Thursday, February 25, 2016


As recently as a month ago, pretty much everything I knew about surfing was based on movies and music. And by that I mean Kate Bosworth's Blue Crush, Fast Times At Ridgemont High and various songs by The Beach Boys were my bibles on the subject. As much as I'm inclined to believe everything Jeff Spicoli ever uttered (aren't we all? I mean "Surfing's not a sport, it's a way of life!" seems right to me) and as crazy as I am about "Good Vibrations" and "Surfin' U.S.A." in no way did I consider myself even remotely knowledgeable about this sport that might just be (as Spicoli argued) a way of life for most who get out there each morning and ride waves until it's time to go to work. Or just all day and not go to work at all even.

So when I started scheduling activities for my trip to Hawaii, I knew I had to move the needle on my surfing knowledge, even if it was just a little. After all, it was Hawaiians who first invented surfing. Until Captain James Cook's crew brought back accounts of the ancient Hawaiians hanging ten around the islands on oval pieces of wood, nobody else on Earth could conceive of standing on a wooden board on a wave. From the beginning of recorded history to the late 1700s, the ocean was a violent destructive force that was only entered for some useful purpose like gathering food or exploring. And here were the Hawaiians getting into the sea for fun! How strange.

Our Hawaii trip earlier this month started on Oahu, which gave us the perfect opportunity to see surfing on some of the sport's signature beaches. Not wanting to waste any time getting to it, on our first full day of vacation we packed up our rental Toyota Corolla (very cool, I know) and headed north out of Honolulu for the island's North Shore. A 45 minute or so drive through the valley between the two mountain ranges that make up the island and a quick right at the town of Haleiwa had us on our way to surfing Mecca: Waimea Bay Beach, Banzai Pipeline and Sunset Beach.

Driving north on H2 towards the North Shore. Angry surf in the distance.
Now in our first half day or so in state, we'd seen surfing on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu on the island's leeward side where the waves are pretty tame by Hawaiian standards. But the North Shore is the place to be to surf and to watch surfing. These are the same beaches that host the most famous surfing competitions like the Quicksilver Big Wave and the Duke Kahanamoku Invitationals and that boast 30 to 40 foot high waves in the wintertime, which is exactly the time of year we were in Oahu. If you can't really conceive of a 30 to 40 high wave and what kind of power that might contain, think of a wall of water the height of a three or four story building crashing over you and imagine what that might feel like. And remember Mother Nature often takes no prisoners.

Driving out of Honolulu, the ride to the North Shore takes you down the two-lane Interstate H2 road. Yep you read that right, two-lane interstate on an island that is part of only one state. H2 runs right between the mountains to the east and west and as soon as we cleared the top of the saddle between the ranges we saw something we hadn't seen at Waikiki: angry white foam, which to us meant bigger waves than the puny swells we'd seen the day before. It looked like our dreams of surfing nirvana were going to come true.

First stop: Waimea Bay Beach Park, a sheltered inlet on the North Shore about five miles outside Haleiwa, a beach with historically hellacious waves that nobody would even lifeguard at until legendary surfer Eddie Aikau (inspiration for the Quicksilver Invitational) dared to volunteer for in the late 1960s. The tiny bay is nothing more than a notch in the North Shore's rocky coast, a sandy beach with significant rocks above and below the ocean on either side, leaving precious room for error for any surfer tempted to leave the smallish beach area.

Waimea Bay Beach and the painted ocean.
The scene at Waimea Bay is gorgeous. It's a perfect picturesque sandy beach with surf breaking from the deep blue and pale green ocean. The sky was powder blue and dotted with clouds the day we were there and in the waves about 30 yards off shore were 15 or so surfers bobbing in the ocean on their boards hoping to catch a big one. It was a picture out of a movie or a postcard. The only problem for us was the waves were not the size of three or four story buildings like we'd hoped. They topped out at maybe six or eight feet maximum and only a few featured the kind of tunnels of water you see surfers riding in movies and GoPro promotional videos.

