In the winter of 2011, Korean-Australian shaper Sam Yoon was on the island of Kauai, living out of his van with his wife, Ecco, and their two young children, Moana and Reno. One day a text came through from Jaws paddle-in pioneer Lyle Carlson. "Friday Jaws" was all it said.

Two days later, Yoon and his family were making camp on a bluff in an abandoned pineapple field that overlooks Jaws' fabled reef. "It was night and we could hear the wave breaking," Yoon recalls. "The whole family was nervous. Ecco knew I was planning to surf, and the kids didn't know what was happening, but they could feel how tense we both were."

Before dawn the next day, Yoon made his way across the lava boulders that cradle Pe'ahi. He was carrying a heavy single-fin gun he'd shaped in his backyard in Tugun, Queensland. He watched as another surfer picked his way across the rocks and jumped off, and then Yoon hurriedly followed. "I didn't want to wait and watch," Yoon explains. "I think the longer you watch, the more scared you get."

The ocean was black and the channel was empty when Yoon caught his first wave. "I couldn't see anything," says Yoon. "It was like an old television slowly coming on when I started to make out the wave. I just hoped I would make the drop. My whole body was shaking. It was like surfing a wave in my dreams."

Carlson had told Yoon that riding one wave at Jaws would change his life. After his session, I asked Yoon if he thought that was true. "I felt like I was born again," Yoon said. "I wanted to start over again and ride small waves. Some people climb a big mountain and then they want to climb a bigger mountain, but it wasn't like that for me."

The day Yoon surfed Jaws, Nathan Fletcher and Garrett McNamara found him on the cliffs above the break and walked over to ask about the surfboard he rode. Yoon's boards look different than your typical big-wave craft. Instead of having a nose foiled to a point, they have a softer curve, or a "knuckle nose," as Yoon calls it.

"I wanted the nose to be like that on a Boeing 737, or like the Space Shuttle," Yoon explains. "Thick, so it resists the water instead of piercing it and nose-diving."

I first witnessed Yoon's knuckle nose in action during a large swell last year on Australia's east coast. Yoon was riding a self-made 9’6″ when a wave rose abruptly out of the deep. Yoon swung late and stood up after just one stroke. As the wave bottomed out, the nose speared into the trough and pearled. I thought he was going to get annihilated, but instead of continuing to nose-dive, the board plowed through the water and popped back out, allowing Yoon to lean on his rail and set his line off the bottom with significant speed. This all occurred in a split second, and Yoon's reactions were all muscle memory. I'd never seen anything like it.

Photo: Kidman

While most surfers would likely prefer tried-and-true surfcraft in serious waves, Yoon is always keen to experiment. Field testing at an unnamed East Coast Australian bombie. Photo: Trefz

Yoon’s ability to react quickly to dangerous situations was forged early in life. He was born in Korea, but at age 12 he moved with his family to Australia, settling in the working-class Sydney suburb of Turramurra. As a minority thrown into the homogenous, mostly white community, it wasn't an easy transition for Yoon and his siblings. "A kid poured a whole pot of glue on my younger brother's head on his first day of school," Yoon explains. "Things like that happened all the time. I don't like fighting, but sometimes I had to defend myself and look after my brothers."

Turramurra is an hour from the coast. It's bordered by open land filled with eucalyptus, wildflowers, giant sandstone rocks, and flowing ravines. Yoon spent his youth exploring the bush, experimenting with various substances, and generally finding trouble. When he was 13, his best friend stole a Toyota Cressida in Manly Beach. The pair drove it around for weeks before the cops finally caught up with them. "There must have been seven police cars chasing us," says Yoon. "To the cops, I probably looked about 9 years old at the time."

The police detained Yoon at the local station until his mother and father came down to collect him. His parents were understandably upset, but when they tried to discipline Yoon, he jumped from the second story of the house and ran away. Yoon slept outside that first night and made a plan to flee to Brisbane with his friend the next day. But after they arrived, they decided that Brisbane was too crazy—too much of a big city. So they caught a train down to Surfers Paradise.

Yoon and his friend lived in backpacker communes, hustling the tourist-filled streets of Surfers Paradise by night and enjoying the crystal-blue waters by day. Eventually, Yoon's mother got wind of where her son had gone and flew to Surfers Paradise to drag him home. But the surf seed had already been planted, and two years later, at 15, Yoon would move back to the Gold Coast permanently.

