Daniel Partch is a California surfer/shaper who is known for his custom wooden fin designs. Having spent nearly 15 years in the military, Daniel eventually found his way back to his love of surfing. We interviewed Daniel to learn more about this inspiring story.
What was your life like growing up?
I grew up the son of a Chula Vista police officer who taught karate and was a devout Christian, so it was strict. You didn’t get out of line. If you did, you knew you were in for it. I had lots of chores and learned to work my butt off for everything. I am dyslexic, so I had a hard time in school—always preferred to be outdoors on my BMX bike, skateboard or, in those days, boogie boarding.
When did you get your first surfboard?
Got my first surfboard in 6th grade. It was a garage shape by Lito Fojas, a Filipino teenager who was shaping and doing all his own work. It was a 6’0” twin fin with a lightning bolt on the bottom. Man, l liked that board! I’m still surfing boards from that era—late 70’s early 80’s. I was pretty much a sponger, though, until I was 20 and had a decent car. I rode my beach cruiser with backpack, fins and wetsuit to Imperial Beach from Chula Vista, so carrying a regular board was too much for me in my early teens.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood up on a surfboard?
First time I stood up, I felt the glide. Had a 70’s Infinity single fin that I really learned on. Hard rails tip to tail, rail to rail. Hauled ass all the way in to the beach. I was hooked! Surf junkie! I also learned to love the old boards because that’s all I ever rode. Never had a new board ‘til I was 25. Times are different now for kids—spoiled brats mostly. (Laughs)
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young boy?
Who did I look up to? Hmm … mainly BMX stars—Stu Thompson, Greg Hill. Also motocross stars like Bob Hannah. I liked catching air on my BMX bike. I could ride halfpipes and do a lot of stuff—typical Southern California kid. Loved dirt bikes, skateboarding, BMX and, of course, surfing. Every Sunday, dad took us all to the beach in the station wagon to Imperial Beach. Dad grew up in IB body surfing. Later, he became a recreational scuba diver, for abalone and shellfish. We also took trips to Mexico. I was just a spud, a happy little kid playing on the beach. The ocean… surfing is the one place my dad and me got along—a “no fire zone”.
Tell us about what got you into making fins?
I got into making fins when I got out of the military after nearly 15 years. I have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Got kicked out the back door too, but the vet centers helped me get my life back on track. I also had some physical disabilities—back surgery. And so I had to “reinvent” myself. I went back to my love of the ocean and to building surfboards, my true love.
Who/what inspires you?
What inspires me? To build a better mouse trap. Guys like Skip Frye were awesome to me during this time frame. Surfing with him, watching him shape and having some spiritual time—he was and is my mentor.
Who helped you with the design and subtleties of fin making?
Fins came kind of naturally to me, so Skip got me and Larry Gephart together. Geppy taught me how to foil, how to look at things without measuring all the time. He took what I could do and made me better, way better. I’m not bragging. I just really appreciate what he taught me. Gephart is a recluse; doesn’t open his world to anyone. He was and is the fin man in San Diego. He made all the fins for Steve Lis’ boards.. You know … the guy who invented the fish. Everyone else is copying what they did, but none have surpassed them. They are the originals… the stylemasters.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Greatest thing I learned in my life? To live in the moment, to prepare for tomorrow even though tomorrow is promised to no one. That we are not here for ourselves.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of being a Marine, of fighting in the Gulf War, of being a marine drill instructor even though I didn’t and still don’t think we have any business in the Gulf or Middle East. The people there have been killing each other since before Christ was born. We are not going to make “Americans” out of them. And who nominated us “the world’s policemen”? I learned that our problems mainly stem from bad leadership at any level of the military or government. I had my fill of it. It’s a bittersweet feeling. I did what I could at my level. I feel for our troops overseas. I know what they are going through and I support them.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out and why?
I’ve lived in Nor Cal and Hawaii on the Big Island. Traveled to some crappy undesirable places in the military too. The place that stands out the most is right here at home. No place like home… and Sunset Cliffs. My dad took the family there, when I was five or six years old, to the tide pools. I watched the dolphins in the tank there. It was a place that captured my imagination and still does. It’s where I want my ashes scattered when all is said and done. It’s my home.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing has helped me all my life. It’s where I go when I’m overwhelmed with this shitty olé world. It’s the one positive in all the negative that happens. Nature unchanged by man, for the most part. God is the ultimate artist—his creations, his canvas.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
There are so many people surfing and building boards and things nowadays. Probably some kid in a garage somewhere. But really, boards, fins… they are all just tools. The riding of the wave, in any form is love, is living in the moment and how we were designed to be. People are too overloaded with cell phones, computers, worrying about shit that doesn’t matter. Learning to ride a wave—to be one with nature—is how we were really designed to be… in nature.
What is your current favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
Favorite board is a Michael Miller fish. He is the best shaper and glasser in the business, in my opinion. His only fault is not promoting or bragging about himself. He’s a country boy from Florida—works hard, says what he means… the kind of man I’ve understood and respected other than Skip Frye. Miller has his shit together like I’ve not seen in anyone. I just can’t say enough good things about him and I’m very slow to give anyone that kind of credit. I’ve worked with him for seven years or so now, and he has shaped all my magic boards every time. He shapes what you tell him you want without taking a bunch of liberties and doing what he thinks he should make you. Skip has taught him a lot too. They are neighbors and work next door to each other—two of my favorite people in this world.
What’s your favorite meal?
Favorite meal? Andrea’s salmon and potato dinner. She is an awesome gal. I left Hawaii to meet her and ended up staying.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
Currently listening to country. My favorite are Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. I grew up listening to them as a little boy. I guess they just make me feel good. I’m also into jazz, the busy stuff. I go back and forth on that, can’t listen to the same thing all the time. I like songs that have real meaning and real sound.
What are you most grateful for?
Most grateful for my mom. She has always been there for me whether I was right or wrong—always praying for me.
What’s next for Daniel Partch?
What’s next for me? I don’t know. Despite all the leadership I had and learned, I feel lost quite a lot. PTSD and the war have taken their toll on my emotional side. So what’s really next for me is to try and grow some roots, to live in the moment and plan for tomorrow although it’s promised to no one. Life is short. That’s why you gotta do it right.