Donald Takayama

Donald Takayama
Photo By Glenn Sakamoto -liquidsaltmag.com/

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Nine years after Pearl Harbor, a young Japanese boy hiked up the bamboo-choked trail to the top of Tantalus mountain. It was a typical summer day on Oahu; scorching hot and dry on the west side, humid and drizzling in Kailua, and mostly clear under tradewind blown cumulus clouds on the South Shore.
The kid plucked a couple of passion fruit from a nearby bush and sat down on a flat lava rock. Below his feet, at the base of the mountain, sprawled a huge, green alluvial plain, with a partially drained lagoon and a long, manicured white sand beach. Clusters of houses hugged the sand, and towering above them was the colonial splendor of the Surfrider and the Moana, Waikiki’s only hotels. Brooding over the entire scene was monolithic Diamond Head.

The boy kicked his thonged feet against the rock as his gaze moved out to the reef,. The beach boys were out at Canoe Surf; doing their thing. He could just make out traces of white water crossing the waves’ faces, and he knew that the surf was good. At least ten large triangles of white water mapped the reefs below, and the nine-year-old studied the patterns of the waves, just like his mentors, Jamma, Rabbit, Primo, Steamboat, Blah, and Blue Makua had taught him. They passed out their wisdom freely, and the young Japanese boy was like a sponge. It beat the crap out of school, shoes,and box lunches.Fuzzy (that’s what the beach boys had named him) jumped off his rock and bushwhacked his way to the road below. At the base of the mountain, he hitched a ride with a nice haole woman, and scrunched down in his seat as the DeSoto cruised past his school.

Diving out of the car, he ran into his back yard and grabbed the Surfboard, a sixfoot redwood HotCurl that he and his brothers had built. Dragging it down Atkinson Drive, he launched it into the Ala Wai canal, and the trades blew him down towards the harbor. A deeply tanned man hollered from his catamaran “Eh, small boy, you like one ride to Waikiki?” Duke Kahanamoku helped the boy hoist his board onto the boat, and they sailed out past Ala Moana and through a hole in the reef to the beach. Fuzzy checked out the action on the sand. Steamboat was rubbing oil onto the pale back of Hollywood film-star Deborah Kerr. Chick and Panama were singing an offcolor song and strumming their ukes, to the obvious delight of a couple of pretty mainland coeds.

Blue Makua was out on the reef; spear fishing. Fuzzy dragged his board to the water and paddled out, his sharp eyes focused on Rabbit, who sat out at the reef a half mile away.

* * * * * * * * *

Donald Takayama, a’.k.a. “Fuzzy,” “Ehu-Hair,” “‘Bird’s-nest,” and, naturally, “D.T .. ,” ledwhat was probably the most idyllic childhood a surfer could possibly envision.Surrounded by the High Council of Hawaiian Watermen, the Beach Boys, Donald was schooled in the arts of surfing and boardbuilding. He rode his first wave when he was five, and by the time his ninth birthday rolled around, he was already becoming an accomplished shaper. Donald’s education came not at the hands of school-marms, but in the rough-and-tumble alleys and byways of Honolulu. Dale Velzy recalls a rogue’s gallery of young surfers: “There was a whole gang of these young kids … Harold Iggy, Sammy Lee, Donald, and they completely controlled Ala Moana. They were never in school, and the little buggers could surf like you can’t imagine. I’d pull up into the parking lot and look out and, Jesus, they’d be all over these waves. One time I looked out and thought shit, it’s ten feet out there, but 1’d paddle out and realize these goddamned kids were about three-Feet-tall, and the waves were actually head-high, for me.”

Velzy had been visiting Hawaii every year throughout the mid-to-late ’50’s, and notes that Donald was already the hot-rod by 1956. “Hell, I’d seen good surfing before, but that kid really stood out. His surfing showed a lot of class; even back then. That whole long-haired crew, Blackout, Squirrely, Conrad Cunha, Nuuhiwa, they all ripped the crap out of it; but Takayama, boy … “

Even at the age of nine, Donald was dead serious about his surfing, or at least as serious as you can be while growing up in Eden. His boards were too heavy to carry back and forth to the beach, so he came up with an inventive means of storage. “I’d tried to take my board home, but God, it weighed ninety pounds or something, and I weighed about forty.-five. I tried to drag it across Kuhio Blvd., but I just couldn’t make it, so I hauled it back to the beach and buried it. Well, the next day I was digging holes everywhere, and the oldtimers who played checkers in Kapiolani Park were looking at me, shaking their heads. I looked like a sand crab. Finally, I found a hole in the seawall and stuffed my little board in there. That’s where I kept it all summer.”

