Images by John Hook
Everything evolves over time, including surfboards.
By the 1970s, the industry standard for producing a board originated with blanks made by California-based Clark Foam. By the 21st century, Clark Foam dominated the industry, with 80 percent of all surfboards originating as a Clark Foam blank. In 2005, the company abruptly closed up shop, causing a panic in the manufacturing industry.
With the single biggest polyurethane surfboard blank manufacturer in the world halting production, shapers had a chance to think differently about crafting vehicles for impetuously dashing towards the shore.
Eventually, several old Clark Foam employees struck out to create US Blanks and picked up where the monopolizing foam blank producer left off. But the ripple effect of the shutdown of Clark Foam was irreversible.
Since 2006, the lineup now boasts boards made with carbon fiber, technologically advanced glassing, balsa, and Hawaiian woods koa and wiliwili, like the first ones ever ridden by Native Hawaiians.
In 1841, a 22-year-old New Englander named Francis ended up on the beach at Kailua-Kona on Hawai‘i Island a year after boarding a whaling ship to cure himself of being a wheezy homebody. He wrote a description of wave riding that remains valid several generations later:
I took a stroll down to the sea shore, where a party of natives were playing in the surf, which was thundering upon the beach. Each of them had a surf board, a smooth, flat board from six to eight feet long, by twelve to fifteen inches broad.
Upon these, they plunged forward into the surf, diving under a roller as it broke in foam over them, until they arrived where the rollers were formed, a quarter of a mile from shore perhaps, when watching a favorable opportunity, they rose upon some huge breaker, and balancing themselves, either by kneeling upon their boards or extending themselves full length, they dashed impetuously towards the shore, guiding themselves with admirable skill and apparent unconsciousness of danger, in their lightning-like courses, while the bursting combers broke upon each side of them, with a deafening noise. In this way, they amuse themselves hour after hour, in sports which have too terrific an aspect for a foreigner to attempt, but which are admirably adapted to the almost amphibious character of the natives.
– Francis Olmsted, Incidents of a Whaling Voyage, 1841
A practice that goes back to the first people to inhabit Hawai‘i, the craft of making surfboards is alive and well in the birthplace of the sport. CJ Kanuha is a force-of-nature type of guy: tall and broad hapa haole, gregarious, always talking, a physical presence on land and sea.
He’s boys with half the island, the other half being either tourists or relatives. When we arrived in Kailua-Kona to surf with him, Kanuha picked us up in that neighbor island symbol of success: the moderately lifted 4WD Toyota truck with tunes and tint.
Kanuha behaves like many professional athletes. Being very good at something that many of us wish we were good at, he moves through the world as though, at least physically, he’s not bound by the same rules of body, pain and intensity.
A picture of him on a stand-up paddleboard 20 feet from the hot edge of molten lava bursting into the Pacific made him internationally famous a few years ago, as did his aggressive surfing style, which marked him as one of the best talents to come out of Kailua-Kona since Shane Dorian and Conan Hayes. All that youthful intensity changed a few years ago though, when Kanuha’s father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Cruelly, his mother became ill the year after, and the tall surfer forsake a burgeoning career on tour, or alternatively as a rider on a variety of sponsored trips, to be close to his family.
Kailua-Kona is a weird place, like a mash up of the Kona that Francis Olmsted once strolled down and a 21st-century resort destination. Arriving at the beach in Kanuha’s lifted truck, we stepped out into the blazing sun, the aquamarine of the ocean an overload on the brain. Kona has gorgeous beaches the way the rest of the state has problems.
Under the shade, an uncle in vintage, blue, blocker shorts gently strummed his ‘ukulele in the calm, still hotness. On the road were dozens of knock-off Armstrongs checking their heart rate monitors under the mottled shade of kiawe trees or flying past us on carbon-fiber bicycles. The fact that they were exercising at the worst time of day proves a dead giveaway that they didn’t grow up eating Melona bars and catching the bus in front of the Banyan Store after school.
Kona has become the playground of famous one-percenters, like Paul Allen and Bill Gates, as well as numerous petit bourgeois billionaires with less famous names. “Brah, you should see the airport parking lot during Christmas time. The private jets are stacked wingtip to wingtip,” Kanuha tells me. When he’s not living the life of a professional surfer off tour, Kanuha sometimes gives lessons to the visitors through his company, Vanilla Gorilla Surf.
Though he was ill, Kanuha’s father encouraged his rambunctious son to turn his intense energy into making traditional surfboards. Kanuha has also been helped by the community of Hawaiian activist-watermen, who have always been a part of local surfing.
“I learned so much from Uncle Pohaku. He should have been named shaper of the year last year, but he’ll get it one day,” he says of professor Tom Stone, an educator at the University of Hawai‘i and an expert in pre-contact Hawaiian sports including surfing and papa holua sledding, the act of bombing down a grassy hill in a device that looks like a 10-foot-long scaffold with skids.
Kanuha’s most famous creation was a gorgeous shortboard-sized alaia he crafted in 2010 and donated to the annual Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Waterman’s Ball. On display at the silent auction, the board fetched nearly $10,000 from none other than Kelly Slater.
The day I went surfing with Kanuha, he brought out a beast of a board. When dry, the eight-foot craft displayed the remarkable properties of Acacia koa, ranging from a straight deep-rose uniformity to a curly blonde. Weighing nearly 100 pounds, the board was “too heavy for you!” as Kanuha remarked.
On a waist-to-shoulder-high day on a borrowed board, I attempted to line up inside of a coral head, playing it safe while triangulating the unfamiliar reef. Kanuha paddled past me, and swung the trunk towards shore for a set wave. Wheeling around, the plank plunged itself straight towards the reef like a missile, and I ducked, half expecting its stern to break a few limbs as it shot up towards the sky.
Then something special happened. Surfer and board emerged from the trough of the wave, with Kanuha fully erect on the back six inches of the board and cleanly navigating the shoulder-high face. An underwater bottom turn.
As we dried off, Kanuha told me about the board he’d just surfed on. “As my dad was getting sicker, he kept asking me about this board, when I was going to finish it. It was hard for all of us then. One day I just went at it, attacked the thing; did that instead of going out and punching someone.” His demeanor slowed. “He passed away a year and a half ago, just before I finished it,” he said. “Maybe you should keep it,” I replied, looking down at a yellow tail pad half destroyed by melted surf wax. “Nah. My dad wasn’t materialistic, and I’m trying not to be. Just gotta find the right buyer I guess.” And then, for the first time since meeting him 18 hours ago, he got quiet. “It’s just a board, man. There’s always more. Sometimes you gotta let things go.”
As the heat rose up from the road, we looked out on the water in the afterglow of a mid-day surf session, an impermanent act of escape. I stared out towards the lineup and saw several local kids bobbing in the sea, quietly waiting for an un-seeable energy born thousands of miles away in wind and celestial forces to rise up, crest and meet them. Then a boy caught a wave, and with admirable skill and apparent unconsciousness of danger, he impetuously dashed towards the shore.