We are the measure of all things. And the beauty of our creation,
of our art, is proportional to the beauty of ourselves, of our souls
– Jonas Mekas
People have been riding waves at Sunset Beach longer than at any other spot on Oahu's North Shore. Names have come and gone, but through the years, one man created the benchmark by which all others are measured. Barry Kanaiaupuni rode unconventional equipment and became the first radical surfer at a time when others were still trying to merely survive. At arguably the most difficult wave in the world, there is little discrepancy over supremacy – Sunset belongs to BK.
"My dad just threw me in the water and said, 'Learn how to swim and go surf,'" remembers Kanaiaupuni. Born on Oahu, where he has lived most of his life, the chubby 8-year-old began surfing just as most Hawaiians, on the South Shore. His hero was Paul Strauch. At Washington Intermediate School, in shop class with Donald Takayama and Harold Iggy, he shaped his first surfboard. Prior to graduation, he quit school and moved to California, landing in the South Bay area. He gained an all-around education in surfboard construction, laying up boards at Gordon and Smith and skinning blanks for Phil Edwards. Kanaiaupuni finished school in California, graduating from Mission Bay High. A member of the Windansea Surf Club, he earned a free trip back to the Islands in 1965.
Kanaiaupuni established his reputation as a longboard surfer, riding for the Rick Surf Team and sporting his own BK model. He thrived on shortboard freedom more than any other carryover, radically redefining what could be accomplished in big surf. Shaping gradually occupied more of his time, so much so that he could quit his job as cook at Honolulu Airport to shape full time. Toward the close of the '60s, he was shaping ultra-narrow pocket rockets and had ascended the pack at Sunset. The wave was the focus of surfing during the first half of the '70s, and BK was the man. Never stimulated by competition, he nevertheless found some success, twice winning the Pro Class Trials and earning the most votes of all invitees to the Duke Kahanamoku Classic. "I was never a contest guy," he says. "I just surfed for myself. Surfing is a one-man deal." As the IPS launched its first world tour in 1976, Kanaiaupuni was on the downside of his career, still managing to finish ninth in the ratings.
Married with four children, chasing points around the globe on an unprofitable and unproven tour was a shaky proposition. Having a solid reputation as a surfer and a steady clientele for his boards (he shaped for Shaun Tomson, Ian Cairns, Mark Warren and others), he decided to open BK Surf and Sport in Haleiwa in 1980. A pyramid scam selling soap didn't pan out, but it did afford his family more than 20 years of cleanliness from thousands of bars stored under his house.
As crowds on the North Shore became increasingly burdensome, BK drifted out of the limelight and more or less quit surfing for seven years. "In the '60s, '70s, even the '80s, it was relatively uncrowded," he laments. "I was looking for people to surf with, but those days are gone."
He posted a semi-comeback during the mid-'80s, shedding some accrued bulk and returning to the Sunset peak. The crowds have since pushed him away again, steering him toward to the seclusion of snowboarding. He has also opened two new stores, another BK located in Waianae and a Quiksilver Boardriders in Haleiwa. His wife Leslie oversees the shops, and Kanaiaupuni remains dedicated to the art of shaping, doing everything by hand and finishing around 10 boards (mainly guns and longboards) per week. His top rider, three-time world longboard champion Rusty Keaulana, is also his son-in-law. Residing above Waimea Bay and a grandfather three times over, Kanaiaupuni is yet to see his match at Sunset.
– Jason Borte, October 2000
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