Rolling down Highway 1 after a Sunday afternoon surf, Buck skids the right hand corner into Waddell’s parking lot. Dirt brown dust fills the air; a far less intrusive substance than the fiberglass and resin particles he’s used to huffing down inside his Westside shaping shack. He reaches for a beer from the six-pack in his footwell, pops the top and takes a swig. Perched next to him in the passenger seat sits Sancho, his boxer pit bull mix, who, like Buck, is a little rough around the edges, but as noble as they come. Together, the two of them stare out the windshield of his rusty, beat up Toyota breadbox, as some of Central California’s best kitesurfers hack the tops off the blown out surf. As a lifetime surfer with a long history rooted in Santa Cruz surf culture, it’s easy for Buck to pick out the paddlers. “I could always tell the guys that had a surfing background because their approach was so different,” he explains, “You can always tell the people that know how to read the waves.”
Buck had just finished surfing a secret spot up the coast, finding sanctuary far from the familiar yet mob packed waters of Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane. It didn’t matter that he was groveling against the howling wind whipping over Ano Nuevo’s headland; he was surfing far from the crowds — less people to battle, more waves to catch and more time testing his boards — an obligatory aspect of his job as a shaper. The truth is that no amount of paddling could equate to the time that the kiters that he watched through his windshield were getting on their boards. “A lot of surfers, they look at kiters and they don’t see the potential there,” Buck says of 99% of the guys he surfs with. “You’re up on your board the whole time doing it, whereas with surfing, you’re fighting a crowd.” Watching the endless rotation of kites, Buck runs the numbers. In surfing, “when you only get to catch three to four waves in a session and the wave is only like 10-15 seconds long, it’s limiting your opportunity to stand on the board and figure it out.”
Since then, Buck has learned to kite; decreasing his paddle time and increasing his time on a board. Providing ample opportunities to feel new shapes, kitesurfing has only added to the development and design of his finished product. “It’s just board time,” he explains, “feeling different rails and feeling different rockers.” Even when there’s a flat spell in town, kitesurfing allows Buck to continually feel how his board interacts with the water, so when he returns to surfing after a break, he points out that there’s no adjustment period, “I know what my rail feels like and I’ve got the same fin configuration. It’s a seamless transition.”
The fact that Buck is a second-generation shaper is far from a coincidence. He’s probably spent more of his life in shaping bays than outside of them. His mom, a champion surfer, and his dad, “King of the Westside,” met working for Haut Surfboards back in the 70s when fiberglass flew and resin bonded them together long enough to raise young Buck. Both surfing icons, his mother was very likely one of the first women in the industry, a pioneer of the sport and continues to be one of the best pinstripers in the world, while his dad, a local legend who first shaped and sanded for Haut, built a West Coast legacy under his own ‘Rick Noe’ label. Buck grew up knocking around the shops of Santa Cruz’s most prestigious board builders, but it wasn’t until he was 13 and had forgiven his father for pushing the sport on him at too young of an age, that he fell in love with surfing and shaped his first board.
Being the son of a legendary surfer isn’t always easy. Buck remembers his dad dragging him out into big surf at the Lane when he was just a little kid. Knocking him off a few too many times, it wasn’t until his early teens, when his friends started surfing, that Buck finally connected with the passion and began building boards. From there, he quickly worked his way through the ranks, apprenticing under and learning from the likes of Doug Haut, Mike Wasch, William ‘Stretch’ Riedel and of course his father, Rick Noe.
With full on surf culture pumping through his veins, it’s surprising that he’s open to the transition. “I tell my surf buddies all the time, it’s the ultimate crossover. I feel like I’m surfing but I’m catching 10 times as many waves and I’m not having to paddle. I can go out for an hour and catch 30 waves and do 100 backside snaps in an hour instead of 10 in two hours at the Lane.”
