Following the spoor with self-made surfer, shaper, and traveler Sam Yoon.
By Luke Kennedy
Light / Dark
It was a Monday morning in the winter of 2013 when Sam Yoon received a message from Hawaiian big-wave surfer and shaper Lyle Carlson. Yoon recalls the note for its economical use of language: “Jaws. Friday.”
At the time, Yoon and his family—his wife, Ecco, 5-year-old daughter, Moana, and 2-year-old son, Reno—were on Kauai. With its variety of setups, lush surroundings, and dense population of engaged wave-riders, the island had become something of a second home for the Yoons. They were living out of a van, which allowed Yoon to make nimble responses to swells hitting Kauai’s reef-strewn corners.
He immediately drove to the west side of the island to purchase tickets to Maui. There, he ran into Pipeline pioneer John Peck, who offered a warning: “Sam, you have a beautiful family. You don’t need to go. Surf big waves over here. Surfing Jaws is for adrenaline junkies—all meaningless.”
Peck’s words carried weight, but Yoon also knew of Peck’s own hedonistic heyday, surfing giant Waimea by moonlight after consuming large quantities of mind-hacking substances. After returning to base camp, Yoon ran into Felipe Pomar, the 1965 world champ from Peru who’d moved to Kauai later in life to chase big waves.
“He was the opposite,” Yoon says in a mellifluous accent that somehow folds his Korean heritage into Australian twang and Hawaiian pidgin. “The first thing he said was, ‘Congratulations! Go and enjoy it.’”
It was with these contradicting voices swirling in his head that he boarded the plane to Maui two days later, family in tow and with a single board—a flat-rockered teardrop 9’6″ single-fin he’d shaped specifically for Jaws. Upon landing, he rented a van to serve as the family’s moveable home for the coming days. He then found himself at lunch with Carlson and a handful of frontline big-wave riders, including Aaron Gold, Kala Alexander, and Ben Wilkinson, a setting that only reaffirmed Yoon’s feeling of uncertainty about tackling Jaws for the first time. Still, he did his best to embrace the anticipation while gleaning as much useful information as possible.
Eventually, the Yoons retreated to the home of Victor Lopez, to whom they’d been connected through fabled surf photographer Denjiro Sato. While Lopez had never been deified like his brother, Gerry, he offered a relatable counterpoint for Yoon as a family man and a natural-footer with Pe‘ahi experience. Lopez encouraged Yoon to handle one of Gerry’s boards made for Pe‘ahi, which Yoon nervously bounced off the roof—twice. Lopez then offered Yoon some advice: “Everybody’s nervous when they come to surf Jaws. But remember, it’s only surfing.”
Yoon arrived at the Pe‘ahi rivermouth before sunup the next morning. He rejected offers of a boat ride out to the lineup, a breach of his personal code. “I wanted to jump off from the rocks and do it from scratch,” he says. “To me, surfing is to get out and come back in.”
So he scurried down the cliff in the half-light, feeling the violent rumble of the ocean as it crashed into the boulders, and tossed himself into the unknown before he could lose his nerve.
Yoon’s father ran a successful car-wrecking business in South Korea, but was convinced a better life beckoned on the sun-kissed shores of Australia. The family landed in Sydney in the late 1980s. Yoon was 11.
He attended school at Turramurra High in the city’s leafy northern suburbs. A tossed pearl of wisdom from a geography teacher became the most important thing he took from his education: “She said to us, ‘Go travel around the world, but travel Australia, too.’” He also mentions another epiphanous moment from his youth: “When I got my driver’s license, I started to notice all the traffic lights in Sydney. I thought about how many hours I was going to spend in my life waiting for them to go green.”
In 1993, at 16, Yoon left Sydney for the Gold Coast. After landing a job at a duty-free shop in Surfers Paradise, he fell in with a group of surf-mad Japanese. Their obsession was new to him and infectious. Yoon took to surfing almost immediately and was soon palming $50 to one of his new friends for a 6’3″ Christian Fletcher model. It wasn’t long before he was doing four rounds a day. Six months later, he was on a plane to Indonesia, the beginning of a decade-long odyssey.
After another overseas trip, to Korea to explore his roots, Yoon returned to the Gold Coast and resigned from his job. He’d decided to take his teacher’s advice and explore Australia before adding more stamps to his passport. It was around this time that he met Ecco, who shared his restlessness. They bought a car and set about traversing Australia’s coasts.
