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Corey Colapinto’s circuitous path through surfing’s past, present, and future.
By Richard Kenvin
Light / Dark
Corey Colapinto’s online presence is indicative and revealing of the state of surfing—and its expression in media—as it’s evolving in real time under twenty-first-century terms. The 25-year-old surfer-shaper from San Clemente is known in the wider world through his Instagram feed, @kookapinto, which features some of the most creative and inspirational small-wave surfing ever to grace a screen, big or small.
Curated portals to the past are wide open. Curated portals to the present are wider still. Through these digital openings the future seems to rush at us. Within these realms, Colapinto hosts and occupies a place full of subtle and authentic positivity. A space for family, friends, music, nature, spirituality, surfboards, and surfing. His realm cuts through the noise and cynicism to remind us why we love surfing in the first place, compelling us to stop scrolling, get off the app, turn off our phones, and go ride waves. It also blends eras and bridges generations.
“Your surfing reminds me of Wayne Lynch back in the Shortboard Revolution era,” wrote Ian Cairns, the legendary power surfer and one of the most highly accomplished surfers of his own generation, in a comment on a video posted on Colapinto’s Instagram on July 27, 2022. “There’s no higher praise than that.”
Like most surfers of his day, Cairns came up under the influence of Lynch’s surfing in the film Evolution, Paul Witzig’s classic late ’60s documentation of the shortboard revolution in Australia. Lynch was only 16 in the film, but his surfing was among the most radical, progressive, and mature to emerge from the new movement.
As a boy in the mid ’60s, Lynch was a phenomenal longboarder, almost unbeatable in competition. By 1968, however, he was breaking away from the longboard era, sketching out a vision for the future of high-performance surfing, as his segment in Evolution clearly shows, with the exception of one ride: On a tiny left, Lynch puts progression on hold and rides his paradigm-busting shortboard in the classic logging style. He fades and pivots deep off the bottom, trimming and cross-stepping to the nose and back—graceful, poised—until the wave is so tiny it vanishes, spent, on the sand. Looking back on this ride half a century later, it seems a poignant gesture. Young Wayne Lynch, the kid who “killed longboarding” and grew up to be the “Father of Vertical Surfing,” takes one last stroll to the nose, paying his respects to the old style before getting on with the new.
Colapinto pays his respects to the old style too, though his journey has been the opposite of Lynch’s. Like many others of his generation, he bounced from the high-performance shortboard scene Lynch had helped instigate to the log style Lynch left behind. Rather than settle into the status quo of either, though, he’s found ways to combine the best of both in his surfing.
The clip that caught Cairns’ eye is a good example. The board Colapinto rides is a self-shaped 7’2″ with ample width and a full, rounded nose. Seen in motion, it invokes a nostalgic comparison to late ’60s and early ’70s stubbie and egg surfing. From afar, the board could be mistaken for a popular present-day mid-length egg with a typical single or two-plus-one fin setup. But a closer look reveals it to be hardly conventional: It’s barely 1.8 inches thick. The nose has downrails and low rocker. The tail is a wide, but slightly pulled, fish swallow with plenty of planing surface. All of it steered not by a raked single fin, but by a pair of twins out on the rail. None of these details are noticeable in the clip. What is noticeable is the board’s performance: It’s flying.
Aided by dual fins and the aforementioned innovations, Colapinto carves, trims, and cross-steps to the nose and back, blending time and technique with hypnotic flow and nimble quickness. His approach is vintage elegance meets speed and progression, an archetypal style in the making with elements drawn from classic surfing of every era. It’s unchoreographed, fluid, and spontaneous surfing from tip to tail, rail to rail, and all points in between.
Cairns’ comparison is appropriate. And, like Lynch, Colapinto, following in the footsteps of his influences and mentors, has emerged as a leader in a new school of surfing that is grounded in the past, evolving in the present, and scripting the future.
An ocean-centric lifestyle is prevalent throughout the extended Colapinto family. Corey’s maternal grandfather, Dennis Devaney, was a PhD in marine zoology and surfed during the balsa era in California and Hawaii. Corey’s dad, Matt Colapinto, is the middle of three brothers who grew up in Malibu and San Clemente in the ’70s and ’80s. Matt’s older brother, Mike, was the first to learn to surf. Matt and his younger brother, Mitch, soon followed.
Colapinto was born to Matt and his wife, Denise, on Oahu in 1997. The family moved back to San Clemente soon afterward; there, Matt and Mitch took up remarkably parallel life and career paths as lifeguards and elementary school teachers. The parallels deepened when both brothers and their wives founded surf camps in San Clemente—Mitch and Camille at Poche, and Matt and Denise at T-Street. Shortly thereafter, Mitch and Camille had two sons, Griffin and Crosby.
