CJ’s father and grandfather on the family 13 ft Tom Blake surfboard Newport harbor 1950. Pic by Meda Nelson

Like most kids who Surf, my story started with a Surf obsessed father growing up in the Bay Area. My father had surfed nearly his whole life learning ocean safety and wave riding from my grandfather at their summer home on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach during the early 50s. I think my dad had his own dreams of professional surfing that were forcefully passed down to me.

One of many Volkswagen vans filtered through the Nelson family. CJ grew up on the road camping and surfing much like he does today. This was one of his dad’s frequent roadside campsites high above the lineup at Scott’s Creek north of Santa Cruz. Although their SF home was only 45 mins away Dad always opted for staying. 1980’s pic by Mark Nelson

Many good memories rolling around ocean beach SF checking waves in his Volkswagen Van as a child. Our home was always filled with boards (surf and skate) and ding repair, design speeches, and surf films were daily occurrences. I was immediately hooked on the whole thing and eventually stood and rode my first wave at first jetty in Capitola CA at 4 years of age. Toys went in the trash and skate and surf ruled all.

Fast forward a few years and my first contest at the SCLU club invitational at the Lane. My dad had a large vintage longboard quiver my whole life so brushing up on my longboarding as a child was a constant. I particularly bonded with an opaque white Doug Haut bump that I planned to ride in the SCLU event. I was terrified and nervous, but dad always reassured me that I was capable of anything. Dad entered me in as a Novice where I was disqualified for being “too good”. I remember my Dad saying, see son, I told ya so and laughing. He was stoked that I was as good as he’d thought and that I possibly had a gift. It hurt at the time because I thought it was unfair and wanted a trophy to show all my skater friends in the city but as my Dad always said, “such is life”. It did, however, light a fire under me and gave me a lot of self-confidence at a very young age.

11-year-old CJ with some tip time on his dad’s 1960s g&s Mike Hynson model. A child hooked on gliding. Insides at Pleasure Point 1986. Pic by Mark Nelson

Life was a bit of a whirlwind with all the stuff Dad had planned for me. I started getting coaching from my hero, Isreal Paskowitz and received boards from Herbie Fletcher and Daryl Butsko in San Clemente. Those guys were the heroes of longboard surfing to me so spending my time down there was pretty dreamy. Lots of time on the beach at San O in the late 80’s early 90’s. That’s when I first started paying attention to real design. I had always paid attention to my Dad’s kitchen speeches about why his Nuuhiwa lifted when he was on the nose but getting in shaping rooms with real shapers was on another level. I listened and learned a lot during those younger years working with those guys. Great time in my life that still influences my design direction today.

15-year-old CJ cutting back on one of his beloved Isreal Paskowitz single fins shaped by Daryl Butsko. Pacifica CA, not far from his family’s home in the SF mission district. 1990

Isreal’s board brand was on the decline so Dad hooked me up with his longtime buddy Rich Harbor in Seal Beach. Our family friend, Terry Simms, was riding his boards and ripping so I tried a couple and loved them. Rich was definitely more professional about his production than I had been used too but I liked it. It was awesome to see the business side of surfboard building from a true master. Rich built me boards for a few years and actually built me my first noseride specific surfboard which changed my focus quite a bit. The distance between where my boards were being built and where I was living started to become a factor so Dad and I thought it would be a good time to find someone in Northern California to build my boards.

I asked longtime friend and mentor, Michael Junod, to build me a couple boards, one very special one in particular. A ten-foot pintail made with Volan cloth and 3-inch balsa stringer that we designed together. This was a defining moment in my life where I had left my lightweight longboard designs for a total recreation of a 60’s longboard. I remember getting that board and basically riding nothing else. I was hooked on the glide that captured my imagination as a child. At this point, my father moved me to Santa Cruz so I could focus all of my energy on surfing and get me away from the city/ skate life that was distracting me from my goals as a surfer. It was 1997 and I was focused on logging.

