Shop Talk: Freedom Surf Shop

Photo: Patrick McLaughlin
Photo: Patrick McLaughlin

Virginia Beach sits just south of the point where Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, in a locale infused with water and steeped in history.

Native Americans lived in the area for thousands of years and Spanish explorers passed through in 1524, before English colonists from the Virginia Company landed in 1607 and established the first permanent English settlement in North America. Modern-day 'VB' includes a three-mile oceanfront boardwalk, 2,888-acre First Landing State Park, and extensive beaches backed by a network of rivers and bays prime for paddling.

Freedom Surf Shop owner Dave Shotton says his goal is to "reveal the true essence of surfing through the warmth and beauty of our shop, the style and exclusivity of our products, and a fun, welcoming, family-like atmosphere." SUP has become an integral part of that plan. —Tom Fucigna

Photo: Patrick McLaughlin
Photo: Patrick McLaughlin

SUP mag: Tell us about your background.
Shotton: I grew up working in a surf shop. From day one, it was hook line and sinker. I loved the magic of what the surf shop represents. My early and mid-twenties were spent teaching and coaching skiing in Colorado, and surfing in Kauai. It wasn't until I met my wife on the slopes that I rolled up my sleeves and got serious, and became a sales rep for O'Neill and Channel Islands Surfboards for 12 years. I had a great run as a sales rep. I saw things getting strange around 2006 when the recipe was mass marketed and all the stores started looking the same. In 2007, I resigned and bought Freedom Surf. If you aren't part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Freedom had been open for two years prior and was the first shop in the area selling Mickey Munoz Surftech SUPs to a group that wanted to have a paddle in their hand. When I took the helm at Freedom it was an easy decision to dive into the standup market. Let's face it – we don't always have surf on the east coast, and how else are you going to keep your gills wet?

SUP mag: When and where did you first get into standup paddling?
Shotton: In May of 2007 I brought in standup boards from Jimmy Lewis and Channel Islands. My friends were distributors for Jimmy Lewis and we went through a lot of boards that first year. Al Merrick was freaking out on standup surfing. Al had some back issues, so SUP gave him a way to get back out to Rincon and shred. With my background, it was easy to sell Al’s board to the surfers looking to get into it. I also was hooked immediately. I’m lucky to live across the street from the ocean and standup became a natural part of my being.

Photo: Patrick McLaughlin
Photo: Patrick McLaughlin

SUP mag: What features of your location make it appealing for standup paddling?
Shotton: Virginia Beach and the surrounding area are called “Tidewater, Virginia.” We are blessed to have so much water all around us. It’s crazy. We're surrounded by Linkhorn Bay, Broad Bay, Lynnhaven Bay, Little Neck Creek and are the south end of Chesapeake Bay. There are hidden lakes and other spots to explore. 64th Street Narrows is one of my favorite paddles, as it allows the paddler to have several wind choices. We paddle year-round, until the flat water ices up.

SUP mag: What brands of standup gear do you carry now?
Shotton: We continue to push the high-end and products that are made better and will last. Many retailers and vendors are going the easy route and selling crap (can I say that?). I really don’t understand it, as we see these under $900 boards coming in daily for ding repairs. They aren’t designed to perform well and only take away from the reputation of the retailer selling them.

Currently, we carry boards by KM, Starboard and Ron House, plus paddles from Starboard, KM and Riviera. These are brands that we believe in, and we enjoy carrying the boards out and strapping them onto our customer's vehicles. We also like the ethics of these companies, as they parallel how we behave and treat people.

SUP mag: What size, or types, of boards have been popular?
Shotton: The first wave of paddlers were purchasing 10’6"-11’2" all-arounders that paddle flat water well and surf just as well, and those continue to be the meat of the biz.
There are a zillion of these boards in the market and they vary considerably. Our mandate is to buy from a “reputable retailer” worth its salt. We buy only the best and each board is in our racks for a reason.

We're seeing many paddlers become much more specific with their niche and the locales that they are paddling. As the low-end price points erode this market, I think we will see more specialized shapes and niches become popular.

KM is doing a great job with their Compressor line, and Ron House nailed it with the Coastal Cruiser. We kill it with the Widepoints and Hero from Starboard. We also carry a wide range of surf-specific standups. It’s all about finding those magic shapes that complement your environment.

