By Jake Howard

In 1973, Bob Nealy altered the trajectory of wave riding. After struggling with the earliest incarnations of the surf leash, which at the time involved a suction cup on the board’s nose, a piece of rubber surgical tubing and a leather wrist strap, Nealy diligently worked toward improving the crude tether. The placement of the leash went from tip to tail, and using the Velcro straps from his old Air Force life preserver and a longer length of urethane cord (so the board wouldn’t violently snap back), Nealy invented the first modern, professionally engineered surf leash. Shortly thereafter, he founded Surf More and never had to worry about wearing shoes to work again.

Sadly, on Sept. 1, Nealy lost a long and exhaustive battle with lymphoma. His grace and class will be greatly missed throughout the San Clemente community, where he spent most of his life. He leaves his wife, Sara, and son, Trevor, behind.

“Nealy was a pioneer in the surf accessory business,” remembered surfing’s first world champion, Peter “PT” Townend. “I rode for Surf More leashes in my heyday, appearing in their ads, and Bob was a genuine individual. I was always proud to represent him and the company.”

A pioneer in the industry and lifelong Cotton’s Point and San Onofre local, there was considerably more to Nealy’s act than just spending long days at the beach. In 1959, he began playing water polo at Newport Harbor High School, which eventually led him to a collegiate career at Orange Coast College and then UC Irvine. Blending his passion for the pool and the surf, Nealy started teaching at San Clemente High School in 1970 and later at Capo Valley. He taught American Cultures, US History, Contemporary World Problems, and Wilderness Living. He was also involved in the surf and ski clubs at SCHS and CVHS. Starting in 1998, he coached the Frosh-Soph and JV girls and boys water polo teams at SCHS. In 2003, he moved to Tesoro High school and after 34 years as an educator, he retired in 2005.

Never giving up on his passion for water polo, Nealy would periodically drop by the high schools’ practices and get in the pool with the aspiring young athletes.

“He would get in and play with us and helped out a lot,” recalled Mitch Kahn, who was a student of Nealy’s in the late ’70s and then later went on to represent the United States as a kayaker in the 1992 Olympic Games. “You know, when you’re young, you look at somebody as being a lot older than you, but for the past 15 years or more, we were just really good friends.”

After retiring from CUSD, Nealy kept surfing and got back into playing masters water polo.

In 2011, Nealy received the Bryan Weaver Male Master of the Year Award from United States Water Polo (USWP) for his involvement with masters water polo. He was also inducted into the UC Irvine Hall of Fame for swimming and water polo.

“He cites water polo in giving him a psychological advantage in battling his illness, still being able to do what he loves—play water polo,” noted USWP when honoring Nealy.

“He was a humble man that carried himself with a lot of dignity,” said Kahn, who lived nearby Nealy. “I’d see him walking, and no matter how bad things got, he was always positive. He’d say how satisfied he was and what a full life he lived. I don’t know if there are many men that can face what he did with such dignity.”

At the end of August, Nealy made a trip down to La Jolla for the annual Luau and Legends of Surfing Invitational, which benefits UCSD’s Moores Cancer Center. Even in his weakened state, he managed to find the energy to speak at the podium and share a positive message.

“It was nothing short of inspiring,” said Jim Kempton, a friend and the former editor of Surfer Magazine. “I don’t think anybody but his really close friends knew how serious things were, but that’s not what he talked about. He shared a message of positivity and leadership that I will never forget. He wasn’t the kind of guy that liked to talk much about himself, but he was incredibly intelligent and had a wonderful, quick wit.”

Nealy was a big supporter of the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center (SHACC), located in San Clemente. In the early days of his leash business, it was SHACC-founder Dick Metz, who at the time was running the Hobie surf shop, that placed one of the first orders for Nealy’s Surfmore leashes. The relationship between the two men remained strong, and when it was Nealy’s turn to pay it forward, he did exactly that.

“He was a long-term supporter of SHACC,” said Barry Haun, the foundation’s curator and creative director. “Surfmore XM provided us with leashes to use as membership incentives, plus he gave us leash material for displaying all the surfboards in our showroom. He was always the nicest guy.”

Through it all, Nealy never lost his passion for the water and helping those in his community. With the success of his surf business, he probably didn’t have to keep teaching, but true to who he was, he spent over 30 years giving the youth of San Clemente and Capo Beach a brighter future, and at the end of the day, there really is no better legacy than that.

A church memorial service will be held on September 25, 2016 at 3:30 p.m. at San Clemente Presbyterian Church. A second memorial and paddle out will be held on October 13, 2016 at 2 p.m. at Doheny State Beach.

