Aloha, welcome to the 6th episode of the second series of our podcast.
Today with us, from Hawaii, is the legendary surfer Joey Cabell know for his power and precision while surfing back in the sixties, founder of the Waikiki Chart House and amazing person!.
We discussed with him about surf and surfboards (obviously), but also and in particular, about his life, surf stories, friendship with Miki Dora, winning Makaha , The Duke and Malibu surf contests and much more!
You can listen to the interview in all major podcast platforms (Spotify, iTunes, YouTube) and also read the interview below (please forgive us of spelling mistakes)
TTOS : Aloha Mr. Cabell, welcome to the show, where are you today?
I’m in Honolulu, Hawaii. I’m here with my wife, Yana and Malia for a real close friend, we’re kind of sharing this experience together.
TTOS : Definitely a great experience for me as well, thanks a lot for being on the show today. We’re going to talk about many things! First question I have for you is, in your opinion, what is the most important thing in surfing?
The most important thing in surfing is dedication and commitment
You wanna be that person, you got to go for It!
The commitment is very important and when you start to ride bigger surf and huge seed, you gotta be ready for that, I’ll tell you down the line of some of the things I did to be ready for surfing when he got really big.
TTOS : You cannot be afraid, right? You really have to go for it, right?
You have to earn that position, you have to earn the ability to be respectful and you gotta be a little afraid of course, but at the same time ,you have to be prepared and ready, ready for the situation.
TTOS : You know, Greg Noll was also part of the show and he somehow told me the same thing, you need to earn your place in the lineup, but when you go, you go, right?
The key is to earn respect.
Growing up in Waikiki in the forties after WWII, I was surfing with the locals in Waikiki, and for them you were a holly boy, right? You had to learn respect with the local lineup and that was a great lesson I used throughout my life.
TTOS : I guess also that time, in Hawaii, there were a lot of people surfing than in the rest of the world, but still, I guess, surf was not as popular as today. Right?
True, now surfing is around the world everywhere, but in Hawaii it was a number one spot, the Californians and the Australians were the first people to start coming to Hawaii to surf our big waves.
TTOS : you know, sometimes, when I talk with with great legendary surfer, like you, it comes up the thing that, at that time, there was more space for everybody, there was less people surfing. The number of waves was,let’s say, the same, so everybody could surf more. Right?
Right, it’s a little harder today with so many people in the line up, there’s no doubt about it.
Here’s the interesting thing about surfing in this very late forties and early fifties…. if you dropped in on somebody and held them back, that was low ball, okay? So you would force the person inside of the curl into the whitewater and you would make it okay.
Well that is definitely not allowed anymore, but this is how it was done in those days.
You didn’t really have the “right of the wave” to yourself because somebody who’s going to drop in there was as good or better surfer than you and hold you back and drive you into the whitewater…so they could make it.
TTOS : It was also about personality, right?. You would need, in a certain way, to impose yourself….
Well, it was just a technique that was being done by everyone
TTOS : Okay. Let’s call it “technique”
I’m very interested about your early days when you learn about surfing,
I read about you and, if I’m correct, you didn’t start with surf, right? you started with bodyboard?
That was my mistake, I first started surfing. I really saw surfing for the first time, going to my first grade class, driving on a bus, seeing people surfing Waikiki. I was six years old, I knew I wanted to be a surfer.
It was a done deal….at six years old and that’s how it all started
TTOS : it’s amazing, I guess it’s something that all of us surfer professional or not, we know that when we surf that first wave is something that is going to stay with us forever, right?
That’s totally right. Totally right.
TTOS : What was your first surfboard?
The first surfboard was a redwood plank, solid redwood, It had a very V on the tail, so that would work like a fin and it was heavy, I had to almost drag it to the water and headed behind a hedge one block back from the avenue. In those days the houses were old and it just knocked on the door. “Can I leave my surfboard behind your penny cage?” and then I would drag this thing across the avenue and then carry it into the water. You know, that was the very first board, I was very young, the board was quite small though. It wasn’t huge, but it was still heavy.
TTOS : You guys, at that time, you had to be pretty in shape to lift those kind of boards.
We had to get in shape. There’s no doubt about it..
TTOS : Do you still have that surfboard?
No, I don’t, no reason to keep that board
TTOS : Do you have like a particular board that still stays with you since long time?
That’s easier, I do have a couple of boards that I made.
It was an order to all of us, I mean, you end up doing your own shaping because the boards that were available weren’t doing the right thing at the time.
