By Valerie Nelson Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — One of the greatest child phenomenons in surfing history, Donald Takayama saved up money from his paper route to buy a plane ticket to travel from one boarding mecca to another.
He arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, a Hawaiian runaway with $10 in his pocket. He was 11 years old.
At pioneering Velzy-Jacobs Surfboards in Venice Beach, Takayama was soon practicing the craft he would master, shaping boards. He’d been a dedicated surfer since kindergarten, when he’d skip school to ride the waves on a board pieced together from railroad ties.
The local surfing community adopted the diminutive Takayama, who “from a really young age could literally surf circles around the best guys of the period. He was an incredibly gifted surfer with really quick feet and a beautiful style,” said Matt Warshaw, author of “The Encyclopedia of Surfing.”
In the 1960s, Takayama became one of the country’s top competitive surfers. But he left a longer-lasting mark on the sport as a surfboard designer: His longboards encouraged a renaissance in surfing in the 1980s.
Takayama, 68, died Monday from complications due to surgery, Hawaiian Pro Designs, the Oceanside, Calif., surfboard-making company he founded in the 1970s, said on its website. He had ongoing heart problems after enduring a heart attack years ago while surfing.
When the 9-foot-plus longboard gave way to boards that were about 3 feet shorter in the late 1960s, Takayama was one of the few top surfers who could adapt his riding style to successfully compete. He won the masters division of the U.S. Surfing Championships from 1971 through 1973.
The shorter boards required a physical prowess that the easy-to-paddle longboards did not. Aging surfers helped fuel the longboard revival that began in the mid-1970s. Takayama – then one of the few world-class longboard shapers – was poised to earn another, albeit unofficial title, as a “re-founding father” of surfing.
In 1985, Surfer magazine named him one of “25 Surfers Who Changed the Sport.”
By then, Takayama was almost exclusively making longboards through Hawaiian Pro Designs. His new designs and materials made the boards light, fast and more maneuverable than predecessors.
“The longboard gives the less expert surfer an easier time. It gives the older surfer a second chance at youth,” Takayama told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1992. “Whole families now go out with longboards. Not for titles. For fun.”
His surfboard shop was close to the beach, and he regularly surfed off Oceanside before selling the company around 2005. He later moved to Hawaii with his wife, Diane, who survives him along with three daughters and grandchildren.
“When people call for me, and I’m surfing, the office policy is to tell them, ‘Donald is in a board meeting and can’t come to the phone,’” Takayama told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “We just don’t tell them it’s a surfboard.”
Donald Moke Takayama was born in 1943 in Hawaii and learned to surf off Waikiki Beach.
His first board, made of redwood, was “too heavy to carry home, so I’d bury it in the sand, then dig it up the next day,” he told the Union-Tribune in 1999.
When he fled to California as a youth, he lived in a cardboard box in the loft of Dale Velzy’s surf shop, Takayama said in 2008 in the Surfer’s Journal.
His parents tracked him down but let him stay, and he returned home “long enough to regroup” before returning to the mainland, said Guy Motil, who published the now-defunct Longboard magazine.
In Hollywood, Takayama was the “original child surf star,” according to Warshaw, appearing in about a dozen surf movies. They included “Surf Crazy” (1959) and “Barefoot Adventure” (1960).
After Velzy bought Harold “Hap” Jacobs out of their surf shop, Takayama followed Jacobs to Hermosa Beach and made boards for leading surfers. In 1965, Jacobs had introduced the Donald Takayama model, which Longboard magazine later described as “one of the most functional and aesthetically appealing boards ever made.”
When a major South American drug ring responsible for smuggling cocaine into the United States was cracked in 1985, Takayama was one of more than 60 people charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute the drug. He served time in federal prison, and after his 1987 release was once again a prominent surfboard manufacturer.
Takayama-designed boards that once sold for as little as $100 have turned into sought-after collectibles that can go for $10,000 today.
In the early 1990s, Takayama expanded into the food business when he began marketing Surfers Choice, a teriyaki sauce based on a family recipe. The label featured surfer Takayama “doing what he did best,” the Times said in 1990: “Riding the nose of the board.”
In a sport with no shortage of bravado, Takayama was known for his generous good nature and impish humor. “He had that old-time Hawaii ‘aloha’ kind of laid-back style,” Motil said, “and I never saw him without it.”