The parking lot rumor mill and the online message board speculation have been running rampant this week with word that Al Merrick, the man behind the Santa Barbara-based Channel Islands Surfboard dynasty, is calling it quits. From San Diego to Santiago, Chile, and back again, surfers of all ages have been gossiping like schoolchildren about the supposed retirement of the 65-year-old Merrick, the pair of hands behind the most famous and successful surfboard label in the world. Despite a smattering of vague, off-the-record confirmation from C.I. insiders, folks from Burton Snowboards-the Vermont-based action sports mega-company that bought Channel Islands for an undisclosed lump of cash just over three years ago-say the rumors are nothing but rumors. Burton publicist Janice Nickloff explained on Thursday, “There is no need for an official statement. Al is currently on his family vacation and will be back in the office on August 15th.”
The gossip began in earnest shortly after the 4th of July weekend, and as it was almost two years to the day after the Burton and C.I. merger was announced, it seemed to make more than a little bit of sense. At the time of the sale it was widely believed that Merrick, as part of the deal, had signed a three-year contract to stay on with Burton and oversee surfboard design, but that after that he was under no specific obligation. Add to that several months worth of scuttlebutt coming out of the C.I. factory about disgruntled shapers and Burton-imposed rule changes, and Merrick’s unconfirmed decision didn’t seem too outlandish.
As for the rumors themselves, they ran the gamut from the believable (Al, after decades of industry dominance, countless boards shaped, and a victorious-albeit-tough bout with cancer, had simply decided it was time to clear his schedule for more golfing, fishing, and family fun) to the outlandish (part-time Montecito resident and hands-down-best-surfer-ever Kelly Slater was going to take over for Merrick). Further, the speculation often took on degrees of detail that were so specific that they could only be provided, one would think, by people “in the know.” All of Al’s tools are cleared out of the factory. Dane Reynolds (a top tier professional surfer from Ventura who is sponsored by Channel Islands) is telling people Merrick isn’t making his boards anymore. Al’s contract expired two weeks ago and he is going on a long fishing trip in Idaho to think about resigning. Rumored confirmations like these were commonplace both on the Web and in the non-virtual world.
On the other hand, in an effort to get some official information on the debate, a call from The Independent to the Channel Islands storefront on Anacapa Street earlier this week resulted in a shop employee offering an emphatic, “I don’t know where those rumors are coming from, but Al isn’t going anywhere. He is just on vacation.”
Based on Burton’s recent on-the-record response, it would seem that the shop employee was telling the truth, that all is good in the Channel Islands’ empire and, once his annual holiday is over, the company’s founder will be back to work. However, it is worth noting that when similar rumor wildfires broke out in the weeks leading up to the official announcement of Burton’s blockbuster acquisition of Channel Islands in the early summer of 2006, they were repeatedly deflected by spokespeople from both sides of the deal. Only time will tell if the parking-lot pundits and on-line chatterboxes are correct once again.