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Going Above Ground

Johnny Cabianca takes an old-school approach to the cutting edge of surfing.

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“This year, Gabriel Medina is going to work with his body differently for each event,” says the two-time champion’s longtime shaper Johnny Cabianca, “and I will change his boards to match. For Snapper, he wants to be ten pounds lighter than for Margaret River. I’ll keep the foils and rockers the same on his two signature models, but adjust the volume and rails when I receive new data.”

The Brazilian-born, Basque-based Cabianca grew up surfing in Maresias with Medina’s mom, Simone, and stepfather, Charlie, and shaped Medina’s first surfboard when he was just 4 years old. Cabianca left Brazil in 2000 to shape in Spain, eventually going to work for the Pukas label. When Medina arrived in France for the first time in 2009, Charlie Medina ordered boards from Cabianca for his son, then 14 years old. In that year’s King of the Groms final, held at Seignosse, Medina announced himself to the world by winning with a pair of perfect tens. In the decade since, the partnership has resulted in 14 world tour wins and two world titles.

Yet Cabianca remains oddly underground. Almost every world champion has had the common denominator of a long-term surfer-shaper relationship. However, the Medina-Cabianca partnership has garnered far less recognition than those like Florence and Pyzel, Moore and Biolos, Slater and Merrick, Parkinson and JS, or Fanning and Handley.

For all the name brands flogging their performance tech, one of the most advanced surfers on the the planet, Gabriel Medina (above), prefers sleds made by a shaper you’ve probably never heard of. Photograph by Matt King/Getty Images.

“It’s something I analyze every day,” says Cabianca, who set up his own label and Zarautz factory in 2015 with local shaper Mikel Agote. “But I suppose the question is: Why does Gabby stick with me? The answer is that I put all my body and soul into his boards. And with our family history and personal connection, he just feels more comfortable on my shapes.”

Their relationship isn’t backed by any commercial contract or marketing budget. The Medinas and Cabianca have a handshake agreement, possibly the only such deal in professional surfing. Cabianca shapes ten boards for Medina for each WCT event, which equates to 120 a year, and no money is exchanged in either direction. Medina has had plenty of lucrative offers to jump shapers, but has always stuck to their deal.

In many ways, Cabianca is an old-school craftsman operating at the very edge of high-performance surfing. When he isn’t putting his time and energy into boards for Medina, he handcrafts shortboards, twin-fins, fun boards, big-wave guns, and retro designs for surfers of all levels from all over the world. He has no finishing shaper, instead overseeing all his boards from start to finish.

Cabianca’s humble nature, aversion to social media, and commitment to quality over quantity has held back his brand recognition. But that is slowly changing as he receives the overdue credit for making the preferred boards for one of the best surfers ever.

“I’m just trying to follow Gabriel’s progression with my own work,” says Cabianca. “I’m just hanging on for the ride. He doesn’t have any limits. We’ll see where he takes us all.”