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Hawaii's Watermen: Big Wave Masters

Hamoa Beach near Hana, Maui, Hawaii Ed Freeman/Getty Images


Azure skies, beautiful women wearing bikini nothings, kids making sand castles, families sitting on blankets -- it’s another perfect day in what passes for winter on Oahu. Up on the North Shore the pros are deep into the third week of the Triple Crown of Surfing, the premier competition in the sport, with three big-wave events that stretch across six weeks in November and December.

At the moment, the first event, the Reef Hawaiian Pro, faces one little problem: Mother Nature didn’t get the Triple Crown memo and hasn’t provided any surf, at least not the kind of waves that would generate wild rides at Haleiwa Ali’i Beach Park. It’s the Monday before Thanksgiving and all action is off until Friday, at least, when the weather prophets huddled over their computer monitors predict that waves will return.

So the surfers run errands, take photo-ops, or sit in motel rooms and under tiki huts, polishing their boards and muttering, forced to that singular virtue that anyone who has ever relied on the ocean must learn: patience. Even in the 21st century, that hasn’t changed.

Modern man has a lot of control over the world, but commanding the ocean to produce killer surf is still out of his reach.

On beaches around the Hawaiian Islands, a few men are chuckling over the idea that you can schedule a surfing competition on a certain day, or week, and expect the ocean to play along. These men spent their lives on the ocean: earning their livelihoods from it, studying its moods and habits, facing death at its hands when they made a mistake or just had a bad day.

In the old days, they did whatever they could to stay close to the water -- fishing, abalone diving, salvage, dock work. When people began to see the beach as recreation, those men became their protectors, looking out from lifeguard towers.

Their trials and triumphs have taught them patience and respect, even love for a force that will never love them back. These are the “Watermen,” who boast a total mastery of all oceanic endeavors; who can fish, dive, surf, windsurf, kayak, bodysurf, interpret complex weather data, and save the odd drowning man.

“Waterman” is an old word, and in recent years has been watered down, even as the real watermen are vanishing. Yet the inflation of the term reveals its aura. The Polynesians who settled the Pacific Island chains on catamarans were the greatest watermen of all, and their spiritual descendants have grown up on the same beaches: men like Duke Kahanamoku, Eddie Aikau, Buffalo Keaulana, Flippy Hoffmann, and Buzzy Trent. In the modern world, real watermen have become a vanishing breed.


Mark Cunningham: The Unassuming Pioneer

nullNeil DaCosta/Red Bulletin Magazine

A long pale form glides in among the surfboards just out past the break. A wave rises and the shape darts out onto the crest. An arm extends in front of the shape, and as the wave curls the figure shoots along the lip, more fish than man, faster than you’ve ever seen someone on a wave before, propelled all the way to the shore. The manphibian is Mark Cunningham, doing what he’s been doing for over half a century.

Cunningham is “the missing link between Homo sapiens and cetaceans,” is how surf legend Rory Russell put it. “If Darwin were alive today, Mark would have blown his mind and sent him back to the drawing board.”

On shore, Cunningham is less daunting, although still striking at somewhere around 6’4”. He’s 57, but sun and sea have creased his features toward 60, even if he has the trim physique of an athlete decades younger. From a remove, Cunningham could be an old beach dog from anywhere in the world. But he’s on the sand at Ehukai Beach Park, home to the single most famous break in surfing history -- Pipeline, the source of all those images of surfers shooting through a perfect barrel, and the beach where he served as a lifeguard for 29 years.

While Cunningham is welcoming, it’s not easy to have a conversation with him: If he stands still for more than 30 seconds, people gather around. Former Triple Crown winner Rob Machado stops by to say hi; Kelly Slater, the 11-time ASP world champion, waves from the surf.

Cunningham grew up in the Honolulu suburbs and learned how to swim in the pool at Waikiki. After that, he was always in the water. As he talks, a voice cuts in, this from another man with the sun-worn features of an Ehukai lifer. Seeing a photographer shooting Cunningham has set “Opie” off.

“The best picture ever taken of this guy,” he says, “is on this 20-foot wave, free fall from the top like this…”

Opie sticks out his arms.

“…through the air, hits the bottom, and he snakes through and comes out. ’73 or ’74. I’ve got the picture right here.”

Opie taps his forehead. The image is a million miles from today’s North Shore.

