Undersung and overqualifed, Jonathan Paarman informs his custom yachts with wave-inspired curves.
By Will Bendix, Featured in The Surfer’s Journal
I meet Jonathan Paarman at his warehouse on the outskirts of St. Francis Bay. His directions were simple enough: drive past the manicured thatched condos that run along the canals, then over the bridge, and past the road you’d usually turn down to get to Bruce’s Beauties. I turn left at a big Yamaha sign into a small network of dirt roads. I can still see the ocean and smell the sticky scent of fynbos that clings to the air. Boatyards and workshops sit alongside the road, smattered with rusty informal shacks.
Paarman’s warehouse looks non-descript, a towering shell of gray cement and corrugated iron roofing, like an airplane hanger dropped among the scrub. Inside I discover a hive of activity. The half-built skeleton of a 60-foot catamaran sits raised on enormous blocks and stretches across the warehouse floor. A legion of tradesmen is at work pounding hammers, fitting the cabin, drilling and wiring the exposed guts of the boat. “There’s a lot of surfing going on here,” says Paarman, running his hand along one of the catamaran’s keel hulls as we walk beside it. “This thing is designed to go anywhere.”
At 6’3″ with hands like sledgehammers, Paarman cuts an imposing figure. His barrel chest belies his 62 years of age and is testament to decades spent on the water, rigging sails, and chasing down huge surf. Instead of the booming voice you’d expect, he speaks with a calm, measured cadence. “It takes at least a year to build one of these,” he says with trademark understatement. Then he begins to talk about the many lifetimes of experience that goes into building each boat.
Jonathan Paarman. J.P. The Iceman. Often overlooked as one of the greatest power surfers in the world during the 1970s and 80s, he comes from a rich oceanic pedigree. His uncle was John Whitmore, the rugged pioneer known as “the father of South African surfing.” When Whitmore’s cousin, Ken Paarman, married Sea Point belle Leonie Johnston, it was the merging of two salty bloodlines. “My father Ken was never really into surfing, but he had been fishing forever,” says Paarman. “He used to fish with my uncle John. They fished tuna and dived perlemoen. That’s what you did if you lived around the ocean back then.”
Paarman and his five brothers—Donald, Shaun, Lee, Mark and Roger—grew up in a modest bungalow on the beach in Bakoven, a kelpy bay framed by granite boulders near the seaside suburb of Camps Bay. They were surrounded by an extended clan of uncles and cousins for whom the ocean was simply a way of life.
“It was just there for the taking,” says Paarman. “We grew up on the beach bodysurfing in the shorebreak, playing in tin canoes and watching my uncles surf for hours. When they came in we would jump on their boards. There was no real ‘introduction’ to surfing. It just happened.”
The nascent Cape Town surf scene was vastly different from its warm water counterpart in Durban, in no small part due to the raw nature of the waves. Surfing on the tip of the continent was more about pitting yourself against the elements, whereas Durban was forging a reputation for its high-performance hot-dogging. The Cape surfers were different too—a hardy crew of fishermen and sailors with a predilection for heavy waves. Paarman would become known for seamlessly merging the two styles.
“The guys in Cape Town always rode bigger waves,” he says. “They would ride the Outer Kom, and Sunset was ridden as far back as the 60s. Being a youngster I always had to go with the older guys. They would ride the big waves and I wasn’t going to sit on the beach, so I’d paddle out.”
Paarman surfed his first contest when he was 12 at the Outer Kom, a heavy muscled left that comes out of deep water then bulldozes its way down a shelf strewn with bull kelp. The organizers didn’t want to let the youngster paddle out because the waves were booming, but he managed to convince them otherwise and went on to win the event.
“I first became aware of Jonny in 1968 at the South African Surfing Championships in Cape Town,” recalls 1977 World Champion, Shaun Tomson. “We were competing in the Boys Under 14 Division and he blew my cousin Mike and I away to win the final. He had the same long-armed, swooping style at 13 in those small waves as he did while roaring across a J-Bay wall or going vertical into a bending, 12-foot Sunset Beach northwest bowl.”
