ASP Judge James Zavorskas speaks with Brendan McCray
Photos from around the world by James Zavorskas (below)
James Zavorskas grew up surfing the beaches of Cape Cod with his older brother Jon in the early 80's. His parents, Joyce and Bob, are two of the nicest people you could ever meet. Their house was the closest to the beach, so it was where we all ate, slept and watched surf videos between sessions. James quickly became one of the best and most stylish surfers in the Northeast. After high school he traveled west to California for college and the pointbreaks of Ventura. Then in 94, James went to the North Shore of Oahu to visit a friend and basically never left. He continues to live there today. Through twists, turns, skill and good luck, James became an ASP judge. Courtesy of the ASP James has traveled around the globe several times over, has seen and surfed the world's premier breaks and watched the world's best surfers, all while getting paid for it. Today he likes spending as much time as possible at his home on the North Shore with his wife Danielle and son Cylas. James took some time out from his schedule to answer some questions about the life of an ASP judge.
How did you become an ASP judge?
Back in '99 or so friend of mine Jerry was involved with the NSSA over here and asked for some help one weekend. I guess I did a good job cause I was invited back. I became more involved in local events over the years and was mentored by the legendary judge Jack Shipley (original founder of Lightning Bolt) He got me in with the ASP. I worked locally at the Triple Crown and other local professional events for a few years. Then, Hawaii being the center of the universe for the Triple Crown, I got to meet a few international guys and work with them. Then I was invited to travel internationally a couple times for events and kept up the good work. Pretty much became a Hawaii international judge in '05, traveling and representing Hawaii on the panel in ASP international events. They try to have judges from each region at most of the big events.
How has the judging criteria changed since you started?
When I first came into the pro level, the whole thing with multiple turns and three to the beach was on it's way out. As it is, judging is always going to be a subjective thing no matter how it's broken down, but now with the way the criteria are structured, it embraces all the different approaches a surfer can take on a wave. From laying down the most powerful rail gouge, to the above the lip aerial stuff. Whatever it is, if it's done in a critical part of the wave or above it, it scores well. It took a little bit to learn the names of the moves and different grabs for the aerial stuff. Certain ones are harder than others and the no hands alley oops are pretty sick in my opinion.
Are there any heats that standout or any one wave that is particularly memorable?
The recent final at the Volcom Pipe Pro was a stand out. The Kelly and Andy finals at Pipe over the years were pretty awesome to see live. A couple of the waves from the Eddie's. The year that Bruce won the Eddie and the one wave he got where he ended up pulling in on the shore break was sick. Overall it's certain events that had amazing waves that stand out for me. Jbay in '09 was epic. They had a big first swell of the season just before the waiting period and it had pushed all this sand over the entire point at Jbay. There's nothing like waves over a sandbar point. Guys were connecting from all the way from the top at Boneyards into the point consistently. The normally unmakable section called Impossibles was the almost the best section with the most sand and the best barrels. Fiji in '06, just 'cause it's Fiji. The waves and the people are just amazing. I got to go twice that year. Once for the women's event and again for the men's. The search event in Bali scored some great waves. That first day at Padang was incredible. I think I surfed everyday on that trip. France and Europe has some stand out moments for me too.
What event are you most proud to have been involved in?
Being part of the last three Eddie Aikau events. The history of the contest, the prestige, honor, and integrity of it all. It doesn't happen very often and when it does it seems like the whole island shows up to the bay. It's a pretty special thing and an honor to be a part of it.
How many countries have you been to? Do you have any crazy travel stories?
China, Japan, Australia, Bali, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, Shri Lanka, Peru, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Portugal, Canary Islands, Spain, France, and England. Eighteen, I guess. The stopovers in random airports don't count, but I think that's all of them. As far as travel stories, nothing out of the ordinary. My biggest fumble was missing a flight because I read the date wrong on my itinerary. Missed the flight and ended up having to buy a new ticket for $800 to make it to the event.
Describe how a trip to Europe goes...
My first couple of years traveling I would go on some stretches of being on the road for 3 months. The late summer European qs/wt leg was always a long one. England one week, then France, Portugal and Spain. Over 6 weeks of judging. Guys would get pretty crazy after that one. The tides have a big range in Europe and most places only break on certain tides, especially in France. We would always be on hold waiting for the tides at most events. Plus it gets dark at around 9pm in the summer. Some days we would have 14 hr days... that leg is a burner. Overall it just depends on the schedule you get at the beginning of the year and how committed you can become to the traveling. I'm married now with my son as well, so I'm trying not to be on the road that much any more.
What do you do when it's flat?
I try and become a tourist... Just get out and do something. It's hard 'cause most of the time your traveling with a group of guys and not always wanting to do the same things. Usually we have one car between a few crew and we all try to plan some sort of excursion though. Europe is easy cause there's so much history to go and check out. I've seen a few 16th century castles in my day... or the museums. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is awesome. Fiji you pretty much go fishing or go to Desporados when it's flat. Tahiti can be tough when it's flat. Everything is super expensive and unless you have a boat your pretty stuck to the land... My camera saves me wherever i go. If nothing's happening I'll just go walk around and find something interesting to shoot.
You have to watch guys surf sick waves all day and you can't. Is being an ASP judge like being in a golden cage?
Very much. When it's good, it's pretty entertaining just watching these guys rip. There are moments where you wish you were out there getting a couple but, we're there because of the job, and the job always comes first. As judges we get our moments though. Before and after the horns blow, we get out there for a few. Even on the lay days we try to find some waves. Jbay can be flat and a 3 hr drive away is an awesome jetty setup that's overhead and so fun. One year in France there was giant storm surf. We drove to Mundaka and got a couple. Not epic barrels but fun to see it and get a couple chunky walls. I had some great sessions out at Cloudbreak and Wilkes that year at the women's event. Seemed like it was 4-6 the whole time we were there. I got to surf Coxos in Portugal one time in between two events. The best is when the event finishes early or you have a few days off between events.
Have you judged many women's events, and what do you think of the level they are surfing at these days?
I've been judging the women's tour just as long as the men's. Many of the WT events have both. The level of the women is amazing now. Not that they weren't ripping before, but the surfing is much more progressive They're busting out airs and all sorts of new turns.
What are some not so glamorous aspects of pro surfing or being a pro surfer that average surfers might not know about?
Always being on the road. The whole living out of a bag thing. Traveling seems romantic from the outside, but after a couple times round the world going to the same places it gets to be routine. It's harder than it looks. Try traveling 30 hrs straight, then paddling out and trying to perform your best. Many of these guys aren't the one percenters... There are only a few with the top dollar contracts, making real money. Guys struggle making ends meet. With travel expenses and everything else, guys barely make any money. They spend their prize money from one event just to get to the other. The road can be a pretty lonely place if you're not traveling with a few friends or have some kind of support crew like a coach or something . Overall it's pretty competitive and cutthroat out there. Making heats is all it's about for some.
Would you want a pro surfing career for your son?
Of course I want him to be a surfer. As a pro? If it's what he wanted I would support it, but ask me now I'd say no. The joke with my wife and I is that he becomes a pro golfer or pro baseball player.... my Dad was almost into pro baseball back in his day so I could see it happening.
Is there a favorite event among the judges?
You'd have to ask some of them, but I'm guessing Hawaii. For me it's easily Hawaii and the Triple crown. Nothing like Pipeline to end the year. I get to ride my bike to work and come home kiss my wife and kid goodnight and sleep in my own bed... that's my favorite...
Has the influence of bigger money from event sponsors changed things?
Not for us as judges. We're basically a subcontractor position with the ASP. We get hired to work a particular event. We get paid a per event salary. Some events are worth more than others and where you sit on the panel also determines how much you make. If you sit as an international, meaning you traveled from another country, you make a little more (work more too, more heats on.) As judges we don't really make that much money. If you were fully committed and could be on the road most of the year, you could probably make $35k a year or more. Just depends on how much you want to travel.
Seems to me all the money being thrown around is just brands trying to showcase themselves and get some marketing exposure.
Do you get any swag?
Not as much as we used to... tough times all around I guess.... typically we get a backpack, a few t-shirts, and a hat. That's the standard issue. Sometimes we get little extras here and there like a jacket or sweatshirt, watches, sunnys. I have kept a tshirt or some sort of keepsake from some of the events that were special for me . But I tend to give away most of my stuff. Sunglasses are the best to get though. The eyes can get pretty fried out after being on the beach all day. The one thing I'm guilty of keeping are all the contest ID's and passes. I think I've got every one for every event I've ever been too.
How has growing up a NE surfer influenced you as a surfer?
If I had to pick one thing, I'd say it was growing up with the core crew of guys we had on the Cape. We were such a tight knit crew and one with a long history of surfing together. The Cape had a bit of a reputation back then for being kind of localized and many of the older guys kept us in line as groms. I know for me, that taught me the lessons of respect and humility that still influence me today.
Can you talk about any memorable NE surf sessions over the years ?
