Go VIP: Inside Volcom's Notorious Pipeline Houses with Gatekeeper, Kai 'Borg' Garcia
Every surfer who has spent time on the North Shore of Oahu certainly has a few concrete memories forever locked in their minds. There’s the Foodland supermarket at Pupukea, the historic town of Haleiwa, the stretch of pumping waves along the Kamehameha Highway, the treats at Ted’s Bakery and of course, the notorious houses perched directly on the shore of Pipeline, owned and operated by Volcom.
Housing the lucky select few that are handpicked to rep the brand through each and every season, the houses sit in prime position in front of what some call the heaviest and most exciting wave in the world, the two residences and those fortunate enough to be inside watching over all that happens in the lineup. The newest, larger house was formally that of surfing royalty Gerry Lopez, and has more history than almost any surfing museum in the world within its walls. The second, sat directly across the pathway that leads to Pipe, houses the younger generations and hosts exclusive parties, backyard bbq’s and views like no other to the who’s who of the North Shore, all while Pipe does its thing in background.
It’s no secret that the locals run the 7 mile miracle with high levels of respect and enforcement, though that’s not to say that respect isn’t returned, particularly to those willing to abide by the unwritten laws and pecking order for several consecutive years. It’s a place where you get what you give, and a proving ground for those willing to chase their surfing dreams, professional or otherwise.
The brands official Gatekeeper of the houses, Kai ‘Borg’ Garcia is a legend in his own right. He’s the go-to man on the ground ensuring everything gets done, plain and simple. From making sure everyone’s getting looked after, to delegating cleaning responsibilities, oh, and don’t forget, making sure the crew are charging. If you’re not out there and you’re staying at the houses, he’s the one you answer to.
With the Volcom Pipe Pro now just around the corner, we recently had the honor of having a chat with the man himself to find out how he first got involved with Volcom, what it’s like living in the epicenter of surf history and culture, the ins and outs of life in the notorious houses, their history and much more. Join us as we go VIP inside the world’s most exclusive surfing residences.
Give us a run-down of who you are and what you are responsible for at the Volcom houses?
Well, my name is Kai Garcia, I was born and raised on the island of Kauai and when I was 16 I first came to Oahu. Alekai Kinimaka brought me over, Titus’ brother and took us around and I got to meet all my heroes that I had seen in the magazines and that was that. Ever since that one trip I wanted to come back, but the first trip he brought me here, he brought me to Gerry’s house, but he wouldn’t let me come in. You never made the cut straight up, you stayed outside. Everybody was in there, you name it, everybody, it was gnarly. That was my first experience at that house. You couldn’t just walk in like you can now, it’s a little different. We hung out there for like two weeks and had to go back, and that was all she wrote. As soon as I was old enough to come back I came flying back every chance I could, scraping together a little money just to come back and hang out with everybody, just to be in the mix. Back then it was so legendary and so notorious that when you did get a glimpse of these people it was rare. Now you see guys everywhere, flooded, saturated, you kinda almost get desensitized in a way, compared to what it was like. You used to have to wait for a magazine to come out just to eat every word, look at every picture. Potter, Mark Richards, Dane Kealoha just everybody, it was unreal. It was raw, everything was raw. Y’know, everybody appreciated everything. I remember I got a couple stickers and that was just the best thing ever. That was what got me excited to come out here and see everybody and that’s all I’ve been doing since I was a kid, the beach has raised me. We all come from those broken homes and your parents are just like ‘go to the beach’, y’know, you hang out with your uncles all day and you’d get by and back then they’d send you to the beach and send you home. It was old school ways.
How did you first get involved with Volcom?
