MANNY CARO: The Heart and Soul Behind Mandala Surfboards

Manny at work in the Moonlight Glassing shaping room. Photo: Dane Peterson

Manny at work in the Moonlight Glassing shaping room. Photo: Dane Peterson

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.” -James Michener

Mandalas are symbols used in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions which most simply defined are representations of the universe and the wholeness of all that resides within. The creation of or fixed focus on a mandala has been traditionally used for a spiritual realization and in the aid of deep meditation. I never asked Manny of Mandala Surfboards why he chose the name “Mandala” for his wave-riding creations, as I feel some things are better left up to each individual’s personal interpretation. I imagine that as shaping is a meditative practice unto itself and the act of surfing helps align an individual with their inherent oneness with the universe, this may have been one of the reasons Manny chose the name.

I became aware of Manny’s unique shapes via the world of social media as visuals of his shapes would come to me. The outlines and tail designs were unique and eye catching to say the least; my curiosity to seek out more of his work overcame me. I started to seek out more visuals, photographs and film of surfers riding his boards, and became intrigued with his idiosyncratic take on surfboard design. The shapes looked a bit strange, but even more exciting was that they looked like they worked magic.

It was only a matter of time before I got in touch with Manny to get some of his thoughts on surfing and surfboard design. I conducted a brief interview which really only served to make me more interested in his work and left me thirsting to one day to have first hand experimentation with his surfcraft.

I hope to continue this conversation about his work on my next trip to California. Until then, this interview can help to briefly quench my thirst for more insight.

When and where did you start surfing? Describe your early experiences in the surf and riding waves?

I first started surfing back in 1983 at Blackies in Newport Beach. It was just before Thanksgiving and I remember my dad watching me freeze my ass off in trunks.

My parents were always taking us on picnics to the beach. My dad would go fishing and we’d do what all kids do at the beach-build sand castles, chase birds, and ride whitewash to the shore on our boogie boards. This was the late 70’s so you can imagine what the surf scene was like.

My older cousin and his friends started surfing around this time, and I would watch them from the whitewater catching waves and standing up. Of course I wanted to be like them, and after saving up my money delivering papers, I finally got a board second hand. I spent the rest of my childhood taking the bus to the beach, figuring out how to ride waves, keep my stuff from getting stolen, and learning respect.

From the seed of the first wave you rode to the present moment, what drew you to surfing and the art of shaping surfboards?

I guess the whole draw to surfing and building boards comes from some echo of my genetic memory. Before the Spanish colonized the Philippines, the natives there lived in tree houses and built canoes. When I’m shaping a board I get this strange feeling that I did the same thing in another lifetime, in another age.

Be it shapers, surfers, waves, or the like, what inspires your shaping?

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be like the guys in the magazines. But above that, I’ve always been inspired by my friends and real people. I’m lucky to be surrounded by the genuine and talented people in a neighborhood trying to fight back the slow encroachment of gentrification. I’ve always looked up to people with real jobs like teachers, firemen, farmers, etc. It always seemed like they were the best surfers in the lineup and had a more intimate connection to the nature of waves. Some of the less-traveled reefs around here are full of these folks, and they’re keeping the old traditions of respect for others and the ocean alive.

Leucadia is one of those last beach towns on the California coast where we haven’t been taken over by restaurant franchises and big hotels. It’s still a funky old place where trippy old ladies walk their cats and salty retirees spend their entire day on rusty beach cruisers drinking coffee. Living here and surfing the reefs keeps me mellow, and it’s a great place to experiment on new designs without having to deal with the spotlight at more popular breaks like Cardiff or Swami’s.

Your shapes appear to have one foot firmly planted in the roots of modern surfing, while also taking some leaps into a future that doesn’t seem to be following the ordinary path put forth by the contest-driven surf industry machine. Your boards have a component of soulful tradition, yet they are coupled with some avant-garde design elements. Overall, what are you looking to give the surfing world through your work?

I guess I’m just trying to keep the whole tradition of master apprentice going. I grew up watching a lot of kung fu and samurai movies, so I’ve probably been imprinted with an unusual amount of respect for my elders. We wouldn’t be where we are as a society if we didn’t learn from those who came before us. I just want to add my little bit to the puzzle and hopefully some ideas might prove useful.

It’s obvious that you’re surfing ethos stray from the pack. Spiritual path, light-hearted fun, communion with nature; how do you define surfing for yourself?

Surfing for me can be pretty existential. A lot of times when I surf in the evening and long after the sun sets, I try to quiet my mind and try to perceive everything around me with all my senses. I think for me, surfing is all about gratitude. It’s definitely a privilege, and I get this feeling that when I’m thanking the universe for all its gifts, it’s thanking me too.

