Information on the early years of Challenger Surfboards is a bit sketchy, so feel free to weigh in with details and/or corrections! From what I can tell, Bill Bahne and Frank McCleary started Challenger Surfboards in 1961. The original shop was in Mission Beach; Bill did the shaping and Frank was the laminator. Later, they hired Carl “Tinker” West, who had moved to California from the east coast and had become a proficient shaper while working for brands like Hobie and Wardy. Bill left Challenger a short time later and started Bahne Surfboards in La Jolla, California.

Tinker noticed that the demand for Challenger surfboards was growing on the east coast, so he tried to convince McCleary to open a factory there. Apparently, they couldn’t come to terms, so they split the assets of the brand and went their separate ways. Tinker moved back to the east coast (New Jersey) in about 1965 and started Challenger Eastern surfboards, while Bobby Challenger Thomas (yes, he changed his middle name to Challenger!) ended up with the rights to Challenger Surfboards for the western US. Frank McCleary moved out of California and away from the surf industry.

Thomas was a well-known San Diego area surfer and was a founder of the original Pacific Beach Surf Club. He started surfing in 1957 at the age 14 on a board he made himself. He shaped for Gordon and Smith Surfboards after graduating from high school in 1961 before McCleary convinced him to join Challenger. Bobby grew the brand into a successful manufacturing business in the late ‘60s, introducing a number of functional designs and employing a team of shapers that included Billy Caster.

I got to meet Bobby Challenger Thomas a couple of times in 2007 or so, soon after I started Last Wave. No doubt Bobby was a character; he spoke so passionately about surfing and the Challenger brand. Somewhat small in stature, he definitely had a larger than life personality. He died in September of 2012 at the age of 69.