At the time, the Cape Peninsula was still an undeveloped wilderness, holding unknown waves in the crook of its cliffs and swathes of wideopen beaches. One of these spots was the Hoek, a powerful wedge that lies at the northern end of Noordhoek beach, which Paarman is attributed with pioneering. “I wouldn’t know who pioneered what or where,” he says dismissively. “We just used to surf there. We may have surfed there first, because the wave was too steep for the old-style surfboards. But eventually we got into it.”
The crisp barrel and wailing shoulder suited Paarman’s style and helped refine the attack he became known for: coming from deep behind the bowl to demolish the lip. Tomson remembers Paarman using this approach when the young South African team arrived at Bells for the 1970 World Championships. “It was early in the morning after a long drive from Sydney. Jonny was the first of us out into the perfect 6 foot surf, packed with the best surfers in the world at the time—Nat Young, Nuuhiwa, Tabeling, Farrelly, Fitz, and others. Peter Drouyn dropped in on Jonny on his first wave and J.P. launched into his trademark swooping bottom turn, went straight back up the face, and cracked an upside-down reo that nearly blew off Drouyn’s head. I never saw anyone drop in on him again. His style was completely unpredictable and totally explosive.”
Thanks to his Cape pedigree, Paarman’s act was also scalable. Kommetjie lies toward the tip of the Cape Peninsula and juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, copping the full brunt of open ocean swells. “When it started maxing out at Cape Town’s beachbreaks, we’d go to the Kom,” he recalls. “That’s where it all happened.”
Besides the Outer Kom, there’s the Crayfish Factory, 365, Sunset, and an assortment of lesserknown reefs that have made it the epicenter of big-wave surfing in Africa. Dungeons, across the bay, would come later, but it was among these deep-water reefs that Paarman honed his taste for power surfing in waves of consequence, looking for the lip when most other surfers were gunning for the channel.
“I used to get criticized sometimes that I would ride too small a board,” he says. “But only once or twice did I have it so big at the Outer that I couldn’t paddle into it because the west swell was just grinding. Otherwise you can hotdog it. You can take off late under the lip, come screaming off the bottom, and whack it again under the lip. If you ride a big 8-foot gun, it’s too easy. That wasn’t my style—you must fucking go for it. I wanted to take off halfway down, pull into the tube, whatever. I wanted the performance.”
This approach served Paarman well when he first headed to Hawaii in 1972.
“People never realized how big the waves are in Cape Town, so going to Hawaii was like getting into a warm bath,” he says. “We were used to big peaks coming in and moving and shifting around at places like Sunset. It’s very similar to the Cape, so we slipped in quickly.”
Paarman’s transition was eased by his friendship with the Aikau family. He had become friends with Eddie after the young Hawaiian came to compete in the Gunston 500 in Durban earlier that year, and J.P. was received warmly in turn by the rest of the Aikau clan. “We got on really well with all of the Hawaiians,” he says. “We often used to go to the Aikau’s house and have a party. Once you were big mates with Eddie and his family it was fine.”
While his peers like Tomson, Rabbit, and PT were busting down the door, J.P.’s quiet approach was markedly different. “Those guys were going for it,” he says, “which is not a problem. But we were in Hawaii and you had to respect the Hawaiians. I think that’s maybe where I got a lot of respect in turn, because I never really gave off that vibe like I was trying to be the greatest.”
As the cameras shifted their focus to document the changing of the guard at Backdoor, Paarman was happy to focus on Sunset, building an intuitive connection with the wave. He recalls sitting deep on the west peak when Eddie and a few other locals paddled up to him and asked incredulously what he was doing there—this was where the locals took off. “I always liked to sit more on the inside, right across the wall, which allowed you to take off deep and then shoot the bowl.”
His relationship with Pipeline was less amicable. Despite relishing the powerful lefts of Outer Kom, Paarman struggled to come to grips with the Banzai. “I got invited to the Pipe Masters but I wasn’t geared for the Pipe,” he says. “The boards I had were killing me. They’d just spin out and I’d get smashed. It wasn’t fun.”
