Meet Ben Soto, a surfboard shaper who lives for “truly being in the moment of what you’re doing”. Born and raised in Orange County, California, surfing has always been a part of his life. But being transgender led him on a path away from the waves. Now, he's back in the water and crafting boards with love and passion. Ben's mission is simple: to share the joy of surfing and help people forget their everyday worries as they ride the foam. In this interview, we'll dive deep into his journey, discovering how he found his way back to the ocean's embrace and spreading the stoke one board at a time.
When did you start surfing?
I started surfing when I was probably 9. Growing up in Orange County California is kind of everywhere, for some of us it’s a seed that grows into an obsession. I gave it up in high school, I even joined the surf club at my high school, but as I felt less comfortable in my body I steered away from it, wetsuits are very revealing and all. I came back to it again about 10 years ago, but really dove into it 5 years ago.
How did you start shaping, and what inspired you to pursue this career?
This is truly a path I feel God has directed me to. When I was a kid I didn’t even understand how the boards were made. I’d never seen the process before. When I came back to surfing I’d wanted to get a newer board and this voice I’ll hear said why don’t you build your own? I didn’t even know if I could. I found some supply shops in my area and the Shaping 101 DVD by John Carper. I started out with upcycled skateboard decks into bodysurfing hand planes. When I returned from I’d take north to Humboldt County I brought down two blanks with me, that was in 2015 or 2016. I shaped both of those but gave up at the glassing stage. As Grant Noble said, “It’s anxiety in a bucket”, and it is. I stopped there and gave up shaping. I had no money, no job, and no idea how I’d go on with this. Fast forward to 2020 and I start thinking about it again, but this time I’m determined not to give up.
What was the first board you shaped?
The first boards I shaped were two little 5’ish little nugget-type boards. I sold those on Craigslist and have no idea how they surfed. The first board I shaped and actually got to test ride is an 8’10” mini longboard in 2020. It’s a blend of a Tanner Praire mini log I’d ordered from him right before I started shaping, and a Chris Christenson Mickey DeTemple Bucket headboard my best friend has. The shape has a pretty wide tail, flat throughout, and has some horrible concave in the nose. It’s the most fun board to ride. I’ve surfed that baby all over and still ride it regularly to this day.
What unique opportunities and challenges have you faced being transgender in the surfing community?
As far as challenges, honestly, I can say I’ve had none really. I’ve been quite fortunate to be well-received by the surfing community. I try to truly come to the ocean with only Aloha, in the truest sense of that word and what it means. With that thought always in my heart, I’ve been able to be welcomed in many different circles of the surf community.
Opportunities I’ve had in this short ride thus far have been pretty awesome. I’ve been lucky enough to have been featured on the cover of Orange Coast Magazine in November 2020, with an accompanying interview inside, I have gotten to take part in a Meta Instagram Campaign in 2022. This year I recorded a podcast with Patrick Carlos Olsen of Surfer.gay, as well as this awesome interview. I’m stoked to see what the future holds
What do you think sets your surfboards apart from those made by other shapers in the industry?
The only thing I can say that sets my boards apart from others is that I truly feel that this gift. As a holy endeavor. Shaping, and riding surfboards on waves, is a gift truly sent to us from only God knows where. This act of wave riding connects us to the universal energy force that swirls all around us and through everything. I see my board building as a great calling. I get to make these things that can truly set a soul free of everything. Even if just for a fraction of a second. I sing songs to each board as I build them or when I repair them. I let my joyous energy mix with theirs as they come to life. I think of how happy this person will be when they catch their wave. I know that feeling and feeling is what I’m going for. When you have a great day surfing that feeling is carried onto the shore and out into the world. Your soul is renewed.
Can you share some memorable stories or experiences related to your journey as a surfboard shaper?
Probably the most memorable was when I got my Skil 100 planer. My original planer had died mid-mow. Just totally crapped out. I had a bunch of orders to finish and needed a new planner ASAP. Everything online was about $200. I got on my local Craigslist to see if I could find any deals and there it was. Skil 100 Planner - $650. I was like waaaah? I usually make bad decisions at night so I said if the planner was still listed in the morning I’d jump on it.