This piece was updated to fix biographical errors.

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comments (7)

  • Several years ago I was talking with him at some event at the SHACC, I did not know who he was. We were just talking, about getting older and physical fitness. He was saying you have to go into doing situps and pushups when you first roll out of bed, first thing! Then he gave me a card, a card for Surf More leashes. I switched to surf more leashes from whatever leashes I was using for my surf school., just on the basis of talking to him that one day. Great guy, humble, ego-less and direct. Glad I have his leashes on all my boards.

  • Bob was kind enough to sponsor and support the Venice Surf-A-Thon often. aloha Nui bruddah. Condolences to family, friends and the tribe. Nice piece Jim thank you.

  • We just lost a great human being.
    I remember practicing water polo with Bob in high school and college. He never backed down and loved the challenge of a battling anyone during scrimmages. Out of the pool, the most genuine and selfless guy one could ever have the pleasure of knowing.
    When I saw this, as a tear started in my eye… it quickly turned into joy and a smile. Im lucky, looking back on how fond my memories of Bob are. It has been a while since I’ve scene him, but it feels like yesterday he was putting on his water Polo cap on with a great big smile on his face eager to jump in with the youngsters; that was back in 2001. It was a real honor and pleasure knowing Bob and reading more about him just makes my experience of Bob that much more memorable… RIP BOB!!

  • It is had to think such a humble and intelligent man has left us so soon…I called him the “Robert Redford” of Capistrano Valley High where I was on the faculty for 10 years with Bob.. he was thee “Coolest” teacher hands down….always a “Hi” and a smile.!.Known by the ladies as the most handsome man…and “thee class act” and a cool sense of humor..usually joking about himself…

    He hired some of the football players I coached.(eg.Sean Paul Jenkins eventual MR.USA AND MR. WORLD BODYBUILDER”.)and he was always flexible with their hours at “surf more” products..and if not for bob’s “BULL WHIP LEASH” I PURCHASED from SEAN JENKINS, who worked for bob, I would have lost my “log”surfboard…
    WE HAVE LOST AN “ICON” IN SO MANY WAYS..HE WAS SO CARING AND JUST PLAIN “COOL”!
    JUNA BOB NEALY SURF KING AND “TOUGH” WATER POLO ATHLETE, HUSBAND ,DAD AND FRIEND TO SO MANY…ALOHA!

  • I was sad but not surprised to hear of Bob Nealy’s passing. I saw him out in the lineup while surfing Cottons. He confided in me that he was battling cancer. I was shocked and thought “why does it always happen to the good folk?”. He was always a great guy. The kind you look up to. He helped to support my filmmaking career and supplied me with surf accessories. I never had to but a leash. He will be missed by all those who’s life he touched.

  • It’s with a heavy heart that I write this wonderful memory. It involves the late great Hobie Alter and Bob Nealy at my facility in San Juan Capistrano during the early 70’s.

    Hobie had his shop just down the street from Potter and Brumfield and knew I was always testing cutting edge equipment and performing numerous building expansions to our facility. I had just bought this new machine that would automatically perform ultrasonic welding on our plastic relay housing cases. These were utilized for the small relays that change traffic signals thru their series from red green and yellow. The Branson Ultrasonic Welder I had purchased was one of the first of its design and was a prototype at best.

    Hobie introduced Bob and he explained his new invention to me. I started surfing at the age of 12 after being a full-time body and mat surfer since the age of 5. I recall gingerly asking Bob why a surfer needed such an invention, as we weren’t supposed to be losing our surfboards? Happily I didn’t discourage Bob.

    Problem was, we worked 2 full shifts so I asked Bob if he could come back in to see me at 12:30 am and we would get set up and perform some tests to see if the welder would work for his new invention. He was so excited as was Hobie.

    They returned and over the next couple of weeks we all would meet late night to continue to perfect our tests. I designed a special Hon for Bob’s leash and had our toolmakers build it out of some scrap materials. It worked like a charm!

    It’s so cool we all worked together to develop his product on what I’m sure was a shoestring budget. We formed a friendship from there and over the years not only did Hobie continue to use me as a resource but so did Bob. I had been working with Hobie for a few years whenever he needed to run anything past an Industrial Engineer to make certain he was always maintaining his products and building to code.

    I spent many hours with Hobie riding Killer Capo with our Cat;s while I was living on Beach Road. Hobie knew I always wanted to live there so when a really nice place became available he was the one that let me know and I went down and rented it.

    Many thanks to Bob and Hobie for this wonderful memory!

    In loving memory,
    Jim Huffman

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