Issue 8.4: August/September 2005

The Shapers

 

by Jesse Katz
photos by Dana Edmunds

 
In koa groves on the slopes of Hualalai volcano, above the Kona coast, Tom Stone sees surfboards. He makes an offering of fish and fruit, asking the gods for permission to fell a tree and give it new life in the water.

In an abandoned Waialua sugar mill, on Oahu’s north shore, Eric Arakawa imagines the same contours—on the screen of his laptop computer. Opening his SurfCad version 2.33 software, he bends lines and tweaks angles with a click of the mouse, turning a million pixels into the latest model for his squad of touring pros.

In his Honolulu workshop, hidden behind a hospital supply wholesaler, Ben Aipa leans over a polyurethane slab, aligning a decades-old template on the rough, unfinished foam. He has operated this way for 41 years now—with thick, salt-hardened hands—milling, shaving, planing, sanding, the impression of his fingers worn into every tool like a glove.

On Maui, not far from the mountain of water known as Jaws, Jeff Timpone experiments with a more recent invention, the tow board, championed by some of the most daring athletes alive. He has never ridden such a colossal wave himself. Knowing the ocean, he can scarcely bear to watch his own customers take it on.


 

 
Behind every surfer, there is a shaper, a craftsman who bridges the worlds of science and commerce and art. If surfers are the rock stars of the water, shapers are the producers, studio wizards who can transform an inanimate plank into a magic, hydrodynamic carpet. Hype plays a role in the equation; an elite surfer, it is often said, could rip on an ironing board. But the best shapers also seem to know something—about physics, about the psyche—that transcends the realm of mere sports. "Everybody wants to be a shaper: It’s a real ego trip," says renowned Sunset Beach surf promoter Randy Rarick, who has been shaping boards himself since the 1960s.

At their most technical, shapers speak the language of engineering wonks, reducing waves to mathematical formulas. They must take the imprecise lexicon of surfers—fast, slow, stiff, loose—and translate it into intricate reconfigurations of a board’s drag, flow, buoyancy and thrust. At their most mystical, shapers assume the aura of shamans, investing their creations with mana, or life force. They see the universe as a continuum of curves, from the heavens to sub-atomic particles, the surfboard as an instrument for harmonizing with that energy. At times, shapers function almost as psychologists, deconstructing the self-perceptions of their clients, both the insecure and the overblown. Surfboards, after all, do not exist in a vacuum or on a pedestal; each one must be right for the individual who intends to ride it, a match that hinges on factors as varied as size, experience, geography and temperament. With cheaper, faster technology transforming the landscape, it also helps to be wise about business, which most shapers are not. Tom Stone, Eric Arakawa, Ben Aipa and Jeff Timpone—the Ancient, the Wizard, the Survivor and the Pioneer—all got into the trade by accident, an outgrowth of their love for the ocean. In an era of global corporatization, of surfing as fashion, they are keepers of the flame: artisans revered not merely for designing extraordinary boards but for preserving one of Hawai‘i’s richest cultural traditions.

"You can go to Costco now and buy a decent board for $250, built by some guy in China who will never surf a day in his life," says Rarick. "To some extent, it’s becoming a little bit of a lost art."


 

 
Tom Stone

In 1778, Captain James Cook marveled at the "almost amphibious" men and women riding Hawaii’s surf, each on a "long narrow board, rounded at the ends." By then, he‘e nalu, or wave sliding, had been a fixture of Polynesian life for at least a millennium or two, one of the oldest, continuously practiced sports on the planet. A few centuries later, Tom Stone still makes boards the way his ancestors did, carved from trees, with only his naked eye as a guide. Verging on museum pieces, they are sold under his Hawaiian Boarding Company label—up to $10,000 for a magnificent eighteen-foot olo, the kind once favored by Island royalty. But for the price of a few credit hours at Kapi‘olani Community College, anyone can take his Traditional Sports of Hawai‘i class and learn the techniques for themselves.

"My whole thing is based on education," says Tom, who goes by "Pohaku," the native term for stone. "Most Hawaiians are struggling to make it in this modern world. I’m trying to show that there’s a living culture here that we can continue to embrace and use economically. You don’t need money. All you need is to know who you are."

As a child on the windward side of Oahu, Tom longed for his first surfboard. He begged and pestered. But the Stones were a family of eight, living in a one-room hut, and his father, a Honolulu policeman, was unable to indulge his six-year-old son. "I gave him so much grief," recalls Tom. "Then one day, he came home with a log and just started carving." Working on nothing more than instinct and pride, his dad extracted a beautiful board from that chunk of balsa, an act of love that Tom immediately rejected. He had dreamed of the glossy Hobies on display in the store windows. Instead he was being confronted by his own heritage. "I told my dad I hated it," says Tom, whose father did not react well to the verdict. "He chopped it up right there on the spot. He chopped it up and burned it. I still live with that regret today."