For example, some of the boards we were riding, even if these were made by famous shapers, we would get in a 20 foot wave, and I’m talking about Hanalei that had quite a lineup and you would hit the bottom and you drive it into the wall and while you’re in the wall, traveling across the wave , as the wave, breaking over you and the board would fall away from my feet.
I have my hands and toes into the side of the wall, the way the board is now gone….wiped out…
There was a reason for that, back then, all the boards had a little bit of belly on the bottom of the board because everything was so symmetrically made that there was a little belly on the bottom of the board, that would make it fall out of the wave.
One day, I went home and shaped the board with more belly and I discovered that I would always fall out of waves, even on five, six foot ways. That’s it! No more belly on boards. Right?
I went and made my first flat bottom board and it was a miracle and how well it worked and then I brought the rails down a little lower and you know, it really was became a fast-forward board.
Another thing I did was I made the wide point only in the middle, not forward (in the early days, the wide point was forward the middle wide point of the board) with a bit of round bottom and the round rails….that was the problem with boards in those days.
I made some boards myself, and that’s how I started figuring out what was going on.
TTOS : It’s interesting, you know, because I’m talking with a lot of shapers, that don’t shape by computer and they still shape by hand….they say like, the biggest improvement that we have is the feedback that we have from the surfer.
The art of shaping is a completed with a good surfer because we already know all to shape, we know how to make the great the best surfboards, but we need the feedback of the surfer to improve.
In your case, you were able to shape the board that you were using….you knew what you needed.
And I think that was like the greatest thing off your surfboard, right?
I’m not trying to take credit for anything because everybody added 2 cents and did an amazing job in creating where the spirit of surfing went.
For me, at that time, I have found that I needed to do something to improve, what I was riding.
Those improvements, I just mentioned, made a huge difference and it could have been the start of a new era for surfboard shapes……
It’s gone crazy since then with a five/six, five/two, five/like boards that people like Kelly Slater are riding They’re sitting in the water and the water level is two inches under their armpits, that’s how far the board sits under water when they sit waiting for the lineups.
It’is incredible the direction of surfing that changed over the years and Kelly had a lot to do with it.
Kelly Slater and his competitors he rode with, from 2014 on that’s when the boards really got incredibly small
TTOS :. What was the defining moment, in your opinion, of your career?
I’ve had an opportunity to surf around the world in different contexts and so on, I knew I was on track for what I was creating for myself in the surfing world,I was driven to be that surfer and I just loved to surf.
After winning Makaha, three times and then, that same next year in 69, I won the Duke finally. I think that was the end of my drive in the ocean, I accomplished what I was after.
I had a great history of surfing and that was the defining moment for me in my surfing career.
TTOS : in 1963, you won both the Makaha and the Malibu book contest….what is the best memory of of that year?
That year was probably one of the highlights of my life from that surfing period, because I was also skiing and ski racing and between the ski racing I also opened the first chart house in 1961.
Those years, kind of all came together, coming to Aspen for ski racing, and then surfing, coming back to Hawaii.
I grew up surfing, so it was easy for me to add all of these sports together, I’d come back to Hawaii I leave Aspen, right in the middle of winter and going to Makaha and win Makaha.
I mean, it was crazy, then I went back that summer and win Malibu and two foot wave..
It was a combination of 15plus foot waves in Makaha and maybe three, at the most,in Malibu.
It was a period of my life where everything was going great, I was just “on it”, I was really fortunate, back to Aspen and living the winter lifestyle in the mountains, and then surf here in Hawaii part of winter and part of summer.
That was a very special time for me.
TTOS : Fantastic. Thank you for sharing, in effect, living in Aspen, I believe it was very difficult to train for surfing right over there….
You’re climbing mountains and you’re in shape for another sport, right?
You just change horses, but you keep running…. “keep running”,Okay?
I would like to take a moment and talk about one of my friend, Mike Dora, he was one of the strongest surfers out of California at the time, and you have to keep in mind that the Californians were the ones who came over here and really got into our big surf and lifestyle, in Hawaii they were famous for that…
Mike and I became close friends, I brought him to Kauai and we served Hanalei together.
I’ll give you an idea of how this went down….
One summer, he was on the East coast, working for Hansen Surfboards and he came visiting me on Kauai, I said“Mike, we’re going to swim the Napali coast, 17 miles swim”.
Another couple of friends were with at the time as I was working on my property on Kawai, we were swimming in white Neo river, up river,upstream to get in shape for the swim, against the current.
