Aipa, Ben


Innovative surfer-boardmaker-coach from Honolulu, Hawaii; a top competitor in the 1960s and early '70s, and creator of the swallowtail and sting surfboard designs. Aipa was born (1942) in Honolulu, the son of a sugar plantation worker, and didn't begin riding waves until his early 20s, after an ankle injury ended his semipro football career. He trained for surfing with the single-mindedness he'd developed as a linebacker, not missing a day in the water for all of 1965, and the following year he won the Hawaiian Inter-Island Championships and was a finalist in the Duke Kahanamoku Classic at Sunset Beach. Aipa also finished fourth in both the 1967 Makaha International and the 1975 Lightning Bolt Pro, and competed in the World Championships in 1968 and 1970.

It was expected that Aipa, at 250 pounds, would put more power into his turns than virtually any of his surfing contemporaries, but he augmented strength with agility, balance, and finesse. He was also one of the era's fiercest-looking surfers, helping him to get virtually any wave he wanted, even in the most crowded Hawaiian lineups. "There's a silently powerful presence about him," Surfer magazine said of Aipa in 1972, understating the case. Pipeline virtuoso Gerry Lopez put it better: "When you see Ben coming, don't think, just get out of the way."

Aipa began shaping almost as soon as he began surfing, and in 1968 he made the board that fellow Hawaiian Fred Hemmings used to win the World Championships. Aipa Surfboards was founded in 1970, and Aipa soon came into his greatest influence as a designer, first inventing the double-ended swallowtail in 1972, followed two years later by the split-rail sting; both designs were 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 an informal trainer/coach for these surfers, all of whom competed during the early years of the pro world tour, and he continued to coach in the decades to come, working with pro standouts Sunny Garcia, Brad Gerlach, Kalani Robb, and the Irons brothers, Andy and Bruce. Aipa himself continued to enter contests, winning the grandmasters division of the 1989 United States Surfing Championships and the legends division of the 2000 U.S. Championships.

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. "They needed a board that could catch waves." Aipa himself was riding a 7' 6" hybrid in 1998 when Surfer called him "the hottest 56-year-old surfer in the world."

Ben Aipa was nominated to the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991. In 2004, Surfing magazine named him one of the "Top Ten Shapers of All Time."

Akila Aipa, Ben's oldest son, was runner-up in the 1989 U.S. Championships, and has himself become a popular surfboard shaper.