Years of in-country travels culminated in a trip to Cactus, the fabled zone surrounded by nothing but the red earth of the South Australia desert. “It’s an off-road track to get to the beach, and then you see the lines,” he says. “It was maybe a 18-second period, and 14 foot. Cactus was almost too big. Caves, the wave right out front, was real proper.” Yoon and Ecco surfed and fished for days on end. At night, they shared food with fellow travelers around giant fires, sitting and talking on used couches that had been hauled into the campsite. They slept to the sound of the offshore winds that would groom the swell by the time they woke. Perhaps most importantly, Cactus provided Yoon with a frame of reference against which his forthcoming trips might be measured. He was thus fully liberated to submit to wider searching.
The couple soon found themselves in Japan, Yoon on the volcanic island of Hachijō-jima while Ecco visited her family in the north of the country. He spent a month tackling the island’s various reefs, trying and succeeding in accelerating his learning curve in the water. On the island, he met a Japanese surfer named Sakamoto. “He said, ‘I want to enhance your surfing life by teaching you yoga,’” Yoon relays.
Yoon learned that Sakamoto had his own surfboard brand in the 1970s, called Pipeline, and that Gerry Lopez had spent time practicing yoga with Sakamoto in Hachijō-jima. Sakamoto’s tutelage came to underpin Yoon’s own surfing and shaping philosophy.
Needing to finance his and his wife’s travels, Yoon went to work on a trawler after baby kingfish, which set the couple up for their next leg: Sumbawa, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. By the time they landed in San Diego in 2000, they had $400 between them. Yoon worked three jobs: at a Korean restaurant by day, a drive-by supermarket in the evenings, and a karaoke bar at night, which often finished with 2 a.m. drop-offs of drunk patrons. Meanwhile, his free time was spent chasing waves at Black’s.
In 2001, they left California and returned to Japan, to the Amami Islands in the nation’s southwest corner. They arrived on September 11 and, in the wake of the tragedy playing out in New York, spent six months in retreat, deciphering the region’s dozens of high-quality breaks.
Throughout this period, Yoon would often meet local shapers, and he began cultivating an interest in design. “I was asking shapers and glassers one question each time: ‘What makes a good board for you?’” he says.
During that second trip to Japan, Yoon was working in a hotel in Wakayama when a friend he’d met in the Maldives named Mr. Ito tracked him down. They drove in Mr. Ito’s Porsche to meet with an underground shaper named Mr. Fuji in a mountainside shaping bay for Yoon to make his first board. Despite his inexperience, Yoon was determined to make it from start to finish himself. “Mr. Fuji showed me how to use the tools,” says Yoon. “It took me three days to do everything.” At the end of the experiment, he had a 6’1″ squash-tail thruster inspired by a Greg Clough Aloha shape, which he gave to Ecco to ride.
Their next destination was South Africa. They rented a house at 1 Pepper Street overlooking the lineup at J-Bay and became disciples of the wave for two months. Yoon fell in with Tony “Doc” Van Den Heuvel, the folkloric figure who’d been one of the wave’s pioneers in the early 60s and been living in the dunes since the early 70s. Imbued with a respect for trailblazers, Yoon drank in the history and took pointers on how best to ride each different section of Jeffreys. Between surfs, they found plenty of time for telling tales and smoking chillums.
“He had one finger missing, and the chillum would fit right in that missing finger [space],” says Yoon. “Even though his family disassociated with him, he still lived his dream. He was born a surfer and died a surfer.”
Flying east across the Indian Ocean, Yoon and Ecco scored Mauritius’ Tamarin Bay and Réunion’s Saint-Leu on stopovers before landing in Western Australia. They bought a van in Perth and beelined it three and a half hours south to Margaret River. The same swell that had flexed at Tamarin was tossing 12-foot chunks at a Margaret River bombie. Naive about the spot but high on confidence, Yoon bolted out and paddled into a couple of 10-footers by himself.
The next day, the local store clerk told him, “You should’ve been here yesterday. There was one guy out early and he got the best wave of the whole swell.”
The duo were once again skint upon arriving back in Australia. When their van broke down outside the local supermarket in Margaret River, Yoon set up a massage table while Ecco made and sold jewelry. Then, as often seems to happen in Yoon’s life, he was struck by another transformative experience.
“One morning, I get up early,” he says, “and I see a guy moving in the dark like a working bee. Then, the next day, he comes again, and he’s doing the same thing. I went up to him and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m a cleaner.’ And that was my life’s turning point. The most important thing was to be a cleaner.”