Mike arrives there and I’m saying “Mike you’re coming with us right?” and he goes: “shore!”
There was a rule, you can bring your bathing suit and goggles to your eyes, so they don’t burn, put a pocket knife in your patch and your swim short and no fins, no nothing….It’s a rule.
That’s how we all started off, we went 17 miles, spent night along the way on the beach, for three days.
After that swim, we werenow ready to surf big waves! In those days, there were no leashes, you had to be ready for the heat, huge oceans waves, we had trained all our life to be that person, a waterman…
With this kind of preparation I went to Hanalei with Mike Dora and we had a 24, 25 foot day…. Huge!
Those were huge waves, and you have to really know how to ride those, which wave to pick….
You couldn’t just pick any wave because they would close outon you, If you would pick the right wave, you could go right on through it .
We were there together surfing and that’s how you would be in shape back then, If you lost your board, you had to, fight with the current that would always try to take it off to sea.
You have to be able to find your board and hopefully don’t lose it, but that, unfortunately, happened…..
TTOS : You know, while you were talking, a lot of things came up to my mind… in particular, first thing is the level of training today….there is a lot of talk about surf training, a lot of people go to the gym and do a lot of things to prepare for surf, but at your time, the training, was more into the nature…..
You don’t need the gym. If you’re swimming 17 miles.
Swimming is the key, swimming is the gym!
TTOS : the other thing I was thinking while you were talking , is about surfboards from that era, as there was no leash, many of them got snapped, destroyed and so this is a reason why today, in pristine conditions are so collectible.
When I was reading about you and about your story, people are referring to you as a legend. Do you consider yourself one?
Well, I probably didn’t think of myself as a legend at the time, but now when I look back, I guess probably I was a legend, but I didn’t really work on that concept: “I’m a legend”.
I worked on my commitment to the ocean to surfing and the waves and being ready for them…big waves,
Getting respect in the lineup and all of those things, that’s what I was into at the time.
I didn’t think of myself as a legend, but maybe now, looking back, I guess, I might follow in what people are saying….you’re probably right.
TTOS : Definitively I think you are a legend and a lot of people have great respect of you.
For instance, you have been inducted in the Hunnington Beach walk of fame and a lot of people look at you like the legend, a living legend of surf.
I was so excited today to speak with you also for that reason.
You know, you’re bringing up something that’s come to mind to me, I was in Hunnington Beach inducted as one of thelegends of surfing, and Bruce Brown before he died, came, especially just to be with me and to talk about my surfingand what we experienced together. I was so honored to have him there with me.
We go back way back, we even lived together for a little while in California, in the early days….it was really honorable.
Thinking about that, Hunnington Beach, and then thinking about the hall of fame, I was very honored to be there, but to have Bruce Brown with me that day, made the whole thing so special for me.
TTOS : like I told you, at the beginning of this interview, I saw the latest movie that Donna Brown, his son, did in memory of his father “A life of endless summer”. Looking at the movie, I believe we could say that he was a very, very nice person.
Oh, a wonderful person.
TTOS : thanks anyway for sharing this, I think, I hope when Donna will listen to this episode, he will really appreciate your kind words towards his father.
Looking back at your career, is there something that you would have done differently?
Of course, I would have had my wife Yana by my side the whole time, that’s the only thing I would have done different.
TTOS : again reading about you, they’re saying that you will be always remember for both your power and precision in surfing.
They’re very important and also your commitment and your direction of what you’re trying to accomplish, especially when the surf got large
TTOS : Yes, definitely, would you pick one or both of them at the same time..
They go together, don’t they? How could you separate the two? Then you should go into style, what style hooks them together and you’re surfing, right? That’s part of what people want to watch when they see surf…
TTOS : I completely agree with you. I actually like the statement when you are saying that “style puts together, power and precision”.
You had amazing things happening in your life, between surfing, snowboarding, The Charthouse and a lot of other projects, are you still currently working on on something else or you are totally committed right now to family?
The Charthouse is in Waikiki has been closed because of the coronavirus, we’re working every day to try to bring it back. There’s no, there’s no business in Waikiki now, thousands and thousands of rooms, not one of them are lit up with people. They just shut Waikiki down and I had to shut the business down, so, what I’m working on with my wife and Maliyah here to help you do reopen.
There’s something else, I can’t forget something else I’m working on….I built a sailboat or catamaran with Joe Quake, who is one of the most famous ocean people of the period. He built the first one andHe took the most off of the first design.
