Eric Arakawa Interview
The Hawaiian master shaper discusses the evolution of his craft
Behind every great surfer is a great shaper, and Eric Arakawa’s boards have found their way under the feet of legends. Andy Irons, Michael Ho, Fred Patacchia, and Reef McIntosh are just a few who have put on incredible performances on Arakawa designs. I met Arakawa at his workspace on the North Shore of Oahu, not far from his childhood home, to find out what has pushed him over the years to make some of the world’s most high-performance craft.
What was your first shaping experience?
My father and I were walking past an apartment building and saw part of a North Shore gun sticking out of a dumpster. It was probably only about 3 feet, but my dad cut it down and shaped a little round-nose pintail. That was the first time I had ever seen polyurethane foam. I had two brothers and I remember one evening the three of us huddled around this tiny little board, and all three of us leaning in and sanding it. We were bumping shoulders, just trying to be part of the process. It was so fun.
How did you get into shaping full time?
I didn’t know where to get a blank, but at some point my brother had a 6’6″ twin fin shaped by Craig Sugihara, the founder of Town & Country. It was at least 3 ½” thick, and I decided that was thick enough to strip and reshape into another board. I don’t remember if I asked my brother for permission, but I was the oldest so it didn’t really matter [laughs]. So I stripped it and turned it into a 5’8” winged, round pintail. I remember when I was done I thought it was beautiful, but I tried it at Pupukea and can pretty confidently say that it was the worst board I have ever ridden. The proportions were all wrong. But I learned from that and then a friend asked me to shape one for him. For that I got a real blank and I had a friend who knew what he was doing glass it. It actually looked like a surfboard. I couldn’t tell you how it rode, but it looked nice. That was really encouraging and it led to another friend who ordered a board. Pretty soon I had friends of friends ordering boards, and one day it dawned on me, ‘maybe I’m in business.’
How have your relationships with world-class surfers influenced your shaping?
Some are more beneficial than others. Some are invaluable and others are more of a liability. It comes down to the athlete. When Michael Ho started riding my boards, without a doubt he honed my skills and helped me develop designs more than any other surfer to this day. He was probably the most difficult person to build a board for. It’s not a negative thing, but he is really picky and demanding. There were a lot of times where I built boards for him and he said the board was good, but he couldn’t win on it. He was always looking for that magic board. At times it was frustrating and really challenging. If it wasn’t for that relationship early in my career, I’d be years behind. Working with him helped me to work with the riders that came after, like Andy Irons. Right now I’m working with Reef McIntosh and Freddy Patacchia. I base everything off that relationship with Michael Ho. That’s my foundation.
What was it like working with Andy Irons?
When we look at Andy’s generation, it’s not the same as Michael’s generation. This whole corporate element came into play. There was a lot more money on Tour, a lot more events, and everything was rapid fire. There was hardly any time to sit down and really develop equipment, to go through a methodical process like I used to with Michael. So we ended up just building a lot of boards and having them ready for him to try. It’s pretty common now for a pro to easily go through 100 boards a year. I can’t even remember ever having a breather at that time. In 1998, Andy won The US Open and the OP Pro on a 6’2″ rounded-pin thruster. It was a brand new board—he didn’t even ride it before the event. Michael would have never done that. He would never even slip a board into his bag before he got on a plane unless he knew the board. A few years later Andy was trying to requalify at the Pipe Masters, and I remember it was huge, breaking on the second reef. I saw him walking down the beach for his heat with a 7’6″ he had never ridden. He had just waxed it. “Ah, it’ll go,” is all he said before he paddled out. It was a man-on-man heat with Luke Egan and Andy just waxed him. He scored a perfect 10 on a giant second reef wave by doing these big turns and then just getting funneled on the inside almost all the way down to Gums. Andy did his thing and requalified with that one wave. I was just scratching my head. When he came in I told him, “Well it worked out, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that again.”
What is your favorite part about being a shaper today?
The best part about shaping is the relationships you build. I really love working with other people who take their work seriously—people who have a real passion for what they do. I have a great team of people working with me and that allows me to do what I like to do. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have the time. Nowadays, I’m finding every aspect of the business to be fun and enjoyable. I just want to spend more time investing in people. That’s what it comes down to at the end—the real wealth is in the relationships.