Yoon’s new boss, Mike, paid him well and even provided a place to stay. Yoon learned to mix the chemicals, use the machinery, and work diligently cleaning malls, youth centers, council chambers, and public toilets. Philosophically, he liked the concept of cleaning: “You wake up in the morning and work when everybody’s sleeping, and your work is to make daytime people happier and more hygienic.” Plus, as a surfer, he felt like he’d discovered the holy grail of working nights and surfing days.
Yoon and Ecco spent their free time roaming Western Australia, often surfing with underground charger Geoff “Camel” Goulden. Yoon’s appetite for heavier waves was growing. But by the time he and Ecco left Australia again, to visit Kauai, he’d lost interest in thrusters. Fortunately, there were plenty of Kauai locals willing to feed his craving for new sensations. During their stay, a committed disciple of Steve Lis urged Yoon to try a twin-keel fish.
“When I started riding the fish,” he says, “that’s what really triggered what I wanted to shape and ride. All the visions were coming.”
Yoon was instantly drawn to the design’s flat entry rocker and capacity to glide over fat sections, but he was soon dreaming of something that felt anathema to the classic fish design, which he’d been told should not exceed 5’11” in length.
“That was the beginning of Flying Soul surfboards,” Yoon says of his label. “I wanted to make a fish that is outside the rules of the fish cult in California. I really wanted to push the boundaries and make a fish that’s monstrous.”
Yoon and Ecco returned to the Gold Coast in 2003. After a decade on the road, they were ready to find a house, tend a garden, and start a family. Yoon was also desperate to build his own shaping bay. They had about $500 to their name, so he printed flyers advertising his cleaning skills and dropped them at every shop between Southport and Coolangatta. Soon they had a couple of solid contracts, including the chambers of a local politician.
“The first two years,” he says, “I never had one day off. To build something, you have to commit. But I was still surfing every day.”
Between working and surfing, Yoon made himself a 9’5″ single-fin and 9’1″ fish he dubbed the Moana Hana Fish. It was 21 ½ inches wide and 3 ½ inches thick, with a flat entry rocker and a double-foiled twin-fin that replicated yet modified Lis’ proven concept. Eager to test the boards in waves of consequence, he returned to Kauai, camped out, and made runs to Hanalei Bay when the waves turned on.
While there, through Alekai Kinimaka, brother of Titus, Yoon met Lis. The shaper was happy to indulge Yoon’s curiosity about his revolutionary design. On return trips, Yoon would regularly borrow boards Lis had made. Once Yoon had ridden each of the loaners, he and Lis would discuss the principles behind them. Then Yoon would use the knowledge to inform his own shaping evolution.
He speaks glowingly about Lis handing him a five-fin board: “It was hard for me to ride at the start. Then I had a really good session on it. I said to him, ‘It went good when my mind stopped thinking about how many fins there were.’ He gave me the look saying, ‘That’s the answer.’”
As Yoon refined his craft, new testing grounds were added to his list: Ireland, Miyazaki, Tasmania, Outside Corner Uluwatu, the Mentawais. He also developed a scaled-back 7’10” version of the Moana Hana, known simply as the Moana. It worked in a range of conditions and proved to be functional as a one-board traveling quiver.
Back on the Gold Coast, he rode his super-size fishes along the throttling points where cultural primacy belonged to ambitious shortboarders. “They used to laugh at me,” he says about the response to his craft at Snapper Rocks and Kirra.
His high-volume act did catch the attention of filmmaker and surfer Andrew Kidman, however. After they met during a session at an outer bombie on the east coast, Kidman took a photo of Yoon surfing and submitted it with a story to a Japanese surf magazine. To conceal the location of the spot, Kidman flipped the photo. The covert initiative impressed Yoon, and the two became close.
While in Hawaii working on Kidman’s film Spirit of Akasha, in which Yoon has a cameo, he was introduced to Lyle Carlson. In a scene where many surfers seemed content to ape the highly publicized pros, Carlson was drawn to Yoon’s defiantly individualistic approach.
“There’s not very many left who do their own thing in surfing,” says Carlson. “It’s a funny deal, because he’s not a pro surfer and he’s not in with the cool guys—yet he definitely charges.”
It was that connection that sowed the seeds for the ultimate test of Yoon’s surfing and shaping endeavors.
Back in the winter of 2013, when Yoon made it out into the Jaws lineup on that Thursday morning, there was only one other surfer out. It was 15 to 20 feet, with 25-foot sets. Light offshores clawed at the swell. Yoon waited patiently. Eventually, sensing he was in the right position, he swung on a smaller wave.
