15 legendary surf masters create boards
with photographer’s images from the sea
By Thom Smith
What a life!
Tony Arruza loves to surf, lives to surf. And once in a while, he works … as a photographer … as long as the work doesn’t pull him too far from the water. For five years he’s been engaged in a project that melds his passion and his profession into a unique expression.
A five-year labor of love, “15x15” is 15 surfboards, shaped by 15 legendary board makers, each adorned with one of Arruza’s photographs. They are functional art that could hang over a mantel or crank into a fast-breaking left at Reef Road.
The collection is on display through Jan. 21 at the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County gallery in Lake Worth.
In addition to the boards, Arruza, 63, has mounted four dozen photos of the board makers at work, the original photographic prints, two of the laminate images that give each board its personality and a hardcover book ($30, autographed) that details the production of all 15 boards.
As a child, Arruza was always around the water, fishing and diving with his father, an engineer, in their native Cuba. In the wake of the revolution, the family headed for Miami, then the Glades sugar industry and finally West Palm Beach.
In the mid-’60s, as the surfing craze was hitting the East Coast, he rode his first wave at Lake Worth Beach. For his 13th birthday, his dad gave him a board — a 9-foot, 6-inch Surfboard House, custom made in Miami.
By today’s standards, it was a barge; for Arruza it was enlightenment.
“I was reading surfing magazines like they were the Bible,” Arruza recalled of articles that documented not just surfing, but the writers’ travels. “I thought: I want to do this one day.”
He did travel, to local breaks and “up the coast” to spots like Shark Pit and Canaveral Pier, as much as a kid could while still in high school. Settling in at Palm Beach Junior College (now Palm Beach State), he developed — surprise, surprise — an interest in marine biology.
Where to go? University of Miami? Too expensive. Scripps in San Diego? Too far. Woods Hole in Massachusetts? Too cold.
“Puerto Rico was close enough that I could talk my parents into it,” Arruza admitted. “I really didn’t care about the school, I just wanted to surf, but I convinced them to let me start school there. I got to meet people, got to know all the surf spots.”
As luck would have it, his father had another gift for Tony — a Nikonos amphibious camera. Today cameras like this one sit as memorabilia in curio cases or unsold in thrift stores, but his was revolutionary.
“I’d shot some small stuff in high school,” he said. “But because the camera was meant to be in the water and I surfed, I started shooting surfing with it. I came back from Puerto Rico with some great photos, did some slide shows and people urged me to shoot more and submit pictures to the surfing magazines.”
One surfing photo even won first prize in a Kodak-sponsored photo contest.
Because few photographers had discovered Puerto Rico, Arruza’s photos began to show up in surfing magazines. After earning his degree at Florida Atlantic University, he returned to Puerto Rico and began shooting in earnest.
“I was getting published, getting known, making money, and it became easy to get travel assignments, too,” he said, recalling an inspirational trip in 1978 to shoot a surfing contest in Peru.
“That was an eye-opener. It showed me a culture and a way of living that I had never experienced or knew about — the Peruvian-Inca culture.
“Machu Picchu wasn’t like it is now. Then it was rough going, a long climb. Today I think there’s even a hotel there. That whole new world really opened my eyes and made me want to travel even more.
“My dreams as a kid were coming true,” he said. “I was living the life. I wasn’t living luxuriously, staying in fancy hotels, but I didn’t care.
“The surfing world was so small that if you met somebody and told them you were going somewhere, they would put you in touch with a friend there who would pick you up at the airport, let you sleep on their couch, take you surfing, show you the ropes. Everywhere you went there was always someone who knew somebody somewhere else. It always worked out. It was pretty simple, pretty easy.”
Some of Arruza’s most influential shots, however, were shot at home. His 1989 Surfing magazine pictorial of a screaming swell put Palm Beach’s Reef Road on the surfing map.
Thanks to the Internet, however, the lifestyle has changed dramatically. Diehard surfers check surf reports on the Web, book cross-country flights to Palm Beach, catch the break and fly home the same day — hit and run.
