By Cash Lambert
If I told you that the swallowtail surfboard design – yes, the same shape of board that you surf on regularly at Kewalos and Bowls – was inspired by the fluttering of a bird, would you believe me?
As it turns out, watching the turning ability of a swallowtail bird is exactly how Ben Aipa had the idea for the board design that would have a monumental impact on the sport. This is just one of Ben’s innovations, too.
Also add into the mix him pioneering the modern day longboard and the stinger design, along with competing in the Makaha International, the Lighting Bolt Pro and the World Championships in the late 1960s and early 1970s and serving as a coach to industry influencers like Sunny Garcia and the Irons brothers, the Hawaiian exudes nothing short of legendary status.
We sat down with Ben to discuss how both the sport and Town has changed in his eyes, his keys to success in running a surf shop for nearly 5 decades, and his proudest accomplishments throughout an unprecedented and storied career.
Let’s start from the beginning: What’s the earliest surfing memory you have, Ben?
I went to lunch with my cousin on a hot day, and we decided to go swimming down at Queens. So we were in the water near Baby Queens, and this loose surfboard was coming right at me. No one was around, so I thought to myself shoots, I’m going to get on this board and paddle. And no sooner did I paddle than the wave picked me up and I automatically jumped to my feet without thinking about it. I had played football, swam and dove competitively all my teen years, so it was natural somehow. The minute it happened, that was it. I felt the stoke and joy of riding my first wave. I thought to myself that’s it, I’m going to learn how to surf for the next 365 days. Which I did – A full year non-stop.
How did it grow from there?
Once I learned how to surf, I was able to apply all the skills I learned in football to my surfing and coaching. I saw surfing through the eyes of a football player and a boxer, which I also did when I was young. This is what developed my style, and I instilled it into the surfers I coached. Some people called it power surfing.
What was it like competing in the early days of the sport?
It was just a few of us Hawaiians. Actually just Eddie Aikau and myself. It was more of a challenge, having to prove ourselves as Hawaiians in the surf because all those competitions were run by outside people.
Your business, Ben Aipa Surfboards, was founded in 1970. How did it all start? At the time, was it a leap of faith or did you know there’d be success in it?
I knew that surfing was changing and I knew I could be a part of it. So because of the change that was coming, I took bigger steps. I stuck my neck out in board design, stuck my neck out in riding surfboards in certain locations where you weren’t suppose to. By knowing the conditions of the surf, I saw it as a design challenge, which inspired me to create surfboards to meet the conditions. Like with Larry Bertlemann as a kid, I would drop him off at Diamond Head and walk back up the hill to go back to the shop. I’d turn and watch him at Lighthouse for a moment, and I could see what he was attempting to do, with the board he had in the conditions that were there. And I knew he was the future. So I went back to the shop and imagined the kind of board dynamics he’d need, to get the maneuvers he was attempting done. What he was doing was futuristic. Watching him, I said to myself “he’s stinging the wave!” That’s how I developed the idea and name for the design.
Running a business for decades is hard. Running a surf business for decades seems nearly impossible, yet you’ve done it. How have you continued to make a profit and stay with the times?
First, by being a part of every aspect of surfing and it’s future. But honestly, it comes from being able to listen and observe. When customers come to me, each one is different. Each one has certain goals. And I listen carefully to who they are and what they want, which allows me to see what they need. I can imagine the kind of board needed to be shaped, at the level they’re at, to help them move forward in their surfing.
It’s a board for board business. Each board is a reflection of the person I’ve shaped it for.
Besides the sting designs, you also created the swallowtail and modern longboard. What was this process like?
Surfing was changing and the need for more aerodynamic designs were obvious to me, so I was always looking for inspiration to create what I needed. The truth is, it’s observation which creates inspiration. I was watching the Swallowtail bird, which is the quickest turning bird alive. In watching them, I saw what gave them their turning ability. It was their tail. So I incorporated that tail design into my boards. Again, Larry Bertlemann was the inspiration for the sting design. Just watching what the young kids were trying to accomplish in those days. And seeing how their abilities were limited by the board designs at that time.
As you look back, what are you the most proud of?
For me, sharing what I’ve learned with those who want to hear it. If I could make the world of surfing better, what more could I ask for in this life?