Surfing's Sudden Wipeout

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Seasoned surfers are used to riding unexpected waves, but nothing could have prepared them for the shock they experienced last week when the world's largest producer of surfboard materials abruptly hung up its board. Without any advance warning, the Clark Foam factory—whose polyurethane foam “blanks” fill more than 75 percent of all surfboards on the planet—shut its doors after 44 years in business, sending the industry into a market-driven panic. Within seconds, surfboard prices around the country skyrocketed by $1,000.

The word came to hundreds of manufacturers via a seven-page letter authored by Gordon "Grubby" Clark, the 72-year-old co-inventor of the foam board and cutthroat founder of the Orange County, California company that long ago drowned out most competitors and shrewdly monopolized its niche. Admitting that his company's use of the carcinogenic toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, is a highly regulated potential health hazard, Clark cited threats of "very large fines, civil lawsuits, and even time in prison" as reasons for the closure.

Despite his claims, neither the EPA nor the local air quality district nor the Orange County Fire Authority—the three agencies Clark names in his letter—had any standing beef with the company. While the EPA warned Clark in April 2004 that the factory was not in compliance with some Clean Air Act safety standards, "he did everything he had to do (to comply)," said Mark Merchant, spokesman, of the EPA. The other agencies are equally surprised. The more likely reason for Clark's decision are the few lawsuits from former employees related to TDI ailments, including one suit filed by a widow. Despite repeated calls and emails from TIME, Clark refused to comment.

The key question for surfers is, who will fill in the blanks? There are alternative materials, such as epoxy and sandwich construction boards, but those are from molds, not custom-shaped, so surfers aren't stoked on them. There are also a few foam companies in Britain and Australia—not to mention cheap TDI production in China—but shipping is pricey and there's no way they can handle the immediate demand. Luckily, while the initial news was taken very much as doomsday for the surfing world, "the industry is banding together" to connect those who need blanks with those who have extra on hand, according to Sean Smith of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.

Much of the business, however, may end up being made up by small innovators such as Point Blanks Surfboards, which use more environmentally friendly foam. And therein lies a potential silver lining on the horizon. "As surfers, we've always wanted to protect the environment for the good of the sport," explained Smith, "and yet the very boards we ride are not as environmentally sensitive as they could be or should be. This will force us to take a hard look as we move forward." In other words, thanks to the demise of Clark Foam, maybe surfers will finally put their money where the mouths are.