The Business of Surf

In the Curl with Randy Rarick

By Allison Schaefers | Photography By Dana Edmunds

LIKE THE ORIGINAL HAWAI’I BEACHBOYS who taught him how to surf in the waves of Waikiki, the ever-affable Randy Rarick has become an ambassador of Aloha.

However, unlike isle surfing greats of yester-year, Rarick was able to parlay his love of riding the waves into a moneymaker, which paved the way for other serious athletes to make a living at what was once seen as “counter-culture” rather than a sport. As the executive director of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, which he co-founded 29 years ago with legendary Hawai’i surfer Fred Hemmings, Rarick’s vision helped turn surfing into a $7 billion industry in the U.S. and $13 billion world-wide. What has arguably become known as three of the most important surf contests in the world, also has pumped more than $21 million into O’ahu’s North Shore, created a big-wave tourism market, positioned Hawai’i as the world’s surfing capital, cemented the role of surfing companies like Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Billabong, and taken the competitive spirit to new heights for young surfers around the world.

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“I am now handing out checks to the sons and daughters of my competitors,” says Rarick, who began riding Waikiki’s waves at 10, under the direction of the famed Rabbit Kekai-himself taught by legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku.

“I see guys making six-figure salaries. That was the dream of us in the late ’60s-wouldn’t it be cool to get paid to be a surfer. Two generations later, it came true. I consider myself a surfing entrepreneur,” he says.

If he had been born 40 years later, many say the 62-year-old Rarick would have had his own chance to make money on the waves instead of building a surfing career around them.

“He’s one of the best surfers for his age. He still rides shortboards and he can make the longboard finals,” notes John Wade, who surfs several times a week with Rarick at Sunset Beach. “He beat some hot young kid on a longboard contest in Makaha. The kid went to his mom and said ‘that old guy beat me.’ Randy just laughed. He’s got no ego. He just loves to surf.”

The quest to surf new terrain has led Rarick to more than 70 countries, Wade adds, noting that “It takes real courage to surf where no one has before.”

Few accompany Rarick on these surfing trips, which friends describe as a chapter from Indiana Jones.

Though he won pro-surfing titles in his youth, Rarick’s biggest contribution to surfing has been as a promoter, a board shaper and most recently with his founding of the Hawaiian Islands Vintage Surf Action as a noted historian and appraiser for the burgeoning surf collectible industry. The event, which sprung from Rarick’s passion for nostalgia, netted $650,000 in sales at its high point and since 2001 has brought in $3.5 million.

“He’s devoted to the surfing world both in his running of surf contests and his auctions, which emphasize the memorabilia and the history of the sport. He’s surfing’s memory keeper,” says Chet Naylor, owner of the Sharks Cove Grill on O’ahu’s North Shore.

Rarick and the sport of surfing have come a long way from their youth. Back in the 1960s, Rarick said that surfing had a bad rap.

“Surfers were considered bums,” he says. “People thought surfers were foregoing school and regular business to go surfing.”

Because of surfing’s stigma, Rarick said he was expected to go to college to get a “real” job and become a recreational surfer.

While Rarick rejected the stoner lifestyle because he wanted to “experience surfing for what it was and not in an altered state,” he rebelled in his 20s by making a conscious decision to turn surfing into a career.

“My dad (Murray) was really bummed. He wanted me to be a golfer,” Rarick admits, however undeterred by his parents’ initial disapproval. “Surfing continually reinvents the stoke. You never get tired of it because no two waves are the same.”

By 11, Rarick said the smell of resin had become intoxicating to him and by 12 he was building his own boards.

“Even before high school, I was a shop grommie-sweeping floors and apprenticing,” he says. “By 14, I was working in the industry making 5- to 10-times more than kids in the pineapple factory.”

At 19, Rarick got a bank loan for $20,000 and opened his own surf shop.

“I remember that the beach boys were making a living in hospitality and surfing was just part of their deal,” he says. “My life became pure surf. More than 50 years later, I still love the thrill.”

On a recent out-of-town trip with Rarick, Hemmings said he awoke at 6 a.m. to find his friend missing.

“He wasn’t there because he was surfing,” Hemmings says. “Here’s a guy in his 60s still getting up at 5 a.m. to go surfing. He still has that fire and passion to go ride waves. He’ll be doing that to the end, there’s no doubt about it, as long as he can paddle.”

It’s that passion that keeps Rarick surfing every day while at the same time-ever the shaper-looking for new ways for the sport to evolve.

“I saw the future that pro surfing could provide. That evolved out of the Word Pro Tour in 1975 when we birthed the baby, so to speak,” he says. “My passion became my business.”

While Rarick has been involved in surf promotions for about 37 years, there’s still more to accomplish, he assures.

“Pro surfing is still in its teenage years,” Rarick says. “The sport will continue to grow as people recognize healthiness as a lifestyle. Surfing tourism will continue to grow, too.”

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