The surfing world mourned the passing of the great Ben Aipa in early January ... then shortly afterwards Aipa's spirit graced Hawaii with one of the greatest swells in recent history, now known as 'The Ben Aipa Swell'. Aipa was a big man, his impact on surfing was felt across the whole of our watery planet. I felt it my duty to reach out to some of the surfing elders for their memories of the great man. Aloha. A(
I knew Ben for many years and appreciated what an influence and how many new intricate styles he created and rode to max them to prove even.. boy his channels and flyers and tail shapes your could hardly keep up with... how many he injected into our tribal designs. But I never got close to him when I went to Hawaii because i was on the north shore which we surfed against the first Duke events and then i lived there after in Hanalei Kauai.. But a decade or so years ago he came to Byron when he was the traveling coach gig session for two hot very young Hanalei Smith brothers. It was Easter time and I told him we have an annual comp and it was open and they (12 and 14ish) could join in and get into it. Well, the both of them won their events as it turned out.
Then later in the week we went surfing at Lennox on a significantly good quality point day. He had a failure to get in over the rocks (scuffed up) when he first tried to get out to he point. So he finally got out and had a real good surf. But of course he had got a bit tired.. Anyway the next morning I went to pick him up where he was staying and the Smith family said he had a heart attack and was in Byron hospital. So I hurriedly drove to the hospital and as soon as i got there they said he was in an ambulance on the way to John Flynn. As it turned out he got some stints at John Flynn there and was ok. I was very worried that I was the person that pushed him to being over tired the day before. I was worried also that all his tribal Hawaiian mates might blame me as the cause and I would never be go back to Honolulu as my part of ... if he would have been seriously injured (Hawaiians never forget). He later told me that he was trying to signal (waving) to me from the ambulance as i was turning into the Byron hospital emergency entrance (laughing). Ben was one the most loved surfers of that era because he was so kind, creative and contributing person. In Hawaii everything is about ‘respect’ and he had excessively built this in peers over so many of year (a giant). He had the special way of being a very classic loving warm Samoan Hawaiian style. His shapes and spirit certainly will live strong into our tribal ethos, history and culture.
God I can see his smile now…. a thick and effervescent warmth.
Rusty Miller, Byron Bay
Ben didn’t start surfing until he was 21 or 22. Every time I think of him, that’s what comes to mind first. I don’t know of any big-name surfer who began that late in the game, and the determination it took for him to get so good, so fast—I think that stayed with him the rest of his life. And I’m guessing that part of why he was always pushing on to the next thing in surfing had to do with him never forgetting what it felt like to be so far behind." He’s more famous now as a shaper, but for about eight years, starting in 1966, he was one of the best surfers in the world in powerful waves.
Matt Warshaw (Enclyclopedia of Surfing)
Ben got a late start in surfing (mid-20’s), but embraced the sport like no other. A great shaper in the longboard era, he really made his mark in design contributions in the early 70’s with the popularization of the swallow tail and the Sting. His commitment as a Hawaiian was compared to Eddie Aikau and he spanned a lot of influence from competitive surfing, to surfboard design, to coaching and mentoring future generations. A true renaissance man.
Randy Rarick, Hawaii
One of the greatest power surfers ever. Ambassador of aloha. Shaped me my first boards for Sunset and Pipe in 1970. Big turns, big smile and big heart.
Aipa's design work was endlessly and prodigiously generous. The swallowtail, the sting, the lightweight modern longboard, all manner of craft made for bigger, heavier surfers—nobody in surf history did more to bump up our performance levels, and I mean from one end of surfing's demography to the other, old and young, amateur and pro, shredder and cruiser. Ben Aipa looked like a hitman but brought more joy than Santa Claus, and he deserved every wave that came his way. Gerry Lopez
I first meet Ben Aipa in Hawaii in the early 70’s. He was highly energised and very dedicated to his shaping / designing and his team of Hawaii’s best young surfers of the time, he motivated several generations of young Hawaiian surfers including being the Hawaiian team trainer / manager for many years. He was a creative thinking designer and a very competent surfer as well as a very nice guy, his contribution to Hawaiian and world surfing will always be remembered and respected.