The years that followed were tumultuous ones for Tom, who grew into a respectable semi-pro surfer and a disreputable drug-running con. Sometimes the two even intersected: During the late ’60s and early ’70s, he says, he smuggled cocaine from Hawaii to California inside hollowed-out surfboards. In and out of juvenile facilities, then prison, "I lived on the verge of paranoia," he says, now fifty-four, his face etched with the crags of his former life. It took him until the ’90s to see in his father’s disparaged board the key to his own redemption. "I was denying my native self," says Tom, who went back to school, eventually earning two master’s degrees, in Pacific Island and American studies, from the University of Hawaii.

Today he works on a concrete patio behind his house on Maunalani Heights. With lumber imported from the Big Island, he spends weeks—studying the wood’s grain, communing with its spirit—before making a cut. When he does, every stroke is freehand, no templates, no measurements, no blueprints. He teaches the same approach to his students, challenging them to see what does not yet exist.

"I’m not just a surfer or a shaper or a local Hawaiian tough guy," Tom says. "I am the expert. I was always the expert. Nobody taught me how to do this. Nobody taught my father. It’s our culture. It’s just in us."


 

 
Eric Arakawa

The revolution, when itcame, was not a popular uprising. Digital graphics, computer imaging, 3-D animation—rather than breakthroughs, these developments in surfboard production were widely viewed as the beginning of the end for what had always been a hands-on cottage industry. "A lot of people saw the machine as a threat," says Eric Arakawa, "to the essence and soul of building boards."

The marquee shaper for Hawaiian Island Creations, Eric saw only possibilities in the exactitude and efficiency of what became known as CAD, or computer-assisted design. Eric began shaping boards when he was a teenager in the ’70s; he shaped tens of thousands the old-fashioned way, wrestling with slabs of foam, relying on elbow grease to impose his vision. "It all comes down to what works," says the forty-five-year-old North Shore guru, who inherited his meticulousness from his father, a Pearl City aircraft mechanic. "I don’t know how many boards I poured my heart and soul into that didn’t do anything in the water."

Seven years ago, he got his first edition of SurfCad software. Suddenly, he could alter the critical components of any board—the rocker, the vee, the foil, the rails—to within tolerances of 1/100th of an inch. More importantly, he could repeat or edit his designs as often as he wanted, without having to start over from scratch. "The whole goal is to be better than you were the day before," says Eric, who was named "shaper of the year" in 2003 by Surfing Magazine. "You can get inspired, you can go crazy, you can do your once-a-year concept board. On the screen, it costs nothing."

From within his office—behind the sign that says, "Please...NO DUST past this point"—Eric turns his .srf files into .cut files, which are sent electronically to a mechanical saw at the other end of the shop. It takes only a few minutes for the routing bit to carve up a blank wedge of foam, then a few more for one of Eric’s apprentices to buff out the rough spots by hand. Each design is saved on a floppy disk, thousands of which fill locked file drawers. "I call him Encyclopedia Arakawa," says Chris Gallagher, one of the designers on Eric’s staff. Most of the disks contain the schematics of the all-purpose models that every shaper churns out for the retail market. But Eric is probably best known as the custom shaper for Kaua‘i-born superstar Andy Irons, winner of the last three World Championship Tours. "At that caliber, they’re so hyper-sensitive, they can actually feel what’s going on under their feet," says Eric, soft-spoken and self-effacing, whose logo incorporates the Christian fish symbol. Asked what he does to keep Andy as a client, Eric answers: "Whatever he wants."

Every surfer of that echelon is chasing the same Holy Grail—speed and maneuverability—which, due to certain laws of nature, happen to be contradictory goals. As a general rule, the flatter the curves of a board, the faster it will ride; the more bend and bow to it, the better it will handle. To bridge the difference, Eric makes boards so light and fragile they are almost "like glass slippers," says Matt Yerxa, another of Eric’s protégés. Even when Eric and his crew come across a perfect fit, one they want to replicate over and over, there will still be almost imperceptible variations in how those models interact with the water. If Eric were to create forty identical boards, Andy might pick only two. "It’s an intangible thing," says Eric, "like building a Stradivarius."

The difference now, unlike in the hand-tooled era, is that Eric has more time to devote to that quest. "I can be more intimate, more precise, with my customers," he says. "People thought we were taking away the soul, but it’s actually been just the opposite.


 

 
Ben Aipa

In August, Ben Aipa turns sixty-four. He is recovering from a heart attack, suffered last year on an Australian beach, where he was coaching one of his young disciples in a surf competition. He has been married three times; his two youngest children are pursuing white-collar careers. And yet here he is, in an industrial corner of downtown Honolulu, still sweating over a board, keen, passionate, undeterred.

"Oh, I wish I could start all over again," he says, an expression of joy, not regret. "So much has happened and is still going to happen. When it does, I want to be right there."

