Entering a place
DRIVING THE H2 freeway across Oahu — empty at 11pm — I had the sudden realization that to arrive at night for your first time in Hawaii is like a gift.
As travelers, we’ve become conditioned to Instagrams, to filtered images of place. Better to start out seeing only dark contours of mountains and passing flashes of road signs. Better to roll down the windows and take in this new air — tropical and warm but light, not muggy — the air of vast open Pacific space. Better to scan the local radio — some slack key guitar, reggae on Da Paina, electronic music on KUTH — all of it settling you into a strangely calm alertness, a heightened level of noticing, a reminder that entering a place — perhaps the most important moment of travel — shouldn’t be a head trip or playing out of expectations, but very much a bodily act.
I’d come to Oahu to surf. To decode, if possible, some of what it meant to surf here. To be honest I was somewhat intimidated by Hawaii. Over the years I’d heard or read stories from other surfers of localism, violence, people getting “lickins.”
It’s not like I thought I’d get my ass kicked for paddling out somewhere. But there was some subtler anxiety, maybe just the reality of being another haole coming to the islands with an agenda, which put me on guard. And perhaps this is why arriving at night, merging now onto the empty Kamehameha Highway, was so disarming. If surfing taught you anything it was just reading and adapting to conditions as they were. Being present. Getting over yourself.
Surfing was observed throughout Polynesia by 18th-century sailors, but Oahu was the bridge between these ancient surfers and modern surfing around the world.
When the first resorts were built on Waikiki in the early 1900s, a group of local “beach boys” began introducing surfing to visitors. One of the pioneers, half-Hawaiian, half-Irishman George Freeth, took Jack London surfing in 1907, which would lead to a story on surfing from the world’s most famous author at the time. Freeth would later move to the mainland, becoming the first official lifeguard in the US, and the first surfer in Southern California.
Another pioneer, native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, emerged as a champion Olympic swimmer, and helped popularize surfing by including the sport in his swimming exhibitions around the world.
Few other sports (if you even thought of surfing as a sport) had such a geographic epicenter as Oahu’s North Shore. Surfing’s “7 mile miracle,” the North Shore is a series of coves, points, beaches, and bays where the world’s most famous surf spots — Waimea, Sunset, Pipeline, Off the Wall — were stacked up almost impossibly one after another.
It’s the site of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, the equivalent of surfing’s World Cup, which was being set up this week and would generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue. It’s where superstars like Kelly Slater, and every brand from Vans to Volcom, Rip Curl to Red Bull, Billabong to Quiksilver (companies whose combined revenue for 2013 would be in the tens of billions) all had houses.
And yet, entering the North Shore for the first time, I couldn’t help but think, where was everybody? Where were all the cars? Besides a single, slow-moving pickup and a pack of scooters near Wahiawā, I hadn’t seen anyone at all since getting off the H2.
After passing a small inlet — a gentle shorebreak foaming through craggy fingers of basalt — and then the sharply notched river valley of Waimea, I had a strong desire to just park somewhere and swim. The sign for Ehukai Beach Park was lit up, and I pulled in, grabbed my surf trunks, and wandered past a stand of ironwood trees down towards the ocean.
The beach sloped off steeply to a sea that was mirror-like, almost dead calm. And yet seemingly right off the shore was a reef causing a small but powerful wave to jack up out of nowhere, barreling in the moonlight. I’ve surfed and explored different beaches in the Americas for about a decade, but had never seen a break like this. I sat for a while in the coarse sand and just watched.
Later, walking back to the car, looking away from the beach for the first time I noticed suddenly: Around the moon was a huge milky halo. Not recognizing the name Ehukai, I didn’t even realize until the next day that this was Pipeline.
The next morning there were little waist-high sets forming clean and glassy off the point at Turtle Bay. The biggest were around chest-high and broke almost a hundred yards. In so many places around the world this would’ve been nearly epic longboarding conditions and a packed surf spot, but by North Shore standards it was virtually flat and nobody else was out except for local Scotty Clelland and I.
More than anything, it felt as if the ocean was being kind, inviting me out there with an easy paddle, allowing me to sit in the deepest part of the break without worrying about a big set driving me onto the reef. It was a calmness that belied the tremendous power almost always found here this time of year.
“The ocean’s at peace,” Michelle Estioko had said when I’d first checked in that morning. She looked down for a second and then said, “Just a week ago there were huge swells here. It was 25 feet, and one of our friends was lost.”
“He was a good friend. It’s heavy,” Scotty told me as we sat in the lineup. “He’s still missing. He must’ve hit his head on the reef, or burst an eardrum and lost all sense of direction because they last saw his feet above the water and he was swimming down. He wasn’t wearing an impact vest. That’s the thing: A vest let’s you reach the surface quickly. In huge swell, sometimes the only way to get to the surface is to climb your leash, and his leash broke.”
The surfer was Kirk Passmore, who went missing at Outside Alligators on November 13th, 2013. It was the same spot that another beloved local surfer, Todd Chesser, had drowned in 1997. Passmore’s death had reignited questions about gear, safety practices, and mobilized the big-wave surfing community, who was having a rescue training / practice day just a couple hundred yards from where we sat at the point. Scotty and I watched them taking turns on jetskis, circling a giant inflatable stand-up paddle board known as a SupSquatch.
