The Ocean Whispers, the Shaper Listens: Johnny Cabianca and the Art of Reading Waves
“It was like magic. The wave opened up, I set my line, and it was just me and the board - we were one. I’ll never forget that feeling of flying down the face, totally in tune with the wave and trusting my equipment completely.”
Johnny Cabianca still gets goosebumps recalling one perfect wave at his home break of Maresias over 20 years ago. That feeling of transcendence motivates his lifelong quest to build surfboards that form a flawless bond between surfer and ocean.
As the head shaper for 3-time world champion Gabriel Medina, Johnny has refined this intuitive art to enable peak performance. His custom designs draw on technical precision, aesthetic vision, and a profound sensitivity to the dialogue between surfer and wave. For Johnny, shaping is about listening to the whispers of the ocean and translating them into fiberglass, foam and fins.
The Waves Speak, the Shaper Listens
Johnny grew up traversing the beach breaks of Brazil, developing an innate comprehension of how subtle differences in swell, wind, and bottom contours impact wavshape ad behvior. He learned to carefully observe conditions and let the ocean guide his path down the line.
This ability to read the water translated seamlessly to his shaping career. Johnny allows the ocean’s feedback to direct adjustments in rocker, rail profile, and bottom curves. Whether through modeling software, hands-on glassing, or watching his boards perform under the feet of elite athletes, he engages in a two-way creative conversation between art and science.
“My goal is that the ocean doesn’t surprise the surfer,” Johnny explains. “By deeply understanding a break, I shape boards that feel like a natural extension of the wave. This creates magic for the rider.”
The Shaper Speaks, Medina Listens
When a young, preternaturally talented Gabriel Medina showed up at Johnny’s Maresias surf shop in 2009, Johnny immediately observed the power and precision that would launch Gabe’s meteoric career.
More importantly, he noticed Gabe’s intense connection to his equipment - the way he effortlessly adapted his technique to subtle changes in design. Here was a surfer who could provide the feedback to build truly custom boards that performed as flawless appendages in the ocean.
Thus began a partnership spanning over a decade and 3 world titles. Gabe communicates in nuanced descriptions, video clips, and dynamic performances on the test boards Johnny sends him. Johnny responds with meticulous adjustments to length, foil, rocker, rails, and fins.
Together they push the boundaries of both Gabriel’s surfing and Johnny’s evolving craft.
The Dance of Surfboard Design
Peeling back the layers of Gabriel’s championship boards reveals the beautiful interplay of art and science cultivated by Johnny’s experience and intuition.
The foundation of outstanding performance lies in the rocker, which Johnny fine-tunes to match Gabriel’s evolving style and physique. Subtly transitioning rocker maintains speed while allowing Gabe to lean into radical maneuvers. It provides a tight connection with the wave face, facilitating the explosive burst needed to stick difficult landings.
From this backbone, Johnny sculpts rails, bottom curves, and fin configurations to achieve desired flex patterns and responsiveness. Harder edges in the tail loosen towards the nose for balanced drive and control. The full-length concave adds projection and straight-line stability, also enabling smoother rail transitions. Slight foil adjustments aid turning and add momentum through turns.
Finally, Johnny incorporates an artistic spark, like the Michelangelo who visualizes then liberates a statue from raw stone. Vibrant colors, bold airbrushing, even glitter gloss ignite a youthful energy that feeds Gabe’s creative fire.
Refining a Winning Formula
Like a meticulous scientist, Johnny records volumes, dimensions, and performance feedback for every board Gabe rides. This data chronicles subtle design tweaks from year to year as Gabe’s surfing elevates.
For example, as Gabe progressed towards his first world title in 2014, Johnny narrowed and straightened the tail outline while increasing foiled area and reducing thickness. This combination enhanced maneuverability in smaller, weaker waves without compromising power or speed.
Leading up to Gabe’s dominant 2021 campaign, Johnny introduced a wider outline with lower tail rocker and longer, straighter fins. This expanded Gabe’s repertoire in good waves, providing more control to harness the power needed for technical aerial rotations.
What does the future hold for Johnny’s protege? If Gabe’s performances are any indication, the trajectory is straight up - and Johnny will be there to provide the launch pad.
The Legacy Ripples Outward
Johnny’s legacy extends far beyond individual accolades. As one of Brazil’s most influential shapers, his technical advances have elevated the artform while inspiring an entire generation of board builders. His expertise also benefits the careers of other elite surfers seeking equipment fine-tuned for aerial explosiveness.
By generously sharing his shaping philosophy centered around wave mastery, Johnny continues nudging performance limits. He reminds us that the craft rewards dedicated stewardship of ocean knowledge.
"3D printing allows for incredible precision in designing and testing radical new shapes," Johnny explains. "I'm collaborating with Wyve on a 3D printed pro model : The DFK"
The beautiful chaos of surfboard design has occupied Johnny’s mind and hands for over 4 decades. For him though, it always comes back to sublime glide.
“When everything aligns, surfer and board become one harmonious being. The board disappears beneath you - there is only the wave.”
Johnny selflessly channels this oneness so phenoms like Gabriel Medina can stretch possibilities. Yet he still cherishes those fleeting moments chasing the glide for himself. Handplane in hand, Johnny will continue his lifelong conversation deciphering ocean patterns...quietly dreaming about the next perfect wave.
Check our latest video where Johnny explains the future of surfing.