Blown-Out Wetsuit Repair
Blown-Out Wetsuit Repair
For surfers in Northern California, our wetsuit is the most important piece of gear we own. Forget the board, fins, leash, or anything else. Without a functional wetsuit, you can't even go into the ocean for more than a few minutes. Hypothermia is not a pretty thing.
When you snag your zipper, pop a seam or slice a panel, you have to get it repaired. Just like you need solid ding repair for your board, you need professional repair for your wetsuit. Diane Berkhemer at Blown-Out Wetsuit Repair is one of the best there is. I met her at dog obedience class, where we each had enrolled our puppies. Diane has a large Malamute mix named Bear, and I have a smaller Wheaton Terrior named Trixe. The two pups are best friends, so I took Trix to visit with Bear while I interviewed Diane at her shop on Portola in Santa Cruz.
DogMan: So I'm hanging at Blown-out surf shop in... is this still Santa Cruz Diane?
Diane Berkhemer: Yes it is, Live Oak, which is Santa Cruz.
DM: Yeah, Live Oak, which is near Pleasure Point. I am with Diane, the owner, what's your last name?
DM: Can you spell that? [Diane spells Berkhemer]
DB: Good, because I like to spell things correctly.
Every Morning at the Point
[Phone rings, Diane answers it and talks with a customer who needs help with a wetsuit zipper. Meantime, mellow Hawaiian instrumental music plays in the background, creating a gentle tropical mood]
DM: You said that you used to surf every day. Where did you first learn to surf, was it here in Santa Cruz?
DB: Yeah, well I surfed a few times, but then you get married and you have babies. So I didn't really seriously get into it until we moved here. The it was every morning out at the Point.
DM: Where did you learn to surf if it wasn't in Santa Cruz?
DB: Well it was in Santa Cruz, but when I first started messing around with it was in San Diego.
DM: Where the water is much warmer.
DB: Yes [emphatically], a lot warmer.
DM: You mentioned kids, how many do you have?
DB: Two, and now I have grandchildren.
DM: Do they surf?
DB: The son used to surf, but he got injured when he came home from Iraq. So he doesn't get out anymore. I don't know if he'll start up again later. My daughter lives in Spokane, Washington so there's not much surf. They do jet ski and stuff like that.
DM: We also have with us here in the shop our two dogs Bear and Trixie. The frantic noises that you might hear in the background are two dogs having a good time. Bear and Trixie are best friends from obedience school. So Trixie gets to visit with her best friend Bear at Bear's surf shop.
DM: How long have you been operating Blown-Out?
DB: Oh about nine, maybe ten years.
DM: Is it primarily wetsuit repair, or do you make new wetsuits as well?
DB: No, I used to help a woman make custom wetsuits...
DM: That would be Christine?
DB: Christine Thomas. Then she stopped doing it, and I didn't want to do that. So I do wetsuit repairs, and then expanded as I saw the need. I didn't want to just do wetsuit repairs all day.
DM: Yeah, we are in the midst of the Blown-Out shop, and there are all kinds of stuff in here. There's art on the walls, we got CD's, lots of surf boots, in fact lots of accessories. Board covers, , the list goes on; most anything you can think of. And surfboards too.
DB: I try to have all the basics of what you need to go surfing.
DM: Most of these boards are, well you do have some short boards. I was going to say that most of the boards are rather long; some are even rather "gunny."
DB: It's a variety. They are all consignment boards so you never know what's going to come in. We even have the old vintage one, the Ole. I've had a couple of vintage boards come in.
DM: This ones got an old fin, what we used to call a skeg. It's the Ole, and it's 9'4", wow. They sure put a lot of fiberglass on boards in those days.
DB: Yeah, and with the double stringer there's no way it's going to break.
DM: [Laughs] That's why it's still around.
DB: [Chuckles] That's why it's still around.
Diane at the Shop
DM: Do you have any help here at the shop, or is it all you?
DB: It's just me.
DM: Wow, so do you get any time off?
DB: I take time off for family things. We used to go to Hawaii once a year. So I have a guy who comes in a works for me then. It just always works out.
DM: Yeah. So you get to set your own schedule, and run your own business, and be in charge of your own destiny.
