Aired on 2022, Jan 05th  in Podcast / Shapers / Surfers

Interview with Akila Aipa

Aloha, welcome to the 3rd episode of the 5th series of our podcast.

Today with us, from North Shore Hawaii, former pro surfer and now shaper Akila Aipa.

We discussed with him about surf industry, surf culture, shaping and much more!

You can find the episode on all major podcast platforms or read the transcribed version here in our website!

TTOS: Aloha Akila, welcome to the show, where are you today?

Thank you for having me Aloha from warm, beautiful sunny North Shore.

TTOS: Fantastic! North Shore, amazing place. Today we are gonna talk about many things, but the first question that I have for you is, in your opinion, what is the most important thing in surfing

Culture and community….. It doesn't start unless you're fortunate enough to grow up the beach and you don't realize how big the surfing community is around you…when you're young, you have blinders on with hopes and dreams and then when you kind of settled into it, you realize that the strength is in it, it is in helping your community and gaining the support and respect of your community as a young man or an athlete and I think that's really important.

I think there's so many growing steps in our sport industry and, you know, these kids are very lucky!  They're like sharpen swords, kids like John John and Jamie O'Brien, they grew up at Pipeline…they're very fortunate to grow up at Pipeline and, when you grow up in the gladiator pit, you become a gladiator, whether you want to or not, at some point you're gonna slay lines and those kids are very comfortable at 10 to 12 foot pipe, which is very, very challenging, it is really hard to, to triangulate your takeoffs really. There are a ton of benefits, if you're lucky enough to grow up in some of the right places in the world, you know, like Jaws or South Africa or Mexico…we're gonna see young pros coming outta these places and Bali, we are seeing numbers rise internationally across the board and, you know, people question “why is there a Brazilian storm?”  

Well, they have numbers and they have passion, you know, there are a lot of great surfers coming from there and so does Australia and Australia treats their sport with a lot of respect, the country recognizes surfing as a sport and honors them as athletes…. we don't see that so much in America, I mean, maybe through the surf industry media, but not through major media, not until the Olympics hasn't really been, you know, put on the scene.

The numbers of pros coming out of Hawaii have always been high, if you compare us to NFL scouting report, there's a lot of pros coming out of Hawaii and Brazil, there are a lot of opportunities that kids have now that before, when we were children, you would have to be a doctor to earn a hundred thousand dollars a year.

Most young surfers are “kind of knocking” on that door even before being successful on the tour. That has changed 1000% industry, but it's also eliminated your average blue-collar surfers. There's not that much opportunity anymore, there's not print media, there's one, one or two magazines in the industry, which is quite sad….. our world has changed immensely in the last few years in not so many great ways.

I think everyone's learning that, surf, surf culture and surf community realize that surf is much more than a sport…it's a culture, it's a subculture….

If you're thinking about it for a second, pro surfing matters for the probably like 0.2% of the world, really doesn't affect people's lives, people are appreciating it kind of like basketball, right? I mean, at the end of the day, how much does basketball affect your life? It's about people just being passionate and supporting athletes that they love, you know, the sports that they love to watch.

I think surfers need to be thankful of the opportunity, I think of surfers, musicians and artists as being really fortunate because we put out like a vibe or a style and it creates income for you, that's a really unique opportunity in this world, you know, as an artist, as a musician, as a surfer.

Whether you go for the pro tour or not, look at how many other sports don't offer that, you can't just be a freestyle tennis player, you can't just be a freestyle golfer, obviously our sport houses a culture and that culture is still an influential, highly influential….

Look at guys like Dan Reynolds, Jamie O'Brien and Mikey February , they're finding just as much success off the tour as they would've found onto grinding the pulp, not happy, not engaged, you know, I can't speak for them, but maybe they would not even be engaged with their fans and that's probably not a fun place to be…. where on their personal platforms, they're on a one-to-one relationship with most of those people….. now they can directly market themselves and brand themselves and they have control of that.

That's powerful in this day and age, we didn't have that in our generation, if used wisely, this is a powerful tool, you know, we are not sure how long these platforms are gonna last with social media, YouTube and stuff, but, you know, these kids are making v-logs, they're making their Instagram pages and these are strong, they're realizingthat they're their own brand now and there's more at stake being your own brand, but there's also more return, there's more margin to be made. I think Jamie O'Brien is a perfect example of that with his merchandising and self-branding, and he's probably finding out more than anything else, that the harder he works, the more he makes and all this effort, he puts out, comes back to him.

