Donald Takayama Interview

Interview and photography by Glenn Sakamoto
Vintage photography by Steve Wilkings

Donald Takayama is a legendary surfer/shaper born in Hawaii. After working with Dale Velzy at the age of 11, Donald quickly became a world-renowned shaper as well as a top ranked surfing competitor. Over the last six decades, he has mentored such surfing greats as David Nuuhiwa, Joel Tudor, and Kassia Meador. We spoke with Donald to learn more about his amazing life.

What was it like growing up?
We lived in Honolulu surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Growing up in Hawaii back in the day – it was nice and mellow. The ocean was where we found our recreation. We would go fishing or find shells. Then we got into riding waves.

Tell us about what attracted you to surfing
Surfing was really exciting. We would watch the Waikiki Beach Boys ride the waves in, so naturally we wanted to do the same. But we couldn’t afford it. If you wanted to go surfing you’d have to become innovative, create something – like building your own surfboard. It wasn’t like it is today where – materials were simply not available. You really had to scrape the bottom or beat the alleyways to get anything. We made paipos out of plywood, just so we could ride a wave.

Do you remember the first time you stood up on a board?
Yes. It was on a paipo board. And it was a rush! I said to myself, my God that was fun! I just wanted to catch another one. It was so addicting. And you know, it never ceases to end – you are always learning something new.

What does surfing mean to you?
Surfing has been my life. It’s all I’ve done. It really doesn’t matter how big or small the waves are. When you are out there surfing you are really competing with yourself. Let’s say you are in a bad mood and you go out surfing, you catch one good wave and it makes your whole day – heck, it makes your whole week.

Let’s say you are in a bad mood and you go out surfing,
you catch one good wave and it makes your whole day –
heck, it makes your whole week.

Also you are competing with the elements. There are no two waves are alike. So it becomes really challenging. And it simply puts a smile on your face when you get that ride. You get one good ride and naturally you want to try to better it.

Surfing is just there for total enjoyment. It gives you peace of mind. Physically it’s good and mentally it keeps you focused. For example, if you are bothered by something and you go surfing – it’s a release. You can forget about everything. It’s just very, very enjoyable.

What about shaping?
Surfing is also a design thing. Since I create things, it’s about the equipment I am riding. For different styles of waves you design different kinds of boards. You can change the length and make it longer. Or you can change the outlines, the bottoms and everything else. I design boards for different types of people and their surf styles. To be able to build a board that complements their riding is very exciting.

When I think about designing a board for someone, it’s a real challenge. Where will they be surfing at? What are the conditions? To me, shaping is a feat in itself. And I love the feedback I get from my riders! It’s a real accomplishment and it just keeps going on and on. Luckily I’ve been able to make a living at shaping boards. It’s not a money-making thing by any means, but it is very rewarding.

What was Dale Velzy like?
Dale was a haole – but he was alright (laughs). When I started my business in San Diego, he would always look after me.

He would call me up and ask “Hey small kid, what’s up? How’s everything? – okay, good!” and he would hang up the phone. He was just really good people. I would give the shirt off my back for him. He gave me my first job when I was 13 years old. I would sleep in his factory in a cardboard box. He would also come to Hawaii and say “Hey small kid! Let’s go surfing!”

In return, when a customer would come into my shop and piss me off, I would call up Dale. I would say “Hey, Dale. It’s all your fault!” I would blame him because he started this whole surfing industry (laughs). He was just a really good person. I loved the guy and I miss him.

You were a shaper that was also an accomplished surfer. Tell us about your competition days
Well, I sort of got turned off to competing. It got to a point where it didn’t really prove anything. I could go into more detail, but I am saving it for a book.

Tell us about your experience with Joel Tudor
Joel took surfing a new level. His ability and skills are just phenomenal. And he was a really good kid. When he was little, he used to pull on my trunks and say to me, “Hey, can you make me a board?” I would look at him and say something like, “Oh piss off, kid!” As time went on, I would watch him and he would bring out his log and God, could he ride a longboard well.

Later, when we created the Oceanside Longboard Club, it brought together all the old people back. We would gather and do barbecue and all that. That’s when the longboard resurgence started. And Joel and his ability, opened the door to what longboarding is today. To this day, I wish we could have stuck it out. But then again, everybody’s gotta do their own thing.

To me, (Aloha) means giving, sharing, helping one another,
and showing that you care. It means just try to be on equal level
with people that you meet. That’s Aloha.

What is your relationship with Linda Benson?
Linda has always been my dearest friend. I couldn’t have done much without her. Over the years she has given me moral support and treated me as a good friend. I just love her to death.

Tell us a little about some of the people that ride for you...
Well, there is Noah Shimabukuro. He’s like my hanai (adopted son). He really helps me with the design of my boards and he is just a wonderful, humble person. I wouldn’t trade him for anything.

Kassia Meador is one-of-a-kind. She’s not a dreamer. She follows through with her thoughts. And she is very ambitious. She doesn’t just sit around and think of things and wait to for it to fall into her lap – she works hard for it. Diane and I are very proud of what she has accomplished.

And then there is also Leah Dawson, Cori Schumacher, Kai Sallas, Melissa Combo, and Chelsea Williams, too. All of these young people are building futures for themselves, which I admire. I really look forward to seeing their future.

What’s your most memorable wave?
That’s really hard to say. You have your good days and bad days. Just like every wave is different so is every day, so I really can’t say. There might be a day where I do a nice maneuver so I’d want to recreate it or better it. It never ceases to stop. I just always want to progress my surfing.

There has been a lot of good waves. And you know, I just want to get another one. But the age thing is creeping up. I’m starting to slow down. I’m not as agile and quick as when I was 20. But surfing still is a lot of fun. Just riding a wave is such a thrill – it’s just bitchin’… it’s fabulous! (laughs)

What are you most proud of?
It’s hard to say. I’m just proud to be here – the surfing environment, this lifestyle. I’ve had a lot of friends come and go. But I don’t take life for granted. There is only one life to live and if I had to live it all over again – I would do it all the same way.

What is the most memorable place you’ve been?
Through surfing I’ve gotten to travel a lot. I’ve been to Europe, the East Coast, South America, Australia, Japan, and back. I’ve gotten to meet so many nice people and to learn about so many different cultures. Mostly I’m happy to have been in the mecca of surfing – California and Hawaii.

How important is the Hawaiian word “aloha” and what does it mean to you?
Aloha is really important to me. I was brought up with it. To me, it means giving, sharing, helping one another, and showing that you care. It means just try to be on equal level with people that you meet. That’s Aloha.

You’re still stoked…
Yeah, I’m so stoked. For me, it’s really nice to be able to turn someone on to surfing – like the feeling I got when I was surfing. I can just pass it on to somebody else. And I will be able to enjoy the same thrill and joy that I got out of surfing.

Sharing surfing with other people is such an awesome feeling. I get turned on by it. It keeps the stoke going. For example, someone comes in the shop and shouts “Donald, the board you made me works and the waves are so bitchin’ – let’s go out and ride!” – for me, THAT is the stoke.

Archive photography provided by Steve Wilkings. Contemporary photography by Glenn Sakamoto. To learn more about Donald and his shapes, click here.