DM: I just keep looking around [the shop] as my attention wanders. We've got really cool artworks; stained glass on the wall. Here are some great fins that are almost like works of art themselves, but I'm sure somebody will surf with them.
DB: Oh, for sure.
DM: They look beautiful, just on the wall.
DB: The fins are from Rainbow, the glass art is from San Diego. Then a local gal makes this iron work, and the jewelry up here she makes. I try to have local things when I can.
Getting into It
[Dogs enter with tails wagging]
DB: Oh you guys. Ok, now we've gotten into... [to Trixie] Ok Release! Release Trixie.
DM: It's a little fiberglass.
DB: It's the fiberglass insulation that goes around the air compressor. You guys stay here, let me go put t back. I need to see what you have found to get into.
DM: The dogs are causing problems.
[DM and DB exit to the back room in the shop to investigate the dog's activities...]
DB: Are you guys going to behave?, Huh? Huh? [chuckles] Now they are gnawing on each others muzzles.
DM: You mentioned Christine, and I know I mentioned previously to you Dion who has a shop on the West Side. How do you know him?
DB: Dion and Christine are... nephew and niece, however that works.
DM: Aunt and nephew?
DB: Aunt and nephew, I think. Somehow they are related. And then her daughter, Christine's daughter has a surf shop in Monterey, and she makes custom suits. So does Dion.
DM: So there is a small community of wetsuit repairers and builders. My current wetsuit is from Dion, and it's fantastic. Well it hasn't blown a seem yet, so I haven't had to come see you.
DB: It's nice to have a wetsuit that fits you.
Lots of cool stuff.
Custom Mo Bettah
DM: I agree. I tell all my friends you need to get a custom suit. Off-the-rack suits are ok if you want something quick, but the quality is not there and it is just never going to fit as good. And after coming to a professional repair person such as you, I found that the repaired seams last longer than the original seams. So it's like, "Get a clue. My next suit is going to be a custom suit so all the seams are that good."
DB: All the suits are made overseas now, and they are mass producing them so fast, that you don't get the quality you do with a custom-made suit.
DB: Oh, what do we have now? Oh that's the sock, that is one of Bear's toys.
DM: Sometimes the dogs can grab something that is actually ok for them.
DB: That's the toy sock, you guys can play with the sock. Yeah, that will keep them busy, tug of war.
DM: Is Bear your first dog?
DB: No, we hadn't had a dog for like, oh wow, maybe 10 years. Our last dog got old, and we had to put her down. She was an Akita, and her stomach turned and bloated. She was older.
DM: So she had a good life up until then.
DB: Oh yeah.
DM: How old is Bear?
DB: Bear is eight months.
DM: And he is as big as a Bear.
DB: Yes he is. He is 88 pounds, and he is not done growing.
DM: Bear looks a little bit like a sled dog. We were talking about the Iditarod race; Bear looks like he could be pulling a sled.
DB: He does. He would not be able to do Iditarod, he is too big. He would slow them down. But he could pull Trixie around in a little sled.
DM: Trixie is not quite as big. Do you always play the nice, calming Hawaiian music while you work?
DM: It's great, it lends such a cool atmosphere.
DB: Well it's nice when people come in, because they are not singing, they are all instrumentals so they are not competing.
DM: You mentioned Hawaii, when is the last time you were over there?
DB: Last year.
DM: Wow, do you have plans to go this year?
DB: I don't know if we will make it this year. We used to go every year, but this year I don't know if we will make it or not.
DM: We used to go every year, but we haven't been for a couple years.
DB: Well we have to grandchildren now, so we have more trips to Spokane. Pretty soon there is a limit to how many trips you can fit in.
Helping a customer.
DM: What island do you enjoy the most in Hawaii?
DB: The only island we have ever been to is Oahu, that's our favorite. It's because there is always surf on Oahu. We have talked with people over there, and they will be from other islands. And we'll say "Well how come you came here?" And they will say "Because there is no surf on our island today." You know I've seen tourists come here in the summer wanting to surf, do the surf thing in Santa Cruz. As the rest of us know, summer is not the right time to come surf here. It's so disappointing when you've planned a vacation and it's all flat. So we'll stick with Oahu.