Arruza still prefers immersion and hopes it rubs off on his son Aidan, 21, who also surfs, enjoys underwater photography and, surprise, is studying marine biology.
But while Tony doesn’t like the change, he adapted. Any surfer can mount a GoPro waterproof camera to his or her board and email the product to a magazine; Arruza long ago expanded his client base to the likes of Boeing, Coca-Cola, Exxon, National Geographic, Procter & Gamble and Royal Caribbean.
For one recent assignment he shot a 95-year-old Canadian Indian who crocheted 120 blankets and sweaters for patients at the veterans hospital for the Knights of Columbus.
No matter the assignment, it always comes down to people, which is what inspired Arruza to attempt “15x15.”
In 2010, for a local art show, Arruza commissioned his first art board. Pipeline, decked with an Arruza photograph of Hawaii’s Banzai Pipeline, was shaped by Steve Firogenis, who’s made Firo boards in West Palm Beach for more than 30 years.
The gallery patrons loved it, as did Ron Heavyside at Nomad Surf Shop in the County Pocket near Briny Breezes.
Canadian by birth, Heavyside arrived in Delray Beach in 1962 after a spell in California. He quickly discovered surfing and soon after realized he could make some money fixing boards. A surf shop in Delray Beach hired him at half minimum wage, “about 75 cents an hour and that was fine with me,” he said.
Heavyside’s father ran a TV repair shop on A1A. After considerable cajoling, he let Ron stake out a 12-by-6 space to sell baggies, T-shirts, wax and the boards he shaped. Today Nomad is a labyrinth of nooks and crannies covering more than 5,000 square feet.
After shaping thousands of boards during half a century, Ron now leaves that task to others, but when Arruza made his pitch he plugged in the old planer.
“We were one of the first in the project,” Heavyside said. “Tony was still trying to see how well it would work. It didn’t take long to shape it, maybe a couple of hours. I think it turned out pretty good.”
Heavyside’s 6-foot “fish” shape, appropriately named Mullet Chase, features an above- and below-the-surface shot of schooling, jumping mullet.
“A shark is right underneath me when I’m taking this,” Arruza says with a laugh. “I have a picture of the shark, too!”
Arruza realized he had something more than surfboards with photos on them, but only after he saw the third board by Rick Carroll in Cocoa — “the workmanship that went into it and the aesthetics that came out” — did he realize he had something really special.
“At that point, the number 15 popped into mind,” he said. “I don’t know why but it sounded right — 15 boards by 15 different shapers. The whole thing took off on its own. The shapers I used, the places I went, none of it was written down. It progressed organically. I wanted to make each board differently. I made sure each shaper had a different style. Each board had a different look.”
Still winging it, Arruza departed from the water themes for board No. 4 with a red hibiscus, and changed the guts on the fifth by using balsa instead of foam. Then he broadened the scope with shapers from Puerto Rico and Cape Hatteras, New England, California, Hawaii and for No. 15, the finale, Australian legend Bob McTavish.
“Word was getting out,” Arruza said. “People were coming to me, and it wasn’t just shapers. Photographers from around the world were asking how are you doing this, what material are you printing on, how did you shoot this?
“I had to turn down several people. I just couldn’t do any more. Fifteen was enough.”
What happens next? Arruza still prefers to let nature and art take their respective courses. Perhaps art galleries or organizations similar to the Cultural Council will propose exhibitions.
Surfing trade shows could beckon. The exhibit could travel to some of the dozen surfing museums around the globe.
If a collector — art, surf-fan or both — offered to buy all 15, he’d consider selling.
But if not … well, the project is complete, Arruza has more photos to shoot and more waves to ride.
If You Go
What: 15 x 15: 15 Surfboards by 15 Shapers, by Tony Arruza, through Jan. 21 at the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, 601 Lake Ave., Lake Worth.
Books available for purchase at $30 each plus tax.