Todd Bradley

Todd Bradley is the most unlikely Pacific Islander you’ll ever meet. With his short stature, blond cowlick and twinkling eyes, he’s more leprechaun than Menehune. But make no mistake, being born and bred on Oahu (with a short stint in Micronesia as a boy) he’s an islander through and through. And the C4 Waterman co-founder has proved it with a paddle in his hands. Too infectiously enthusiastic to be a legend yet, Bradley, 51, is still one of the greatest paddlers in island history. Over the past 45 years he’s mastered just about every self-propelled Polynesian craft, including standup paddleboards. Through his early involvement with design, manufacturing and marketing, he literally had a hand in creating the sport. — Sam George

Growing up at the Outrigger Canoe Club I was around paddling all the time. We all grew up with a paddle in our locker.

Shortboard, longboard, paddleboards, six-man outriggers, one-man outriggers, sailing canoes—if it could be paddled, I paddled it. And now, including standup, I’ve crossed the Molokai Channel on self-propelled craft 55 times. That’s in 51 years.

Brian Keaulana got me hooked. He was using standup to train for hydrofoil tow-in, and he said I just had to try it. I borrowed one of his tandem boards, but because I was designing and building canoe paddles at the time, I decided I didn’t want to use the wooden paddles they had. So I made my own out of carbon fiber. Brian wanted one, then Dave [Parmenter], and one thing led to another.

When I was racing one-man outriggers I was probably doing the Hawaii Kai run 300 days a year. It was like my daily jog around the block. So when I first tried it on a standup on a 25-knot day, it was like, ‘Okay, you mean I can surf for 10 miles? In gale-force winds when everyone else is tucking it in and going to the movies? Sign me up!’

It’s about 10 miles. You set shuttle like a river run. We’d have 16 guys and their boards hanging out the back of a truck.

You just get addicted to it. The thing about Hawaii Kai is you can always have a better time. How do I connect more dots and ride more bumps? If you can catch 30 more waves, you can rest and be faster.

The only way to get good is reading water. It’s not the same read every day. The more knowledge and experience reading the different bumps, you’re that much better.

Once you learn, you can ride bumps in Australia, the local lake, anywhere. It’s like how you read water on the river. Eventually you can show up on any river and understand it.

I love running rivers cause it’s like the Hawaii Kai run in the fifth dimension, with eddylines and waves coming at you from every direction. When you run a river, you know that you could’ve made it better, stayed in the faster current, used eddies to your advantage. You try to improve each time. Same with the Hawaii Kai.

I was a champion canoe racer and designer so when SUP came around I focused on the paddle and the racing possibilities. I was always trying to draw Brian and Dave into the racing scene, telling them, ‘This thing is going to be huge for racing! We’ve got to make these boards bigger. We might even be able to do Molokai someday.’

Meanwhile out at Makaha, Brian had asked Dave if he could shape him a shorter, more maneuverable board. Dave said, ‘Yeah, let’s see how it goes.’ And that first 10-foot board that Dave shaped for Brian changed everything. It was the tipping point for the whole sport. Brian was doing maneuvers that no one could’ve imagined. That’s when everybody saw the possibilities—this wasn’t going to be just some idle pastime.

Mark Jackola and I shaped the very first racing board in my yard. We had this huge block of EPS foam and no idea how to shape it, so I ended up using a chainsaw. My wife came home and it looked like Christmas in New England—white beads of foam everywhere. We were still picking up foam balls two years later.

In the 1990s I’d seen what happened with the explosion of one-man outriggers—I was involved with that right from the start. So when I quickly went from making one standup paddle a week in the garage with my kids, to making 300 paddles a week, I had some idea of how big this was going to get.