California has long been hailed as one of the world’s top surf destinations. As one of the birthplaces of the sport, dozens of surf legends have emerged here. From surfboard shapers to Olympic hopefuls, one coastal town has seen more surf legends come through its city limits than most: Santa Barbara, California. Unsuspecting Santa Barbara is known as the American Riviera. With its sweeping coastline and vibrant downtown scene, it’s easy to see why it attracts some of the highest-profile celebrities that call it home. However, Santa Barbara has flown under the radar as the heart of surfing for the most influential surfers to date. These Santa Barbara surfers have shaped the sport as we know it, in large part due to the city that has shaped them:
Never has there been a “legendary surfers” list in the past two decades that hasn’t included Kelly Slater. One of the most recognized names in the surf world, Kelly Slater called Santa Barbara home during his developing years. During this time he started riding for Channel Islands Surfboards headquartered in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. Currently calling Montecito home part-time, the ten-time world champion still frequents Rincon Point and other breaks in the area.
Widely regarded as the smoothest surfer to ever touch a shortboard, Tom Curren was born and raised in Santa Barbara and still calls it home today. Tom developed a smooth, sweeping style learning to surf the long walls of Rincon Point – a point break frequented by many legendary surfers. His style is what ultimately defined his career. When the walls of Santa Barbara could no longer hold him, Tom became known as one of the first “surf explorers”. His mission being to scope out the most remote, untouched waves.
This modern-day powerhouse is carving out a name for himself to be one of the greats. His legendary status was solidified when he started out on the tour in 2016 and was ranked the top US surfer in 2018. Since the pandemic, we caught up with Conner as he has been focusing on life in Carpinteria. This has involved playing guitar, family time and lots of gardening. In some of the biggest news to hit the local surf scene in recent months, Conner has switched from riding local Channel Islands Surfboards to the Aussie JS brand. With these recent changes, we are excited to see him in competition next season.
Hailing from South Africa but long-time resident of Montecito, Shaun is a pioneer of competitive world surfing. He is a master of Pipeline and Backdoor known as the first to pump inside the tube. Shaun first visited Santa Barbara in the 1970s at the start of his professional surfing career. Instantly falling in love with the Santa Barbara surf, he ultimately decided to call it home in 1995 because of the community, lifestyle and environment. Shaun grew into a pillar of the community becoming a board member of the Santa Barbara Boys and Girls Club and Surfrider Foundation, which is the world’s largest environmental group dedicated to protecting oceans and beaches.
Bobby Martinez is a local who carried the Santa Barbara torch throughout the early 2000s. In the height of his career, he won multiple WCT events, including the much feared Teahupo’o stop. With one of the best backhand attacks of all time, he is still highly regarded as one of the best surfers to ever do it. After leaving the tour in a not so amicable way, Bobby returned to his Santa Barbara roots. He is now an avid recreational boxer and regularly trains at local gyms around town.
Along with Conner Coffin, Lakey is representing Santa Barbara’s new generation of surfers. She first learned to surf during a year-long trip around the world with her family. After sparking her love for surfing she began her career in 2010. She ended the 2019 season ranked third on the Women’s CT. Like Shaun Tomson and others before her, she has a passion for the environment. Partnering with the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, she has been working to protect and restore the Santa Barbara Channel and other local sites.
Known as the old legend, Yater was one of the first commercial surfboard shapers of the 1950s. As a part of the generation that put surfing on the map, he moved to Santa Barbara in 1959 and opened his own shop. Renny built the ‘Yater Spoon’ in Santa Barbara in 1964. This board still reigns as one of the lightest of its time and solidified it in progressive surf design. Now in his 80s, Renny still designs and shapes in town while also making time to fish.
Everyone who is anyone in the surf world has paddled out on a board shaped by Al Merrick. First given the spotlight when Shaun Tomson won his championship in 1977 on an Al Merrick board. He didn’t become well-known in the industry until his boards were ridden by Tom Curren in 1982. Al Merrick launched Channel Islands Surfboards, in 1969 in a garage in Santa Barbara. Now proudly spanning over 50 years, 20 title wins his boards have stood the test of time. In fact, every legendary surfer in this list has ridden by CI at one point in their careers – save Renny Yater who preceded him in shaping.
Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Kim Mearig became the most influential female surfer to come out of California. Her graceful style was groomed by Santa Barbara’s long point breaks. As a former classmate of Tom Curren, it’s no surprise that the Santa Barbara surf community is a tight knit one. By 14 she was riding Al Merrick boards and entering surfing competitions. By the early 1980s, she was dominating her sport and took home the championship in 1983. Kim is the quintessential California surfer girl.
Chris was an early competitor and close friend of Kelly Slater. Growing up in Santa Barbara, he rose to prominence in the 1990s on the WCT after claiming the world amateur title in 1988. However, his passion lied in thrill-seeking. Searching for more, he pioneered big wave surfing. Taking on Shark Park at San Miguel island, and Mavericks, Brown conquered California’s heaviest waves. In his later years, he was an avid fisherman diving for urchin in the Santa Barbara area.
Santa Barbara Surfers
Santa Barbara surfers have proved their legendary status since the 1950s. Our quaint coastal town has managed to stay low key in the surf world for some time while also managing to churn out some of the sports best-known players. As the sport grows and evolves, there are sure to be many more to carve their name into Santa Barbara surfer history.