With a crazy El Niño season on its last legs, it's hard not to reflect upon the insanity that took place at Jaws this winter. Near-death wipeouts, Billy Kemper's win at the first ever Pe’ahi Challenge, heroic rescues — the monster from Maui was flexing hard. Throughout all the madness, you may have noticed that many of the best surfers in the lineup — guys like Albee Layer and Kai Lenny — were riding SOS guns: Sean Ordonez Shapes. Ordonez is an ex-professional windsurfer and, like many of the residents of Maui, a complete waterman. For decades, he's been shaping what he calls "water toys," anything from windsurfboards, kiteboards, longboards, guns, shortboards and everything in-between. After a hectic winter with non-stop swell, his riders have been consistent standouts. So where's the magic coming from? We picked Ordonez's brain to find out.
How were you introduced to the ocean, and when did you start shaping?
I learned how to surf in Puerto Rico as a grommet on a boogie board. One day, one of my older brothers gave me one of his broken 7'0"s when I was about 10 or 11 years old and I pretty much reshaped the tail into this big swallow tail, and my mother bought me my first twin-fin boxes and fins. It came out like a McCoy style "Laser Zap" that Cheyne Horan was making famous. That got me hooked, and I think the smell of resin changed something in me, too (laughs). Later, I'd moved to an island in Antigua with my family. It was there where I learned how to windsurf, primarily because I didn't think there was any surf on the island. Turns out, when I was about 15 or 16, I ended up discovering a nearby pointbreak, and I freaked out because I had my own lefthand pointbreak to myself, which is pretty much every goofy-footer's dream. I had to get out there somehow, so I took these old windsurfer boards and ripped the plastic skin off of them and got a book on how to make a surfboard. I went for it, using boatyard resin and plywood fins — made a single fin and a twin fin. I got really hooked and I got really good at windsurfing, too. I ended up moving to Florida when I was 17 and was lucky to hook up with some great craftsmen like Ricky Carroll and Greg Loehr. It's a case of being in the right place at the right time. I learned a lot from those guys about the art of board building, especially Ricky Carroll.
What led you to Maui?
Some of the guys I mentioned before, like Carroll and Loehr, could see my passion and talent for windsurfing, so they pretty much told me to get the f–k out of here and follow my dreams: Go to Hawaii and become a pro windsurfer. So I did just that when I was about 21 years old. Before I'd moved, I met Ed Angulo and Dave Kalama at a windsurf contest in Puerto Rico, and I basically asked them if they would give me a job if I moved over there. They gave me an opportunity, so one day I showed up with 500 bucks in my pocket and a planer and walked into a laminating job. At a certain point, I decided to start a windsurf company with a few of my good friends, where we had great success, and soon after that I started up my own company, SOS.
Your boards have been used to push the limit of aerial surfing, as evident in Albee Layer's 720 alley-oop, and Matt Meola's "Spindle Flip." How did you link up with these two progressive freaks?
I got Albee and Matt Meola on my boards when they were just little groms, and I've had the pleasure of watching their aerial evolution. They used to sit at the edge at Ho'okipa and watch us all do our aerial stuff on windsurfboards, so I had a close connection with those kids as they grew up. I got Albee on board first, but he told me, "We've got to get Matt on the team, too", so soon after that I got Matt on my board as well. The same windsurfboards I designed were an evolution from my surfboards, so I took the same designs and scaled it down for Meola and came up with this magic "slushi" board that he fell in love with. Soon after, here comes Taylor Steele's Innersection video competition, and Matt wins the thing, earning 100 grand. The next year, Albee followed suit. It helped establish my brand. I let Matt and Albee ride other people's boards just to open up their minds, and also to remind them of how good ours are (laughs). Luckily, I got to meet my angel, and fiancé, Paige (Alms), who has pretty much been the driving force behind SOS. She's been my strongest critic, and to be able to be a part of her surfing evolution is amazing.
What do you think you've been able to bring to the table with your multi-disciplinary approach to board building?
We have such a huge stimulus of watermen here that it's been easy to move forward with the progression of the sport. Right now, we're doing good, I have a small little factory. I'm super stoked to have years worth of designs to draw from; thanks to the computer shaping programs, I've been able to hybrid my old ideas into my news shapes over the past five years. I come from a background of appreciating sail boats and Hawaiian Canoes, which were basically the original surfboards. The thing about big-wave boards designed in the past is that they were done so for just paddling and dropping into the wave, usually made to be steered on the back foot. Being a windsurfer and a longboarder, I've always known that there is a lot of control on the board that comes from the nose, as opposed to the fins and tail. In a nutshell, I'm not inventing stuff. I'm just borrowing older ideas and trying to make them into better ideas and hoping to give them my own flavor. But I'll be honest, Dick Brewer's rails are what we've been using on our windsurf boards for years. There's a lot of information to draw from the concaves that Brewer's done on water skis and from Maurice Cole's forward Vee's. Combining my windsurf knowledge of rails, edges, and design elements to surfboards to give maximum control is a huge part of my approach.
People have been having a good deal of your success on your boards out at Jaws, especially Albee and Kai Lenny. Do you get nervous being someone who shapes boards for people who are putting their lives on the line, surfing massive waves?
I take it really seriously, especially when Paige is out there. We don't take it lightly and have a good crew of people like the Skullbase boys [The Walsh Brothers], who are just always on it with safety. I'm on safety, too, so for every board I make, I feel like I should put an extra hour in watching the team from the channel. I've been out there on every good swell that's happened, besides the one Tyler Larronde got lit up on,.. So yeah, I'm really nervous about it, because I'm 47 right now and I've hit the lip so many different ways on every type of board, but what these guys are doing out there is on another level. The speed of the wave is getting to be so fast that my main focus on the guns is to make them as safe as possible for everyone, because your life is at stake. It irks me when I see some of my friends riding these boards that are just plugs made by guys who don't even know the wave. They're riding these clunky, ten-to-eleven-foot boards that don't even fit into the radius of the wave. With my teamriders, I can see their styles; Paige's style is different than Albee's, Matt's, and Kai Lenny's, and I try to incorporate this knowledge when I shape their new boards.