Honestly some of my best surfing memories are from growing up on the Cape. It may not be the most consistent place, but when it's good, it's as good as anywhere in the world. That goes for the whole NE too. The variety from points, reefs, and beachies. I think 'cause it's so rare when it's on. It gets burned into your brain and you just don't forget. That last session we had together was pretty memorable. A lot of the hurricane runs to the points of Rhode Island stand out. A few from high school days, skipping school and chasing it all day with the boys. One day I was out in the middle of February, just pumping and all by myself. No one around, not even on the beach, absolutely freezing cold. Just sticks out for me. The one that just stands above the rest was in late summer 2001 maybe cause it was just a week or so after 9/11. An unnamed beach on the Cape - somehow we had a growing, super south, ground swell that started around noon and lasted through till low tide, for about 4 hrs of some of the best I've ever seen the Cape. Overhead barrels just funneling down the beach. I think I got as much tube time that one day as in the whole year before.
Where do you see pro surfing in 10 years?
Most don't know this but ASP is hired as a subcontractor to run the events. The big Five surf companies basically pay for all the tour. The ASP board of directors is mostly made up of the fat cats in the surf industry and they essentially control the ASP from the inside out. I think it would be a good thing to have the ASP become it's own entity somewhat. It would allow for more non surf brand companies to sponsor events and fund the overall organization. As we're seeing now, with Billabong financially struggling, the Jbay event is being downgraded due to the lack of money. If outside money were to be able to come in and carry the overall tour load we could still keep Jbay as a WT event. Overall though, in 10 years I still think there will be some sort of tour. There might even be a couple tours. Surfing is too huge around the world not to have something going.
James Zavorskas on Cape Cod in 2006
Cape Cod 2006
Los Angeles - any time
New Zealand 2010
Sri Lanka 2010
James Zavorskas at 2010 Sri Lanka ASP event.
Danielle Ciminero, a native of RI, is seeking to join the ranks of professional women's surfers. We asked her to tell us a little bit about herself, why she's trying to go pro and if there's any way we could help.
I grew up in Charlestown, Rhode Island and I left home to chase a dream. I wanted to be a surfer. The word 'professional' was nowhere on my agenda. I had fallen in love with the sea and wanted to spend the rest of my days riding waves. The other part of my dream was to better the world somehow. Though I had no idea how to do either of those things, I packed a small bag full of essentials, gave away the rest of my belongings and set off to find out.
Adventuring through Central America for nearly eight years has taught me lot about both riding waves and things I can do to better the world.
For wave riding, I discovered that I love the way that the pro's can flow and dance with waves. I found that learning maneuver's and how to draw different lines on the water makes surfing exciting for me.
For bettering the world, I realized that you don't have to get rich and give all of your money to charity to make a difference, as long as you give what you can. I found that taking surf trips is even a way to make a difference- the local communities can really benefit by the simple act of you showing up and staying for a couple weeks.
Still, I was looking for a bigger way to give back. I considered shaking my booty in front of a camera, but then I saw that a bunch of girls have that taken care of. So I kept thinking. What else can I do? Then it dawned on me that there are thousands of charities and organizations already doing something - and what they needed most was money.
I was already pursuing elite level surfing for my own enjoyment, why not start competing on the ASP and try to win the prize money for charity? I know, I know, its not as simple or easy as that. But it will be worth it.
Two years ago I started competing at the pro/am level to get practice and results so that I could step into the professional realm. I worked really hard, learned quite a bit and got good results- ranking in the top 4 of more than half of the events I competed in.
Contest surfing can be a bit hectic and cut throat, not quite as enjoyable as surfing a remote beach somewhere with a few friends, but there is something about the challenge of quieting the mind in a heated situation that I can appreciate. Plus, there is always time after each event to adventure off the beaten path and get to surf with chillers.
In 2014, I will compete on the ASP Women's Star and try to win the prize money for charity. In the next two years, it is my goal to qualify for the ASP Women's Tour, where the prize purse for each event is even greater (as is the wave quality!).
Giving my prize money to charity is only a small way to give back, but I am excited to start there and move forward. If you know a great organization in need of funding please send me a link.
I dreamt of riding waves from the moment I saw a logger cruise by me on a one foot wall of water one fine summer day in Rhode Island. That summer I rode my first white water waves and fell in love with the art of surfing.
Sadly, despite being the Ocean State, Rhode Island is not the surfing haven one might think. While we do get waves, and sometimes really good ones, it can be tough love for a girl of merely ten to pursue the hot action hobby of surfing. My parents did their best to help me along, but after that weekend of blissful white water rides, every time they could bring me to the beach it'd be flat - as the northeast usually is, especially in the summertime when minivans heading to the beach are abundant.
When I figured out how to check surf reports, I'd come running into the kitchen hollering "Now there are waves let's go!" Only to be smirked at and told "Honey, it's a blizzard out there, if you are drowning, who is going to save you? There are no lifeguards." I was bummed- of course some of the most consistent surf comes with wailing winds and whipping rain or snow or hail. I even tried to sneak out in a snow storm and ride my bike to the beach that winter, but black ice and white out conditions proved formidable adversaries and I was sent limping home with scraped knees and a broken heart. I passed many a school day dreaming about waves until the feeling of riding one was just a distant memory.
Once I finally had a license and access to a car, I began setting 330 am alarms to squeeze in a surf before school. Thanks to the Lake Atlantic, these early morning crusades usually wound up a surf check and a four mile run. Still, as the year dragged and I was able to get in the water a handful of times, I found that my passion for riding waves had transformed into a dream - to surf all day, every day. I decided to follow the dream and see where it lead me. So I worked through the summer and once I had enough money saved I booked a flight to Costa Rica - a place I was told you could surf good waves everyday in warm water.
A few years and passport stamps later, my dream has expanded. Chasing waves has taught me more than I ever imagined possible. I learned to live simply and to appreciate luxuries I once took for granted. I found the joy and satisfaction that comes with working hard and seeing something come to fruition. Being on the road has opened my eyes to the hardships endured by others and showed me ways I can make a difference in our world, both big and small, for people and the environment.
I am excited and grateful for the opportunity to transform my dream of riding waves into a way to give back. Surfing is a huge part of my life, but only a small piece of what I want to do with it. Stay tuned as the path unfolds…
Visit with Dave Levy of Levy Surf Designs
By Peter Pan
It's below freezing and the wind is howling at the town beach. Dave Levy is outside in the cold, sanding down a new surfboard. There's no heat in this open air shaping room, but at least the sun is out. Dave is the only custom surfboard shaper in the northeast that works full time in the profession. There is a swell on the way this week and he wants to get the surfboard finished ahead of its arrival.
Surfboard shapers have always been glorified as freewheeling artists who use foam as their canvas. Often times the media will depict a shaper working in what could be considered a sterile operating room blanketed by rows of bright lights, spotless tools and a state-of-the-art ventilation system.
This might be true at one of the mass production surfboard manufacturing facilities in China, but not here in Narragansett. Levy works out of a tiny 2-room hut similar to what the shapers used in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Most custom surfboard builders now send their hand shaped foam blanks to special glassing shops for the final step in the process of making a surfboard. Levy does it all by himself. There are very few shapers in the world today that can make a surfboard from start to finish. That is why Dave has a steady clientele from all over the northeast.
His operation is primarily limited to one small room. When the weather doesn't cooperate he works in the room to hand shape the foam blank to his customer’s specifications. Then he turns the room into a glass shop to finish the process. Glassing a surfboard is an art form in itself and is probably more difficult than the shaping. The resin and hardener mixture, the air temperature and the moisture index must all be perfect or the job must be repeated. With the high cost of quality resin and glass cloth, there's really is no room for mistakes if you want to stay in business.
Levy’s glassing prowess is in such that shapers from all over the Northeast bring him their shaped foam blanks to be finished in fiberglass. Dave shaped his first surfboard in 1976 in an empty bedroom above the original location of the Watershed Surf Shop on Main Street in Wakefield. It was a custom round tail single fin for longtime ESA competitor Bob Fredette of South Attleboro, Massachusetts. In the the thirty four years since that time he has shaped and finished thousands of surfboards of every possible size and style.
Throughout his years as co-owner of the surf shop he continued to hand shape and glass custom surfboards for customers and began to build a solid clientele. In 2000 he decided to make surfboards full-time and has been able to do this for the past decade. Peter Pan interviewed Dave in his shaping room this past week and spoke about what it's like to be a surfboard craftsman in New England.
Pan: How's business?
DL: Surprisingly good! There are a lot of surfers out there who are serious about working on and improving their surfing. In order to do this you really need to ride a custom, hand shaped surfboard that is built to your ability and skill level.
Pan: Is this a better way to buy a surfboard besides just pulling something off the rack?
DL: It seems to work out better in the long run. I will make maybe 6 surfboards for someone over the course of one year and I will have them stand next to me in the shaping room while I am doing their board. They will tell me to thin out a rail or pull in a tail and say that it's exactly the way they wanted it done. Two weeks later, I see them in the water on another surfboard. They tell me that the board I shaped them was not what they expected. That can be frustrating. Sometimes it takes a surfer to try out several boards before he finds the right combination.
Pan: So they really don’t know what they want?
DL: A good surfer doesn’t necessarily know the dynamics of why the surfboard works for him. They all like to think they do and that is how they get into trouble.
Pan: What do you feel is your biggest competition?
DL: Cheaply made and mass produced fiberglass surfboards from Southeast Asia have been dumped on the U.S. market for several years. With no EPA regulations to contend with, low paid workers and cheap foam, resin, and glass, it is impossible to compete with them. Their downside however, is that many of them are poorly designed or made with inferior materials. They start to deteriorate as soon as they hit the water. These surfboards are also terrible to repair. I can’t tell you how many times I did major repairs on one of them and the repair bill was more than they paid for the board originally.
