A Ranch Tale: My First Trip to the Ranch with Al Merrick
May 23, 2017
The Ranch is a mythical place. From my earliest childhood memories, everyone talked about the Ranch. It was legendary.
I first read about it in the Surfing Guide to Southern California by Bill Cleary. That was the surf guide book that gave you every surf spot from Point Conception down to Imperial Beach. Lucky for me, I lived in Santa Barbara and the Ranch was right up the street. I loved surfing there. I spent my whole life surfing there.
I still surf there.
I grew up in Santa Barbara, and in 1971 I was a board builder and had my own shop. At the time, I would also do piece work for the other guys in town including Renny Yater, John Bradbury and Wilderness Surfboards. But the first place I did piece work was at Channel Islands for Al Merrick.
At the time, Al had just recently moved to Santa Barbara from Encinitas a year prior. He was quiet and unassuming, and like me, he built surfboards all by himself.
In my era, there were very few shapers. In other words, guys who just shaped boards but sent them out to get sanded, glassed, etc. We made the surfboard from start to finish. I made my own fins, pinlines, glossing, etc. Shaping was just one of many parts to making a surfboard.
Al was also starting to get busy with orders. He was making extra boards to send back East and was in desperate need of some help. He asked if I could come in and sand for him, and so I agreed and worked there a few days a week.
In 1972, Billy Barnfield came through town. Although originally from Southern California, Billy had been living up in Oregon and building boards.
Al, his wife and I had been standing in front of the old Channel Islands shop on Helena street when here comes Billy in his VW Bug with one of his boards on the top of the car; a really nice looking, clean gun. Down rail. That board and a newspaper clipping of himself about how he was “The Dean” of Oregon Seaside surfers was his resume for getting a job.
And so of course, Al and I decided together to hire Billy on the spot.
Billy was a real animated guy; we just loved him. He would become the sander and I would take over the laminating duties from Al. The three of us became really good friends, and Billy and I became especially close. He and I would surf every day before and after work.
Billy also loved the Ranch like everyone else during that time. He found out that I had a little 8-foot aluminum skiff, and so we tracked down a guy who sold us a 3.5 HP Johnson outboard motor and then we shaped oars out of 2x6 planks of wood with our planers. We had made ourselves a little Ranch boat and soon thereafter, Billy and I were surfing the Ranch together a lot.
But to get to the Ranch, you had to sneak in. It was private property at the time, and there was no easy way to get in there. Since our boat was so small, we could easily launch it right off the beach. And since Billy didn’t have a trailer, we would just put the boat right on top of Billy’s Bug using a special surfboard rack made of 2x4’s that could support the weight of the boat. We would put the boards on first, and then put the boat on top over the boards. We had it dialed in.
Around that same time, Billy and I had been trying to convince Al to join us on our Ranch adventures. I don’t believe Al had yet surfed the Ranch since moving up to Santa Barbara, and Billy and I would tell him all the time about these great waves we were getting up there. Despite the many attempts to coax Al into joining us though, he would simply reply in an unsure voice, “I’m not sure I want to go with you guys.”
Al, being our senior, knew that Billy and I threw caution to the wind wherever we went. We had no sense whatsoever about the inherent risks of taking a small 8-foot dingy with homemade oars to the Ranch, nor did we care. We did anything it took to get there.
After six months of badgering, Al finally acquiesced. We were going to put Al in the Bug with us, drive up to Gaviota and take him to the Ranch. It was happening.
Our plan was to launch the 8-footer off the beach at Gaviota, but as we prepared to set out, a dense fog bank moved right on shore. By the time our little boat reached the end of the Gaviota pier, we were completely engulfed in it. You couldn’t see a thing.
That’s when Al shot us a look of concern. Between the lack of visibility and the oncoming kelp bed, how were we supposed to navigate our way up to the Ranch? A lot of people don’t realize that the kelp beds up there are harvested for seaweed. They’re so thick that you need a really expensive boat with special kelp cutters to get through it.
Not to worry though. By that time, Billy and I were both Ranch veterans. We knew there was a path through it if we started outside the kelp bed and then cut across the inside. We were certain we could find our way.
About an hour had passed and although we still couldn’t see through the fog, we were pretty sure we had a sense of where we were. Based on how long we had been in the boat, Rights and Lefts was only ten minutes away.
Ten minutes went by. Then twenty minutes. Then thirty. We started wondering aloud, “Where the heck are we?!” It felt as if we had been at sea for hours running completely blind.
Then without warning, a big black object came down on us through the fog and we were dead set on a collision course with it. It came out of nowhere, like a horror movie, and to this day it is still one of the most terrifying feelings that I’ve ever had.
We freaked out, jammed the rudder to the side and at the last minute barely missed the object by what felt like inches. What the hell was that? Was it a freighter? A rock? A cliff? It could have been anything for all we knew.
Well, it turned out that the big black object was one of the pilings at the end of the Gaviota pier. Trying to navigate our way through zero visibility, we had apparently gone hours in a perfect circle and ended up right where we had started.
We had finally convinced Al to join us on a trip to the Ranch and this is what we had to show for it. Talk about embarrassing! I can still picture Al shaking his head at us in disbelief and saying, “You guys are nuts!”
Needless to say, we never made it to the Ranch that day. It wouldn’t be until a few years later that Al and I would eventually surf there together. It’s almost indescribable what its meant to us, those lucky few who have been able to spend time up there. The Ranch is the best place on earth and I’m so thankful for the lifetime of stories and experiences it has given me.
- Marc Andreini
Marc Andreini is a designer and shaper of custom surfboards for over 40 years. Specializing in boards for all wave types, locations, and the special people who surf there. Learn more at www.andreinisurfboards.com