With a major street skating background, adding tech to his noseriding approach came second nature to CJ. Heel hang on his magic Michael Junod log from the pages of Surfer magazine. Santa Cruz Rivermouth 1997. Pic by Patrick Trefs

Santa Cruz California 2003. CJ applying some switch stance theories to his 10’0″ Pearson Arrow model from the pages of Longboard Magazine. Pic by Bob Barbour

I’d say about 4 years later and after lots of contest victories, I was approached by SC shaping legend Bob Pearson. Working under him was a picture perfect situation to build my quiver of Surfboards. I immediately bonded with his shapes and his work ethic. Bob is a numbers and facts guy so his communication is spot on. If you didn’t get what he was saying then you weren’t listening. I lived in that factory learning how to build boards from the ground up. I ordered ten at a time every three months for years and watched them all get built. I sat in the shaping room with Bob as much as he’d let me. I probably went through 600 or so boards during our years working together. Very intense and educational. Rockers, templates, materials, and numbers. I was totally schooled. I remember him pulling my file towards the end of my relationship with Arrow, it was insane to see all those order forms. My situation was extremely rare and lucky. Not too many people get to learn the way I did.

CJ’s original hand-drawn anchor that he did during the conception of Captain Fin Co. He got his inspiration from the Scarecrow Skateboards logo mixed with a nautical twist. Little did he know how huge his drawing would become. Costa Mesa, CA 2006.

I was evolving and learning. My friends started shaping and longboard surfing started to change. I moved in with my long time brothers Alex Knost and Jerad Mell in Costa Mesa after I signed with RVCA. I needed to get out of Santa Cruz to see what else was out there. I began getting a few boards from Robbie Kegal and traveling to Japan with his crew. During this time I was also working heavily on the creation of Captain Fin Co with my friend Mitch Abshire. Capt. Fin was an idea I had while living with Al and J-rad and the first time in my life where I had a brand of my own with a friend. I was having lots of fun building the team and working on the art direction with my longtime friend J Acuna who was actually the first artist of the brand. Crazy times with lots of new and radical boards, fins, art and music coming through.

I could see the overall focus that had predominately been on noseriding starting to change at that point. Robbie K, Alex Knost, and Cody Simpkins were leading a new pack of kids tail surfing their logs in a traditional fashion. I remember a few sessions with them and feeling outdated and slow but very inspired. A mutual Japanese friend who was Robbie’s distributor asked me if I’d mind making my own boards to be sold through his distribution channels in Japan. I obliged. I have to say that the years riding Robbie’s boards were some of the most educational of my life. Robbie is a genius.

One of CJ’s City Fog speed models on the production line in the City Fog factory. Custom color chevron abstracts by CJ himself. Oceanside, CA 2007.

That was the creation of my first brand, City Fog Surfboards, with friend and shaper Steve Boysen. I decided to move into our warehouse and immerse myself in board building. I’d always wanted to live in a warehouse where I could go crazy with artwork. Living in a factory and building boards was another major trip through surfboard school. With Robbie and Al greatly inspiring me, I made different boards than I was used to and started to evolve a little. Crazy to look back now at some of the work we were doing. Lots of beautiful boards and long nights of partying. I built some of the most important relationships of my life during this period and also created some habits that would haunt me forever.

Mark Nelson 1945-2010. CJ’s greatest supporter and teacher in his element at the beach in Capitola. Now a plaque graces the promenade only a few feet from where this pic was taken. A picture of Mark in trim and the words “surf Capitola, practice aloha” speak to all who pass honoring the life of this great man.

Over the next couple years, I began the dark path to alcoholism. Substance abuse snuck his arms around me and stole my inspiration. I basically all but quit surfing. I had come to a point in my life where I didn’t really care about anything. A false sense of comfort and purpose was running my life and I was 100% caught up in it. Strange times that are hard to imagine now. On a spur of the moment decision, I decided to move home to Santa Cruz where my family was living. Maybe my subconscious was speaking to me and my many “near death” evenings in that part of the world. A change was on the horizon for me and I was ready for it. Back in Santa Cruz, I made a few boards with a couple local shapers but my heart was not in it and my addiction was still running my life. I was trying to surf off and on but not connecting the way I had in the past.

