Story/interview by: Arsen Brzostek
Photos: Nicki Daly, Juan Rodriguez, Keith Novosel & Arsen Brzostek
One World label and board in Huanchaco, Peru during May 2007 surf contest with guest, 1965 World Surfing Champion and current big wave surfer, Felipe Pomar.
After producing my film ‘Going With The Flow: Classic California Soul Surfing’ I was stoked over surfing history and it’s roots from the Golden Age and my thoughts wandered closer to home. Just because the Central Gulf Coast Florida shores are notorious for several months worth of flat spells, most local surfers spend their time traversing the globe in search of clean canvases to sink their hungry teeth into. This desire to travel and understand the waves and how they break in various locales around the globe keeps the mind constantly dreaming; what are the best tides, seasons, swell directions, and which surfboards will be best utilized to experience the final act of surfing once there.
When you dedicate your life to surfing, magical things seem to happen. Unexpected surf trips come out of no where, related creative endeavors come together and the lifestyle allows one to exist in a state of mind not shared by many of our other land dwelling counterparts. It’s here in the creation of how one wants to live is where freedom is fully expressed. Through the total creative freedom of one many are affected in more ways than all could ever know and understand. Juan Rodriguez, a legendary shaper and life long surfer from this little piece of Florida heaven, has been happily residing and shaping not only boards but fantastic wooden creations fitting into many parts of the surfing life. Living the dream while passing on the stoke is what keeps classic guys like Juan balanced while on his daily slide.
Juan’s earlier years challenged him with disobedient body growth, making “the little guy” on the baseball team his title. A driving desire of wanting to excel at a passion of choice, the bat and ball weren’t to be his game. Surfing found him through a surf mag brought back from California by a brother of a female classmate. When Juan got a hold of it he was totally stoked about what surfing was and it’s potential. After devouring every photo, word and ad he was ready for this brand new world. Dreams were ignited of what waves lye undiscovered in his own backyard and occupied waking thoughts which from this point forward Juan knew his life would be one with surfing; simply because he had to.
Juan sawing away at a solid wood surfboard in store product display.
Wave sliding for the young Juan began at Sarasota, Florida’s, Lido Beach near a place which was a landmark for many years, the Old Casino. At this special place was where he caught his first wave. Memories of the old jetty being the breaks take off spot and then how a wave would take you into the cove and provide a really good ride are vivid as if it happened yesterday. An 8’10″ Gordie was his first board which someone had brought back from California. When Juan got the board he went on to ride the first wave he caught. His recollection of the three second ride with a beginners goofy fall had him hooked. After the ride the tiny wave ballooned in foresight to a ten foot monster which he surfed with classic style and grace. The wildly imaginative mind of a child engulfed in surfing allowed for it’s soul to completely fill him and set his life’s course.
1963-64 were the formative years of surfing on Florida’s West Central Gulf Coast. The local surf spots were counted on one hand. Once surfing became his life, Juan called Siesta Key’s Crescent Beach his home break. Along with ten or so guys the Crescent Beach Crew lived the water minded existence, building a beach hut, spending days on end surfing and loving the simple life. On the colder winter days their burning of beach motel lawn chairs promoted the antiestablishment lifestyle which was a major part of surfing back then. To the north were the Siesta Crew and then the Lido crew, which according to Juan were older and more groovy, followed by the guys who really had it going on, the Holmes Beach Crew.
The perception Juan and his buddies had at a young age of 13 or 14 was that the local waves were pretty good. East Coast Florida runs weren’t happening at the time and surf travel had yet to be experienced. The only way to increase the wave size and quality was to make it the best you can in your own mind. To this day you see how this mentality still pervades the local surfing tribe making it one of, if not, the most surf stoked groups on the planet. Back then as it is now, when a good swell producing agent like a tropical storm or big cold front came through, epic conditions would materialize. Juan now having traveled the world and able to compare the local waves to world class waves, claims we get our fair share of good days if we take the time to look for and make those sessions happen. West Central Gulf Coast Florida’s local breaks are mainly sandbars and once they’re groomed the better spots light up and to this day can provide over one minute long rides allowing for good bottom turns to speedy sections ending with fun barrels close to shore.
Juan Rodriguez – West Central Gulf Coast Florida’s legendary shaper extraordinaire.
The pull of the surf trip first took him to his father’s homeland of the Dominican Republic. Bringing along his 10’0″ Hobie Noserider at the age of fifteen Juan boarded his dad’s plane and set off for destiny. Hooking up with his cousin while on the island they began scouring the country’s breaks. Finding what they were looking for in the capital city of Santo Domingo was a sharky break which today is no longer accessible due to the beach closer after too many people were killed by the bigger specimens. The shark factor quickly departed his thoughts as news of a local surf contest being held the day after arriving peaked his stoke.
