01 Aug Senior in Action – Jean Pierre Van Swae
Marilee Marrero Stefenhagen
Former County of LA Public Library Administrator is having the time of her life as a retiree; meeting fascinating people who are active seniors, and volunteering for Soroptimist International of Norwalk and other women’s groups.
Senior in Action – Jean Pierre Van Swae
Other than Beach Boys music and surfing movies, how much do you know about the art of hand-crafting wood and foamboard into surfboards tough enough to challenge ocean waves? Jean Pierre Van Swae, better known as Pierre or “Fly,” has lived a surfer’s lifestyle for the past sixty years, and still creates custom surfboards at the age of 77.
Born in Belgium in 1942, Pierre’s life might have gone in a completely different direction but his mother fell in love with an American soldier during World War II. The soldier promised to bring his Belgian sweetheart and her family to the U.S., where they escaped European postwar hardships. Pierre characterized his mother as very enterprising with a sharp mind. After her marriage to Bob Spencer, they relocated to California in 1947. By the time Pierre entered Laguna High School, his mother Elizabeth was working her way up in the electronics field, creating circuit boards and learning all she could about the industry. Pierre’s two younger half-brothers, Mike and Chris, were born in California, five years apart.
Living near the beach, Pierre watched surfers and grew curious about their boards. He found the local surf shop, and hung around watching until they let him start sanding surfboard rails (edges) by hand. His enthusiastic sanding went right though the fiberglass coating to the balsa wood – OOPS. The supervisor called it a learning curve, and hired him. He learned the craft of shaping the board, applying artist signature and label, applying fiberglass, sanding it smooth, giving a glossy coat of resin. After Wardy Surf closed their doors, Pierre worked with former co-worker Del Cannon creating custom surfboards. He also photographed surfers & their boards for Surfer magazine.
In 1969, Pierre tied the knot with fellow surfer, Jennifer. Her father, Lorrin Harrison, was a well-known surfer, and family life revolved around water activities. Pierre joined an outrigger canoe team from 1971 to 1973. His role as a “stroker” meant he led the pace, and the six man team was unbeatable in their 40 foot canoe. Pierre and Jennifer raised four children together: their oldest daughter Jessica now lives on the “big island” of Hawaii, Jean Paul makes his home in San Juan Capistrano, Jericho resides in Dana Point and Dax in Laguna Niguel; truly a sea-loving family.
Hawaii’s siren song was irresistible, and after Pierre spent many vagabond summers surfing the famed island waves, he moved to Kauai in 1991 to work in the metal recycling business. After seven years, he returned to the mainland and established his own surfboard label, FLY. Where did he get the idea for that logo? From his days of sky-diving and hang-gliding, Pierre admits to being an adrenaline junkie. Has he ever been injured? “A broken rib and some cuts, that’s it.” said Pierre.
Pierre still crafts custom surfboards at his shop in Capistrano Beach. The only adaptation he makes is shaping shorter boards designed for him and his buddies who can’t let go of the kid inside. Two abalone knives hang from his shop’s wall for harvesting abalone which Pierre says he could eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s a framed photo of “Peggy Sue”- his 1955 Chevy BelAir, and parked outside is “Jack,” his 1955 yellow Chevy pick-up sporting the FLY International surfboard logo. Pierre remarked, “I can burn rubber in it!”
Capistrano Beach’s Post Office displays a FLY International surfboard, hand-crafted by Pierre in honor of Duke Kahanamoku. On August 24, 2002, the 112th anniversary of Olympic swimmer and surfer legend Kahanamoku’s birth, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp with Duke’s picture on it. Pierre enlarged the postage stamp, and embedded it into the surfboard.
FLY International Custom Surfboards is located around the corner from the Capistrano Beach Post Office. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about custom surfboards if there’s a kid inside YOU hoping for the perfect wave.
As Pierre says, “It’s all about staying excited in life; like the first time you catch a wave, you find yourself yelling, ‘Ahwoooooo’ at the top of your lungs!“