Welcome to the 22nd episode of the second series of our podcast.
Today with us, from the North Shore of Hawaii, the legendary shaper Eric Arakawa!
Let’s discover more about his history, surfboards shaping, innovation and much more!
You can follow us on all major podcast platforms or read the interview below (please forgive us of spelling mistakes)
TTOS: Aloha Eric, welcome to the show! Where are you today?
I’m sitting in my factory office in Hawaii. It’s a good thing to be on an island nowadays, we’ve been able to surf the whole time.
In the beginning, when everyone was locked down, our Governor said that surfing is an essential activity, so we had really good surf and we were all surfing…. that kept our sanity.
TTOS: What is the most important thing in surfing?
I think the most important thing is to have fun, that’s the reason why we all started, but for many of us, there’s been times along the way, where we were still surfing, but we weren’t having fun.
Sometimes it’s attitude or maybe expectations….maybe comparing to the way things were before it could be health, it could be maybe some of our abilities, maybe the crowds, maybe attitude.
I think the most important thing is to keep in mind we surf because it’s fun, we need to keep it fun and we need to be able to adjust to adapt to what is happening around us.
TTOS: I totally agree with you and with this podcast, I was able to interview some surfers that just said, “we were competing and it became not fun anymore”, so we decided maybe to do videos or other things and to keep having fun, but without all that pressure…
Do you remember your really first surfboard?
Yes, I remember it! In fact, I was just thinking about that today, interesting that you asked this question. Just right before this interview with you, I had two customers in our factory looking for a board for themselves and actually a guy from France was talking about a board that he used to ride and I started talking about a board that I rode when I in Waikiki, one of my first board, a brand new board, it was a five/six, and it had twin fins.
I think I was 10 years old and I learned on something very short.
TTOS: Do you still have that board?
No, I wish I had all my early boards, but you know, when you’re 10 years old, 11, 12, you don’t think about those kinds of things, you get rid of it, you move on to the next new thing, the next best thing. TTOS: Exactly, but, sometimes, you’ll rediscover maybe an old surfboard in some shops or some friends or cousins kept it……it’s the dream of everyone to have his own first board.
How was the transition between being a surfer and being a shaper?
It was natural, in your first question, you asked me “what’s the most important thing in surfing” and my answer was fun, likewise with, with shaping, fun is important, but, for me, there is also a practical reason as I love working with my hands and I got into shaping was because I was really young, I was too young to work, to get a job legally and being a poor young teenager and too young to work. It was almost impossible to gather up enough money to save enough money, to get a new board. So I decided that one way to shorten that time period of me getting a board and saving money would be to maybe just building one for myself.
That’s what I did and for me it was really fun, It was a new thing and the transition was really easy, it was a way to keep me in the water.
If I didn’t do it, then there was a longer period where I wouldn’t be surfing or I wouldn’t be on the board that I wanted, but the way fate plays it out, the first board I built myself, the very first board I actually made, it was the absolute worst board that I ever made it….but wasn’t maybe the worst board I ever rode, absolutely, without question….
The main reason for me to start shaping was to get me in the water with boards, but no one talked about the learning curve before I started and so, right away, I learned that there was a steep learning curve….
TTOS: A lot of shapers started to create boards first to themselves, then for others….
I had no intention to build a business, no intention to have a factory, all I wanted was to have a board to go surfing, I couldn’t see beyond that, but, after I built that first board, a friend of mine said “Hey, you know, make one for me”…. I said, “okay!”…. it was fun. I did one for him and then another friend and then a friend of a friend and next thing I knew was that I was doing boards for people I didn’t even know.
One day I realized….maybe I’m in business….it wasn’t planned.
TTOS: What was the defining moment of your career as a shaper?
I think there’s a couple of milestones and memorable moments. One was getting offered a job at a local surf shop in Hawaii and that really kind of got me to start to get on a certain track.
I started realizing, “well, maybe I can make a career out of this”, I was going to college at the time and I decided that I was going to quit school halfway through….I was in it for two years and I just thought I was going to travel and that I was going to become a shaper.
