What have YOU been doing for 70 Years? Ninety-one year-old John Zapotocky has been riding the waves and paddling a board longer than most of us have been alive. As he makes his way out on his paddleboard again today, it’s a friendly reminder that this “new sport” of standup paddling (SUP) isn’t new after all. John Zapotocky, Duke Kahanamoku and a handful of the old Waikiki Beachboys discovered how “cool” it was before most of us were even born.
Five seconds with John "Zapped" Zapotocky and you know the guy hasn't wasted a second of life despite being blessed with plenty of it. Sharing the waves with Kahanamoku was a moment in time and an opportunity not lost on John. He recognized surfing royalty when he saw it and immediately knew that the meaning of life was to be found on the water.
"Well I was out there surfing one day and I’d just come in and I’m looking out there and I see this gentleman come on in on a wave with a paddle. I said, ‘my god, that’s something I should be doing!’ So I asked some people and they said, well that’s Duke Kahanamoku. I said, who’s he? You know, I’m here from Pennsylvania I’d never heard of him. They said, well he’s a world famous swimmer and a surfer, an Olympic star. So I went and talked to Duke and he said, well, get your shovel paddle and do it! I did that and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve been surfing out here now for 65-some years and probably 55 years I’ve been using a paddle. And it changed my whole life. I’ve been standing up ever since."
After making a quick change into his surf gear, John is ready to paddle, dressed all in white from head to toe like a sainted surfing apparition. I get the impression he's dressing for the next position. But if Heaven's close, John's not quite ready to trade his Hawaiian paradise for the clouds just yet. He's still robust in his movements although his bandy legs lend towards an obvious faith in his walker.
He makes his way down towards the shore to “talk story” with a growing group of believers.
John knows the value of time and maintains a steady clip. He bee-lines for the shade of the tent on the beach and whips out a plastic blue album from beneath the folding seat of his walker.
“It took many years before standup paddling came into play,” says John of SUP. “Right now it’s like a snowball. It’s the finest exercise move.
“It’s revolutionizing a way of life. You can take this paddle, you can exercise with it,” he continues, as he transitions into a demonstration. “You can twist, you can turn… You don’t need any barbells.
“It’s a source of exercise that people have not recognized how valuable it is. I think it’s just wonderful. I think it’s going to be all over the world. It’s going to be everywhere in the world – hotels, lagoons, any place there’s water, there’s room for standup paddling. And I suggest you boys try it.”
There's something very cool about hanging with a 91-year-old who is still stoked on surfing. To see faded eyes sparkle with life as they reflect upon a life spent in the ocean.
In a matter of moments he flips us all through the highlight pages of his life: His arrival to Hawaii in 1940 with his beautiful wife; soaking up the sun beside an outrigger canoe on the spacious shores of Waikiki; standup paddle surfing before anyone saw the future in it. He briefly touches upon various intermittent details like manning the guns during the Pearl Harbor attack, all the while rifling through the clear-covered pages with stumpy fingers he lost to machinery during his days at the Dole pineapple cannery.
The memories are a blast, but they don't cloud his diamond-sharp vision of what he’s here to do, and no sooner has he hit the last photo page than he's rubber-banded the album closed, locked it in the walker, and he's ready for action.
Today he has called upon friend Todd Bradley, of C4 Waterman, to get him back on the water. Seeing the two of them together, their total glee over standup paddling is contagious. They're a couple of kindred souls who are excited by its simplicity and the guarantee it offers of keeping you close to the source through the ages and stages of life.
There's no room for SUP detractors today. To those who have gathered to give this re-birthed sport a try, John is as good as the second coming, generating waves of inspiration and admiration – and not just among the “boys”, as many women and kids have turned out, too.
"I used to be 5'8" and-a-half," I’ve had 6 major surgeries, 3 knee replacements, I fractured my femur bone 10 years ago and they had to put a half-inch titanium rod there. I keep saying the doctors could have made me taller, instead they made me shorter!”
More than 30,000 sunrises and many operations now make his $2, four-foot long wooden canoe paddle a better fit than ever. He’s been buying them for half a century from the same canoe company in Mississippi.
“They didn’t know I used it for surfing. They’re made to sit down but I was using them standing up, so I kept breaking them.”
With that, he’s had enough with the talk and it’s time to get moving. He wades out into the shallows, sits himself down and makes a few digs with his ash-wood paddle to get him to deeper water, pushing past a much younger crowd that is also down here today to give SUP a try. With a few strokes he gains momentum and makes the move from prone to standing. It’s not as easy as it used to be, but he still makes it look frustratingly simple to the rookie on his right who splashes down.
He looks good, and you can tell it feels good to be free again. He heads further out a ways, then makes the turn and cruises back towards shore. He looks like he’s walking on water.
From out there he probably can’t hear the applause that’s emanating from the shoreline. He’s lost in his thoughts and soaking up the glide, enjoying his momentary escape from land.
As John touches back down on the sand there’s a twinkle in his eye. He dries off, mingles a short while longer then says he’s got an appointment to meet with his next round of vitamins and a midday nap.
Then, like an aged rockstar who knows he's still got it, John slips behind the tinted veil of his black chauffeur-driven vehicle, but not before looking around the door, pointing a finger and saying: "You've been Zapped!"
John Zapotocky: One of the first men standup paddling, one of the last men in the Honolulu phone book. Look him up next time you’re in town. He’d be excited to share his stoke with you.