With the advent of professional surfing in the mid-1970s, the surfer/shaper combination that had for decades existed in one person nearly went extinct. Before that, some of the best surfers in the world — Donald Takayama, Mike Hynson, Phil Edwards, Skip Frye and Terry Fitzgerald — all made and rode their own boards. As such, they were their own test pilots, back in the shaping room after a surf, correcting minor flaws in their designs without much need for feedback from team riders.
By the ‘90s all this had changed with many great board makers retiring their planers and others, like Takayama, taking on riders like Joel Tudor, who would work with Donald to make DT’s designs even better.
I loved the Donald/Joel show while it lasted, but ranked No. 1 among my favorite surfer/shaper duets, were shaper Bill Caster and surfer Chris O’Rourke. Caster, who is widely considered one of the best board makers of all time, built boards for O’Rourke, who, before the cancer that would take his life in the early ‘80s, was considered by many to be the best surfer in the state.
Both shaper and rider were meticulous in their chosen fields and would each slingshot the other further than they could have traveled on their own.
I owned two Chris O’Rourke Models by Caster, and, while I didn’t ride everything, they were, in my opinion, the best boards of their era. Just prior to the Thruster revotions.
While I loved my O’Rourke Models and rode them to the best of my limited ability, nobody surfed them like the guy whose name was on the decal. Chris O’Rourke had not only the best timing for tube riding but did the deepest, most stylish turns of anyone I had ever seen in California. Then, just as his star was rising, he was diagnosed with the stalker that would eventually take him down. Even with a metal plate in his head after brain surgery, O’Rourke was one of the best surfers on this or any other coast.
Chris was still in his teens when 1977 South African born World Surfing Champion Shaun Tomson commented, “Chris O’Rourke is the best surfer I have ever seen in California.” While not everything can be attributed to his choice of surf craft, Chris, who was extremely loyal, never rode another brand. He considered Caster the best in the world — high praise, but a comment that many in the know agree with.
The surfer and shaper were close in life, and they were in death. Sadly, at the age of 23, Chris O’Rourke succumbed to Hodgkin’s disease in 1983. It wasn’t many years later until colon cancer took the life of his friend and shaper, Bill Caster.
To learn more about these two surfing legends, and the boards they built and rode, visit Bird’s Surf Shed, where the most extensive collection of Caster Surfboards in the world is on display for anyone to see.
If you’re well behaved, Bird might even let you ride one of those Smithsonian-quality surfboards.
Top: A Caster/O’Rourke model, similar to one the author owned, now housed in Bird’s Surf Shed. Photo by Chris Ahrens