Yoon and his friend lived in backpacker communes, hustling the tourist-filled streets of Surfers Paradise by night and enjoying the crystal-blue waters by day. Eventually, Yoon's mother got wind of where her son had gone and flew to Surfers Paradise to drag him home. But the surf seed had already been planted, and two years later, at 15, Yoon would move back to the Gold Coast permanently.

Shortly after he returned to the Gold Coast, Yoon began working in a duty-free shop and learning to surf in his free time with help from a friend. "At work, everyone was a surfer and I was a f–king kook," Yoon says. "My first time surfing Burleigh, I smashed my face into the bottom on my first wave. There was blood everywhere. I didn't know what I was doing." But Yoon's surfing skills quickly improved, and he credits his passion for riding waves as what kept him from more run-ins with the law.

While living in Surfers Paradise, Yoon met his future wife, Ecco. She was a Japanese surfer who worked in a gift shop, and once Yoon and Ecco joined forces, they packed their car with all their belongings and traveled across Australia, working odd jobs along the way. Then they went overseas, spending nine years surfing around the world together.

"We tried to do it as cheaply as possible," Yoon explains. "We stayed with local people wherever we went, and learned their cultures firsthand. The more we traveled, the more we wanted to live like the locals—to eat like them and work like them."

In Western Australia, Yoon worked as a janitor for six months. In Tanegashima, Japan, Yoon and Ecco worked in road construction; he did the hard labor while Ecco held the traffic signs. In San Diego, Yoon worked the lunch shift in a Korean restaurant, the afternoon shift in a drive-thru supermarket, and the late shift at a karaoke bar. They ran out of money in the Philippines until Yoon decided to make souvenir T-shirts for the surf break Cloud 9. He designed them himself, sold each for $5, and earned enough money to cover their expenses for the next three months.

During their travels, Yoon and Ecco developed their surfing skills, riding waves in Mauritius, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. In Japan, a man named Mr. Fuji asked Yoon if he wanted to come to his shaping bay and make a surfboard. "Mr. Fuji showed me how to use the tools," Yoon says. "But he didn't tell me what to shape. I wanted to make my own board. I wanted it to come from my heart." The experience sparked a fire in Yoon that has defined his life as a surfer ever since.

At the end of Yoon and Ecco's journey, they ended up in Hawaii. For Yoon, it was the perfect waves that drew him there, but the cultural melting pot that caused him to feel a deeper connection to the place. When he came in hungry after a long session, he could eat kimchi, rice, and seaweed—the foods of his childhood in Korea. To Yoon, Hawaii felt like home.

"I was in the supermarket on Kauai my first day there," says Yoon, "and this guy walks up, hugs me, and says, 'Cuz, where you been? We've been waiting for you to come back for so long.' I said to him, 'Brah, I've never been here in my life.'"

It didn't take long for Yoon to make friends all over the island. "They looked after me and Ecco like we were family — ohana," Yoon says. "They'd give us a box of food, and we'd take the box and refill it with what we could forage: mangoes, avocado, flowers, chicken. The box never went back to them empty. It was the best life, just sharing what we found with friends and living off the land. It felt like that was how life is meant to be."

Photo: Kidman

When Yoon decided that he wanted a Pipeline gun capable of tracking down and taming Second Reef monsters, he asked the late Alan Byrne — a father figure to Yoon — to make him a big, channel-bottom single fin, reminiscent of Byrne's legendary Pipe boards from three decades ago. Photo: Kidman

In 2005 Yoon and Ecco returned to the Gold Coast. Yoon started a business cleaning restaurants and offices. He began shaping boards in his backyard—mostly guns he wanted to ride in Hawaii—and befriended surfboard maker Allan Byrne.

Byrne's shaping bay was just around the corner from Yoon's house, and Byrne would frequently stop by on his way to work. As their bond over building surfcraft grew, Yoon started to see Byrne as a sort of father figure, and when Yoon decided that he wanted to ride Pipeline in 2013, he asked Byrne to make him a board. The pedigree was certainly there. Byrne rode his own single-fin channel-bottom to a runner-up finish behind Simon Anderson in the 1981 Pipe Masters. Yoon wanted his own single-fin channel-bottom to ride at Pipeline.