“When we were little kids, me, [my sister] Kayla, and my cousins Griffin and Crosby would trade off going to each other’s dad’s surf camps,” Colapinto recalls. “We’d go surfing on soft tops every day. But I didn’t get seriously into surfing until I was 10, when Griffin started getting really good at shortboarding. I was still kinda cruising on a 7-footer, but Griffin inspired me. So I got my own little shortboard and started surfing with him a lot.”
From the camp at T-Street to the lineup at Lowers, the Colapinto cousins weren’t living sheltered lives in terms of exposure to state-of-the- art surfing. They were swept into the high-performance fast lane, going from wide-eyed groms on soft tops to up-and-coming players in one of the most competitive and talented surf scenes on the planet. NSSA contests groomed them into highly skilled surfers. Griffin excelled in competition, winning consistently, with the younger Crosby following quickly on his heels. “I was never that good,” Colapinto says of his shortboard competition years. “But I’d make a final every now and then, and I learned some cool tricks, like airs.”
Around 2012, the cousins hit a fork in the road on their surfing journey. Griffin and Crosby continued on a high-performance trajectory of meteoric velocity, winning multiple national titles before exiting the amateur ranks and successfully launching professional competitive careers. Meanwhile, Corey pulled out of the Lowers fast lane, taking a slower road that led him somewhere close to home, but worlds away: San Onofre. He had been coming to San Onofre with his family for most of his life, but the place didn’t necessarily motivate him as a surfer. When he got into high school, though, he realized that he didn’t have the temperament for the Lowers and NSSA scenes. In fact, he was losing interest in riding waves, period.
“By the time I was 15, I wasn’t having that much fun,” he says. “I didn’t want to hassle for waves on a shortboard anymore. The crowds were really tough, and I was burned out on the contests. I was trying to figure life out, focusing on other things.”
His father, on the other hand, was as stoked on surfing as ever, competing in the lifeguard association longboard contests and riding his log at San Onofre whenever he had the chance. “I saw him going to surf San Onofre a lot when it was just, like, 2 to 3 feet, frothing like a grom,” Corey says. “He was packing up a longboard and going down there, and sometimes he’d invite me to come with him. I always thought, Naw, that sounds so boring. But eventually I decided, Whatever, I’ll go. So I went down to San Onofre with him and he put me on his noserider and we surfed Old Man’s. I ended up having so much fun trying something new and learning how to noseride. I got back into surfing, in a completely different way, because of my dad.”
Colapinto launched his Instagram page, @kookapinto, in 2013, just as he began his new trajectory. His first post is a pair of freshly speared halibut resting on the tailgate of his dad’s truck, followed by pictures of surfboards: a noserider, a blank in a garage with an asymmetric tail template traced out on it, a pair of noseriders with the caption “logarithmic.” There’s a picture of pint-sized Griffin playing poker. It’s a loosely chronological document of Colapinto’s experiences, a digital book that tells a story. In the coming years the “shared” component of social media would enhance and accelerate his interactions and influences.
In 2015, for example, he produced and edited a short film that he uploaded to Vimeo. Titled FinFinite, it’s a playful showcase of his teenage surf and design explorations with Ryan Burch and Tommy Witt. (It’s also a very well-crafted and polished film, an early example of his talent and ability to express himself through video, editing, and music.)
As evident in the film, Burch and Witt have played important roles in Colapinto’s evolution as a surfer and, eventually, as a designer and shaper. Both are exceptionally gifted longboarders, but they also exist outside of a “traditional” logging box, where Colapinto is too. All three have a uniquely progressive and versatile approach to surfing that is built on a foundation of classic style. Their techniques and design choices complement each other as they continually find new ways to have fun in whatever waves are at hand. Being open to new designs and sensations adds a deeper dimension of creative freshness and unpredictability to their surfing. Colapinto also spent time with surfer-shapers Tyler Warren, Christian Wach, Ryan Engle, CJ Nelson, Donald Brink, Jon Wegener, Matt Parker, Josh Martin, Roger Hinds, and others. All have shared boards, surf sessions, and feedback with Colapinto.
