"I don’t want Gabriel to think, ‘Oh motherfucker-son-of-a-bitch board!’ I want him to surf and have a good performance.”
It might be hard to appreciate given Gabriel Medina’s easy world title win at Lowers last week, hiking Filipe’s dress to his waist in a two-heat whitewash, but two months back he was frustrated as hell after missing a medal at the Tokyo Games.
So he calls his shaper Johnny Cabianca, the Brazilian-born, Zarautz-based craftsman who’s been building his boards for a dozen years, ever since step-daddy Charlie, an old pal from Brazil, got him to make boards for the European leg of the 2009 WQS.
Medina, a boy with slicked-back oiled hair and eyes so dark they look like they’ve been stolen off a gingerbread man’s face, ruled that year’s King of the Grommets contest in Hossegor. Five tens in the event, two in the final.
Johnny had thrown three rockers at Medina. He chose the flattest.
And for a dozen years, the boards only changed in foil and outline as Medina grew, the essence of the board, the the full concave, the rocker, stayed the same.
After the Olympics, Medina told Johnny he wanted something a little different for Lowers. Something that would make him reference his back foot more.
“I want something special!” he told Johnny. “I want to change my balance, put more weight on my back leg.”
Johnny burned through various combinations of rocker, foil and concave, fin placement and their angles, and settled, eventually, on a flatter rockered version of Medina’s small-wave board, The Medina.
Sent three boards to Medina in California.
Medina replied with clips, photos and wrote, simply, “This board is amazing. I’m prepared for The Game.”
And, yeah, they named this new model The Game.
As it turned out, the expected two-foot Lowers morphed into three-to-five (or eight-to-ten Surfline/Sam George) and Medina won the final on his usual DFK.
(Dimensions, 5’11” x 19” x 2 7/16”, 28.65 litres.)
It’s nine in the morn when Johnny’s phone lights up.
He’s in the factory, as he always is, calls it his third kid, and we’re talking about The Game and how it’s built to connect the dots without the indignity of “killing the cucaracha”, killing the cockroach, how Johnny describes the Huntington Hop, currently on display at the US Open.
“One day, in the future, people gonna go back to twin fins for those conditions,” he says.
I ask him about the elephant in the room, I suppose y’could call it, the split between Medina and his step-daddy/mum, a combo that had yielded him two world titles, and what effect it had on the champ.
Johnny’s discreet enough not to talk specifics but he says, “We talk a lot about this, man, it’s a very sad situation. I always say, if you have problems with family, do your own family better. And I love his mum, I love his stepfather Charlie, we grew up together. I love Gabriel also. But between them it’s not a nice situation.”
Still, the scenario has made Medina’s killer instinct vibrate even more violently.
“It makes him hungry. He wants to win, to show them that he’s doing the right thing. And, he has a wife, wants to prove, ‘I am a man!’.”
Johnny says the arrival of Andy King, the Australian pro who lost his hearing in a street fight in 2004 and who shifted to surf coaching after his tour comeback was stymied by his deafness, stilled the emotional situation.
“He needs someone to help him during the contests. And Mick Fanning introduced him to Andy. And, Andy says to him, ‘What can I do to help you? You do everything perfect?’ Gabriel says, ‘Just stay with me! Comment on my waves!’”.
Johnny tells a funny story about Medina arriving in Australia with one board, a round-nose fish from Matt Biolos, a gift from Griffin Colapinto. The sort of board everyone gets addicted to, fast, easy to ride, but ain’t the best for your stance, technique. Makes a man lazy.
“Gabriel loved that board!” says Johnny. “But Andy says, ‘Don’t put that shit in the water! This is a toy for kids! Man, you are surfing perfect with your boards, don’t do this.’”
Johnny laughs, says the last time he heard a surfer thank his shaper was Kelly Slater when he won title number ten and said grazi to the Channel Islands crew.
“No other surfer talk about the shaper!” he says, although notes that Medina is very polite and, via text, email, whatever, is full of praise.
Johnny says the secret to making a good board for a pro surfer is in its invisibility underfoot.
“The thing for Gabriel, and not only for Gabriel, for all the athletes, they don’t want to have any problem with the board. They don’t want to think about what they are using. They just want to take the board in that moment and do the job, do the service. The board needs to answer their commands. I don’t want Gabriel to think, ‘Oh motherfucker-son-of-a-bitch board!’ I want him to surf and have a good performance.”
You want The Game? Or the DFK? Or the Medina?
I’m all over the Medina.
A magic invisibility.
As I wrote in an earlier piece, Johnny could lift my glistening sex works in his palm and I’d be thrilled, his skin so close to mine I can smell his bargain cologne and steamy armpits.