This job actually brought me to Europe about a year later, I was there for about six months and ended up coming back to Hawaii and hooked up with Michael Ho.
I got reconnected with him and started building boards for him….that year he won the Pipe Masters, with a cast on his arm with a broken arm.
I think that was a huge milestone and I think that really changed the course of my career.
TTOS: I think that was a great moment and great memory as well! You are known for the great quality of your boards and for you innovation is key, right?
My mind is always looking for it, but, as much as you innovate, what really sticks is really what people wants in the water.
There’s this equilibrium that we have constantly to work with. It’s about scalability and also functionality and when all these things come together, then we find the equilibrium point.
It is interesting that you brought that up because we have this type of construction and technology. That we’ve developed it over 12 years by now….. we’ve created this suspension system in the inside of the board….it is a carbon and bamboo suspension system, stringless and works really well.
The boards are very reactive, responsive, there’s a dynamic action that the structure creates, but it’s so expensive and the tolerance are so tight that we have a high reject rate…. they’re expensive to build and we can’t actually sell them enough to really make the time we put in it worth…. the difficulty that’s involved in actually making these boards and scaling their business.
Because of this pandemic and all that is going on, we’re actually putting that on hold right now and we are really focusing on our core market and core products.
I think innovating is really important, but there’s times to shift and just time to focus, right now we’re shifting and we’re focusing on our bread and butter stuff.
Innovation, a lot of times it’s a process, sometimes you take two steps, you take a step backward to take two steps forward and that’s the way it’s always been over the years as I’ve been building boards, hopefully you’re always making forward progress.
TTOS: And you know, innovation is not only about finding something new and impressive that other didn’t thought about it, but it’s also maybe taking a boards from the eighties and readjust it to modern time and modern surfing ……
It’s like this old cliché….”there’s nothing new under the sun”.
You hit the nail right on the head, this is what we’re going through right now.
There’s so many designs that we’ve done in the seventies and eighties that are just resurfacing now.
My son is in his twenties and he basically runs a business right now, he is the other creative head in the business….he’s saying “Hey, we should do this and that” and I say “we did that already, in the seventies” then he goes… “that’s the point! That’s the point! It’s cool. It’s old!”
This is what is happening right now and he’s actually forcing me to revisit things that we’re doing, taking some designs with our experience and today’s knowledge of materials…
Re-introducing some of these designs with a fresh look, it’s a great process, revisiting and going back.
TTOS: That’s a great synergy you have with your son, both of you challenge each other in a good way.
That’s a good word, we are challenging each other.
He definitely brought fresh eyes, I actually have been pleasantly surprised because he’s brought freshness, new ideas.
You know, I’ve been doing this my whole life and I’m the boss, you know, and when I have an idea, we just do it, but now, for the first time ever, I have someone that is challenging me on it and is telling me, “that’s not a good idea….no….that’s bad”. He will tell me straight where no one else told me that before, sometimes I like to hear it, but ,sometimes, it hurts my pride, but I find myself getting overruled.
I’m realizing, you know what, I need to start making some room, I’m working on a succession plan right now and it’s good to have young people, young ideas infused into the way we do things and it’s going to be challenged.
TTOS: Is there a young shaper that can be very successful in the future or today is very good in what he does….?
Yes, there is one and…. he works for me!
I’m not just saying that just because he works for me.
He started working in the factory, running my machines and he loves working with his hands as he loves to surf! He’s very artistic and creative and, you know, he was just running the machines and just one day he just wanted to just try creating a board with his own hands so he asked me if he could do that and I said yes! I just got him set up with some tools and give him a little jumpstart and he’s been at it ever since. And the more time he got building his boards and building boards for his brothers and stuff the better he got! I had him start finishing some boards, just the few at a time and he’s still with me after 17, 18 years….he’s really good.
When I look at him, I see a lot of myself, the young era, I see the hunger and I see his tenacity and his perseverance, he’s a perfectionist also!
I see the things and the agony that he goes through if things aren’t just right, but I like that! I pushed him to really expand his borders…..
