“With all the agileness, timing and grace of a person half his size, coupled with the most advanced equipment, Ben’s dimensions give him a definite advantage out in the water. This, combined with his dedicated full-time participation and unlimited range in any and all surfing conditions certainly qualifies him, in my opinion, as deserving of almost any wave he wants (an often overlooked factor in the case of Surfer Joe, who thinks it’s his wave because he’s on the inside.) Burly Ben Aipa is moving rapidly ahead with still many good years to go. And so I leave you with this bit of advice: when you see him coming don’t think, just get out of the way.” —Gerry Lopez, Surfer magazine (issue 13.3, 1972)
When I last visited “Burly Ben Aipa” in his modest Honolulu shaping room he was just about to field a call from a “Surfer Joe.” The phone was resting on a nine-foot Sting longboard that had been laid out on the racks. Aipa, the Hawaiian master surfer/shaper, answered in an unassuming voice—he might have been the shop grom for all his earnestness of tone—saying simply, “Aipa Surfboards.”
For the next ten minutes he chatted with a customer from Jacksonville, Florida, (“Or somewhere back ’dere,” he whispered with a grin) who had called to give feedback on his new board. Ben listened patiently, offering a few insights on fin placement, before hanging up.
He turned to me and smiled, still appearing a formidable 74-year-old—the man who back in 1968 made me my first custom surfboard (matching green mini-guns for me and my dad, shaped out of the old Greg Noll shop on Waialae Avenue).
“It’s so rewarding,” he said. “And it just doesn’t stop. That was some guy who used to surf in the 60s. He wanted to get back into it so I made him a Sting longboard with a Hawaiian flag on the deck. And he’s stoked again.”
Before we were interrupted by the call we’d been talking about Ben’s role as a surf coach, having started so many years back mentoring the likes of Larry Bertlemann, Dane Kealoha, Mark Liddell, and Buttons Kaluhiokalani, and still working today with some of Hawaii’s top young competitors.
“I’m mostly there to watch, to observe,” he explained. “I’m not one of those guys who yells a lot. If they win or if they lose I don’t like to come up right away and tell them what they did right or wrong. I want them to sit and think about my tips. Think about their performance. I call it my stewing period. It’s like stew—always tastes better the next day.”
That’s not to say that Coach Aipa lacks passion. His dark eyes, deeply set now in the folds of skin that he says “make me look more Chinese every year,” still blaze when he recounts the 1984 World Titles and how, in response to what was generally regarded as extremely biased judging in favor of the US Mainland team, he employed what he still contends were “perfectly legal tactics.” These tactics consisted of a deliberate strategy of eliminating California surfers through interference.
“I sent Brian Kealauna out with instructions to drop in on every wave way up the beach, way behind the other surfers,” he recalls with a laugh. “Took out Brad Gerlach and Mike Parsons! I remember the yelling match with Ian and PT. I was so angry. But I wasn’t as bad as the French team. They were so pissed they all peed in a resin bucket and dumped it on the head judge.”
A knock on the door interrupts this story. Three Australian ladies—a mom and her two daughters in full tourist mode—sheepishly poke their sunburned faces into Aipa’s shop.
“Are you spending lots of money?” Ben asks. Yes they are. “Good,” laughs Ben. But as it turns out they’re here on a mission. The lady’s husband is a surfer back in Sydney and owns a 1978 Aipa Sting. He wanted his wife to drop by to tell its creator how much it has meant to him over the years. That’s it—just that message. Ben laughs even more at this, gets up to shoot some group photos and scrounges up a few vintage stickers and T-shirts for the ladies to bring back home. Then he gives them a tip on plate lunch and sends them on their way.
“Funny,” he says, sitting back down. “The Sting is the most famous surfboard in history. What other surfboard got its own cover?” He’s talking about the classic Surfer cover shot in the summer of 1975 featuring Mark Liddell and Buttons standing on the Kaisers breakwall—Aipa Stings prominently displayed.
“That was supposed to be a photo shoot with Steve Wilkings and Larry [Bertlemann] out at Kaisers,” says Ben. “But as usual Larry doesn’t show up. So Wilkings and I are paddling out and we see Mark and Buttons ready to jump off the wall. Wilkings had his camera in a housing but he points it anyway and Mark shoots a peace sign.” And one of the greatest—albeit serendipitous—marketing shots in surf history was created.
Ben is still shaking his head at the memory when the phone rings again.
“Aipa Surfboards. What? Oh, yeah, howzit going? No, no, it’s in the glass shop right now. Yeah. Tell you what, you buy me one ticket to the Mainland and I’ll deliver your board.”
He chats with the customer for another ten minutes before hanging up.
“The guy wanted ordered a mid-size Sting, wanted to know how it was going to work. But it was great—the guy didn’t call it a stinger.”
Ben looks though a neat pile of order forms, double-checking on the guy’s dimensions.
“This is what I do,” he says, as if marveling at his good fortune. He pulls another photo from a pile of papers. It’s a very famous photo, taken by A.R. Gurrey Jr. somewhere around the turn of the 20th century: a re-enactment featuring a loin-clothed Hawaiian man at Waikiki holding a short wooden alaia, dramatically posed with Diamond Head in the background. It’s one of Hawaii’s most popular postcards now.
“I went to a family picnic celebrating our great grandfather,” says Ben. “And I was looking at some old pictures, and there was this one of my great grandfather’s father-in-law. It was the guy in the famous photo, James Needles Gilman, my dad’s mother’s dad. So there’s my great-grandfather, standing there at Baby Queens, where I stood up and rode my first wave and he’s holding a surfboard, which he obviously built himself, because in those days I’m pretty sure nobody manufactured surfboards. And I’m looking at this photo and thinking, ‘Wow, was I meant to be building surfboards?’ It made me feel so honored, you know, that all these years I’ve been doing this this surfboard-building thing. God, I could’ve been a fireman or an insurance man, with a big home and things like that. But no, I don’t even own a home. I build surfboards.”
While Aipa returned to preparing to make another “Surfer Joe” a great board, I thought more about what Gerry Lopez had written. As it turns out, he may have been wrong about what to do when you meet Ben Aipa. If you see him coming, don’t just get out of the way. Thank him.