Stanley's Surf Gear


Merv Larson

The following article on Merv Larson, the father of the American Waveski, was taken from the May 1970 issue of Surfer Magazine published by John Severson. Interestingly, the author did not take credit.

Someone must be chosen to carry on the species, to approach the future fearlessly and without reluctance. Someone who epitomizes the best of the Old World, yet can handle the challenges of the New. Some One to wait out the centuries after Cataclysm, frozen in SURFER’s time capsule, only to step out in some far-off, windy eon, shake off the shackles of slumber, and start out anew, carving up the new wilderness/ And who is better equipped to carry on the banner of surfing into time immemorial than Merv Larson? Who?

“Ladies and our audience tonight we have a man you all have heard about...a truly great American...a credit to his community...let’s have a big hand four special guest tonight...stand up and take a bow, Superman.”

You can see for yourself when Rincon’s breaking good, or Secos and Huntington when they’re on. He works out through the lineup on his butt, sitting on a foam cushion, buckled into his seat belt, working a double-ended paddle, with his feet stuck out in front of him and fastened into stirrups of his surf ski. If you paddle up to him and ask him what kind of a board that is, chances are he won’t answer you. Not because he’s uptight. Because he doesn’t hear you. For within the plastic shell of his helmet, Joe Cocker is wailing through “Hitchcock Railway.” And when he’s listening to “Hitchcock Railway,” Merv Larson ain’t pickin’ up nothin’ else.

Merv Larson is a lifeguard. He’s been doing it for fifteen years, since he was fourteen. He likes it. Spends his life in his Ford Vanette, a large mobile unit that he has outfitted to suit the needs of himself and his German Shepard, Dingo. At present, Merv is stationed at the Leo Carillo State Beach Ranger Office, right where Mulholland hits the Coast Highway near Secos. He has attained the ranking of Lifeguard Supervisor.

Merv Larson is no less amazed than you are that you haven’t heard of him. “I’ve been doing these things on the surf ski for four years, and all of the sudden everybody is beginning to notice.” These things? What Merv Larson does on his surf ski is as visually exciting, maybe even more so, than what Greenough is doing on his kneeboard, or the top conventional surfers on their surfboards. You might say that Nat Young and Jock Sutherland probe the outer limits of performance on their feet. Greenough does it on his knees. And Merv Larson? He does it on his ass.

Not to take anything away from it either, because for high-performance wave riding, nothing can quite top the ass as a good place to sit while riding a surf ski. In fact, says Merv, “In three years, I’ve never had to swim. Some people are afraid of these things because you’re strapped in, but the effect of a wipeout is a lot less than it would be on a surfboard.”

“Skiing,” says Merv, “is wetter than surfing; once you’re on a wave you become a lot more involved. Actually it’s a cross between mat riding, belly boarding and surfing. The only thing the ski can’t do as effectively as any of these is to change directions as quickly in some instances.” Still, the ski (at least as operated by Mr. Larson) can make turns of sufficient intensity to boggle your mind.

With the aid of a double-ended paddle, Merv can get into waves early, gain extra acceleration with the aid of the paddle, and come into his bottom turn with more G’s working than anybody else in the water. The ski is finless, so turning becomes a matter of masterful use of the paddle combined with clean edge control. Merv’s ski is all edge in the rear and it works. The closest thing to Merv bottom turning is Reno Abellira on his best day: low, deep and with ruler-straight water flow off the bottom of the board because of the high speed/high G combination.

The ski then draws a line straight out of the pocket to the shoulder. Here Larson throws paddle and edge back into action, brings the ski screaming back around (shades of Nat) and charges back at the tube, banks of the underside of the lip (Billy Hamilton?) , comes over with the crashing tube (much like Greenough), then drives out from under the white water, even when the wave seems impossibly far ahead of him, picking up speed in the flat out in front of the turbulence, (ala Joey Cabell) which brings him back up into the pocket (Jock Sutherland). And all without exaggeration, dear reader (is it any wonder Merv Larson is the sole passenger about SURFER’s Time Capsule???) Without exaggeration.

“The thing that’s going to eventually make it for skis, “ Larson says, “will be the man-made wave. Then this’ll turn into more of an acrobatic act. You see, all these things that I’m doing were invented three or four years ago: tumble turns, one-eight turns, Eskimo rolls.” Eskimo rolls? (Could have sworn that was Eskimo Pies...)

The Eskimo roll is one of the amazing things that Merv Larson does in very critical wave-riding situations: “It’s done at the top of the wave so that speed is minimized and my sinuses don’t get filled with water. It’s not actually riding inside the tube; it’s letting the wave roll you over.” The result is freaky: Merv jamming off the bottom, blasting the lip (Brad McCaul), the lip comes over, Merv goes upside down, the tube collapses, squirts and spits Merv out the end. Conventional board riders tear out their hair. All quite simple.

Actually, surf skiing started with the Australians, but they never thought of the seat belt bit, so they were always getting blasted off their skis and seldom made it out as far as the lineup. The seat belt was Merv’s idea, and is now used on all California surf skis. As far as we know, Australians are still getting blasted off theirs.

One of the hang-ups with surf skis is that paddling back out to the lineup is super fast. This causes trouble with prototype artisans: “Five skis would fill Rincon on a good day,” Merv laments. “It’s hard for ski riders to exist where there is a heavy surfing population. If a skier isn’t careful, he rides too much and guys get hostile. You have to hold yourself back and let the surfers ride their share of waves.”

Merv is also very concerned about preserving his amateur standing as a waterman. He shuns commercialism, professionalism, and all other dank corners of sell-out in order to maintain his amateur standing so he can compete in the Olympics in the K1 and K4 Kayak Flat Water competitions. The Olympics is as important to him as anything in life.

Yet Merv Larson considers his own greatest contributions to the Twentieth Century Living to be his sound system. The one that makes it impossible for you to get his attention in the water. He carries a small waterproof pack with a super-quality transistor radio encased, runs a plastic tube into each ear pocket of the helmet with special ear insertion mechanism, and the rest of the world is replaced by Joe Cocker in his finest hours.

“Having the music,” says Merv, “is so fine. Like last week at Rincon. It was small; there was a heavy crowd, and a lot of people were unhappy. But I had my music on, and it was running right, and everything else was separate from me. I even got hit twice with the other guys’ boards and didn’t mind. The secret is to eliminate all outside sound. It’s not just enough to have the music. You have to have only the music. Then everything is fine. Except when you roll a wave and the sound turns into a static fuzz while you’re under water. Then it’s back onto music when you come up.”

What is especially exciting about Merv Larson is that he is a man alone in a world of tension, strife, conflict and chaos. What is especially exciting is that he has created his own place in that world, both within himself and within his environment. In fact, he has produced his own environment. One in which he can operate free from hassles. One in which his independence is the most important thing. That’s why, when you see him at Rincon on a good day, flowing with it all, you shouldn’t get uptight if he doesn’t respond to you. You are simply not part of his environment. You are not part of his life until he wants you to be. What better man to survive the perils of the Time Capsule? The perils of life in a New World.

1998 Update
Merv Larson still lives in the Ventura area with his wife. He works for the Harbor Patrol and still surfs regularly at Rincon, California Street and elsewhere. Presently, Merv is not building waveskis but he says, “just because I’m not building skis doesn’t mean I’m not thinking up new ideas for them.” When asked if he will ever build skis again his reply was, “Oh yeah.”

revised 03/25/2009
Merv Larson
Surf Skis
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