Having said that and despite what we saw as relatively small waves, the folks out there in the ocean trying to catch them certainly didn't make this surfing thing look easy. There were far more wipeouts than successful runs and plenty of the dudes out there seemed to chicken out when what to us looked like a moderately big wave came along. Maybe the scene from the shore was deceiving and this was really a vicious ocean like the breaking surf seemed to suggest on the drive to the beach.

We lingered at Waimea Bay for about 30 minutes or so and despite the picture book setting, we had to move on. I mean if we're not going to see killer waves at Waimea, might as well try the Pipeline or Sunset Beach. After all, those two spots are facing the Pacific Ocean directly with no shelter. Surely there had to be something better there. 

Relatively speaking, there was. The biggest waves we saw on Oahu were found at Banzai, where far fewer surfers were daring to be dangerous in the water. By the time we got to Sunset Beach, there was nobody left, just the ocean lapping the steep sloping beach and washing away the footprints of hopeful travelers like us. No 40 foot waves. Not even any ten footers. Nothing. The danger of pinning all your hopes for an experience like this on one day is that you might come home disappointed with it all. We certainly did that first day.

On the second day, it was our turn in the water.

I'm 47 years old, and before about six months ago, I had never contemplated getting on a surfboard in my life. But travel is supposed to broaden horizons, at least that's the way I see it, and the past few years I've tried not to back away from any reasonable challenge. So setting foot in Hawaii and not trying to stand up on a wave was just quite simply not an option.

Before arriving in Hawaii, we had every intention of taking a surfing lesson at Waikiki Beach in the morning one day. We figured a little sleep in at our hotel, maybe a malasada or two for breakfast and then a lazy walk down to the ocean for a couple of hours lesson. But somehow in selecting a place to introduce us to the sport, we managed to pick a place in Waianae, which is about an hour up the west coast of the island. By the time we realized our mistake, we already had our hearts set on West Oahu SUP and rather than changing our minds, we decided to get up a little earlier, fight some potential rush hour traffic and go with our first choice.

Good instinct. The beach at Waianae was quiet and deserted but just as spectacular as Waikiki. There were maybe ten or so surfers in the water and nobody (and I really mean nobody) on the beach at all. Perfect conditions to ride a board for the first time. All the other surfers were further out than we would go so there was nobody to interfere with us (or more accurately we wouldn't interfere with them I guess). 

Our instructor for our morning lesson was Alika, a native Hawaiian and descendant of King Kamehameha III who had been surfing since he was three years old. His dad taught him, which I think is awesome, even pulling him out of school as a kid on days when conditions were too perfect to pass up, which I'm sure the Hawaiian public school system didn't think was so awesome. We had Alika to ourselves for two hours (we booked a semi-private lesson to ensure we got some personal attention) and his mission in those couple of hours was to turn us from landlubbing haoles into people who could credibly stand up on what seemed the most enormous surfboard in the world.

Alika taking us out to catch some waves.
The primary reason we chose West Oahu SUP as our surf shop of choice was that they seemed to emphasize time in the water over lengthy safety instructions and simulations on land. And we really just wanted to get in the water as quickly as possible. For some, I suppose, the safety briefing may have been too brief. But since we are here in one piece after going through our time in the ocean, it was clearly effective. We received instructions on how to stand up (seemed super easy on land); how to fall (as flat as possible because of the rocks! wait, rocks??); how to get the board in the water; and where to avoid surfing. After that, we were being dragged out on our boards by Alika to a good spot to catch some tasty waves.

Surfing is both easier and harder than it looks and some of the parts that look difficult are actually pretty simple and vice versa. If you get it right the first time that is. One of the more straightforward maneuvers is actually standing up on the board, although getting your feet in the right spot is kind of tricky and certainly way more difficult than it was in the safety orientation session. The beginner boards we used are absolutely immense and they float and keep their balance pretty well. Not saying it's a piece of cake or anything, but it's easier than I imagined.

The more difficult part of the whole experience was fighting the sea and the extra large boards didn't help this at all. Pushing a 15 foot long by 4 foot wide piece of floating stuff into the tide is not easy, especially when it's strapped to your ankle with a surf leash. As soon as it enters the water, the board acts like a sail and catches every wave pretty easily. It's a struggle to get it to the point where you can flip it onto the sea and start paddling out. 