There’s not too many shapers like that, there are a few, but there’s some that have a special quality and what’s really important for any shaper, a creator, a builder, a painter, a photographer, a sculptor someone who designs cars or planes, you have to be able to see it before it exists.
You have to conceptualize it , just come up with ideas is it’s not enough yet to build to the next step, to where you actually see something that does not exist right now.
You got to see it existing in your head, you have to see the details and everything whether, if it’s a circle, the lines, a curves, you have to see everything coming together, it has to be finished in your head before it exists.
The skilled visionary knows how to bring what he sees, what’s exists in his mind into life, into the physical.
There are a few shapers that I’ve met in my life that have that…. and he has that!
TTOS: Who else, for instance, a lot of people I interviewed from San Diego told me that Skip Frye is one of those shapers that conceptualize everything inside their heads and then they create
Skip Frye, for sure, he’s one of the guys that will be at the top of the list, I’m sure there’s others, you know…. we have machines right now, we have a software that will generate the circle designs for us.
The thing is that it only puts out what gets put into it…. bad information… garbage in, garbage out.
If you don’t put in the right information at the end, we only get garbage….
Guys like Skip….. he sees on the other end and that is something that not everyone can do, people have to go work along the way and see things and whittle and add this, take this away, but to be able to just go from here, just conceptualizing things, thinking like, okay, here’s a need, this is what we need to do, here’s a performance goal and then being able to see this thing completely finished, that’s, that’s a gift.
TTOS: I completely agree with you on that! If you had to give advice to a young shaper which one would it be?
Maybe one will be just super simple and practical, but I’ll give you two, the other one is more philosophical.
The practical first, just be willing to work hard and always do your best, that would apply to just everything, right? I think that is worth doing and, because to actually start to grab a black and start shaping something, try to create something that looks like a surfboard that floats, that can ride a wave is different than just to actually building really good boards that make people happy when they’re out.
What we’re doing is we’re creating more than a surfboard for me. I tell my factory crew “we’re creating more than surfboards, we’re not in the surfboards business…..what we are doing is creating an experience for our customers….it’s more than a just a surfboard”.
We have to put more into it than just building a board, we have to look, we have to realize it’s more than just foam and fiberglass, anybody can…. be ready to work hard and do your best!
On the philosophical answer, if you’re going to go that far, is to devote that much time to building surfboards, to delivering an experience, then along the way, make sure that you’re shaping lives too!
Shaping lives is important, because, at the end of the day, at the end of your life, the most important things that you’re going to have is not the business, not being able to say “yeah, I’m a surfer, I won a championship on my boards or a Pipe Masters title, or whatever world title”, at the end of the day, the inventory in your life, the things that are going to make the most are going to be most significant are the relationships, so along the way, be sure that you’re shaping lives.
No journey is not going to be a solo one, it’s going to involve a lot of people.
TTOS: I agree with what you are saying….
What’s next for your, for your company? Do you have any special project?
I’ll share one thing, I started shaping when I was 14 years old, I quit school and decided to travel.
I ended up in Europe and started shaping there, when I came back to Hawaii I started a new company, Island classics, it’s the brand that Michael Ho that the Ho brothers rode, Michael Ho won a Pipe Masters, Derek won a couple of pipe masters, and they all won a number of titles on those board brand.
I sold it to Hawaiian Creations over 20 years ago, but I got it back and I want to start doing it again.
I want my son involved, Matt Wooley, Ryan, all my crew involved in this new project, it just seems to be a really good time to go exploring the possibilities of reintroducing this thing to the next generation.
TTOS: What stops you from doing it right away…?
I think the biggest thing is time as we’re very busy. The other thing is timing.
I started this project with Derek Ho and he just passed away just a few weeks ago (TTOS we recorded this interview in august 2020), I saw him just a few days before he went into the hospital.
We’re just hitting a pause right now and we’re gonna wait, I’m gonna just talk to Michael, his brother. and I just give it a little bit of time.
I don’t know how much time maybe we’ll pick this up, back towards the end of the year, maybe this winter when we start getting waves in North Shore again.