By 2018, Colapinto had grown to become an extraordinarily versatile surfer. He could jump from a 10’6″ Takayama log to a 5’0″ fish to a 3’10” foil board in the same session and shred them all with equal aplomb. This multifaceted approach led him to develop and explore an unusual mix of design concepts. He credits two boards in particular as being sources of inspiration. The first was a Takayama Stone Steps model that he watched Burch ride in 2014. “Ryan had this 7-foot board with a super-bulbous downrail nose. It was a single-fin, and he would noseride it so well,” Colapinto says. “He’d get so much planing speed off the front of the board, flying through mushy little sections, cross-stepping, flowing, and noseriding. I thought, That’s like surfing in a dream right there. The only drawback was the pulled tail and single fin tended to slow the board down.”
That led him to the second influential board: a 5’1″ fish Burch made, which Colapinto describes as “super magic.” The Burch fish and the Takayama were two sides of the same coin. The Takayama had the downrail sweet spot on the nose, and the little Burch fish was a sweet spot right under both feet with limitless planing speed.
“I wanted that wide twin-fin fishtail that planes so well combined with a low-rocker downrail nose,” Colapinto says. “Then I’d have multiple ways to generate speed on a 7-foot board, which would help take my surfing in the direction I wanted to go. I’d have a wide tail for speed and turning, but I’d also be able to cross-step to the nose, or even just to the middle of the board, and lock into trim and glide even faster. The funnest part of surfing is having a lot of speed—even if you happen to find that speed on a mushy wave that no one else wants.”
In 2017, Colapinto collaborated with venerable shaper Josh Martin to put his ideas into practice. Martin shaped a 7’11” fish using Colapinto’s input for guidance. It was a “stretched” version of the little Burch fish combined with a downrailed and low-rocker nose.
After Martin shaped it up, he also received a “super magic” rating from Colapinto. The long-fish noserider was a successful attempt at genre blending. So began a two-year process that ultimately led to Martin helping teach Colapinto to design and shape his own boards. The first was a 7-foot twin with a wide squaretail and sharp downrails all the way through to the nose. It ended up being a favorite, achieving Colapinto’s goals of speed, planing, trimming, turning, and, of course, noseriding.
In 2019, not long after shaping his first board, Colapinto took a fall on a small wave. When he surfaced, his fins hit him in the back of the head. The impact aggravated skating and snowboarding concussions he’d suffered years earlier. The result was chronic, debilitating headaches brought on by routine activities like paddling through whitewater or chop. Falling off and hitting the water while surfing was extremely painful. For a year after the accident, he barely surfed.
The following year he surfed a little more, cautiously. He chose his sessions carefully, surfing only on small, glassy days. He stopped riding thick, heavy longboards, to minimize risk. Instead, he shaped himself a series of thinner and thinner boards of various lengths. Most of them were dual-fins. He called his new designs “thin twins.”
They allowed for smooth and soothing surfing. He shaped downrail noses into his thin twins for noseriding, blending them into tails that were wide enough to function with two fins. From one thin twin to the next, he evolved his surfing style and technique, blending elegant cross-stepping and noseriding with effortless trim and glide off the midsection, flowing seamlessly into smooth carves and snappy turns off the tail. His dream of combining the “bulbous downrail nose” of the old Takayama with the speed and turning of a fish was being realized, in spite of the setbacks from his accident and in many ways because of it.
At the heart of Colapinto’s thin-twin design is a space as whimsically inventive and convivial as San Onofre itself: the Chicken Coop Shaping Shack. The Coop is a rustic wooden henhouse hidden at the bottom of a palm-shaded arroyo in local surfer Tim Baker’s backyard. At one point, Baker and Colapinto had had some conversations on the beach at Sano about Colapinto’s shaping aspirations and life path. Then, in 2019, Baker offered Colapinto permission to convert part of his henhouse into a shaping room.
Colapinto got to work and, with help from Baker, turned the coop into a tidy little shaping space. The rest of the yard remains a place for hens to lay eggs. Edible eggs have been laid at the Coop for about 10 years; surfable eggs have been shaped there for about three. A growing number of local kids have shaped their first board at the Coop, no experience required.
Colapinto, Witt, Ian Gottron, Mike Murphy, and Jimmy Thompson form a loose-knit group of @kookapinto-affiliated surfer-shapers who pass through the Coop to shape up their next concept. All of them exemplify the @kookapinto thin-twin consciousness by blending genres in their surfing. The process is often documented, casually, from the shaping stage at the Coop to the board in action under the feet of the crew down at San Onofre or Lowers. Glassing shops in town, like Basham’s and Brawner, make space in their established workflow to glass and sand the Coop creations. Riders and shapers are interchangeable. The design threads evolve and the stories continue with each board that comes out of the Coop’s doors.
