"We're not sure what they're putting in the water on the Valley Isle, but that place seems to be sprouting some surf talent."
The above quote appears in this year's Surfer Magazine Hot 100 issue in the entry declaring 12-yea-old Imai Devault one of the World's most talented groms. It is also a candidate for understatement of the year. From Kai Barger's Junior World Championship, Dusty Payne's Kustom Airstirke win and Ian Walsh's absolutely ridiculous Red Bull Commercial, the Maui boys are making quite an impact on the world of pro surfing.
After seeing that quote, it didn't surprise me that a couple weeks later, while checking out the used boards at the Kazuma Surfboard shop on Maui, that the micro quiver in front of me belonged to Imai. I guess there could be something in the water, but the one sure thing that all of the surf talent sprouting from the Valley Isle has in common, is that they have all worked with shaper/coach Matt Kinoshita.
Matt has been shaping Kazuma Surfboards on Maui for over 18 years and coaching young surfers for almost as long. He coached the Hawaii team to a world championship at the 2000 World Surfing Games in Brazil and the list of alumnus and mentored include the likes of Walsh, Dusty, Kai, Cheyne Magnusson, Hank Gaskel, Melanie Bartels, Freddy P, Sean Moody, Joel Centeio and Dustin Baraca.
"Matt Kinoshita is without a doubt the single most influential surfer and mentor I have had in my life. I have been surfing with, and learning from him for nearly 15 years. His dedication and commitment to the kids of Maui over the years is something that everyone here needs to recognize," says World Class Big Wave Charger, Ian Walsh, "The time and energy it takes to help put all of the kids he has helped on the right path towards being better people and professional surfers is something that I don't think anyone can appreciate to it's fullest. Without his help over the many years I feel a good handful of best surfers from Maui would not be where we are now."
The last time I was on Maui was over 10 years ago. I spent a bunch of time there in the Nineties, and just took my first trip back this spring. Of all the great swells and surfing that I witnessed, there has always been one session that stands out.
Surf-wise, it was uneventful. A decent south swell was making its way into West Maui, but it wasn't really anything more than a good day of summer surf. The remarkable thing was the pack of micro-groms that were absolutely destroying the overhead waves. It was the first time I had seen a group of kids so young dominate a session. There were four or five of them stylishly surfing at a level that would make most surfers of any age envious.
I was shooting some of my friends from the beach and answering questions from an annoying tourist lurking around and watching over my shoulder. I was supplying him with one-word responses in hopes that I could get back to shooting when one of the smallest kids in the water pulled a ridiculously huge floater. In my excitement after seeing the move, I opened up to my new mid-western friend and told him just that:
"A couple of those little kids had the potential to be pros if they kept at it."
As it turns out, my quote may very well have been understatement of the year, circa 1998.
While back on Maui, I spent a few days kicking around the Kazuma headquarters to see what they were up to over there, mostly to check out the program that had produced so many talented surfers, and see how they were going about it. I got to check out what they were riding and see how the talent level of the current crop of groms measured up with the kids that I had claimed to the inquisitive vacationers years ago.
"Matt Kinoshita's Program for training young surfers to be the best they can be is proven. I noticed this from a very young age. When I was a little grom, all I wanted was a Kazuma Surfboard. Every good surfer from Maui was riding one. I used to sit at Ho'okipa beach and watch while Matt would be out surfing and training kids like Ian Walsh, Ola Eleogram, Hank Gaskell, Dusty Payne, and Kai Barger. Those kids are now all superstars," explains Kazuma Team Rider, Matt Meola, "It's eight years later and I have the special privilege to be working with Matt and riding his boards. I have been riding Matt's boards since before I can remember, but have only been on his actual team for about a year. I've noticed a major improvement in my surfing ever since I started working with him."
I spent a day with two of the youngest Kazuma team riders. 12-year-old Chaz Kinoshita, is Matt's son and reining HSA Menehune short board champion. 13-year-old Joao Marco Maffini was fresh off of winning two divisions at Ian Walsh's Meneune Mayhem contest. Both surf with a similar polished, clean style whether groveling for summer waves on their fishes or charging big winter surf on their 6'0" guns (yeah, 6'0 guns.)
One of the reasons that the Maui crew likes to give for their success is their lack of good waves. This may sound preposterous if you are reading it in Virginia Beach or the Gulf Coast, but if you're from Oahu, Kauai, or French Polynesia you probably understand. With a few exceptions, the waves there aren't perfect and it's always windy. The day I hooked up with Chaz and Joao Marco to shoot, it was blowing side-shore so hard, they were jockeying for set waves with a windsurfer.
Watching them pick off the shifty peaks and avoid getting swept down the beach was impressive. After seeing their performance in the adverse conditions at home, it's easy to understand why the Maui kids have such great success when they unload on the Lowers skatepark each spring at the NSSA Nationals.
After a couple hours in the water, the boys warmed up on hot chocolate at a nearby coffee shop and headed to Team MPG for a workout with their trainer. Team MPG provides personal training for professional windsurfers, tow-in surfers, kiteboarders, and surfers. When we arrived, the boys got right to work on a variety of flexibility, strength and cardio exercises.
Sure, the trainer spent a fair amount of time trying to get them to stop fooling around between crunches and butterflies, but what were you up to after school in 7th grade? Chaz and Joao Marco have been training with MPG for six months, and according to Joao Marco's dad it has already made a noticeable impact on their surfing. Long gone are the days of surfing well and hoping everything else takes care of itself. These kids are focused and working.
"I've been riding Kazuma surfboards on and off since I was about 11 years old, about 12 years now. Matt has always been a solid, good guy who I have looked up to a lot. The early days riding for Matt were some of the best of my life," says war-tested North Shore hellion, Hank Gaskell, "When there was a contest on at Ho'okipa, all the groms would come stay at Matt's and he'd take care of us. He would take us surfing, coach us and just set an overall good example. It amazes me how much he has given away over the years."
Interestingly, with all of the "Kazuma kids" who have developed into elite pro surfers, most of them are on different equipment by the time they make it onto the world stage.
"It takes a lot of work, time and money to shape a board. Matt's been hooking up the hot young surfers with free boards for probably 15-plus years now. That kind of sacrifice is a real testament of how much he loves the sport of surfing, and what a good person he is." adds Gaskell.
Sure, Melanie Bartels is riding Kazuma boards on the WCT, but guys like Ian, Kai, and Dusty arguably the future of pro surfing are all on different labels now. After hanging around a little bit and talking to some of the Maui guys, it's clear that this has little to do with the boards and everything to do with Matt's sincere commitment to the Maui kids.
Despite the hard work and sacrifice described by his alumnus, when the kids that Matt has given free boards to for years get offers they can't refuse from the big labels, Matt selflessly tells them to go for it. After all, making it was the goal all along. Then there's the next hungry young kid to train.
With Matt continuing to work with and look out for Maui's young surfers, at the risk of competing with the Hot 100 editors for the 2009 understatement of the year:
"Keep an eye out for some more surf talent coming from Valley Isle, the Kazuma crew has a pretty good thing going on over there."
Yeah. We see that.
Contributor Luke Simpson is a renowned surfing photojournalist (and recently a writer) from Cape Cod, Mass. He also moonlights as a biology teacher.