters of the industry itself.
Q. There’s quite a legendary story associated with you about how you first got into surfing at 13 when you saw someone with an early board on the water. I’m wondering what that feeling was like, and if at the time you had any idea that it’d soon become such a huge part of your life?
I remember that day vividly in my mind. It was in 1949. I lived three blocks south of the Manhattan Beach pier and two blocks from the ocean. All through the second World War, we lived through black outs and air raid warnings. The beach in front of our place was barricaded off by barbed wire and the coast guard was patrolling the beach. It wasn’t until after the war when we started body surfing and skim boarding. One day I saw these guys standing up and riding on something and I was just mesmerized by it. At one point a lifeguard, (early board maker and soon-to-be surfing legend) Dale Velzy, asked if we wanted to try riding this thing made out of red wood and balsam which weighed around 80 pounds. Once you started paddling it, it took about 10 strokes before it actually got moving. I remember the first time I stood up I was just enthralled; I knew I had to do this. I had no idea what I wanted to do until then.
How did it turn from this fun thing into something so much more?
Well, me and my friends started hanging around a lot and there was at a surf club underneath the pier at Manhattan Beach. On the weekends, we all slept on the beach. It was cool because the police would come out on the pier and would shine their spotlight down on us to see if we were alright. Looking back on the whole thing, I feel really lucky that I grew up at the time I grew up, in the era I grew up in. I was lucky I got into the surfboard business early on in 1959. When I got into it, it was a natural progression; it just sort of happened.
You opened Bing Surfboard in 1959 when you started making these boards by hand. What were those early days of the business like?
I opened my first shop right on the beach in Hermosa Beach with (former partner) Rick Stoner, who I had gone to Hawaii with. The first year, we were working as lifeguards and it was pretty casual; we didn’t have families at that time. I really wasn’t thinking of it being a real success. During that first year, Rick decided to get married. He sort of felt there wasn’t a big future in surfing and he devoted his time to being a full-time lifeguard. That’s when it became Bing Surfboards and I was selling mostly to my lifeguard friends. Word spread and it grew over the years. In the mid-60s, we were making 40-plus surfboards every single day. A lot of guys at the time enjoyed building surfboards, but didn’t deal with it as a business, and I think that really helped the success of my company.
Now surfing has grown into such a huge, corporate business. What are your thoughts about its immense growth?
I’ve watched all these clothing companies come and go. I was good friends with Duke Boyd who started Hang Ten. I watched that grow and he wound up coming out of it with a million-dollar check. It’s bittersweet (to see its growth) because I enjoyed it the way it used to be when it was more small town. There’s been a lot of money made and a lot of money lost.
You still keep roots in the North County and are here often, but I know you moved to Idaho awhile back. What spurred that move?
I moved to Idaho in 1974 during the shortboard era and once I got here, I got into Catamaran sailing and windsurfing on the lakes. In the ’70s a lot of surfers quit, our customer base dwindled, and having a board with a company name on it wasn’t cool anymore. It was the end of the surfboard industry as we knew it. That went on for a good 10, 12 years, and it was one of the better moves I ever made. It wasn’t until the early to mid-’90s when the industry revitalized.
What do you think of surfing today?
Well, I quit surfing when I was 75 because it hurts my feet (to pop up on the board). But near my house we used to surf uncrowded, and now it’s more of a mass thing.
You’ve surfed countless beaches throughout your life. Do you have a favorite?
The number one beach that I enjoyed my entire life was Ala Moana (on Hawaii’s Oahu island). I had a woody station wagon I bought and sailed on weekends with a couple who had a yacht. Then I’d surf until dark.