What It’s Really Like Inside the North Shore’s Exclusive Volcom Surf House
Longhaired young surfers? Striking, sun-bronzed girls? Maybe a yard littered with red Solo cups? Think again. As surfing evolves into a multibillion-dollar industry, the legendary North Shore surf houses are changing to fit the times.
This story was originally published in the December 2014 issue of HONOLULU Magazine.
Last year, at the height of surf season, we sent writer Amanda Whiting into one of the most exclusive spots on O‘ahu’s North Shore: the Volcom surf house. The place is the stuff of legends, and we wanted an inside look to find out if all the stories were true. Here’s what Amanda found out.
Seven years ago, the apparel company Volcom purchased one of the most famous properties on the North Shore, a three-story house with a long history, at least in the annals of surfing. The company has multiple uses for the 3,000-square-foot home. On the evening I arrive, it’s serving as headquarters for Volcom’s team riders, the athletes paid to surf Banzai Pipeline in Volcom board shorts for as long as the winter swell lasts. There are at least 25 people milling in the backyard, 50 eyes focused on the waves in the distance. It’s growing dark, but the lineup is still packed.
I shake various hands in the shadow of the Volcom Stone, a 5-foot-tall plywood-and-paint rendition of the brand’s logo that was hung from the first floor lānai on move-in day. It’s a crush of hellos, all men, all wearing identical camo-printed Volcom truckers. “We need a hat,” someone calls, and pink promotional hats instantly appear. That someone turns out to be Dave Riddle, the Volcom team’s Hawai‘i adviser. Everything Volcom on O‘ahu runs through Riddle. “You’re gonna be nice to us, right?” he asks, laughing.
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It’s fair to say that I’ve turned up to Volcom’s Pipehouse with some assumptions about what I’ll find. Namely, longhaired young surfers with no fear of death; striking, sun-bronzed girls who follow surfers along the world tour; and a yard littered with red Solo cups and other post-party debris. When I tell a friend’s teenage daughter that I’m spending the night, she’s a little impressed. “I’d be afraid to go there,” she tells me.
Riddle and team manager Jason Shibata lead me inside where the television is tuned to the Oceanic Surf Channel and a few guys sit on the couch watching a replay of the day’s heats, including Volcom’s most promising team rider, Zeke Lau.
It’s a few days after Thanksgiving and the traffic on Kamehameha Highway is ridiculous, thanks to the Vans World Cup of Surfing. It’s the second of three contests held on O‘ahu each winter as the Men’s World Championship Tour closes out, and the prize for first place is $40,000. A week from now, the money will belong to Lau, who, at 19, has just finished up his senior year at Kamehameha Schools. Around the house, he hardly speaks, but he will call the win “the greatest day of my life.” It’s some graduation present.
Right now, though, Lau’s just a kid, and his coach is telling him to get off the couch and get ready for Surf Night, an annual fundraiser at Sunset Beach Elementary School, Volcom’s neighbor across the road. Same as Riddle’s been doing since Lau was 9 years old.
“We’re always the first ones there,” Riddle tells me. He means Volcom. Volcom is we.
Pipehouse, on the other hand, is nearly empty. There are a few guys sitting at the dining room table, mostly in silence. They’ve been sitting there working all evening and will continue until two in the morning. They are Volcom’s in-house media team, and that’s how long it takes them to process a day’s worth of footage. Occasionally, someone emits a sound—a laugh, a hoot, an ouch—and they all gather excitedly around the same computer monitor to watch and dissect the clip, be it barrel or wipeout.
The house has four bedrooms and twice as many beds, including one in the living room. The place is beautiful, but it’s not really built for living, just sleeping. I was expecting the world’s most luxurious frat house, but every bedroom has a refrigerator, and among them I count exactly zero cans of beer.
Before Volcom purchased Pipehouse, the company bought the house next door, a single-story bungalow with a couple of bedrooms. There’s a pecking order to life at Volcom. Top riders stay in the Sunset Beach mansion, groms sleep in the bungalow basement, which is full of bunk beds and affectionately called the dungeon.
At 16 years old, Shun Murakami is the youngest surfer staying at the house. I visit the dungeon to see what he makes of life at the Volcom houses, but he’s already asleep. It’s 9:15 p.m.
When the team riders arrive back an hour later, almost everyone goes immediately to their bedrooms.
“Who’s washing the towels?”
“Did we get all the towels in?”
“What are you going to want for breakfast?”
Doors slam shut. It reminds me of lights out at summer camp. Or living with teenagers.
Jack Morrissey, the marketing director for Volcom Surf, makes a run to the store and comes back with the ingredients for guacamole and a 30-rack of beer, maybe to convince me to stop inspecting the recycling bins.
As I fall asleep on the couch, a couple of hours later, the television is still tuned to surfing in front of me, and the photographers are still tuned to surfing behind me.
There are 25 people at the house, spread throughout the kitchen, living room, dining room and lānai. Conversations happen simultaneously across the space, meaning it’s loud. The whole interior is wood—floors, walls, ceilings—there’s nothing to absorb the sounds of Kai “Kaiborg” Garcia, Volcom’s security detail (for lack of a better title), who bellows more than he talks. He walks around greeting everyone with a TENS electronic massage unit hanging from his bicep muscle, which is roughly the size of a full roll of paper towels. It’s an energetic, chummy and bro-ish performance. Big guys making big sounds. It’s also 7:30 a.m.
I ask Shibata about Volcom’s storied past, the days when the houses became ground zero for North Shore hedonism, and the Volcom team was more notable for its attitude than its surfing.