Photo: Patrick McLaughlin
Photo: Patrick McLaughlin

SUP mag: What types and/or brands of accessories do you sell?
Shotton: All of the usual that support the boards- PFDs, neoprene and paddling shirts. We try to keep it simple and have the right equipment in at the right time. We carry a solid range of high-end fins from the best in the industry for anyone who wants to upgrade their downwinder or add some snap to their turns. PFDs wrapped into a hip pack have been moving because the Coast Guard and local police have been cracking down on flat water for PFDs and whistles.

SUP mag: What kind of mix of first-timers vs. crossovers from surfing or other water sports have you seen?
Shotton: It’s 50/50. Initially, it was more first-timers, as the surfers were pretty bitter about it. But they soon learned that being bitter during a two-week flat spell is pretty silly. Standups are fun in the surf. We don’t believe that they should ever be in a crowded line up, nor should you ever put away your surfboard forever to paddle. But, on those days where you're looking to mix it up, SUPs are great.

Photo: Patrick McLaughlin
Photo: Patrick McLaughlin

SUP mag: Do you offer any lessons, workshops, demos and/or interface with any local paddling groups?
Shotton: Back in 2007, two friends and I started a meet-up site that allowed any and all to paddle with us. This was back when we were just learning routes, equipment and strokes. It was a really exciting time. A few years ago that group spun off as a few people tried to capitalize on it and started a club that charged, in exchange for discounts on equipment that they sold. Pretty smart, but not the concept that we initially offered. So, right now there is a void as it concerns paddle groups. I personally enjoy paddling as a way to get away from work and enjoy all that it brings- not about capitalizing on what I do for a living, which is a funny balance. Anyway, I’m hoping that we see a group return that has its motives in the right spot, and allows it to be an outlet for fun and friendship.

SUP mag: Have you sponsored, organized or participated in any events such as races?
Shotton: We’ve been involved with almost all of the SUP events in the area. We've sponsored pretty much every one that has popped up over the last six years, mostly on a very grassroots level, but we always supported. Last year, we began to pick our battles a bit more and we are looking forward to branding our own events in the near future.

This year we're one of the organizers for the First Annual Rudee Paddle 13 race which will be held Sunday, October 6th at Rudee Inlet, just south the shop. The idea is to bring a spectator-friendly race to Va. Beach. Rudee Inlet connects from Lake Rudee and Lake Wesley to the ocean, and the location provides an amazing platform, because it has a great blend of commerce as well as a pristine landscape, plus protection from the wind. Rudee's Restaurant and Raw Bar, facing Lake Rudee, is a sponsor and we're planning to involve local charter boats, so spectators can enjoy cocktails while watching the race from the water. The event will benefit the Rudee Inlet Foundation, the Virginia Aquarium and The Navy Seal Foundation, and we're building a pretty hefty prize purse, so we're looking forward to a great turnout.

Photo: Patrick McLaughlin
Photo: Patrick McLaughlin

SUP mag: Where do you think the SUP market is headed?
Shotton: That's a great question. The struggling “pop out” surf companies saw the SUP demand and dove in head first but they seem to be struggling, even more so right now, as greed sometimes outpaces passion. The windsurf guys also seemed to have jumped into it. They have a lot to bring to the table, as they know how large boards move through the water, and they also witnessed the boom and doom of windsurfing. The surfboard manufacturers really aren’t connecting to it. I don’t think that they enjoy Epoxy and especially dealing with such large boards. So, this leaves a small few – including Kings, SIC, Hobie and Riviera – that are keeping it real and cutting edge, and then a good handful that believe that they can capitalize out of China.

So, all of the above are battling it out for this giant pie that I am sure will serve up many slices. With that said, I do believe that it is important for the industry to become an industry and set benchmarks for performance in all aspects. We do have something special here and I hope that it remains so, and we don’t see it becoming a mass produced widget.

SUP mag: What else would you like our readers to know about your shop?
Shotton: Freedom Surf is a surf shop first and foremost. But, given our zip code, we don’t always have waves and standups have become an amazing addition to our lives.
We may not offer a club or tours, but what we do offer is credibility and stoke, at no charge!

Photo: Patrick McLaughlin
Photo: Patrick McLaughlin

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