The Board Club Founder Peter Belden Talks Bringing Surf to Newport’s Community
Written & Photographed By: Hayleigh Shobar The Board Club Newport Beach
A leap of faith brought Newport Beach native Peter Belden’s dream of a surfboard exchange to life. After a rescuing accident two years ago in which fellow lifeguard and friend Ben Carlson passed away, Belden packed up his belongings and left the country on the hunt to find new purpose and meaning within himself. He returned with the idea of The Board Club, a surfing organization where members pay $80 a month for access to a library of surfboards to rent out. Now, with the opening of The Board Club in late May, and the unveiling of a statue memorializing Carlson taking place earlier in July, Belden sat down with us to talk about his “surf club” and his goal to share Ben’s story with the world.
Question: So, July was a big month. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened on July 6?
Peter Belden: Regarding Ben’s statue, it was an incredible event. So Jake Janz, Ben’s brother-in-law who built the statue, did an absolutely incredible job. Everyone was blown away, because he hadn’t done anything like that before—at least as far as I know—and he spent 2 years working on it, so the unveiling was incredible. There were about 2, 000 people that showed up. Chris Conway, who’s the head of the Ben Carlson foundation was the MC for the event. His dad spoke. A lot of people got up there, and they unveiled it. It was beautiful. They had all the guard’s names that worked with him that year, the city council members. It was great. They threw a lei on him. It was incredible, and it meant a lot. Now that thing is there forever. Every time I go there, I take a second to stop and look and appreciate what he did and the guy he was.
Q: It’s such a powerful statue. What was your reaction when you saw it?
PB: Yeah, it’s 9 feet sitting on a 2-foot pedestal. But that’s who he was. You know, there’s  lifeguards in Newport and he was the best waterman of all of us—the best lifeguard, spear fisherman, big wave surfer. Everyone looked up to Ben.
Q: When did your passion for surfing start?
PB: Surfing, probably when I was about 10 years old, but my love for the ocean was day one. It’s not just surfing, but it’s almost like an ocean club. There’s a lot of guys that are lifeguards, a lot of guys that body surf, that fish, that stand up paddle, that surf, and everything else. So, what I’m trying to do here, it’s not just a board exchange for surfing purposes only. It’s really important that this is for ocean people. My love for it really started day one. I grew up on the beaches, the Bay beaches, of Newport Harbor Yacht Club. My dad was a member, and I’d always want to go to the “big beach, ” you know the beach across the way. I remember when I was like 6 years old, 7 years old, something small, and my dad took me out the first time in some real big waves. … that’s where that fear of being in the water—that adrenaline rush of seeing big waves and getting held down—that’s when I was hooked.
Q: You’ve managed to turn your love for surfing and the ocean into a career. Did you ever think that was possible?
PB: To answer the question, yes I knew it was possible. Like, would it ever happen? I probably would’ve told you, doubtful. It’s just so hard to make it happen. There are so many people that love the ocean, whether they’re using it to take pictures of it, to surf in it, to fish… It’s hard because it’s competitive. There are so many people trying to make a living in surfing, or in the ocean—one way or the other—and for me to come up with a unique idea that people have loved so far, and want to be a part of, is extremely gratifying and fulfilling because I’m pouring my heart and soul in this. I see how much people love the concept and how passionate they are about the club, and it’s extremely rewarding for me.
Q: I’ve read a lot about The Board Club, but could you give me a 30-second pitch as to what makes it such a unique place in Orange County?
PB: Well, there’s no other place where you can meet with such other like-minded people—surfers, true watermen—that all get together and have access to such an amazing collection of boards…but it’s not just the boards. So, you have this whole community—some amazing, really skilled people in Newport—that are all congregating in Newport for different member dinners, movie nights, ding repair demos, learning about fin design. It’s a common place for ocean lovers to get together with likeminded people for something we love—the ocean.
Q: How did you get the idea for it?
PB: I should really start at the beginning. I was working for a data analytics company, and I was kind of tired of my job. But when Ben died, it really showed me, hey, life is short, and I was doing something I wasn’t really happy doing, so I quit my job, sold my car, put everything into storage, and said, I’m outta here. I’ll figure it out. It’s time for me to figure out what I need to do next in life. So, I went to Indonesia for two months, surfing all over the place. And then, I went to Australia, and I was living in a van for 6 months, cruisin’ around..
