Jean Pierre Van Swae is a California surfer/shaper who goes by the name of “Fly.” A popular surfboard shaper for over 40 years, he started his board building career making fins for Fred Wardy. Fly explains why it’s so important to “keep the stoke” and to spread aloha in our daily lives.
What was it like growing up?
I was born in Europe and I came to the United States when I was five years old. Raised in California, we lived inland in places like West Covina and Monterey Park. It was alright, we would slide down hills on boxes for entertainment. That part of my life was mediocre but still fun.
It wasn’t until ’58 when we moved to Laguna Beach that I saw guys riding waves. It was like a door opened up. It was like “Wow!” We’ve got the ocean, guys riding surfboards – it was something all new to me. The whole experience just tickled the hell out of me. Surfing was love at first sight.
Do you remember the first time you stood up on a board and the feeling you had?
Yes. It was at Doheny in 1959, on a balsa wood board from Hobie that I paid 60 bucks for. There was nobody out in the water and it was a small day. It was frustrating at first because I would pearl or I would miss the wave. And this went on numerous times because the board had very little rocker – it was almost like a tabletop! I finally caught a wave and it was such an exhilarating feeling when I did stand up, it felt like I was literally on top of the world. There are two things in life you will never forget – your first wave and your first gal.
Tell us about your first job
I hung around Fred Wardy’s shop so much they finally put me to work. I started learning about things like fins, fiberglass, resin, and foam. I really learned how to make a board from start to finish. It was a job that wasn’t really a job. It was a bunch of guys that worked together and we had a blast. We would all go surf Trestles and come back and then do our work, have dinner, a few beers, and get ready for the next day. There was a lot of camaraderie and we knew what to do.
Who did you look up to at that time?
People like Dale Velzy. Wardy. Phil Edwards. Mickey Munoz. All local people who were veterans. Seeing people like Joey Cabell, how smooth he was. Watching guys who really knew positioning, and knew how to judge waves – and to just be smooth about it.
How important is style?
You can watch people out in the water and everyone has their own style. Without even seeing their face out there in the water, you can tell who it is. Surfing is like a dance and you don’t want to be awkward. If you’ve got style you can actually use that in your favor to get into and out of situations. Besides just looking good, you can throw your arms out and can gain a little speed. Style is functional.
What do you love about surfing?
That each day is a different day. With waves, you don’t really know what Mother Nature’s gonna throw at you. Everybody has a different feel for it. Some people use it as a form of meditation. Those that have frustrating jobs and they need to vent it out. For myself, I enjoy what I do – making boards, so for me it is a gift. Basically each wave that I get is a gift that I enjoy.
Each wave that you catch is a treat. A gift of nature. It’s being in harmony with the whole environment – the ocean, the swell. It’s you and the ocean melting together. With a certain amount of dedication, it’s kind of like a reward. I’m happy if I can stand up and hoot and holler!
What is your process for making boards?
I try to find out how long they’ve been surfing, what they surf and where they surf. I get a feel for where they are in their surfing. Everybody has a different way they want to have fun.
What’s your favorite part of shaping?
It’s the whole process. It’s like a sculpture that you are doing for someone. When I get a blank, it’s like a raw canvas. Shaping is done in segments starting with the plan shape, the rails, contours of the nose and tails. All of these things add up and then a picture unfolds. It’s like doing a painting.
How long have you been shaping?
I’ve been on my own since 1970, shaping my own boards and glassing them. My old shop was in a barn so I did everything – from shaping to glassing. I even made my own fins. I always look at something and think: “How can I make it better?”
Of all the places you’ve traveled to, what place in particular stands out and why?
I spent some time in Tahiti which was fun. I didn’t get to surf a lot of the neat spots over there but I did get to surf some real enjoyable places. But I have to admit, being in Kauai was one of the best times I’ve ever had. Friends that I knew and friends that I met – along with the sheer quality of waves. There were places that were really good – like left break waves. Pakala’s is a great wave. You can longboard or shortboard and even get barreled there.
Who/What inspires you?
There are people like Mickey Munoz – he’s kept the stoke. People who are still surfing that are still pumped up. Also Fred Wardy, Del Cannon, Terry Martin – these guys have taught me a lot. Not only are they my friends but they’ve been willing to pass on to me what they’ve learned.
Life inspires me. It’s really a leaning process. Everyday I go out I try to learn a little bit and maybe help someone out. I try to keep the aloha spirit out there.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all of my kids. They’ve done so well. My youngest Jean Paul is an excellent photographer and he’s got the best job. I’ve got a wonderful granddaughter. I’ve taken all of my kids out in the water at the age of one so that they can share the stoke and grow to love surfing like I have.
Oh, and my ’55 Chevy station wagon named Peggy Sue that I have been busy restoring…
Who do you feel are some of the people shaping the path for surfing today?
There are so many good shapers today. Timmy Patterson I’ve known since he was a little tiny kid. I would have never guessed that he would be such a great board builder. He grew up to be an excellent shaper and has even taught me a few new tricks! His Dad would have been very proud of him if he were still alive.
What’s your favorite board you are riding these days?
Right now it’s a big board. It’s 10’7″, 27 inches wide, 4 inches thick that was made for a customer who didn’t want it because a pinline was left off of it! At San Onofre, it is such an easy riding board that can catch anything that you can see. It’s just downright fun! I call the board “Eddie.”
What’s you favorite surf spot?
It would have to Lowers even though I haven’t surfed it in a while. It’s a good wave and it’s so much fun. I’ve had numerous good times surfing there, uncrowded – back when the Marines used to chase you off the beach. Now it’s open to the public and it’s like Malibu. I like to keep the fun in surfing. And surfing with 60 guys is just a little too much. I have more fun surfing at San Onofre with a bunch of good friends. It’s the fun factor. I always ask “How’s the fun meter – is it cranked up yet?”
What kind of music do you listen to?
Elvis. Bob Dylan. Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Cream. Older guys, sure but there is some really good stuff in there. Blues like B.B. King – Jazz like Dave Brubeck and Take Five. If it’s soulful and has a great beat – even AC/DC!
What are you most grateful for?
Coming to California and making it to the beach! And for my Mom getting job and making it to Laguna Beach. I am so damn grateful.
What’s next for Mr. Van Swae?
I’ve gotten numerous requests for stand up boards. This is new territory for me as a shaper. Some people don’t like it and that it’s going to the “dark side.” People are really having a good time with them and it’s good exercise.
Basically I want to refine my business and make it as good as I can. And I simply enjoy the fact that I am on the beach making surfboards.