Sport: From Tabula Rasa to Pipeline Masters

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1997

Sport: From Tabula Rasa to Pipeline Masters

Shaping a few winning boards with the North Shore's humble Picasso-of-the-planer
By William Finnegan

T O  T H E

"The casino is the most revolutionary single component, primarily because of its strong relationship with the outdoors."

— James Carry, spokesperson for interior design firm Wilson & Associates, on Atlantis II, a $450 million hotel/waterpark currently under construction on the Bahamas' Paradise Island. In addition to its gaming facility — which features a "Temple of the Moon" at one end, a "Temple of the Sun" at the other, and Poseiden's throne near the entrance — the resort boasts a giant replica of the ancient city of Atlantis and a waterslide that plummets into a "shark-infested" pool.

The first time John Carper saw a modern surfboard, he says, "I felt overcome with shame." It was 1966, and Carper was living on Maui. He was out surfing when two Australians appeared in the water, riding boards almost two feet shorter than his and doing things on waves he had never seen before. "I paddled in, went home, stripped the glass off my ten-foot-two and shaved it down to seven feet. I started doing the same things for all my friends and their tankers — probably 50 or 60 boards before I shaped a blank."

A blank is the raw hunk of polyurethane foam from which a surfboard is made. Carper turned out to have such a knack for summoning a high-performance board out of the stuff that today he is one of the world's top shapers, his creations so prized by professionals that he flies to surf contests all over the globe to shape boards on the spot for specific wave conditions. This month the 50-year-old artisan won't have to travel far, since the world's best surfers are coming to him; he now lives in Haleiwa, on Oahu's North Shore, where the annual Pipe Masters championship will be held December 8-20.

Despite having attained cult status, Carper still talks about himself and his boards in self-deprecating terms. "I never dislike other people's boards," he says. "I always think they're better than mine. My own boards, all I see is the flaws."

Carper's company, JC Hawaii, makes 4,000 boards a year, all shaped by hand. When I dropped by his big, foam-dusty workshop, I found him studying a battered six-foot swallowtail that had worked well in competition for one of the pros he sponsors. He was taking dozens of measurements, hoping to replicate the board. "This never really works," he said. "It never comes out exactly the same."

To me the board looked unridable: too thin, too light in the nose, with absurdly hard rails near the tail. For an ordinary surfer, Carper assured me, it was unridable. "But I like to make boards that are a little bit ahead of the surfer, even if he's a pro."

He had a board to shape for an Australian pro. I stuck around to watch him work — and was shocked by the transformation he underwent as he lugged a blank into his shaping room, tossed it on a stand, pulled on a dust mask, and began wielding saws, wooden templates, and planers. With a planer in his hand, wheeling around a dusty wing of foam, the laid-back, self-effacing craftsman was suddenly dramatic — operatic, even.

"This board's for small waves," he declared as he worked. "So I'll do a lot of little things to the bottom. A small-wave board has to generate speed. I prefer shaping guns [big-wave boards], where you just have to harness the speed. And once you start doing concaves, which is what I'm doing now, it's like voodoo. But I make 'em like I want the guys to ride 'em: fast and furious!"

It was wondrous to watch the board take shape, swiftly and surely. In what seemed like no time at all, Carper put down his tools and circled the board, studying it. It looked perfect to me. He picked it up and started to walk out of the shaping room, but a moment later he threw it back on the stand and attacked it again. "You can overshape a board," he sighed. "It's like a haircut. If the barber spends too much time, you know you're gonna get a bad haircut, because all he's doing is struggling to fix your hair."

He pronounced the board finished again, and this time strode out and put it on a rack and turned his back on it. The whole process had the decisive brio of a mature artist. I asked him about a very serious-looking board in another rack. "That's for Pipeline," he said. "I put that V in the nose to try to absorb the horrible bounce that occurs there after a late takeoff." He ran his hand over a faint ridge in the underside of the board's nose. "And then a lot of V in the tail, for control when guys try to stall and ride the foam ball. This board is actually detuned. I've tried to take away speed."

Such subtle enhancements may give Carper's surfers a home-field advantage, but the Pipe Masters is still a nerve-racking event for him. "These pros, they don't like a board, they might break it in half, right there on the beach in front of thousands of people," he said. "So I guess I'm still praying each time, 'God, don't let that happen to mine.' Anyway, every time I watch a competition, I'm seeing everything wrong with my boards. All I see is what I should be doing on the next ones."

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