John “JC” Carper grew up in Hermosa Beach, and moved to Hawaii after graduating from Mira Costa High School. Carper will be introduced into the Hermosa Beach Surfer Walk of Fame by longtime rival shaper Dennis Jarvis, of Spyder Surf
by John “JC” Carper
Edited by Kevin Cody
My first exposure to surfers was on the Hermosa Beach Pier.
I’d never seen a grown man without a suit. My dad was a musician and owned Hermosa Music on Hermosa Avenue.
These guys had no shirts and butt cracks showing. My dad said, Don’t look at them.
Greg Noll was a neighbor when we lived down the street from Robinson School.
He was already famous as a badass.
We’d hang out on the brick wall in front of his garage. He’d let us watch him make boards as long as we didn’t say anything. That’s when I got interested in shaping boards. They were so beautiful.
All the famous surfers would hang out in Greg’s driveway, drinking beer and cussing. Cussing was an art form in those days. It wasn’t just F bombs. I tell my kids the only reason to use the F bomb is if you hit your thumb with a hammer. Don’t just throw it out like it’s a punctuation mark.
One day Hobie Alter came up from San Diego with a board made with this new stuff. They made fun of him. They said it was too light.
But it didn’t take me and my friends long to figure out that’s what we wanted. It took two of us to carry our balsa boards to the beach.
I got Ed Edgar (2003 Hermosa Surfer Walk of Fame inductee) to make me a foam board. I could carry it to the beach by myself. It changed my life.
At the start of ninth grade, I got up every morning at 3:30 a.m. to deliver the Examiner. I wanted to save up $135 to buy a Greg Noll from the shop he opened on Pacific Coast Highway. I put down $30 and was told it would take three months. I spent those three months working on every detail of the board in mechanical drawing at Mira Costa. It had three offset stringers, a double balsa stringer down the middle, teal rails, and a square glassed-on fin.
On the first day of Christmas vacation, instead of picking up the board, I went skiing with a friend at Kratka Ridge, in the San Gabriels. On my first run, I ran into an abandoned rope tow and broke my leg.
My dad carried me upstairs. My Greg Noll was on the sofa, next to my bed. My dad had picked it up at the shop.
It was the most perfect thing I had ever seen in my life, even the dimples, and I think there was an eyelash in the deck.
I spent hours looking at it. I put my head on it. I smelled it. It was still gassing.
Only a surfboard maker can explain it, shapers in particular.
During my freshman year at Mira Costa, Mike Purpus stood up in the cafeteria and announced he was going to be a professional surfer. I didn’t know there were professional surfers.
Purpus truly was one of the first professional surfers. When David Nuuhiwa was king, Purpose was the best of the upcoming surfers. But he was ahead of his time. He promoted himself when that wasn’t cool.
During my second summer after graduating from Mira Costa, I was at Neptune Street with friends and someone said there’s this place, Honolua Bay, in the Islands that has the best waves on earth.
My friend Eric Knudsen and I decided we needed $175 each for the trip. We put signs on our bikes that said, “Great South Bay Window Wipe,” and rode our bikes up and down The Strand, from El Porto to Redondo, knocking on doors.
“We planned to sleep on the beach until our money ran out. We didn’t know Hawaii was a bunch of islands. We thought Honolulu was a little town where people lived in grass huts. When we flew over Diamond Head and saw Honolulu looked just like Los Angeles we were in shock.
We didn’t have money for a hotel. I’d never hailed a taxi in my life.
There was an information kiosk in the airport with the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, with flowers in her hair.
She said you guys want to go to Lahaina. It’s where all the hippies go. It’s on Maui.
On our first day there we got in a fight with six locals.
We had met up with a friend, Doug, from Mira Costa, and gone to look at the waves, when we saw six locals beating up a haole. We told them to stop, and they turned on us.
Doug was a champion wrestler at Mira Costa. He threw three of them to the ground, knocking the wind out of them. The other guys looked at Eric and me, and must have thought we were like Doug. We had wrestled at Mira Costa, but we were 140 pounds.
One of them looked like the bad guy in a Bruce Lee movie. His name was Snake. He told us we better stay out of his way, but then they walked away.
That night, I was so shaken I couldn’t sleep. I got up early and walked down Front Street to get coffee. Snake was coming from the other direction. I knew if I crossed the street, he’d chase me down. I started to walk past him and he high-fived me. He said, “You’re one good haole. You didn’t run. From now on, you’re Snake’s brother.”
I never had a problem with locals again, unless they didn’t know Snake. He was a good surfer. I still had to wait my turn at the Bay, but I got more waves than I deserved.
I knew that first day I was going to stay in Hawaii. I loved the sky. But to avoid the draft, I had to be in school (Carper eventually served in the Army, but did not go to Vietnam.)
The Maui Community College was 10 minutes from a world class left called Pakakalo. I surfed it with Gerry Lopez and Jock Sutherland. But that day no one else was out, and it was double overhead. I was wishing someone would come out because it’s near the harbor and sharky.
After about 15 minutes, a rental car pulls up, and two ratty looking guys get out. They weren’t hippies. Hippies were well groomed. They looked like bushmen with blond hair. Their boards were so short I thought they were kneeboards.
