Connected by Water

Dive into the lives of a surf instructor, board shaper, and designers united by love for the ocean and Hawaiian culture.

Text by
Emily Chang
Images by
John Hook and Chris Rohrer

This summer, Halekulani debuts The Art of Surfing, a collaboration between surfboard maker Hoku Kupihea; textile design company Kealopiko; and Halekulani’s resident surf school, Gone Surfing. Featuring surfboards hand shaped by Kupihea and inlaid with Kealopiko’s prints, the program will be home to utterly unique surfboards not found anywhere else.

The Shaper: Hoku Kupihea

Hoku Kupihea first started surfing on a bodyboard at Sandy Beach. His father, a bus driver, would drop him off at 9 a.m. at the start of his circle-island route, returning to pick him up at 5 p.m. after his last circumnavigation. Then, his father had the Waikīkī route and would drop Kupihea off at the end of Kalākaua Avenue at the surf break Walls, “keeping an eye on me each time he came around the bend,” Kupihea remembers. When his father started the West Side route, that’s when Kupihea realized, “I gotta get on a surfboard because these waves are too big.”

Kupihea’s entry into surfboard shaping was just as serendipitous, born out of “true, pure curiosity” to see how an altered rail, a wider tail, or a more blunt nose would affect a surfer’s ride in the water. From shaping to glassing, he does everything himself, from beginning to end—uncommon among shapers, who often outsource parts of the process. “It’s not me being a control freak,” he says, “but being able to involve myself into the work and being able to understand every step.”

Making a surfboard is a kind of storytelling about the past, and bringing it into the present,” says Hoku Kupihea, a board shaper based on O‘ahu.
Making a surfboard is a kind of storytelling about the past, and bringing it into the present,” says Hoku Kupihea, a board shaper based on O‘ahu.

And while Kupihea isn’t afraid to experiment, it doesn’t mean he neglects the basics. He frequently makes analogies to cooking, his previous profession of about 15 years: “I took everything I learned from the cooking world, like patience, attention to detail, and following the recipes.”

Kupihea is also drawn to the history of surfing and shaping. A Native Hawaiian, he’s inspired by other Hawaiians, like legendary waterman and pioneer of modern surfing Duke Kahanamoku and innovative board shaper Ben Aipa. It’s why Kupihea’s boards have a retro feel, drawing on shapes from the ’60s and the ’70s, but with a “new-school flip on it,” his own touch. . And from close discussions with the surfer commissioning the board, he considers what will work with their style or physicality, whether it’s a certain color or altering the shape to suit how they move on the water.

His understated logo is also rooted in the past: a simple, small upside-down triangle, a symbol that some Hawaiians interpret as “water.” He cuts each triangle out of old aloha shirts, many of them from his dad’s bus-driving days, and lays it on the underside of the board. Each triangle, like the surfboard itself, is a unique work of art.

The Instructor: Joanne “Jojo” Howard

Each time Joanne “Jojo” Howard came back from odd jobs across the world—working in tourism promotion in Florence, Italy; teaching English in Santiago, Chile—she would always return to Hawai‘i, and to teaching surfing. “I worked with a lot of the older uncles down the beach and they taught me a lot,” she says. “It was just the best job to come home to.”

She’s now been a surf instructor for almost two decades, and has been surfing even longer than that. “I love being in the water,” she says. “I love the challenges of surfing.” Every wave and day is different, which is also what makes teaching the sport difficult—and what draws her to it.

Like falling in love, the joys of surfing are hard to put into words, but the first time someone catches a wave, they get it, and Howard is there to witness it. She also coaches intermediate surfers, and she sees a lot of clientele who are used to being in control. “It’s fun to see people whose lives are so scheduled and regimented break away from that a little bit,” she says. “You can’t really say, ‘I’m gonna go this way and then make a 90-degree turn,’ you have to just live in the moment and do what you think is right in that moment.”

Howard’s surf school, Gone Surfing Hawai‘i, recently partnered with Halekulani, which sits in front of Howard’s go-to surf spot and, she says, one of Hawai‘i’s “most perfect breaks.” As Halekulani’s resident surf school, Gone Surfing is committed to incorporating more of the Native Hawaiian culture that surrounds surfing. “I love everything about my culture, Hawaiian culture, and Oceania in general,” says Howard, who is of Micronesian heritage. “But there’s not much representation [of it] in surfing, particularly for the birthplace of surfing.”

Despite a passion for travel that sent her around the world, a love of surfing drew Gone Surfing founder Jojo Howard back to the islands.
Despite a passion for travel that sent her around the world, a love of surfing drew Gone Surfing founder Jojo Howard back to the islands.

In addition to working with Halekulani to build out a small retail space on property featuring Native Hawaiian artists, Howard is commissioning a set of Hoku Kupihea-shaped surfboards inlaid with fabric by Moloka‘i-based design house Kealopiko. The unique quiver will give guests a chance to try different surfboard shapes and, Howard hopes, inspire a deeper connection to Hawai‘i, where she learned to love surfing and her island community.

The Designers: Kealopiko

Picture your typical aloha print and it’s most likely palm trees, plumeria, and hibiscus that come to mind, none of which are native to Hawai‘i. In 2006, three friends, Ane Bakutis, Hina Kneubuhl, and Jamie Makasobe, who are all of Native Hawaiian descent, decided to create clothing and textiles designs that would “honor our ancestors and this place we call home,” Makasobe says. That means prints with various ʻōlepe, bivalves that were once collected for food or lei, or the endangered wiliwili, which when it bloomed, Hawaiians knew meant it was breeding season for sharks.

The three combined their backgrounds—Bakutis in botany, Kneubuhl in botany and Hawaiian language, and Makasobe in public relations, interior design, and native fishpond restoration—to come up with stylish and playful prints that celebrate Hawai‘i’s native flora, fauna, and culture. They named their company Kealopiko, which translates to “belly of the fish.” “By our kūpuna (elders), [that’s] the choicest part to eat,” Makasobe says.

All three women are also surfers, so it was only natural they would eventually collaborate with surfboard shaper Hoku Kupihea. The idea was born out of—what else?—a surf session, when Makasobe saw Kupihea’s surfboard logo cut out of aloha print fabric, and they came up with the idea to use Kealopiko’s designs on Kupihea’s boards.

Each Kupihea and Kealopiko surfboard starts with a conversation: about color, the kind of waves the surfer rides, the fabric inlays they favor. Recently, a customer requested a board with a pattern of a hīhīmanu, or stingray, which also translates to the word “elegance.” “How [more] elegant can you be, dancing on a wave on that board?” Makasobe says.

The boards are a tribute to our ancestors, she explains, “who have been playing on waves for many generations. It’s a relationship with the ocean and being able to dance and play and have joy and laughter in that way. Catching a wave, it’s one of the best feelings.”