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Brown Belt: The Shaper

“Sign here and here”.

The UPS delivery man throws the clipboard under his shoulder and strolls back to his brown wagon. I can hear the band Cake playing on the radio through his open door.

He’s going the distance, he’s going for speed…

He throws me a Shaka and is off to his next delivery. See you next week.

Sweat rolls down my face as the Florida sun hangs high in the sky. The palm trees in the front yard give little shade.

I look down at my package and read the words out loud: “FRAGILE.” Always makes me think of the movie A Christmas Story. Must be Italian!

I gently place the six-foot rectangular-shaped cardboard box on a pushcart and make my way under the house to the shaping-shed. I dodge small sand patches along the way like a seasoned Indycar driver. I shoulder the door open, and I’m greeted by the smell of epoxy.

I cut the edges of the cardboard with surgical precision and lift the top, exposing my blank foam canvas. I slide my hands deep down on both sides and pull out the rectangular piece from the box and place it on the shaping stand.

I flip through my sketchbook for the latest template. Hello, beautiful.

I take the template out of the plastic sleeve and pin it up on a beam. Then I step back to eye up my canvas. Tapping my pencil on my chin, I’m suddenly hit with the smell of salt from the ocean. I can hear the waves breaking in the distance. I’m reminded of the sweaty rolls from the night before.

I’ve been a brown belt for over five years, and I’ve noticed many similarities between shaping a surfboard and being a brown belt.

When you’re first starting out with shaping, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. Just like beginner’s Jiu-Jitsu. You shouldn’t put your hands on the mat in someone’s closed guard, because you’re asking to get swept or submitted. Try shaping a board for the first time in an area that wasn’t meant for shaping. What a fucking mess. You’ll be blasting foam into the air with a planer like fireworks on Chinese New Year.

Becoming a good shaper takes time. Becoming good at Jiu-Jitsu takes time, too.

I’m realizing at brown belt I can do all the basic techniques at a high level, but there’s still plenty of fat to trim. Maybe my foot work needs a bit more attention. Maybe the way I use my hips to sweep could be a bit more polished.

I review my template a few times to make sure the stringer is balanced well, the tail is rounded nicely and that there aren’t any bumps along the way. I want to make sure my outline on the foam is nice and smooth before I start digging in with the saw.

The stringer should have good balance, flexibility and strength. Just like every high-level brown belt. When I look to pass the guard, I know my opponent will fight off my forward progression, either with frames or some type of grip. Once I’m in someone’s X-guard, I have to stay calm and breathe my way out. If I let panic set in, I’ll surely drown. Good hips mean good balance. Being able to go with the flow when stretched out means my flexibility is there, and being able to pop off a strong grip on my collar means my strength is on par as well.

I grab my saw and take a deep breath. I don’t want to go to fast when cutting into the foam. I can always take away, but I can’t add it back once it’s gone.

Personally, when I’m rolling with my teammates on the mat, I don’t want to go full-steam ahead. I want to control my breathing and find my openings. I want my opponent to fall into my trap, not the other way around. When rolling with other brown belts, especially with black belts, if I give up a position or a limb, there’s a high chance I’m not going to get it back. I need to be patient like Yoda.

I’m happy with the board’s progress so far and decide it’s time for a break- a Sho-shee in Chinese, if you will.

I flip through my phone and throw on a track by The Colossal Heads. I tear off an end of a business card for a filter, grind up some flowers, roll a cone, slide it in the crook of my ear and make my way up a makeshift ladder to The Crow’s Nest.

I squat down into a bean bag chair and slide open the 2’ x 4’ window in front of me. I spark up the cone and zone out watching the sets come in. The offshore wind helps create a nice glassy wave.

I watch a grom jump over a wave breaking onto the shore as he makes his way out into the lineup. I crack my fingers and examine my hands. Some of my knuckles look like grapes while others look like old wrinkled faces. Consequences from the years of refusing to let go of my opponent’s gi, the White Belt Fury I once had.

I’m watching the grom make a few turns, vibing to the music. When you’re strange, faces come out of the rain, when you’re strange, no one remembers your name. I better get back to shaping this board or Eric’s not going to remember my name. Gotta love The Doors.

I go back to the center of the room, grab my planer and get lost creating the shape of the board. I start to shave off and even out the foam along the deck and base of the board. I’m happy with the shape, so I grab my sanding block and start to smooth out and refine the surfaces.

Once I got to brown belt, the light bulb turned on in my head. I understood how important it is to find time to drill. Drill, drill, and drill some more, until you hate it. I love turning on a 40-minute-deep house mix with a partner just to drill. Passes, takedowns, escapes- doesn’t matter. Once I get my breathing and pace down, I feel like I could drill for hours. Like my sanding block, drilling helps to smooth out and refine my game.

I take a step back and eye up the board. I’m stoked on the shape. I roll out some fiberglass, place some of it down and start the glassing process with some epoxy resin.

The glassing process takes time, and subsequently, patience. You shouldn’t be in a rush to finish your board. There are more steps in the process, just like ascending to the blackbelt level.

You’re going to have days where you feel like you’re already there. And then you’ll have days where you don’t. Trust the process. Take a deep breath, readjust, patch the ding and keep putting in the hours. That sleek board is well worth it.

After a few days of letting the board dry, I return to the shaping stand with my hand sander and remove any build-up. I balance the board on my outstretched hands the same way I would check the balance of a mighty sword. Perfect. I add the fins to the fin-box, and she’s ready for Eric to pick her up later in the afternoon.

I glance up at the Shane Dorian clock on the wall. Time to head out to the mid-morning class. I quickly tie down my board to roof rack of my Wrangler and throw my bag in the back. I pick Diaz up, place him on the passenger seat, and we’re off to the gym.

Once I arrive at the gym, I pour a bowl of water for Diaz and let him relax on the bench in front of the mat.

I throw on my gi, take my weathered brown belt off the wall of belts and make my rounds to say hello the Brazilian way: slap hands and bump fists.

I find a piece of empty matted wall and start my warmup. A few minutes into my routine, I hear the same song from the UPS driver’s truck a few days ago.

Because he’s racing and pacing and plotting the course,

He’s fighting and biting and riding on his horse.

He’s going the distance...

I stop my warmup and see the morning instructor wrapping and knotting his black belt around his waist.

People say belt colors don’t mean anything. I call bullshit. When you’ve put in the time on the mat and worked hard cutting the fat to reach that level, it does mean something. I’m ready to continue shaping my game to reach my goal.

I’m ready to go the distance.

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