“When I came along, that was fading out. It was different back then. Surfing was a lifestyle and Volcom didn’t really have any surfers who were on the top end. Our guys were cooler, they partied harder than your guys,” he says.
“We used to not allow kids younger than 17 to stay in the dungeon, until this year. There was a liability issue. They’re still young, someone would pass them a joint, someone would want to start drinking. Before, there was no such thing as the McGills coming to the house or parents coming to the house, because people were smoking and drinking a 40 on the porch.”
The McGills that Shibata mentions are Dax, 16, her younger brother, Finn, and their dad. Dax has been mentored by Riddle since she was 8; it was Shibata who took her to Panama in 2012, where she won gold at the World Junior Surfing Championships.
Volcom doesn’t pay amateur surfers like McGill for surfing, but the athletes are compensated in other ways: a healthy travel stipend, gear and apparel, the coveted board sticker and, perhaps most importantly, as surfing transitions from a lifestyle to a sport, coaching.
Another talented young surfer at Volcom is 10-year-old Keanu Taylor, who visits the Volcom canopy at the surf contest the next day. He takes a seat on a folding chair in the shade, beside Riddle and Shibata. His dad sits on the sand a few feet away. Volcom typically doesn’t sponsor groms younger than 12, because of the potential for them to burn out. It can be unclear who is more committed to surfing, a kid or his parents.
But Taylor doesn’t possess any of the warning signs that usually discourage sponsors. He still attends regular school, at a time when more and more helicopter moms are homeschooling their kids around their surf sessions. The Taylors are laid back, and Keanu surfs because he loves it. He spent the morning surfing Velzyland on his longest board, he tells everyone.
“How long is it?”
“Four feet, 8 inches,” he says, and everyone laughs.
It’s Shibata’s job to coach the amateur riders in Hawai‘i. It’s also his job to make sure the team riders show up at the right surf breaks in this season’s board shorts when the photographers are out. I ask him what he makes of surfing’s evolution.
“When I was growing up, there wasn’t much direction, as far as surfing being a sport or even a lifestyle. It was more like a hobby. The industry has changed, and things that help sales go beyond [brand] image and logo and quality product. It’s having the best riders.
“It used to be the brands were trying to find the next Kelly [Slater], and that turned out to be John John [Florence]. Now everyone is looking for the next John John. The next guy that can transcend with his personality.”
But Taylor’s not a guy; he’s just a kid.
“For someone his age, it’s teaching him what sponsorship’s about. That’s the real wealth in Volcom. It’s like a family. Being part of this program is worth more than money.”
But that’s only one side of the story.
Surf companies today derive brand legitimacy from their associations with the right surfers. That’s how a multimillion-dollar action sports company like Volcom can hang onto a slogan like “Youth Against Establishment” despite being owned by the same multinational that owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. The Volcom house, which is described in the company’s SEC filings as a “research and development center for product design and testing,” derives its North Shore cred from guys like Kaiborg hanging around. In turn, guys like Kaiborg, Shibata and Riddle need Volcom because, until recently, there wasn’t any money in knowing a lot about surfing.
And, yes, surfers do need the brands, because world wave-chasing is expensive and the purses for winning still don’t compare with other professional sports. And they need the brands because Shibata is right: Being part of a program that organizes your travel and coaching and equipment is worth more than money. Or, at least, it’s worth a lot of money.
It’s lunchtime back at the house, and everyone is still subsisting on Thanksgiving Day leftovers, compliments of Tai Vandyke. If Volcom raced cars, Vandyke would be the pit boss. He lives in the house year-round and makes sure everyone feels at home, even if that means roasting six turkeys across multiple ovens in two houses to make the holidays feel real in this Neverland of surfing.
Jack Morrissey is lying face down on the floor of the living room. Kaiborg is standing over him, working on Morrissey’s back with a homemade massager, a modified Black & Decker power tool.
Nicknamed “Kaiborg” for his super-human strength, he is a former world champion of jiu-jitsu, originally from Kaua‘i. He’s been with Volcom since the beginning, through the frat-house era and into the new and (perhaps) improved locker-room era, doing whatever needs to be done.
Two years ago, Kaiborg publicly owned up to his past issues with substance abuse. “It’s all about choices in life,” he has said. “You’re gonna make good ones, you’re gonna make bad ones. But it’s never too late, never too late to turn your life around.”
Kaiborg has a wife and kids now. Last night, he left for home before 8. Today, he’ll be napping on the living room couch by 2:30 in the afternoon.
As he said in a video a few years ago, “It’s almost like we have had the houses forever, in a way.” Kaiborg means Volcom. Volcom is we.
I return to the house a few weeks later, for the final day of Pipe Masters. It’s the most important surf contest of the year, and the best views are from the decks of Pipehouse. From what I can tell, and from what others have said, the Volcom house is no longer the site of the longest and most epic party you’re not invited to. That said, my teenage friend wasn’t entirely wrong: It’s still an intimidating place.
There’s a girl sitting on the ground in front of me, a friend of a Volcom photographer. “Is it okay for me to use the bathroom inside the house?” she asks.
Her friend tells her it’s probably fine.
“Are you sure it’s okay? I can wait,” she decides.
People linger on the other side of the fence, trying to get a glimpse inside. From the beach, people are taking photos.
Surfing is transcending itself.
Once a hobby and a pastime, it’s now a bona fide sport and a business.
Volcom used to sell T-shirts. Now it issues stock.
The groms are much younger, but the house is growing older, and maybe more mature.
“It’s special here,” Shibata says. “It’s not for everyone to sit on our porch.”
The party may be over, but you’re still not invited.