Donald was becoming a fixture on the Waikiki scene, and the beach boys adopted him. “I was down there every day, you know, ditching school, surfing all day long. One afternoon Rabbit Kekai came up to me and said ‘Hey, Ehu(red)-hair, let me teach you some timing,’ so I ran as fast as I could and got my board. ‘Follow me, just follow me,’ he said,’ so I paddled as hard as I could and I followed him out to First Break at Canoes. We took off on a good sized set wave, and Rabbit kept yelling ‘Follow me’ so I surfed right up behind him. He did a cutback, and BAM! I rode right up over him.” Donald smiles as he recalls the two of them going over the falls, getting cracked with their solid redwood boards. “Rabbit comes up and yells, ‘Hey! You’re not supposed to do that!’ imd here I am, about ten-years-old, and I said, “You didn’t say nuttin’ bout cuttin’ back!” Whenever Donald reminisces about growing up in Hawaii, a broad smile creases his face. “That era was unbelievable … I always look back and think about how lucky I was.

A few years ago I went up to Tantalus and looked down at Waikiki and I couldn’t even see the beach. Just a big 01′ wall of cement. I was there just when this was starting to happen.” Donald recalls the construction of the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, and how the dredging of the channel created a bit of silver lining – Ala Moana. “The first slips went in about 1955, and me and Conrad Cunha saw these lefts breaking all the way across. I don’t know if I was the first to surf the place, but I know I surfed it every day with no one out … in fact, I got lonely, so I’d go to Waikiki where everyone else surfed. At Ala Moana, one of the hottest surfers was a kid I’d see out there now and then. One day, I looked over and said to myself ‘Hey, that kid’s a girl!,’ and it turned out to be Joey Hamasaki, out surfing topless. She was my age, about nine or ten, but boy” could she surf.”

‘When Takayama was about 12, Dale Velzy came up to him at Waikiki and asked if he could check out his board. Velzy ran his hands up and down the rails and sighted down the bottom, checking out the vee. Velzy asked who’d built it, and Donald said, “I did.”

Velzy asked to see others that Donald had shaped. Impressed with Donald’s natural ability, Velzy offered up a proposition. Dale recalls the day: “I said, Donald, you need to come to California with me and build some boards. I’ll give you a place to stay and you can make a little money and surf our breaks. Well, the little bugger was stoked. I went home, and about a month later, there he was, knocking at my door.” As you can imagine, this was a pretty heavy jump for a pre-teen from the islands. Donald saved money from paper routes, then told his mom he was leaving for the mainland. She was incredulous until the end-a week later, she realized that her twelve-year-old was gone.

After a harrowing ten-hour flight that landed at pre-L.A.X. Burbank Field, Takayama realized he’d landed on “a pretty big island.” He made his way to Velzy’s shop, and the rest is shaping history. Velzy recalls that his star surfer of the time, Dewey Weber, was “jealous as hell” of all the attention the young Hawaiian garnered upon his arrival, and Velzy’s immediate worry was “Shit, I’ve wounded my team!” The two eventually became famous friends. D.T. worked his okole off for the Velzy/Jacobs label, and at the time, there was no heavier house. For that time and place, Donald was the equivalent of an artisan’s apprentice in High-Renaissance Florence. In between frequent surf trips up and down the coast, Donald’s only job was to shape balsa boards and surf with the crew at Hermosa Beach’s 22nd Street. Donald’s old Ala Mo buddy, Harold Iggy, had also flown across the sea and joined the California clan. Harold and Donald were surfing daily with all of the West Coast hot-rods that they’d heard about on the coconut wireless: Mickey Munoz, Dewey, Phil Edwards, Johnny Fain, Mickey Dora, etc. Some heavy sessions went down. Donald’s performance in the water and in the shaping bay had people hooting. Donald became one of the world’s first professional surfers when Velzy gave him five bucks and a teeshirt to wear on his surf-trips.

After about three months, Takayama headed back to the islands. He caught a cab home from the airport, where he found his mother tossing some fish into the teriyaki bowl. His mom was torn between giving him an aloha hug and slapping him silly. She chose the former. After a couple of months re-acclimating to the South Shore scene, Donald was on another plane to California. Even at twelve, he realized that the mainland was the fiscal land of opportunity, even if it meant leaving paradise behind. On the mainland, things were changing fast. Surfboard sales were going through the roof. Velzy had licensed his mime to a large manufacturer and his old partner, Hap Jacobs, had started his own company. Likewise, Dewey Weber had gone into business for himself, and a handful of others had entered the fray. Donald chose quickly, and hung his planer in the Jacobs factory.