At the contest he gingerly worked his way over the characteristically sharp, near shore, Caribbean reef and found himself face to face with a dark skinned heavy local hell-bent on knocking him out of the contest. Turned out the guy didn’t know how to surf and was paid off by the local crew just to take Juan out of the contest. Applying some wave knowledge to the situation, Juan positioned himself accordingly so the incoming clean up set would take the dark horse out. With his opponents lack of watery knowledge the surfing hitman was taken out and dragged over the urchin infested reef earning Juan a first place victory in the contest. His sojourn into the Dominican Republic became an annual event after school let out for summer vacation. The yearly rhythm of riding the Caribbean’s breaks allowed for fine tuning of wave riding skills such as hang tens, fives, spinners, riding backwards and all out of sheer boredom. This was Juan’s and his cousin’s daily bliss. A magical time, surfing and uncovering Caribbean Gems.
In 1967 surfing on the Gulf Coast was still a fledgling activity. The common surf shop in the Sarasota area had yet to exist. In those years Economy Fishing and Tackle filled the void by renting surfboards while employing Juan for the related tasks. One day a guy bringing back a rental surfboard after a session had it sticking out towards the front of his VW Bug, he miscalculated a turn, snagged a telephone poll nearly killing himself and in doing so broke the board in two. Destiny was at hand and the proverbial fork in the road presented itself to Juan. He knew he was poised to walk down the shaping path when a mental vision of a shortboard appeared to him within the remnants of the broken longboard.
1969 Mike Diffenderfer Chambered Balsa Minigun restoration project.
Having studied a few surf mags, Juan envisioned a board inspired by great Australian Surfers Bob McTavish and Nat Young who at the time were surfing V Bottoms (influenced by George Greenough whom Juan views as the creator of the lynch pin wave vehicle within the surf world – the kneeboard). The tackle shop owners ended up giving Juan the dead log which he later stripped off the glass and shaped into a Dark Brown V Bottom; claiming it actually went well. After plugging in a George Greenough Stage 3 Fin the first of the shortboard revolution had made it’s physical appearance on Florida’s Central Gulf Coast.
During that time a tough financial crunch for Juan turned into a blessing in disguise. Selling his self-made shortboard to cover car insurance provided a valuable lesson in supply and demand as the board ended up selling for a decent price. The demand for shorter equipment quickly set Juan’s gears in motion. Gathering up all the local old and unwanted longboards, he stripped them down to create smaller wave riding equipment. Now in hindsight he feels the destruction of those good riding logs to build early shortboards, which were terrible at best, still haunts him to this day. After realizing he needed new blanks to get the job done right he found a distributor of Walker Blanks, located in Cocoa Beach, Florida and provided the necessary material. His early passion for surfboard designs fueled his dreams and set the stage where Juan would one day make his mark.
The inspiration for the name of Juan’s label, One World, came to life for him at a French Surf Shop when a TV news bulletin broke revealing the 1989 Oakland, California earthquake. His thoughts wandered to how the world has become interconnected with communications and news being delivered instantly upon it’s happening therefore making where we live, one world. Humbly admitting he had heard the one world concept before but felt it applied to his surfing works, while at the same time sounding cool. Juan has shaped many boards to date. An accurate total sum of the boards he’s shaped is unavailable since he never numbers them. He estimates well over ten thousand.
A collection of shortboards from several eras inspire Juan for future refinements.
Living on the surf-starved West Central Gulf Coast of Florida makes it very challenging, if not impossible, to live the surfer/shaper life and maintain some sort of social existence. The necessity to sustain a surfing life caused him to branch out and apply his skills to related items. His wood and fiberglass knowledge allowed the creation of skateboards, skimboards (Western Flyers was a popular brand he started and produced thousands of units which made him one of the biggest skimboard manufacturers in the World), to longboards – both wooden and foam. As of now, his years of shaping knowledge are also being applied to classic surfboard restorations. His rafters are filled with collectors items waiting on the master to bring them back to life. Juan was sought out for his restoration magic by an individual who purchased a classic 1969 Mike Diffenderfer Chambered Balsa Minigun at a surf auction on Kaua’i for US$10K. The trust people place onto him to bring back a classic to life called for an expansion into the creation of original looking fins.