Everything comes from him, not some CEO selling his you're selling his stuff, somebody that doesn't even surf, that doesn’t live or belong to surf culture or surf neighborhood. That's been the case for too long and luckily a few of the surf major brands were owned by long time surfers, like Bob McKnight (Quiksilver) .

You know, I have a lot of respect for brands like Rip Curl, they've been a family brand for so long… Doug Warwick and a few of other owners have been around a long time since the early days. I have a lot of respect for brands like those that stay true to the athletes and true to the industry, they make products that surfers need and have used for many generations.

That's a testimony of how sustainable those brands are and those businesses are, it's sad to see so many of them sell out to try and have a broader reach… I was a part of Billabong when the revenues were 5 millions usd before I went to 20 , I was part of Oakley before it blew, I was a part of Fox….

I like to think I did all my college years with all these brands, I also got to work for Burton Snowboards in the product development, when these went from 20/30 millions dollars to a hundred million. I got to see how all these companies grew and also how maybe they shouldn’t have  grown to protect their image and their their reputation….

I gonna use the word “equity”, when these brands have equity and they start diminishing that equity and not doing it right, that's where I saw the problems… when you're own and bought by someone else, which are usually shareholders, it's not about core values, it's about growing those share values.

This is what investors do, they want first and foremost a return…. you're sitting in these meetings, watching how these people act and watching pamphlets of paper on how they're planning to make that money and make those dividends back for the people that are buying into shares.

That's usually through international distribution and growth, there's no another way to get a product out there and to make the dividends, especially when the margins are small on the products we built.

It was a very learning time in my life and it was very fun to be part of those brands and fun to watch how they took departments and made products and brought products to life in our industry and to find ways to retail them… was a great experience

TTOS: Definitely, thank you for sharing, in effect you said many things…. one that stuck into my mind is “hardworking” , you need to hard to have passion for what you do, but you really need to go out there and put all yourself, this is a thing that maybe will never change…..

Well, you see on tour, what hard work brings and nowadays on tour, I think you need to be very open as a professional, which means you have to be open for press, you have to be open for media, you have to be open for having a camera on you most times… In our generation, a lot of guys got away with just being talented and showing up, but you had guys very professional that were very professional that I learned from like Luke Kegan, Brad Gerlach and Mike Parsons…they were just as successful out of the water because they were very professional to talk to, they negotiated all their own contracts, they didn't had an agent speaking for them, they didn't have to give a percentage away most times….they're professional in many ways, not just in the water.

To have older friends that give you guidance, mentors, brothers, that showed us that we can be in control over ourselves and our profession and our future and our career should, if you're smart enough, not have hands off, otherwise you're at the mercy of what these managers and CEOs wanted to offer you.

These, these guys evolved in different ways and now you have to wear many coats to be a successful athlete, or to have a good business team around you, look at all these big athletes in the world…. Like Serena Williams, she hae cameras in her face, win or lose, a lot of media requirements, I think people don’t realize the pressure that come with that, whether you're Italo Ferreira or Kelly Slater... you know, the hardest year to follow up is that second year after being a world champion.

There is too much added pressure…. you show up, you gotta do a press release… the world champion is here, what you think about the field, what do you think about the event? …

You know, they're going through the same stuff every weekend, they need to be aware on them because it's a whole new responsibility and they're not usually aware of…

When you, let's say, “fly low on the radar” (lower twenties, lower tens). nobody needs to interview you at the start of every event….. you're not the guy on the map, you don't have the pressures of the press or the media constantly hounding you like some hot rookies or the top five guys….

You gotta wear a lot of coats, be very professional and very successful….

TTOS: Let's start to talk a little bit more about surfboards…. Do you remember your first proper surfboard?

Funny you ask, cuz here (it shows to TTOS) it was my very first surfboard, the first one I've ever had in my life!

My dad gave it back to me few years ago before he passed, I'll give it to my son one day.

That's my first memory. I remember riding that board at Waikiki when I was about two or three years old and it's pretty crazy to have those memories, I used to wear this little foam vest around me because that's the first time that I could go alone without my dad… we call Waikiki baby queens, it's perfect learning spot for a lot of kids, 90% of all the kids and Hawaii have learned there. I have memories of you my dad pushing me on and finding my way on….it's pretty special to have the board with me and close to me.

TTOS:  You have then became a pro surfer for a while, until you decided to become a successful shaper….

