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Waterspot: Aloha, Big Ben

The year was 1965 and my brother Dave and I were seated in our parents’ home watching The Duke Kahanamoku Classic at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu.

The two young Hawaiian standouts in the comp were Eddie Aikau, who would later be remembered for his big-wave surfing, and Ben Aipa (pictured above). I hadn’t heard of either of them at the time, but would eventually meet them both.

Eddie, I met in Encinitas through Hawaiian-born Donald Takayama. While Aikau surfed our local waves well, no matter how big it got it seemed too small for him. He needed raw power to come to alive, and when he did, few could match him in the break where he served as lifeguard with the great Butch Van Artsdalen, Waimea Bay.

I met Ben briefly in Hawaii but didn’t get to really know him until the mid 1980s when I interviewed him for the long-defunct Breakout Magazine. It was then he astounded me by saying he had never surfed until his early 20s. He had been a star football player at the time and while wading out at Waikiki a loose board hit him. He paddled it out, caught a wave and a surf legend was born.

It might seem normal to some that a surf star didn’t began surfing until his early 20s, but I have never seen anyone other than Ben get better than proficient at the sport who started later than their early teens.

No matter how coordinated or fit you are, there is just too much to learn in surfing. For one thing, no two waves ever break exactly the same. For another, surfboards have what appears to be a mind of their own.

But there was Ben Aipa, accomplishing one of the greatest feats in surfing, by carving deeper turns than anyone, and finding his place in the finals of what was then the most prestigious surf contest in the world.

And this was not the last time Aipa would rattle the surfing world. His surfing continued to inspire us all through the years with benchmark surfboards like the Stinger and his greatest team member, the one and only Larry Bertlemann, taking that board to previously unimagined heights.

Aipa was also a surf coach without peer whose students have included top-rated competitors like Brad Gerlach and Sunny Garcia.  Paddling up to me once in Cardiff he noticed I was putting too much weight on my front foot. He smiled and said, “Get off the clutch and get on the gas.” In nine words he gave me the best advice I’ve ever had in surfing. 

Like all great humans, Ben was far more than the sum of his parts — he was a hero, a wonderful father and somebody you could always rely on when life got tough.

Life got tough for him several years ago after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. On Jan.15 of this year, he passed away at age 78 from the disease that robs the memory. And while his memory of me faded over time, my memories of him never will. While I’m at it, I don’t think I ever thanked you for making me one of the best surfboards I ever had.

Thank you, Big Ben and Aloha. Save us a place in heaven’s lineup, brother.

A celebration of Ben Aipa’s amazing life is set to occur at Ala Moana on Aug. 17. To learn more, please contact: [email protected]

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