Guy Okazaki’s long shaping career feels as if it has literally come full circle. The first boards he made in the mid-1960s in Venice were longboard outlines, scaled down to shorter lengths at the dawn of the transition. Today his most requested models are modern experiments of a similar form — wide-noses, full-templates and pintails. And like those brilliant feral surfers that no one knew about, he has lived (and nearly died) more than most surfboard shapers. Guy’s still in Venice after first landing in Los Angeles from Hawaii in 1955, progressing and refining his craft in his trademark laid back style. We spoke with him to learn more.
When did you start shaping?
I got into shaping by accident. It was around ’67, in Hawaii. I was surfing with Leroy Achoy and Rabbit Kekai. They were the older guys in the Waikiki surf scene. Rabbit started riding a shortboard. It was about 7’6”. Leroy borrowed it and just started ripping with it. The first shortboards I had ever seen. Rabbit was doing things that modern surfers are doing today. He was doing big off-the-lips, backside vertical off-the-lips, re-entries, incredible stuff. One day we were just sitting there watching him and he paddles over to us and goes, “Follow me! I’m gonna teach you guys how to do a rollercoaster!” We paddled out with him and he showed us, and put us on his board, and I was hooked.
Later, I came back here (to L.A.) and was surfing with Dewey (Weber). I went to the Weber factory, and I asked (Harold) Iggy if he would shape me a couple shortboards. He just said, “No, I don’t want to do that” in a teasing sort of way. At first I was shattered. I was like, “You don’t want to do that?” He said, “If you want do it, do it yourself. You can use my room as soon as I’m finished.”
So that’s what I did. I shaped myself a shortboard and started surfing it out in Venice, Santa Monica, and Topanga. Then my friends kept borrowing my board! I’d come home and my board would be gone. I was like, “Who’s got my board and where can they be?” This was becoming a problem. So I went back and made another one, so now there were two. But once word got out that I had another one, I never got the first one back! My friends started passing it between them. Then it was like 5 guys were sharing my first board. So I thought I’ll just make four more. The first time I shaped more than one board is when I made four for my friends. And that was it.
What were you doing at Dewey Weber?
Everything. I was the youngest guy there just hanging out. I was probably like 14 or 15. My job interview was hilarious. My friend who worked there called me up and said, “Summer’s coming around. They need some guys. Why don’t you come and apply for a job?” They had just moved from Pacific Ave to Lincoln. I said, “I want to fill out an application for a job.” They said, “We don’t have any applications.” I said, “Well, okay. I’d like to get a job.” “Okay. Go talk to Dewey.” I walked into the room, Dewey and his manager Pete recognized me. The first question was, “Do you have a sister?” I go, “Yeah.” “Older or younger?” “Older.” “You’re hired.” That was it. Those guys were great and it was a riot working there!
When did you start selling your boards and making a living as a shaper?
In the ‘70s. I didn’t have a job. My dad arranged for an interview for me at Allstate to go sell insurance. I put on a shirt and I remember sitting in the bathroom tying my tie and I’m looking at the mirror and I just had this epiphany. I looked at myself and went, “I can’t do this for 20 years – I can’t even do this right now.” I had just finished tying my tie and walked out. I thought my dad would be really pissed or disappointed and would react when I told him, “Hey Dad. I can’t do this. I can’t put this shirt on and tie a tie and go to work like this.” He just said, “Okay. No attitude or you’re out of here, or you’ll have to go find another job.” He was great.
Tell us about some of your travels
I was really lucky, I got to travel a lot when I was younger and was able to spend some time in Australia. I met a guy named Joe Larkin. At the time, he was just this wild man. He’d drive down the road, hands off the wheel and he’d roll a cigarette while he’s talking to me on the freeway – flat out pedal to the metal! He mentored Michael Peterson. That’s who I got thrown in with. I was surfing with Michael Peterson and Peter Townend! They were just getting ready to go to state championships. And they were surfing really, really hard. Those were the two guys I surfed with at Kirra. They were so good, and at that time the world had yet to hear of them. The Australians were surfing these über flat, thinned out, more foiled boards, like what [George] Greenough pioneered in the early early ‘60s or mid ‘60s. So being exposed to the two schools was kind of a novelty. I felt like it was my obligation to take those designs and adapt them to California. That’s what I did. And that’s what I’m still doing!
Do you think anyone is doing anything progressive or revolutionary in shaping?
I hope so. I don’t want to sound like I’m putting it down, but I realize I have this unique perspective. For example, the twin fin reincarnation. I’m not a really big fan of that design because I was there for the original incarnation of the design. I made more twin fins than most guys making them today and so for me, I’ve been there done that. I realize not everyone has that same experience. There is a whole new crop of guys that want to experience it, so cool — it’s great for them. What’s new and innovative is now in terms of nuances. No one’s going to reinvent the tri-fin or the four-fin or the five-fin.
You have some fond memories of surf mats. Tell us more.
For a period of time, they were talking about banning surfing. There were even eras when you couldn’t surf some of the best waves. They would also ban a peak. With an air mattress you can still ride that wave. Once in Hawaii, we went onto the Bellows Air Force base and they had a restriction on surfing. We went there and the surf was just going off. I mean it was four feet, Hawaii style, A-frames everywhere up and down the beach, sheet glass with nobody out. Just me and my buddy Darrell. We started going up and down the beach asking, “Do you have a surfboard? Do you have fins?” I got an air mattress, surfed it until the skin fell off my chest. Getting barreled, pulling in and just having so much fun.