Like many surfers interested in the sport, while the desire to learn was there, Buck felt shut down by the initial expense of a new quiver. For him, the opportunity to get the gear didn’t arise until he shaped a board for a team rider from Santa Cruz’s local kitesurfing company, Caution Kites. With a 5’5” squash tail that was selling well at the time, Caution approached Buck about adding some bigger boards to their lineup. A deal was hammered out in the shop’s dingy backyard; kites and a wad of cash in trade for board plugs. Caution’s main marketing man threw in a complimentary lesson and Buck spent the better part of the next two months getting drug through the water until that one day when he didn’t have to walk back up the beach. Hooked on kiting, “It was like everyday felt like I was a grom again. You’re stoked because you’re learning something new, and the progression level, once you’re not walking the beach anymore, is really fast, whereas with surfing, it’s like a 10-year commitment and it’s a long and slow learning process.”
Back at 2111 Delaware on Santa Cruz’s Westside, along with a collection of vintage vehicles rusting into the front lawn, stands a large white painted sign adorned with the Noe brand (pronounced “No-e”). Working from the same building in which his mom and dad met, a sleepless Buck roughs out the outlines for the next stage of his life. With the true makings of a mom and pop shop, there’s no room in the front lot, except for maybe one more corroding classic car. Rock and roll blasts from within, and there’s no pretense in the front room’s dilapidated chairs, used surfboards and faded magazine clippings peeling from the walls. While the initial walk through the door might be too much grunge for some to handle, to others, this is the classic, hard-core appeal of a true surf shop. Buck’s shaping bay, which he allegedly calls the House of the Holy, is lit up with beaming fluorescents; its walls littered with photos from memorable Indo trips and earlier paintings of his Pops, while his foam covered tools of the trade lay strewn throughout the room. Truth be told, it’s not about the building, it’s about the finished product, and while nothing about his Westside shop screams presentation, Buck’s major focus is customer service.
As a boutique shaper competing against the likes of mainstream manufacturers, Buck prides himself on the product. “I’ve gotta build the best board for each customer every single time, and if I make them the best board they’ve ever ridden, they’re gonna come back and get another one,” he says explaining his business model. As a custom board shaper, anyone can walk in and talk to Buck. “We hash out what boards they’ve ridden and where they’re surfing. It’s a very customized and personal thing that you really don’t get with most big manufacturers.” Buck likes to point out that the bigger operations will stick you with somebody behind a desk, where you don’t get to talk to the shaper or anyone who will touch the board, so a lot usually gets lost in the communication. However, for Buck, maintaining complete control over his growing business is tricky. “If I’m not doing everything by myself start to finish, I start to feel like they’re not coming out right.”
In between taking orders, designing, shaping and finish-sanding, it seems unrealistic to do it all. Buck jokes about accelerating the ordering process by either pounding a bunch of Monster energy drinks or hiring a hot girl to pencil in the orders — “Eyes up here buddy,” he chuckles as he points his two dusty, weathered fingers towards his tired and bloodshot eyes.
Hit hard with the reality of earning a living shaping boards, Buck has adopted modern CAD tools to streamline the design process. But with years of hand shaping behind him, he saddens at the thought of its dying art and with an ounce of contempt, discloses, “You know a lot of shapers these days don’t even know how to shape. They’re very good on a keyboard but if you give them some hand tools and a power planer, you probably won’t get a refined board.” Buck takes pride in the countless hours he spent hand shaping in the early days. A craft that’s taken him years to master, hand shaping helps him to hone in on the details and refine the finished product.
“I think everyone’s kind of got their own take on what works and why it works,” he says. But for Buck, it’s more of an art than a science. Referring to other shapers out there, “they get so into the science and the hydrodynamics,” he explains. With a right-brain dominance and as a surfer who’s able to vet his product for feel, Buck designs visually rather than numerically. Placing importance on flow rather than on nailing a certain measurement, he explains, “I try not to pay attention to numbers because what I’m going for is it looking right, so I try not to get hung up and stuck on a specific number.” He draws inspiration from the aquatic creatures whose shapes provide the most efficiency and designs for a smooth, flowing board with continuous curves. “In nature you don’t see fish with a chop tail,” he says, “just look at their fins; everything is smooth and flowing.”
