Prices crimp surfers' style, roil industry

The surging cost of oil has been a dose of reality for many surfers who have long thought of their sport, with all its sun-kissed lore, as a counterculture niche shielded from the pressures of mainstream America.

The industry depends on petroleum-based products to build and ship its boards. And surfers in search of the biggest waves have to dig deeper into their pockets to fill gas tanks or book flights to the best breaks around the world.

“We all think about oil in our cars, but very few of us really consider the fact that every little piece of manmade equipment around you is oil-based, and surfing's no different,” said Chris Mauro, who's seen the price of some surfboards double to $750 or higher.

“The price of a surfboard, it used to be something where it was pretty digestible,” Mauro said.

“Now, it's like, whoa, OK, I've got to put some serious thought into this.”

Until now, surfing has been one of the fastest growing sports industries in the nation.

In 2006, independent retailers of surf gear brought in $2.65 billion in revenue, up from $2.46 billion two years before. Meanwhile, U.S. retail sales of surfboards jumped from $106 million in 2004 to more than $190 million in 2006, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.

Industry numbers for 2007-08 aren't yet available, but some retailers and manufacturers say they expect that rapid sales growth to slow after seeing drops approaching 30 percent in their own operations.

Some predict the tough economic times will take a heavier toll on family-run surfboard workshops than on the large, national board makers such as Channel Islands, Lost Enterprises, Dewey Weber Surfboards and Surftech.

The smaller operations are struggling with the rising cost of petroleum-based resin used to coat surfboards.

They also face lagging orders from mainstream retailers that tend to bypass regional board brands when times are tough.

Mark Wooster, owner of Wooster Surfboards in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., said his retail sales have dropped about 20 percent this year after previous years of 40 percent growth.

Major surf and skate retailer Ron Jon hasn't ordered any of Wooster's boards for its California stores for a year because of lagging sales, he said.

The market for surfboards was complicated by the demise three years ago of Clark Foam, a company that for decades supplied 90 percent of all the foam blanks that surfboard makers shaped into individual boards.

A number of companies jumped in to fill the void, with quality taking a hit.

While most major manufacturers report board sales are flat or slightly down, the world's largest producer, Surftech, has seen a 15 percent increase during the past year, CEO Randy French said.

Still, the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based company that mass produces boards in Thailand will likely increase its prices next year to make up for the soaring cost of raw materials and shipping. It already has replaced the oil-based sheetboard inside its boards with bamboo.

“I think the trickle-down impact from these gas prices are a long way from being over,” French said. “I think it's gonna hit harder in terms of board prices and manufacturing costs maybe next year, or even the year after.”