Hawaiian surf legend Ben Aipa, who achieved renown in the 1960s and ’70s as a powerful, creative surfer, innovative board shaper, and dedicated coach, died Friday at his Hilo home at the age of 78 in the presence of his wife, Lenore.
The cause of death was complications from diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, said his son Duke.
In 2018, Aipa was inducted as a surf pioneer into the Surfing Walk of Fame in a roster that includes Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku, George Downing, Eddie Aikau, Rabbit Kekai and Fred Hemmings, who was Aipa’s teammate at the 1968 World Championships and won on a board Aipa shaped for him.
Aipa “was like the king of Haleiwa, watching him surf,” recalled Hawaiian pro surfer Michael Ho, who got his first Ben Aipa board at age 12 in 1969 and became one of the older surfer’s many proteges, going on to win the Hawaiian Triple Crown, the Duke Classic, the World Cup and the 1982 Pipe Masters on Oahu’s North Shore.
Aipa’s surfing roots, however, were in town. Born Aug. 17, 1942, on Kauai, he grew up in downtown Honolulu, graduating from Farrington High School, where he competed in swimming and football, only taking up surfing at age 22 after an injury ended his football career dreams, his son said.
But the former sugar cane and dock worker, who as a child shined shoes and dived for coins tossed by tourists from boats in Honolulu Harbor “to help his mom and siblings make it,” his son said, quickly made his mark in surfing.
“In 1964 Dad started surfing at Queens in Waikiki, paddling out for the first time on a board that washed ashore as he was walking on the beach, and (later) at Sand Island, while he was still learning, he got into a fistfight with a better surfer, Joe Kuala,” Duke Aipa said.
“Dad told Joe, ‘I’m going to be better than you in a year,’ and he started not only surfing every break from Diamond Head to Ala Moana Bowls but diving the reefs, his playing field beneath him, to better understand the breaks.”
That first year, Aipa also shaped his first surfboard, and was hired at Surfboards Makaha by Kuala — now a friend, his son said.
In 1965 he competed in the Makaha Invitational, and in 1967 Aipa and Eddie Aikau became the first Native Hawaiians to be invited to surf in the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational at Sunset Beach, the most prestigious contest of the time.
They earned the invitation by crashing the contest the year before, his son recalled.
“Dad and Eddie, who was godfather of my brother Akila Aipa, wanted to make a statement that Hawaiians should be able to compete in contests in their backyard,” Duke Aipa said, “so they paddled out at Sunset during the contest, taking off farther out and deeper into the waves than anyone else, and got the attention.”
As a shaper, Aipa was famous for inventing the swallowtail surfboard in 1970 after “he saw a bird flying in the sky and how quickly it could change direction” — and soon afterward the “sting,” a wing along the surfboard’s rail, ahead of the tail.
The swallowtail’s popularity took off in the 1972 World Surfing Championships in Oceanside, Calif., in which Hawaiian surfers Larry Bartleman and Ho rode boards made by Aipa, their coach.
“Michael and Larry were dominating the contest,” Duke Aipa said, “so after the first day of competition, the mainlanders cut the tails of their boards into swallowtails and duct-taped ’em.”
“Just to be invited was very special, to be on the Hawaii team among teams from so many different countries — like Australia, Brazil, Peru — and lo and behold, we all made the finals,” Ho said of the Hawaii surfers, led by the event winner, Jimmy Blears.
He credited Aipa for not only shaping his and Bertleman’s boards, but taking them out surfing from Haleiwa to Honolulu to California, “teaching us the ropes — he was too kind, and he just took us all over. He pretty much coached us for a long time.”
Aipa was also “pretty strict” as a coach, “but he was easy to be with” and a major influence on other surfboard shapers, whom he mentored along with other surfers, including Sunny Garcia, Brad Gerlach, Conan Hayes, Kalani Robb, Andy, and Bruce Irons, Alex and Koa Smith, and Bethany Hamilton.
Still charging later in life, Aipa won the grandmasters (1989) and legends (2000) divisions of the United States Surfing Championships.
In a lesson that shaped his life, Duke Aipa remembered paddling out to Ala Moana Bowls for the first time with his father when he was 4 or 5 years old.
“It was probably a really small day, but at that age, everything looks big and scary,” he said. “I said, ‘Dad, I want to go in.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry, just put your head down and paddle. The only way to get in is to catch a wave in, and they only break outside.’”
Aipa said his father’s creed was, “Keep your eye on the horizon: It’s not what happens right in front of you; just look down the line.”
In addition to his wife, Aipa is survived by son Akila, a surfboard shaper in Waialua, Oahu; daughter Lokelani Sarazen, a Navy nurse in Florida; Duke Aipa; and eight grandchildren.
The family is planning a memorial ceremony for Aug. 17 at Ala Moana Bowls.