Going on to create wooden, as well as hard-to-find fin systems, such as Wave Set, Hobie’s for Dogbone Finboxs, Wonderbolts and Star System was a natural progression for his passion and skills. The client list for his wooden fins grew from individual collectors looking to restore priceless planks and now includes a steady stream of orders from most of the legendary classic California and Hawaiian surfboard manufacturers which are still around today such as Bing, Brewer, Carson, G&S, Gordie, the Greek, Hobie, Harbour, Haught, Infinity, Jacobs, Greg Noll, Olsen, Rice, Stewart’s Phil Edwards Models, Weber, and Yater. The late Dale Velzy purchased Juan’s fins for over ten years which the Hawk applied onto his own collectors wooden boards.
Not all of Juan’s creations are strictly for wave sliding. Orders for elegantly shaped miniature wooden board product displays are in high demand from surf shops and department stores. In addition to the myriad of his own hand crafted items in production he also is a business partner in the distribution of Board Works Brand of epoxy surfboards and paddleboards for the entire East Coast of the United States, including sales in Costa Rica and the US Virgin Islands. Stand Up Paddle (SUP) has seen a resurgence over the past several years and Juan offers both boards and paddles for those seeking other methods to experience extra water time. The commitment to excellence keeps his customers relying on not only receiving recommendations on what board to ride for those just starting out but also for those seeking refined classic artistic craftsmanship in foam, wood and fiberglass. Now the surfing icons and heroes are not just a part of Juan’s surf mag past but are in his daily life allowing him to swap stories and take their product orders. Living in constant change and utilizing a variety of surfing related skills and talents keeps him stoked and challenged creatively.
Juan negotiatin a Puerto Escondido barrel.
Juan prefers to shape longboards and stays away from shortboards and their market. He understands what the surfer living the life is looking for in a board, what they’ll pay and gives it to them. A well performing, long lasting quality surfboard which provides a good value for his customers hard earned dollar is what he delivers. Surfboards have become expensive and are almost equally priced to other pieces of equipment used for pleasure. For years surfboards have been under priced and now the shapers who’ve been around are receiving more of the respect they deserve through dollars and cents. Shaping shortboards doesn’t interest Juan even though he sells them through his shop. He claims the majority of shortboard consumers tend to be very fickle. If a logo is not one which is currently in fashion, even though it adorns the same shape being produced almost identically by many other shapers, it’ll just sit on the racks and collect dust. Most of the shortboard consumers are not concerned with it riding properly for them but are more interested in an image a certain logo provides.
Juan states, “It’s not the arrow, it’s the indian.” Meaning it’s not the board making it happen, you are. Even though Juan distributes the well-built Chinese Board Works epoxy boards he know’s they’re putting the small to medium sized shaper out of business. The smaller shapers in order to compete with the pop out giants are forced to cut corners on quality and material. By having the small to medium sized shapers produce a poor product only adds fuel to the fire for growth within the Asian surfboard manufacturing market. According to Juan our smaller shapers need to produce a better quality product by putting a little bit more into their boards establishing a client base and then going head to head with the large pop out producers. If our home grown shapers don’t keep making custom boards the surfing lifestyle will die. So you have to choose if you want to support the lifeblood of surfing by purchasing a custom board with soul or get a reincarnation of a lighter produced by Moo Goo Gai Pan who has never seen an ocean, let alone surfed or even knows which side of the board to wax.
We’re on the brink of extinction of the surfboard craftsmen who knows how to create a beautiful longboard, do resin pin lines, lay up special glass jobs, etc. Not a lot of guys these days want to be a craftsman. A shaper who has traveled the world, experienced different waves, shared and received surfing knowledge throughout their lives will produce a board which rides different than one identical but popped out of a factory. There’s also the spiritual connection between what you’re making for someone. The bond and understanding you create with an individual in order to be able to produce a board that will work properly is imperative. Juan employs a couple of younger guys who he’s taken under his wing to show them the ropes of shaping magic carpets. He’s stoked to have them learning the art and hopes they’ll continue the tradition to keep the surfing lifestyle alive through their future creations and one day pass it on to new guys.
Dominican Republic dreamscape.
The surfboard shaping industry is now different. The closing of Clark Foam. Dec. 4th was the day the music died for a lot of surf industry people. Days before Clark’s landmark announcement blanks were blitzing out of their factory. One of Juan’s buddies in a rush to secure a limited resource had over 80 blanks strapped to the outside his truck, resembling something of a surfing Jed Clampett driving down the road. Having picked up 75 blanks from Clark around their closing kept Juan stocked until additional sources were worked out. Rino Foam, Walker Blanks, and a Brazilian blank manufacturer are his choices. Recently introduced parabolic stringer blanks are now in his material inventory and are sure to keep him innovating as they posses their own set of nuances and intricacies for future shapes. The process of choosing blanks for Juan is about finding the ones which make a statement artistically. Combining such a blank with his love for wood and its application in stringers and their numerous configurations allows for a hellova start before the man even picks up any tools. With the demand for wall hanger wooden boards his pieces of surfable art are hanging out as well as being slid at more places throughout the globe.