Of all your designs, I personally find The Dark Crystal the most interesting. The lines are wild and the tail is certainly not atypical. What is the philosophy behind this board, who is it for, what conditions will it work best in and what was the impetus for its creation?

The Dark Crystal is the latest in a long and continuing exploration of speed. From Greenough’s hulls I was inspired to shape the Arctail Quads and Twins, then we reduced tail surface area with the Arc Swallowtail Quad. Then came the elliptical Double Rainbow, which has an arc template nose and an arc tail. Once again came the swallowtails and more reduced area overall.

Finally, I went to check the waves out front and it was only about 1-2 foot-but it was perfect. Crystal clear water, low tide micro tubes, and only Jon Wegener and Andy Davis out there on Jon’s Bluegills (a semi-finless design.) They were ripping! I saw both of them spinning 360s, drifting stalls, tube rides; all on boards with barely any fins. I ran home and took the fins off of a round-nosed, deep-swallowtailed experiment that I called the Deep Space Cowboy (haha) and put in some 3″ side fins instead of the twin keels that I had in there.

The first wave I caught, I slid out on the bottom turn and had to swim. On the second wave, I told myself to try and surf it like a hull and the thing took off! That second wave was pretty memorable because I was flying down the line like there was air under my board, not water. It was so fast and effortless that I tried doing a turn and promptly slid out again. On the third wave I figured out how to trim down the line and to stay low. The first thing I pulled off was dinking off the end section (and I was hooked from there). I give all the credit to Jon Wegener for inspiring me. He’s a good friend, a mean drum player, and damn can he can shape too.

Since then, I’ve experimented with the Dark Crystal by adding channels, then taking them away, trying new nose and tail templates that I knew worked with the Double Rainbow ASQs, and now they’ve almost crystallized into the current incarnation with elliptical templates, 12″ deep swallowtails, single to spiral-vee bottoms, and low thin rails. They work from 5’4″ to 8’4″ (I’m not sure if they work any longer since I haven’t shaped any that long). I’ve also surfed them in overhead waves, and they handle like regular boards if you make them quads with the Mini Keels.

What are your top 5 albums of the moment?

Avey Tare & Kria Brekkan: “Pullhair Rubeye”
Cliff Martinez: “Solaris”
Es-P: “Self-titled”
Animal Collective: “Feels”
The Books: “Lost and Safe”

 Any final thoughts, words of wisdom, thanks or shout-outs?

I’m not old enough to have any words of wisdom, but I do recommend eating good chocolate daily and doing what you love with those you love most. OK!!! Off to the shaping room!!!

For more info on Mandala Surfboards. Go here: http://mandalacustomshapes.com

Jesse sliding the tail on a 5'1" ASQ by Manny. Photo: M. Caro

Jesse sliding the tail on a 5’1″ ASQ by Manny. Photo: M. Caro

Constant refinement and innovation is what makes Manny's shaping evolution so exciting to witness.

Constant refinement and innovation is what makes Manny’s shaping evolution so exciting to witness.

Manny is not only an artist within the realm of surfboard creation. "Aequilateralis" pencil on vellum. Photo: M.Caro

Manny is not only an artist within the realm of surfboard creation. “Aequilateralis” pencil on vellum. Photo: M.Caro

Manny looking at his work. Photo: Dane Peterson

Manny looking at his work. Photo: Dane Peterson

Dane Peterson on a 5'4" ASQ. Photo: M.Caro

Dane Peterson on a 5’4″ ASQ. Photo: M.Caro

Jesse Faen riding a 5'4" Double Rainbow MK3. The board has a deep swallowtail with mini fins. Photo: M.Caro

Jesse Faen riding a 5’4″ Double Rainbow MK3. The board has a deep swallowtail with mini fins. Photo: M.Caro

Manny at work in the Moonlight Glassing shaping room. Photo: Dane Peterson

Manny at work in the Moonlight Glassing shaping room. Photo: Dane Peterson

Manny putting a 5'8" Dark Crystal to the test. Photo: Hayley Gordon

Manny putting a 5’8″ Dark Crystal to the test. Photo: Hayley Gordon

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Growing up in New Jersey, Shawn discovered and quickly immersed himself in the sub-culture of surfing and skateboarding in the mid 80’s. With a diverse and eclectic background, Shawn has walked the path of a competitive surfer, Hare Krsna monk, action sports industry player in NYC, DIY theology and religions major, and a touring punk rock musician. Now a father and self-proclaimed seeker of the “soul” of surfing, Shawn enjoys sessions with friends at uncrowded peaks along his home state’s shoreline and writing about his surf related experiences.

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