JOE KUALA, THE ROAD TO OLD KOLOA TOWN
by Thomas Takao
It was a typical spring day on the Island of Kauai with a breeze flowing through the landscape of palms, trees and shrubs. A south swell of 4 to 6 feet was breaking along the south shore. As the waves were tubing along the reefs, I was inside the show room of the Progressive Expressions Surf Shop in Old Koloa Town. Viewing the wide selection of merchandise and surfboards, I was there to talk to the Hawaiian shaper and glasser whose board are in the racks.
Joe Kuala walks in from the morning sun, standing in the doorway for a brief moment until he notices me by his longboard that frames the ceiling wall above my head. “How are you Joe” I aid and he replied “good” with a distinguished smile and a handshake that said welcome. It was good to see Joe again too. The last time we met was at his first shop at 404 Piikoi Street on Oahu many years back. We had talked a couple of times on the phone since. It was around noon so we had lunch and talked about his shop in Old Koloa Town.
And the Hurricane’s Iwa and Iniki, Iwa was nothing to sneeze at, but Iniki was a knock out, she could sweep you off your feet. To have been there when her winds were screaming all around you at 140 mph would be something else. Iniki was the most powerful Hurricane to hit the Hawaiian Islands in recorded history. Joe was there and the experience of an hour before, the hour of the eye and the hour after the hurricane is an experience Joe will never forget.
Something else Joe hasn’t forgotten was his surfing. I asked Joe about his surfing and when he started. It was back in 1957 when he was going to Washington Intermediate School that he took up surfing with his friends. Joe would go surf with Donald Takayama, Raymond Patterson, George “Boogie” Kalama and Jay Manago to name an abbreviated. They would go out at Ala Moana where the newly built Ala Wai Yacht Harbor was home for many yachts from around the world. Joe enjoyed those days when his friends were the crowd.
Being around surfboards is what Joe wanted to do. His board building history spans the beginning of the foam surfboard designs in Hawaii to the present. To clarify over 40 years in a sentence, let go back out into the lineup and picture yourself floating in the Ala Wai channel viewing Joe and a couple of friends surfing.During 1959 Joe was surfing with Raymond Patterson and Jay Manago at Ala Moana. Ray and Jay were working for George Downing patching boards at the Outrigger Canoe Club. Raymond mentioned to Joe that he had decided to go to the mainland to work for Hobie Surfboards and George would be in need of someone to take his place.
George hired Joe and taught him how to patch boards with fiberglass and resin. The Outrigger Canoe Club was like a magnet attracting locals, tourists, and celebrities. If they were going surfing and needed a surfboard George would let them ride his. The bottom line with that many people out in the water at Waikiki meant dings. With each repair job in 1960 Joe learned the properties of resin and fiberglass. One day in February 1961 there was an ad in the paper for a surfboard glasser. Joe applied for the job and got it. Joe told George that he got a job glassing surfboards and would be starting soon. George wished Joe well on his new position. Afterwards Joe found out that no one had applied for the job. Back then no one knew what a glasser was.
There were only a couple commercial shop on the island at the time, George Downing’s shop, Velzy’s shop and the new Inter-island’s shop. Joe walked into Inter-Island surf shop at 620 Kaka’ako St. in Honolulu and began glassing for Mickey Lake. Mickey was doing the shaping and Joe was doing the glassing in the beginning. The boards had a double layer of 10 oz. on the top and bottom, talk about getting hit in the head with one of those boards. Those boards were heavy. It took a years or so before they realized that the boards didn’t have to be that heavy and found the lighter the board was the better it performed.
The surf spot Kaka’ako on Oahu was near the west end of Kaka ako Waterfront Park. The park is built on a former landfill which when it was active and was the home to many aggressive black flies that bit the surfers and fishermen. It was named in the 1960’s by Joe Kuala who worked nearby in the Inter Island surf shop. “Flies” was the closest surf site to the shop.
During 1963 Joe met Marty who would become his wife and the mother of their 2 girls. She also worked at Inter-island doing the office work. Joe was laminating, Mike Diffenderfer was shaping, Dan Haut and Jim Campbell were glossing and Doug Haut was sanding. There would be others working at Inter Island like John Kelly Jr., Sparky, Jack Shipley and others.