Jacobs Surfboards quickly became the premiere label in the early ’60s, with team riders like Lance Carson, D.T., and the Cat. The Jacobs showroom was a popular hang-out for surfers from around the county, and Donald’s Hawaiian-kine ease with the clientele was one of the reasons they came. Hap Jacob’s remembers an instant where Takayama’s enthusiasm for wave-riding overshadowed his business skills: “One morning I came to work early and found the shop’s front door wide open. I went inside and the place was  swarming with customers, checking out boards and such, but no Takayama. He’d opened up, grabbed his board and left, and forgot to close the shop back up. I could have strangled him!”

There were more board orders than there was time to make them, but as soon as Donald got a paycheck, it seemed to disappear. This phenomenon was directly related to his new-found love-street rods. He was the proud owner of a ’40 Ford Coupe and a tweaked-out ’55 Nomad. At one point, he had more speeding tickets than board-order cards. Things worsened until Jacobs decided to have a chat with him. “Donald was always a very happy-go-lucky type,” says Hap. “Whenever I tried to discuss anything serious, he’d lose interest. Once I approached him and said, Now Donald, I’m going to start a bank account for you so you stop wasting your money and Donald was staring up at me very seriously. I finally thought I was getting through to him. Then he said ‘Gee, Hap … you know, your hair’s starting to get really thin on top.’ “

In 1965, the era of surfboard “models” was in full swing- The Peck Penetrator, The Nuuhiwa Noserider, The Hansen Mike Doyle Model; the boards realizing the highest sales all had star surfers names. Jacobs introduced the Donald Takayama Model, and to this day it remains one of the most functional and aesthetically appealing boards ever. Foiled super-thin, it featured dual or triple stringers with colored glue, a step deck, and a high-aspect fin. Current collectors revere them. Donald continued with Jacobs for a while, then began hop-scotching through the other major factories. Takayama was part of the design cabal at Bing responsible for the David Nuuhiwa Noserider, the most frequently copied template in all of longboarding. Shortly thereafter, Donald joined

Harold Iggy at Weber, where they worked together perfecting the Performer model. At this time, the Weber factory was shaping and glassing 300 boards a week. This is a record still stands. In 1971, the surfboard marketplace walked off a cliff as a result of the shortboard’s introduction and the accompanying “soul” era. The surfing populace at large was much more interested in Orange Sunshine than in rah-rah matching team uniforms and noserides. Donald packed his gear and headed south to join John Price and Surfboards Hawaii in Encinitas. DT eventually moved into a surf pad adjacent to Stone Steps

Beach, site of the Stone Steps Surf Contest, infamous for its rule that required each contestant to drink a resin-bucketful of beer prior to each heat. There is rumor of a sordid little videotape that documents Donald hanging ten (whilst inebriated beyond all human recognition) for 200 yards,where he promptly fell into the shorebreak, and first place.

Donald bounced around a bit in the ’70s, shaping for M.T.B. and, later, Surfing’s New Image in Solana Beach. For the most part he was riding shortboards, and in 1974 he was crowned U.S. Surfing Champion.

During this period in surf history, it was deemed incredibly unhip to be riding anything longer than 7’6″, particularly a noserider. Takayama ignored convention and broke out an old tank for the smaller days. He recalls getting some funny looks out at Beacons, but it’s hard to laugh at someone when they’re riding waves all the way to the beach that you can’t even catch.

Around 1979, Donald’s name on the stringer had enough cachet to merit branching off on his own and opening the Hawaiian Pro Designs shop in Oceanside. He slowly whittled his way into the competitive North San Diego County market, and things really began to steamroll when he sponsored Vista surfer Joey Buran. When Joey won the Pipeline Masters contest in balls-to-the-walls North Shore conditions, Donald’s theory of sponsoring “nice, normal guys who really love the sport of surfing” started to payoff.

Though he was shaping small-wave twin-fins for the masses, his real love was length. “There’s something about shaping longboards that feels more like a true craft… maybe it’s the long cuts you make,” says Donald. “It’s a lot easier to screw up. Just about anyone can make a shortboard.”

In 1982, Donald began to seriously work on modern longboard templates and curves. He found that” he was riding his 9’0″ more often than his shortboard, and he had pulled some old friends back into surfing via the easier paddling and generally more forgiving longboards. Two years later, some of the first longboard contests in a decade-and-a-half appeared. The Peff Eick in the South Bay, The Dewey Weber, The 50-50 in San

Clemente … the early rumblings of a resurgence were being felt. Donald signed up Dale Dobson and David Nuuhiwa for a model redux, and the embryonic beginnings of the longboard renaissance were taking shape. In other parts of the world, the same thing was happening. Pacific Beach’s Skip Frye was gaining more and more proteges, and graceful lines were being drawn from the Cliffs to the Shores. On Maui, the Mala Wharf gang was wetting their collective whistles on the noseriding capabilities of Bob “Ole” Olsen’s shapes. The Hanalei crew organized the Pinetree’s Longboard Contest, and Billy Hamilton’s longboards were well represented. Things were cool, and Takayama was firing on all cylinders with shortboards, eggs, and noseriding models. .

