The surfing ohana gathered en masse Saturday at Junior Seau Pier Amphitheater in Oceanside to exchange warm greetings, crack jokes, catch up, and share a tribal rite from the beach bonfire days, and before — talking story. They came to celebrate a man who touched them and countless others deeply: Donald Takayama.
More than 1,000 turned up on a blustery morning to honor Takayama, who died October 22 of complications following heart surgery. He would have turned 69 on Friday (Nov. 16). Some of the greatest characters of surfing’s past 60 years turned up from as far away as Australia to say goodbye to one of the greatest surfers (1966 and 1967 U.S. Surfing Championships runner-up) and board shapers. That’s just the surface description of Takayama, a 5-foot-3 giant of a man whose infectious personality, endless charm, constant generosity, sharp humor, deep caring and horizon-to-horizon smile beamed down in one perfect picture stretching across the amphitheater stage. The fact there were also ceremonies in Hawaii, Japan and Europe speaks to the love the surfing world had for him.
A wonderful collection of stories, laughter, tears, memories and treasured moments filled the morning. Emcee Hunter Joslin, a friend of mine since he announced the Stubbies Surf Pros that I promoted in the 1980s, was brilliant. Hunter and Donald were best buddies , and to my mind, kindred spirits from opposite coasts: both wise, often hilarious men who lived to surf and practiced perfection and strong business sense when it came to Donald’s Hawaiian Pro Designs boards, and Hunter’s IndoBoard balance trainer. With esteemed speakers behind him, and the riveting opening prayer just complete — “The Lord’s Prayer,” recited in Hawaiian by Dave Hansen — Hunter opened with a beautiful gesture: he asked everyone to turn to the person next to him or her, and tell a story of his or her first introduction to Donald. Instantly, 1,000 stories were shared. Donald always did like talking story.
I turned to 1976 world champion Peter Townend, one of surfing’s greatest ambassadors, who’d also met Donald in the early 1980s. When I finished sharing how I met Donald (below), I told PT, “You, a couple of others and Donald schooled me on surfing lore 30 years ago. You took me through pro surfing and the Australians, and he taught me about the pre-shortboard and longboard era.”
It was a perfect moment to say thank you to two of my greatest mentors.
The speakers were outstanding — and, like I said, esteemed. Two of Donald and Diane Takayama’s daughters, Alana and Leilani, along with nephews Guy and Michael, spoke of their father’s and uncle’s endless compassion, devotion — and, when needed, toughness. One of his oldest friends, the renowned Paul Strauch, spoke of surfing together in Waikiki in the early 1950s, before the 11-year-old Takayama, already a fine board shaper, saved his money and flew to the U.S. to work for the late legend Dale Velzy (whose 2005 passing affected Donald deeply). Another iconic surfer, Linda Benson (multiple U.S. champion and the girl actually surfing in the Gidget movies), spoke with teary eyes about a 53-year friendship built on unconditional love. Part of the time, she looked up and spoke to the spirit she felt in the sky, knowing she and Donald would paddle out again, in another place. The great surfer-shaper Skip Frye added his stories, as did three current members of the Hawaiian Pro Designs Team.
Next up were two of Donald’s greatest ambassadors, the best Gen X longboarders in the world — three-time women’s world champion Cori Schumacher, and the remarkable eight-time U.S. Open champion Joel Tudor, who PT calls “the greatest longboarder of the modern era, without a doubt.” Cori’s fondest memory of Donald was not of him helping a champion, but of him making the typical 6 a.m. call and getting her to surf again during a troubled eight-year period of her life. Tudor returned to the scene of his first world tour win, the 1990 Life’s A Beach Surf Klassik — when he was 14 — and told a riveting tale about the “The University of Young and Takayama,” and how Donald and Nat Young molded a kid with ridiculous talent into a superstar. Now 36, Tudor continuously fought back tears while sharing an adolescence spent with any surfer’s Hall of Fame — Young, Takayama, David Nuuhiwa, Wayne Lynch … if you’re over 40, you get the picture.
Finally, the king took the podium. Nat Young, an Australian sports icon on the level of Michael Jordan, the world’s first shortboard champion and the greatest all-around surfer post-1950 (with a deserving nod to Kelly Slater), flew overnight from Australia and arrived as the ceremony began. He and Joslin regaled the audience in the origins of the “drop knee sake maneuver,” which had to do with they, Diane and Donald, Japan, a restaurant, nine bottles of fine sake, a video recorder and a karaoke machine. (If you knew Donald, you’re laughing right now, because you can imagine how it turned out.) Young, now 65, then looked down at the work of art to his right, a perfect Takayama-shaped wooden longboard, and said, “For my 60th, he sent me this board’s double. I have never surfed on it, nor will I ever surf on it. It is a Young family treasure.”
After that, a couple hundred people changed into wetsuits for the ceremonial paddle-out, while hundreds of others filled up the south railing of Oceanside Pier and shared in the final, flower-filled sendoff.
I’ll say what countless others are saying right now: Donald Takayama was a huge influence in my life. He was also one of those friends who made the world feel like a better place, just knowing he was in it. I first met him during the early 1980s, when I was editor of Breakout magazine and surf columnist for the old Blade-Tribune. I interviewed Donald during his shaping hours in his Cleveland St. Hawaiian Pro Designs factory. Which meant I showed up at midnight, and left at about 3 a.m.
Two things struck me, besides Donald’s crazy-like-a-fox aloha spirit personality: his love for what he did, and his commitment to every board he shaped. At the time, he combined longboard shaping with making surfboards for his hot-shot team, headed by 1984 Pipeline Masters champion Joey Buran, fellow Top-16 world tour pro David Barr, and fine national-level pro Anthony Mata, among others. (Standing with Anthony, my former Little League teammate, on the pier during the paddle out brought back those memories.) I realized I wasn’t just watching a man shape boards, but an artist practicing his craft — as Cori Schumacher put it, “a Gepetto in his studio.” As one who yearns to find the right words, and craft them to a fine polish, I absorbed Donald in action, whether surfing, shaping, or sending a hundred surfers into fits of laughter while making killer BBQ at Oceanside Longboard Club contests or his backyard with his Surfer’s Choice Teriyaki Sauce.
When I threw my flower into the ocean, I turned to see David Nuuhiwa, now 64, shaking hands with fans. Now, he and Nat Young carry the torch of a generation. Today, that torch burns a little less lightly.
Aloha, Donald. And many mahalos.