By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on December 13, 2019
A year ago, it was an open question whether Jesse Fernandez would make it to the end of the year. On January 8, 2020, he’s going to be inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame.
“I was knocking on death’s door. They gave me like eight months or a year,” Fernandez said about his diagnosis of stage four kidney cancer. “The surgery was ten months after we got the diagnosis. I’ve basically had a Hail Mary surgery. And we got a touchdown.”
Two months removed from his surgery, the Kill Devil Hills resident was already back on the water, riding the waves on the last day of a hurricane swell.
“It was great to be out there, but I was so weak. I didn’t have any strength at all,” he said.
Fernandez tends to downplay his influence in the world of surfing, but for Jason Borte, owner of Billabong Surf Camp in Virginia Beach who nominated Jesse to the Hall of Fame, the accolade is long overdue.
“It should have happened a long time ago, really. I was inducted in 2016 and he deserved to be in it way before I did. No matter what he’s doing, whether he’s building a board or out surfing or coaching playing music, whatever it is, his influence is unparalleled. With his illness…That’s what prompted me to get it done now, to go through the process,” Borte said.
“It’s really humbling. To be honest, I was shocked,” Fernandez said.
It’s been a long road from Miami, where Fernandez grew up, to the Hall of Fame award.
“I got my first board when I was in second grade,” he recalled. “We got boards when we were kids, my brother and I. Something like ’65, ’67. They were giant boards and we were little kids. We would drag them around and scrape the glass off. Dad got tired of having to fix the boards all the time [and said], ‘There’s the resin, there’s the cloth, slap it all together and put it on there.’ You make some messes, you set the batch off too hot and you start a fire and you learn. In the neighborhood I was the kid who knew how to fix dings.”
“I shaped one down with some crude tools. Sanded it by hand. Rode it for years. Back then you got a board and you rode it till it was dead,” he said.
It was the beginning of a very successful career shaping surfboards.
For years, Jesse has been one of the top board shapers at WRV, where his attention to detail, including the glassing and finish, garnered him reputation for producing good quality boards that performed.
“WRV gave me a very unique position. Most shapers…a lot of independent guys, their focus is scattered. For me, all I did was shape,” he said.
His custom designs, though, have brought some of the best surfers in the world to his doorstep.
Will Skudin is one of the top big wave riders in the world. Now 35, he’s been riding Fernandez boards since he was 16.
“Will Skudin. I think that’s one of the reasons I got it in to the Hall of Fame. This guy’s on the world tour. He’s had offer from some of the best. He’s got a couple of my boards and he keeps coming back to me,” Fernandez said.
His illness has forced him to cut back on building the boards, although his designs are still riding the waves.
“Right now, I’m not actively doing them, but I have collaborated with a good friend in California,” Fernandez offers. I’m just sending the files and he’s cutting the boards and finishing them and getting them glassed. Skudin just got his first seven…He said they feel just like the boards he’s been getting from me.”
Skudin is not the only top tier surfer who has benefitted from Fernandez’s knowledge.
Borte had a very successful professional career riding short boards and he credits Fernandez’s knowledge of boards with helping him get to the top of his game.
“He taught me a lot. I realized the importance of knowing what it is you have under your feet from him,” Borte said.
Borte notes it was not been just about surfboards. In 1997, he won the Association of Surfing Professionals (now the World Surfing League) East Coast Championship and he credits Fernandez as instrumental in his success.
“Sitting on a beach before a heat, somehow he knew where the pressure points were to give you energy. That to surfboard knowledge, the wave knowledge, the competition. The psychology of competition. Everything. I was lucky enough to win that one year. A lot of it had to do with his guidance,” Borte said.
It’s difficult to get Fernandez to talk about his own accomplishments. His humor is somewhat self-deprecating, and he tends to pass over his accomplishments with little comment. But he was on the East Coast professional surf circuit for a number of years, and for three years in a row, he was the best longboard rider there was.
His professional career started with promise when he was living in Puerto Rico.
“On a whim, I entered an event at a break I lived close to…And I won it. I won I think 300 bucks. It paid for the beer for the party,” he recalled.
Returning to the mainland, he gave professional surfing a try.
“There was a tour that was going up and down the coast. I started entering events. Back then there was no qualification. Your qualification was your one hundred and fifty buck entry fee,” he said
He wasn’t bad at professional surfing, just not good enough to win, consistently placing fifth or sixth.
“In my 30s I switched over to competing on the longboards,” he said.” I wasn’t a great surfer, but I had gained a lot of knowledge competitively. You learn way more when you lose than when you win. I did a lot of losing. At that time, longboarding was more progressive. I think I was way ahead on designs. I won the professional longboard title three years in a row. ’93, ’94, ’95.”
For the people who know Fernandez best, though, the professional accomplishments, the world-class surfboards, are one part of a larger and more important picture.
“The idea of the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame is honoring people who are influential,” Borte said. “Other people have been more successful in certain endeavors, whatever they might be, but as far as being influential to so many people I don’t think anybody has a broader reach than him.”
It is a sentiment Jesse’s wife, Michelle, echoes.
“I’m really happy for him. It’s nice that he’s getting recognized for all his passion for that sport,” she said. “He’s a mentor, he’s an amazing craftsman, he’s a wonderful surfer. He just loves it.”