Still, his Hawaiian campaigns earned him a reputation for being nearly fearless. “I’d take off thinking, ‘I’m going to fucking hit the lip on a 10, 12 foot wave,’” he says, laughing. “Or I’d take off so bloody late that you’re getting tubed on the way down, stuff like that.”
But beneath his go-for-broke approach, he was also a calculating thinker. “Having watched him from the water and through the camera lens for years, I came to realize that J.P. was one of the most intelligent surfers around,” says Shafiq Morton, a prolific South African photographer who documented the best of the era. What stood out for Morton was Paarman’s constant analyzing, from the equipment he rode to how he read a lineup and his fellow competitors. “To describe J.P. simply as a wild man was such an underestimation of who he was.”
Paarman was also unflappable, earning him the nickname ‘The Iceman.’ His Hawaiian reputation was cemented when he placed in the finals of the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational and the Smirnoff Pro, both held at Sunset beach in 1976. The same year, he finished runner-up to Shaun Tomson who had become untouchable in the Gunston 500. But a lack of sponsorship money and an indifference to dancing for the cameras gradually saw him drift from the fledgling pro circuit, spending more and more time riding the Cape reefs and working for Whitmore, who had secured the license to build and distribute Hobie Cats in South Africa
Paarman has been involved in board building and sailing since his early teens. By the age of 15, he was a provincial sailing champ and was racing Hobie 14s whenever he wasn’t surfing. “I’d always be in shit because I was sailing miles out to sea, in the fucking shipping lanes,” he cackles.
Through a chance meeting with Dick Metz in Cape Town in 1959, Paarman’s uncle John Whitmore was introduced to Gordon Clark and later Hobie Alter, who were laying the foundation for the global board-building industry at the time. Ever industrious, Whitmore began manufacturing Clark Foam and Hobie Cats in South Africa and J.P. inevitably became his apprentice.
“I used to blow Clark Foam for my uncle and then we did some surfboards in the factory as well,” says Paarman. “We had a little shaping bay but I never really shaped a lot of surfboards. I shaped more windsurfers. Then for many years I was very involved with the Hobie Cats, putting all the aluminum in, constructing them under the guidance of John.”
Paarman’s windsurfing exploits would in fact become legendary as he carved the windblown lineups with the same committed approach he took to surfing. After Whitmore sold his shares in the business, Paarman left and started making windsurfers full-time with Vernon Castle, another talented Cape surfer. He was also sailing religiously, wracking up numerous transatlantic crossings while still pushing the limits surfing around Cape Town. As Derek Hynd would famously comment, “Jonathan Paarman is to the beastly waves of Cape Town what Barry Kanaiaupuni is to Sunset Beach.” But there was one wave that still eluded him.
“We always looked at Dungeons as we went over Chapman’s Peak,” says Paarman. “Sometimes it would be prefect, just huge and spitting, but we didn’t really think it was possible until the mid 80s. That’s when we started surfing it—guys like Pierre de Villiers, Peter Button, myself. The problem there is sitting in the lineup and getting eaten by the sets. That’s probably the worst part about it. And all the water that’s moving around out there. But coming from that background also helped me deal with heavy seas when I was sailing. Getting caught in a big storm is like getting caught inside. You’ve just got to stay calm, drop the sails, and deal with it
By the late 90s, Paarman turned his attention to mono-hull yachts, building a big ocean-going maxi with a group of friends. Soon he was hired to work for Voyage, one of the biggest yacht manufacturers in South Africa. Within a few years he was running the Cape Town plant that was producing 12 large boats a year. Then his younger brother’s hunger for untapped waves lured him to St Francis Bay.
The seed for Mark Paarman’s wanderlust was planted on his first runs to J-Bay in the 70s, when J.P. would let his unlicensed kid brother drive the kombi on the long haul up from Cape Town. They would camp among the dunes for weeks, living off the fish they caught and riding the sublime waves. While J.P. pursued his pro career, Mark set off for the virgin frontier of Indonesia and was smitten. After traveling the globe, he eventually returned to J-Bay, where he bought a commercial fishing boat and pioneered the local chokka industry.