Pan: What's happening with the Stand-up Paddleboard market?
DL: That is a whole new market. Guys that have been riding production pop-out stand-ups are now requesting hand shaped custom boards for both flat water and surf riding. Due to the size and thickness of these surfboards, the costs are much higher to produce.
Pan: What do you see for future growth in the industry?
DL: Serious surfers including top amateurs, pros, and hot and up coming groms all ride hand shaped, U.S. fiberglass surfboards. Many beginners and intermediate riders will buy a low-end surfboard made in Thailand or China and soon realize that it is not well made and has no resale value. Consumers who purchase the molded “pop-out” style surfboards will also find that they do not respond like hand shaped fiberglass does.
Pan: How hazardous is your job?
DL: It's very hazardous to your health. Everything that you use to build a surfboard with is highly toxic and full of cancer producing fumes. Fiberglass cloth and resin are known cancer producers. The list of shapers and glassers from the 1960’s and 1970’s who have died from various forms of cancer just kept growing daily. That is why I wear a mask and gloves when I work.
Pan: Any parting thoughts?
DL: Building surfboards can be a dirty, messing and frustrating occupation. It is kind of like dishwashing. Everyone should have a go at it at least once in their lifetime, so they can see how really hard it is.
Cape Cod native Jason Feist was a product of the '80's surf resurgence. He got his 1st board at age 10 and learned to surf alongside the Sullivan and Zavorskas Brothers, Matt Richards, Brendan McCray, Steve Esterbrook, Seb Frawley, Tripp Taylor and many more. After graduating Nauset High School in 1991 he moved to California and began shaping in 1997. Fast forward to the present. Now he has a shop and shaping room in downtown Santa Barbara and if you paddle out at any of the point breaks in the Santa Barbara area, you'll see that most of the best surfers in the water are riding J7s.
Interview by Brendan McCray
- What can you say about growing up surfing in New England in the 80's and what was your most memorable board from that era?
Having grown up as a surfer in New England and the colorful cast of characters that made up that surfing community in the 80's, definitely left me with some of my life's best memories. The greatest part is that every time I go to visit my family and friends, all the characters are still there and are always hanging at the beach! My most memorable board from that era was a 6'2" Town and Country. The shape was pretty simple but it had the quintessential 80's airbrush. Another board that I will always remember was my first custom. It was a 5'10" Local motion swallow tail with glass on fins. I was so friggin happy when that board arrived. That was the first board that I ever got barreled on.
- What are your thoughts about the return of 80's style board design ala dumpster diver etc.?
Short, wide, thick with low rocker. Pretty hard to beat that recipe when the waves are a bit slower or you just want to up your wave count. I personally feel that by combining the proven design elements of the 80's with the refinements of the more modern shortboards, you can maximize both performance and efficiency.
- Compare making a board for a WQS/WCT surfer, to making one for an overweight, out of shape New Englander who surfs good waves only a handful of times a year?
Super Size it! Haha, just kidding. You mean the difference in making a board for say Bobby Martinez versus someone like you or I? Well, probably just making sure the volume is adjusted accordingly. For the most part, the Pros have always dictated what we ride at some level. The difference being that when you surf everyday and are in top physical condition for surfing, you can sacrifice volume for performance. When your schedule only allows you to be on it when the waves are good or you have time, some extra foam can really help a surfer get the most out of a session. But overall, the basic design elements are always going to be similar. The trick for the shaper is to hide the volume in a way that does not sacrifice any performance.
- I noticed on your website you that you mentioned Mike losordo (aka Wolfman, aka Treasure Mike aka Big Guy) of Hawaiian Moon surfboards as one of your shaping mentors. I checked that out with Mike and here's what he had to say, " the only thing I taught that little f___ was to mow lawns, to f****n work and to stop kissing up to the old ladies we worked for." What can you tell us about that? Kind of a Mr. Myagi/ karate kid thing?
Hahaha! Well if that is not mentoring, I dont know what is. He taught me how to mow lawns and now I mow foam! As far as his other two lessons, well the one is a no brainer and if I didn't kiss up to the old ladies and left the customer relations up to Mike, we would have both been fired! So yeah, definitely a Karate Kid/Mr. Myagi thing going on there.
- Did you ever own a pair of Clam Diggers in the 80's?
No, I came from a family of well diggers not clam diggers. So I always wore jeans and work boots. But, I think that will be what we call J7's newest board model "The Clam Diggah"
- How do you compare living and surfing in CA to Cape Cod?
When I moved to California almost 20 years ago, I came in search of warmer weather and more consistent surf. Its funny though because my most memorable sessions are all from growing up on Cape Cod or from visiting my family there and scoring some good ones at my old home breaks. Good swells are definitely more common here in California, but there sure is something special about surfing in the Northeast.
- 10 years from now what do you hope to be doing?
First and foremost, living in good health and surrounded by my family and friends. Obviously surfing every chance I can and by working hard and always refining my board designs, I hope to have established J7 as a highly respected and recognized Surfboard brand.
- Any thoughts on the ASP on Long Island?
It is pretty cool that the ASP has decided to run an event on Long Island. The surfing that is going on right now at that level is incredible and it will be good for the younger generations of NE surfers to have the opportunity to see first hand the athleticism and skill the best surfers in the world have.
- What advice would you give to a young aspiring NE shaper?
Hmmm. Well first off, have fun with shaping. It is an amazing part of surfing when you made the board you are riding. The NE may not be the most consistent place on Earth to be a surfer, but there is still a wide variety of wave types and conditions and that is a great resource for a shaper to experiment. The next bit of advice is that if you are looking to make a career out of building surfboards, especially in the NE, have a good back up plan. It is a labor of love, not money.
- What is the story behind the J7 Logo?
I was born at Cape Cod Hospital on 7/7/73. The logo represents the day my amazing parents brought me into the world! July 7th.
- Are there any new designs that you are working on right now?
I am always refining and making adjustments to our existing line-up of board models. But most recently I have been working on a shortboard template that has been going good for many of my friends and team riders. It has a slightly fuller outline and a mellow rocker for glide and speed. It does not have a name yet so maybe it will become the "Clam Digger"
- Anything else you want to add?
Just if that you are surfing out on the Cape and a guy starts asking you a bunch of questions about what boards you ride and if you ever heard of J7? It is most likely my Dad. He has been known to patrol the beaches checking out who is riding what! He is also quite the salesman so watch out!
- Oh yeah! Where is the best place to find J7 Surfboards in the Northeast?
Check out Nauset Sports this summer in Orleans, Ma or Island Surf and Sports in Newport, RI. You can see more at www.j7surfdesigns.com or reach out to our NE sales Rep. Rob Jones @ 401-212-7457 Rob's Email is
- One last question. There's been a lot of debate in the surf forums about what color surfboard is the fastest. What do you have to say?
Probably the one with the racing stripes.
For the Love of the Drop
Andy St. Onge interviewed by Brendan McCray
Andy St. Onge is a born New Englander turned kamaiana waterman. The North Shore of Oahu has been his home for the past 21 years. He grew up in Dedham Massachusetts and spent a lot of time outdoors in New England's mountains and ocean. His Dad gave him his first surfboard when he was 14. In 1988 he moved to Oahu to attend Hawaii Loa College. He eventually earned a Master's and PhD in the philosophy of education from the University of Hawaii and now earns his bread teaching high school and college. Andy's one daughter was born in 1999. Brendan McCray recently asked Andy to share his two decades of experience surfing big waves on Oahu's North Shore and more.
I first met Andy St. Onge during my senior year of high school at a friend's apartment in Back Bay Boston. My impression was, "another prep-school-dead-head-wanna-be-surfer, but a nice enough guy." A year later and 5,000 miles to the west southwest, I'd see him hanging out at the lifeguard chair at Sunset and surfing Kammies. A few years after that, I'd see him fading in the pit at 12' sunset (4X overhead) on a 10' single fin with no cord. Andy is the real thing. He is, in my opinion, a modern combination a of a 50's big wave pioneer and a 70's single fin soul surfer. For many New England surfers the dream of becoming a big wave rider remains just a dream. Andy is living proof that with dedication, sacrifice and love this dream can become a reality. Reading Andy's responses below gives me goosebumps and makes my heart beat faster. He stirs up long forgotten emotions and memories from when I was learning to surf the North Shore in the late 80's. I hope you gain insight and perspective from what Andy has to say about surfing the North Shore of Oahu.
- Brendan McCray
Where did you ride your first wave ?
First wave on a surfboard at Seabrook, N.H. sometime in November of 1983. A day or so before, my Dad picked up a 7'0" swallow-tail, single-fin ("Aircutter" logo) at a yard sale in Haverhill, Mass.
Do you remember the first time you were scared surfing in New England?
The numbing cold of surfing in NE is scary given hypothermia can be, if not a killer, a real bummer. Only palpable fear I experienced in the Atlantic was on a sailboat, actually, caught in a Nor'Easter gale somewhere off the coast of Maine in the mid '80s — having to lower sail, step the masts, tie and batten everything down, throw a sea-anchor, and ride out a full-on white out. That was heavy. Otherwise I never really felt "scared" surfing during those early years surfing — a lot of curiosity and fascination — pure stoke. Fear was not really an issue for me back East and hasn't been in Hawaii either. I don't court fear or things that scare me. Being out of control scares me more than anything. So when conditions get serious, the overwhelming sensation for me — rather than "fear" — is one of intense concentration: a mix of excitement, curiosity and fascination. I might think twice, as Owl might say, but I'm not "scared." If you know your limits and have developed enough confidence to push them, then fear doesn't come into the equation that often.