My father came down with an unexpected illness that ended up quickly taking his life. It was my worst nightmare and my life’s defining moment. I knew that this turn of events could kill me if I kept self-medicating and that’s not what my father or family would want for me. My dad always wanted me to live my life’s dreams and be happy. I couldn’t let his death be in vain so I got sober. Thank God.

CJ on the Craigslist special CJ Nelson model. Sober and inspired for the first time in 20 years. Pic by Marty.

My mind, body, and soul started working again and the loves of my life started falling back into place. I didn’t want to bother anyone so I bought a CJ Nelson Arrow Model off of Craigslist and started surfing like each day was my last. These were the hardest but most important sessions of my life. My skills were still there after nearly 4 years out of the water as an addict. My career was completely gone but I could surf and it felt amazing. This is true for most addicts that recover. Roughly 3 months after you get sober, things start feeling really good again. Anyway……

About a year after sobering up my longtime friend, Ian Chisholm, rang me out of the blue. He invited me to ride for his label South Coast Surfboards and flew me out to his home in Australia to build boards. He had seen my new direction and freedom on social media and reached out to me. Another defining moment in my life that I will never forget. We ended up building some of the best surfboards I’ve ever ridden including the “Slasher” that redefined my whole wave riding approach.

CJ finding his feet on his first trip back to Australia in 10 years. With friend and shaper Ian Chisholm by his side, he was confidently surfing better than he had his whole life. Pic Justin Bevan.

12 different flex patterns on 12 custom boards made by good friend Yu Sumitomo. Research and development in Japan, 2015.

Another great friend of mine, Yu Sumitomo contacted me after seeing some of my social media posts. Yu had been making these cutting-edge carbon fiber surfboards in Japan for a number of years. He asked if he could build me a noserider out of these advanced materials and I jumped at the chance. I had had a carbon model with Arrow/Aviso Surfboards in the past so I knew it was an amazing material to work with. It ended up being the best performing surfboard I’d ever ridden. Yu flew me to Japan where he had made 12 boards waiting for me that were all white. Only numbers visually set them apart but they were all different flex patterns due to their lamination process. I spent two weeks testing and riding them as we toured our way through Japan. At the end of the trip, I selected number 2 as the best performing board. This was a startling and unexpected moment in my life where an alternative surfboard construction had grabbed nearly all of my attention. It worked so much better than anything I’d ever ridden that it was simply undeniable.

With new life being blown into our brand inspiration was at an all-time high. Our direction had another shift with opening up our doors to other friends and shapers who want to share in this new technology. Our brand today is full of love and light. Best friends working alongside one another with an extended family of riders and customers that keep us inspired and motivated.

I have learned that life is all about relationships, transitions, and reinventing ourselves, rejoicing in the victories, and pushing through the failures. Points of transition often include letting loose of some things in order to grasp others. I am happy to arrive at this point in my life, having gone through a number of transitions to arrive at a state of clarity and purpose.

Comfortably back at home in the surf world. CJ out back of the CJ Nelson Designs surfboard factory in San Clemente, CA 2015. Pic – Justin Bowers

A series of unfortunate and fortunate events created our brand. Years of surfboard building, sponsorships, travels, bad times and good. Our range of boards and building materials is as radical and diverse as my life. As a 20 year professional surfer and designer, I can help point you in the right direction with a surfboard or let you quietly learn from my mistakes. This is only the tiniest glimpse into my history and I could go on forever telling you the highs and lows of being me but I’m going to stop here. I am, however, an open book and I’m eager to share my story. I’m always here to talk boards or sobriety so feel free to contact me directly. I will try to get back to you in the timeliest fashion possible.

Working with friends doing what I love is a miracle. Helping you choose the right surfboard without riding a couple thousand of them is my passion. My life has been a unique adventure and I look forward to the future with humble thanks. I am honored to be able to offer you these slices of my personal happiness. Let’s progress longboard surfing together.

Be Here Now.