Who did you look up to when you were younger?
That list is huge. I’m always reluctant to answer that question because I know I’m going to leave out someone. Conrad Conha, Rabbit Kekai, Leroy Achoy, George Downing, Paul Strauch – he’s such a gentleman, a class act, and (Robert “Nat”) Young.
Then there was Harold Iggy, Dewey Weber, and Tak Kawahara, he was one of the Dewey Weber shapers and probably worked harder than anyone there. And Wayne Miyata, resident wild man and crazy person. Talk about fun – he was as fun as fun could be. These guys were like rock stars and they were making a lot of money. On Friday afternoons, they would go out and buy Porsches with their paychecks. This was back in the ‘60s. They were making anything from $1,500-$2,000 per week. Upper middle class was $30,000 a year. They would go to the bank, go into the car dealership, buy a new car and go back to work. It was just wild and crazy times back then.
Who inspires you?
Today? Just about everybody. I was watching the Bells contest and I was still blown away by Kelly [Slater]. The other day I got inspired by this guy who just started surfing but made an incredible leap. I’ve made boards for this guy that had only longboarded and he finally dared to try a 6’8.” He took it out and he called me later and said, “It was the most fun I’ve had surfing. It’s made my life.” How often do you get to hear that?”
And I’ve got this other kid (Noah Hill) that’s surfing who’s only 10 years old. He’s a phenom. He’s got the air reverses, the slobs, he’s got them frontside and backside, he’s working on switch stance now and he can do aerial nosepicks, He went to Hawaii for spring break with his parents and entered the Oahu surf contest for the Hawaii State Regionals and took first place on a Thursday. Then they heard about a Volcom contest on a Saturday at Makaha, they drove out there and he took first place in that. For a kid from California to go to Hawaii and win two major contests is pretty darn inspiring. He also inspires me because he’s the nicest, greatest, smartest kid you’ll ever meet.
Where are your favorite places to surf?
I look forward to the next best spot. I like Mexico and I love Hawaii. Can never get Hawaii out of my blood. I spend a lot of time in Kauai. Pakalas is a left point break that’s over 300 yards. Hanalei Bay is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. To surf there even when there is no surf, it can put a smile on your face. The rainbows up in the hills, the green, the beauty of the valley and the reef so colorful – it’s heaven! Oahu as far as quality of surf. No one talks about Town. I love the North Shore, Rocky Point, Velzys, and Sunset scares the shit out of me. But Town – I cry every time I go there. And when I paddle out, I feel like I’m born again. My earliest memories are being thrown in the water at San Souci Beach.
What makes you the most happiest in this world?
I’m married, so it would have to be my wife. My wife is one of the coolest people I’ve ever known and she’s a hoot. This friend of mine that worked at a surf shop said, “I have this friend of mine I’d like to you meet. I think you’d really hit it off.” So she introduced me to my wife-to-be and we did. We couldn’t be more different. She’s a redhead from New York. And I’m a grayhair from Hawaii. She’s just inspiring because she’s got that beginner mentality. She wants to go out every day no matter what the conditions are. I was always in that frame of mind of, “If the sun’s not out and it’s not at least waist to shoulder or above, and if its not glassy, and if its not the right tide, I ain’t going out there.” Now I’m surfing probably three to four times more than I normally would!
What are you grateful for?
I’ve been incredibly lucky. I feel I’ve been lucky my entire life. I’m grateful for the fact that I’m alive. I’ve been this close so many times. I’ve been given my last rites twice, I’ve been told I’d never walk again; all kinds of things. I can still surf. I’m immensely grateful for that.
What happened when they said you wouldn’t walk again?
I broke my neck from crashing my car. I was totally paralyzed for weeks and I was partially paralyzed for months.
What do you love about shaping?
What I love about it is the challenge to be able to create stuff, to design and play. I watch videos of people shaping and it seems simple, but I see the little nuances in everything. Like the blanks, I’ll look at the microscopic things. I like the challenge of trying to create something that’s gonna work—and by that I mean, surf well for the person who’s going to get that surfboard.
How do you determine what’s going to work for someone?
The most important thing is what they want to do with it. Back in the day they used to ask people, “Are you beginner, intermediate or experienced?” And then they would try and push you onto a board based on that criteria. I don’t find that valid anymore. I don’t think you should be an intermediate surfer, and therefor, surf a lesser board. I firmly believe there is nothing wrong with putting a beginner on a high performance board if given the finances. An analogy I like to make is this: When you first learn how to drive, does that mean you have to drive the shittiest car on the road? No, you can learn how to drive an Audi. You’re probably safer.
What does surfing mean to you?
When I first moved over here, all my friends were into different sports, not surfing. They were like baseball players and football players. They would ask me why I surfed. I would say, “I never thought about it.” When I was a little kid, growing up in Waikiki, everybody surfed. When we go to the beach, we had fishing poles, slings to dive with, goggles to dive with, surfboards to surf with, and a beach towel. It was just a part of my life!
What’s next for Guy Okazaki?
More of the same. Maybe some more travel. I enjoy doing what I’m doing. I do what I love.
Learn more about Guy Okazaki and his shapes here. Rhea Cortado is the author of the blog The Surftorialist. Photographs of Guy shaping and his portrait by Allan Nadel. Surf photography by Santo Rimicci and Michael Riggins.