“Hey this is a good one,” Scotty yelled. “Paddle hard!”
I wasn’t used to surfing a longboard and sat too far forward, penciling in on the first wave I took off on. My whole rhythm of surfing — formed mostly in closeout beachbreaks where you’re just fighting to paddle out, fighting to catch scraps of rides — was out of sync here. But for all the mellowness of the conditions, Scotty was serious, critiquing my style, pushing me to paddle harder, arch my back more on the takeoff, focus more when I stood up, making damn sure I was catching and riding waves.
After adjusting a bit, I caught my first couple of rides, and then a third that was long enough for me to feel some flow, pumping the board up and down the wave face, and earning a shaka from Scotty when I paddled back out through the lineup.
Scotty had grown up in Jacksonville, but as the son of the East Coast surfing legend and hall-of-famer Bruce Clelland, he spent much of his time traveling to Hawaii and moved here permanently in 2000. He talked about the strong community opposition (for decades the motto had been “Keep the Country, Country”) to land development. At present, Turtle Bay was the area’s lone resort.
As always though, the question came back around to being able to make a living. “Definitely finding a job is the hardest part about living on the North Shore,” Scotty said. As a surf instructor for Turtle Bay, he faced the same conundrum of tourism economies all over the world: Tourism could provide work, but if it led to overdevelopment or overcrowding it would blow out very place you loved. “How can you put a price on this?” Scotty said, circling his arm to indicate the empty bay.
The waves began mushing out as the the tide filled back in, and we waited for a last set. We talked for a bit more about risks and how ultimately there were no guarantees. “People die here every year,” Scotty said. “They hit the reef. They get attacked by sharks, and they drown in big surf. But you could just be out by yourself and have a seizure. Every time you go in the water it’s a risk.”
It was something I’d understood growing up as a kayaker paddling rivers in Southern Appalachia. Being on the water gave you new eyes to see the world, views into place you couldn’t have otherwise, like dropping into a box canyon or launching off the lip of a falls. It let you feel the flow. But as with surfing, sometimes the difference between another good day and the worst day was just a question of a couple inches, a half a second.
The dark side
That night I went to Surfer, a bar associated with Surfer magazine and kind of the de facto meeting spot and performance venue for North Shore surfers and musicians. Six-time Vans Triple Crown winner Sunny Garcia was on a small stage “talking story” — a creole expression for casual conversation — with Jodi Wilmott, long-time communications director for major ocean sport events like the Triple Crown.
Sunny was arrived late, apologizing and joking with the crowd that he’d had to shop for shoes for his grandson. Sunny had recently been invited to participate in this year’s “Eddie,” probably the greatest honor a surfer can receive. He mentioned how much he loved surfing huge Waimea, and was honored and stoked on the invitation.
But still there was a heavy vibe surrounding the evening. The day’s rescue training and the recent death of Kirk Passmore were on people’s minds. Jodi talked about how she was happy to see the next generation of leaders like John John Florence out there training. But while Sunny seemed to appreciate it, he admitted being of the old-school, saying “with the [jet] skis in the water, it gives you a false sense of security,” and that people probably took unnecessary risks because of that.
There was also the recent death of surf legend Buttons Kaluhiokalani, who had died from cancer at the age of 55 just a couple of weeks before Kirk Passmore’s disappearance.
Buttons was famous for his powerful, rail-burying turns, a style which (along with his contemporaries Larry Bertlemann and Mark Liddell) directly inspired Californian Z-boys Jay Adams and Tony Alva to take a radical surf-based approach to skateboarding in the mid-1970s. This style essentially gave birth to pool-riding, lip tricks, airs, and the whole progression of modern skateboarding. Despite being a local hero, despite having influenced countless surfers and skateboarders, however, Buttons had suffered from drug addiction for more than two decades.
And it was this topic — drugs, and the dark side of pro surfing’s “tour” — that kept threading through the conversation. “My years on the tour,” Sunny said, “I did a lot of drugs…I was young and stupid.” Part of it, he explained, was the fact of having so many young kids traveling around, partying together. But there was also a strange dynamic — the tour was “a gnarly place because you have all your friends [there], but at the end of the day they’re also your competitors.”
Sunny was visibly pained when mentioning his longtime friend Andy Irons, who died from a drug overdose in 2010. Along with Kelly Slater, Andy Irons was the best competitive surfer of the last decade, winning three world titles and the Vans Triple Crown four times.
The talk story ended brighter though. Sunny had fought through his years with drugs, as well as imprisonment in 2006 for tax evasion, and had come out the other side appreciative, noting that even going to jail had helped him understand better who he was. And after spend his whole life “trying to get out of there,” he was moving back to his childhood home on the West Side of Oahu, helping coach and bring up young surfers. After decades of competition, he was just “enjoying life now.”
The Aloha is real.
