How a 44-year-old Filipino native has become one of the South Shore’s most stylish longboarders
by Cash Lambert
Have you seen Toots surf? Have you seen him double stroke into the lineup on his knees atop a longboard, wearing old school Birdwell boardshorts? Have you seen him paddle, stand on a wave, wait a moment and then methodically began his silent dance, walking towards the nose, spinning once there, lifting a foot and returning to the middle of the board? Have you seen him walk to the nose, sit down and stand back up? What about when he paddles into a wave backwards? Or when he stands on a wave and casually wipes his eyes as he waits for the energy to develop, then glides effortlessly across the blue Waikiki wall? Ah, it is all so poetic! It is mesmerizing! It is timeless! Have you seen it?
If you ask Matriarch Tammy Moniz if she has seen it, she will say “he is my favorite person to watch surf at Queens, other than my kids of course. He is such a free spirit who dances with the waves, and it is the most refreshing experience to watch him surf. He knows Queens like a man who knows his woman and loves her, and she gives him the best of her.”
John Michael Van Hohenstein, 14-years-old and already a familiar face at Queens, has seen Toots’ dance and this is how he describes it: “His style is so old school. His style is so classic,” he says.
What does Toru Yamaguchi, owner of Surf Garage, have to say about about Toots’ style? “He is both the best noserider and the most stylish guy at Queens.”
Tammy, Johnny and Toru and so many others have seen Toots’ demeanor out of the water as well. He is quiet. He is humble. He let’s his surfing do the talking, though he doesn’t particularly want to say anything.
His watery dance has one purpose and that purpose is cliche and sounds cheesy but it is sincere: to have fun.
To have fun has been the driving force for Toots to learn how to surf, which he did in his 20s; It gave him the idea to track down old Longboard magazines and the Endless Summer film, mimicking and putting his own touch on what he had studied; It propelled him to begin experimenting with board designs, and it created his purist mindset, a mindset that values a traditional style: older style moves on older style boards while wearing older style boardshorts.
So who is Toots? Who is the soul behind a surfing style that so many describe as the essence of South Shore surfing? Where did he come from? Is he outspoken or reserved? How did he create such an interesting longboarding style? What do his tattoos mean?
I spent a few days with the 44-year-old to find an answer to each of these questions. What follows is a tale of talking story, of drinking, of examining tattoos, of laughing, of stepping foot into his apartment and shaping bay and, at the very foundation, an example of how child-like curiosity and simple interest has created one of the South Shore’s most fascinating characters who has a surfing style that you simply have to see.
Tuesday, 5:45 pm @ Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club
I am late. Forty-five minutes late to be exact.
My first words to Toots, standing with his tattooed arms on a bar chair at Mahina and Sun’s, the restaurant found inside of the groovy Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, are “I’m sorry” and I explain my case: there was standstill traffic on H2 and McCully Street was backed up and the cars on Kalakaua Avenue moved at a snail pace and as I say this, Toots smiles and replies softly: “No worries. You want to sit?”
I do. I do want to sit because the atmosphere in Mahina and Sun’s is so relaxed, so unlike the traffic outside of the Surfjack’s walls. There is live jazz music playing in the background and the bar chairs look so comfortable.
“That’s why I don’t drive,” Toots says, taking a seat. His eyes are brown and he is clean shaven.
The bartender floats over and Toots orders a beer and I say “I’ll have what he’s having.”
I continue: “So you don’t drive? Because of the traffic?”
“No. Never,” he says.
Beers arrive and I take a sip of what Toots has ordered us. It is called Lagunitas Little Sumpin Sumpin and it tastes good.
“You’ve never driven here in Hawaii in all the years you’ve been here?”
“No, since I live in Waikiki, everything I need is close,” Toots says. “I bike or walk where I need to go, and if I surf somewhere else, I get in a friend’s car. But I usually just surf right out here.”
I marvel at his simplicity. “So how long have you been in Hawaii?”
Thus begins the genesis and exodus of Toots’ life story. Born and raised in the Philippines, he moved to Honolulu in his early 20s, which was in the fall of 1995. After landing on this bustling isle with his pregnant wife, he immediately looked for work and – a fast learner – immediately found a job.
