Mike Diffenderfer, surfboard shaper, dead at 64
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
The ashes of Mike Diffenderfer, one of the world's most influential surfboard shapers and the man who named the Banzai Pipeline on O'ahu's North Shore, will be scattered at sea Saturday afternoon.
He was 64.
Diffenderfer, who was born in Santa Monica, Calif., and raised in La Jolla, was one of the early North Shore pioneers. He learned to surf when he was 12 and moved to Hawai'i soon after graduating from high school in 1956 so he could surf full time.
He quickly gained a reputation as a premier board shaper. Diffenderfer once estimated that he had shaped nearly 25,000 boards.
"Everything about his boards was all flowing and curves, and he did it just the right way so the board was maneuverable and fast," said Gary Hanson, who has owned boards made by Diffenderfer for the past 40 years. "I would refer to him as a Michelangelo of shapers."
Diffenderfer's older brother said the master shaper, who started shaping boards from redwood at age 12, was sort of a self-taught engineer who had studied the way airplane wings work and then applied that to surfboards.
"That's where the rocker came from," said David Diffenderfer, who lives in Anthony, N.M.
The "rocker," or the nose to tail curve of the board, is a standard on nearly every modern surfboard. It's one of the features that helps determine how maneuverable a board will be.
He was among the first half dozen to surf Waimea Bay, Hanson said.
Diffenderfer named the Banzai Pipeline after watching the first surfer dare to catch one of its hollow waves. The wave at Pipeline, which races across a wicked section of sharp coral reef, has become the surfing world's most photographed wave.
Diffenderfer was also a lifelong golfer who played in numerous tournaments, including the Hawaiian Open. He tried unsuccessfully to join the Senior Pro Tour.
Dr. Tom Sperandeo, a surfer and ophthalmologist became Diffenderfer's guardian 2 1/2 years ago. The shaper lived in an apartment in Sperandeo's Kahuku home.
"He was very ill, and he needed someone to help him out, and it was me," he said. "We became kind of family. He was in my arms when he died."
Diffenderfer was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1993, his brother said. It was not malignant, but it was very invasive. He went through three brain tumor removal operations, David Diffenderfer said.
"In Honolulu he went through massive radiation to kill the tumor," he said. "They were never able to extract it all. And the radiation began to deteriorate his brain."
Diffenderfer spent the last six months of his life at the Kahuku Hospital. He died of pneumonia.
Diffenderfer saw his younger brother for the last time in October.
"We had some good times talking," he said. "He was at peace. He was a spiritual man, and he knew the power of God. Anybody who surfs knows the power of creation and that you are not in control. He knew that and he is with his creator right now."
Diffenderfer is survived by his brother, David Diffenderfer, and three nephews, Richard, Stephen and John Diffenderfer.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday on the beach at Hale'iwa. Ashes will be scattered at sea.