Byrne's process of shaping Yoon's board was remarkable. He simply asked Yoon what length he wanted (10’4″), then took a small tail template and began marking out the planline with it, starting at the tail and moving the template up the board every quarter inch until he had the rail line he wanted. Then he cut it out and took the board outside to knock off any bumps by squaring up the rail against the dark backdrop of the factory wall.

"I just told him, 'As thick and as heavy as you can make it,'" Yoon recalls. "I left the rest up to A.B."

In February that year, Yoon took the board to Hawaii and rode it at Pipe on a day when all the usual suspects, including Kelly Slater, were dominating the arena. He sat for the first hour at Second Reef waiting for a wave big enough to ride. Possibly because of his Asian heritage, Yoon is often mistaken for Hawaiian, which can pay dividends in a stacked North Shore lineup. He could pass for a modern-day Reno Abellira, and his fellow surfers can't tell if they're dealing with a casual interloper or a hardened local, so they leave him much to his own devices.

Yoon's Pipe wave eventually came. With two easy strokes, he dropped in and cut a line toward First Reef, where the wave doubled in size. Yoon committed his inside rail, pointed the board right into the guts of the wave, stood tall, and steamed through the section. It was like watching a '70s surf movie with the big single-fin surfboard and its rider styling at Pipe.

After the session, I spoke with Slater. "Who is that guy? He's a really good surfer," Slater said.

"I know," I replied.

"Where's he from?" Slater asked.

"He lives in Tugun, near the Gold Coast Airport," I said. "He's a cleaner."

"Oh," said Slater, looking perplexed.

Photo: Frank

Yoon’s travels and open mind have endowed him as a man of many talents, both in and out of the shaping bay. Photo: Frank

A jumbo jet swung low over the mid-morning lineup at Currumbin Alley on the Gold Coast. Yoon was crouched in his garden, tending to his chilies, vegetables, and herbs while the air over his backyard was shattered by the roar of the planes' engines.

Yoon's small house was built in the 1950s. It's one of the few remaining in an area now loaded with tall apartment buildings that shadow his plot. He poured me a cup of cold Japanese tea. His house smelled sweet, like the houses found on the North Shore of Oahu. One of Denjiro Sato's homemade Pipeline surf films played on the television—Ronnie Burns, Max Medeiros, Gerry Lopez, and Johnny Boy Gomes surfing Pipe to classic '80s guitar solos. The trade winds fluttered the bamboo blinds of Yoon's living room while single-fin guns stood like totems in the corners.

"I always wanted to be born 30 years earlier, to live through the late '60s and early '70s," Yoon explained. "I just love that time. That's why I live my life like I do. That's why I ride boards from that era."

Our conversation reminded me of when I'd introduced Yoon to Simon Anderson back in 2013. Anderson was on his annual pilgrimage to the Gold Coast at the time, checking in with friends and watching the Quiksilver Pro. I'd been looking after Anderson's original Pipeline thruster for a couple of years and wanted to give it back to him. I asked Anderson if I could show the board to Yoon first, and he agreed, telling me he'd like to meet Yoon and see what he shapes. I decided to call Byrne to ask if he'd also join us at Yoon's house.

Byrne and Anderson hadn't seen each other since their famed Pipeline Masters final together in 1981, an event Anderson won, further cementing the thruster's place in surfing after his big Bells win earlier in the year. "You know you ruined my life," Byrne joked with Anderson as he fondled the board that changed the course of surfing's history.

"This board's a heap of shit," Byrne quipped.

"You just got lucky!" Anderson broke into laughter.

Yoon made a fire in his backyard and we sat around telling surf stories. Anderson was interested in Yoon's boards, and Yoon asked him what he thought about the guns he'd been making. Anderson said he liked the way they looked, but had no idea how they would work; he'd never surfed waves big enough to ride one.

Gradually, the fire died, and old and new friends hugged and said their goodbyes. (Sadly, Byrne passed away shortly thereafter in Bali). On the drive home, Anderson continued talking about Yoon and his unusual handmade boards.

"It's just incredible what Yoon's doing," Anderson said. "That's how surfing used to be when we grew up – backyard shapers making boards all over the world for the different waves they wanted to ride, in the ways they wanted to ride them." Anderson paused and thought for a moment.

"It's really good to see it's still alive today."

Photo: Kidman

Photo: Kidman