My brother was surfing for Quiksilver when he was young, Wooly was the head guy, he was a team manager, basically he just did everything. He was totally burned out, fried out, he came to Kauai and stayed with us for like a month, and he was just telling me when we went surfing every day in the summertime ‘I’m leaving Quiksilver’. I was like ‘What are you doing?!’ because to me back then, Quiksilver was like god, it was just another level for us. He said he was going to start his own company called Volcom and I was like ‘You’re an idiot, don’t do it’. But what did I know? We were 18 or 19 at the time. Anyway, he said ‘If I ever get it going I wanna pick you guys up, I love your little deal you’ve got going here.’ Volcom started gaining traction, and I didn’t think much of it. We kind of stayed in touch for a while and about 6 years later I got a call, he asked if I was still surfing, I said yeah, then said he wanted to give me 800 bucks a month. I thought he was joking, I told him ‘Bro if you’re pulling my leg, I’m gonna come after you’, I was like ‘holy mackerel, I’m rich’. He told me he had houses there, he wanted me to go stay in them and now 20-something years later here I am, I’m still trotting along. There’s a lot of history, but just to be in that right era and to love surfing and be at the right size that I am, so when the industry blew up, we were right there blowing up with it thinking it was never gonna end. Now it’s bumpy times but we’re still going.
What are your main responsibilities at Volcom?
My key responsibilities are to oversee everything on the North Shore for Volcom. Make sure everyone’s taken care of, everyone’s comfortable and everything’s running smoothly, and if it’s not, I step in. I’m pretty much the fixer, it’s my job to make sure everybody knows what they’re doing and knows we’re not their mum and dad. They’ve got these unreal houses, they should be really grateful to even be here and not to take it for granted. Even back in the day, I couldn’t even come in in the beginning and when they did finally let me in I had to scrub everything all day. It’s unreal because the Japanese and South Americans come in and they’re on it, but the Americans and Cali boys come in and they’re on it for a few days and then you’ve gotta be like ‘What’s up bro, you can’t take five minutes out of your day to sweep the deck?’ So after a couple times of that happening I have to take them to the park and do something about it, y’know, do a heavy workout. This is a home team environment, you’re a family, so you’ve gotta stay cohesive and you’ve gotta pull your end. Just giving these kids structure, because a lot of them don’t even have it, it’s unbelievable.
When did the brand take over both the houses?
I think it was about 2007, I’m not sure, we got the OG house and then we got the good house. Just the legacy of the houses, we try to keep that going and make sure everybody knows their roots and know their surfing and a lot of kids don’t, y’know, they wouldn’t recognise Johnny-Boy walking down the road from Rory Russell in the yard. These kids don’t know their history which is pretty baffling with the knowledge they have at their fingertips. But y’know, that’s just part of it, you accept it and move on. You just try to keep these kids as good humans as possible, just to encourage and lift everybody up, it’s not about breaking people down, those days are over.
Between the two houses, who stays in what house?
Basically the OG house is where you work yourself up by being respectful, telling everybody what’s up who comes into the yard, not just acting like ‘oh they don’t see me’. You need to go up if you see boys coming into the yard be like ‘Hey my name is Charlie I’m from France’, don’t just sit in the corner and think they’re not seeing you because everybody is looking at everybody. You can’t be weird in the corner – you can’t do that. You’ve gotta be respectful tell everybody ‘Hey what’s up’ and shake their hand, or they will feel disrespected. But it’s nothing like the old days.
Like you said, there’s still that huge element of respect. Do you think it’s changed over the years as the industry has blown up the North Shore?
I don’t think it’s the industry, I just think it’s how kids are raised in this social media generation, everyone has a camera, everyone has a drone, everyone’s on Instagram. You can’t really do anything without it going viral, there’s cameras everywhere. Before, y’know, if you got in a fight and someone filmed it, it wouldn’t be up till 3 months later. Now, it’s uploaded 5 minutes later. Everything’s changed, and the kids and their way of thinking, they weren’t raised the way we were raised. Being slapped around and beat up by your uncle, that was normal. There’s other guys coming up after us who were raised like that but then it started to change. A lot of local people got moved out because everybody turned the North Shore into Malibu. There’s no local families hanging out on North shore anymore, it’s all vacation rentals and people who only stay here for two years. The people who are running these programs, they’ve got the right idea but they’ve only been living here 5 years. But it’s life, deal with it, if it’s part of progress then evolve with it. You just accept it and move on.
Tell us about some of the more memorable moments in the houses over the years?
Honestly, do you really think I remember any of the parties?! Haha, There were no parties where you were like ‘oh that was the best party ever’, but to me at Pipeline the best one by far was Andy beating Kelly in the Finals. Y’know, coming back and taking him out with 30 seconds left. That was bomb, as far as a memory right there on Pipeline in the houses, us carrying him off the beach and taking him right to the Volcom house. Not to the podium, straight onto the deck and he was standing on the deck just screaming and yelling. To me, that was pretty much it. Everything else was a blur.