Marty remembers when the surf came up she was told to tell so and so that they ran out of resin and tell so and so we didn’t have any sandpaper and tell so and so he had the flu. After telling Marty the excuses everyone would walk out and go surf. Marty says she wanted to go surf too. But she stayed to tell the customer who wanted their boards that Joe ran out of resin, Doug ran out of sandpaper and so and so had the flu.
Another well -known shaper first learned to glass by watching Joe. He would watch for hours through the window that separated the outside sidewalk from the glassing room. The shaper was Craig Sugihara who would later glass for Charlie Galento and go on to start Town and Country Surf Shop. On another occasion Joe remembers making a surfboard for his friend’s son who was a very young Michael Ho. Inter-Island Surfboards was well known with the locals. Whether you were going or coming back from the surf, the shop was a place to stop by and talk story.
A shaper who didn’t get the recognition that others were receiving was John Kelly Jr.. His ideas were ahead of his time. John shaped at Inter-Island and filed a patent on a board design describing the Hydro-plane. A design that had a modified tail and bottom section, where there was an inner and outer outline with the outer tail outline being dished out and blending with the rail contour, approximately 30” inches up the rail line from the tail. There was a severe change from the inner outline bottom much like a plateau. The tail section had a very pronounced kick. The prototype for tail rockers to come.
Joe did all the glassing on those hybrid designs. The tail section was very complicated to glass. The fin design had a heavy rake (curve) and glassing a halo or bead around the Koa fin was difficult. Placing the nose almost on the floor and the tail on the glassing rack, but Joe’s skills proved more than ample for the task.
Joe and Marty were married in 1964. Joe borrowed Mickey’s wedding ring for the ceremony (Mickey had recently been divorced and a young Joe was making ends meet and couldn’t afford to buy a ring). Through the rough times and good times they have been together. One fond memory Joe has is a signed picture of Duke Kahanamoku that was given to him by the Duke two days before Christmas 1964.
Besides glassing Joe learned how to shape from Mickey Lake and Mike Diffenderfer, Joe is still shaping on the same shaping racks that was at Inter-Island Surf Shop when he started. There have been many shapers through the years that have shaped on those racks. Beginning with Mickey Lake, then Mike Diffenderfer, John Kelly, Sparky, Ken Tilton, Dick Catri, Donald Takayama (when he was home for a visit), Wayne Santos, Reno Abellira, Gerry Lopez and Bobby Skalak.
There are a few more that have used the rack but their footsteps have disappeared into the past. Mickey Lake sold his shop in 1965 and John Kelly Jr. took over as manager for the new owner. The new owner was paying the payroll but wasn’t paying the bills. One day a representative of Walker Foam showed up on the doorstep demanding payment or he would have the authorities closed the door to the shop. All of the employees were dumbfounded with the thought that they were out of a job.
Joe and Marty went to work for a company called Surfboards Makaha. Thing were busy and needing some addition help Joe went over to his friend Ben Aipa to see if he wanted to shape. After which Ben welcomed his friend’s offer. Joe showed Ben the fundamentals of shaping and Ben took to shaping like an eagle to flight. Glassing on the other hand was not for Ben.
After two years the owner of the company didn’t honor the agreement he had made with Joe. So Joe left that company and Ben would also leave and go on to work for Greg Noll’s shop. The next shop Joe worked for was Surfline. Dick Brewer was shaping and Joe was glassing. This lasted for about 6 months, when Joe decided to start his own surfboard shop.
In 1970 Joe started Progressive Expressions. Mike Hahn a friend of Joe’s came up with the name. The boards were becoming shorter and the kids were doing radical maneuvers. He was making his boards and glassing a few of Lightning Bolts Surfboards. Bobby Skalak was working for Joe in Honolulu.
In 1972 Joe made the move to Kauai. When Joe started his first shop on Kauai, He had enough materials to make six boards and a case of wax. Marty was making board shorts, walking short, swim short, and shirts, while Joe made surfboards. Things improved and Joe would continue making the entire board from start to finish until the mid 80’s. Since then Joe has had Bruce Pleas do some of the process. Joe and Bruce have been working together for 20 years now.
The first shop in Old Koloa Town was located a couple doors down from the current shop. After Iniki the occupants of the current shop moved back to the mainland. The shop was vacant for a while before Joe and Marty moved in. The shop had grown through the years and is one of Kauai better known surf shop. Joe and Marty sold the shop and Joe continued to shape and surf. In July of 2011 Joe passed away and will be missed by all who have known him.