The whole project started with talking to Michael and Derek and reproducing some of their iconic boards and I want to reproduce the board that Michael won the Pipe Masters on and, with Derek, I actually just reproduced the one who won the Pipe Masters, I got together with him (Derek) earlier this year and said “Hey, let’s do one of your Pipe Masters” pick the board that you want and he says, “I want my seven, six board and he also mentioned, he rattled off the year that he rode it in the Pipe Masters”
I said “seven, six, green, red, I don’t remember that”, but I kept all the original order forms, I have them in file, like hundreds of them, we went through them together and I pulled out the seven, six, and I looked at it out of, yeah, I don’t know many 7/6, but there was this one, the year that he talked about and I pulled it out and it had green rails written on the order form! It was an hand shaped board, so this new board has to be hand shaped too!
We did it! that’s the board he had actually a lot of clips of him riding that board at Pipeline.
It was really heavy takeoff where he almost fell backwards in the spit, blew out of the tube and actually helped to bring him back up.
That was the start of it, but because of his untimely passing, we’re going to hit the pause button and maybe we pick it up again this winter.
I’ll talk to Mike and Michael and we’ll get to reproducing one of his boards too
Derek Ho was a great guy, together with Michael, they are amazing surfer and amazing people to work with.
If there’s two surfers, anyone that really helped me with my shaping and the development of it, these were the Ho brothers, it was challenging, I’ve lost many, many nights sleep, but it was to my benefit and I’m so grateful to both of them.
TTOS: I would finish this interview with a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that pops up to your mind….
The best surfboard you ever rode….
Well this is supposed to be quick, rapid fire….. I had a six/ six round pin and it was my personal board and I ended up selling it to Ricardo. it ended up being a really good board and I sold it anyway
TTOS: Your favorite shaper.
My favorite shaper…easy. That was Harold Giggy, he passed away too, he was actually in his eighties, this guy was in the same class as Skip Frye and I actually rode his boards before I started shaping.
You know what, I’m going to go back. I’m going to retract my answer, one of the best boards, most memorable boards I’ve ever ridden was a board shaped by him for me….it was a six to routed pin, tail yellow, bottom magenta deck.
TTOS: Personal question, your favorite song…..
It is a classic one, it is called Amazing Grace.
It’s amazing. And you know, for me, it’s been personally true in my life. I’ve received amazing grace,
TTOS: your favorite surf spot….
the right Manya
TTOS:, your favorite surfer.
for a lot of different reasons, Andy Irons is one of my favorite surfers.
TTOS: The last question is a little bit unusual, I would like to know your best relationship advice.
Well, I’m going to give you an answer, I think you’re not even going to expect.
This is something that I really take very, very seriously….
Surfing is really important, it’s a huge part of my life.
The other thing we talked about is you asked me what kind of advice would I give to an aspiring shaper and to work hard, but at the same time, to make sure that you’re shaping lives because in the end of your life, it’s the relationships that matter.
This last question you’re asking me to me, I think maybe sums it all up and it ties it all together. The best relationship advice that I can give that I apply to my own life personally, is relate to your first is relate to the second question.
This last one ties it up, the most important thing is relationship!
That’s the most important thing I’ve learned through surfing.
For me, the most important thing in relationships is this amazing grace that I received.
You asked me, what’s my favorite song. And it’s just amazing grace that I received from, from Jesus Christ , our savior and affects everything I do. It affects the way I conduct business it’s affects the way I treat my employees. It affects the way I build a surfboard, how I treat my customers. It inspires me. It inspires me to do my best, my customers, my employees, my family, my children. It, there’s not one thing it does not affect. And am I perfect? No, but I do. I need a lot of grace, amazing grace. And through this process, I’ve learned to extend that grace to other people. And the most important thing for me, the relationship, the relationships at the end of the day are the most important thing. And the most important relationship of all that is my relationship with Jesus Christ. The one that created the waves.
TTOS: Amazing answer, thank you Eric for being on the show today!
Recorded in August 2020