And here it doesn't get any easier. Paddling into position looks deceptively leisurely. It ain't. I like to think I'm a pretty strong guy sometimes but I clearly don't use the muscles that enable me to paddle a surfboard into position to start surfing. Not at all. I thought two hours of surfing would go by pretty quickly. But about at minute 90 or so, I was ready for someone to tug me into place to start my runs rather than paddle myself out.

The after photo: me and Alika giving the shaka sign for a successful run.
So after all that "it's not so hard" talk, I know you are expecting some tales of what an expert surfer I am now. Well, get ready for some disappointment. If I have a strength in my surfing game, it's riding the board on my knees or feet and knees without falling off. Like, I'm really good at that. But standing? Not so much. The footwork that seemed so easy on the beach is difficult on the water. Despite the fact that I knew I kept placing my feet too close together when getting up on the board, I couldn't correct it more than once. Blame it on the rocks about 18 inches below the surface of the water if you must. And if you do, you'd be pretty accurate.

But once was enough for me. Despite being too cautious most of the time and getting propelled off the front of my board by one all too strong wave, I actually surfed, meaning I stood up on a board in some super cool surfing pose, and rode a wave. The experience was so incredibly fantastic. It was without a doubt the best thing we did in Hawaii and we did some pretty amazing things on the days we weren't surfing. I surfed! Are you kidding me? 

I will say that the actual experience of riding a wave requires so much concentration that it's very difficult to enjoy it in the moment. But when you are done with your run or get back out to catch the next wave, the sense of accomplishment is tremendous. I know I'll never be a good surfer or even a novice surfer but dammit, I surfed. Nobody can take that away from me. Even if it was on two to three foot high waves. It's absolutely one of the best things I've done in my life.

I also have to say that surfing hurts. I imagine if I did this regularly that I would be in some kind of amazing shape. But for the first time, it really hurts. I felt it for sure in my seldom used paddling muscles, but I also managed a scraped right knee and elbow (despite wearing a long sleeved shirt) and the bottom of my ribcage was sore for days. Call me a whiner if you must but lying on a surfboard with the waves pushing up into your chest isn't similar to anything else I encounter in my regular everyday existence. The ribs part hurt the most.

The statue of Duke Kahanamoku on Waikiki Beach. Perhaps the most famous Hawaiian surfer ever.
After spending two hours in Waianae, I am fairly sure we could have rented a couple of boards on Waikiki Beach and faked our way through things with maybe a little help from a book or a passing surfer enough to do some of what we did in the sea with Alika. But the experience of getting taught how to surf with a native Hawaiian who lives this stuff was so much richer than just learning how to stand on a surfboard. So I wouldn't have done my first surfing experience any other way.

Admittedly, the best part of our lesson was standing on a surfboard and riding a wave to shore, but the knowledge of Hawaii and being Hawaiian that we got from spending a couple of hours with Alika was invaluable, and I'm not just talking about the plate lunch recommendation we got for our trip back to Honolulu. There's something about being Hawaiian that is different from the rest of the United States. That may seem like an obvious statement given the eight plus hour flight we took from Dallas to get there. But we got being Hawaiian out of talking to Alika while waiting to make our next run. And that was almost as good as standing up and riding a board to shore. And we wouldn't have got that from renting boards in Waikiki.

There's one other thing we wouldn't have got from renting boards on our own: the shaka sign. I may be presumptuous here but I feel I can credibly use the shaka sign, a hand gesture where the middle three fingers are folded to the palm leaving just the thumb and pinkie displayed, after my surfing experience. You might notice I'm using it in both pictures of me on this post. The sign is also known as "hang loose" but in Hawaii it's used to convey the aloha spirit. I feel we got that from our two hours with Alika, who also explained the origin and meaning of the sign to us and made us feel a little less like the haoles we surely are. 

Best thing we did in Hawaii, without a doubt. So glad we did this.

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