Corky on East Coast Legend Balsa Bill Yerkes
by Corky Carroll
This is the story of my pal “Balsa Bill” Yerkes. Bill is as laid back a hard-core surfer as you are gonna find anywhere and has seen all sides of the surfing industry with over 50 years in the business. He is currently 72 years old. Here is how he got there.
Originally born in Mount Holly, New Jersey. He would learn to surf at Malibu when his parents made a brief move to California in 1960, at which time he fell in love with the sport and the lifestyle that went along with it. He went back to the East Coast and became one of the better surfers there at that time, riding boards made by the great Charlie Bunger. Bill also had a knack for photography and started making surf films of East Coast surfing and surfers. He made “How the East was Won” in 1967 and “A Way of Life” in 1968. Many years later he would put together another one, “Summer of ’67.” In 1968 Bill received a degree in film from Ithaca College in New York.
In the seventies Bill relocated to central Florida and became the licensee for SUNDEK, a company known for its bright colored shirts and surfwear. Within a short amount of time he built it into one of the biggest and most sought after brands in the world.
This is where I enter the story. I had met Bill back in the 60’s at some of the surfing events on the East Coast and we had become friends. When I was running the Advertising Department at SURFER magazine from 1976 to 1986 we worked together on the advertising campaign for SUNDEK, and became closer friends. This led to me leaving SURFER and working with Bill for a few years doing “CORKY” clothing and surfboards under the SUNDEK umbrella. We had an office in Capistrano Beach.
I love Bill, he is like a stoked surf gremlin and he is my age. As he downsized with the shrinking of the surf industry at the end of the 1980’s he kept a line of great surf trunks alive under his own name and made screened t shirts for a number of companies in Florida.
He eventually opened a great little surf shop, “Balsa Bills,” in Satellite Beach, Florida where he makes and sells custom made Balsawood Surfboards. He is a master balsawood surfboard craftsman. He is also a great musician, plays the heck of the ukulele, piano and guitar. He worked with the Beach Boys putting together the great coffee table book, “Surfboards, Stratocasters and Striped Shirts.”
If you go into his shop he will most likely be kicked back playing some vintage Hawaiian song on his Uke. He also sells ukes and will be happy to teach you how to play one if you have the time. He goes surfing on his personally crafted wood boards out behind his shop regularly and also makes it to Waikiki every year to hang and surf with the heaviest of the local beach boy crew. Bills vibe and attitude is all positive and all about surf history and respect. He is an astute surf historian, especially on East Coast surfing. A close pal with Murph the Surf, Dick Catri, Gary Propper and the Slater family. Bill gave Kelly Slater his first sponsorship and Kelly’s mom a job working for SUNDEK. I met Kelly for the first time when I was the MC for the “Sundek Classic” surfing event in Florida. He was maybe 10 at the time and winning the “boys” division of the contest. I clearly remember saying on the microphone, “this kid is going to be World Champion one day.” I was right, he did it eleven times.
Balsa Bill Yerkes is a “real surfer,” to the bones. Never won a major championship but has none the less has been a major player and huge influence on the surfing world over the past 50 years. And I am proud to say is my close friend. Not sure why it has taken me th