Dad (Ben Aipa) did it for 60 years and my main occupation was a professional surfer for 19, but dad was also smart, he told me the, that I should have something to transition to after pro surfing. He was just being honest and whether it was a trade, whether it was any trade, he was just bringing that to my awareness. Once I enjoyed shaping and I started in high school, once I knew that I could balance the surfing and the shaping and it wasn't hurting each other. I was only helping with my boards and my tooling, I was all in. I did 15 years next to my dad of my last eight years when I was traveling and on tour trying to be a pro surfer. I transitioned really smooth from pro surfing into shaping because I already had eight to 10 years experience in shaping.

That was thanks to dad and Town & Country shaping next to him and them, giving me stock work to learn on, to fill orders which was very kind of them (they had so much work at the time that they could afford for me to use that learning platform), if I had anything, any questions or anything that I thought in any technical part of shaping boards, I could just knock on his door and ask for 10 or 15 years.

My hobby and my passion was art and shaping with my dad, kind of quietly as I wasn't really telling guys where I was going, it was just my apprenticeship out with my dad. I wanted that transition to be smooth from pro surfing into a trade.

I didn't wanna be lost or feel lost where a lot of guys struggle with that…. a lot of guys do have an identity in their life from surfing and when they don't have that from surfing, I believe like a lot of other athletes in sports, it's a redefining moment for them in their life of what are they gonna do, where they gonna be and how do they carry on or how do they join part of society and community….

The transition shouldn't be so hard, you should be able to tap into where you come from and what you were before that and you should enjoy the wild ride that it gave you. A lot of guys can't understand that and respect that, as consequence it's very difficult to walk away.

I had that problem, it was a very difficult culture and lifestyle, the parties and the travel and the cultures were way more fun than contest and that's the hardest part to walk away from it because we all did well, we all competed well, we all made money, we all made enough to travel. It really comes down to us, not wanting to stop traveling and being together, you know, in, in that sense. And when you know it was a unique sport, you're seeing guys peak so much later now in their thirties and forties, where at 25, 28, you were gone on the tour in our generation.

You know, today you see guys in their thirties on tour, coming also with their families, we didn't travel with families back then, it wasn't so easy travel and now it became difficult again.

A bunch of guys raised our kids on tour and it's really odd now to see fathers retiring and stepping away from the tour because they want to be with their families because travel is dangerous….it's not easy….. years are long and you're missing your children growing up and these guys are not willing to do that. And here's the other part….they're very fortunate, they've made a good lot of money to give them that luxury.

Our generation was not allowed that, so these fathers had to grind, there was a whole different reality. If these fathers were clocking those dollars and invested them wisely, they could even retire.

TTOS: Looking back at your career as a surfer until today, what was the best moment?

Wow, that's a good question, I don't know, beause dad always kept me humble and we always have simple philosophies that we're only as good as the last surfboard we make….

The obvious answer to that is the Kelly Slater board project, I mean the visibility, the stature that he is in this industry and sport, probably being the most winning, having the most winning record we might ever see in this, this sport, which is pretty amazing. Obviously working with him, you know, we've been friends a long time, but we just started working together in a professional sense with these models, I've always built him boards, but he always had great relationships with the people he has worked with in the past which has been Al Merick for years….so, out of respect to him and Al there's never been a reason to really build him board a bunch of boards or build him a line of boards.

Now that he's working with a few different shapers, it's been a blast and it's been very good for visibility, very good for business. I'm very humbled by it because there's a lot of great shapers out there in the world that don't get that visibility opportunity, I've been doing this for 30 years and I'd like to retire and that opportunity's coming now (you don't have a choice of when it comes or how it comes) and I have to ride it out for the next 10 years, because I just have to, I don't have a choice. You know, I'm doing this, you know, this is what I do, I'm very thankful to have of that injection for the business with the visibility.

TTOS: do you want to know more about this interview, please visit our spotify page!

TTOS: we are going to finish our interview with a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes up to your mind….The best surfboar you ever ridden…

Oh, that's a tough one…..I'm a shaper…I'm gonna answer all of them. I was a lucky kid. I grew up with a dad as a board builder. I got to try many amazing boards…..I can't answer that.

I can share one, one board with you and it's still in my quiver, in my old house here down by the beach. It's my 10/1 gun that my dad made me maybe for my 19 eighth or 21st birthday for Waimea, it's the only gun I've ever owned because it's made it through the career. It has got a buckle on it, but  my dad had so much experience out there and knowledge with building boards and surfing Waimea that luckily I never broken and it didn't go in the rocks.

It has handled every big wave I've ever wanted…. I have to remake that board because my roommate started riding it in big waves and I didn't wanna break it. I had to re I had to redesign it, I had to look at dad's board and make one around it. I did a ten one for my friend, my roommate and myself. I don't want anyone riding this board anymore, because it has too much sentimental value now that dad's not here. I'd be really heartbroken of broke it or lost it.That's probably the most special board to me because that has the most significance because I've ridden the biggest waves with my dad, with my friends….it has got some of the fondest memories of my surfing career, that's been the scariest.

