Tom Morey was one of Southern California’s finest surfers of the 1950s and early ‘60s and, at the same time, a working jazz musician and an aeronautical engineer. In 1965, he put on the world’s first professional surfing competition.
But nothing he did made as big a splash as the 3 1/2-foot board he carved from a piece of foam in 1971. He took his creation into the surf in Hawaii, where he was living at the time, and skimmed across the waves on his stomach. It was the first “Boogie Board,” which later became a trademarked brand name and a seaside sensation, introducing millions of people to the joy of riding the waves.
Mr. Morey, who sold the rights to invention years ago but remained a renowned figure in the surfing world, died Oct. 14 at a hospital in Laguna Hills, Calif. He was 86.
He had complications from a stroke, said one of his sons, Sol Morey.
Mr. Morey began surfing in his teens and was part of the California surf set that was featured in 1960s beach-party films and in Bruce Brown’s acclaimed 1966 documentary, “The Endless Summer.”
He was good enough to be featured on the cover of Surfer magazine and was among the first surfers to walk to the front, or nose, of the board while riding a wave. He began experimenting with surfboard modifications in the 1950s and opened a surf shop in 1964, after working as an engineer at Douglas Aircraft.
He staged the Tom Morey Invitational surf tournament — the first of its kind — in Ventura, Calif., in 1965, with the top prize going to Mickey Muñoz. In 1969, Mr. Morey moved to Hawaii’s “big island” (also called Hawaii), where he surfed by day and played drums in hotels and clubs at night.
At the time, surfboards weighed between 30 and 50 pounds and were built of hard materials that could cause injury after a wipeout. Looking for something soft and lightweight, Mr. Morey cut a piece of polyethylene foam in half, then covered it with newspaper while shaping it with the heat from a clothing iron. (Headlines from the July 7, 1971, Honolulu Advertiser remained indelibly printed on the foam board.)
Mr. Morey took his stubby slab — weighing three pounds — to the beach and paddled out to catch a wave. He instantly noticed a different sensation than when he was standing atop a surfboard.
"I could actually feel the wave through the board," he told the SurferToday.com website. "On a surfboard, you're not feeling the nuance of the wave, but with my creation, I could feel everything."
When smaller waves or low tides forced conventional surfers back to the shore, Mr. Morey could stay afloat on his board.
"I can surf in an inch of water," he said. "What a moment."
His foam board was easy to maneuver, its shape could be subtly altered to correspond with the contours of a wave, and it could be used while lying flat, kneeling on one knee or standing on both feet.
“This could really turn into something,” Mr. Morey thought.
At first, he called his invention the SNAKE, for side, navel, arm, knee and elbow — the parts of the body touching the board. He soon changed the name to the Boogie Board, drawing on his interest in music.
He made his first sale for $10, then later moved back to California, where he began to manufacture his Boogie Boards in bulk. They went for $37, Mr. Morey’s age at the time. He sold hundreds of Boogie Boards a week, much to the dismay of hardcore surfers, who considered them little more than toys that clogged the waves.
Instead, the Boogie Board proved to be a perfect introduction to surfing, simplifying a sport that required dexterity, strength and exceptional courage. Anyone, from a child to a grandparent, can use a Boogie Board to head out in the water, then glide back to shore on the force of a wave.
“By surfing on the Boogie board,” Mr. Morey told Sports Illustrated, “you are communing with the rhythms of nature.”
Mr. Morey sold his company and trademark in 1977. He later admitted that he sold out too soon and realized little profit from his invention, which has sold in the tens of millions worldwide.
Today, the Boogie Board is produced by the Wham-O toy company. Because of trademark restrictions, other short surfboards on the market — including ones Mr. Morey sold after launching a new company in recent years — are called “bodyboards.”
Surf historian Jim Kempton called Mr. Morey “the Ben Franklin of surfing,” according to the Register. “He probably brought more people to ride waves than any other single person in the history of surfing. That’s a huge accomplishment.”
Thomas Hugh Morey was born Aug. 15, 1935, in Detroit. As a child, he moved with his family to Laguna Beach, Calif., where his father had a successful real estate business. His mother was a homemaker.
The young Mr. Morey was initially drawn to music, playing ukulele and drums, and had his first paying job as a musician when he was 12. One of his first bands was called the “Four Eyed Five” because all five members wore glasses.
He studied music at the University of Southern California — his college jazz band once won a national contest — before switching to mathematics. He graduated in 1957, but Mr. Morey joked that his true major subject in college was surfing.
His first marriage, to Jolly Givens, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, the former Marchia Nichols of Laguna Woods, Calif.; a daughter from his first marriage, Melinda Morey of Lawai, Hawaii; four sons from his second marriage, Sol Morey of Kihei, Hawaii, Moon Morey of Huntington Beach, Calif., Sky Morey of Overland Park, Kan., and Matteson Morey of San Clemente, Calif.; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A daughter from his first marriage, Michelle Morey, died in 2003.
Mr. Morey was a consultant to Wham-O for several years, then went back to work as an engineer for the Boeing aircraft company in Seattle from 1985 until about 2000, when he returned to California.
Throughout his life, Mr. Morey was tinkering in his workshop, developing new surf equipment, including a surfboard that could fold into a suitcase. He patented a soft-bodied surfboard, called the Swizzle board, which was a modest success.
Other inventions, which never quite succeeded, included a sailboat with an adjustable mast, a dirigible, a fiberglass ukulele and a solid-foam football, with grooves in the surface. Mr. Morey also devised a new language and number system.
Mr. Morey was a member of the Baha’i faith, which he credited with giving him a deeper appreciation of nature and an easy-come-easy-go approach to material possessions. He continued to surf into his late 70s and was still leading jazz bands in his 80s.
“Hey! A lot of my multimillionaire friends . . . they’re gone,” Mr. Morey said in 2007. “Nobody’s trying to kidnap my kids, because they don’t have any money! I’m not running from the IRS. I don’t have any kind of income that’s of importance. Life is about riding in the curl.”