O’Hara turns surfing passion into business
Cullen O’Hara has had a lifelong love affair with surfing and skateboarding, but it wasn’t until he attended university in California that he realised he could turn his passion into his vocation.
Mr O’Hara, 36, owns Isolated Surfboards, which sells surfboards, skateboards, wetsuits and top apparel brands for participants in both sports, while also doing surfboard, paddleboard and windsurf repairs.
The business is located in a stunning, 4,000-square-foot, second-floor loft space in the historic Baker Building on the south side of Reid Street, just east of King Street, in Hamilton. The space was designed by Mr O’Hara’s wife, Kaitlyn, and is available for special event bookings.
A projector and screen add to the surf and skate vibe by showing top events from around the world, while a skateboard ramp is available for skaters to work on their moves until they get them on lock, and for lessons.
Mr O’Hara grew up surfing on Bermuda’s south shore, at Hungry Bay and “various reefs in the central parishes”, he says, adding: “It was obsessive. I knew once I started that it was all I wanted to do.”
Following graduation from Mount Saint Agnes Academy, Mr O’Hara made a pilgrimage to Santa Cruz, the city that gave birth to American surf culture, to study earth sciences at the University of California, where he captained the surfing team.
“I was working with people who were taking surfing and skateboarding more seriously, who were thinking of it as a career,” Mr O’Hara recalls. “I decided to do the same as them because everything I did had the goal of being able to surf and skate more often, and surf with purpose.”
He opened Isolated in 2009, giving surfing lessons and building surfboards in his garage.
“I began making boards because I broke all mine and couldn’t get them here,” he says. “I created my own supply and realised that other people were in the situation that I was.”
The business moved to its current premises in January 2015, where Mr O’Hara built a workshop for the shaping and laminating of boards. He makes fibreglass boards for sale, while also bringing in softer boards more suited for beginners. The location also has a screen-printing facility to make apparel.
Two months ago, Isolated added a retail component, while opening up the skateboard ramp to the public for the first time since it was built in 2015.
A dedicated crew of skaters drops in. “It’s $10 to ride the ramp for two minutes or all day — it depends on you,” Mr O’Hara says. “Our youngest regular is nine years old, but they go up to my age and older.”
He added: “I have been skateboarding my entire life, I am really good at falling. It’s not easy, but it’s enjoyable, healthy and a challenge. You are only competing against yourself. We all want people to achieve their goals. We see someone trying a trick 100 times and when they get it, everyone celebrates.”
Mr O’Hara remains an active surfer, here and elsewhere. He took several of his new board designs to El Salvador last April for testing purposes, where he tore up a knee, requiring surgery in Bermuda. He left the boards behind to be enjoyed by young Salvadoreans.
While some people express surprise that there is a surf culture on-island, Mr O’Hara says they exist worldwide.
“Years ago, a common reaction was ‘you can’t surf here’,” he says. “There are surf cultures in places like Israel, France, the Great Lakes. If there’s a wave, people are surfing, and Bermuda is no different. While it’s not California or Hawaii, it’s not trying to be, either.”
Mr O’Hara says there was a solid surfing crew of locals and expats in the 1990s. Interest waned a bit thereafter, but today “there has been a resurgence among younger Bermudians, children who took the place of people like me as a ‘grom’, a younger person who surfs or skates”.
He added: “People are on it when it’s good in the fall, winter and spring. You might see as many as 20 or 30 people in the water at one time. Typically, much less, though.”
This year in Tokyo, surfing and skateboarding will make their debut as Olympic sports, a development that is applauded by Mr O’Hara, who says: “They will finally be seen as a sport as opposed to a hobby.”
Mr O’Hara, a participant in the Ignite Bermuda “light” programme of workshops and guest speakers, said the retail side of the business has been “going well”.
He added: “We are very humbled by the support we have received thus far. I knew it was going to work. I can’t say why, sometimes you’ve just got to trust yourself.
“We are really pleased with the support, and want to continue to keep growing and be aware of the needs and demands of our clientele, and produce quality products.
“We produce Bermudian-manufactured goods. Where they are made is where the heart and soul of a product lies.”
Isolated Surfboards, at 104 Reid Street, is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11am until 6pm, and Sunday from noon until 5pm. Individual or group skateboarding lessons can be booked for weekends before the business opens for $65 per half-hour, with equipment provided. Call 543-SURF (7873) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Surf lessons are on hold for now
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