Tell us about your first NE "gun" - any memorable rides?
Other than my first board (the 7' single fin pintail), the first real island style gun that I saw was in Watch Hill, R.I., summer of '85. A "Rick James" single fin pintail: red bottom and rails, yellow deck, with a half-shell logo: "Rick James Island Designs" or something like that. Probably an 8'6". It was beautiful, so elegant, extreme, and refined, like nothing I'd seen up until that point. I even rode it once in Watch Hill summer shore-break slop. I think that board was ultimately consumed in a house fire — the Kellogg place — sometime not too long after that. A year before I moved to Hawaii I went to the Board Shop in Hampton and Steve O'Hara's hooked me up with an orange 7'0" "Spectrum" thruster pintail, which seemed like a gun to me. It had vertical blue racing stripes and it was shaped by . . . "Rick Bullock" ?? (not sure, don't remember). Smooth lines, low entry rocker, thick foil: basic thruster mini-gun. I rode that board one time at Fox Hill pretty good during a snowstorm. Only guy out. Scored solid Southern Hemi swells at a few different spots up & down the California coast, around Santa Cruz & Big Sur later that summer. Took the Spectrum with me to the islands and rode it for a year or two until I finally busted it one day at perfect, barreling "Bayviews" on the West Side.
You moved to the North Shore in...
Moved to Oahu in 1988 and the North Shore in 1990. Have been here ever since; never left for more than a month or so during that time and have 23 consecutive, full North Shore Winters going along so far . . .
Do you remember your first surfing experience when you thought, holy sh$t Dorthy we aint in Kansas anymore?
Surfing progression was gradual but steady. It wasn't like I was charging Waimea, much less Sunset my first season. It took time and I was in no rush.
When I arrived in Hawaii and started surfing the North Shore that first season ('88-'89) I clearly recall not aspiring to be a "big-wave rider." It was more like I hoped to be able to ride waves of some consequence — like in the 6'-8' range — with a modicum of confidence and style.
First time that I witnessed truly solid, pumping Sunset that Fall I was awe-struck. Watching guys like Owl, Big Rog, Darrick, Booby Jones, & Felipe Pomar charging massive, windswept peaks way out in the ocean was like NOTHING I had ever seen or even dreamt of — it was radical. I felt at the time like "I will never be able to do what those guys are doing." It was another world.
The grand expanse of Sunset's lineup was spellbinding: quarter mile or more at sea, acres upon acres of raw, wild ocean, raging rips tearing into and around mountainous peaks, gaping, spitting barrels. Guys charging — air dropping into high-speed arcing bottom turns . . . It took me a while to adjust my frame of reference & orientation to what was really going on and how I might get there. Among other things, I couldn't relate to the equipment —10 and 11 foot elephant guns made what I thought was a "gun" look like an insignificant child's toy.
Did you see a lot of Polo shirts on the Shore back then?
The North Shore used to be a wild & dangerous place, even in the late 1980s. Outlaws and all that goes with it kept things interesting & on edge. Life just felt more threatening: an overall level of intensity that was menacing & much in force. More Hawaiians & local people; it was a distinctly more rural & poor place then.
Things were cheaper all around. And there seemed to be this sense of omnipresent, impending danger and aggression — on land & in the water — that in most respects is now absent or, at least, greatly diminished. Some might assume that this change is for the better. A steadily diminishing sense of an immediate risk of physical or psychological violence has the ironic — and in some ways also regrettable — effect of making the recreational surfing experience both hazardous and annoying. Escalating hazards correlate directly with increasing numbers of people who are oblivious & in the way — ditching boards, dropping in, whatever.
Some of the guys used to keep things like that in check; although "tough" guys today aren't the same thing, more like paper tigers. 15-20 years ago you had to be careful & alert, more deferential, maintain a low profile in order to survive. The local Hawaiian presence was stronger and definitely more intimidating. Nothing was rushed; you had to pay dues. Now a lot of folks arrive with new money and all and instantly assume all kinds of things, as if it were some kind of a "free for all." It's pretty rude & ridiculous for the most part.
I recall you had a VW van and used to hang at Kammies, BK single fins, looking like fricken Tarzan - was that about the time you became more of a single fin rider, and how long did it take that Kammieland hipster to become one of THE Sunset guys?
Within about a year of surfing the North Shore it became clear to me that some of the best guys rode single fins — Brewer single fin pintail guns to be precise. Owl Chapman and Roger Erickson really impressed me. I admired the clean, pure lines those surfers drew, not to mention all the set waves they caught. Moreover, I admired the way they looked. They had a certain strength & dignity; a pure, poised technique I liked. Their boards were elegant and they rode them well. Speed, power, trim and drive. Nothing they did looked awkward or spastic. Their style set them apart from most everyone else riding thrusters at the time.
So, for me, the choice was as obvious as it was practical & aesthetic. The surfer who impressed me the most was Eric Haas. Not only was he probably the best all around surfer in all of Hawaii between 1988 and 2002 or so — and totally underground — Eric was different, almost magic. There was a glow, an aura or halo around him like none other. He shined bright: a true & amazing natural talent: from the Kaiser Bowl to 3rd Reef Sunset and beyond — Hanalei, Cloud-break Kalalau, places no one has surfed . . . Eric is one of a kind. His love for & understanding of the ocean is profound. It's been one of the greatest pleasures & thrills of my life to share many memorable surfing experiences with him over the years — @ 3rd reef Sunset, Point Surf Kepuhi, Phantoms, way outside Mokuleia Beach Park . . . just Eric & I.
In the beginning I rode BKs. I even surfed with Barry Kannaipuni a few times at Sunset back in the '80s. Anyway, I scored my first single fin gun from a guy named Wally late in 1988. Then, one day Owl jumps into my VW. It's the fall of 1989. We hadn't met yet, although I'd seen him around, respected him, and I guess he noticed me as well. Owl proceeds to "school" me and lines me up with what it takes to become a real surfer: "You need some boards, kid, and I'm gonna make 'em for you." What was I going to say? First custom board was a beautiful, yellow 9' single fin pintail. Pure & simple; basic, like a bowl of oatmeal: wholesome. My relationship with Owl would take a wide-ranging, circuitous route from there. Long story. Short story is I've been riding Owls pretty much exclusively since then — dozens of boards; all of them primo. Owl did me a tremendous favor; I owe him a lot and I'm grateful. Basically, I learned to surf Sunset — came of age as a young man really — on the best boards, all of which Owl made for me. An exceptional privilege, to be sure, and both the equipment & friendship helped me become the surfer I am today. From that first 9' gun I slowly, over the course of season or two, progressed to a 9'7"; a year later got my first full gun: a 10'8". All single fins. Then sometime around 1993 Owl shaped me a 11' pintail (which I still have). That sort of set the standard: 9' & 10' guns for Sunset; and 11' – 11'10" guns for the Bay & Outer Reefs.
I began to come into my own at Sunset sometime around 1994 or 1995. That's about the time I started to get set waves on a regular basis. But success in surfing, especially on the North Shore, is a double-edged sword. Doing well, catching lots of set waves and all provokes as much envy and resentment as it does admiration. Some guys don't like the guy who pulls away from the pack and distinguishes himself on the peak; it makes them uneasy — especially when that guy gets more waves than they do. Some will see another's success in terms of their own failure or inability; others might respect him or, better yet, learn something. So it goes. I have always tried to learn from those I admire.
Have you ever met any surfers from Michigan?
Craig Elmer Chapman (aka “Owl”) is from Mackinaw Island, Michigan. He and his older brother Gary (aka “Chappy”) are two of the finest surfer-shapers of all time. Owl’s been at it, in the trenches & on the front lines of Hawaiian high performance big-wave riding & designs for four decades. And nothing would have happened in the first place were it not for Chappy, who was probably the single most important and otherwise influential surfer between 1966 and 1969 (despite the fact that very few even know his name today). In short, Chappy and Dick Brewer collaborated together on the research, design, and development of the modern surfboard at Sunset Beach, Waimea, and Honolula Bay. The Chapman brothers’ story is a trip — yet to be told, much less fully appreciated. True-grit Chippewa Indians who found their way to the Southern California Coast in the early-mid 1960s and on to the Islands in 1967 or so. An All-American Dream surf story like no other.
The rest is history, whether anyone knows it or not — two guys at the epicenter or vanguard of the research and development of the Brewer gun at places like Sunset, Honolua, Maalaea, and Waimea Bay. Their roots go deep.
While Chappy faded from the surf scene in the mid ‘70s, Owl continued over time to perfect the big wave gun. Big time: his boards are without parallel. Owl is in his own league as far as that goes. Owl is near the completion of forty-three (43) consecutive North Shore winters. He’s still on it: every day going to work, making boards, & getting set-waves. How many other shapers have ridden the waves Owl has? None of them have — and never will. He has seen things other guys haven’t even dreamed of.
Describe your quiver, favorite all time board?