Cunningham’s greatest hits took place in the days before iPhones, video cameras, and the hungry crowds. In those days, the locals had the breaks to themselves, and getting paid to surf wasn’t even a wet dream. Bodysurfing is only part of his story: He has saved hundreds of lives in these waters over the years, and kept the peace on an unruly stretch of shore.

“It was on the beach at Makapuu that I had the revelation,” Cunningham says. “It was twilight, I’d spent a beautiful day in the water, I was 18, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. You know, I went to a pretty fancy prep school in Oahu. My classmates became doctors, congressmen, U.S. ambassadors. I became a lifeguard and had to survive on a lifeguard pension. But I’ve been able to spend my life doing the one thing that made me happiest.”


Dave Wassel: The Bull Who Tamed Jaws

nullNeil DaCosta/Red Bulletin Magazine

A lineup of surfers paddles to reach the top of the wave. The wave is enormous, around the height of a five-story building. Surfer arms dig through water at cartoon speeds but they’re still moving backwards. A second later only two are left, but one falls out just as he starts to stand.

The last surfer stands and takes off, straight down. Twice the board loses contact with the wave and he free falls. There are no tricks on this wave, no carving lines, no turns; the trick is survival, and he powers through to the end to disappear in an avalanche of spray several stories tall.

That wave at Pe’ahi, aka Jaws, on the north shore of Maui, won Dave Wassel the 2012 Billabong Monster Paddle Award. That he won on that wave is fitting. The 40-year-old can do pretty much anything on a surfboard, and his elevator drop at Jaws embodies his sheer physical power. What he lacks in height he makes up for in breadth -- bull neck, broad shoulders, heavy arms. He looks like a power lifter.

“Surfing has changed,” Wassel says. “In the old days, you were a draft dodger, beach bum, pot head if you were a surfer. These days, there’s no way you can make a six-, seven-figure contract just going out to the beach. It’s a different world.”

The age of the spiritual surfer was superseded in the late 1970s when hard-charging guys from South Africa and Australia showed up on the North Shore: They didn’t want to meld with the wave, they wanted to attack it. At the same time, the sport was becoming a gleam in advertisers’ eyes, and a new professionalism arose: For the first time in history, you could make a living surfing.

Born and raised in Kailua, Oahu, Wassel was a sponsored surfer through his 20s but also worked as a Honolulu lifeguard and valet for the Hard Rock Café. The day he got the lifeguard job at Waimea Bay he got a call. “I saw the L.A. area code and I thought, ‘Well, this is it. No one wants to sponsor you when you’re over 30.’ I picked up the phone and said, ‘I just got this job.’ ”

They asked him if he could still surf, and then offered to keep him on. Wassel works as a fill-in lifeguard so that he’s free to chase big swells across the globe. He is also a “godfather” at the Volcom surf house in Ehukai, right over Pipeline, keeping the wild young ones there in line. In the past few years, his blunt, sardonic insights have brought him attention, and work, as a surfing commentator. Younger than Cunningham, he represents a different era in surfing.

“When I’m in town, I work five days a week,” he says. “It was instilled in me as a young child that you will always have a job. Surfing was never even an idea.” As for the brotherhood of watermen, Wassel is cautious.

“Waterman is the most overused word in the language. It’s harder to be one now. The only ones who can call you that are your peers. It’s the respect that those guys give you.”

The ride that won Wassel his title ended when the behemoth finally broke and sucked him deep underwater. It was the first time he’d voyaged out to Jaws since a horrific wipeout eight years earlier. This time, he surfaced quickly and swam to a nearby boat, where he was greeted with cheers and an offer of water. “How about a beer?” he asked.


Kai Lenny: The Most Promising Young Surfer of His Generation

nullNeil DaCosta/Red Bulletin Magazine

The photo on Kai Lenny’s Facebook wall says it all: He’s holding a painted wooden plaque that reads, “JAWS IS WAITING.” A smile splits his tanned face. He’s got his invite (albeit as an alternate) to the one-day Red Bull Jaws Invitational, a competition on one of the scariest waves in the world. For months, Lenny has been dreaming about this moment, making up possible lists of those who could get invited to the contest ahead of him. His father, Martin Lenny, warned him not to get too disappointed if he wasn’t included.

“I told him that ‘there are a lot of guys ahead of you.’ Older guys. More experienced,” he says. “You can’t take it too hard.”

