"ROBERTO DAMIANI'S STORY"
By Thomas Takao
"There is no way to anticipate the warm, humid, flower-scented air of the islands" recalled Roberto on his trip to Hawaii. Roberto Damiani is a well-known surfboard builder in Uruguay and South America. While on Kauai he met Bill Hamilton "The Style Master" through a mutual friend. In the short time Bill and Roberto got acquainted, Roberto says "It seemed like we knew each other for a long time."
After a full day's surf session at Hanalei Bay it was time to unwind, as sunset turns into nightfall. Roberto was at the Hamilton's that evening sitting on the veranda and having a beer. Gazing out into the night and viewing the outline of the waterfall some distance away. While Roberto and Bill talked about shaping and things in general, lets turn the clock back some years to when Roberto started building surfboards.
In the mid 1960’s Roberto’s family lived in Southern California where his father was employed. Previously they had lived in Uruguay. It was at Hermosa Beach where Roberto first rode a wave on a surfboard and was hooked on surfing. Having watched the other surfers catching waves that day, He borrowed a friend’s board and paddled out somewhat awkwardly. Managing to get pass the impact zone where the waves were breaking 2 to 3 feet. Out in the lineup Roberto caught his first wave ever and stood up. Balancing himself as the white water rolled toward shore. With a smile on his face Roberto was one happy beginner.
With his new found sport Roberto was interested in going surfing. But that would change in the weeks that followed. His family was soon taking a flight back to Uruguay and thinking it was for a few weeks. But as it turned out the few weeks turned into over fifty years. His time in Southern California had lasted a few years and he had just learned to surf. In Uruguay he felt like Robinson Crusoe, nobody had any idea what surfing was about. But then he met Ariel Gonzalez a gym teacher that actually surfed. Ariel was one of a handful of local pioneers that had recently started riding the waves in Uruguay.
The encounter sparked the founding of the first surf club in Uruguay. The name of the club was called UWR is short for Uruguayan Wave Riders. Since the club was on a budget the club’s clubhouse was at Roberto parent's house. It had admission rules, hand painted surf posters (surf magazines were a very rare luxury) and live Mauser ammo hanging from their necks, a very eye catching surf gear to represent a tribal token. The club members did not have a single surfboard.
Getting a surfboard in Uruguay was very difficult. No one knew how to shape foam and glass them with fiberglass and resin. So they ended up doing a lot of skimboarding and bellyboarding on wooden planks. This would change when Roberto started shaping and glassing. He made his first board in 1969.
It wasn’t long before he started making surfboards for the rest of his fellow club members. Roberto had studied to become a graphic artist and it appeared that was the direction he was going. But after shaping and glassing his first surfboard and then riding it, he sensed that surfboard building was his calling. After doing some art business his path changed towards the surfing lifestyle.
“All I really wanted was to be soaked in salt water all day” recalled Roberto. In Uruguay and the rest of South Americas normal people were all into soccer.On the other end of the sport spectrum, Roberto's group were thought of as weirdos. That didn't change their way of thinking and enjoyed the ocean. There weren’t that many surfers in Uruguay so when Roberto ran out of people to make surfboards for in his area he decided to go to Brasil.
The surf industry was booming there and new factories and surf shops were springing up everywhere. Some brands were turning out hundreds of boards a month. People came from other countries to join in on the "Surfing Rush". Brasil and its tropical surroundings were 1200 miles to the north. Roberto and his good friend Alex hitched hiked more than 3000 miles to Brazil and back to Uruguay. They would stay for 2 months and meet a lot of nice people. On this first trip they didn't bring their surfboards. So whenever they were at the beach they would have to borrow a surfboard from one of the locals. The following year they would hitch hike back to Brasil and this time they brought their own boards.
Roberto first few trips to Brasil were a learning experience on where to go and who to know. He would start shaping for Homero Naldinho at his factory in Santos a port city in San Paulo during 1973. While at Homero’s factory, Roberto would meet a young Californian shaper named Gary Linden who was there to learn the ways of Brazilian surfboard industry. While working at Homero's, Roberto recalls a board that was being repaired at his factory. (link to that story)
Continuing on, having heard that another Californian board builder was looking for help. Roberto left the hectic pace of the city and went to the green hills and clean waves of Guaruja Island. Johnny Rice greeted the young shaper and was surprised when he spoke English to him. That made communicating their thoughts easier to understand.
Roberto mentioned to Johnny besides shaping and glassing he was a graphic artist. With that in mind Johnny sold a new Paasche airbrush to Roberto and made him the new airbrusher and sander at his factory. Roberto learned many valuable lessons from Johnny. One of them was: “You can’t do everything perfectly. You have to expect to carve out a fluke every so many boards and be able to admit it.”
Roberto stayed in Brasil for the rest of the 1970s, with several surf and shape trips to other South American countries, like Argentina and Peru. There was this time in Peru during 1977, he arrived just in time to double for Gordo Barreda at the Shaping Shack.
Gordo was temporarily out of commission with a broken collar bones after a heavy wipeout at La Herradura. Sometime later Roberto had his own sampling of La Herradura power when he broke a borrowed gun surfboard. It was during a paddle like crazy for a large outside set that had caught others inside of it.
He decided to do a late take-off, turning around on a good looking shoulder he did a two paddle takeoff as the lip started to feather. Just when he was standing, there was someone scratching at the bottom, trying to get through. It threw Roberto concentration off a split second.
That split second was the difference in making it or losing it. Being lip launch onto his board shoulder first, the impact broke the board in half. Roberto swam in with one piece, and went back through the infamous shore break and around to the cliffs. Climbed into the caves at the foot of the cliff to recover the other piece and swam back out again and through the shore break.
Being of Italian ancestry, Roberto went searching for his family roots in 1981, he ended up in Pescara, a port city on the eastern shores of Italy. Not a surfboard in sight, just sailboards, sailboarding was happening in a big way.
All of Europe was doing it. The board manufacturers of these different countries were taking the sport of windsurfing to higher levels through their pace-setting Research and Development. Halfway around the globe “Hookipa in Maui was the testing ground, Robby Naish was king. But it was really the German, the French, the Swiss, the Austrian and the Italian that broke design barriers in the golden days of windsurfing” recalls Roberto.
So he spent a few years surfing completely alone in the eastern shores of Italy. Wishing some other wandering surfer would stop on by. Eventually he moved to Viareggio on the western side of Italy. To Roberto it felt like going from the Great Lakes to North Florida. From not much happening to a whole surfing scene, complete with factories, shops, contests, and familiar apparel.
Roberto began learning the ropes of custom sailboard making. He shaped hundreds of them, in a 5 to 1 ratio over surfboards. “The amount of input and feedback was awesome” says Roberto. Changes were going on so fast, it was an exciting time for windsurfing in Europe.
"I did my best to spread surfing in Italy. When I left Pescara, a few kids were shaping and glassing. One had even started to make foam". In Viareggio, Roberto helped organize and increase production where he was working. He would lend a hand in local surf contests and he influenced others through his surfing. Beside the local scene he explored new spots along the coast.
Roberto could see the potential for the blooming surf business in Europe. However with a growing family to take care of Roberto returned to Uruguay during the late 1980s. After returning he started building surfboards again for his friends and new customers.
His surfboard building business during the 1990’s and 2000’s had grown. Being busy and needing a break, Roberto had an opportunity in 2003 to visit Kauai for the first time. Having traveled some distance to get where he is, we return back to the veranda and find Roberto thanking the Hamiltons for their hospitality and their aloha. He would return to Uruguay and remember his visit now and then.
Roberto and Bill Hamilton in his shaping