Johnny Cabianca's Unintended Story
He Tried to Leave Surfboard Shaping, Then Became One of the Best
“I’m going to confess something thing to you," begins Johnny Cabianca. " I always tried to not make surfboards."
Cabianca, exclusive surfboard shaper to the reigning world champion, laughs to himself as the confession leaves his lips. He’s sitting in his kitchen in his home in Maresias, Brazil, beside his beautiful Swiss wife and their young son. He’s spent the whole day in his shaping room, fine-tuning a batch of boards that will be ready for Gabriel Medina when he returns home for the fourth leg of the WSL World Tour, which will take place a few hours away in Rio de Janeiro.
"It was kind of against my upbringing,” Cabianca continues, with a laugh and a guilty smile. “I come from a big family. I have six siblings; three brothers and three sisters. My dad is a dentist, two of my brothers are dentists. My other brother works in a pharmacy. One of my sisters is a psychologist; another one is a teacher. And I’m making surfboards. It’s funny.
“When I went to university to study design, I was trying to find another way to do my life,” he continued, “but I was always coming back to the factory and making surfboards. I didn’t always understand why, I just did.”
Cabianca, now 50, came to shaping out of necessity. The third youngest of the Cabianca boys, when he began surfing he received the family hand-me-down board. He eventually decided to shape his own board instead of using the old one. That initial stab at shaping led to a decade of working on boards repairs to make some pocket money. But ding repairs had a domino effect, as you'll read shortly. And over time, what began as a profession shifted into a sort of therapeutic endeavor for Cabianca.
“Shaping for me is a spiritual thing. When I am in my blue room, the time goes by and my mind travels far. I am happy with the curves I create and this is addictive to me,” Cabianca said. “I also love to watch surfers of any age and level and imagine solutions, which board could help them perform better or help them have more fun. When I tried leaving my passion for shaping boards, I realized I got unhappy with my life.“
And so he shaped, and it's paid off. Progressively, Cabianca's talent and the attention to his talent, grew. He caught the notice of a company in Spain. A chance re-connection at an amateur contest in Hossegor rekindled a relationship from his life in Brazil and ultimately led to the global stature that has accompanied his name and boards. The path has never been laid out clearly in front of him, but through dedication to his craft and some timely happenings in his life, the career he never intended to have has seemed to work out.
We caught up with Cabianca while he was home in Brazil to get a few more details about how shaping entered his life and why it never left.
Where did you grow up?
The big city, São Paulo. Big metropolitan city. But now I live in Maresias. It’s a small village close to São Paulo, San Sebastian City, 2 to 3 hours from São Paulo. I'm actually a European citizen as well because my grandparents come from Italy. My mother’s part comes from south, close to Palermo. My dad comes from close to Verona. In the beginning of last century, the people of Europe were escaping from the war and they were coming basically for the agriculture here – coffee fields and sugar cane fields – and my grandfather bought some land here. To this day my family has farms, but most of the farm now is citrus.
When were you introduced to surfing?
My family always had a house for vacation near the beach. I’m not sure, but I think I was 6 or 7 years old when I started. My first surfboard, I actually needed to build my own board because it was not the favorite sport for my family. I was 16 or 17 and I had to build my board because I was using my brother’s surfboard and it was in bad shape. With 3 brothers sharing one board, you can understand.
Where could you buy surfboards in those early days?
At that time there were many guys making boards in their garage here in Brazil. It was easy to find second-hand boards, which were mostly single fins at that time. The richest guys had boards from America, but it was not easy for us. So my reality was only local boards, simple boards.
How is it that you came to be a shaper?
I got my start by doing board repairs. After you make repairs you start to understand glassing and sanding. At that time I was also putting in fins, polishing, everything. After 10 years your eyes start to be comfortable with curves and learning about rails and you talk with so many people about boards, you touch so many boards, and guys come from the outside bringing in new boards and new ideas – so, for me, it was natural to start shaping. I had a good feeling for curves and building nice outlines.
What's the landscape of shaping in Brazil?
It’s funny because surfboard construction here, is kind of crazy. Many of the people involved in the industry, 70 percent are people who live near or on the beach, like vagabonds. They have a little house in front of the beach with a nice garden and one month they start fixing boards and by the end of the year they are shaping and sanding and glassing boards for a very cheap price. It's easy to find cheap material in every corner of the country. For example, in a small city like Florianópolis Island, in the south of Brazil, they have like 700,000 people, they have more than a couple thousand shapers. Most are just making boards for themselves. But some are working with different surfers and they start to grow their knowledge and the boards start to look more like surfboards, not garage boards. You can see many, many people doing boards here and you can recognize good boards and shit boards. You go to the surf shop and you can see boards for $100 to $600, or more. My boards are now in the middle of the highest price but below the imported boards.
How is it that you came to be Gabriel's go-to shaper?
Well, Maresias is a little village. I’ve been friends with his step-dad, Charles, for a long time. We actually tried to open a restaurant together years ago on the beach. Charles had a surf shop that was in front of the restaurant, and Gabriel's mother was working in the shop and always in the restaurant. It was kind of family. I remember Gabriel was just a baby, maybe 2 or 3 years old. Gabriel was a super shy kid, but I was like an uncle. When I moved to Europe I lost contact with them. In 2007, I think it was the ISA Games in Hossegor, a good friend of mine from Hawaii, Wade Tokoro, called me and asked that I make a board for one of his team riders because the kid had broken his boards. So I made a board and drove to Hossegor and when I arrived they were doing the tag team event. I found the kid, it was Keanu Asing, and he was super happy. But it was funny because when I looked to my side I saw a super small kid looking at me with a super shy face – man, it was Gabriel. He was looking at me with this face like, ‘why are you giving a board to him and not to me?’ I went and grabbed him and gave him a big hug. That year, he came to me in Brazil and he said, ‘Johnny, it’s my dream to make a quiver with you.’ We made some boards together and soon after that he won the contest at 15 years old in Maresias and then he went to Europe in 2009 for that famous King of the Groms event. We've worked together ever since.
How is Gabriel in regards to feedback for the boards you make for him?
Our relationship talking about surfboards, he doesn’t understand much about shaping or curves or that stuff, but he gives me what I need to hear. Like, 'this board is not good for this condition,' 'this board is too much off the water,' 'I don't like this rail.' Most surfers, when you make a surfboard and it doesn’t feel good when they hold it, they give it back. Gabriel has never given back one board, or Charles; they take the board and Charles always say the same, 'For this condition it’s not good, maybe for that condition or that situation it will be good.' This is why many times he wins contests with boards that are 3 or 4 months old.
How many boards a year do you make for Gabriel?
Until last year when I was with Pukas, I was doing not many, maybe 60 boards, 70 boards maximum. Compared with other team riders, some we were doing more than 100 boards a year, maybe many boards were never waxed or nothing. Sometimes I would call Charles to ask if they needed boards for the next contest. This year we have a plan, we have a deal, an experience, making boards for training separate from the ones he rides in the contest. We are grouping boards for different situations, different beaches. For example, two bags for Snapper, from 5’10” to 5’11”. At Bells Beach he had another two bags, each bag is 6 to 7 boards, so it’s 12 to 14 boards for the situation. But the boards he uses for travel or photo shoots, it may be different. So he has like 20 boards in his possession traveling with him. Maybe this year we will make almost 100 boards.