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Surfer Takayama Was An Innovator In Board Design


One of the great American surfers and great shapers of surfboards has died: Donald Takayama. He entered the scene young, a hard-scrabble kid in Waikiki making his own boards out of scrap materials and skipping school to surf.

CORI SCHUMACHER: He would go from his mom's house, and he'd paddle down the Alawai, that dirty little canal in the Waikiki. You paddle all the way down it, pop out and then go surfing all along Waikiki.


That's Cori Schumacher, a pro surfer who calls Takayama a mentor. She told us that when he was 12, he took money saved up from his paper route and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. And another friend of Takayama's, Scott Hulet, explained to us he had a job waiting for him.

SCOTT HULET: He did in fact come here as a preteen at the behest of Dale Velzy, a foundational surfboard shaper, who had seen boards that Donald had shaped as a child at Waikiki beach.

BLOCK: Hulet, who's the editor of The Surfer's Journal, says Takayama was instantly a phenom in the swater.

HULET: Donald's surfing style was exuberant and celebratory. He had a low center of gravity, only being 5'5". He would squat down with his legs bowed a little bit, in what we called the Hawaiian bully-boy style.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Donald Takayama on his first visit to the mainland from Hawaii.


CORNISH: Takayama was featured in several surf movies, and he went on to be a dominant competitive surfer in the mid-1960s and sort of man about town in the Southern California scene. He often told surfer Cori Schumacher stories about those days.

SCHUMACHER: He was sitting on top of the La Polomo with Timothy Leary talking about how surfing and the universe were very much the same. And I always thought that was just classic, but that was Donald.

BLOCK: Today Takayama is best known for his surfboard designs and innovations. Schumacher says he loved to talk about how the ocean would interact with a board he built.

SCHUMACHER: He'd be like boom, bam then schwoof. So he was literally like a Batman cartoon when he was talking about how the board was going to work, and then he took it out in the water, and that's exactly how it would work.

BLOCK: Takayama's story isn't entirely one of success. In the '80s, he was arrested for his role in a cocaine smuggling ring. His friend Scott Hulet said that was an outgrowth of the surf-bum ethic of the time: Find easy ways to make money so you can enjoy your days at the beach.

HULET: Work tends to interfere with those days, leading to a kind of a scam ethic. And I think Donald fell victim to that. And, yeah, he had more than a brush. He ended up in the big house. He was in prison.

CORNISH: Once he served his time, Takayama went back to surfing and making boards. But Schumacher says his legacy is much deeper than the surfboards he designed.

SCHUMACHER: His legacy wasn't made of redwood or balsa or fiberglass or foam. His legacy was the lives that he shaped, and that legacy will never die because we're going to pass that aloha and that spirit along.

CORNISH: Donald Takayama had heart problems in recent years. He died at the age of 68.


BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.