The boards that I ride these days mostly fall into two basic types: traditional guns, relatively narrow in nose and tight, pulled-in pintail; and what we call "semis," which have a little less rocker and more area both up front (ears) and in the tail (hips). If it's honking & hollow, I ride a narrower board — full guns. Otherwise I ride a semi in waves from 1'-8', which range in size from 8' to 11' in length. My full guns, for the Bay, huge Sunset, or the outer reefs, are 11'1" – 11'10". Sunset guns are 10' to 10'4". All single fins. All pintails. I've got some other Owls kicking around, too: 7'4" (thruster), 7'10", 8'0, a few 9 footers, all single fins except for the lone thruster (which I haven't ridden in years).
Each individual board is unique — some have a little more concave, some this or that. Owl's got plenty of trick's up his sleeve. He can throw in all sorts of "hot shit." Owl makes hot rods — whether or not riders tap into the full potential of his designs is another question altogether. That'll take some serious time and commitment. "You got that kind of time and will power?" Nothing happens overnight — unless you happen to be Tom Curren or Eric Hass, maybe. In any case, Owl's boards are extremely versatile. They make surfing easy once you learn how to ride them. But they're not neutral. You've got to learn how to drive them. That takes go outs & water time. Most people have neither the time nor the patience. But anything is possible . . . if one is willing to apply oneself to the task.
All time favorite board? Tough question, it's impossible to answer definitively. But there have been some favorites over the years. The best boards seem to have
names. "Little Red," for instance, was a bitchin 9' fire-engine red single fin pintail that was magic — Owl made it for some other guy but I ended it up with it somehow. Rode a million waves and got some memorable tube rides on that thing until I busted it at Inside Sunset back in '96 or '97. "The Panther" is another exceptional board. Probably one of the best guns ever made: an 11'7" single fin pintail with a psychedelic salmon "acid splash" a'la Jack Reeves. Owl shaped it during the summer of '97 and I rode it that epic El Nino winter of '97-'98 until today — thousands of all-time waves on the Panther at 2nd & 3rd Reef Sunset, the Bay, Kaunala, & Kepuhi.
The rest is "top secret."
Who do you respect in the surfing world?
Plenty of guys are great surfers. There are simply too many to name and no offense to anybody as far as that goes. You, Brendan, are someone I respect in the surfing world, for example. One of the best guys on the Cape back in ’85. You were charging the North Shore before I got there. And you’re probably still one of the best guys on the Cape almost 30 years later. I never even came close to catching the kinds of waves you have back East. Extraordinary. You’ve completed a full circle. Some of the best guys on the North Shore today include Marcus Hickman, Kalani Chapman, Jamie O’Brien, Keali’i Mamala, Makua Rothman. These guys shine on outstanding days. There will be others on any given swell. Kala Alexander & Ikaika Kalama always charging, strong surfers. Chapman Murphey is another guy with grit; the Christensen brothers; plenty of underground guys charge. Sion was coming on strong the past few seasons; his loss this winter is tragic — suppose he pushed it a little too far . . . And my hat’s off to Slater — a perennial performer in all conditions, although he doesn’t surf Sunset. Super cool Hawaiian guy at Sunset though — smooth & graceful, always smiling — is Sterma: a classy-backsider.
But in answer to the question (in no particular order) I submit that as far as the all-around Hawaiian big blue water surfing thing goes the greatest respect goes out to guys like Gary & Owl Chapman, Sam Hawk, Eric Haas, Tiger Espere, Eddie Aikau, Butch Van Artsdalen, Roger Erikson, Pat Curren, Jose Angel, Alika Moepono — in their primes, they were among the best ever. Like a lot of old timers they have style & mana. I never met or surfed with Eddie, Butch, or Jose, but all of these guys exemplify soul and daring in the ocean. They’re the ali’i nui in my view. Also a word of respect and gratitude to both Chappy & RB: Dick Brewer and Gary “Chappy” Chapman were extraordinary. Nothing would have happened in terms of high performance surfing in the most extreme, challenging Hawaiian conditions were it not for them. Dynamic creative genius when it comes to design and innovation, they worked together in the mid to late 1960s to perfect surfboards. Chappy & Brewer should be recognized and given credit for the creation of high performance modern surfboards — both big wave guns & hot dog boards. Their contributions are unequalled in modern surfing. All that Ozzie “short-board revolution” nostalgia you read in the mags is a huge distortion, nothing McTavish or Greenough shaped really worked in Hawaii — from what they say, they all spun-out. It was Brewer who made the best boards for the best guys who rode the best waves. Last word on “respect” in the surfing world: Don’t stand too close to your idols, as they are very likely to fall over on to you. You get too close and you’re liable to go down with them.
Describe your most memorable big wave ridden, and your heaviest/scariest experience?
This question is almost impossible to answer. There have simply been too many "memorable" and "heavy" waves over the years. Here's one: I might have caught one of the biggest waves I ever rode on November 13, 1996. It had been raining for a month straight. Everything was totally flooded. The whole scene around the North Shore was Biblical — houses & cars swamped out, radical disasters, and a total loss for some people. The ocean looked like fudge, thick with dirt and full of detritus of all kinds. Things were crazy & perilous; definitely not ideal surfing conditions. The river at Waimea had blown out the entire beach from the lifeguard tower to the Kam highway — there was virtually no beach left. The corner where we usually paddle out (where they've been paddling out since 1957) was gone: underwater. The Bay was just one, huge river-mouth of gushing brown water. There were trees and all sorts of gnarly flotsam flowing into the Bay.
I managed to dig out from work a little early that day and got myself down to the Bay at about 1:30 p.m. As soon as I got there, I heard there had been a 30'+ closeout that took out everyone in the lineup. People were freaking out. Something like 20 boards were busted or lost on one set. So, by the time I arrived, the place was virtually empty; maybe five or six guys out. The Bay looked nuts. Almost too big. From the beach it looked big & gnarly and not at all inviting. Weather was overcast, rain drizzling, although the wind was a light SE. While there were long lulls between the huge sets, there was nowhere — obvious or safe — to paddle out. Shorebreak was bonkers: doubled-up, endless, relentless lines of white water surging hard into a river full of suds & shit. Even so, I thought I'd give it a shot and waded down to & through the river — trying to avoid the trees and sticks and stuff flowing out — and waited for a lull. I was standing in the middle of the Bay — not in the corner. I stood there for a long time and it looked like it might be a futile endeavor. When Waimea is really big like that, the paddle out (or coming in) is super dicey. Just getting out though the shorebreak is a major challenge; and coming in can be even more risky. While the chances of getting through the shorebreak are slim; if you do make it through the shorebreak, there is the very strong possibility of getting caught–inside & cleaned-up by a closeout — which makes the shorebreak look like nothing by comparison. A situation like this is treacherous. These kind of days are the rare, real test of a true Waimea rider. Once you make it out, riding waves is almost easy.
Anyway, I'm standing there kind of hoping I don't have to go out. Mixed feelings at this point; it would have been easy to just blow it off. Then this red Brewer washes in. I know it's Eric's (Haas) board (actually it was Eddie Rothman's; but Eric had been borrowing it that winter). It's a sign. I grab it and wait for Eric. Again, this was absolutely Code Black: huge, gnarly Waimea. Swimming around the Bay was something very, very few people could handle. But I knew that Eric could. And so Eric washes in a few minutes later, just as I expected. Ho! He's jazzed. Then Eric tells me he had paddled down to the Bay from Phantoms! Think about that for a moment: if Waimea is 25'-30'+ and closing out, the outer reefs (from Phantoms to Sunset to Pipe & Logs) are off the scale huge, breaking miles out to sea — who knows, maybe 40' or more. Incomprehensible. Giant — off the scale. Yet Eric had casually jumped in the water at Backyards and paddled over 3 miles in a raging ocean to the Bay by himself, with a fin tucked into his shorts. Just another go out. Nobody has ever done that — at least not since Woody Brown and Dickie Cross in 1947. Waimea must have seemed like V-land after what he'd seen & dealt with on that paddle down the coast. That's another story yet to be told . . . another of thousands of reasons why I believe that Eric Haas is the greatest big wave rider & waterman of all time . . . He charges like no one else — when no one else is looking. Eric is like "Go, brah! GO NOW!" I have always had this implicit trust of Eric (in the water at least). If he says "GO," then I'm going. Somehow I made it through the shorebreak — never lost my board! It was actually pretty easy; only had to pull through a couple soft ones. Minor miracle. Then I sprint paddled to the lineup as fast as I ever had: I'm OUT there. And I made it. Thanks, Eric!
There's no more than 5 guys sitting on the boil: Brock Little, Greg Russ, Paul Moreno, I don't know who else. I'm in another world; might as well be alone. No
one is saying much. There's a weird, electric buzz in the air. Despite the rain, all the brown water, and trees and crap in the channel, the waves are absolutely PERFECT. Glassy and super, super defined. You could really see clearly what the water and all that energy was doing: massive, top-to-bottom barrels rifling from Ke Iki across the Bay. Not a drop of water out of place. That was the day I learned about the outer boil — a narrow, defined ramp on the second reef that stands up just so and, if you like go, launches you in right behind the peak in the middle of the Bay. Catching waves was EASY. Smooth transition. Holding position and turning around for one of these monsters, however, is another matter. I caught a few. There were some big ones, too, still closing out in the middle on the sets; but no more full-on close-outs like there had been earlier.
