By Léo Azambuja
From its humble beginnings in a tiny retail space in Kapa‘a 17 years ago, Tamba Surf Company shot to fame and became a household name in surfing circles around the world.
The reasons for its success include all the values dear to Hawai‘i; humility, hard work, ‘ohana, friendship, unity, kindness, patience and, of course, aloha.
“I always wanted to have a surf shop, for some reason, I don’t really know why,” said Saa Tamba, a Kapa‘a High School graduate who had never worked in a retail store before opening Tamba. “I had no idea at all on how to do it.”
So after seeking advice from a couple businessmen, he sold his Harley Davidson and opened a credit card to make his dream come true on Sept. 11, 1998.
As a new surf shop owner, Saa ran through a list of major surf brands, searching for products for his store. But he soon found out the commercial side of surfing is purely business, quite different from the camaraderie that built the sport’s foundation.
He reached out for a well-known, established surf brand, and was laughed at when they realized how small his store was at the time, 300 square feet. He was told by a rep he needed at least $15,000 to open an account.
“That’s when I realized, I thought I was going to be talking to one surfer,” said Saa, his Pidgin English strong on his voice. He thought surfing reps would be stoked and give him props — and support — for opening a surf shop on Kaua‘i. “But it wasn’t like that, I was talking to one business person. I was just so blind on how it worked, the retail business. I called another company, same thing.”
Undeterred, Saa settled on representing up-and-coming brands. But after a while, they too got big and left him. Rather than fold, he took it as an incentive to start his own line of clothing. Now, all the clothing and most of the accessories in the store are from Tamba; T-shirts, jackets, shorts, hats, slippers, wallets, wax, deck pads and even custom-made surfboards.
Meanwhile, some of his friends were becoming famous in the competitive surfing arena. It was a time when Andy Irons was winning everything and his brother Bruce Irons was turning progressive surfing inside out, in small and huge waves.
Andy, despite large sponsorship deals and three world titles, continued to promote Tamba for free, for the love of his good friend Saa.
“For free, Andy wore my hat for free,” said Saa, adding he made millions of dollars in his career, but “he ran Tamba Surf Company to the end.”
Basically, Saa said, it was friends supporting friends. Back in those days, he said, it was different. Everyone was young and single, the Wolf Pack and the Kaua‘i Boys were tight.
“Andy pretty much helped everybody else come up, including me,” Saa said. “I was just trying to be a part of it, be his friend, and Bruce (Irons) and (Dustin) Barca, surfing and frothing off each other.”
At one point, about eight years ago, he said, you’d open a surf magazine and almost every page had a Kaua‘i surfer.
It was “insane,” he said, Kaua‘i boys were running the whole surfing industry.
Throughout his career, Andy never lost touch with his roots. He always kept his friendship with Saa, called him to go surf or invited him to surf trips.
“I think at the same time, by him wearing my products, it kept him grounded,” Saa said of Andy. He never thought he was too good for Kaua‘i or for Tamba. He was still a Kapa‘a High School graduate, “Kaua‘i Boys to the end,” Saa said, regardless of how much money he got paid or how many championships he won.
“No one in the surf industry has done that to this day, a world champion wear somebody’s product for free, and that’s the kind of love I got,” Saa said of Andy.
Andy passed away suddenly Nov. 2, 2010, at 32 years old and still on top of his game. A banner outside Tamba plays homage to Andy. Inside the store, the surfboard he rode in Sunset in 2002 to win his first world title is displayed in a wood and glass cabinet.
“We all won that day. We all were involved in each other’s lives, and Andy always included us in all of his achievements and victories,” reads a portion of the text displayed with the surfboard, written by Kamalei Alexander.
A couple years ago, Saa opened a second Tamba store in Haleiwa, O‘ahu’s North Shore. At the end of the first two-year lease, the Haleiwa store was just starting to break even. A new lease, however, would mean he would have to keep working seven days a week for another three-to-five years. So Saa closed the store and moved back to Kaua‘i to concentrate solely on the Kapa‘a store — and to spend a little more time surfing.
“It came down to quality of life. Sometimes chasing the money is not everything,” Saa said.
The good thing that came out of the Haleiwa stint, he said, is his employee became his girlfriend.
“I met the person I love, that I want to be with for the rest of my life,” Saa said.
New things will soon be shaking at Tamba. Saa is coming up with a redesigned logo, new T-shirts, hats, shorts and other clothing and accessories.
Other than that, it will still be Tamba; true to surfing, true to its roots, true to Kaua‘i.
Tamba Surf Company is at 4-1543 Kuhio Hwy, in the Kojima Complex in Kapa‘a. It’s open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Call 823-6942 for more information.