It was before and after his daily job that he would see figures perched atop longboards sliding down walls of water in Waikiki. He was intrigued.
“I paddled out on a borrowed boogie board for the first time,” Toots says, describing his humble beginnings. A family friend later gave him his first surfboard: “A 5’8” twin fin, so I paddled it out, caught a wave and went straight. I could barely move on it, but I began to learn the mechanics of how to surf,” he says. “If I was free, I would surf three times a day. Other times, I would paddle out so early in the morning, because that was really the only time I could go out before the baby woke up.”
I drink, and then I ask: “Is there a certain amount of time you’d stay out in the water? Maybe two or three hours?”
Toots cracks a small grin. “The longest session I’ve had is 8 hours.” He takes a sip while staring at my reaction.
“Eight? You’re kidding…I’ve surfed for like, four hours, maybe five…but eight?”
“I would paddle in and walk to the beach showers, turn them on and drink the water, then paddle right back out,” he says.
I imagine what that looked like and shake my head and say “how’s that for commitment. Incredible! And when you started surfing in your 20s, were there some frustrating times?”
“When you start, yeah,” he says. “You think, forget this. People were yelling me…but I got the bug. I was always in other people’s way. Lance Ho’okano, I seen him slap some people out there, and I remember thinking that I didn’t want to get in his way. Rabbit Kekai was always in the water, even Doc Paskowitz.”
“Queens is so crowded, and you’re not one to yell at someone else for dropping in on you,” I say. “Is that because you know what it’s like to be a learner at Queens?”
“Yeah, I just tell people it’s just like driving a car or bicycle. You don’t pull out in front of someone on the road, and you shouldn’t do it in the water,” he says.
“What is it like for you when people comment on your surfing?”
“When people want to talk, I may come off standoffish sometimes because I’m shy. But I’m always tripping out because it’s all about just enjoying yourself. Surfing is a personal and private endeavor me. I’m not surfing for anyone but myself.”
I say that he doesn’t seem standoffish. He’s actually the opposite: warm and friendly. More beers arrive, along with pizza and poke. We eat and we laugh and I begin to wonder the meaning of his tattoos – he’s covered from neck to toe in words and objects and colors – so I ask.
Just as he puts one arm forward for me to examine, I notice two women entering the restaurant. Walking past where we’re sitting, one of the women – unequivocally gorgeous, wearing a dark outfit with dark eyes – notices Toots, and keeps her eyes locked on him until she passes. He doesn’t notice.
“Slow and low,” Toots says, pointing at one tattoo written on his arm. “All of these are done by me or my friends. When we get together, we do it with my machine. You only live once man. Here’s a pirate ship” – he continues pointing while narrating – “a skull and crossbones, a snake, a molotov cocktail, a t-rex dinosaur with a crown. This one I did in my daughter’s handwriting, it says I heart dad. Here’s a diamond, here’s…a chicken or a bird, whatever it is.”
I examine each arm, admiring the excellent artwork and finding his relaxed attitude towards so much permanent ink interesting.
We keep eating and he tells me about some of his favorite Queens sessions. He tells me about surfing by himself in Norway and worrying about a killer whale swimming into the lineup. And he tells me about his favorite longboards.
After the tab is paid, I ask the bartender where the nearest ATM is and he points me in the direction of the nearest ABC Store. Toots asks why I need an ATM and I tell him that I valet parked but, despite my namesake, I have no cash to pay them and I need $10, so he hands me $15 and I say thank you and hand him the $5 back and he hands it to the bartender.
We step out of the bar and see the voice and guitar behind the soft music that has been playing the entire time. A woman is singing Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child, a jazz song written in 1939 that transports my mind into a different era, an era that I would expect to see Toots, with his timeless surfing, captured in a grainy black and white photo longboarding with Diamond Head in view.
Toots points towards a hotel shop near the exit. We approach and I see what he is pointing at: himself framed, in art form, on a longboard. He slowly smiles and I can see emotion in his eyes.
