Boardrider of the Month: Bruce Walker
Interview by Scooter Newell
In 1986, I got a job that would forever change my life. I was hired to work in the warehouse at Ocean Avenue, a worldwide skateboard distributor right next to the legendary Walker Skateboard Factory in downtown Cocoa Beach.
I skated to work after school and everyone there skated and or surfed. It was like a secret society, and we all avoided the outside world for our employment and socialization. Best of all the boss, Bruce Walker, skated and had been skating since before anyone was even making quality skateboards. We lived skateboarding at work. We took “skate breaks” in the middle of the day. Bruce would sometimes take us to parks and contests and even help us with our competition strategies. It was the life.
Always looking to the next generation, Bruce has coached many surfers and skaters over the last three decades. His pupils — who include skater Rodney Mullen and Kelly Slater — have gone on to win over 30 world surf and skate titles collectively. Both Rodney and Kelly were coached by Bruce during their early teen years in competition. And while he takes no credit for their unearthly talents, Bruce did provide insight, expertise, and a mental support platform that would help them to become the best they could be in their respective crafts.
Industry-wise, Bruce has been there through it all. And to this day, no matter what, he’s always stoked at any surf or skate session. Long overdue, but well worth the wait, Bruce Walker, May’s “Boardrider of the Month.”
Can you describe how and when you got into surfing and skateboarding, and what the scenes were like when you started?
I started skateboarding at age 11 in 1963 on the backside of Diamond Head and began surfing in 1964, also in Hawaii. Barbers Point is where I rode my first wave. My first surfboard was a 9′ 6″ Velzy, purchased in Honolulu for $85 brand new. The sport of surfing, still in its infancy, had become a very cool thing to do. The skateboard scene, on the other hand, was very primitive. Hardly any manufacturers existed, wheels were made of steel or hard clay, trucks were made out of soft metal and broke routinely… The only available solution to a broken truck was to buy an entirely new skateboard, which back then cost about $5. After you owned a couple of boards, you could swap out the unbroken trucks, but they would all break eventually. Finally, in the early ’70s, they started using aircraft 356T6 aluminum to build skateboard trucks and it’s been that way ever since. Problem solved.
I know a lot of people, myself included, who list you as an early influence in their lives as skaters and surfers. Who were some of your early inspirations who pushed you in surfing and skateboarding?
People who inspired me early on in skateboarding were basically nonexistent. There was no sport, per se, and it wasn’t until the mid-’60s that the first known contests and gatherings started to appear. My first skateboard contest was in 1965 at the tennis courts in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, where I got Third Place behind Gary Heisel and winner Robby Stoutner. I eventually became aware of some talented Californians who dominated the early contests on the west coast. Torger Johnson and the Logans come to mind. I eventually had the honor of skating with and competing against Torger at the Magic Mountain Masters Invitational in 1976. That’s also where I first competed against Tony Alva, Dave Hackett, Brad Logan, Pineapple Saladino, and most of the world’s best skaters at the time. In surfing, one of my early highlights was getting to meet Duke Kahanamoku. That was in 1964 at the Honolulu International Center, where he talked to my friend and me for about five minutes at our Boy Scout Jamboree display booth. The first well-known surfer I knew personally was Rory Russell, who I’ve known since he was in the 6th grade, before he became famous. He later went on to be a two-time Pipeline Masters Champion. Two or three years ago I was at the Rosen Centre bar, across from Surf Expo, and I looked up and there was Rory, standing at the bar drinking ice water. I hadn’t seen him in almost 30 years. He was back with Lightning Bolt, hand shaping limited edition Rory Russell signature models. It was nice to see and hang out with him again.
How did you get into the business-side of the industry, and when did you start Ocean Avenue?