Today, Colapinto is almost free of the headaches. He’s getting deeper into shaping, focusing on evolving his thin-twin designs. His DIY videography skills have evolved alongside his musicianship, shaping, and surfing. Again, it hasn’t been a solo operation. Colapinto is behind the camera filming his friends and family almost as often as he is in front of it being filmed by them. Colapinto’s wife, Heidi, surfer-musician Murphy, and the rest of the crew all contribute—whether filming, surfing, shaping, or making music.
The San Onofre zone is so metaphorically rich and loaded with contrasts that even a superficial analysis will quickly reach levels of Dadaist absurdity. But all of it is real, all of it happens from one day to the next, contradictions side by side in a swirl of somehow tranquil, autonomous anarchy. Down on the beach, multigenerational family traditions abide, as do careless summer debaucheries among fast friends. Little kids play in the surf while great whites cruise the lineup. The sharks are a fixture, their presence accepted as something that comes with the territory at San Onofre, like the long lines at the entrance gate or the radioactive waste lurking unseen at the decommissioned nuclear power plant. Everyone knows they’re there. Everyone keeps coming back. Everyone keeps having fun.
Surfing thrived at San Onofre during the finless-plank era of the 1930s and ’40s. Pete Peterson, Whitey Harrison, Peanuts Larson, Gard Chapin, Woody Ekstrom, and others sped across the waves at an angle, gaining incredible momentum on flat, wide, very heavy planks. By dragging a foot to “steer,” they could make surprisingly tight direction changes. The Waikiki-like summer waves of San Onofre were ideal for finless planks.
They are ideal for Colapinto, too. The wide, soft peaks start far out to sea, tapering and shifting across the cobblestone reef. Colapinto’s boards and riding style are perfectly tuned to the quirky rhythms of the break. The entire @kookapinto crew can crisscross and traverse acres of aquatic terrain on a single waist-high wave. They are as connected to the plank-and-balsa era as they are to the age of foam, adding yet another layer to San Onofre history—a history peopled with names like Craig, Murphy, Chapin, Patterson, Larson, Simmons, Kahanamoku, Quigg, Peterson, Dora, Trent, Ekstrom, Edwards, Paskowitz, Harrison, and many more.
In the winter of 2021, Griffin Colapinto came through the Coop to shape his very first board. Corey walked him through the process. Griffin and his brother, Crosby, had just spent two months at Backdoor and Pipe, surfing with skill and bravado far beyond their years. At Corey’s suggestion they drew out a template for a 5’4″ asymmetric twin on a blank he’d selected at Basham’s. As they worked, and as the shaping process was documented for eventual upload, the banter between the cousins was free of pretense or conceit. No awkward self-consciousness—just blood relations with the deepest of roots, who don’t see each other much now that they’re adults, clearly glad for each other’s company.
A few weeks passed before Griffin’s board was glassed at Basham’s. Then Griffin and Crosby met Corey with the new board down at T-Street. The waves were fun. Griffin paddled out to catch his first rides on his first self-shape. Crosby joined him on another little asym that Corey had shaped. Corey also paddled out on a board he’d made.
Griffin and Crosby carved and sliced with ease on the asyms, the performance aspect of their surfing toned down a notch but flow and speed turned up a bit, blazing through twenty-first-century turns. The boards worked well. Corey’s board was longer, and once again he evoked young Lynch but faster, crisper, with flow to spare. It was a light and easy shred session at the local beach among family.
But given the extraordinary level of talent expressed in so many ways, one could be forgiven for reading a bit more into it. Nature? Nurture? Privilege? The circumstances of their situation are such that it would be easy to conclude that they couldn’t have been anything less than amazing surfers. Corey and his cousins were born into a family of water folk: fishermen, marine biologists, boat captains, swimmers, divers, lifeguards, and teachers. Teachers who love to surf and to share surfing with others. But the unique creativity and individualistic self-expression in Corey’s surfing and in the boards he makes are his alone. And he’s deeply aware that he is also a part of, and in many ways the result of, something bigger than himself.
In the spring of 1967, in the aftermath of Nat Young’s victory at the 1966 World Contest in San Diego, Surfer magazine published two pieces on the state of surfing: “The High Performers” by Bill Cleary and “We’re Tops Now” by John Witzig. Cleary’s piece was a gushing ode to the elegant logging of David Nuuhiwa. Witzig’s was an aggressive rebuttal insisting the emerging shortboard power school made logging irrelevant. It was a bitter feud, an us versus them, shortboard versus longboard, noseriding versus power surfing battle played out on the printed page.
“What is the future?” pondered Witzig at the end of “We’re Tops Now.” “What of tomorrow?” asked Cleary at the conclusion of “The High Performers.” Sixty-plus years later, Colapinto and his generation have answered those questions.