They didn’t say hi. They just took over the place.
I’m thinking they’re going to get their asses kicked if the locals paddle out.
It wasn’t cool to catch a lot of waves in a row.
Only kooks paddled for crappy waves.
Our inspiration was the bull fighters we saw in Mexico. Standing up straight, arching the back inches from the bull’s horns.
David Nuuhiwa was our god, with his drop knee turns and cross stepping.
I’d never seen surfing that was so physical.
They were grunting and groaning as they slashed the waves.
I stopped surfing and missed class to watch them.
Only after that year’s World Championship, a week later, in San Diego did I realize the two were Australian pro Nat Young and shaper Bob McTavish.
I thought, that’s it, I’m done. I’m never riding a longboard again. And I didn’t for 30 years.
I drove back to Lahaina and asked the little Japanese woman at the hardware store for a Surform planer that I still use today, and some fiberglass, boat resin and yellow pigment because it was the cheapest.
I took my 10-foot-2 Donald Takayama and stripped off the fiberglass and cut the blank down to about 7 feet. I had never made a board before.
(The following week, at the 1966 World Championships in Oceanside, in front of over 10,000 spectators, wave slashing Australian Nat Young prevailed over Hawaiian noserider David Nuuhiwa.)
I took the board to Honolua Bay, and it was awesome. The only problem was a single fin couldn’t ride big waves well. Big wave riding went out of fashion until we started making guns.
From Hilo to the real world
I was 40 when Etsuko and I married. We had our honeymoon baby, Zachary, nine months later. We also had 6-year-old Alice, Etsuko’s daughter from a previous marriage.
We were living in Hilo. I was shaping boards for locals and doing ding repairs. I called my boards Island Fusion, because I’d broken my neck surfing at Drain Pipes and was semi paralyzed for two years, until I finally got a spinal fusion. I could surf, but I couldn’t do carpentry work anymore because I couldn’t do heavy lifting.
I thought, I can’t raise two kids on $500 a month.
A good friend was a boat driver on Tavarua. One year Rusty Preisendorfer was there and asked who shaped his Island Fusion quiver. He told my friend if I ever wanted a job to look him up.
I didn’t know who Rusty was. We never paid attention to California surfboards. We’d quack at them.
During a visit to my sister in La Jolla, I drove with my wife and kids down to Rusty’s factory in San Diego. He was just leaving work. I mentioned my boat driver friend’s name, and didn’t get the reaction I was expecting. He said he had five shapers and couldn’t keep them busy.
It was so cold I was shivering. I told him if he’d let me watch him for a week, I’d buy five blanks with my own money, and copy his boards.
Rusty’s a Black Belt. He can catch a fly in his hand. But he’s a nice man.
He said he didn’t want to train me. But if I shaped the five boards and he liked them, he’d hire me. If not, I could glass them myself and sell them.
Monday morning I showed up at 8 a.m. and sat on a stool in his shaping bay. I didn’t make a peep, but I could see I was making him uncomfortable.
After half a day, he told me to sit with another shaper.
I watched the guy for a week. I figured he had to be good because he was working for Rusty. But I had no idea what he was doing. Every board looked like he had never shaped a board before.
Friday night I went back to our apartment and told Etsuko, I had no idea what to do. Maybe the guy I was watching is a genius and I just didn’t understand his technique.
Saturday morning, I went to the factory. No one was there. I took one of Rusty’s blanks back to the apartment and copied it five times.
I worked as Rusty’s head shaper for the next four years. But my family missed Hawaii, so we decided to move back.
By this time I was shaping boards for virtually every pro at the time, including Hermosa Surfer Walk of Fame inductees Ted Robinson (2016), and Chris Frohoff (2017).
Shane Dorian is a Hawiaan born professional surfer. He was ranked fourth in the world in 2004 and is currently recognized as one of the world’s best big wave surfers. Dorian won six Billabong XXL big-wave awards in multiple categories between 2005 and 2013.
Following is the letter of recommendation he wrote on behalf of John “JC” Carper to Hermosa Beach Surfers Walk of Fame:
I met John Carper in the very early 1980s on the Big Island of Hawaii. I was a little grommet from Kona, John was a shaper, living a very simple life, surfing and shaping boards in Kalapana, a town only in name. It was mainly a place where people who were wanted by the law and pakalolo (marijuana) growers lived. At first John and I didn’t really like each other. I’m sure he thought I was a little punk, and I thought he was a crusty hippy whose boards looked pretty funky, at best.
In 1990 I was in California and wanted to try a board from Rusty. My friend (pro surfer) Todd Chesser, whom I was living with, wrote Rusty to order me one. A couple weeks later I got my board, and it was magic. I went with Todd to meet Rusty and thank him personally for shaping me such an amazing board. Rusty was super nice, but explained he did not actually shape my board. John Carper did. I was in disbelief. A few months later John moved back to Hawaii, this time to the North Shore of Oahu. I started riding his boards exclusively. I was 19 and it was the start of a relationship that has lasted nearly three decades. Besides shaping me incredible boards, he has been a mentor and a very close friend. He and his wife Etsuko have had a huge impact on so many people. They are honest and incredibly generous and are still very much in love. It’s been an honor to be John’s friend all these years. SWOF