We then step out into the busy street and Toots says we’ll talk soon. He shakes my hand and crosses the street and unlocks his bike and I watch him ride away until he disappears into the thick Waikiki crowd. Minutes later, I turn on Billie Holiday’s 1939 classic and as I put the lights of Waikiki in my rearview mirror, I get a text. It’s from Toots. “Get home safe brah” it reads.
Wednesday, 6:45 pm @ Waikiki
In between throngs of tourists, I finally spot Toots. He is sitting by himself near the Prince Kuhio Statue and if I wasn’t looking for him, I probably wouldn’t have noticed his still figure, facing the 1-2 foot swell funneling into Queens. I ask if we can talk story for a bit, and he offers to show me his apartment.
I point to the glowing horizon. “This sunset though…it is incredible.”
“We can stay here,” Toots says, “but I’ve got whisky.”
With that, we’re off on a cement vein of Waikiki and we stop at an apartment complex. Slippers are left at the door. I step inside and the first thing I notice is a shaping respirator splashed with pink color hanging near the couch. The second thing I notice is how the apartment is absolutely immaculate: No dust or sand is on the floor. Every object has a place. The shelves are neatly organized. The third thing I notice is the whisky. He hands me a glass and burns my throat but it tastes good.
He leads me to his back patio, through another immaculate room and I’m staring at his quiver: fishes and longboards laid horizontal as traffic zooms just feet away.
He shows me his favorite board – a fish – and we’re back in his living room.
“Where did your nickname – Toots – originate?”
“My dad used to call me that when I was little, and then when I started surfing, I was practicing my crosswalk so much and the proper way of getting to the nose and someone called me Toots. It just stuck.”
As he talks, I notice a tattoo of words written in his palm. So I ask.
Toots smiles and opens his palm. There is a definition about four lines long:
FREEDOM (N)! TO ASK NOTHING, TO EXPECT NOTHING, TO DEPEND ON NOTHING
“But yourself,” Toots adds. “It’s an Ayn Rand quote about freedom. I’m grateful when my friends help, but I like to do everything myself. Have you read her books?”
“No,” I say, while thinking that Toots is unlike anyone I have met on multiple levels and wondering what the (N)! stood for.
“Noun,” he says, as he reaches under the table – next to the tattoo machine – and pulls out two thick Ayn Rand books. I hold them close to my eyes and flip through hundreds of pages of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. “Read these,” he says. “They changed my whole perspective.”
I say thank you and take a sip and feel a good burn in my throat and change the subject.
“Can you talk to me more about where you derive your surfing style from? You mentioned reading some old longboard magazines and Endless Summer…”.
“Endless Summer, when I saw that. Wow. That’s when I said that’s what I want to do. The walking, the hand movement…” he takes a sip. “And the hand movement, it’s not for looks. When you’re trying to control big heavy boards, you have to do some of that. It comes off stylish, but it’s part of controlling the board. In the movie, it’s crazy, seeing these 30-40 pound boards they’re riding on big days, but they were pulling it off. Here in Town, it’s not that big. It’s mellow. Yeah, Endless Summer…that’s what started it. Shaping, too”
“Shaping? What was the first board you shaped?”
Toots grins noticeably more and says “I still have a photo of it.” He walks to the fridge, takes a picture off a magnet and hands me the photo. “It’s a 9’4”,” he says as I stare at the waxed up longboard in the photo. There’s also a cute little girl sitting next to the board with a beaming smile.
I hand him back the photo and he smiles again looking at it. “My daughter helped me wax it up, but that board was a dog.”
The apartment goes silent. Toots then tells me about his plans for the weekend and those plans are to surf and shape and I receive a verbal invitation. Looking at the time and remembering a previously planned dinner date, I leave my unfinished whisky and tell him I’ll see him in the shaping bay.
Saturday, 11:45 am @ Kapahulu
An industrial hum reverberates throughout an older neighborhood located off Kapahulu Avenue in Waikiki. It is the sound of a planer slicing foam and I use the noise as a guide to find Toots: he’s inside of a shaping bay that is hidden in a storage area underneath a wooden, two story house.
