The BIG WAVE RIDER
BY GREG GARDNER
Between shaping custom surfboards and riding huge waves on six continents, Charles Williams has had a profound impact on the Treasure Coast surfing community.
Williams and his twin brother, George, have manufactured more than 40,000 Impact surfboards at their Fort Pierce shop during the past 40 years. Three generations of faithful surfers have grown up riding custom boards made by Impact.
At age 65, Williams goes daily for a dawn patrol session at the Fort Pierce Inlet. Except when he was injured, Williams has been surfing almost every day since the age of 12. After five years living on the ocean in Ormond Beach while in high school, Williams knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“My office is the beach,” he says.
He still makes the sojourn annually to the Mexican backdoor pipeline in Puerto Escondido where he nearly died a few years ago.
“It was a close call and I thought, this is it,” Williams says. “I had a late take off and was slammed into the bottom. I was briefly unconscious and I don’t know how I made it to the beach.”
With broken ribs and a collapsed lung, he was loaded into a pickup truck, taken to a hospital and immediately flown to Miami. Doctors said if he hadn’t arrived when he did (four hours later) he would have died.
“The backdoor pipeline is the most challenging, biggest barrel in the world. When you paddle out, there are 250 guys who can win a tournament and 50 photographers. It is the arena. Rails are banging, everyone is screaming. It is such chaos. If you can paddle out there and catch a wave, you know you are a good surfer.”
Williams was among the first from Florida to ride 40- to 50-foot waves in Puerto Rico towed in by jet ski. “I came to realize that real men paddle in when I saw these fat goon asses catching these big waves,” he says. “We trained our whole lives for this.”
Williams still surfs with a short board, a major feat for anyone in their 60s, but surfing enormous, bone crushing waves puts him in a different league.
“You come to a point where your knowledge, experience and skill replaces youth,” he says. “You believe in yourself and you have done it many times. When you are young, you go for it and you don’t care. You get smart and you pick the best waves when everything is perfect with all green lights. When a red light pops up you have to say no. When you get old, it’s quality over quantity.
“You can’t panic and you have to remain calm under pressure. Your mind is telling you to run, but you stay and you paddle out. Passion is stronger than fear. Once you get the adrenalin rush of being in a big barrel, you will die for another one.”
Once ranked 20th in the world, Williams finished second in the Mexican Pipeline Masters and won an additional $1,000 for the best tube ride in the contest.
“I didn’t do it for the fame or the money and I was usually 20 years older than the other guys,” he says. “If you want to be one of the best surfers in the world you have to surf against them. The Australians told me I’d be dangerous if I had a good board. I was always the only guy who made his own boards.”
A friend of Williams who needed money once offered to sell him a surfboard — one of five made by big wave rider Greg Noll in homage to Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian father of big wave surfing. “Back then, we would cut down long boards and make short boards from them,” Williams says.
When Noll heard about the board, he called and offered $10,000. His wife later offered whatever he wanted to sell the board for Noll’s birthday present. Signed by Noll with volcanic ash (pumice) in the nose and tail blocks, it may be the most valuable surfboard on the planet, William says.
“Greg Noll has always been my hero,” Williams says. “That board is my soul base. I knew if I sold it, every surfboard I made after that would be crooked. It would have been bad mana. (Hawaiian karma). For whatever reason, I was invited to a ceremony for Greg Noll at Waimea Bay in Hawaii. I would have given the board to him if I had it with me that night.”
The only pleasure Williams enjoys more than surfing is making surfboards for newcomers to the sport.
“Shaping is the part I like the most,” he says. “I do the sanding, the glass work, make my own blanks and do everything from start to finish, which no one else does. It’s hands on. I like working with people and it is a good feeling when they come back to you and tell you much they love the boards.
“I like working with up-and-coming kids. You can buy boards anywhere, but to have a board custom made for your skill level and size makes a huge difference in your surfing and enjoyment,” he says.
Williams describes Impact’s business as the repair, restoration and production of surfboards.
“Surfing is his life,” Stuart chiropractor Todd Rissacher says. “Chuck eats, breathes and sleeps surfing. He told me what I could do to survive riding big waves. Not too many people on this Earth can shape a board like he does. Shapers are sculptors and he is an artist.
“He has reached out to so many surfers over the years, teaching them the principles to live the surf life rather than the street life,” Rissacher adds.
“Some he took under his wing and sponsored many up-and-coming surfers over the years. He has been a mentor to so many including me. As he has aged, his attitude and surfing have not changed. He is a surfer through and through.
“When I first met them, I didn’t know there was another brother and they played those twin tricks on everyone. Both of them surfed the pro circuit back in the ’80s. They are hard chargers and have respect around the world. People know who the Williams brothers are. They are leaders in the surfing community,” Rissacher says.
“We have 100 percent the same genes,” Williams says of his brother, George. “It’s the twin thing. We pushed each other so hard. We were so competitive, it was insane. He has always had my back on the big waves and I have always had his back. And that was an advantage we had over other surfers.”
Home: Fort Pierce
Education: Brevard Community College; Seabreeze High School, Ormond Beach
Occupation: Custom surfboard designer/builder
Hobbies: “Surfing, surfing and surfing”
What inspires me: “The ocean has that certain draw, that energy, that attraction. I like the untamed force, the challenge of riding big waves. Most people run from the fire and we jump into it. The ocean calls to you, but most people don’t hear it. The ocean screams at me.”
What most people don’t know about me: “I spent the first 10 years of my life in the swamps of the Everglades. Being alone in the woods at night is like paddling out by yourself on a huge day.”