Journey Through the Foam
August 16, 2007
Growing up in Maui, I never dreamt of surfing or foam. I used to boogie board, but I was never good at it. Instead, my dreams were about becoming a motocross rider like my dad - a golfer even - but never a surfer or a shaper. Still, I would go down to the beach with my Uncle Mike and watch him and his crew dance on water all day long. I watched and absorbed their style and vibes in and out of the water.
My teenage years brought me to Colorado where snowboarding was introduced to my soul. It changed my life. Carving down the slopes on a snowboard began to unlock my interest in surfing, but I was still madly in love with the snow and my heart told me that my time in Colorado wasn’t yet complete. However, that would soon change.
Two weeks before my 21st birthday my heart was destroyed by the passing of my grandma, Scoobie. I dropped everything and returned to Maui, never to think of snow again. I learned to cope with the grief by grabbing my cousin’s beat up longboard and spending as much time in the water as I could. From there, my soul never stopped screaming. I became a wide-eyed kid all over again, enjoying the glide while my snowboard legs began to shape shift into surf legs overnight.
My journey through the foam was underway and I was ready to cross step down that path. As a kid, I would watch Uncle Mike fix boards; resin everywhere and dust flying high into the sky. No mask. No gloves. Just passion. With him, I learned to fix boards, learned lines and learned curves. I learned lines and curves from others that created them.
Soon after, I saved up enough money to get my very first custom longboard. I didn’t like it one bit. Everything was what I had asked for, but it was made by a machine. No soul but for a poor piece of foam that was thrown into a lifeless contraption.
Shapers always say, “Well, it’s the first one that has all the soul.” Pull that out your ass! That’s like being served grandma’s home cooking out of a can, and then she tells you, “Well, the first dish I made had all the soul and passion in it.” Bullshit. I ended up dinging that lifeless board and in the middle of repairing it I turned and said to Uncle Mike, “I want to make my own boards.”
Uncle Mike was sponsored by Ron Tsuhako, an old school, local Maui shaper. Ron met Uncle Mike while he was surfing, and he was blown away by this little Portuguese man dancing on the water. At the time, Uncle Mike rode Stewarts and Ole boards.
Ron walked up to him and said, “Here. I like see you break this thing,” and handed my uncle one of his boards. Uncle Mike was so speechless from that comment, that he never rode any other shaper’s board again (except for the boards I made for him, of course). From that day forward, those two would become close, chase waves and that so-called, “magic board.”
Knowing that they had developed a friendship over the years, I thought it would be great to have a sensei like Uncle Ron teach me the ways of the foam. So, I said to Uncle Mike, “Eh, let’s go ask Uncle Ron if he could teach me to shape.”
Uncle Mike looked at me and smirked, “Good luck, boy! Uncle Ron is old school and he won’t even teach established shapers who ask to learn from him. You think he going teach you?"
“Still…can you ask him, please,” I begged. So, we drove down to his house and found Uncle Ron. Without even warming up to him, my uncle just looked at me and said, “So, what you like ask uncle?”
In my head, I thought, “FUCK!” Very humbly, I told Uncle Ron how I had fallen in love with surfing and that I would love to learn how to shape from him. Ron stared me up and down and didn’t say a word. I closed my eyes as if I was headed up a huge roller coaster ride, seconds from getting launched off.
“Grab a blank and be here tomorrow,” Ron bluntly responded. That was it. Uncle Mike and I looked at each other with eyes gaped open. We couldn’t believe what had happened! And so, the very next day I was back at Uncle Ron’s and the rest would become history. He gave me the knowledge I needed and set me free. He put three templates in my hands and said, “Grow, shaper.”
Uncle Ron was always a quiet man and kept very much to himself, never wanting to be in the spotlight. I knew him for his amazing Balsa Boards and had a chance to ride a 9’2 he had made for Uncle Mike. That thing was a beast! Forty pounds of pure balsa. I remember my first wave on that canoe, wanting to go right but the board went straight. Surfing a balsa taught me how to take my time and feel the board and the wave as if leading a slow dance with that wahine that made you so nervous you forgot how to breathe. That moment also made me realize that making a board and then surfing it was like forming a relationship with someone you’ve never met. The process of trust and vulnerability becomes so real when you take a fresh sled out in the waves to play.
So, off I went, flying foam everywhere and learning along the way. My first board on order was for my really good friend who was just getting into surfing. It was a perfect opportunity as we were both starting off and we could learn the process together.
I remember standing alone in my make-shift shop, staring at an untouched blank with the feeling of excitement and fear. A whole lot of fear. I thought back to the lessons that Uncle Ron taught me. Take your time. Don’t be scared of the foam. It took me a week to shape that board. It came out uneven, the nose and tail were far from complete and the rails were big and bulky. I was so stoked and proud of this board! In time though, I figured out my style of shaping and eventually things fell in to place. I expanded beyond the high-performance longboards and started making traditional single fin logs.
Four years had gone by since my first shape, when I heard about a legend shaper from Santa Barbara, CA: Wayne Rich (a.k.a., Wayno). I loved his shapes and his vibe, so I reached out to him and told him my story. In my wildest dreams, I never thought he would respond, let alone read it. But he did. Wayne wrote back to me (insert school girl smile here) and shared so much more than I could have ever imagined. I told him how stoked I was that he would share his knowledge with this greenhorn shaper and because of that, he was a true soul brother.
Wayne kindly replied, “Thank you. For some reason, I felt you have the respect and soul, so I am happy to share and learn back and forth with you, Kely-Boy. Keep the soul and imua with your shaping and riding.” Brother Wayne changed my life, and I’m forever grateful for his friendship.
It’s been eight years since my journey began and now foam has become a part of my soul forever. Uncle Mike still comes by the shop to sit with me. He tells me how proud he is and how he used to spend time with Uncle Ron in his shop back in the day. Funny how things come around full circle.
One day, Uncle Ron called my uncle and left him a message telling him how proud he was to pass down his knowledge to me, and how he could see my drive and feel my passion. Uncle Mike was so stoked to tell me about that voicemail – which he deleted out of too much excitement, by the way - and said to me, “I can tell you right now that this is the biggest form of praise you will ever get coming from him.” Uncle Ron is still his old school self, never going out of his way to praise anyone directly. Not even his young prodigy.
On a recent morning, I went for a surf to the place of magical lefts on the west side of the island. If you know about this spot, then you are truly lucky. If you don’t know, then perfect! Let’s keep it that way. Anyway, I paddled out to only one guy in the lineup. ONE GUY! That never happens here. It turned out that the one guy happened to be my Uncle Ron. We surfed for almost two hours with no one in sight, trading off any left we wanted.
Then it happened. We started talking about shaping and he asked how things were going with my passion. He even asked for some advice, which stopped my heart completely. Was I really giving my master shaper advice? We caught a few more and before paddling in, Uncle Ron looked at me and said, “Keep it up, boy.” That was his way of saying, “I’m so proud of you.”
That day will live with me forever. Looking ahead I know I have so much more to learn on this journey, but I’m still that wide-eyed kid, ready to go. See you in the water and as always, keep moving in da positive.
Kely-Boy Rodrigues is the owner and shaper of Manuela Shapes, based on Maui, HI where he was born, raised and still custom-hand shapes every board for his customers. Get to know Kely-Boy on Instagram by following him at @manuelashapes