Obituary: Surf historian Matt Warshaw weighs in on Ben Aipa’s legacy, “If the wave had enough power his mechanics were so perfect that he didn’t have to really flex or push, just lean and hold and release. He was a beautiful surfer”

"It was like Dumbo the Elephant, where at first you're almost laughing, kind of "Oh, look at the fat guy surfing." And then very quickly you realize he's amazingly graceful and fluid."

As reported earlier today, the iconic Hawaiian shaper Ben Aipa has died, aged seventy-eight, after a hellish battle with multiple illnesses. His son, the noted shaper and former pro Akila Aipa, described Ben as a “humble colossus.”

I asked Matt Warshaw, whom you know well for he carries the torch of surfing history, alone and without reward, to shade in a few of the details of Ben’s rich life.

Ben is dead; what has surfing lost?

Ben didn’t start surfing until he was 21 or 22. Every time I think of him, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. I don’t think any surfer of note began that late in the game, and the determination it took for him to get so good, so fast—I think that stayed with him for the rest of his life. I’m guessing here, but part of why he was always pushing on to the next thing in surfing, in terms of design, had something to do with him never forgetting how it felt like to be so far behind.

Did you know him at all?

No, but for a few years we moved in the same surf-comp circles. Ben came over to California all the time in the late ’70s and early ’80s, for the contests and the trade shows, and probably to shape boards. Any little two-bit pro contest, Ben was there. It was a little unsettling. He was 20 years older than the rest of us, huge and quiet and totally unapproachable. And full-on surfing to win, even if the winner’s check was like $250. Again, just a fierce level of determination.

It was like Dumbo the Elephant, where at first you’re almost laughing, kind of “Oh, look at the fat guy surfing.” And then very quickly you realize he’s amazingly graceful and fluid. If the wave had enough push—big Haleiwa, say, or Sunday—his mechanics were so perfect that he didn’t have to really flex or push, just lean and hold and release. He was a beautiful surfer.

You wrote about his bulldozer-like surfing in a list of surfing’s 15 best power surfers. You described him so, “(Ben) rode Sunset Beach like Jim Brown on a broken-field run. Power and finesse. Rudely underappreciated at a longboard surfer.”

He’s more famous now as a shaper, but for about eight years, starting in 1966, he was one of the best surfers in the world in powerful waves. Ben weighed something like 250, and he put all that mass to good use, but his surfing was also incredibly balanced and precise. It was like Dumbo the Elephant, where at first you’re almost laughing, kind of “Oh, look at the fat guy surfing.” And then very quickly you realize he’s amazingly graceful and fluid. If the wave had enough push—big Haleiwa, say, or Sunset—his mechanics were so perfect that he didn’t have to really flex or push, just lean and hold and release. He was a beautiful surfer.

You knew Ben was sick? Hell of a thing, blood infections, heart problems, diabetes, multiple strokes, dementia. Hard to square a man of his strength with the usual problems of aging.

At my age, you start rating people’s deaths. My mom had a good one year before last. Went in for knee surgery happy and active as could be at age 87, complication during recovery, she thumbs-downed a proposed series of long-shot operations and died five days later, at home, peaceful, on her terms. Ben’s last act was difficult. Luck of the draw, I guess. If you have a good death, that for sure should be something you’re remembered for. If you don’t, it just means you drew the short straw; it doesn’t reflect on your life or who you were as a person.

As a shaper he sure did go his own way. Let’s talk the double swallow and, later, the Stinger. That was, literally, a pivotal surfboard design. It gave Marky Richards, who would win a then-unprecedented four world titles, a rocket underfoot in the famous winter of 1975. You ever ride a stinger?

The Stinger came along right when I was hitting my surfing stride as a teen, and it changed my game completely. I rode the shit out of those boards for a year or two, until the twin-fin came long.

Warshaw on a Ben Aipa-inspired stinger.

Of Ben’s era, who’s left?