The next morning I check and it was still there. The ad body said santa barbara but it was listed in HB, this fact had slipped my mind when I texted the guy. He asked me if I knew it was in the Santa Barbara area. I said “Yyyyeaaaah” totally spacing on that fact but I’d committed to this and I wanted it. I check the traffic and told him It’d take me 2 hours to get there. I hauled ass north.
Once I got to Santa Barbara and gave him a jingle for the address which is when he told me I had to drive another hour north to Santa Maria. Shit. Realizing it would take me more time to drive home than to drive north I said alright and drove my way north to Santa Maria.
The guy lived in a nice mobile home park and had the planner waiting for me. I checked out the planner, it works awesome. I put it in the box and had to get out of there. I’d had a ton of coffee on my drive and of course, no is when I had to use the restroom, being transgender I don’t like to use strangers’ bathrooms and wanted out of there. I wanted to find a place I could use.
As I carried the planner to my car the gentleman followed me. He told me that he was the second owner and the original owner had bought it as a backup. He had hoped it would go to a surfboard shaper. The last thing he said before I shut the car door was that it was like it was sitting there waiting for me. I didn’t care much, I needed to pee. It wasn’t for another 131 miles that I’d be able to find a restroom I could use. All the way down in Calabasas.
It was while sitting in LA traffic by the Getty Museum that I could finally think. I have this thing with the number 55, it follows me everywhere and completely directs a lot of my actions. It was in this lovely LA traffic that I thought to myself if this planner has 55 in the serial number I’d shit myself. About 2 hours later I was finally able to get home. Walking right into my room I flipped the lid off, took a deep breath and looked at the serial number. There it was staring right back at me. 553335.
When I think about what the man said to me, and the long and winding path that this planner took to get to me, someone who feels the way I do about surfing and the sacred duty of building a surfboard. It is amazing and something I think of every time I feel I’m not good enough. I see that number and know that I am doing what God wants me to do, and that I’m on my right path
What are your thoughts on inclusivity and diversity in the surfing industry?
I think it’s on its way to where we want it to be. It appears we’re at a threshold of a lot of things and new doors will be opening up that just a few years ago we couldn’t even see. With things like social media, it is becoming easier for people to find each other and feel like they belong to a group when before that was such a struggle and a challenge.
What is the most valuable lesson you've learned in your journey as a surfboard shaper?
Be conscious. You’ll make mistakes and that’s okay, that’s learning, try to understand what worked and didn’t work. What you need to change and what to keep the same. It’s a good mindset to carry in every avenue of life. Everything really comes down to the details.
Are there any other surfboard shapers or mentors who have significantly influenced your work?
It’s hard to do anything without being influenced by someone else. I’ve been influenced by a ton of really great shapers and surfers.
Brian Bent and his eccentric and distinct style. His love and knowledge of the golden era of surfing. He always has me looking to that time for just classic longboard styles. Brian is always stoked about my artistic work and is very encouraging in any work I do.
Logan Antill runs a Community Adventure Program in Leucadia where you can watch him shape a board or if you’re brave enough can try mowing some foam yourself. I’d learned how to make a beaked nose from him and it totally opened up being able to make retro fish for me.
There’s also Tanner Praire in Costa Mesa. He makes classic, simple but perfect boards that are just beyond surfing perfection. His craftsmanship is amazing.
There is also Matt Kazuma Kinoshita in Hawaii, while I’ve never met him, his wealth of knowledge and dedication to the craft are things I strive for.
Roger Hinds is a start-to-finish craftsman that if I could make boards half as beautiful as his I’d be pretty stoked. Ryan Lovelace, Greg Noll, Robert August, Michael Schultze, George Greenough. This list could go on.
Could you share insights into any upcoming projects or collaborations you're excited about?
My biggest upcoming project is a board I’ll be building for the best-in-show contest held every year during the Boardroom Show’s board-building expo at the Del Mar fairgrounds. This year those who entered the best-in-show will be building bonzers so I’m super stoked to be taking part in this year’s event is amazing. This will be my third bonzer build.
Jules is a writer, photographer, content creator, and DJ from California. Normally based in Brooklyn, he is passionate about surfing, hiking, and the local music scene in New York. Currently traveling Europe for a couple of months.
Ben Soto's Website
Ben Soto's Instagram
© 2000-2023 withitgirl. All rights reserved. We appreciate your feedback!