Jack Shipley – Biography
Judging the “sport” of surfing has always been problematic. It requires assigning a numerical value to a rider’s unique wave in terms of his/her power, speed, control, and creativity. As early as 1953, the judging criteria for the Makaha International included such factors as a surfer’s wave height, length of ride, and overall sportsmanship. With surfers lugging 70 pound redwood planks, this made sense. However, as boards became shorter and lighter, contest criteria shifted towards style and amount of maneuvers, but each time officials thought they had a handle on it, performance and equipment kept moving. Competitive surfing needed a common denominator. Enter: Jack Shipley. The brains behind one of the most culturally significant surfboard brands ever and the sport’s first career judge, Shipley made monetizing surfing’s metaphysics his life. Whether it’s a plastic trophy or the world title on the line, Shipley has offered his measured and sober take on surfing’s ever shifting sensibilities for over 40 years.
But prior to securing a niche as competition’s eminent decision maker, Jack Shipley was the son of a technology representative for Glenn L. Martin, a company that built bombers for the Air Force and required that the family move every few years. After graduating high school in 1960 in Dayton, Ohio and putting in one year of college at the University of Maryland, Jack moved with his family to Hawaii. On his second day in the islands, his dad took Jack and his sister to the beach at Waikiki for a surf lesson. Riding waves quickly became his life’s compass.
After fixing dings and selling surfboards for a time, Shipley met Dick Metz, owner of Hobie Surfboards, someone whom Shipley would later cite as a major influence. He started work at Hobie in 1965 as shop manager, learning the methods and nuances of sales. His passion for the artistic aesthetics as well as the practical function of surfboard design made for success on the job. In 1968, Shipley moved to Honolulu’s Surfline Surf Shop where a relationship with local shaper and budding Pipeline Master Gerry Lopez grew, so did the idea that surfboards could be better: Crafted better, sold better, and ridden better. According to Jack, it was all “very pure and idealistic” and personal. On Sept 1st, 1970, Shipley and Lopez opened Lightning Bolt surfboards with a goal of evolving surfboard design. Jack later told Surfer’s Journal, “We were simply seeking truth and honesty and progress in making surfboards.” Armed with a little bit of cash from Shipley and the big wave persona of Lopez, they bought the old Hobie Surfboards outlet in Honolulu in 1970 and invited backyard shapers from all over Hawaii to opt in to the movement. The lightning bolt itself became the ultimate symbol for big wave ripping, attracting the likes of Rabbit, MR, and Shaun Tomson, and went on to industry powerhouse status with help from surf wear executive and Hang Ten founder Duke Boyd. The company lasted 13 years. Although Lopez jumped ship, Jack rode the wave to the end until Lightning Bolt lost juice in the ever fickle surf world, closing in 1985.
But even before launching Lightning Bolt, Shipley had already begun judging surf contests. He worked his first event in 1966 at Chun’s Reef. That same year, Nat Young unveiled his Magic Sam at the World Contest in San Diego. So as boards went shorter, competition became more interesting and thus more lucrative. Dick Brewer soon recruited Shipley to judge club contests, and eventually he was working regularly at every level. Being an experienced judge in this niche sport made Shipley a unique commodity and garnered him an invitation to judge the first Pipe Masters in 1971.
With performance needing a universal measuring stick, Shipley (a lifelong surfing insider), saw a new way to stay close to the sport. He also understood that his contribution to surfing would not come from riding waves. Instead, he became the first to make a living judging this new sport. While it didn’t pay well, it did pay off. Ask any surfer where he would rather be, and the answer is “the beach.” And that’s where Jack has been since 1966.
He served as director of judging for the world tour from 1976 to 1982 and continued working the amateur and pro/am circuits. One of his prized gigs is judging the prestigious year-end event at Pipeline. In fact, Shipley has judged EVERY Pipeline Masters event since its inception in 1971, a streak that will undoubtedly go unbroken. But tragedy almost ended his Pipe record and his life. Just before turning 50, Shipley learned he had soft tissue Cancer in his leg. Diagnosed as Sarcoma, the infection was sure to be particularly deadly once it invaded the bone. Shipley’s doctors moved quickly to save his life, deciding to remove his leg to save his life. Remembering that fateful day, Jack recalls, “The docs told me that for me to enjoy a good long life, they had to amputate my leg. The date was November 23, 1992. I was okay and even still managed to judge a few heats at Pipeline in December to keep my streak intact.” He remembers Hawaii’s most notorious surfer of the era, Johnny Boy Gomes, lifted him from his wheelchair and carried him to his seat in the tower.
Jack Shipley was soon back to the beach, becoming more involved in the both amateur and professional contests. From ASP, PSAA, HASA, and HPAC to specialty events like the Buffalo Big Board Contest; surfing competitions in Hawaii are year-round events, and Shipley is now the go-to guy in a career that didn’t exist just a scant decade prior. Today, Jack Shipley spends his days at the beach judging amateur events and doing administrative duties for the Hawaiian Amateur Surfing Association, remaining on speed dial for contest directors across Hawaii.
He told Surfer’s Journal, “I have been making a living off surfing since 1963 and I’ve never been paid to ride a single wave.” This is the irony of Jack Shipley’s place in surfing. His experience traces back to the veritable birth of professional surfing. Fred Hemmings himself said if there is anyone who needs to be interviewed concerning contest history, it’s Jack Shipley. He’s done more for the ‘sport’ of surfing than almost anyone.” With a continuing commitment to fairness and integrity, Jack Shipley is beach-side judge and jury, and as the world tour’s original traveling judge and an eagle eye at every Pipeline Masters, he is an irreplaceable presence in competitive surfing.
But one question has to be answered. What is “good surfing” to Jack? Has it really changed in an era of acrobatics and unparalleled possibility on the wave face? Jack sums it up, “It comes down to the old stuff: power surfing, tube rides, and control.”