Hiding in Plain Sight
Chuck Ames, the Greatest Fin Maker in the World
Just off Hollister Avenue in Goleta, down a dead-end road, in a building that Google Maps has a difficult time finding, one of the surf industry’s most important yet most unsung players goes about his daily business. His name is Chuck Ames, and if you ride surfboards with even the most modest amount of regularity, chances are pretty high that some of your more memorable waves were made possible thanks to his handiwork.
“Frankly, Chuck is the best fin maker in the history of surfing.” opined shaper/surfer extraordinaire Wayne Rich when asked to assess Ames’s contribution to the Sport of Kings. “In terms of balancing quality and volume of production and innovation, he has taken things to the next level again and again. He has just flat out earned it.”
To be clear, the fins on the bottom of your surfboard — whether you prefer single fins or twin fins or the tried-and-true three-fin thrusters or any other combination you can dream up — are equally as important to your wave-sliding experience as the shape of the board you stand on. The size, outline, foil, and placement of your fin(s) directly dictates the way the water moves under your board as you zoom down the line of a wave. They give you speed, stability, and the ability to turn with ever-increased precision. In short, they make the magic of modern surfing happen. Despite this, for the average wave rider, fins are, at best, an afterthought, inhabiting a space of priority right around the color of their leash. As Ames cracked recently with a good-natured laugh, “Everybody always thinks about the fin guy last. But, hey, you could have the best surfboard in the world shaped for you, and if the fins are even a little bit off, it won’t go — the thing won’t work the way it should.”
It has been more than 30 years since Ames, a surf-addicted kid from the shred-and-destroy streets of Dogtown in Santa Monica, found a flyer on his car in the Rincon parking lot advertising a fin business for sale. A graduate of Carpinteria’s Cate School, Ames, looking for a way to make a few bucks and still chase waves, responded to the ad and soon found himself laying up fiberglass, cutting out fins, and grinding away foils for a living in the bean fields of Oxnard. It was 1979, and so began True Ames Surf Fins, a company that would eventually become an industry leader the world over when it comes to fins of all ilk, be they attached to surfboards, windsurfing boards, kiteboards, or wakeboards. Every fin comes out of True Ames headquarters in Goleta, an unassuming work space where Ames still answers the door on a daily basis and some of the surf world’s most innovative thinkers come regularly to talk shop and try to figure out what comes next in the ever-evolving pursuit of sliding along rolling lumps of sea water.
It has been a wild ride for Ames, a guy with no formal engineering background or college degree, from his time in Oxnard, when he worked closely with the Campbell Brothers during the halcyon days of their Bonzer (a five-finned surfboard) revolution, to the heady heights of the windsurfing boom in the late ’80s and early ’90s to the market-correcting realities of overseas production and the advent of removable fin systems such as FCS and Futures. He has worked closely with the titans of the surfboard world (Renny Yater and Al Merrick and Skip Frye and Dale Velzy) as well as the mad geniuses (George Greenough, Shaun Stussy, and Greg Liddle). Well-known surfers like Joel Tudor and Tom Curren have reaped the benefits of collaborating with Ames, and contemporary young guns who still prefer to think about what they ride, like Tyler Warren, Oliver Parker, and Daniel Graham, are scoring those same gains today.
“I didn’t set out to be some innovator; I was just making things happen so I could go surfing,” Ames reflected one morning earlier this fall. “I am a craftsman who likes to work with his hands, and I guess after all these years I can do it pretty well … I like the challenge of figuring things out.”
Ames fins are found on the bottom of surfboards everywhere. Don’t believe me? Go scope your quiver right now, and smart money says you will find the telltale curves of his TA logo placed discretely near the base of one of your fins. As Jason Feist, the man behind Santa Barbara’s J7 Surfboards, put it, “Chuck is unreal. He is like a custom shaper, but he does fins. He helps you make rocket ships. At this point, he has more street cred and history and respect than most of the shapers around California.”
While his continued dedication to one-off, prototype-style projects certainly speak to his surfer-first, creative workman ways, it’s been Ames’s commitment to production-minded innovation and financial survival that have probably done the most to forge his reputation as an industry legend. He was the first in the game to employ computer-controlled water-jet machines to cut multiple fins out of one large piece of fiberglass or plastic, he made the controversial transition to manufacturing most of his product overseas without sacrificing quality, albeit after much painstaking trial and error, and, most recently, with help from his longtime coconspirator Stanley Pleskunas, he cracked the code on how to properly and quickly foil wooden fins with a computer numerical control (CNC) machine.
Like the accomplished surfer he is, one who draws a line of grace and function across a heaving and unpredictable three-dimensional saltwater canvas, Ames has charted a career arc through the ups and downs of an unforgiving and ever-changing marketplace, always managing to deliver what people want while still finding time to push the envelope on what has yet to come.
Hanging out on the second floor of his shop earlier this month, surrounded by shelves of fins and walls peppered with sketches and pictures and newspaper clippings and old surf stickers, Ames summed up his philosophy: “This is all surfer-driven.” he said, gesturing toward a row of keel fins. “It’s about what their needs are, listening to them, having good relationships with them, and then trying to make a board work as well as possible. I don’t care how long it takes; I just want to make things that work.”