When my friend Josh called me back to say that Neal was interested in an interview with Maui Time, I realized I was about to journey into the archives of one of surfing’s legendary brothers.
Upon walking into the Norris sanctuary, deep in a hidden valley in Kahakaloa, I was greeted by an ear-to-ear grin. Neal reminded me of a kid in junior high who couldn’t wait to show you all the cool stuff in his house. Riding on his enthusiasm, he took me on a tour of his surfboard factory. Explaining how he has made surfboards here for 28 years, this has been the catalyst for setting off his dream.
As we walk back outside, Neal’s 13-year-old son Matty was running down the road, school books in hand, yelling “Surf!” Neal reluctantly broke the news that we had to do this interview, and Matty shrugged off the disappointment, then turned the situation positive. He picked up one of dad’s boards and showed me the artwork that his brother Andy designed for the Norris’ Valley Isle Surfboard Company.
Valley Isle Surfboards is a family operated business. Neal shapes and airbrushes the boards, long-time friend John Robinson glasses and makes the fins, wife Vicky designs and makes the board bags, and the kids create the artwork.
Neal grew up in La Jolla, California, where he took to surfing and the lifestyle at an early age. He began shaping at 16, and has kept the excitement alive ever since. He was fortunate to travel to Hawaii at an early age, and made his first trip in 1965. He knew that someday the islands would be his home.
Neal’s competitive success in surfing opened numerous doors for him throughout his early years. One of the highlights of his life was when Duke Kahanamoku presented him with a third place trophy and congratulated him, being the only Californian to make the finals of the International Surfing Championship at Makaha.
After the event, Neal would travel to Maui and surf an almost empty Honolua Bay. “There would be six to eight guys in the water,” he said. “Unbelievable” is about the only word he could come up with to describe the experience. “In those days it was a brotherhood, everyone was so stoked on life and surfing,” he said.
Neal moved to Hawaii in 1969 after high school, and began actively shaping surfboards, an art that he has mastered and perfected over the years. Neal has made between 9,000 and 10,000 surfboards, all which he shaped with a planer that he bought for $75 from Skip Frye.
The late Billy Caster influenced and taught Neal many of his board-shaping techniques. When he moved to Hawaii, Dick Brewer and Mike Diffenderfer planted seeds in Neal to help him grow into a legendary shaper.
Neal explained how he worked as a busboy at night, and shaped and surfed during the days. “I guess I’ve been living a surfer’s dream,” he said. “I worked at the same restaurant for 25 years, Pineapple Hill. It was the closest job to Honolua Bay at the time.” He managed to save enough money to buy his property in Kahakaloa. Back in the early 70’s when property was affordable, Neal glided into his picturesque piece of paradise.
Neal met his wife at the restaurant Christmas party, both agree it was love at first sight. After dating a few months, they tied the knot. Twenty-three years later, their land has been beautified beyond belief, due to the philosophy of giving to the aina, and the help of their four children: Christina, Andy, Matty and Shauna.
The Norris family makes up the Valley Isle Surf Team. Neal gets excited telling me how his boys are starting to charge bigger waves, and he is focusing most of his energy into them. Neal speaks with pride when talking about previous surfers he has sponsored.
The late Justin Roberson was the first Maui ripper who really pushed his boards to the limit. “Justin was so amped to surf, he was always charging and motivating everyone around him,” he said. “Eli and Sai Smiley also rode my boards early in their careers.” Most recently he made boards for Eric McHenry, the 1996 NSSA champion. Neal taught Eric how to shape, and now he makes his own boards.
Neal’s other passion in life is working his land. He draws parallels between surfing and gardening. “When I mow the lawns, I compare it to shaping boards; shaping the grass and doing rail bends on the lawn,” he said. He spent the last 25 years clearing the land, exposing the taro walls that had been built centuries before. The garden supplies all the produce the family needs.
The Norris family has two acres of ti leaves, which they harvest weekly and sell to stores and restaurants in town. Self-sufficient is how Neal describes his life. “On Monday we load up the van with ti leaves, flowers and surfboards and drive to town to cash out,” he said. “We then do all our shopping for the week, surf and come home.”
Coaching the Baldwin High surf team is one of Neal’s other interests. “Surfing and interacting with the kids is what keeps me young,” he said. With the way he has scheduled his life, he’s able to spend his time doing what he loves and hardly ever misses a swell at the bay.
Night started to fall into the valley, and Neal had me in trance, showing me his vintage surfing memorabilia and his life, through meticulously organized photo albums. “To me, knowing your limits, and doing things at your own pace so you don’t burn out is the secret to endless youth,” he said.
Thanks to Neal and the entire Norris family for the hospitality and aloha. If you’re interested in Valley Isle Surfboards, they are sold exclusively at Second Wind in Kahului, or you can order one directly through Neal at 808-244-5230.
This story originally ran in MauiTime’s December 9, 1997 issue.
Photos: Jeff Divine