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Mike Richardson: Electric Duck

Mike Richardson’s credentials would land him securely in the Encyclopedia of Shapers — if there was such a reference book. From the late 60s on, Mike left his mark on thousands of boards. He’s probably the most capable and versatile board builder you never heard of … he called himself a “ghost shaper.”

“I started shaping because I couldn’t get what I wanted. Working for the top boardmakers at the time I learned everything I could — pinlines, glossing, laminating, and finally shaping. Velzy once told me “You’re the fastest ‘pigger’ (rough shaper) I’ve ever seen.” I took that as a compliment. My true passion is making something custom. Somebody who has a unique idea – now that’s fertile ground for me.”

1988 Big Wave Gun foam and fiberglass with carbon fiber. length:10’5” width: 21-1/2”
Shaped by Mike for riding big waves at the Tijuana Sloughs.
California Surf Museum Collection – Donated by Mike Richardson – Currently on display at the SpringHill Marriott in downtown Oceanside.
With his first shaped board, June 1959.
Mike surfing Imperial Beach.

Mike’s dad, J.W. “Red” Richardson, was a Marine Corps photographer who served in the Pacific during WWII. Red was captured by the Japanese, survived the tortuous Bataan Death March in 1942, and remained a POW until VJ Day in August, 1945. After the war, Red and his wife Rosie bought a house in Imperial Beach, where Mike and his sister Patti were raised. The ocean became the family’s playground and they took to all water sports.

At the age of 11 Mike attempted to surf on a rented kook box, and he took a beating — but that didn’t discourage him. As a young teen he began experimenting with pinlines on boards and he gradually became a master of all facets of laminating. Mike liked surfing Gordon and Smith boards in the early 60s and soon made their surf team, on a Hynson model. Shaping alongside Skip Frye for several years at G&S, he estimated he turned out two to three boards a day. He also crafted signature models for Mark Richards and Martin Potter, among others.

Growing up in Imperial Beach, he and Mike Malek were inseparable. “I had a lot of extra energy, and Malek told me “You’re like an electric duck.” The name stuck. According to longtime friend, Tim Cousins, “A lot of us San Diego-area guys were in Hawaii in the early to mid- 1970s. We surfed all we could, and shaped and glassed to support ourselves. You know, Mike was a lot like Eddie Aikau. They both liked big waves, and they could surf for hours on end. The rest of us would surf for an hour or two, then come in, but Mike would stay in the water for four, maybe five hours.”

“Sometimes you can hear the cobblestones whistling — you can hear the surge and you know something is happening. When you hear that, take the first waves and get out of there. Retreat and paddle back — don’t try to fight it, ‘cuz you’re not going to win. All you see is the one in front of you. That’s the first
one, and the rest of them are bigger.”

— Mike RichardsonLongboard Quarterly
“Red” Richardson took this photo of his son, Mike, surfing at the Tijuana Sloughs, 1st Notch, during a winter swell in 1962. Mike is wearing the top half of a diving wetsuit called a “beavertail” because of the long flap that hung from the back and was fastened to the front.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina said “No one surfed the Sloughs better than Mike Richardson. His surf-shapes are designed for speed and size. Like his hero, Dempsey Holder, most of the time the Duck surfs outside. He’s alone.” Jeff Knox added, “The Duck has a sixth sense about waves at the Sloughs. He follows the speed line – he’ll always be in the best part of the wave.” Out on almost every good swell, the Duck was known for riding a big board so he could catch the biggest waves — the ones furthest out from shore. At the Sloughs, Third Notch was his playground. That special relationship lasted until 1997, when a serious asthma attack while surfing there left him gasping for his life. Barely able to climb on his board, he somehow made it back and never ventured to the area again.

Mike and his wife Laura Kaye moved to a classic older home in San Marcos in 1995 and their shaping room became a gathering place for a steady stream of fellow boardmakers over the years. Laura, an accomplished surfer and artist, worked right alongside Mike, contributing dynamic airbrush art to several boards. In addition, the two made many “how-to” short videos, with Laura doing the filming and editing, for Gary Fisher, owner of Solarez Products. Their DVD “How to Make a Balsa Wood Surfboard” is a must for any serious shaper’s library. After settling in North County, the two surfed Terramar regularly until Mike’s untimely passing in 2020.

SURFING… 2/23/19
It was all about the ride,
Timing, Tide, Secrets.
My life was centered on that feeling…
Hard to express,
Hard to share.
For some of us the hook was sunk deep.
All in.
Chase the next one…

Mike shoots a huge smile to his parents as they tow him aside the family’s 14-foot, 75-horsepower ski boat when the surf was flat — hanging five just above the shallows on the bay side of the Silver Strand.