To the extent that any single individual can play a role in every significant stage in the evolution of surfboards, Ben has been there. Inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991, he is a living museum of wisdom and lore, acclaimed as one of the most prolific shapers in the history of the sport—and one of the few native Hawaiians to earn legendary status with his own brand. His latest project is young Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm in a shark attack in 2003, after which she asked Ben to be her coach. "That’s my last hurrah," says Ben, an avid surfer himself. "For a lot of guys, it’s just numbers and dollar signs. I want to leave something behind."

Ben shaped his first board—an improvised, crooked, fourteen-hour project, he recalls—in 1964, when everything in the ocean was long, heavy and slow. During the genesis of the shortboard era in the 1970s, he was credited with two innovations that remain fixtures today: the stinger and the swallowtail, both cuts to the rear of the board that allow surfers to perform tighter, faster, skateboard-style stunts. In the ’80s, Ben contributed to the reintroduction of the longboard, making it faster, lighter and more versatile. He also experienced the drudgery of production work, earning $35 a board to mow foam for a succession of big labels, the downside of being a hand-craftsman in a mass-production world. For that reason, Ben recently lent his name and designs to Boardworks, a high-tech manufacturer that spits out epoxy boards from a mold. "A lot of Hawaiian shapers, we don’t have the money to make money," says Ben, who is nonetheless pleased that his eldest son, Akila, has followed him into the shaping business. "Outside money has money to make money, or to lose money. I don’t even have a store."

Still, he has fans, legions of Aipa groupies who make the pilgrimage to his studio, hoping that a few minutes in his presence will fortify their confidence and equilibrium. One afternoon he gets a visit from Mimi Horiuchi, a twenty-nine-year-old semi-pro surfer from Japan who brings him a nine-footer that she wishes were just a little more responsive and agile in the turns. "OK," says Ben, rubbing his hands together eagerly. "This is 101. This is ABC. This is how I start."

He begins to measure what Mimi already has, pulling out rulers and rods and calipers, some of which have been hanging from his tool rack longer than Mimi has been alive. Jotting down the numbers, he asks her about the experience she hopes to have in the water.

He translates her answers into a design that will give her "more squirt" and "more release," without sacrificing too much speed.

"Can you picture that?" he asks.

"That’s like a dream board," says Mimi.

"Simple, yeah?"

Mimi smiles.

"I’ve never built a great surfboard—yet," Ben says later. "There’s always another move, there’s always another turn, there’s always another wave. That’s what keeps me going."


 

 
Jeff Timpone

They come from all around the world to Jeff Timpone’s backyard—the brave and the brash, experts and daredevils—surfers determined to stake a claim on the biggest wave Hawaii has to offer. For whatever slice of eternity it has been breaking off the north coast of Maui, Jaws has not merely been inhospitable; until a dozen years ago it had been flat-out unsurfable—a wave too catastrophic for a human to catch without anything more powerful than a board. "I don’t belong out there," says Jeff, a fifty-six-year-old Huntington Beach exile. "In the back of my mind I have this idea: I have too much to lose."

So while others played with foot straps and jet skis, Jeff became the facilitator, the one who listened and questioned and tinkered in his shaping room. "I think he’s the most underrated shaper of all the top Hawaii shapers," says Dave Kalama, one of the icons of the tow board phenomenon. "Because he’s always been sort of an underdog, he doesn’t come with such an ego. A lot of shapers think they’re the end-all: ‘You’ll ride what I make you because I’m the best.’ He typically comes to any project with much more of an open mind."

Much of what Jeff ultimately devised proved to be just the opposite of what conventional wisdom dictated. Bigger waves usually require bigger boards, to generate the speed needed to paddle into them; with a watercraft doing the positioning, Jeff was able to shrink his tow boards from the seven-foot range to the five-foot range. But shortboards are usually light, and charging down a fifty foot wall of water requires stability; Jeff found that he needed to add fifteen or twenty pounds to his designs—usually by plugging them with BBs or fishing sinkers or even pennies. "We didn’t know what was going to work," says Dave. "In the beginning it was so radical, you almost kind of had that feeling you might just surf off the edge of the earth, or that the board would just blow up if you reached a certain speed."

Although there has never been a fatal accident at Jaws, Jeff is not eager to be a witness when that day arrives. "I have enough respect for the ocean to know that, sooner or later, that no-hitter’s going to be broken," says Jeff. His shop is in the back of an old pineapple cannery, barely a mile or two from the wave, but the only way he sees the action at Jaws these days is on film. "Frankly, I don’t want to watch one of my friends die."

Jeff shaped in Southern California for much of the ’70s and ’80s, then ran off to Maui after his fortieth birthday. He figures he has produced somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 boards in that time, a career that has been both a triumph and a grind. His son, Nicolas, is now eighteen, a promising surfer on the amateur circuit. Jeff is often asked if he is grooming him to take over the family business.

"Sometimes ‘Timpone & Sons’ sounds pretty good, but doing this job for as long as I have, I can see the writing on the wall," Jeff says. "A lot of times, it’s a labor of love. There’s no retirement plan, no golden planer at the end."      HH