LA People 2009: Surf Legend Skip Engblom the Great Leveler
Skip Engblom was in trouble for being a surfer long before he ever owned a surfboard. At age 10 he spotted a man on Santa Monica Beach paddling out into the ocean on this ... thing. A wave came and the man stood up and rode it. Amazed, Engblom had no idea how to describe what he’d just seen.
“So later, I’m sitting in Catholic school,” Engblom recalls, “and they bring this movie projector in to show this Walt Disney movie, right? And it goes ‘Surf-riding at Waikiki Beach,’ and there’s this picture of these guys standing on these things I saw in Santa Monica, and I jumped up and went, ‘It’s called surfing!’
“I got sent to the office,” he laughs. “I wasn’t even a surfer yet and I was already in trouble for being one. It was this amazing epiphany. I knew at that point, that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
And that’s what he did. In 1972, only in his 20s, Engblom co-founded, with Jeff Ho and Craig Stecyk, “Jeff Ho and Zephyr Surfboard Productions,” which gave rise to the Zephyr surf team and the Z-Boys of Dogtown fame. The most influential skateboarding team in the history of the sport, the Z-Boys are credited with bringing revolutionary style to what others saw as a passing trend among a ragtag gang of outsider kids.
Nestled between tightly wedged apartment buildings and a Thai restaurant, Engblom’s Echo Park–adjacent office is barely noticeable from the street, and I drive past it several times before spotting a pair of Converse sneakers dangling by their laces from the bars on the window. Engblom appears in the doorway wearing flip-flops.
His life story unfolds in a series of vignettes, snapshots of a Los Angeles I’ve only read about or seen in documentaries. Some things about him I already know — his role in the creation of Zephyr in the ’70s, and the successful skateboard company he’s run for 30 years since, called Santa Monica Airlines. He doesn’t suffer fools and never has. Some things I learn for the first time — he’s a compulsive reader; he narrowly escaped the draft during the Vietnam War by becoming a merchant seaman; and his father, Paavo Ketonen, helped start professional wrestling in Los Angeles in the early 1940s alongside showmen such as Gorgeous George.
Engblom grew up in Venice Beach after moving there from Hollywood in 1959 and bought his first used surfboard in junior high with money saved up from shining shoes on the ocean front, collecting bottles and diving for perch.
“Once I figured out where Ocean Park Pier was, the first day I went there, these guys stole my towel and my lunch. Then they beat me up and threw me in a Dumpster,” Engblom says. “But I just kept coming back. After a while they were like, ‘Since you wanna do this badly enough, we’re not gonna bother you anymore.’”
He was old-schooled: “When I started out in the surfboard business, they handed me a broom and told me to go clean up stuff. And if you told them, ‘Well I wanna build surfboards,’ they said, ‘Really? Okay, come here. What’s this? How does that work? If you can’t answer any of these questions, just shut the fuck up, here’s a broom.’ Y’know what I mean? Nowadays, nobody wants to push a broom. But the reality is, you push that broom around the factory and you get to see how people do things. I don’t know how to say this ’cause it’s gonna sound really weird, but there’s a certain level of cruelty involved. The guys who were really working didn’t have time to fuck around with some ... kid. You’d better get it, or get out of the way. These guys didn’t protect your feelings.”
Engblom sees the surfboard business and the ocean in similar terms. “Nature’s a great leveler. The ocean doesn’t care how rich or poor you are; it doesn’t care who your parents are; it doesn’t care what station you have in society.”
I ask Engblom when he grew sick of pushing the broom and decided to start his own business.
“After I got out of school, I was working down at the marina, working on boats, and I got this draft notice ... I was really depressed,” he says. He became a merchant seaman to avoid the draft, but the Army came after him anyway. Engblom fought the case in court — and won — but he lost his job and no one would hire him.
“They didn’t want to invest the time in somebody who was gonna go to jail,” Engblom says. “But I had this money from being a merchant seaman, so my friend Craig Stecyk said, ‘Why don’t you talk to this guy Jeff Ho? He needs somebody to go in business with him and make surfboards.’ I literally went into business with Jeff Ho the first day that I met him.”
Engblom has a novel approach to unemployment, and life: “My solution has always been: If you’re not going to hire me, I’ll just start my own business.”
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