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Math adds to Encinitas surfboard shaper’s career

Gary Hanel shapes a surfboard. A former high school math teacher, he said his math background helps him execute surfboard designs.
( / Jared Whitlock)

Encinitas surfboard shaper Gary Hanel taught high school math for 32 years at San Pasqual Academy High School in Escondido.

He wasn’t exactly the typical instructor.

For one, his long, flowing hair set him apart. And early on in his shaping career, his students made up most of his customer base.

Most days when school let out, Hanel headed back to Encinitas to build surfboards. Because shaping wasn’t his bread and butter, he poured time into perfecting each board.

“I didn’t have to make eight boards a day to survive,” he said. “If I was having a bad day shaping, I could turn off the lights and walk away. Because you have to be on your game to make boards.”

He’s since retired from teaching, and shaping is his main gig. Still, Hanel continues to make boards at an easygoing pace, typically constructing two a day, a relatively small output for a shaper.

“It’s not something you can force,” he said.

Yet his profile is rising, and so is demand. He attributes this to surf blogs featuring his boards and his newer designs “striking a chord” with surfers in recent years.

Notably, his “pill” shape has made waves. It’s his take on the flat, planing hull-style surfboards that legend Bob Simmons shaped in the 1940s.

“I believe in evolution,” he noted. “People bring back old designs without making changes. If it didn’t work then, it won’t work now. But a new take or twist on an old design, I’m all for that.

“At the same time, I’m against change for the sake of change,” he added. “Slower, steady evolution is my philosophy.”

In explaining why he split his time between teaching and shaping, Hanel said he was passionate about both.

“When I turned 13, I got the surfing bug. All I wanted to be was a surfer. Shaping is another way to be a surfer; I didn’t want to give that up.”

Working on complex math formulas and shaping are alike in many ways, he said. Both situations are about formulating a vision and figuring out how to execute it.

“I would teach students to outline a goal and develop steps on how to get there,” Hanel said. “In mathematics, you have givens and you want a final proof. You work out the steps in between.”

However, he said there are limitations to numbers and logic. He recalled, for instance, developing a regression formula to scale up designs.

“Mathematically, the formula made sense, but the boards didn’t work,” he said, adding, “At some point numbers only get you so far — the art overrides the science.”

His first time shaping a board, he said, was anything but pretty. As a high school graduation gift in 1967, he received a longboard, but short boards came in shortly thereafter.

So, he clumsily took 3 feet off the longboard and did his best to refashion it.

It wasn’t until years later that he became a full-fledged backyard shaper. And in 1978, he landed a part-time job sanding boards with Moonlight Glassing.

Eventually, he progressed to shaping boards from start to finish, and he hasn’t looked back.

“Math just came my way when I was younger,” said Hanel. “It’s something that I’ve always loved.”


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