Walking through the hallway of Ben Aipa's Downtown shaping room, one can't help but notice all the photos and clippings adorning the walls. A lifetime dedicated to the sport of surfing is chronicled here, showcasing Ben the surfer, shaper, coach and father.
Ben Aipa has always been an inspirational force in Hawaii. I was fortunate enough to have met him during my amateur contest days, and I've always seen him as a staunch supporter of surfing in the islands. This interview was conducted on July 14, 1997, as Ben was fine-tuning a narrow 6'0".
Hsa: How old are you?
BA: Iím 55.
HSA: And youíve been shaping for...?
BA: Since 1966. How many years is that? 32.
HSA: I read somewhere that you shaped something like 100,000 boards in your lifetime. Thatís probably more than anybody else in the world, huh?
BA: No, no.
HSA: Are you kidding me?
BA: See, the reason why I shaped so many boards is that Iím one of the maybe two handful of guys that never stopped shaping since the mid-60ís.
HSA: Who would be the other guys?
BA: In the mainland, one guy named Phil Becker. I think Phil Becker, to my knowledge, has done the most. If I did over 100,000, that guy mustíve done double that... triple I think cause he started way before me. And Hawaii, other than myself... I donít know who?
HSA: Nobody. I donít think anyone else comes close. When you first started surfing, you were a strong competitor for Hawaii, in the 70ís?
BA: Well, I started in the mid-60ís, into the early-70ís. We were part of the mechanics that introduced professional surfing. But at the age I was, I was older than a lot of guys. The guys behind was like Jeff Hakmann, Gerry Lopez; they were the young guys that was gonna set the new professional surfing thing.
HSA: So you guys laid down the groundworks for it, but they started it.
BA: Thatís right.
HSA: Since then, youíve gone along and been one of the most world-reknowned shapers, and you have a lot of special designs to your credit. Tell me a little bit about your shaping.
BA: I guess what keeps my surfboard building still going, is because of my involvement in the major changes in surfboard designs. Iíve been a part of the swallowtail at first, then the sting, and coming into the early-early-80ís, introducing the modern longboard. And thatís been my involvement in the changes in surfboard design.
As for surfing itself, Iíve ventured into coaching, and luckily have been involved in coaching for the last 20 years.
HSA: Thatís something that the general public doesnít know about. We talked about it before (conversation in 1992) that you are probably the only coach in Hawaii, and you pretty much do it out of love...
BA: Yeah, because we have a lot of talent over here, but all this talent gotta have direction. And Iím pretty sure the people who sponsor these guys wonít give them direction, so thatís where I come in.
HSA: Youíve been going to the world (amateur) championships and bringing all the kids over since...
BA: Iíve been involved with the world contest since 1968. So the world contest is every two years.
BA: And part of that, you know, in coaching and surfing, this is where my ideas come from also, for the (surfboard) designs.
HSA: From the last crew that I helped out (working for the Hawaii Surfing Federation), Kalani Robb was pretty much the number one guy. What about the new up-and-comers? Do you see anybody from the high schools coming up? Andy Irons?
BA: Well, right now, as weíre going through the mid-90ís, one of our biggest push coming off our Ď96 season of Hawaii producing their top amateurs, we got Andy Irons. (But) itís sad, because we only got one guy, compared to all the other major countries. They come up with about six kids every time thereís a new professional thing showing. Hawaii has a three-year gap of producing world-class professional surfers.
HSA: And so why is that? Is it a lack of skill or lack of coaching? Itís definitely not a lack of waves?
BA: Itís a combination. The waves, I think, are more at fault because the waves are so good.
HSA: Ohhh. They get spoiled...
BA: They get spoiled! And all the major countries--Brazil, the (mainland) U.S., Australia--they get good surf, but on the average, they get bad surf. And good surfing comes from bad surf! [Hearty laugh]
HSA: OK, in 1991, you were inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame? That mustíve been a pretty big thing for you?
BA: Yeah! I was surprised. I was in the mainland for the trade show in San Diego (Action Sports Retailers). We went to this celebration ceremony for inducting some guys for the Surfing Hall of Fame. I didnít know anything, I just went, because... And Greg Noll, he was at the podium and he called my name, and I was in! For me it was something... I never really thought about it but I always thought of myself, my name being Hawaiian, which from Hawaii, is part of only a handful of Hawaiian names involved in the surfboard industry and surfing. And for me, all I wanted to do was put my name out in surfing, because itís Hawaiian! [laugh]
HSA: Okay, what about your kids? Akila is a really good local surfer and has done fairly well in the pros. Of course, he helps shape for you. But also, you are working with your daughter (Lokelani) a lot now, huh? Now she is working with you... that must be a joy?
BA: Going back to Akila, I never really expected him to get into the industry because I learned not to push. But he got into it. Itís something that... itís the next generation of Aipas. Akila for himself, he has his own ideas in surfboard designs, and with my help, he can put it all together.
And now, my daughter came into the scene without even planning, getting into the art part and doing all the graphics on the board, which is something that is so unique, that itís just changed our business over here for Aipa Surfboards, making it one of the only really family-involved products thatís made for surfing.
HSA: Sheís got some really nice designs. A little bit of old style, like the old aloha shirt-type fabric designs, but itís all unique, like you said.
BA: The old is there, but itís modified by the new, in here graphics. Just like in surfboard designs, weíre going in a full circle. A lot of designs in clothing, just wearing apparel for street clothes has been going in a circle. Not necessarily surfing wear, but other street wear; surfing is doing the same thing.
HSA: Surfing style is going back to the classic style. How about the longboard resurgence? How much orders are you getting for longboards? Is it like a big percentage of your orders?
BA: Well, right now, since I sorta kicked it off in the 80ís, because of the people, the age of the guys I was in touch with were from the 70ís. You know, there were old surfers from the 70ís and the 60ís. So, those guys were coming back at the average age of mid-30ís. I create a board that they can still have fun with. And instead of that, catering to the guys from the 70ís, it catered to the guys from the 90ís! Resurgence? ...itís not even the word resurgence... ITíS HERE! [laugh]
HSA: Yeah, you go to (Ala Moana) Courts nowadays, and itís just a logjam.
BA: I started the whole mess. But whatís good about the longboards is that itís also bringing in girls. A lotta girls are coming into the lineups. Not only girls, but actually women, women in their late-20ís, early-30ís, even early-40ís, you know. Getting all the thin girls away from the malls and into the water.
HSA: Thatís about it, I guess. Do you have any words of wisdom that youíd like to share with the world.
BA: Surfing is so healthy, itís sad and too bad that there are people caught in the middle of nowhere that cannot enjoy what we got on the ocean. And just hope that people themselves donít... [sigh] spoil the ocean. Donít abuse the ocean.
HAS: Thanks, Ben!
For a great story on Ben Aipa by the Honolulu Star-Bulletinís Greg Ambrose, check out Together Again --12/24/96.
If you are interested in getting a custom surfboard by Ben Aipa, call him at (808) 842-6456. Tell him you found out about it on the Net. :-)