In surfing, style is very important. The West Central Gulf Coast of Florida is a challenging place to work on surfing style due to several factors: lack of waves and over crowding at the popular breaks. If there are waves the rides are usually short and when you do find a spot which holds a longer one it tends to be crowded. According to Juan there are many breaks in the local area which go unsurfed. The local breaks are mostly sand bars and shift considerably each year. The best break last year won’t necessarily be the best break this year. By getting away from the crowds, finding your own breaks, you’ll be able to have more wave time. More wave time allows for one to practice surfing there fore improving style. Style is especially important when riding a longboard and doing it in a traditional way where there isn’t a lot of wasted or inefficient movement in order to flow with the wave. Looking as good as you can and as smooth as possible should always be the objective when on a log. Juan feels style is the reflection of ones inner self. If you’re jerky on land you’ll more than likely be squirrely while on a wave. If you’re a styler on land you’ll probably be the same in the water.
A premiere local break during rush hour complete with cut offs, bumper to bumper traffic and every lane filled.
There are many ways to ride a wave so why not look good doing it. People appreciate good style as it’s more pleasing to watch. Take Joel Tudor or Kevin Connelly as examples of excellence in style. Joel’s style is traditional while Kevin’s is a mix of classic and modern, almost like a contortionist. Juan recalls the best longboard surfing he’s ever seen was by Kevin Connelly in Brazil doing long hang tens, spinners, you name it, all very smooth performed with great style. If you want to know good style watch what the best guys are doing such as Joel or Kevin and let your own style be influenced by how they ride. Shortboard style is considerably different compared to longboard style. There is a way you have to ride the shortboard in order to be successful. Pumping, navigating transitions from rail to rail, accelerating then decelerating. Good shortboard style is best observed at long point breaks which allow for drawn out turns and smoother maneuvers. When surfing smaller waves on a shortboard the motions become more erratic and not as smooth. When watching two shortboarders from down the beach it’s difficult to pick out one guy from the other through individual styles as their movements need to be similar in order for the board to go. If there were two longboarders surfing down the beach picking out who’s who would be easier simply based on each surfers body movement and style required to ride a log. Longboarding tends to not be as exciting as shortboarding for the younger guys but if they’d give it a chance they too would see how fun, elegant and cool it is.
The future of surfboard shaping will always reinvent itself with additions and changes in materials together with contemporary knowledge. The boards out now such as quads, fishes, thrusters are all reinventions from the past. All of these shapes have been around for a long time. Most guys in the old days tried different combinations of rails, outlines, and fins. Juan rode a three fin shortboard in the 70′s on Florida’s West Central Gulf Coast along with a ton of other guys way before Simon Anderson rocked the contest circuit of the early 80′s on his refined three fin combination. The retro shapes are all coming back around and are being refined to produce a board which far exceeds those from the past. Juan has a stack of boards from the 70′s which he claims ride just as good today as they did back then. Sure these boards are not the refined retro models which are out today but they pretty much are all still the same.
Kevin Connelly – the best longboarder in the world.
Juan believes the human spirit of all those who surf, no matter where you’re from, is consistent. All of us who surf have respect for the worlds oceans making us a very lucky and special group of blessed people. Those who surf are chosen to do so. Out of all of the things we could’ve done in our lives why did we decide to become surfers? Juan believes it’s because we are a part of a tribe. There’s good guys in the tribe and bad guys, but we’re all one tribe. We can meet someone half way around the world which surfs and strike up a conversation because we are of one tribe. Everyone who surfs and travels knows this and most of us have experienced it in one way or another. Going onto a train in New York City’s Penn Station Juan looked around and noticed several guys with surfboards. Seeing a wood fin on a guys board as one he shaped himself opened up a conversation with a perfect stranger related through a common passion. The little buzzes from moments such as finding his handy work in far flung locales keeps him stoked and living a special life. His legacy has allowed for a life which provides a soulfull stoke to many through his passion for surfing. As Juan put’s it, he’s stuck in it for life as he doesn’t see anything else he’d rather be doing than following his dreams. With his perpetual stoke, love for the lifestyle, incredible shapes and good nature to share and spread the good vibes, his legend will continue to inspire and keep us all a little bit more soulful.