James Gabriel doesn’t sugarcoat anything. If you ask him if surfing is for everybody, he’ll simply say, “no.” But he’ll shape you a custom surfboard, if you personally ask him to. “Tara,” he’ll say, “usap tayo.”
A former race car mechanic abroad, James was among the many Pinoy mechanics spread out all over the world. But beyond cars, James’ interest lied in a sport that isn’t surfing: It was mixed martial arts. This is why it’s funny to say matter-of-factly that James Gabriel of KM69 Surfboards learned to surf by accident and started shaping boards out of boredom.
What seemed to be a mundane hobby, later on, became a fully developed craft and a promising career path. Although, it didn’t happen overnight. The journey of KM69 Surfboards took well over a decade to get to where it is now.
Venturing into his 40s, James looks back at the year he began shaping. It was 2008, a time when surfboards were bid for and shipped from China to the Philippines, when the 540 Hub in Katipunan was “the” spot, and when he himself was a 27-year-old who didn’t even know the local surfing spots in the country. There was so much to learn.
Thirteen years later, he discovered that custom surfboard shaping is a creative pursuit that continuously brings out his artistic side. Up to this moment, he lives by the words, “you’re good as your last job.”
Over the course of the COVID-19 lockdown, James lived in isolation in his home and workshop in Alfonso, Cavite. It was a period of slow progress, that he believed could have only led to either stagnation or innovation. He adheres to the latter. This was also the time he realized it made no sense to claim ownership over shapes and that, rather, he uses the more term, “influences” for accuracy.
Inspired by one of his heroes, Al Merrick, James says, “huwag kang titingin sa work ng iba. Di ka naman gagaling dun eh.”
With constant evolution (and testing), there are versions of KM69 boards that show the trajectory of his work. “May mga boards ako an ibang-iba from each other,” he shares. This has always been valuable to the shaper, who believes progression was and will always be crucial.
Artistry aside, KM69 Surfboards aims to always rise to the occasion as a thriving business. One of his breakthroughs was shaping with the elusive Hall-of-Famer, the late Kenny Tilton, who taught him not only to shape quickly and excellently but also to trust himself to shape on his own–without measuring tools.
“Lahat ng aspect ng pag gawa ng surfboard, ako na lahat. Kontrolado ko na lahat,” he claims. “Yun ang natutunan ko kay Kenny Tilton.”
Today, James is a one-man team. His day-to-day tasks include fetching supplies, shaping, glassing, and chatting with customers online. Doing it all on his own allows him the process to hyper-focus on why he does what he does, on top of the responsibility of running a business and taking note of how much money he’s raking in. Living and working to the bare minimum has given him an essential perspective.
As a local shaper of the Philippines, James hopes to highlight what it means to be a talented Filipino in the world of surfing. “All surfers should respect the water, and respect their own pacing,” he says. “Sometimes it’s all about listening to your gut, putting in the time, and enjoying the waves.”