Usually, the club comes first, then the T-shirt.
In the case of Casey Wheat and the West Coast Board Riders club, it happened in the opposite order. But who said surfers do things in a conventional way?
Wheat is a lifelong surfer from Huntington Beach, who, like many surfers, would rather make a living doing something related to surfing than punching a keyboard in a fluorescent-lit office somewhere.
So Wheat started giving surfing lessons. Still, even if you're teaching surfing, there is a business side that needs to be handled. And that's what led to a light bulb going off in Wheat's head.
"I was doing surf lessons and I wanted to do a business card," Wheat said. "Surfing is the 'Sport of Kings, Forever Young.' And I thought, what a perfect brand, Sport of Kings."
So Wheat, 46, along with buddies Ziggy Williams, 47, and Chris Moreno, 46, started a clothing company — SOKFY (Sport of Kings, Forever Young) — and one of their T-shirt designs included the words, "West Coast Board Riders."
It was paying homage to the local board riders clubs from decades ago, as well as board riders clubs that are so big in Australia, where they have national surf contests involving hundreds of clubs. Cool T-shirts, for sure, but how to sell them?
"We did our first photo shoot and marketing campaign," Wheat said. "We wanted to get all the generations of iconic Huntington people, all the way down to the groms and get them together and shoot portrait shots. We put it all together and call it a surfing brotherhood. We did that photo shoot and we were like, this is insane, seeing guys like (Huntington Beach surf legends) Roy Crump and Chuck Linnen."
Linnen, who was inducted into the Surfers' Hall of Fame in 2011, is 81 now but is never far from the waves. I seem to run into him on the pier regularly.
"My first time on a board was in Hawaii in 1941," Linnen told me in 2011. "I was there when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Three months into the war, my brother and I are walking the beach at Waikiki. We find the remnants of life rafts and ship-wreckings and we manufacture two Piper boards and started Piper-boarding Waikiki Beach."
Wheat calls Linnen "the essence of surfing."
"He's always been that care-free spirit," Wheat said. "Ziggy and I have grown up surfing with him and watching on the biggest days, sitting on the big Rhino Chaser (big wave longboard) on the north side. And we did that photo shoot and we were like, dude we've got to start a board riders club."
And so it began. Not just a cool T-shirt alone — Wheat and the "surfing brotherhood" started having meetings, working to put together an actual Huntington Beach Board Riders club.
"When we were groms and we were like 10 and in our teenage years, there was the West Side Board Riders club, and the Lake Street Board Riders club, but it fizzled out probably in our teenage years," Wheat remembered. "These were all guys we looked up to, but we never really got to experience it even though we knew about it. We had a little taste of it when we were kids, so when we did this photo shoot it brought us back to when we were kids and we were looking at all these iconic dudes that we saw on the beach.
"Our generation, and the generation below, guys in their 20s, and the younger groms, and we're like, dude, we should get a board riders club together because then we can get all these dudes together all the time. We can start doing some cool stuff and have some fun."
What better way to have fun than to have a contest with other board riders clubs? Of course, that meant other local beach towns had to create clubs of their own. And they did.
Newport Beach, Seal Beach, Laguna Beach, San Clemente and Dana Point all created their own board riders clubs. Ventura has one now too, and Rob Machado is trying to get one started down in Cardiff.
The West Coast Board Riders started their contests late last year, and they will hold their fifth contest Sept. 1 on the south side of the H.B. Pier. That one will include Huntington, Newport, San Clemente, Seal Beach and Ventura.
Huntington has won two of the contests, Newport Beach won one and San Clemente won the most recent contest, held July 21 at Salt Creek in Dana Point.
The contests are unlike others, as the team element is enhanced. Instead of each surfer surfing in a 15-minute heat, each heat is 60 minutes and includes all four of a team's surfers in each age division.
Each surfer can ride as many as three waves, with only one of them counting toward the team's score. If a surfer feels he got a high-scoring wave right away, he can paddle in immediately, run to the beach where he tags a teammate, who then paddles out, like a relay race. Each team has the 60 minutes for its four surfers to get a scoring wave.
The age divisions include 14 and under, 15-19, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50 and up and a women's division.
And the talent level at these contests is off the charts, from the young groms up to the over 50 group.
Some of those who surfed in the most recent contest at Salt Creek included Chris Waring, Chad Wells and Ryan Simmons from Seal Beach; Matt Archbold, Ian Crane, Nate Yeomans, and the Gudauskas brothers, Patrick, Tanner and Dane, from San Clemente; Brett Simpson, Jeff Deffenbaugh, Derek Peters, Keanu Igarashi, Matt Passaquindici and Micah Byrne from Huntington; Daniel Shea, Tyler Gunter and Andrew Doheny from Newport Beach; and Eric Diamond from Dana Point.
The Board Riders club is not all fun and games, though. Wheat said the club is interested in contributing to the community, and hopes to work with SALT (Surfers Awareness Lifesaving Techniques), a Huntington Beach Lifeguard program.
"It's how to get an unconscious person onto a surfboard because pretty much 100% of the time surfers are the first responders in the water because they're the closest to that person in the water," Wheat said. "We want to get all the Board Riders certified in CPR and all of them through this SALT class."
And on a more personal level, Wheat and Williams are open to share their journeys with the young club members. Both Wheat and Williams had their issues with drugs and alcohol, but Wheat is now four years sober and Williams six years sober.
"We don't preach to them, but we tell them our experience, if the timing's right," Wheat said. "You try to open their eyes and let them know you can have just as much fun if not more when you're sober.
"It's cool because these kids look up to us. So for us it's just to tell them, 'hey, be smart.' We don't preach to them, it's their journey. We've have some talks with some of them. Hopefully they're listening."