He belonged to a couple of eras. At first it was Ben and Eddie Aikau, the two hot young-gun Hawaiians. The Stinger deal was 10 years later, when he was making those flamed-out hot-rod boards for Buttons and Mark Liddell, and surfing with them at Kaisers and Ala Mona. In-between, he shaped the board Fred Hemming’s rode in the ’68 world titles. Then I think he did some coaching or mentoring for some Hawaiian pros in the 1990s. So I don’t know exactly what era Ben belonged to. To me, he always seemed kind of removed from it all, not part of any group or period. Ben was a one-man era.

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Iconic Hawaiian surfboard shaper and power surfing bulldozer Ben Aipa, dead at seventy-eight: “A man from a poor sugar cane plantation who would change the face of surfing!”

"A humble colossus whose impact echoed thru the decades."

Ben Aipa is dead.

The legendary Hawaiian shaper, creator of myriad surfboard innovations and a man so fierce-looking Gerry Lopez described him thus, “When you see Ben coming, don’t think, just get out of the way” has died of multiple illnesses.

Ben was the creator of the stinger design that gave ol Marky Richards, later a four-time world champ, a rocket underfoot in the winter of ’75, and, according to Matt Warshaw’s list of 15 Best Power Surfers, Ben “rode Sunset Beach like Jim Brown on a broken-field run. Power and finesse. Rudely underappreciated at a longboard surfer.”

His two sons, Duke and Akila, carried the shaper-surfer flame into the twenty-first century, both arch-craftsman, Akila you’ll know already as the man who built the board Kelly lit Keramas up on in 2019.

Ben, who turned seventy-eight in August, was terribly ill, heart issues, diabetes, dementia and had been hit by myriad strokes.

In a post to Instagram today, Akila writes,

At no time in my life would I ever be ready to share with the world my fathers final day…. The passing of the greatest man I know.

SO…Instead….I am going to tell you the story about a boy, from a poor sugar cane plantation family…whose determination was unmeasurable….that literally carved out his legacy one board at a time .

A man from the simplest of backgrounds who would change the face of surfing…

A humble colossus whose impact echoed thru the decades…masterfully mentoring generations of champions…in and out of the water…in competition and life….and somehow in all this…finding the time to stoke out tens of thousands of surfers with the best shaped boards all around the world along the way…..

Most of you know Ben Aipa, the surfer, the shaper,the coach or the legend…but to me he’s just my dad and I’m so very proud of him and I’ll Miss him dearly.

Dad…I hope you enjoy the next part of your journey . @akila_aipa and I have this from here and we’ll make you proud .

Aloha Oe’
A Hui Hou

Ben Aipa from ENCYCLOPEDIA of SURFING on Vimeo.


Here (pictured) is a pigeon with a backpack full of drugs. I'd imagine the huckster and him hang out.

“Heroic” pigeon escapes death penalty after it was revealed his trip from America to Australia was fraudulent: “The bird band in Australia is counterfeit and not traceable. They do not need to kill him.”

Yago Dora rejoices.

The professional surf world let out a collective sigh of relief, yesterday, when it was revealed that the heroic pigeon who made the very impressive trip from Oregon to Melbourne was, in fact, a low-level huckster wearing a counterfeit leg band likely in order to score chicks.

The revelation spared the bird the death penalty, which would have set a very rough precedent for professional surfers coming to Melbourne from America, Brazil, Europe ahead of the 2020/21 World Surf League Championship Tour re-start at Bells Beach.

Deone Roberts, sport development manager for the Oklahoma-based American Racing Pigeon Union, was the person who alerted Australian authorities that the band was fake.

“The bird band in Australia is counterfeit and not traceable,” Roberts said. “They do not need to kill him.”

Australia’s Agriculture Department, which is responsible for biosecurity, agreed that the pigeon dubbed Joe, after U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, was wearing a “fraudulent copy” leg band.

“Following an investigation, the department has concluded that Joe the Pigeon is highly likely to be Australian and does not present a biosecurity risk,” it said in a statement.

Very uncool for the Australian to pretend to be American but we live in unprecedented times.

Yago Dora, anyhow, most relieved about the stay of execution.

Whew.


Mick Fanning and Ross Williams absolutely roast Julian Wilson, Jordy Smith, Filipe Toledo, women in penultimate episode of Getting Heated: “Daddy, I don’t want to hear that. Can you put your headphones on?”