He is a sad loss to surfing, R.I.P. Ben Aipa
Ben Aipa and I first met in 1965. Ben was a very regimented person. He had a schedule for every day. Ben surfed every day - Ben shaped every day - Ben spent time with his family every day. Because Ben surfed every day he regularly tried new ideas with his own board designs. In addition he had crew of devotees who also surfed every day and they constantly gave him feedback and ideas for new designs. Ben had a passion for life and he tried to improve things every day. He will be missed by many.
I had seen Ben Aipa in the American surf mags, but when our young Aussie Team went to the ’72 ISA World Contest in San Diego we would meet up with Ben in the flesh. At that World Contest was our introduction to swallow-tail that was ridden to the final by the very young Larry Bertlemann and Michael Ho and they were both shaped by Ben Aipa. After that, all us surfer/shapers (of course) incorporated swallow-tails into our shaping quivers.
Soon after came Ben’s stingers, and with young Hawaiian crew of Bertlemann, Buttons and Liddell and an iconic Surfer Magazine cover, we were again all making ourselves a stinger – inspired by Ben Aipa. Of all us Aussies, it was MR who really adopted Aipa’s design, getting himself one on his winter of ’74-75 visit to Hawaii, where he ordered it from Ben and paid full price! That board would be a breakout board for MR as he would get to the Coke contest final in ’75, win the Coke Contest in ’76 and he would stay on stingers that would take him to the first Stubbies final against MP in early ’77. That board was a “magic” one that he would transition MR to his twin-fin era.
Besides his huge contribution to design theories, Ben also was a major coaching/mentor to so many of Hawaii’s most successful competitive surfers for six decades. His legacy in the shaping room lives on through his sons Duke & Akila and the surfing of grandson Kolby.
I first saw Ben Aioa doing side slipper 360’s in the Bells Bowl in 1970 but it was in the Wild West days on the North Shore that I got to know Ben. A tough but fair man, he could see Pro Surfing coming and he was definitely in front of the curve in high performance surfboard design.
He was a kind man but definitely commanded respect. One day he got in a hassle with MP at Sunset, they both lost their boards, Ben swam over and in one motion punched MP’s fin out, end of hassle.
Over the decades Ben and I became good friends, we had fun as opposing national coaches in the 90’s. Akila once told me that as a grommet at Haleiwa his dad told him to “follow rabbit he knows dis break”, that was a pretty cool endorsement from the master himself. Ben shared the aloha spirit in all his travels and passed that standard on to his kids and all he coached.
One of the greats; a brilliant surfer / shaper / designer / innovator. He used to let me hang out in his shaping room watching him work. I learnt so much from him just by watching. Especially his unique way in his words of "milling a blank" sideways with an electric Planer. I think of him nearly every time I shape a board.
My thoughts go out to the Aipa family.
And finally Akila Aipa, Ben's son.
“I’ll remember my dad as a father, surfer, shaper, designer, athlete, friend, mentor and a grandfather,” Akila wrote. “Thank you for loving and mentoring so many generations of surfers in competition, and most importantly life. Your contributions to our sport and industry leaves a legacy with everyone you were able to share with, help and inspire.”
“I love you dad. Give grandma, grandpa and aunty a big hug for us. Aloha ‘oe e makaukāne.
“Pau ka ‘oe hana, pio ka ‘oe ahi, pala ka ‘oe ‘āhui.” (Your work is done, your fire is extinguished, your banana bunch has ripened.) – ‘Ōlelo Noe‘au 2606”
All photos by Steve Wilkings. (check his website - such a treasure trove of vintage Hawaii - tell him Hodaddy sent ya)
To learn more about Ben Aipa visit his website.
*Thanks to all the older crew who sent me a sentence or two in memory of Ben Aipa.