TTOS: Your favorite shaper….

Well, that's another tough one….you're not throwing me any easy ones. Huh?

Sam Egan, Luke Egan's dad, you know, I mean still shaping, still loving it. And you know, I mean, I can say him because there's a video of him in the shaping room, dancing and shaping, and that's my inspiration.

I wanna be 78 in my shaping room, creating, dancing, you know, because I dance in my shaper room, but I don't not share with anyone cause I'm too ashamed….probably my favorite shapers are the guys that are doing it and still passionate about it, that love what they do, that's inspiring to me.

TTOS: Your favorite song …..

 A local singer from Kauai right now, it's called wake up, it's just a good island vibe and it's been my favorite song for the last month or so. I like all kinds of music, I mostly listen to hip hop when I shape, because I like the beats, it keeps me upbeat like hip hop and rap….I like the lyrics, the stories and the beats….

TTOS: Your favorite surf spot….

Well, it used to be Backdoor Pipeline for 15 years, but now it's too crowded and too dangerous, if you don't have total commitment.

My favorite spot is a less beaten spot, down the way.. it's just left, almost like a point break left and I'm not gonna share the name because we don't need to add any more people there….it's quiet for the most part and I wanna be respectful of the people in the community that live in it.

I can get my waves, I can get my surfing in, I can get my exercise and I it's peace of mind because all these spots up here have all the young pros at them, getting their photos, getting their clips and it's very, it's very intense. I've done that for a long time, I don't wanna be intense anymore in the water, I don't choose to be.

Most of the designs I'm usually testing are short designs and I also have two shoulder dislocations that didn't get the surgery for. So if I surf big waves and one pops out, that's scary enough, if both pop out, I can't reset them, I can't get the surface and I'll probably drown…..I don't really do big waves anymore.

In my generation we didn't wear vests and I don't really wanna wear them if I can't swim out and swim in, that means I shouldn't be out there, I don't wanna put that accountability on.

That's where I'm, at my age, I'm 51, dude, I think I'm allowed!

TTOS: Who's your favorite surfer?

All time? Dane Kealoha, easy answer for me…. favorite surfer and favorite person…I was fortunate enough to surf with him “back door” a few times, towards the end of his career, just to see the beauty of him riding a twin fins out there. My first trip to Japan as a professional with Town & Contry was with Dane, Sunny, John Shimooka. Dane was the alpha, there is no doubt about it, no one, everybody fell in line behind him, even Sunny (Garcia) when Sunny was pretty much a hot head in his own individual at the time. We had that much respect for Dane and what he did for our sport… he just carried himself that way, he kind of just demanded that respect, even though he wasn't a dick about it by any means, I can honestly say he's one of the few people I've seen to paddle at the Pipeline, Back Door and have a 25 yard radius around him.

I've never seen any person have that kind of respect, maybe Jerry Lopez, maybe a 10 or 15 foot yard radius around him, but Dane, he had a 25 yard radius around him where no one came into his circle. No one cared if he was going left or right, it just didn't even look out that wave, cause you didn't know if he was gonna left or right, he was so good…. it was rad to watch his own men give him respect in that way too.

During my first trip to Japan with him, we're staying somewhere for contest with Town and Country team and we got that this local river mouth that was surfed by locals only.

Town and Country had a shop in there at the time, they told us that we were invited by one of the locals to surf it, only Dane was invited…. while he started gathering his items, wetsuit and board, he looks at me and goes, “Akila grab your stuff, you're gonna get barreled”. He didn’t look at any other guys (Sunny/John/..) , and I'm like “oh, oh, okay”, so I got my stuff and we go in, we surfed a barreling river mouth as good as it gets, four to six feet with four guys off for four hours.

Wow! It was, it's probably the most memorable session of my life to surf with my hero, my surfing hero, the guy that I looked up to the most with the power representing Hawaii, just an all-around-badass human of a surfer, but also a cooler human.

And to get that time with him one on one… I felt it was such an honor to be invited by him to go surf with him. I think that was him just paying it forward to all the love and support my dad gave him with boards and mentorship and coaching… it was the greatest kindest gesture from my hero…. I'll never forget that session, that session's ingrained, it'll be the of my life with the person I look up to the most. And then, the end of the end of this story, we were still traveling through Japan together and the next event is at a wave pool, a tiny wave pool, I think it was forgot where it was Miyazaki, whatever it was….