Stepping underneath the house and into the cool shade, I notice Toots is wearing camouflage boardshorts, has on the pink respirator I first noticed in his apartment and is covered in white foam dust. Because of this, his tattoos are barely visible and as he moves, chiseling a 9’5” blank, his slipperless feet glide through the snow-like dust covering the ground. His black hair, now mixed with the dust, takes on a gray color.
He tells me that shaping began out of curiosity as well as a way around the expensive cost of 10’0” longboards: “I can make my own for a fraction of the price,” he says, and then tells me that he began shaping about 5 years ago, but has been refining the craft consistently for the past 2 years.
“Nobody taught me how to shape. It’s trial and error,” Toots says, wiping his black-rimmed glasses.
I ask more about the quality of his earlier shapes, and he says: ‘A friend bought one of my first surfboards and sent me a photo from Japan, saying he loves it. I was thinking ‘are you serious?’ That board was a dog. And I made a board for my ex-wife, she now lives in Norway. She has the board displayed in her yoga studio, and she says that people admire it.”
He continues with his respirator around his neck: “When I got back to shaping again two years ago, Todd Pinder let me into his shaping room, and I shaped a couple of boards. First one….it was a dog. I had my own tools, my own planer. Just gouging the hell out of it. But the more you do it, the better you get.”
“What are some characteristics of your boards?” I ask. “And how have you refined your shapes?”
“All my logs are reverse rocker, and that helps to turn faster,” he says. The terms hydro hull and double concave are also mentioned, but the noise of him sanding drowns out his explanation. I don’t press further because I don’t want to create any form of a distraction.
Minutes later, he stops sanding, and continues: “I like thinner boards, too. I let people try my boards in the water and they trip out, saying ‘wow’ and I say ‘see, you don’t need all that thickness for sitting and catching waves.’ It’s trippy how much lift is generated with these shapes, and it kind of changes people’s mind.”
“When you’re in the lineup and you tell someone he or she can ride your board, is there any hesitation on their part?”
“Sometimes they’re scared they’ll ding it, but I tell them it’s ok,” Toots says. “It happens.”
I continue to question: “And since you don’t drive, how do you get these massive blanks here?”
He laughs. “When I started, I would go to Fiberglass Hawaii on my bicycle – it’s about 15 minutes one way – and I would load two or three onto the side with surfboard straps. I would have to ride sideways to help with the weight!”
I laugh and cough – due to a steady inhale of foam dust – and realize the commitment needed to perform multiple trips while leaning towards the side opposite of the blanks on a bicycle, all the while navigating traffic and street lights. “But I got the bug. When I’m surfing, I’m thinking about the next board, especially if I have a blank waiting,” he says. “My mind is always going.”
For Toots, just like his surfing, shaping is an activity born of curiosity and fun. After picking the tail of the blank up and examining it, he tells me that he thinks he’s shaped somewhere around 100 boards, with some of those for the groms who call Queens their homebreak.
“What the kids are doing today makes me proud,” he says. “I like making their boards and helping to get them back to the traditional way.”
After a three hour stint in the shaping bay, Toots slides into his slippers and steps into the afternoon sunlight. He brushes foam dust off his tattooed arms, he rubs the gray out of his black hair and when he leans down to brush the dust off his legs, he notices a boardshort-induced foam tan line.
Leaving the board inside the shaping bay to finish the following day, Toots says that the tide is dropping and the plan is to get back into the Waikiki water and that I’m welcome to come cruise with him and his friends at the beach.
I tell him I’ll see him down there, and he races down Kapahulu Avenue, beating the standstill mid day traffic. After arriving at Queens, he grabs his board and paddles out into the heavily crowded lineup, where two and three surfers are standing on each wave.
Minutes later, Toots is up and riding alone on a fun-sized right hander, beginning his watery dance. I watch him bottom turn and gain momentum and further understand why Tammy Moniz calls him a “free spirit”, why Johnny says he’s “so classic” and why Toru makes the claim that he is “the most stylish” out at Queens. Although it is 2017, his silhouetted figure atop a longboard could be a sight from any era, with Diamond Head watching from afar. As his legs and knees and arms move in poetic unison across the wall of water, I realize that I’m not the only one observing. The majority of surfers sitting in the Queens lineup have turned their heads to watch.