One wave in particular stands out for me. I saw it coming from miles away. The horizon shifted and you can gauge by what's happening up at Logs and coming down the line from Ke Iki and Shark's Cove and all that what's going to happen next. I was deep and the furthest outside. No one hassled me for it. I'm on a red 11'10'' triple stringer single fin pintail — "Big Red" (Eric has it now). The outer boil lights up and I'm on it. Barely even had to paddle for it — just a little stroke, petting the cat sort of thing. I'm in & up — low & loose. When it's big like that there are a series of ledges in the wave. Waimea is actually a double-up. On the outside, it stands up tall and vertical — not quite concave yet. The ramp allows you to slide in behind the peak, which affords a split-second opportunity to penetrate and set trim high, just a hair off-center. This slim trim line lets you make the transition so that when the wave hits the next ledge and the thing really doubles-up, jacks skyward & goes totally top-to-bottom, you're already in. It's still vertical and virtually a fin-out freefall; but if you penetrate, you're in control despite the violent throw & throb of it all. When the wave — indeed the whole Bay — went concave I was low, poised,& ready for the suckout. The power & speed of it all is difficult to describe. I can remember a high-pitched hum from the fin of my board as it hit full hull speed. This strange, eery hum; time slowed down; the tiniest & farthest things came into perfect focus. I sensed everything. It was actually very peaceful. And I felt something like control. Pure stoke!
Then I became aware of a massive, spinning left tube coming at me from the other side of the Bay. I realized there was nowhere to go. Here at the bottom of a massive wall of water — easily 50' or more of cascading vertical face — and there was no "kicking out." Waimea Bay is actually a pretty small place; it's tight. And I was stuck in the middle of it all with little option but a sketchy prone out. On the other side of the Bay, approaching the rocks, the Bay closes out, so I hit a bit of fade (left) back toward the Point with the hope of iron-legging it through the shore-pound. No luck. Get hit by a cement truck and go for a vicious under-water adventure. Try to relax. Leash holds. Don't drown. When I come up after a 20-30 second beating, close to what used to be the beach, right in front of the lifeguard tower — maybe 20 yards away. Not a good place to exit the water. No choice but to death-grip the board and let a 10' shorebreak explode on top of me, blasting me to the beach — no (there is no beach) right into the river! Came to rest in the calm, sudsy, brown estuary . . . safe & sound. I paddled toward the trees and got out of the water.
After that I gave Greg Russ a ride back to Sunset. We got some beer at Foodland on the way. Drove real slow. Everything was serene. We didn't talk or say much. The moon was beautiful that night — a "surfer's moon" — a striking yellow half-crescent shaped like a curling wave.
What is your personal policy with leashes?
The overall quality & integrity of the surfing recreational experience would probably be a better — more honest, safer, & graceful — if no one wore a cord.
Surfing without a cord cultivates & enhances awareness, control, & strength. Without a leash one is — or otherwise becomes — more conscientious. One surfs faster. One learns (of necessity) to make waves from peak to channel. Ride the whole wave; not just focusing on sections & maneuvers. It's all about control, commitment, & clean surfing.
Ironically, the less you use a cord the less you actually need one — I don't lose my board that often and when I do I go for a swim, which loosens me up and can be pretty fun. Once in a while I wear a cord, like when I'm on the outer reefs or I'm at the Bay. But my decision to put a cord on is a very conscious, deliberate, and somewhat reluctant — one which I make precisely in order to either avoid a mile or more swim in open ocean or have my board wash on the rocks because 3 or 10 kooks dropped in on me.
Without cords, crowds would diminish. If guys didn't have cords to rely or depend on they: (a) probably wouldn't paddle out to begin with and/or (b) wouldn't last very long once they lost their board. And without cords, the best spots — by which I mean the most perfect, powerful, and consequential — would be the reserve of experts only, which is how I'd like to see it.
If surfers only surfed breaks at times and under conditions that they felt comfortable or confident doing so without a cord then both the quality and integrity of the overall surfing experience would be greatly enhanced. By the same token, if guys did not paddle out when they felt uncertain or unsure of their ability, experience, or safety then, too, the overall quality and integrity of the recreational experience of surfing would probably improve.
End of part 1. Click here for Part-2 (after checking out the photos below).
I started surfing Nantucket when I was fourteen. My childhood best friend, Sean McMahon, the person who’d first introduced me to surfing, had moved out there with his mother. I’d visit him on weekends during the offseason and for entire weeks during summers. Having grown up in a working class beachfront neighborhood on Boston’s South Shore, Nantucket was a completely alternate universe, especially from fall to spring. The vibe was laid back. Older dudes cruised around in old Broncos and F-150s, almost all of them with Grateful Dead stickers on the back windows. I hadn’t even heard of the Dead at the point. As a neurotic Catholic kid, the name itself, the Grateful Dead, scared the living Jesus out of me, but it seemed to fit the people who inhabited Nantucket, especially the surfers. Everybody had that crazed philosopher look, wide-eyed as if staring into the existential void, and they weren’t frightened by what they saw. They were kind of grateful for what they had, which was silence and solitude to the backdrop of absolutely thumping beachbreak. Nantucket surfers had that die-hard persona that comes with surfing big, currenty waves by yourself on a regular basis.
Gary Kohner has always had that wide-eyed edge. Gary grew up surfing on Nantucket but now resides in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica half the year surfing the heavy reef waves of Salsa Brava. To me, Gary epitomizes the Nantucket surfer. I first met him when I was fifteen through my friend Sean. He was a year or two older and often drove us around to various breaks. Gary’s intense passion for surfing rivals anyone I’ve ever met, even my own. He charges big waves and rips in the small stuff (he was one of the first people I’d ever seen ride a fish). Over the years, Gary has done the near impossible for a New England surfer. He’s found a way to make a living at it. Gary has always had extreme foresight in regards to the surfing lifestyle. He bought property in Costa Rica before most people had ever heard of the place. He’s produced an award-winning surf film recognized by the likes of Surfer Magazine. He also runs the biggest and most-successful surf school in New England, and has been doing it long before the idea struck current opportunists. Thankfully, Gary took some time from living the dream to answer a few mundane questions from a recovering neurotic. Thanks, Gary!
Volpe: I remember first meeting you in the mid ‘80s. I was a freshman in high school. I’d been to Nantucket before visiting Sean, but this was my first trip as a surfer. It was late fall and the thing that really hit me was the starkness of not only the beaches, but the entire island. I’d spent considerable time on the Cape, but Nantucket was something altogether different. Being out at Madequecham in November was profoundly raw. I found it both intimidating and awe-inspiring. What was it like growing up as a surfer on Nantucket, especially during the off-season? In what ways did it shape you as a surfer? And coincidentally, how long have you/your family lived out there?
Kohner: I moved out to Nantucket in 1976 when I was six. When I started surfing in 1984, there were not many year round surfers. There was a crew of us groms, like Sean McMahon, Dave Ozias, Kevin Huyser, and Jeff Walsh who all started around the same time and then there was the older crew with guys such as Chris Emery, Steve Erisman, Bill Davidson, Ben Murphy Rick Kotalack, and Freddy Linquist, to name a few. Also a kid named Eric Miller moved out to Nantucket from Hawaii and he talked pidgin and ripped for a teenager in Nantucket at that time. My summers revolved around Nobadeer for the most part. It was and still is the party beach and there were always lots of interesting things going on for a teenager...parties, girls etc.. However, as soon as summer was over, the crowds of teenagers disappeared and we'd be looking for people to surf with, driving around checking Nobadeer, Cisco, Madequecham, and Madaket. It was hard back then trying to find the right spot, well before cell phones. If we found a good peak, maybe we'd be on it all day with minimal peeps, and then hear about what another break was like later on when we connected with friends. I think growing up in a uncrowded environment, I certainly dislike crowds and have tried to travel to places that are a bit off the beaten track. I think the challenge of surfing beachbreak in the winter also made me really appreciate points and reefs as I got older and started to travel.
Volpe: That's exactly how I remember Nantucket in those early years. Since you bring up crowds, maybe you can talk about your purchase of land in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. For me, you were the first person I'd ever heard of who did such a thing. Back then, maybe Todd Holland and his mom were running that surf camp, but I feel like you were already there by then, if not shortly after. What year did you buy land, and in what ways has the place changed, if at all, especially in regards to crowds?
Kohner: I bought a piece of land in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, right near Salsa Brava (I have a nice view of second peak from my house). I had actually heard about Costa Rica from Chris Frame who had been there with Steve Erisman in 1989. Then a friend of mine from Florida said he wanted to do a surf trip over the winter to CR and I decided to join him. The town has changed considerably since I bought the land in 1993. I first went there in January of 1990. It was a pretty sleepy place back then and now it’s a popular tourist/party town. It’s more crowded than it was back then in large part due to that there were only a few locals that surfed Salsa when I first went there. Now the local crew is much bigger and the kids rip. Former Costa Rican National Champ Gilbert Brown is a local ripper and there are many good local surfers who charge Salsa as well as rip small waves. It gets crowded but I know the local crew well and like to imagine I have a place in the lineup and pecking order. Over 20 years of surfing there has given me some insight in reading the waves and knowing the lineup.
Volpe: I’ve seen pics of Salsa and the place looks like it gets super hollow and heavy. Maybe you can describe the wave for us. Did growing up on the fairly shallow sandbars of Nantucket help you acclimate at all?