DM: Surf vacations, whether it's Santa Cruz, Bali or Hawaii, I like to say "You can book the vacation, but you can't book the waves." You can go almost anywhere around the world at some planned time and either get good waves or no waves. But some seasons, as you mentioned, summer is not the real season for good waves here in Santa Cruz. What about for your business, that might be seasonal as well. Is summer a good time for business?
DB: It is seasonal. Summer is good. The slowest time here is January, February, and March.
DM: Which is right now.
DB: Which is right now. Yeah, this is the slow time of year. There aren't as many people in the water so they are not running into each other tearing their wetsuits or yanking the zippers off. Triathalon season is really busy, and that's during the summer.
DM: Isn't that a different kind of a wetsuit?
DB: It is. It's a smooth skinned wetsuit. Those are mailed to me because I do Iron man BlueSeventy company repairs. So through word of mouth they send me their suits.
DM: A friend of mine is training for triathalon. I imagine with the tremendous amount of swimming that you would have to have a different kind of wetsuit.
DB: Yeah, it's smooth skinned, and then it's thicker on the front of the thighs to give them more buoyancy. They are more fragile; you can poke your fingernail in them if you are ripping them on real fast.
[Dogs reenter, still playing]
DB: You guys aren't getting tired at all, not at all.
DM: With Trixie it's real hard to run her tank empty. Do you rent wetsuits here?
DB: No. All the shops on 41st Avenue rent suits and boards so I don't need to.
DM: There are a number of surf shops here. There's Paradise down the block, and Santa Cruz, and Billabong, and Freeline.
DB: Don't forget O'Neill's.
DM: Can't forget the Big Dog.
DB: There's enough shops doing that, so since I'm a one-person show, we don't need to over do it.
DM: How long do you plan to stay in business? Do you have any retirement plans?
DB: No I haven't really given that any thought.
DM: Well because everybody eventually blows out their wetsuit, I hope you are in business for a long time. Anything else I should ask? Any cool stories, because I only know you from our dog's training school.
DB: People give me things to give away. When that happens I believe that's God's gift for me to give away to somebody. We've had some phenomenal things.
DM: What kind of things?
DB: Surfboards, wetsuits...
DM: So it's mostly surf-related stuff.
DM: That's good, it's a chance to give something back to the community. People read this on DogMan's Chronicles and also PacificWaveRider. What would you want readers who are unfamiliar with your business to know about?
DB: I guess that there is more to it [Blown-out Wetsuit Repair] than just wetsuit repair. I've got neat things in here that relate to the entire surfing industry.
Diane is here to help you.
DM: You've got almost every kind of accessory that I can think of. You've got leashes, wax remover, swim goggles, really cool ones with crab decorations on the face.
DB: I try to have things for the little kids, like I have children's booties and I carry children's wetsuits. When they outgrow them they can bring them in and put them on consignment, or I give them a percentage off on their new one.
DM: And as they are growing up, that can happen overnight.
DB: Oh yeah. I have a couple of customers who haven't bought a new wetsuit in years because they just keep recycling the old one for the new one. So that works out well.
DM: Especially here on the East Side where a lot of breaks are kinda like "family time" in the water. You see a lot of parents with their kids in the water, showing them how to do it, helping them get started, So they have to come by and see you to get wetsuits for their little ones.
DB: Yes, it's too cold, and it's not too cool to have a little kid out there in Daddy's wetsuit. And I have seen that. You wouldn't wear a wetsuit that much too big for you.
DM: It's not going to keep you warm.
DB: No, it could end up drowning them.
DM: This is all good. I know we will see each other again at puppy training.
DB: Oh yes.
DM: Meanwhile, our instructor is having fun [on vacation] in Cabo. Speaking of no waves, I don't think this is the season for waves down there either. It's kinda a south swell kind of a place.
DB: She is probably going to be snorkeling.
That's it; a visit with Diane and the pups. Next time your wetsuit is in need, take it to Blow-Out Wetsuit Repair on Portola Drive near Pleasure Point. And tell her you heard about it on DogMan's Chronicles. Also take a little treat for Bear. He'll appreciate it.
CU Out There,