Buried deep in the Old Testament lies a familiar adage concerning prIde, and its amusing knack of preceding a fall. Add cocaine to the mix, and the bottom drops out.

Donald’s business was thriving, he was cruising in his Porsche, and the California air was filled with the sounds of The Eagles and the “Cardiff Love Tap” (a razor blade rapping gritty cadence on a mirror). Takayama was slurped into the loop, and as epic payment always follows epic parties, Donald was felled by the criminal justice system. The results were earth-shattering. The charge: possession with intent to distribute. The verdict: guilty. The sentence: down, hard. Lompoc Federal Prison. So close to the Ranch, and yet so far. Donald discovered who his real friends were. The good-time

Charlies and the users disappeared. But several brilliant rays of hope reached him. His loving wife, Sid, was full of nothing but good cheer and hope. Friends and family sent a stream of postcards.

“It was a major tragedy, and yet it was the best thing that could have possibly happened to me. It saved my life. The period of abusing myself had ended. The most horrible part was what it did to the people I loved … I had let them down.” Donald recalls not the loneliness of the cell, but only the guilt of having hurt the ones he cared for most, people that had depended on him. “If I could say anything regarding drugs, it would be this: before you make the casual decision to use, take a minute and think about your friends.

Think about how they’ll feel when they see you hurting yourself. Have some respect, but mostly realize that we have something in surfing that is much more intense than any artificial thing.” Upon his release, Takayama made a vow to sobriety.

According to his friends, the transformation was nothing short of a success story. Joel Tudor: “When Donald was drinking and stuff, all kinds of derelicts would hang around the factory. They’d get him drunk, do his drugs, then talk him into building free boards for them. Losers were taking advantage of him.” He was always super generous, but many people took advantage of that.

The modern longboard revival helped D T rebuild his life and image. In the modern longboard competitive scene, the Hawaiian Pro Designs team was an impressive one. Mitch Abshire, Joel Tudor, Chris Olivas, nephew Guy Takayama, LJ. Richards, Nat Young, Rabbit Kekai, Stuart Entwhistle, Jeannette Schumacher, and Mike Emerson all called H.P.D. home. His influence was global.

Perhaps the best venue for getting to the core of the modern Takayama lifestyle was his massive annual luaus.  eld in Oceanside or up the coast at San Onofre, a cast of hundreds trekked in from up and down the coast, and often several would fly in from

Hawaii.

The typical luau would begin at dawn, when a huge Rykoff Foods truck arrived at the beach and disgorged case after case of vegetables, fruits, and meats. A pick-up truck then pulled in and dropped off an entire Thresher shark. The boys from the shop would begin a four-hour preparation ritual, cutting vegetables, filleting shark, marinating ribs, steaming rice, and building the fires. The prep crew went through a constant rotation so all would get a surf. All morning, guests would arrive. It looked like a bloody Who’s Who of surfing, and everyone got into the line-up at least once. Skip Frye and Cliff Hansen trading waves at the south end, their 11-footers connecting long sections. Josh Baxter, Chris Olivas, Joel Tudor, and Kevin Kinnear ripping the rights up the beach. Fifty or 60 heavies would hang under the shack, breathing in the wafting scent of Teriyaki shark and ribs. If the San-O Power Plant chose this moment to melt-down, a big part of surfing’s living history would have been lost.

Presiding over the whole affair was Donald, tongs in hand, shaking paws and full of greetings, shakas, and stoke. Managing the cooking teams like a symphonic conductor., he found time to chat with big wave rider, Brad Gerlach, who has been riding an H.P.D.

longboards for years. The Takayama luau was perhaps the most emblematic manifestation of the D.T. ethos; treat your friends like family and never stray too far from the water’s edge. When Takayama took a break and paddled into the surf, everyone smiled. The same whipturns, noserides, bow-legged cutbacks, and lightning-quick back-peddling that stood out at Ala Moana in 1957 still looked startlingly fresh 40 to 50 years later.

Think of the changes that surfing has seen in six plus decades, and realize that Donald was actively involved in all of them: the first wide-spread use of fins, the move from wood to foam, the model era, the shortboard revolution, California soul, the birth of

Professionalism, twin-fins, thrusters, and lastly, the undeniable renewed popularity of the longboard. Donald Takayama passed away on October 22, 2012 leaving an incredible surf legacy and an example of true Hawaiian aloha. We will miss you Donald.

Longboard Archives/© Guy Motil 2012