Kohner: I've had the most epic tube rides of my life at Salsa. There’s been so many days, it's hard to single out any one in particular. It has so many different moods. It can be smaller and playful, big, stormy and gnarly and everything in between. It's usually less crowded when it's really big so I really like those days. I was super intimidated by the wave when I first went there so I would say growing up on Nantucket didn't really prepare me for Salsa. It's actually not a super shallow reef. Maybe 6-8ft deep at some parts and shallower at others. I've bounced really hard off of it years ago and broke a rib. I took off on a solid 6-8 foot bomb and spun out at the bottom. I remember being on my back, getting sucked up the face, and thinking how I’d just blown a perfect barrel. Then it sucked me up and over the falls twice. The second time, it just pounded me straight into the reef on my back. Fortunately, I was wearing a shortie so I didn't get that cut up. I came in and was spitting up blood for a while.
Volpe: That sounds pretty intense. Are there any other waves in the area?
Kohner: There are some other good reef breaks on the Caribbean side and the beachbreaks can get really good too. There are also some outer reefs that can get BIG. The Caribbean can be fickle and inconsistent but it can also pump for months.
Volpe: What’s it like spending a considerable portion of your year in Costa Rica? I am sure it’s paradisiacal. I am just asking because I really enjoy feeling shitty about my year round life here in New England.
Kohner: I bought my property because I just really loved being there and it was still cheap to buy at the time. In hindsight, I wish I bought a lot more property all over Costa Rica. I usually spend about four to six months a year in CR. I was certified as a yoga teacher by the Nosara Yoga Institute in November 2009 and since then I have been spending a lot of time on the Pacific side in Playa Guiones where I’m involved with the Institute as a student. I also work and assist various teacher training programs. I do miss Salsa when I'm on the Pacific side.
When I'm at my house on the Caribbean side, I get into full surf junkie mode if the waves are good. Wake up early. Surf. Eat. Surf. Eat and sleep some more. I like hanging out with the crew on the beach and being part of the peanut gallery. I've known most of the local rippers since they were kids. I also like to stand up paddle board and hit the outer reefs and Salsa on my SUP. Lately, I have been trying to wean myself off the SUP tit. I had two years where I barely surfed prone...it was all SUP all the time, no matter what the conditions. I brought a bunch of SUPs down about four to five years ago and got a few of my friends hooked. Everyone has been breaking their SUPs so their back to surfing again. It’s a great place to paddle when the waves are flat with all the reefs and beautiful coastline. The Caribbean is pretty laid back so it's easy for me to get into a laid back groove. I'll take some of the local mini groms surfing and throw big barbeques on the beach...I guess that’s my way of contributing.
Volpe: Judging from your Facebook pics, you're clearly not the typical SUPer. You absolutely rip on that thing. You say you're weaning yourself off, what is it about SUPing that seems so shameful?
Kohner: To set the record straight, I still love SUPing and I'm not ashamed of it at all. I just want to be a complete, well-rounded surfer. Certain wave conditions are better for a surfboard than a SUP. I just noticed that if I didn't force myself to surf other boards I would tend towards the SUP. I tend to get obsessed with things for a while, like there was a period of time when I got super into longboarding and only rode longboards. Then I got super into riding a 5'6" fish and only rode that board. I love SUPing in big waves and I think there is a lot of potential for big-wave surfing on them. I think SUP's get a bad rap because you can be a total wave hog on them if you want to be and a lot of kooks ride them. I love riding different boards and I love the glide. Pulling into a double overhead barrel on a 9' SUP with a paddle is a serious rush!
Volpe: Shifting topics, in 1999 your surf video “Horny for Surf” got some serious attention from the surf industry. What was that experience like and any new films coming out soon?
Kohner: I edited “Horny for Surf” on a VCR. My friend Steve Tag helped me put music to it. As a joke, I sent it in to Surfer Magazine because they had reviewed a couple of homemade videos. It was reviewed in their big issue and got a great review. Then I got a phone call from Ben Marcus saying I should come out to the Surfer Poll Awards. It won Best Underground Surf Video at the Surfer Poll/Video awards. My friend Josh was also nominated for Best Performance by a Male Surfer for his goofy antics in the video. Occy ended up winning that year for his performance in the Occumentary. It was so classic because they announced all the nominees and then showed a little video montage. It was like Occy, Bruce Irons, and a couple other pros just killing it in epic surf, and then my friend Josh surfing all awkwardly in knee-high surf and throwing up. I flew out to LA for the ceremony...I was pretty star-struck by all the pros actually. I made a couple more and edited them on iMovie. I enjoy the creative process of editing the footage and putting music in. I haven't done much lately though.
Volpe: Aside from buying property in Costa Rica before it was popular, you also started running a surf school long before other surf schools here on the mainland started, at least to the size and scope you’re doing. How did you get started?
Kohner: I was actually in Santa Cruz with Chris Frame the winter of 1998/99 and we started talking about how a surf school could work on Nantucket in the summer. I decided to give it a shot. It was right when Soft-Top surfboards came out. So I went to the guys at Surftech (based in Santa Cruz) and ordered half a dozen boards and then got a dozen or so shorties from Rip Curl. I started giving surfing lessons in the summer of 1999. The first summer it started off as a part-time thing because I was also landscaping, but by the end of the summer I decided to sell the landscaping business and do the surf school full time the following summer. I now have about a half-dozen instructors. Most are local kids that have been surfing and hanging around the surf school since they were groms. We give hundreds of lessons a summer and do a weekly surf camp for kids. I also rent boards and SUP's and give SUP lessons.
Volpe: From buying land in CR, to producing surf films and teaching surf lessons, is it safe to say that you have found a way to make a living from surfing? Do you look upon your life in that way? And what if any do attribute to this success?
Kohner: I think I've been very lucky. I'm very grateful to be able to make a living from something I enjoy. I think being passionate about what I do has helped. I love surfing and it's had a huge impact on my life.
For years people have been telling me I should move to Colorado in order to ski, ride and climb the big mountains or to move to California to surf big waves. I always have the same reply: no need, we have it all here. New England is not known for big surf, outside of hurricane season or deep powder or miles of class 4 rapids, but we do have everything right in our own backyard if you know where to look.
I make my living teaching people about the outdoors and exposing them to some of the amazing resources we have right here in New England.
One of my favorite things to do is to take a person who has lived in the area their entire life in this area and show them local “treasures” that they had no idea were right here. Treasures like kayaking to the Boston Harbor Islands to rock climb, stand-up paddling in the marshes of Cape Cod, white-water paddling on the Charles River or ice climbing in Worcester, MA.
There are not too many places where you can skin-in for fresh tracks at first light and then drive to the beach for a sun-set surf session all in the same day… but you can do it right here in our own back-yard of New England.
- Born and raised in Worcester, MA and spent summers on the Cape.
- Works full time in the outdoor industry in all forms.
- Over 14 years of professional certified guide and instructor qualifications.
- Surfing (traditional, sup, kayak)
- Kayaking (sea, white water, surf)
- Stand up paddling (surf, race, river)
- Fly fishing
- Back-country snowboarding
- Ice climbing
- Telemark skiing
- Snow kiting.
Motto: "Always learning always teaching."
Building Stoke: Neil Toracinta - Tora Surfboards
Story and photos by Rachel McCarty
The warm glow of shop lights spills out of an open garage bay, starkly contrasting with the cloudy grey skies above. Nestled on a quiet street, just blocks from the extravagant, finely crafted Newport mansions on Ruggles Avenue, Neil Toracinta crafts perfection of his own.
Some kid in a garage is at the heart of surfing’s history. It wasn’t that long ago that shortboards were the Frankenstein craft of backyard shapers who hacked up longboards to start a revolution. Everyone has to begin somewhere, and this garage is the beginning of Tora Surfboards.
Neil started surfing around the age of 13, going out with a couple of friends whenever there were waves and just messing around until it started to stick. “Born and raised” in Newport, he quickly ingratiated himself into the local lineup, which included Water Brothers owner Sid Abruzzi. “We started surfing with them, me and a couple friends, when we were young, and a lot of the guys kind of took us under their wing” says Neil. “Sid has always been really good to me. He’s always been really supportive ever since I started shaping. I just basically grew up with them, the whole Water Brothers crew.”
Newport fosters a tightly knit community of surfers. It would be hard not to share the water with legends like Sid when you grow up around there. The garage Neil shapes in, which belongs to his grandparents, is a mile from Ruggles. From the driveway he pointed out a house across the street: the house his parents lived in when he was born, before they moved just a little farther down the road.
When I stopped by the garage, Neil was grinding down the laps of a board he was helping a local high school kid shape as part of a senior project, allowing the process to come full circle. “[Shaping] started as a senior project we had to do in high school where we had to find a mentor and produce a “final product” to present at the end of the year, so I chose shaping surfboards, which was becoming my main interest at the time,” he said. “My mentor was a local guy, Bill Slaby, who taught me a lot about how to glass a board. I taught myself to shape mostly, and this ended up being good because I was able to learn the techniques and what worked and what didn’t work through trial and error.”
The addiction started with that first experiment. Much like catching your first wave, shaping your first surfboard is thrilling and terrifying at the same time. Materials are expensive, and just a few mistakes can turn a potential wave riding vehicle into a landfill-bound mess of foam and fiberglass. “My first 10 boards or so weren’t very good. I still have the first two hidden in a closet,” laughs Neil. Getting every detail right can feel like forcing the stars to align, but Neil has certainly come a long way since he started shaping in 2007.
