Akila Aipa first met Kelly Slater on the beach at Makaha when they were 12 years old. The U.S. Championships were in full swing and Akila was there with his father Ben, who was starting to work with young Westside upstart Sunny Garcia. Slater had made the trip west from Florida. Lifelong friendships were born that day.
A few months ago the two came together to collaborate on a few surfboards. Those boards, shaped with love and care, have since helped propel Slater back into the spotlight with an inspired performance at the Corona Bali Protected.
Before the start of the 2019 Championship Tour season, the two had a fortuitous conversation about boards. With Slater's quiver already built and ready for the Gold Coast, it was nothing more than a couple of old friends talking shop.
"My main question to him was, 'How's your boards, how's your quiver?'. He said he was good, he was happy with what he had," said Aipa when the WSL spoke to him this week. "I asked him if there were any holes or any gaps that's he's trying to fill, or any feelings or sensations that he might be searching for. So we chatted, he said he really wanted a twin-fin. That was easy. Then he said, 'What about a 5'8" and maybe a 5'9?'"
So, Aipa went to work in his shaping bay at the Waialua Sugar Mill on the North Shore of Oahu.
"Out of respect for him and his wants and needs, it went from three boards to seven. I wanted to give him what he wanted, but I also wanted to do what I wanted," Aipa explains. "I didn't want to confuse putting two designs into one board. And that's where it ended up being seven. There was a twin-fin in the middle, then I did three his way and three my way."
As with most surfboard experimentation, Slater and Aipa took a wait-and-see approach with the new quiver. Over the last couple of weeks Slater has reveled in the twin-fin at Keramas -- a perfect venue for a high-performance twinnie if there ever was one. Then Slater honed in on a 5'8" thruster when it came time to pull on the jersey.
"Everything was a shot in the dark, it was hope and fun. None of this was planned. Out of respect to his year and his equipment I wasn't trying to dive in," says Aipa humbly.
The buzz around the Aipa / Slater boards over the course of the waiting period at Keramas has been steadily growing. Slater's reinvigorated surfing and return to form has been credited to the boards by some, but Aipa cautions against focusing too much on one element of the 11x World Champ's return to form.
"There are a lot of people blowing smoke up our asses, but I have to be honest and tell them, there's a lot going on," Aipa says. "His health is a little better. He's got a nice mindset and a fun board."
"And he's drawing a lot of inspiration from a friend who's fighting for his life right now," continues Aipa, referring to Garcia, who is currently in an induced coma in a Portland, Oregon, hospital. "You have have to put that all in perspective. It looks like he has conviction in his surfing for the first time this year, so I think the Sunny thing is really inspiring him and he's drawing inspiration from it in a positive way. It shows in his surfing and his character. I like where we're at."
The last time Aipa shaped a board for Slater was back in 1994. It was a single-fin. Twenty-five years later, Aipa says, "It's come full circle."
"It's Kelly's deal and it's on his time. I'm here merely to support him as a friend. We're in no hurry," he continues. "This just came out of a conversation, like I said, none of this was planned."
Slater's always said that winning World Titles does require a bit of luck. And lucky for him, Aipa's hand-shapes landed in his board bag at just the right time.
"Another four-pack landed last night because a friend went to Bali," Aipa concludes. "He's got two new twin-fins, a 5'9" and another 5'8" to back that one up. So there might be something there that we're looking for. There might be a little extra spice. We'll see."