The Ding King Surfboard and SUP Repair

Brian Zeller Bio

April 6, 2018 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Paddleboarding

“Paddling is a great way to escape from crowds and to commune with the ocean, while getting a great workout without the confines of a coach, pool, noise, or car exhaust.”  – ­ Brian Zeller


by Chad Feller

I have known Brian for many years. We went to high school together. I bought my second surfboard from him. We swam and played High School water polo together. At one point I even had a bit of a crush on his younger sister. Back in high school I was a young age group swimmer that had enough training yards under my belt to beat that older kid Brian in the pool. Little did I know that years later with a paddleboard under him, as I think others have also found, it would be very difficult to keep up with him.

I enjoy talking with Brian and I think a lot of other people also enjoy talking to him and about him.

We sat down for a couple hours at La Jolla Cove where he was on lifeguard duty and tried to just talk about paddleboarding. During his shift Brian sees lots of people who come by to say hi, swimmers asking about the ocean conditions, and also many confused tourists asking questions. Brian takes time to talk with all of them.

When I talk to him about paddleboarding he reminds me of Rocky; the local boy that trains harder than his rival, gets support from friends and family, and ends up becoming the peopleıs champ.

While he was a competitive pool swimmer, he never made it to the podium, he was always a fifth place finisher at the big meets. I think that always bugged him about pool swimming. When he started paddleboarding, it was like a light went on in the dark. All of the things that he loved to do like swim, surf, workout, and spend time in the ocean were all combined for him in paddleboarding. Through the sport he was also given the opportunity to exercise his competitive nature and improve himself as an athlete. These things made Brian a champion and one hell of a paddler.

He is very dedicated to his family, his job as a lifeguard, his community, and improving his paddleboarding. I am not much of a writer but it was easy to sit down with my friend and talk about paddleboarding, lifeguarding, training, his family and friends. In the following piece I am going to present, and hopefully capture, some of the stories Brian gave to me. These stories are in his own words.

Catalina Classic

My first year to do the Catalina Race was in 1996, and it was my second paddleboard race ever, but I had escorted the Classic the year before so I knew the logistics involved in the race.

My goal was simple: to finish.  [Keep in mind Zeller is 6ı2″ and 220 on a good day – ed.] I had borrowed Mark Feighanıs stock Waterman. Even in flat conditions the board was submerged. The day of the race the conditions were horrible, the channel had a 4 to 6 foot chop swell and a 15 to 20 knot northwest wind.   At the start of the race, I paddled out from the Isthmus and the first thing I remembered was a huge, rolling, gray swell coming up towards me. Ten seconds after the start, I was completely alone in the moving ocean. I told myself I could handle ten hours alone paddling, luckily for me it only took 8 hours to finish.  My escort boat could not find me for almost two hours in the conditions. I really wasn’t thinking about how I would place but my escort boat captain really helped me pick a good line. The conditions made most of the paddlers go down swell, well off course, but my escort kept pushing me into the wind. He kept yelling at me “Go into the wind, go into the wind”. Turns out when I hit the R10 buoy, a race official told me I was in third place in the stock division! I looked over to the horizon and I could see a line of escort boats following paddlers that had gone down swell and were climbing up the coast towards the finish. I ended up finishing fifth stock instead of in the back of the pack.

[Ed. Note: Brian relayed a cool story about paddling the channel as a finisher and a winner. That first year he felt like he had been paddling forever. On a lifeguard shift a few days after the race, he told fellow lifeguard and Classic winner, Mark Feighan, how he was paddling forever and not moving. Mark replied that the year he won the Classic, it felt like he paddled only a couple of hours and the race was nearly over immediately after it started. At the time, Zeller could not believe this remark. In 2000, when Zeller won the Classic, he relived that Feighan comment when he also felt like the entire race was over in what felt like two hours. Zeller tried to explain the feeling of winning the 2000 Catalina Classic and the difference between finishing and winning.  When you finish first you have energy leftover to celebrate!]

2000 was a big year for me. I decided in April that my goal was to win the Classic.  I knew I could not win every race, so I decided to use the races during that season as stepping stones towards reaching a peak for the Classic. I used each race as a tool to evaluate my competition. In 2000, the Hennesseyıs race had a purse and I figured most of the paddlers would attempt to peak around that time to win the money. Tim Gair beat me by 10 minutes, so I knew he would not expect me to be able to make up that kind of time in the Classic. I kept up my training. The first thing I had to do was make a deal with my wife, as my family comes first. I still had family and work obligations to take care of so I had to be clear with my wife from the beginning about my plan. I reduced my weight and concentrated on diet.   I am up around 220 pounds on any given day. The day before the race I weighed in at 199 pounds and I knew then that I was prepared physically and mentally to win the race. My paddle workouts included pre-dawn paddles 3 times a week on the bay. At work with my training partner I did lifeguard relays, swam, ran, and body surfed in addition to my regular lifeguard duties.

To win the Catalina race I knew I had to beat Tim Gair. My training philosophy is to train under fatigue. If I can paddle cleanly while I am beat up and tired, then I can do even better if I can rest and prepare myself for a race. I won the 2000 classic but could not have won if it had not been for my support crew. My wife, stepsons, my neighbor (escort captain), and my best friend (Eric Meech- paddleboarder, lifeguard) are the people I give credit for helping me win. My wife has been with me for every crossing and she knows when to feed me and give me more fluid.  Even Tim, as my competitor, mentioned after the race that it was tough listening to my kids cheering for me on the escort boat.  Doing Catalina is a reward for all my hard work.  I get to spend a few days with my wife and do an incredible race. The race has so much tradition and prestige, like the Masters in golf (except without the green jacket). The race feels like it could still be in 1957, with the exception of all the carbon fiber in the boards. So many incredible watermen have done the race, and accomplishing a crossing is a great feeling.