It was influence from shapers like Bob Pearson and Matt Biolos that helped to push Neil in the right direction. “Bob Pearson from Pearson Arrow shapes boards for a lot of local guys. [Pearson is] from Santa Cruz, and some of their breaks are similar to the ones we have around here, so I definitely feel comfortable using his boards as a reference when I’m shaping,” says Neil, who shapes in a Pearson Arrow sweatshirt that still has foam dust in every nook and cranny after three washings. “Also a company like … Lost, to see how big they’ve become starting the same way I did, just making boards out of a garage.”
The smell of polyester resin wafts around the garage and I breathe in deep, soaking up all the chemical goodness that sends surfers to dreaming of empty barrels and tropical islands. For mind-surfing hallucinations, epoxy doesn't do it for me and I don’t blame Neil for sticking with the classics. “All my boards to date have been made with polyurethane blanks and polyester resin,” he says. “I’ve never tried making epoxy boards. [The polyurethane/polyester] combo has just been the easiest for me to work with, and proven throughout the industry to perform the best.”
The common complaint about funboards is that they do everything okay, but nothing well. What a shaper can take from this is that it’s important that you do at least one thing well, and Neil certainly has been following that mantra. “I generally keep most of my focus on shaping shortboards and all the components that go into making a good shortboard,” says Neil. “I shape funboards and fishes and all that too, but shortboards have definitely been my main focus. I have been getting some interesting orders, including everything from 5-foot small wave boards to 7-foot single fins and I enjoy shaping those too.” His main customers are local surfers in the Newport area, but he is branching out. “I have a few boards in the works for some big hitters over on Maui.”
Most professional shapers will agree it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of boards shaped to master the craft. However, to just feel like a shaper, to have an innate feel for compound curves and forms, can happen quickly. Neil, with only 40 boards under his belt, realized that moment “once my boards started to sell and I was getting some good feedback from guys who were riding them.” He still considers himself to be learning, but I think even the heavyweight greats of the world believe they'll always be learning too.
Feedback is key to the board building process, and unless your shaper took your brand new stick for a spin before handing it off to you, they would never know how well the board works until you crawled out of the water, shook off some sand and uttered a few concrete adjectives in between stoked shouts and hoots. If your shaper is smudging wax on the freshly polished deck of your new board, I suggest you invest in a thesaurus. Neil has no problem eliciting feedback from the guys who ride his boards, like local
he needs to fix anything, though he rarely has to fix them.”Our shaper/surfer relationship is a very close one for sure,” says Luke. “Whenever he is shaping a board or is done with one he likes to have me come over to look at it and tell him if I like the shape or not. I think that helps him a lot because he can have another surfer looking at it and telling him if
Neil has embraced the reactions he gets from surfers who try his boards. “Whether it’s what the board did well for the rider or what it didn’t do well,” says Neil, “it allows you to take that criticism and apply it to shaping so the boards just get better and better. Riding my own boards has helped me gain a good understanding of how a board works and what makes it perform well in the water too. All feedback is good feedback.”
As I walked out of the garage, leaving the radiating warmth of the shop lights and entering back into the dreary November dusk, I asked Neil what keeps him shaping surfboards when he could be making more money waiting tables.
“It’s a pretty simple concept, I have a lot more fun shaping boards and expanding the Tora brand then I would ever have at a 9-5 or waiting tables.”
You can’t argue with passion.
by Mike Marks
Kevin Cunnigham turns beached flotsam into performing works of art. He's featured in the new film, One Beach, premiering Tuesday, September 20th.
More than anything else, Kevin Cunningham wants you to know that he shapes performance surfboards. Once you've got that fact in your mind he'll be pleased to inform you that, beyond performance, the materials he uses in his boards are as environmentally friendly as possible. The foam cores are recycled EPS, the rails are made from fast growing paulownia trees and the top and bottom wooden skins come from poplars. Shaping green surfboards puts Kevin in the forefront of a quietly growing movement to make the reality of surfing as eco-friendly as its image. But what really sets Kevin apart is his passion for beach trash.
Kevin likes to walk along beaches and pick up marine debris from the wrack line to reuse in his products. He especially likes tangled fishing lines, old nets and frayed ropes - he can weave those elements together to make something akin to fiberglass cloth. Casting this former flotsam in clear epoxy resin he creates surfboard fins that are one of a kind functional works of art. The results are beautiful and carry a message.
Kevin explains, "My goal is to raise awareness and show people that even though this is trash washing up on the shore, we can put a positive spin on it. People will think a little more and maybe they won't throw as much trash into the ocean."
Kevin works his surfboard alchemy through Spirare Surfboards in Providence RI. The name "spirare" comes from the root latin word for spirt, the breath of life. His passion for giving pieces of beach trash fresh life as things of beauty is now being recognized in the new film One Beach. Presented by Barefoot Wine, directed by renowned surf filmmaker Jason Baffa and produced by Farm League, One Beach tells the personal stories of people who are using creativity and innovation to help keep the world’s beaches “barefoot friendly:”
• Richard + Judith Lang (California): Collect plastic from their local beach to create large sculptures, installations, photo tableaus and jewelry
• Kevin Cunningham (Rhode Island): RISD graduate who builds surf boards from beach trash
• Barbara de Vries (Bahamas): Fashion designer who makes jewelry and fashion t-shirts from found beach plastic • Tim Silverwood (Australia): Environmentalist who founded non-profit Take 3, focused on beach health and taking the time to pick up litter
• Jim Moriarty (California): Avid surfer and CEO of Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches
The first installment of One Beach debuts on Facebook on September 20, 2011, with subsequent episodes posted weekly for five weeks following the premiere. To view the trailer and watch One Beach when it premieres on September 20, visit OneBeachFilm.com. Join the conversation by using #onebeach.
by Eugenio Volpe
Every local surf scene needs a dynamic brotherly duo. Throughout the ‘80s, the North Shore of Oahu had the Ho brothers. San Clemente not only had the Fletchers, but they also had the McNulty brothers. I think there were five of them (you know how it is with Irish Catholics). In more recent times, the surfing world has come to know the Hobgood and Irons brothers. There’s also Cory and Shea Lopez. For some reason, surfing brothers always get more media attention. We’re somehow more impressed when two people share a common shredder gene. It’s like, what are the chances? Growing up, I’d always wanted an older surfing brother, someone to compete against, a person who was both a rival and mentor. I forced this on my two best friends instead. Our favorite local surfers growing up were Joe and Pat Walsh, both of whom ripped. Pat still rips but Joe has long retired from surfing. For the next ten years or so, the South Shore wouldn’t know the excitement of having two brothers tearing apart the local lineups.
In recent years, however, brothers Dan and Steve Hassett have emerged as the area’s top surfing talents. Dan has always had both a face and voice in the New England surfing community, both in the water and on the Internet. Whether it was his early successes in ESA events or his hilarious message-bourding amongst the NESURF forums, he’s always entertained and impressed. Steve, on the other hand, has always been the low-key one. He didn’t participate in as many ESA events. He didn’t have a NESURF messagebourd name. He’s always been the kind of guy who quietly did his thing, which is ripping the hell out of waves with fast and precise turns. Steve also charges the big stuff.
Like his older brother Dan, Steve spent four plus years in Hawaii studying at Honolulu. He studied hard and surfed hard. He returned to the South Shore this summer with a degree in engineering. I hadn’t surfed with him much over the past four years. He was usually only home during the summer months so the lack of swell prevented us from getting in the water together. I’ve surfed with him numerous times since his return home and it’s been more than a pleasure to see. Steve’s one of the most progressive surfers around, but he’s also got old school mechanics. Surfing with both him and Dan is always inspirational. They both love to surf and that energy spills out in the lineup.
Another benefit of having two local brothers who rip is the argument over which brother surfs better. My friend and former Levitate Surf and Skate owner Bob Pollard introduced me to Dan and Steve when they were still groms, but even then, it was obvious that they’d quickly progress into the South Shore’s top surfers. Bob surfed with them quite a bit in those days and he’d always report on their ripping. When I finally started surfing them with myself, it was always my opinion that Dan had the slight edge over his younger brother. Bob believed the opposite. We’d argue our respective points as if comparing other famous athletic rivalries: Ali-Frazier; Brady-Manning; Occy-Curren. Surfing over the past few months with Steve, I have to admit that the comparison has become an equal one. Both brothers rip and it’s come to the point that you sometimes can’t tell them apart on a wave, especially when donned in winter gear. Given Steve’s tendency to shy away from the spotlight (he refused to be interviewed for this piece), I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he entered the recent Core Cup contest held in Maine. Steve did the South Shore proud by winning second place against some of New England’s top surfers. He’s definitely the favorite local surfer amongst South Shore groms and youngins. He’s quickly becoming this old wiseman’s favorite as well. Congrats, Steve!
Steve Hassett at Scion Core Cup in Maine, November 2011
Eugenio Volpe is a literary author currently living in Bristol, RI. He's published work with Post Road, New York Tyrant, Superstition Review, The Delinquent, Twelve Stories, decomP, and many more. He's won the PEN Discovery Award for his novel-in-progress and been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web prizes. He teaches writing and literature at Roger Williams University and blogs about surfing and Don DeLillo at mebeingbrand.blogspot.com.