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excerpted from "The Shapers"
by Jesse Katz, appearing in Hana Hou Magazine
Vol.8, No. 4 - August/September 2005

They come from all around the world to Jeff Timpone's backyard – the brave and the brash, experts and daredevils – surfers determined to stake a claim on the biggest wave Hawai‘i has to offer. For whatever slice of eternity it has been breaking off the north coast of Maui, Jaws has not merely been inhospitable; until a dozen years ago it had been flat-out unsurfable – a wave too catastrophic to a human to catch without anything more powerful than a board. "I don't belong out there, " says Jeff, a fifty-six-year-old Huntington Beach exile. "In the back of my mind I have this idea: I have too much to lose."

So while others played with foot straps and jet skis, Jeff became the facilitator, the one who listened and questioned and tinkered in his shaping room. "I think he's the most underrated shaper of all the top Hawai‘i shapers," says Dave Kalama, one of the icons of the tow board phenomenon. "Because he's always been sort of an underdog, he doesn't come with such an ego. A lot of shapers think they're the end-all: 'You'll ride what I make you because I'm the best.' He typically comes to any project with much more of an open mind."

Much of what Jeff ultimately devised proved to be just the opposite of what conventional wisdom dictated. Bigger waves usually require bigger boards, to generate the speed needed to paddle into them; with a watercraft doing the positioning, Jeff was able to shrink his tow boards from the seven-foot range to the five-foot range. But shortboards are usually light, and charging down a fifty foot wall of water requires stability; Jeff found that he needed to add fifteen or twenty pounds to his designs – usually by plugging them with BBs or fishing sinkers or even pennies. "We didn't know what was going to work," says Dave. "In the beginning it was so radical, you almost kind of had that feeling you might just surf off the edge of the earth, or that the board would just blow up if you reached a certain speed."

Although there has never been a fatal accident at Jaws, Jeff is not eager to be a witness when that day arrives. "I have enough respect for the ocean to know that, sooner or later, that no-hitter's going to be broken," says Jeff. His shop is in the back of an old pineapple cannery, barely a mile or two from the wave, but the only way he sees the action at Jaws these days is on film. "Frankly, I don't want to watch one of my friends die."

Jeff shaped in Southern California for much of the '70s and '80s, then ran off to Maui after his fortieth birthday. He figures he has produced somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 boards in that time, a career that has been both a triumph and a grind. His son, Nicholas, is now eighteen, a promising surfer on the amateur circuit. Jeff is often asked if he is grooming him to take over the family business.

"Sometimes 'Timpone & Sons' sounds pretty good, but doing this job for as long as I have, I can see the writing on the wall," Jeff says. "A lot of times, it's a labor of love. There's no retirement plan, no golden planer at the end."

Jeff Timpone in his Haiku workshop

excerpted from
"Global Village - Maui's north shore town of Pa‘ia is the world unto itself"
by Julia Steele, appearing in Hana Hou Magazine
Vol. 7, No. 2 April / May 2004

The day I flew over to Pa‘ia, the surf was huge. When we were over the west coast of Moloka‘i, the pilot announced, "Look down and you'll see waves at least fifteen to twenty feet high." I looked out the window – even from three miles up, I could see massive breakers pounding the wide, white sands of Papohaku Beach. "With a swell like this," the pilot continued, "they might even be surfing Jaws."

Jaws. In the last few years, it's become one of the most famous waves in the world – maybe even the most famous. It breaks far offshore of Pe‘ahi Valley, about ten miles east of of Pa‘ia. And the pilot called it right. People were surfing Jaws that afternoon – including one of the wave's most famous riders, Dave Kalama.

Two days later, at the Maui Yoga Shala on Pa‘ia's main drag, I ran into Dave, who was looking very blissed out after his shivasanas. I recognized him from the movie Step Into Liquid; could I talk to him about the wave? Sure, he said. And a few hours later, I was sitting on his couch.

(Another amazing thing about Pa‘ia, that: The town is so low-key, and the people who live there are so mellow, that you can meet a hero of the surf world and it's just no big thing to sit down and talk story for awhile.)

The Kalama family is originally from the Kaupo-Hana area, but Dave was born in Newport Beach and grew up surfing and windsurfing Californian waters. In '85, he was en route to Kaua‘i when the plane took a detour to Maui. He looked out the window, saw the windsurfers at Ho‘okipa and knew he was moving to Maui. He started experimenting with tow surfing in the early '90s and towed in at Pe‘ahi for the first time in the winter of 1992. "That wave is so different," he says, sitting in his small cottage, beer in hand, "travels at such a high rate of speed. Surfing it is like walking on the moon: you're familiar with walking, but at the same time, everything about it is different."

Dave Kalama with one of his Timpone tow-in boards

Dave Kalama with his toys, including a bunch of Timpone boards

Dave describes the ride – the adrenaline, the acceleration, the speed, the total elation. "It goes from being the scariest experience of your life to being the best experience of your life, all in a matter of seconds," he reflects. "And fortunately – or unfortunately – that feeling is one of the most addictive things in life, like air or water. To keep your sanity, you have to ride waves and some of them need to be big." Dave is now known around the world for his skill at Pe‘ahi – he even rode the wave in the opening shot of the last James Bond movie, along with fellow big wave surfers Laird Hamilton & Derek Doerner, in one of the most graceful displays of athleticism ever captured on film (even with the cheesy 007 night-vision goggles).

And, of course, beyond the riders is the wave itself. One day, another surfer on the North Shore, Willi McCormick, offered to take me out on his jet-ski to see it up close. We launched from Maliko Gulch to the west, navigated through swells and pulled into the channel next to the break. Shifting mountains of water swept past us, crested and fell to create a sublime wave: serene but fierce, transient but timeless. Kalama, who has caught the wave itself so many times, seems to catch its essence best as I leave his house. "It's extremely purifying to ride that wave," he says, leaning back into the couch and cracking open another beer. "The closer you get to total annihilation, the more real everything becomes."

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