Q: And it was in Australia that you came up with The Board Club?
PB: So I had taken a picture earlier in the day at the exact spot—day and place—where I got the idea. I was sitting watching the waves go by, and the waves were really thick and heavy and there was a really steep drop. I just had the wrong board, and I was getting my butt kicked over and over again.I thought, why can’t I have access to a whole bunch of really cool boards? So that’s when I came up with it. I wrote the business plan out there sitting at Starbucks in the morning, and doing as much research as I could, talking to people in Australia, emailing people back home, and I realized, hey, I’ve got a legitimate business model and the business plan looks good. It’s time to go home, and let’s do it.
Q: Once you had committed to the idea, what was your initial vision for The Board Club?
PB: It wasn’t that much different from what it is today. I think I was originally considering it to be a little more of a board exchange, and now it’s become very important to me that this has become more of a surf club, and so I’m making a good effort to put my time and energy into making really cool events—listening and asking questions from my members.My job here, my role is to make the collective interest of the members happen. So that might be tours of the factory, ding repair demos, getting the shapers to come talk design—whatever it is, I need to find out what they want and it’s my job to make that happen.
Q: You just mentioned this, but I saw a quote from you in which you said, “This isn’t a board exchange. This is a surf club first, and board exchange is just part of it.” Can you tell me what “surf club” means to you?
PB: I grew up in Newport, I’ve been a lifeguard for 18 years, I was a junior lifeguard instructor for seven years, I coached water polo in Newport Harbor. I love this community. I love being a part of it. And I love the idea that I can be something that brings all these people together around something they love. Nothing is more gratifying to me than when I sit back at a member’s dinner and I watch different people from different age groups and professions that all have a common love for surfing and that meet each other and get to be good friends. It’s like watching all the relationships grow from different cliques and different groups within Newport all come together—that is what is most important to me.
Q: What ages do members of The Board Club range?
PB: It’s open to everyone. I’ve just recently got “grom” boards. I’m finding that a lot of moms or dads are signing up. It’s $80 a month for normal membership. Mom or dad signs up, and I throw in the grom boards for free for their kids. Just to give kids access, and that encourages a more family atmosphere. I’d say 70 percent of my members have kids.
Q: Do you hope to expand The Board Club?
PB: Absolutely. The end vision is a franchise model, where you’ve got Board Clubs all over the country, and then internationally. And the nice part is, once you have them in the places like San Diego, LA, San Francisco, New York, Florida, and then even Costa Rica, Nicaragua, is that everywhere you travel, you have a reciprocal membership. And that creates an even bigger network. I love the Newport community, and I think each individual surf club will have its own vibe, its own way of doing things, its own individual communities. Each one will have its own individual characteristics, but then there’s this big common theme between anyone that’s in The Board Club can go to these different clubs, see how they do things, and then use boards by local shapers there. If I were to take my little Newport Beach board, fly to San Francisco, and try to surf Ocean Beach, that’s gonna be a problem. But instead I can show up at Ocean Beach, get a board from a local shaper there that makes boards specifically for that break.
The fact that I can be profitable in just a couple of months is amazing, but I’m not there yet, and until then, I’m just powering through this. A lot of it is just member-driven. I’ve got a lot of different ideas. There’s so much power and potential in community. When you have a really big, cool group of people, it’s like, what do you want to do? Organize a surf trip to Costa Rica? Should we drive down to Baja and go surfing? Should we all get together and learn ding repair demos? You can do anything you want.
Q: Where in everyday life do you find inspiration?
PB: Honestly, I’d say the members. There’s a lot of really incredible people in this community. And a lot of very talented, inspiring members, like Ty Peterson. He owns Marko Foam. And his story of how they started that business is amazing, and now we’re starting to partner together on different aspects of the business, and watching how they operate and watching how he has his son Coby who’s working with him too, and you can just see the next generation. And I’d love to be in Ty’s position, where I can have a business and pass it on to my son and work together and do things like that. So I’d say just the members. There’s a lot of really incredible people that inspire me.
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