Polyurethane foam surfboard pioneer Dave Sweet died of acute renal failure May 18 in Los Angeles at the age of 86.
PU development started in the 1930s, gained visibility during World War II as a substitute for rubber and soon found other applications. Sweet became aware of the material and, around 1952, began experimenting on types of molds and formulations for PU foam.
Development failures were common and sometimes created dangerous explosive conditions, but, after months of experiments, Sweet learned how to eliminate troublesome air bubbles. He achieved the production of his first PU foam core surfboards in 1956.
Their weight at about 25 pounds each was significantly lower than the era's balsa wood surfboards, on which Sweet worked starting in 1949, and previous-generation redwood versions, on which he initially rode waves in 1945.
Sweet focused on quality production, is credited with being “first in foam” for surfboards and never saw his annual volume go much higher than 800 boards. His disinterest in marketing allowed others to ride the rapid growth in surfboard popularity, stemming in part from the 1959 “Gidget” movie. By the late 1960s, the advent of short surfboards was damaging to Sweet's business.
Sweet resumed designing and developing long surfboards in 2000. Sweet's son, Greg, continues to make his father's longboards available through a shop in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Hobie Alter was right behind Sweet in demonstrating the feasibility of a PU foam surfboard, but Alter in Dana Point, Calif., took advantage of the market's interest in the sport and achieved significantly higher sales volumes than Sweet.
Alter's early collaborator in foam production was Gordon “Grubby” Clark, who later operated Clark Foam in Laguna Niguel, Calif., from 1961 until abruptly closing the PU-core market-dominant business in 2005. The closing led to more off-shore mass production of surfboards on the basis of master shapers' digital designs.
Alter died in March 2014 at the age of 80, but Clark, now 82, raises cattle and sheep on his 52,800- acre Hay Creek Ranch east of Madras in Oregon's Jefferson County.
Sweet was born in Seattle. His family moved to southern California in 1940. He graduated from the University of Southern California and served in the Navy until contracting pneumonia and being discharged.