I got into the surf/skate business on February 6, 1972 in Miami Beach while I was studying for a filmmaking degree at the University of Miami. My main mentor in surfing, Ted James of Fox Surfboards, got Lewis Graves and me to open Fox Surf Shop on 5th Street in South Beach. One year later, the building we were in got condemned, so we stepped up a notch and moved to 10 Ocean Drive, directly across from the South Beach Pier, home of some of the best-quality barreling waves on the east coast… We sold a lot of Fox surfboards and a lot of skateboards, even before the skateboard industry re-emerged from the ’60s skateboard crash. We had plenty of skateboards to sell, even though there were no manufacturers or skate industry yet, because we bought out a toy distributor’s 1960s inventory he was “stuck with” after the crash. From the very first day we put these skateboards up for sale, they went flying out the door… We later began manufacturing our own Fox skateboards and opened our second shop and factory in Melbourne Beach. We became the first modern-era skateboard distributor on the east coast, providing shops all over the country and the world with skateboard equipment. Around 1977, Lewis Graves and I bought out our partner Ted James, who continued to own Fox Surfboards in West Palm Beach and Cape Hatteras, N.C. With four Fox shops in existence, now with different ownership structures, we decided to change the name of our Miami Beach and Melbourne Beach shops and factory to Ocean Avenue Surfboards and Walker Skateboards. We did that mainly to avoid confusion for our suppliers…
The list of positions you’ve held in the surfing and skating worlds is far too vast to cover, but can you highlight a great moment or two from your days as coach of the U.S. Surf Team?
My coaching of the U.S. team spanned a 12-year period and six ISA World Surfing Games, in addition to many other international events, such as the Pan American Championships, the Caribbean Cup, and Australia’s Pacific Cup. My job was to coach the country’s elite amateur surfers with the goal of winning both individual and team titles in international surfing competition. I would work with these surfers to maximize their amateur careers and prepare them for their transition into professional surfing. Every two years I’d send most of them on to their pro careers and then turn back to the next batch of upcoming amateurs and start the whole process all over again. Some of the more successful surfers I had the pleasure of working with were Sean and Kelly Slater, Lisa Anderson, Cory and Shea Lopez, Donnie Solomon, Peter Mendia, Taylor Knox, Gavin and Shane Beschen, Bryan Hewitson, Ben Bourgeois, Cori Schumacher, Geoff Moysa, CJ and Damien Hobgood, and Gabe Kling, among many others. Over the course of coaching the U.S. team, we brought home seven ISA World Titles, two of which were World Team Titles (1986 and 1996), which also included the first-ever surfing trophy bearing official Olympic Rings — the IOC President’s Trophy for the First Place national team at the 1996 World Surfing Games. I had plenty of help over the years by enlisting the assistance of surfing coaches like Kevin Grondin, Sean Slater, Mike Parsons, and others. … Speaking of Sean Slater, some may not realize that Sean surfed his way through the U. S. Team Trials many times over a period of several years, each time earning a rare spot on the U.S. National Team right alongside brother Kelly. In fact, as a U.S. team member, Sean surfed his way into several international finals, most notably in Puerto Rico and Australia.
I hear that Sector 9 Skateboards will be releasing the “Bruce Walker”model longboard soon. Tell us about the dimensions and graphics.
Sector 9 plans to release my 42″ x 8.5″ pro model 8-Ply deck most likely in the latter part of 2011, heading into the Christmas selling season. I’m pretty excited because Sector 9 is now the number-one selling skateboard company in the world, and that’s ranked against all “short board” companies as well, from what I understand. … The graphics on my upcoming 2011 model were done by my brother, Steven Walker. He’s the same artist who did the Walker Mark Lake Nightmare graphic from the mid-’80s. He was also the art director for that world-famous Maxell poster showing the guy sitting in a chair in front of the speakers, being blasted by sound. I’d seen that poster for years without knowing that my brother had anything to do with it.
What’s next for Bruce Walker?
In 2005, I sold Ocean Avenue Distribution and retired from the surf/skate business after 33-plus years, which has allowed me to finally concentrate on my other main interest, which is filmmaking. I’m going to continue creating short films, mostly HD documentaries related to surfing or skateboarding. Most recent projects include my footage of the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards on ESPN2, contributing to the Quiksilver KS10 and 2011 video series, as well as short movies featuring Kelly and Skippy Slater surfing Central America, and a trip to North Carolina with Cocoa Beach legend Claude Codgen and Hawaiian Garrett McNamara where we scored perfect waves from Hurricane Igor. My next project will actually place me in front of the camera instead of behind it, as I work on my skateboarding film segment for an upcoming Sector 9 video.
Extended interview coming soon…