Chokka or squid fishing is heavy, grueling work but the business thrived, consuming Mark for decades. The urge to explore never waned though, and eventually he had the resources to build an expedition catamaran that would allow him to scour remote archipelagos and reef passes. “Marky wanted something he could really explore on, a cat that could move fast and outrun storms—and carry all his kak!” Paarman says with a laugh, referring to the copious amount of diving, fishing, and surfing gear his brother wanted to haul with him. “He looked around but there was nothing really that could do both, so he decided to build his own.”
Along with his friend John Henrick, a die-hard fisherman who loved the idea, Mark recruited Roger, the youngest of the Paarman brothers, to manage the project. But they needed someone who could breathe life into their vision. “The deal was for me to come up here for a couple of years and build two boats,” recalls Paarman. “That’s how it started—it was all built on Marky’s dream to go surfing.”
Nexus, the boat-building company they founded on the outskirts of St Francis Bay, now supplies handcrafted voyaging catamarans to clients around the world. Paarman points to a workbench in the bustling warehouse, among the molds and industrial machinery. “That was all that was here when I arrived,” he says. “It’s been difficult making a business of it. You build a million dollar boat, but there’s still not a huge amount of money you get out of it because of the materials and the amount of time it takes. But seeing one of these finished, thinking where it will go, it’s a beautiful thing.”
After they built their maiden boat, they needed customers, so Roger took the catamaran to the Annapolis Boat Show in Maryland. “It was the worst possible timing,” recalls Paarman. “The boating industry at that time was just dead. It was right in the middle of the global financial crisis when everything just crashed. But Phil Berman saw it and he loved it.”
The timing was in fact nothing short of serendipitous. Berman, a California yacht broker and former Hobie Cat world champion, was specifically looking to develop an expedition catamaran that married the capacity of a charter boat with some of the performance of a high-tech racing cat. When he saw the Paarmans’ 60 footer, he realized there was no need to reinvent the wheel and they joined forces. “Most charter catamarans are very wide,” explains Paarman. “They’re not fast but they can carry a lot of toys. What we’re making is a fast ocean-going boat, but one that can still carry a lot of gear.”
He points to the belly of the hull under construction. With his fingertips pressed together and hands parted to form a narrow upside-down V, Paarman explains how a sharp bow slices through the water more efficiently, making it faster and less prone to pitching and rolling. “You can see the hulls are quite sleek,” he says, “unlike a normal charter. They’re built to withstand heavy seas. In fact everything is built around this. The bow is what you call a wavepiercing bow, and this is carried through the bottom curve of the boat. There’s a lot of ‘sheer’ all round for speed and comfort.”
Working with naval architect Anthony Key, Paarman has meticulously developed the composites they use to make everything from the hull to the mast, the doors and even the davit— the small crane used to lift the tender. “The whole boat is built around foam sandwich composites made from carbon fiber, E-glass, and epoxy. I was fortunate to have all that experience and knowledge from building Hobie Cats, learning from John Whitmore, from Hobie in California. That’s all come with me through the years and what you see here,” he says, motioning to the factory floor. “But you could never build one of these on your own. The real trick is surrounding yourself with good people, the right people.”
Paarman points out all the other expertise that goes into building a boat, likening it to a floating ecosystem that sustains itself through its water-making systems, electrics, communication systems, and propulsion. Many of the core team who work here are lifelong friends of the Paarmans and the Nexus roll call reads more like a who’s who of South African surfing. Evidence of their shared history lies scattered around the warehouse with surfboards tucked into corners among industrial equipment and hanging from rafters. One yellowing pintail sits wrenched in two on a workbench, the victim of a recent swell. “Productivity definitely slows down if Supers is firing,” Paarman chuckles.
J.P. rarely surfs Supers himself nowadays, preferring to ride the less crowded spots or work on the new model cats, like a 52-foot expedition boat that can be piloted single-handedly. “I often say to my brother, ‘We had it so good in the 70s and 80s, surfing Supers ace out, exploring this coastline.’ How do you really go from that to what it is now? You can’t. You’ve got to look ahead. You’ve got to look to what’s next.”
With Special Thanks To The Surfer’s Journal