Sunny taking his place as a mentor, a kind of ambassador of Aloha for the next generation, fit into a long lineage of Hawaiian watermen and waterwomen going back to Duke, and in more recent times Eddie Aikau, Gerry Lopez, and others whose connection to the water was so pure and inspiring that they became teachers and guardians for others.
Thus, I felt extremely humbled (and slightly nervous) when, a couple days later, I was to meet Quiksilver’s Ambassador of Aloha, George Kam. George was in his early 50s and had a buoyant, warm demeanor, smiling as if you were one of his long lost cousins.
“Just tell me what you feel like doing today,” I said. “I’m down for whatever.”
“First thing we need to do is get you outfitted,” he said, laughing at my paint-splattered, worn out Hurley trunks. “We can’t have you going out there looking like that.”
He said he thought we’d have the most fun paddling, and after gifting me with new trunks and a rashguard, we drove towards Diamond Head. George told me about the early days of learning to paddle the stand-up boards with surfing legend and innovator of modern tube-riding, Gerry Lopez. In the early days they fell a lot, he explained. It was a totally new way to be on the water. “Gerry told me once, ‘you have to allow yourself the freedom to fail,’” George said.
We parked at a residential building near Outrigger Canoe Club. There was a garage space filled with gear which I dubbed “the treasure chest” — stacks of stand-up paddle boards, paddles, fins. “These are Gerry’s boards,” George smiled. “They have his mana.”
Since arriving in Waikiki I’d been fascinated by this beach — literally, the most epic setup imaginable for learning to be in the water. It was crowded out there, but with dozens of different reefs stretching off the coast, there were plenty of waves to go around.
I wondered how I’d do, never having paddled a stand-up board before, but after just a few wobbly strokes I found a comfortable stance and rhythm and followed George out through the channel. You could see clear to the bottom, the water turquoise over the sand and darker over the knuckles of reef. Here and there fish glittered and slashed through the water. As we got further out I pointed to the swells coming in. “We’re gonna catch some waves,” George said.
I lined up for my first few waves, but either paddled to hard and fell or didn’t commit early enough and couldn’t catch them. I basically didn’t want to look like a kook in front of George, which was making me look, indeed, like a kook.
After a while we met up with George’s brother Kent, who was paddling at the next break over. Kent pointed to a part of the reef I’d been avoiding and told me to line up right over it.
“Ok, here comes a set; this is your wave. Start paddling, but paddle easy, just build up your speed slow and get gliding,” Kent said. I followed exactly what he said and as the wave came I could feel my big board start to plane, carrying me forward down the face. It was a short ride, but paddling back out, the look on their faces was like I’d just caught a huge bomb at Pipe.
Over the next couple hours I caught more waves. With all the fun we were having and the seeming tranquility of the day, at one point George fell on a wave over shallow reef and slashed the back of his shoulder. Still, he never stopped smiling.
On the ride back George talked about the spirit of Aloha, repeating the phrase Aloha aku, aloha mai, malama aku, malama mai. I understood it to mean “love and receive love, care and be cared for.”
“In Hawaii we say that life isn’t happening to you, it’s happening for you,” he said. “It’s easy to have Aloha when things are good, but when something goes wrong? That’s when you really have to give Aloha. It’s not just here when you’re in Hawaii; you have to take it with you wherever you go. ”
George invited me to paddle out with them again, and that day — the last morning of my trip — we paddled across all of Mamala Bay, seemingly accompanied by sea turtles and dolphins. At one point we all just sat on our boards, resting, just taking in the dolphins. They could’ve effortlessly verged and gone around us, but it was almost like they circled around us, curious, interacting in their own way.
I’d explained to George how I’d grown up paddling whitewater rivers in Southern Appalachia. It was impossible not to think about them when I had a paddle in my hand. One spring, a kid in our crew had drowned in our home river, the Chattooga. Somehow almost a decade and a half had gone by. How many of us were still paddling now?
There seemed little I could conclude in concrete terms from my time in Oahu. It all came down to feelings. Being on the water made me feel more alive than anything I’d ever found. It always had. But there was a dark side to it. Water was the truest mirror. There was no faking, no bluff. It reflected exactly what your skills were, your fears, your strengths and weaknesses, how much you were paying attention. And for many of us it became something hallowed, an endless reminder of other days, places, and people that had passed, but that life was still flowing on.
George smiled at me: “You gotta get sand Dave. You gotta dive down and get it off the bottom.”
“Over here,” Kent laughed, pointing down. “I’ve got the place right here.”
I took off my leash and swam over. I wasn’t sure what this was exactly, but the look in Kent’s eyes, in George’s — it was like we were three kids on a playground and this was all there was to the whole world right now. There was no way I could back down.
I started taking deep breaths, long and slow. George had explained how Aloha contained the word for breath. In the days since meeting him I’d tried to give more Aloha to everyone I met. To be fully present in how I spoke and listened. In how I breathed. I could feel it. Aloha was real. You could live it. That’s what I’d tell people when I got back.
Between where my feet fluttered, I could see all the way to the bottom; it looked deeper than I’d ever held my breath for, maybe 25 feet.
Aloha aku, aloha mai. I cupped my hands, dove down, and went for it.