In the surfing world, specifically the surfboard manufacturing industry, there are a slew of icons who’ve maneuvered themselves front and center. Names of the players and their companies, similar to fashion designers, splayed across products, which often focus more on apparel and accessories. But there are others diligently working, seemingly behind the scenes, expending less of their energy on marketing and self-promotion and more of it on innovations in design and taking their craft to the next level.
One of these innovators is Joe Blair, who has casually evolved from old skool days as the first haole Beach Boy in Waikiki to being a young whipper-snapper building boards in the late ’60s alongside such pioneers as Simon Anderson, Xanadu, and Dick Brewer to today becoming a shaping legend (listed in Big Wednesday / tow-in heroes the Willis Brothers‘ “Surfboard Shapers Hall of Fame“) and a creative force in high performance epoxy designs and the exploding stand-up paddleboard industry. Luckily we were able to steal away a moment of his time to meet Joe Blair…..
A long while ago, possibly before you were born, Joe had already been wave riding and shaping surfboards. That was 40 years ago – but he’s not that old, he simply had an early start. Speaking with him you’d think he was a local boy, but Joe was born in Coco Beach, Florida. How’d he end up spending so much time in Hawai’i? We’ll let him explain…
Joe: “I spent the summers in Waikiki when I was a sophomore and junior in high school. Then, after I got out of high school, I moved to Oahu and lived in town and worked for George Downing, which was a very lucky thing in my life because George Downing was known as the biggest best wave rider in the entire place. I fixed dings at first and then he let me become beach boy and I was one of the first haole beach boys there in ’68.”
One reason Joe was accepted by the locals is because he happened to live with George Watanabe and Richard Mazuta, two local boys who took him under their wing. During a time when being a little too white, walking behind the hotels at night, let’s say, could easily get a guy clobbered Hawai’i 5-0 style, Joe never had a problem. As a matter of fact, Joe fit right in. Well, he also had the advantage of understanding island style. Thanks to a dad who worked for Pan American Airlines, he was able to travel extensively and live in places like Puerto Rico and Barbados.
Joe: “Even though I have blond hair and blue eyes… I never ever got in beefs … because on the islands, it’s kind of a vibe thing with people. And if you treat them like they’re your brother, you are their brother. But if you’re an arrogant fellow with attitude, and you go there with an arrogant attitude, then you get beat up the second day you’re there. I find that the Hawaiian Islands are a spiritual chain of islands but a lot of haoles that go there don’t really see that….plus, I speak pidgin real good lik’dat.”
You can sense the sentimentality in his voice, almost a yearning to be back to a place that had offered so much and shaped the course of his future. So, besides some serious drive (mix in a dash of good fortune and location, location, location), how does one go from beach boy to the exclusive realm of respected board shaper?
“I have a great story on that,” Joe’s youth is showing as he explains. “What happened was I was going to have my boards built in Hawaii but it cost more. So I had a board made for me in Florida. Well, when I got to the islands the board worked so badly. When the waves were head high, it just spun out; it rode terrible. I knew exactly how to shape boards because I was a craftsman but you had to be somebody to shape a board back then. So what happened was, a guy broke his board in half and gave it to me so I went and [re]shaped this board, made it racier, and took it out on this really good day. There was this one spot where the waves were huge but there were Kona winds and it was terrible, so I went around the island to this other spot and it was five feet overhead, lined up for eighty yards, perfect barrels and my board worked killer. It worked so good and looked so good that people were ordering boards from me. Then a friend of mine who was dating my sister, his parents passed away so he inherited some money … so within three weeks, we had a factory going down there; taking beat-up old, broken boards and stripping them and then redoing the rocker and reshaping them and making up-to-date boards out of them … and that’s how it started. I knew how to shape and then he met Brewer -Brewer made him some boards- and BOOM, I started making tons of Brewer boards and I was Brewer’s main shaper for about twelve years.”
He didn’t stop there though, as his evolution in board making also included working with Simon Anderson who invented the thruster, and Xanadu, a Brazilian who set the trend for how surfboards look to this day.
Joe: “That was the final topping that I’d needed because [before then] we were into flat deck, boxy rail boards and he [Xanadu] was thinning the nose and tail and doming the deck and making small rails….”
With a combination of the best elements of the pioneers of the modern surfboard, Joe Blair steadily made his transition from protégé to master. One can only imagine the excitement at the time, when surfers were moving from slower boards with more limitations to something more dynamic.
Joe: “It was exciting because at that point there were only twin and single fins and the industry was very boring then. Everybody was riding the same stuff and we weren’t going anywhere whatsoever. And then when Simon Anderson came in [he] called it a thruster because the three fin gave you so much more punch outta your turns and your board didn’t spin out, because at Pipeline, a single fin’s kinda dangerous ’cause it won’t stay on the face of the wave. (Read more about the history of the three fin and thruster here.) And Simon’s board… 85% of the guys were better surfers than him. He was a big guy and rode backside, but he won a couple of contests in Australia and then won the Pipeline Masters, a very important event, and people still didn’t stand up and pay attention to it. Then [Gary McNabb] from California who did Nectar Surfboards rode one and realized the potential. Then all of a sudden… It’s unfortunate that Simon didn’t patent it because he could have made a fortune. But he really changed the surfing world with the three fin. (more…)