“You know old TVs?” he says, describing the drop. “It starts with a buzz, then everything comes into focus. I put my head down, and then when I took off I couldn’t really see where I was going. Everything was white. Maybe it was the offshore wind. As I’m knifing my rail down the slope, I see the biggest fuckin’ wall. I still have a way to go down, lots of room—the highest mountain I’m standing on. And my board felt just like it’s meant to be surfed.”
Yoon’s second ride was the opposite scenario. After taking off too deep, he got squeezed between converging sections. “The North Peak and the West Bowl, they come together and collapse, which makes the worst impact zone you can imagine,” he says. “I got annihilated on a 25-footer. But that was maybe one of the best things that happened that day. I got to experience a good wipeout and be part of the wave a bit more. The fear gets less.”
There was further endorsement for the ill-fated ride when Liam McNamara beckoned Yoon over to his ski and insisted on shaking his hand. Determined to get it right, Yoon waited more than an hour for his next wave. After riding it to the channel, and with more bodies appearing in the lineup, he decided it had been a successful first outing.
Carlson, who dodged the crowds and surfed in the afternoon, is quick to point out it was genuinely heavy Pe‘ahi: “Those days when Sam came, it’s in that realm where you could probably have a better session towing, because there were lots of rogue sets—big, fast, moving like Pipeline.”
The next day, which was originally forecast to be the swell’s peak, the surf dropped. While most surfers elected to rest, Yoon paddled seven more waves in the 15- to 20-foot range.
Then the swell pulsed again to 20 to 25 feet, with the odd 30-footer, the following morning. Yoon found that the light winds made the wave more accessible, and he joined a decorated cast of big-wave specialists in the lineup.
In a highly competitive pack, he wrangled two early rides he was pleased with. As he plummeted down the face on his third wave, he realized Grant “Twiggy” Baker had taken off outside of him, likely unaware of Yoon’s presence.
Pushed deeper, Yoon tried to pull in, but was ultimately swallowed. “When things like that happen at Jaws, it gets really violent,” he says. “My board flipped and I got a fin chop on my foot.”
The deep gash forced Yoon out of the water and required several stitches. Despite the premature conclusion, he was content with his three-day attempt at Pe‘ahi, where he’d ridden a total of 13 waves.
“Jaws is the ultimate big wave,” Carlson says on what the run meant for Yoon as a surfer-shaper. “If you can rock up to Jaws and get a huge wave on one of your boards, that proves you as a shaper—that you can shape it and then ride it.”
In the decade since his inaugural Jaws session, Yoon’s remained vigilant in his pursuit of improved performance and design. Meanwhile, board tastes at the Coolangatta points have become more disparate, mids and super-size fishes offering speed on the stretched walls and when paddling against the sweep. Yoon sees his 7’10” Moana Hana Fish as the ultimate all-around craft for such conditions.
“People say, ‘I want to be able to paddle in on a 2-foot day, but surf like it’s a 6-foot day. I want something that works when it’s 10 foot. I want something that works in the barrel, and when it’s kind of flat.’ The Hana fish will do all that,” he says.
These days, Yoon and his craft get plenty of respect at the points. “He’s held in high regard,” says local photographer Simon Williams. “If someone drops in on him, the boys will blow up. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone ride a big twin-fin out there as well as him.”
While Yoon is absorbed by the process of hand-shaping his Flying Soul boards, he’s reluctant to make more than 30 per year. Anything beyond that, he says, would infringe on his surfing and family time. He goes to pains to point out that his devotion to surfing would not be possible without the backing of his wife and kids. “They give me endless courage and support,” he insists.
More boards might also mean becoming entangled in the machinations of the surf industry.
“I don’t want to do any deals with the shops,” he says. “I want to make my money somewhere else. Surfing is just for joy.”
As Carlson observes, “There’s something about Yoon. He’s really living in the moment. Not too far ahead, not too far in the past.”
His independent outlook also means he’s free to experiment. “I want to make something that nobody has tried before,” he says, “something different and unique. Something that’s just ridiculous.”
He jokes that his latest boards are like rhinos: built thick and wide, deconstructing the original concept of the rhino chaser.
“I’m the rhino,” he says. “I’m the one who fucking runs.”
[Feature Photo: Cowboy pooling at home in Tugun Beach. Photo by Andrew Kidman.]