Morey Still an Unlikely Chairman of the Board : Surfing: Legendary inventor and pioneer of the sport lacked business acumen to capitalize on his ingenuity.
As Tom Morey chases after life’s elusive perfect wave, he finds himself living in . . . Seattle. If you can call that living. “I’m dying for surf,” Morey said with a sardonic laugh. Imagine, the 56-year-old father of bodyboarding, a legendary pioneer in the sport of surfing, living in a state known primarily for forests ?
“I needed work,” he said, explaining why he slapped a “Surf Seattle” decal on his suitcase and left Hawaii seven years ago. “My wife didn’t want to go to California because of the crowds.” Morey paused, then added, “I’m getting the hell out of here. I’m not sure where I’m going. But it’ll be a place with clean air and warm water.”
Morey’s destination might be uncertain, but a few of his possessions are definitely headed for Ventura: The fledgling “C” Street Surfing Museum recently announced that Morey will be the subject of its inaugural exhibit, which is scheduled to open by the end of the year in an 800-square-foot storefront at the ocean end of California Street. The museum’s focus is local surf history, and Morey was the logical first choice.
“Tom is our only person of international notoriety,” said Stan Fujii, a member of the museum’s board of directors.
Since graduating from USC with a “surfing major” in 1956, Morey (whose degree is really in mathematics) has led a serendipitous existence, but Ventura wasn’t just another pit stop. It was at the Australian Surf Shop in the old Patagonia Building that the Morey-Pope Co. came up with many of the innovations that helped popularize surfing: an injection-molded interchangeable fin; the Trisect, a three-piece surfboard; a hollow aluminum honeycombed surfboard; a wax substitute called Slipcheck; and the Snub, a surfboard with a turned-down rail.
“Those things helped make surfing the sport it is today,” said Karl Pope, who was Morey’s business partner. Morey and Pope also staged what is regarded as the first pro surfing contest in the United States, the $1,500 Tom Morey Invitational, which was held in Ventura in the summer of 1966. “Tom was a visionary,” Pope said.
In 1964, Morey looked into the future and saw surfing coming into its own. A few years earlier, the foam surfboard had been invented, replacing balsa wood and making surfing easier. A plastics salesman in L.A., Morey quit his job to open a surf shop. He ruled out Manhattan Beach, where he was living, because competitors were already entrenched. Studying a map of Southern California, he spotted a then-sleepy beach town in Ventura County.
“Ventura had some waves, a pretty good population, and it was close to Rincon, which I consider the best surfing spot in the continental United States,” Morey said.
Rincon, which is about 15 miles north of Ventura, became the proving grounds for Morey-Pope creations and was Morey’s favorite surf. A surfer since 1952, Morey could surf as well as he could design: In 1963, he was on the cover of the October-November issue of Surfer magazine, and Surfing magazine senior editor Sam George remembers him as “a hot surfer who was a good nose rider.”
Said Pope: “Tom validates his ideas with his surfing ability.”
Morey originally worked with Ventura board maker Tom Hale--Morey would design boards, Hale would shape them--but a year after opening his shop, Morey was in financial trouble. Pope, who had been introduced to surfing by Morey while they were fraternity brothers at USC, offered to put up cash and “clean things up,” Pope said.
“Tom is not a detail guy--he’s a conceptual guy,” Pope said, describing Morey as a sort of mad scientist. An electronics engineer, Pope designed the Trisect “but Tom had trouble building it,” Pope said. “Once I had to come up from Costa Mesa to fix a screw. The shop was a mess: shaping dust up to your armpits.”
Morey flew by the seat of his pants in those days--"He’d walk around with (customer) receipts in his pocket,” Pope said. Morey also was flying on drugs during the psychedelic ‘60s. Marijuana and LSD made him think “he had discovered the Holy Grail,” said Pope, who disapproved. “I was living in Ventura at that time, and we had a difference of opinion over drugs.”
By the late ‘60s, Morey-Pope employed 15 workers and produced about 150 boards a week, but drugs were affecting the entire company. “Marijuana and LSD wiped out our work force,” Morey recalled. And damaged quality control. The employees, he said, “would put the resin and the catalyst together but forget to stir them up.”
One day in 1968, Morey went to New York on business “and never came back,” Pope said. “He sent me a telegram: ‘Dear Karl. I quit.’ ”
Morey eventually settled in Hawaii, where he surfed, lived in a van, married his second wife, found the Baha’i Faith and gave up alcohol and drugs. Pope was a little bitter about the split and didn’t see Morey again until 1973, when Pope answered a knock on the door of his Ventura home and saw Morey standing there looking disheveled. “He said he had to show me something,” Pope said.
Morey pulled what Pope describes as “a piece of crummy polyethylene foam” out of a van and said, “I call it the ‘boogie board,’ ” Pope recalled. “I just patted him on the head.”
A year later, Pope was in a Santa Barbara toy store when he did a double take at a sign in the window’: “The Morey Boogie Board is here.” Back in business, Morey was producing 500 of the truncated boards a day, virtually breathing life into the sport of bodyboarding.
The idea had come to Morey in a garage on the Big Island of Hawaii. He was living by a reef break, earning money playing the drums. Tinkering with a nine-foot section of polyethylene, he cut it in half, curved the front upward and envisioned the possibilities. “There was a vacuum for something different,” he said.
Although sales of Morey boogie boards dominate the market, Morey has not gotten rich--he had to go to work for the Boeing Co. in Seattle--and can’t even use his name to sell his own inventions. In the late ‘70s, Morey sold his name and the boogie board business to Kransco, a big San Francisco-based company that manufactures Styrofoam products, but he failed to obtain a piece of the ancillary rights. Last year, Pope said, Morey Boogie clothing grossed about $15 million.
“I don’t know if it was his pride or not,” said Pope, who now lives in Ojai and owns the Ojai Valley Racquet Club, “but Tom insisted on doing things himself when he made the sale to Kransco. It was like a pro athlete trying to negotiate a contract with the Rams. He screwed up.”
Considering that Morey is “a legend like Hobie in Hobie Cat,” Pope said, “he has not exploited his value to the degree he could have.”
Morey is philosophical about his inability to capitalize on his inventions. “Nobody flies in Wright Brothers airplanes,” he said.
But Morey hasn’t given up trying to catch a big one. He is marketing an advanced line of surfing products manufactured by his new company, ESCA, which stands for Experimental Space Craft Assn. And with four of his six children on their own, his financial demands have lessened.
Now, if he could only escape from Seattle.