Vale Ben Aipa
After a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease, plus heart problems and diabetes, Hawaiian Ben Aipa died on 15th January, aged 78.
In a career that spanned decades Aipa was influential as a surfer, shaper, and coach, but also as a figurehead for Hawaiian pride.
In stature and comportment, Aipa was a perfect specimen of the Polynesian surfer - heavyset, resolute, and quietly menacing - yet suprisingly he didn't start surfing till his early-twenties after an ankle injury ended his football career. Aipa's 125 kilo frame proved no hindrance and within years of catching his first wave he'd he won the Hawaiian Inter-Island Championships, was a finalist in the Duke Kahanamoku Classic at Sunset Beach, and also finished fourth in the 1967 Makaha International.
Aipa had also begun shaping and in 1968 he made the board that fellow Hawaiian Fred Hemmings used to win the World Championship. Shortly afterwards, the Shorboard Revolution began and, with his competitive career winding down, Aipa became an in demand shaper of performance shortboards.
Ben Aipa wasn't the first person to put a swallowtail on a surfboard - it's unknown who was, but Tom Blake, Bob Simmons, and the Mirandon brothers all toyed with the design - yet like Mark Richards and the twin fin, Aipa refined the design, proved it's worth under the feet of top surfers, and in turn popularised it to the point of becoming a Hawaiian standard for much of the '70s.
Aipa's success with swallowtails was the precursor to further experimentation with removing volume from the tail of a board. Along with peers such as Australian shaper Terry Fitzgerald he introduced flyers to reduce tail volume, and in 1974 Aipa took that notion one step further with his split-rail Sting.
The thinking behind the Sting - or Da Sting as it was first called - was to create a short board without comproming rail line. Aipa retained a gun planshape but ostensibly removed a foot or so of length from the board, taken from the 3/4 point leaving a sharp flyer - the 'sting' - and a step across the bottom.
The design, according to Matt Warshaw from the Encyclopedia of Surfing, was "ridden to electrifying effect by a group of Aipa-led Hawaiian test pilots including Larry Bertlemann, Michael Ho, Buttons Kaluhiokalani, and Mark Liddell."
Aipa served as coach and mentor to all those surfers, a role he continued in for other Hawaiians including Sunny Garcia, Kalani Robb, and the Irons brothers.
In the early '80s, Aipa began producing a slightly smaller updated version of the longboards he and the rest of the sport had left behind 15 years earlier. "I was targeting the guys who were getting married and had less time to surf and weren't in the best of shape," Aipa told Longboard magazine in 1999.
Among the many memories recalled upon Aipa's passing is this by Mark Richards, writing on Instagram:
One of the highlights of going to Hawaii when I was competing in the late 1970's / early 80's was to surf and spend time with Ben. So many fun sessions with him at Haleiwa, Lanis, and Chuns are stamped in my memory banks. He was so generous with me, [providing] North Shore line up advice, and contest support.
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.
I surfed a heat during the Billabong Pro at Waimea Bay in the mid 80's where Ben was sitting in the channel doing water patrol safety. I wanted to win the heat but mostly I wanted to make him proud by having a dig and not pulling back on anything. I got one really memorable wave and 35 years later I can vividly remember the look on his face and the reaction from Ben as I paddled past him heading back out.
He had a huge impact on my life and, I along with so many, will miss him.
Ben Aipa is survived by wife Lenore and son's Akila and Duke.