For people who wouldn’t know, in peak season when the waves are pumping and all the guys are sitting in the yard watching Pipe, what’s the atmosphere like?
You know what? It’s mellow. It’s so mellow. Everybody gets along. All these guys get along, even in the water all the guys get along. I think it’s awesome, especially with what’s happening right infront of your eyes.
How do you push each other to get out there when it’s on? Is everyone doing it anyway?
Yeah, you gotta push the new guys here and be like ‘Hey bro, what are you doing? Stop looking, time to get out there.’ But other than that they know they’ve gotta paddle out, because you can’t sit there for too long before you get called out. ‘Have you surfed yet? It’s 10ft Pipe.’ There’s 12 year old kids on the shoulder, you’ve gotta get out there, you’re 18 years old. That’s what you’re here for, don’t think you’re gonna stay here and not paddle out. Get real. The kids know that if they come here, they’ve gotta paddle out. There’s girls on the shoulder, go paddle out.
Coming back to what you were talking about earlier, staying there is such a privilege and proving yourself doesn’t come easy either.
It is a privilege, it is the proving ground, the Mecca. It’s gnarly and it’s crowded and the boys rule it hard. But there’s so many waves that go unridden and so many unders and overs and you just have to build your way up and scrap your way up, show people that you want it and as the years go by you progress and your perseverance pushes through and you’ll start getting waves. And it’s like ‘that’s solid, he’s catching waves, he’s going for it, he’s not gonna blow it’ and you’ll get em. First now have the Jamie O’Briens and the Johns and a couple other of those kids who grew up here and they’re just owning it, but there’s so many waves that go through that are just wide open. If you keep just grinding away forever you’ll get some, like Adrianno de Souza. Like he’s finally getting waves now, before he never did but he just grinded away and now they know he’s out there, he’s respectful so they give it to him. Bottom line is, if you put your time in out there, and that’s not 1 or 2 years, that’s like 10 years, you will start getting waves. Or a solid 5 years if you’re really good at Pipe. But even the Danny Fullers, it took him years to get waves out there. You gotta earn yourself your spot out there to sit by those guys. They’re the OGs out there now. All us guys, we’re old, we just like to watch.
Is there anyone in the Volcom family that really runs Pipe in your eyes?
It’s all about the late 20s to 30 year olds now. You see the generations come and go.
Tell us about the ‘whistle’.
The whistle is basically one of the guys not respecting the locals and dropping in on them. We blow the whistle and that’s kinda when you could still get away with pounding guys, and if they would paddle to Rockys, or past the lifeguard towers we’d let them go, but if they think they could get away we’d catch them by the lifeguard tower, we’d catch them all the time. They’d follow the current and see everybody yelling and think they could get away but then we were all waiting down there. It was a little more tribal back then. The whistle’s been gone for 9 years almost, but it’s still in everyone’s minds. We should bring it out and start blowing it again. It sure made an impact. Like I said, everything’s changed. The mentality the attitude – they wanna surf. They’re not getting into fist fights, they know they’re surfers, they know they’re not fighters. Everybody back then thought they were fighters, so the mentality was totally different. Now the ones that do train, train non-stop so you stay away from them, but the ones who train are more humble than all of them cos that’s why you train. People aren’t training to go hit guys in the water anymore, put it that way.
How does the season conclude at the Volcom houses? when all the waves stop how does the season wind down?
It doesn’t conclude. It’s just winding up for us. When the Triple Crown round ends, that’s the beginning for us. Nobody wants to be here for the Triple Crown. Now with how the industry is they’re not even sending their surfers here, the lower guys are tryna make it have to come on their own, and they’re like ‘Why would I come here when everyone’s here?’. As for waves, It just stops. But for me personally it doesn’t stop, I’m over to March in Australia to work an event. The houses wind down but everything else winds up. It doesn’t stop. Winter goes till March, maybe April, and by then you’re working on your next project for summer, planning for next winter. If you’re a pro surfer, you’re trying to find your way to Bali or whatever. It doesn’t stop, basically.