However, the design process isn’t always easy for Buck, who explains that, “You’ve got to have all creative cylinders firing to really have the magic happening.” The motivation for shaping comes and goes and although he’s been at it for years, Buck admits, “For me, it’s really hard sometimes. It’s really creative and kind of like playing music. Sometimes it’s just effortless; you’re in the groove and you barely touch anything and magic happens, but sometimes it’s hard — those are the times when I’ll try to focus on other aspects of board building besides just shaping.”
Although he wouldn’t trade it for anything, his plan wasn’t always to be a shaper, but to use it as a foundation to work his way through school. However, the pull of surfing was strong. Buck recalls a pivotal moment two weeks into his first semester; he was already late for class and the closest parking spot was a mile away from campus. “Fuck it,” he howled, laid his hand on the horn, turned his car around and never went back. Buck relates this story with a hint of curiosity as to what life would be like had he continued his education. However, the lure of surfing and the call of the Noe family legacy prevailed, turning shaping into an integral part of Buck’s being.
“I mean it’s like I don’t know what I would trade it for, but I’ve been playing Peter Pan for about 15 years and that’s probably gonna be coming to an end here,” he pauses, “gonna have someone counting on me.” Buck and his girlfriend have a grom in the pipeline and at six months, the little guy is just about to be spit out the barrel. As for a third generation of Noe shapers, “I wouldn’t want him to get pigeon-holed into this because it’s a pretty hard way to survive.” Buck is quick to point out, “This industry is really frustrating. It can be competitive and a constant battle just to get paid at times, but life is too short to not be doing something you love.” Buck pauses and reluctantly admits, “Shaping may be a hard life, but if my son really had a passion for it, I’d support that.”
If the business side of running a small boutique shaping shop turns the conversation a bit somber, Buck quickly lights up about a new foam material he’s working with — and it might just change the game for the future of lightweight, extremely durable boards demanded by the industry’s top kitesurfers. “Surfboards have long been a very customized thing,” he points out, “but it doesn’t seem like the kiteboard market has really picked up on that yet.”
This anomaly has a lot to do with durability. Historically speaking, a lot of kitesurfing boards have been optimized to avoid warranty claims rather than deliver riders with high performance. As more kiters are progressing into strapless airs, the demand for a lightweight construction struggles against the requirement for durability and what feels good underfoot.
“One kite session is like four months worth of surfing,” Buck estimates. “Usually when I make kiteboards, especially for people that are jumping or high impact kiters, I have to go to a denser polyurethane board than normal because they’re getting pounded on so much harder, which equates to heavier boards.” But this new material he’s working with is incredibly dense and light whereas typically, your high density foam is really heavy. Coleman Buckley, who’s taken to Buck as a mentor and plays an instrumental role in Buck’s R&D, is one of the first to test out this new technology, “It feels like a polyurethane blank” he says, “but it’s lighter and it doesn’t absorb water . . . so you can stay out even if you get a ding.”
While this material for a lightweight, high-performance board is now available, it comes at great cost. “The blank itself is like four times more expensive than a standard poly or EPS blank, so it’s kind of an investment,” Buck explains. However, for a custom shaper like Buck, the expense is well worth it, both from a performance and environmental perspective. “I try to make sure my boards are strong and built to last.I do my best to keep what I can out of the landfill because surfboards are pretty wasteful and toxic. It’s hard in this industry, but I do what I can to be green,” he says.
Compared to surfing, kiting is still in its infancy. We’re past the Hawaiian era but stuck in 1950s Malibu. The road is long but the future is rife with opportunity as new technology and constructions continue to evolve. And with more insight from surfing’s own, the next big thing could easily come out of Buck’s dusty Westside shaping shop. Like the introduction of Simon Anderson’s thruster, which radically changed the way people surfed, the introduction of a lightweight durable surfboard with the right feel could likely do the same for high-performance kitesurfing.
With the roots of a surfer who’s grown to see kiting as an opportunity to improve both his surfing and shaping, Buck saw the logical approach: less time paddling and more time riding waves. Like the introduction of Simon Anderson’s thruster, which radically changed the way people surfed, the introduction of a lightweight durable surfboard with the right feel could likely do the same for high-performance kitesurfing.
Words by India Stephenson