On Lunching with "The Duke", Watches, and the Truth About The HI Wave Scale
Sometimes you’re just in the right place, at the right time. Spyder Wright is one of those people. And, so was B on Hawaii, when we happened to be on an airport shuttle with the shaper, pro surfer, fixture on the Hawaii surf scene since the mid-1960s and 2008 inductee in to the Surfing Hall of Fame. Read on to hear the rumblings of that conversation, which spun in to a full-blown interview.
As we approach Duke’s OceanFest—a celebration of all the things Duke Kahanamoku made emblematic of Hawaii (surfing, Olympic swimming and the Aloha Spirit among them)—it seems appropriate that Spyder Wright crossed our path this month. Over the coming days, anyone who has been touched by the power of the ocean surrounding Hawaii will descend on Waikiki, to take part in surf, swim and paddleboard contests. There are luaus, cocktail parties and a whole lotta aloha on Queens Beach, as everyone from Rabbit Kekai to Robert August participates in the event.
Spyder Wright spent his first Hawaii winter in 1965. Within hours of his arrival, he found himself lunching at the Outrigger Canoe Club with Duke Kahanamoku, Kimo McVay and Fred Hemmings. The trio asked Wright if he’d represent Kahanamoku’s clothing line in Hawaii and back in on the mainland. The offer would spawn a life-long career making custom surf boards, surf apparel, and now watches, while affording Wright a lifestyle most surfers only dream of.
Two years prior to this encounter, the Bronxville, N.Y.-born Wright had begun shaping longboards for friends who shared his passion for wave riding off the shores of Long Beach, California, where he attended college, and Ocean City, Maryland, where his family migrated after N.Y.
Back in 1965 Hawaii, Hemmings took Wright to the North Shore to see some relatively unsurfed turf.
B on Hawaii: What was it like driving to the North Shore for the first time, having no preconceived notion of what to expect, and then seeing those waves?
Spyder Wright: “There were very few people living up there at the time, and even less people surfing,” said Wright. “Lifeguard were giving false surf reports to keep the crowds away, which certainly made their jobs easier. It’s actually how the Hawaiian wave scale came about. The Sunset and Waimea guards would tell people the waves were only 5 feet high, when in fact they were 10. Not a lot of people know that.”
Around this time, Wright made the acquaintances of Gerry Lopez, Buzzy Trent and Ricky Greig, who were carving niches for themselves as groundbreaking wave riders, shapers, oceanographers and so on.
B on Hawaii: There must have been some killer spots that people only found through accident, or word of mouth. Ever have an experience like that?
Spyder Wright: “In early ‘66, Fred [Hemmings] told me to check out a spot on the Northwest side of Maui. I got there and called Randy Rarick, who helped me find a flop house in Lahaina to stay. The first morning, he drove me to Honolua Bay, just above where the Kapalua Resort is today. We surfed the most perfect 8 – 10 foot waves I’d ever seen—and we were the only ones there all day. I wound up staying for 3 months, catching rides every morning on the back of pineapple trucks. I have the fondest memories of riding the road, which was dirt from the Honolua Store at Kapalua all the way to Honolua Bay. I would not see a soul all day, except for a few pineapple field workers, and ride the incredibly consistent point break. I rode the biggest waves of my life out there. You could ride all the way in to the bay on an 18 foot wave, laughing all the way.”
After that summer, Wright went on to rep for the Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, which eventually grew his surfboard business, and birthed a clothing apparel line that took off in Ocean City, Maryland, as well as Palm Beach (Florida) and throughout California. In 1979 and 1980, Wright was the East Coast surf champion. In addition, he was a finalist at Nationals in 1980 as well as winning the National Surfing Contest in Haleiwa that same year.
B on Hawaii: How different was the North Shore surf scene in the early 1980s compared to today?
Spyder Wright: “There was a lot of intimidation in the water back then. I thought I wouldn’t want to come back. So I didn’t, for years. Today, I notice crowds in the water, but the scene has evolved. There’s a definite respect for the hierarchy. There are bad apples in every barrel, but it’s come a long way from when haoles were straight up not welcome. There’s more respect in the water than there use to be.”
Speaking of respect, Wright’s clothing line has been so successful it’s branched off in to various private labels. This fall, consumers will have a chance to own an “E.Townsend” (Wright’s real name is Edward) or “Spyder Surf” watch, which should hit shelves before the holidays. These days, 35% of Wright’s business is surfboards. He’s always kept them in small production, only making them on U.S. soil. Over the last 45 years he estimates he’s made somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 boards.
“Not too many,” Wright said.
Spending summers at his family home in Nantucket and winters on the North Shore of Oahu (with occasional stints in Palm Beach, where his son Edward III runs his shop), Wright is more than content with his lifestyle.
B on Hawaii: What keeps you coming back to Hawaii, of all the places you’ve surfed?
Spyder Wright: “The physical beauty of Hawaii has never changed, and it’s staggering. To be out in the water—say, in front of Himalayas—and see the mountain range dropping down behind Haleiwa, and the lush green growth right up to the waters edge, gorgeous beaches, turtles in the water… it’s hard to beat. Then you drive to town and the diversity hits you. Honolulu is a major city. In 45 minutes time, I can be at a museum. I love that.”
B on Hawaii: So nowhere else got under your skin quite like Hawaii, it sounds.
Spyder Wright: Mexico has some great spots, as does South and Central America. But they’re not America. I’ve traveled a lot in my quest for seeking better, unknown waves. But most of them are in places where you can’t drink the water. Or the crime is so bad, you fear for your life. Mexico is a constant hassle. There are banditos with machine guns, sewage in the water and the infrastructures are not proper. Indonesia has malaria; you really take your life in your hands in a lot of these places. Maybe it’s because I’ll be 65 this year and I want to stick around a bit longer. I used to be a lot less conservative, but now I really think about where I’m going.
Check out www.spyderwrightsurfboards.com for more information on Spyder’s boards and apparel.
"Mexico has some great surf spots, as does South and Central America. But they’re not America." – Wright