More questions than answers.

We were introduced to the World Surf League’s new spitfire Getting Heated just days ago, promising “the most opinionated personalities in the sport” engaging in “the hottest debate.” The featured talent being that cat with many lives Mick Fanning and surfer-cum-coach-cum-broadcaster extraordinaire Ross Williams.

The penultimate episode was just released co-co-starring The Lineup’s own Dave Prodan.

A beautiful rainbow of diversity.

But here we are.

Julian Wilson, Jordy Smith, Filipe Toledo, women equally roasted beyond recognition.

Or do you still recognize their superior bone structure from those nasty ashes?

More questions than answers.

I was trying to answer for you, honestly, to save some work but my young daughter cut me off directly when I was making dinner (rice, asparagus, chicken) while surf journalizing saying, “Daddy, I don’t want to hear that. Can you put headphones on?”

Prescient?

Watch here.


Gnarly surf locals!

VAL-Lit: “Is competence still a prerequisite for localism? Or have we substituted financial wellbeing and an abundance of free time for skill?”

The corruption of a great meritocracy… 

The parking lot is mellow. Sleepy even.

It’s the day after Christmas. The kinda day where the street is littered with kids ripping the tags off of wetsuits and brandishing new boards.

Retirees holding onto golden retrievers mill about. The occasional tennis ball is lazily thrown into the grass.

Surfers line the bluff, squinting through hungover eyes as they sip their coffee.

A small group of bodies buoy around the main peak. To the north an unridden waist-high right reels into the cove. The surf matches the atmosphere on the bluff. Subdued. Quiet.

My dad and I scramble down the cliff and gingerly wade out over the cobble stones.

We paddle slowly to the empty peak as the sun peeks over the bluff.

The surf is lully. A small set hits the reef every ten minutes or so. We laugh about how drunk my uncle was last night in between waves. The occasional surfer crawls down the cliff but somehow our little peak is left alone.

An hour in, a lone surfer paddles north from the southern peak. He’s middle aged, riding what appears to be an oversized short board. Something probably labeled as a high-performance mid-length. Maybe called a hybrid.

He paddles with purpose, projecting the kind of confidence that makes me think he surfs here pretty often. I nod to him as he passes, but he ignores my attempt at eye contact and paddles to our inside. We watch as he paddles frantically for a few small sets only for them to go unridden.

He looks frustrated.

A larger set appears on the horizon. I position myself while watching him out of the corner of my eye. He’s too deep. Still, he swings his board around under the boil.

I do a few half paddles, knowing that the wave is going to break on his head but not wanting to disrespect him. At the last second, he looks up at me and says “Go.”

It’s too late. The set passes and reels off, unridden. He glares at me and paddles back to my inside, mumbling to himself.

I look up at the cliff. A train of five 40 somethings gracelessly make their way down. They fan out underneath us and the silence is broken by questions like “so how long will you be in town.”

One of them paddles up to me.

“Brrr. Water’s cold huh?”

I politely give a few half answers before he moves on. My dad signals to me on the inside that he’s headed in.

I start to make my way in as one of the five paddles up to the “local,” grinning.

“Great day huh?”

He responds dryly. “It was. Did you guys all drive together in a fucking station wagon or what?”

The group stares wide eyed back. Nervous laughter fills the silence.

Up on the cliff, my dad looks at me. “That guy was a dick.” I try to explain to him that you don’t paddle out as a group, but he shakes his head.

“If you can’t catch a wave, you shouldn’t be barking at anyone else.”

I’m conflicted on the drive home.

Is competence still a prerequisite for localism? Or have we substituted financial wellbeing and an abundance of free time for skill?

Are we really fine with middle aged men pissed off at their inability to paddle into waves yelling at competent yet kooky weekend warriors?

It seems to me that our meritocracy has been corrupted.

Localism has become the practice of retired white-collar professionals who can afford beach-front housing rather than lifelong surfers sacrificing an hour of sleep to sneak in a few waves before work.

It doesn’t feel earned any more. It feels bought.

Or am I wrong?