[Ed. Note: Brian Zeller and partner Eric Meech picked up 1st Senior Surf Rescue Race, 1st Senior Paddleboard Race in the 2000 lifeguard season. ]

Watermans Challenge

First paddleboard race I ever did. I was a lifeguard stationed at Windansea for many years so winning the race has become hometown pride for me.

2001 Waterman’s Challenge. This board (Brian’s second Eaton Custom) set records in the Loop Race and Waterman’s Challenge. Photo: Mike Harnish

Bay to Bay

Bay 2 Bay 2001: One race, one win. Brian and the new 19. Photo: Mike Harnish

I had placed second in the Bay 2 Bay for three years in a row so when I checked the conditions for the 2000 race I knew it would be a record year. I was training hard for Catalina. I knew the tides were set up for a record breaker. George Kabris also knew about the good conditions and unfortunately I remembered the year before he had surfed away from me. The conditions that year were down swell and I was catching bumps all the way down the course. It was the first time I had ever beaten George on a down swell run. The Bay 2 Bay is a really hard race. You can never bring enough food or water with you. The last five miles in the bay are paddled looking directly into the sun. The finish is in the harbor with tons of boat traffic. To top it off, it is a long race early in the season. My Eaton board, aka GREAT WHITE, was ideal that day.

I took my new Eaton board in the 2001 Bay 2 Bay to victory.

The Loop Race

2001 Loop Race on a Eaton molded 18′. At 6′ 2″ 220+ Brian requires a bit more floatation. Too low to the water on this day. Photo: Mike Harnish

The Loop is one of my favorite races, it is a nice distance, it has smooth water, and you move so fast through the navy boats and piers. The race is so surreal. When you race in the ocean, for instance the Catalina race, you never get a sense of how fast you are moving. You can be stuck on a landmark that does not get any closer for an hour. In the Loop you can tell you are moving fast on the paddleboard because you can watch all of the piers and ships move by you. I like how the competition is always tight every year. I won my first in 1999 when I used Laird Hamiltonıs custom Eaton twenty-footer that he used in the 1996 Catalina Classic and then in 2002 on my new Eaton 19..

I like how the Loop has continued to be such a soulful family-oriented race.

Memorable Races

One of my favorite races was the Hennessey’s 2000 race. It was a south wind down swell race and I finished third but I passed a bunch of people to get there. The Great White performed great that day in the down swell conditions. I passed George Kabris right in front of the finish and Ryan Addison out in the kelp. It helped build my confidence beating George, and that helped a lot for my Catalina training. I won a little money and was able to buy everyone drinks at the after race party. The best part was my kid won a surfboard in the raffle.

The Eaton Cove race last year was great. I was tied with a Hawaiian kid (Jimmy Austin) at the finish and we had to run up the beach to grab a Popsicle stick for our finish place. I was not sure if Jimmy could run so I was ready to haul up the beach. A couple of scuba divers were practicing rescue breathing in the surfline and I thought they were not practicing but really in trouble. I was torn between helping them and going for the win.

The lifeguard in me took over and I helped the divers. (Ed. Note: As director of that race I can tell you the look on his face was one of absolute confused pain, we ended up taking a vote and gave them both first place.)


Mark Feighan

Taught me how to paddle and train. Exposed me to the benefits of knee paddling. I was training with him one time and I watched him paddle on his knees for 16 minutes straight. I asked him if he knew how long he had been on his knees, and he said three songs! Cracked me up. I admire his dedication and commitment.Two qualities that helped me win the Catalina Classic. I stole all of the ropes from him. I used to spy on him. I watched him paddle out from Windansea one day with no water and was gone for three hours. Blew me away.

My Wife

She has always supported me and keeps everything together when I am training. She has helped me across the Catalina channel four times.

Daniel and Noah

My stepsons are my biggest fans. They have a harder time accepting a second place finish than I do.

Mike Eaton

When I first started paddling I stopped by the shop and told him I wanted to buy a stock board. He stood back looked me up and down (6ı2″, 220 plus), laughed and said I needed a bigger board. He has always been very supportive and laid back with me. Great boards.

Eric Meech

Best friend and training partner (lifeguard comps and paddleboard.)

Matt Jackson

Friend and training partner.

Tim Cicchetto

A guy who has done Molokai a ton of times on the surfski and has always encouraged me to go and kick ass.

Jim Birdsell

National level waterman. Lifeguard and soulful competitor.

Casey Owens

Always puts a fire under my ass.

T Trenton

I had not competed since college and Ron recruited me to be on the lifeguard relay team. He was the most motivated, positive, and genuinely into it person I had ever come into contact with. Best coach I have ever had. He motivated me to get back into competition.

George Kabris

My longest standing rivalry. We have had three finishes within 6 inches. I have learned strategy and head games from him, and I mean that in a good way. He is the strategic master.

Gene Rink

I am blown away by his performances. He has an incredibly powerful high repetition stroke. It is such a unique style.

Tim Gair

He is so fast, that for two years I was not even close enough to him to analyze him. I knew to win Catalina I had to beat him. I think that is the only time he has ever been beat. He dominated the sport. To his credit, I felt he was genuinely stoked that I won the Classic.

Sean Richardson

I really like racing him because he puts so much energy into it and trains so hard to win.

1997 Catalina Classic. Less than a hour out. Photo thanks to B. Zeller

Training Insights

Simple equation: All things being equal, the person that trains the hardest wins.


Molokai to Oahu Paddleboard Race…