Local Builder Reunited With His ‘Magic’ Hawaiian Surfboard 40 Years Later

Dave Leonetti’s Lost Pipeline Gun Finds Its Way Back to LBI
By JON COEN | Aug 24, 2016
Photo by: Tom Green Dave Leonetti at Pipeline in Hawaii in 1977 on a surfboard that went missing for 40 years and randomly returned to LBI.

It was the mid ’70s. Surfing was in the midst of the “shortboard revolution,” wherein surfers were riding shorter boards for more radical movement on the waves. It also allowed them to ride in more critical spots in heavier waves. And nowhere was that highlighted better than on the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, which has always been surfing’s most high-profile proving ground.

Gerry Lopez was an absolute icon, riding the heavy, barreling waves at Pipeline. It’s a dangerous wave – massive swell traveling out of the north Pacific Ocean that rears up and breaks in a mix of violence and beauty. On coastlines all over the world, surfers were emulating his style, even on Long Beach Island, where Dave Leonetti dreamed of surfing the man-eating waves he had seen glorified in magazines and the few surf films of the day.

“Every ’70s kid that got serious into surfing had a dream. Some wanted to go to California; some wanted to go to remote places. But mine was the North Shore. I was obsessed with Pipeline – I stared at the shots for hours and wondered if I was good enough.”

He purchased a 7-foot-7 Hobie surfboard and would paddle out in the biggest LBI storm surf he could find. Then, in 1976, at the age of 19, he and friend Tom Green, who now owns Green Marine in Manahawkin, headed out to Hawaii. The goal was to surf Pipeline, surfing’s most famous venue, over dangerously shallow, jagged reef. What the Hawaiians call 10-foot waves are often 18-foot faces.

“The first go at Pipe was bad. I couldn’t even get down the face, and it wasn’t even big. I would spin out every time I tried to stand up and thought, ‘Maybe I should get another board,’” remembered Leonetti.

So he went into a North Shore surf shop and bought the sleekest board he could find. But that still wasn’t the proper stick for Pipe.

“So one day it was really big, like solid 12-foot, and even though I could get down the face, I still ate it. I was getting pounded. I always had a set of balls, so that part wasn’t a problem,” Leonetti recounted.

He paddled in to the beach and sat in despair, head hung low beneath the famous palm trees in front of Gerry Lopez’s house, the very surfer he wanted to emulate.

“I thought maybe I just couldn’t cut it. Maybe I was just in over my head,” he recalled.

But as he rose with the intention of buying a ticket back home and pursuing some other wave, some other dream, a man seemed to appear before him.

“He was this hippie-looking guy. To this day I think he was an angel because he started telling me he’d been watching me and that my board wouldn’t work here. He said, ‘Go up there and find a guy named Barnfield and he will shape you a board for Pipe.’ I thanked him and away I went.”

Bill Barnfield is not a household name in surfing. He’s one of those historical figures revered in Hawaii and inner circles of surfboard builders. Between the West Coast and Oahu, he worked for several labels, one of which was Lightning Bolt, founded by Gerry Lopez. For years, he shaped many boards specifically for Pipe, and later made a name for himself in mountain biking and yacht racing.

“Barnfield was really nice and asked me about my style. So I told him they call me Lopez at home,” recalled Leonetti, laughing. “He told me he built some of Gerry’s boards so he could use one of his templates. In four days I had my board, and before the hot coat went off I was waxing up.”

The first day out at Pipe on the new Lightning Bolt was 10 foot. Leonetti remembers he and another surfer got most of the waves.

“My confidence level went through the roof, which is very important for survival there. And the performance of this board was like night and day. It saved my trip. I rode every day, and I was getting more used to the speed,” he said.

Several weeks later and even recovering from a burst eardrum, Leonetti found his trip cut short. They’d run into trouble with some locals. At that time, there was a lot of tension between the Hawaiians and visiting surfers (particularly the Australians). Despite pleas for peace, Leonetti injured an important local and had to get out of Hawaii in the middle of the night. The magic Lightning Board was stolen, but eventually returned to him.

Leonetti settled in California. In 1979, he sold the board to a surfer named Shawn Healey, also from LBI, without a thought. He got married in 1980, moved back to the Island in 1982, got into construction, and now owns LBI House Raising, located in Ship Bottom. His mother, who still lives in the same Island house he grew up in, just turned 100.

But last year, after nearly 40 years, he had an urge to find that board – a board that could have been scrapped, broken, or ruined in so many ways.

“I put out an APB on Facebook to find the guy I sold it to, but the trail went cold. I had an old friend, Ken Gallant, who owns South-End Surf ’N Paddle, and he said he would help me. I couldn’t get it off my mind,” said Leonetti.

Last spring, Leonetti was awakened from his sleep in the pre-dawn hours with thoughts of that board. That evening he got a photo texted from Gallant and almost fell off his chair. Gallant had found the board … in Beach Haven, of all places.

Gallant took Leonetti to the bayside home of Pat Kelly, owner of the Coral Seas Oceanfront Hotel. Kelly had bought the board 10 years ago from an employee who bought and sold collectible surfboards. It was hanging in his living room.

“We went to see the board and had our doubts until we saw my name etched in tiny letters on the stringer. I didn’t know that Barnfield does this as a practice on his boards,” said Leonetti.

So now the board had been located, but Kelly had paid good money for it. They estimated that the board was worth about $1,000. So Leonetti offered to have a new one made by Craig Hollingsworth, a Californian licensed to shape for Lightning Bolt.

“Pat was so kind to agree to that. His family loved the board, but he told them, ‘The man’s got to have his board.’ He knew what it meant to me that I rode Pipe with it,” Leonetti added.

As a bonus, Leonetti was hoping to have Lopez sign the new board for Kelly. Hollingsworth was going to take the board to the Boardroom Show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in California last May. The show’s honoree last year was Gerry Lopez.

Leonetti went through old friend Chuck Barfoot, a Beach Haven surfer who moved to Santa Barbara in the ’70s and went on to make surfboards and skateboards and revolutionize snowboard design. Barfoot had met Lopez on occasion, but was unable to get hold of the surf legend, who now lives and snowboards in Bend, Ore.

But Hollingsworth had been in touch with Lopez and passed on Leonetti’s story of reconnecting with the magic board. Moved by the whole tale, Lopez sent back a three-word reply: “Bring a Sharpie.”

He was happy to help.

“I loved that board,” said Kelly. “But I knew how he must have felt about it and that he had to have it. Dave did a really good job with it, getting another board and having it signed.”

Leonetti went out to California in May. He met his idol, and the living legend signed both his original Barnfield board and the Hollingsworth remake. He brought both back to LBI, handing one off to Kelly. The other is now safe with its proper owner.


Gerry Lopez (left) stands with the two Lightning Bolts made 40 years apart that he signed for local Dave Leonetti. (Courtesy of: Leonetti)
Pat Kelly, who wound up with Leonetti's long gone Lightning Bolt shows off the remake with Leonetti, who has the original again. (Courtesy of: Leonetti)
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