We had a heat together, a man of man, heat together and we're talking need to waste high waves in a wave pool. I beat my opponent in my first heat and then I had Dane in my next round… we're staying together, he's my hero and there's no strategy in there, cuz you jump off the wall and you go wave for wave, it was not like I had to yield to his priority or his intimidation because, in our generation, there was no priority…. it's pretty much like man to man, right?

In the pool, we jumped in wave for wave and, unfortunately, I beat him because I was lighter and I could get more maneuvers off, but I felt terrible and I thought he was gonna kill me…  luckily he wasn't going for a world title, it was a little later then.

I’m sure that, if he was going for a world title, probably would've ate me alive…. I was so bummed because I didn't want to beat him and I wasn't trying to surf my best…. it was just one of those things. I was like “oh I'm surfing against my hero” and I felt like he was handicapped because if it was that backdoor, he would eat me for breakfast. <Laugh> you know, with all his experience.

I felt it was unfair. It was just a strange moment, especially after we surfed together this magical session and then we had to compete together a week later at this event. To end it all, you know, at the end of the heat, we're showering together….I got my head down, I'm so bummed, I'm so embarrassed, you know, but I don't wanna be, because I gave my best effort to compete….he shook my hand and he congratulated me, he was so darn respectful in that moment where I thought he could just be the meanest guy to me…. he was so he was so professional and respectful that I was.

I was so blown away and, and like I said, I have so much respect for that man as a surfer and a human …that's my hero! I'm fortunate that I still get to communicate with him, I get to talk to him, I can't wait to build my twin fin and I hope he gets healthy, so we both surf again, he has got shoulder surgery….

I’m so blessed that I get to speak to my heroes, Buttons isn’t here anymore but Dane and Larry (Bertleman)  still come by the factory.

I'm in touch with the people that are my heroes….I'm so fortunate, Kelly's a friend and I looked to Kelly as a peer, a mentor, a friend, you know, but I mean, these guys are really, really my heroes.

The guys that took me surfing and babysat me with my dad and,  when my dad was surfing, Mark Buttons, Larry Betrlemann, those guys were so kind to me as a kid and, and that's where I feel that's ingrained and that's what I share with this generation…  having fun and enjoying the people and the culture and the places you're at, don't get so caught up in them, put your best foot forward in the competition, but don't get so caught up in points and money, you're not defined by that, you're defined by the people you touch and the cultures and the communities you reach.

The strength is in the community, your community supporting you….. you're helping them, you know, and the per once get beyond the personal gains and goals and you realize that you're only as strong as the human you help build around you.

I think that's a good place to see and that's a fun place to see, you know, the maturation process of this young athletes… it's fun to see a lot of these guys mature, I love seeing that, I think our sports in a great place, it's got a great future, we should be very thankful that we have so many jobs in livelihoods for us, you know, for simply putting out cool designs and a cool vibe and, you know, people, you know, appreciating that…..we're so darn for, thankful you for the opportunity, it is very important.

TTOS: Last question, your best relationship advice….

Wow, you throw me under the bus with that one, huh? Well, I can't say as I'm learning still…. I'm not in a relationship now because I had to learn the hard way, I had to learn how to be better at communication and support when in a relationship. I can briefly share something…. in our lifestyle culture, you change towns and cities so fast, your life becomes like a party, right? It's hard to find grounding and balance in that….. when that lifestyle trickles over into your personal life or your home life or that transition time, that's when it gets tough to balance and stop because it's very tempting…. you travel the world, the women are beautiful, they're half naked, it's always a party.

When do you come back to reality? I learned the hard way… when a woman demands that respect, that communication, that level of commitment, if you don't give it to her, she will leave or she will get it from someone that can give her that level of commitment that she needs. It doesn't matter who you are, what you're going through, I think the best advice would be if you're in a relationship is to give that person the support and communication they need to see. I know that that's probably the greatest mistake I made in my relationship, which is really hard. I don't mind being open and sharing that, but I think I have learned from my mistakes and I didn't have good examples in front of me, my parents weren't very good at communication.

You know, they swept everything under the rug and that's hard stand…. I made the same mistakes in some of my relationships and not that it was exact same, but I just learned… I had to do better and be better for the person that I'm in a relationship with, I think all people can appreciate that, whether you're a male or a female, I think we want the best out of each other and sometimes we're afraid to give that because we're not sure where it'll go, but if you don't give that, share that, and you're in a relationship, how do you know what you're able to achieve? If you're not honest and open about it….

 I think that's the hard part, but, you know, I can only speak for myself….

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