We built it together for a little over a year, every day and rebuilt it and launch it in 1975. And I sailed it immediately and we made a big statement in Hawaiian sailing as we went to Tahiti.
When the boat was still in the shop, before we went into the water, I had the name on the back of my boat called Hokulea is a name of our church, which is straight above, when you come from the Tahiti to Hawaii, you look straight above there and you see it.
Hokule’a was a name that I chose for that reason, because I know I was going to sail over there.
The canoe did the same thing, Herb Connie, who was a famous designer of the Hokule’a and all the drawings of early pre-white people coming in to Hawaii (the canoes of the period), he drew up all those famous, famous designs.
Well, we both came up with an idea and we launched almost the same exact time voyaging and my boat, but they went to Tahiti a year early in 66, and I went in 1977.
That was a very special moment for me and then you know, I have re remodeled the boat a bit for a modern range, very contemporary and I sell it twice a week, every week.
It’s really fun to go up way to 14 knots up run, and then come back, come down when it is over 20 knots… it’s fun to sail.
TTOS : We’re going to finish our interview with a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes up to your mind.
The best surfboard that you have ever ridden.
Well, I’d say, that’s the one that I built for myself when I changed the direction of design at that period called the “White Ghost”, I can see it right in the wall there, I built two boards at the time for big wawes.
TTOS : Your favorite shaper, other than you, of course….
I think for the longboards Donald Takayama was my favorite shaper, but of course he always gave me boards that I could hang ten on
And then Dick Brewer for his early days shaping guns, he was very notable for his early shaping designs.
TTOS : Personal question, your favorite song….
Well, my favorite song is Waikiki.
Waikiki at night when the shadows are falling, you know, it’s a beautiful song.
Any Cummings wrote out in 1938 Lansing, Michigan, can you imagine that? I mean, he’s an iron boy grew up in Waikiki, he did everything I did years before, you know, 10 years before me in Waikiki got the few that you got the love for it. And the song is…..unbelievable.
TTOS : Your favorite surf spot.
It has to Hanalei, Hawaii
TTOS : your favorite surfer.
Well, I’m not going to go back in time as I talked a lot about Mike Dora and there was a lot of great surfers in that period, I can’t mention them all. The only reason I mentioned Mike is because of the spending time with him, surfing, swimming and even snowboarding!
I’m going to jump to the modern times. I have to say that maybe Kelly Slater has to be the man of the hour, going back… he started surfing when he was young and now, he’s 48….that just shows you how powerful and how committed he has been in wanting to continue to be that person….. It’s amazing.
He went pro in 1990, but in those days, everything was quite different, boards were longer and as he continued in that direction, the boards got smaller and smaller.
Now the boards that he makes in his own shop under his own name, they’re like five feet/five inches, 18 and three eighths wide and maybe two inches thick. What’s interesting, they’re so small that when you’re sitting in the line of waiting for the wave, the waterline is two inches under your armpit and everybody’s riding these kinds of boards today, but what does that mean? I’ll say that it makes the turn off the top, the bottom turn and the cutbacks more radical, ever, ever in such a short board.
It’s amazing, It’s fun to watch….no-one’s hanging 10 on them anymore,the style is so different as radical and it’s , at the same time, beautiful but the other style is more graceful and it’s still powerful too.
TTOS : if somebody in 1963 would have show up on a contest, riding a five/0 surfboard would be like considered crazy.
They would not know how to use it….They wouldn’t win, they wouldn’t win anything because you have to learn that, that took years to learn .
TTOS : Pointing system was completely different, right?
If suddenly, if somebody could ride that board and in a context of that period, the way Kelly rode it, rides it now, it’d be night and day.
Of course, I mean, compared to what was going on then it was, it wasn’t there yet…. surfing had not arrived at the point is today and show it.
Everybody takes merit to take a little credit for bringing it along., you know, you add 2 cents and the next guy does the same and, suddenly you are in the current period.
TTOS : It would be fun to see today’s surfers compete like in the old days, with old surfboards and with the old point systems, Kelly Slater, Gabriel Medina, John John Florence…..
Let’s talk about John John for a minute….he’s obviously our most amazing Hawaiian surfer without a doubt.
He usually dominates Kelly at times and Kelly still there, but John is a lot of younger, he’s gotta be one of our great water people up today, catamaran, surfing and also designing
TTOS : the last question of our interview , we want to know your best relationship advice…
Be faithful, honest and committed
I never see another woman then my wife Jana.
Recorded in October 2020.