The 20-year-old isn’t even a professional big-wave surfer. His career focus so far has been the recently revived sport of Stand Up Paddling, in which he’s been world champion twice, and windsurfing. But Lenny has always dreamed of the monster reef at Pe’ahi, which in Hawaiian means “wave.” Where other kids play touch football in their backyards, Kai and his brother Ridge played Jaws. They’d take turns towing a skateboard hooked by a bungee to a bicycle through the streets, and Kai, Ridge remembers, always wanted to go faster.

Their home was a few blocks away from a beach cove called Sugar Cove where the brothers played in the water while their grandmother watched through her deck windows. Growing up on Maui’s north shore, Lenny was almost instinctively drawn to the men who had redefined the surfing tradition.

“I was lucky enough to meet guys like [Hawaiian surf royalty] Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton at an early age,” says Lenny, who by pure coincidence has the middle name “Waterman,” from his maternal grandmother. “And they shared their knowledge with me. Listening to them, watching the way they handled themselves, taught me more than I could have ever learned on my own. With my middle name, people get the wrong idea and think my parents pushed me into this.”

To the contrary, actually. When Lenny was younger, Martin and Paula worried that their son was spending all his time around older surfers, old enough to be his father, or grandfather.

“Maybe you should hang out more with kids your own age,” Martin told him.

“I don’t want to,” Kai replied. “They want to play video games. I don’t like video games.”

Lenny laughs at his father’s story. “I’m always happy when I’m out there. It’s hard to think of it as work.”

Most people would: Lenny is out paddleboarding most mornings as soon as the sun rises. Often, Kalama, who revived the sport with Hamilton, goes out with him. “He’ll just give me notes and talk about how to change it up,” Lenny says. “There’s no agenda, just a free-flowing conversation.”

Most nights he’s in bed by 9:30, a sacrifice few his age would make.

“There’s so much to learn. I feel like I’m only just starting. This tradition goes back for a long time. I would never call myself a waterman. That’s a title that only real watermen, the uncles, can give you. I just know this is what makes me happy.”


Brian Keaulana: Hollywood Stuntman and Lifeguard Innovator

nullNeil DaCosta/Red Bulletin Magazine

In 1987, at the first Eddie Aikau Invitational big-wave surf event at Waimea Bay, Brian Keaulana found himself in trouble. He’d wiped out, lost his board, and was trapped in the impact zone. One set after another pummeled him toward death.

Then he heard a motor, and a friend cruised up on a Jet Ski. “Brian, are you okay?” The other man couldn’t do anything: The ski only seated one, and had to speed away before the next big wave.

“I was struggling, but I also had this moment of insight,” Keaulana says. “This guy can come out here into the danger zone and get clear again.”

He finally managed to escape, and the insight stayed with him. A few weeks later, he cleaned out his bank account and bought a Jet Ski of his own. Back at home, he modified a bodyboard to make it more like a rescue sled and harnessed it to the ski. He brought his ski to another big-wave competition at Waimea. After a nasty set left seven surfers trapped on an outer reef, Keaulana, with the help of Darrick Doerner, managed to drag them back to shore.

“It was pretty much history after that,” Keaulana says. “A rescue that used to take three hours, if you could even do it, took 30 seconds.”

At the time of his near-death epiphany, Keaulana was already surfing royalty. His older brother Rusty was a champion longboarder, and his father Buffalo was perhaps the most famous waterman of his generation.

“I remember sitting out here with my dad on a big day. He said, ‘Look, see those sea turtles there? You need to paddle past them. The turtles hang out at the edge of the impact zone,’ ” Keaulana says. “He told me that when the water went from clear to murky, that meant a swell was coming; the murkiness showed the energy of the swell. That’s how I got my education.”

Keaulana is sitting on a low stone wall at the back of the town beach in Makaha, the spiritual locus of Hawaiian surfing. Under palm trees, Keaulana’s extended family clusters around picnic tables. It’s the after-party for a traditional Hawaiian first-birthday luau. There was so much chicken, roast pig, and poi yesterday that they’re still finishing it off.

Along with being a surfing mecca, Makaha is also a center of native Hawaiian culture on Oahu. As missionaries and business interests took control of the island, native Hawaiians found themselves pushed to the dry, western side of the island to scrape out livelihoods. In the 21st century, Makaha remains troubled; a place of teen pregnancies and diabetes blight. For tourists it’s a danger zone where leaving stuff in your car is an invitation to broken windows. Surfers who don’t show proper deference might find a wrecking crew awaiting them on shore. Yet it also produces some of the best surfers on the island. Unfortunately, many of them never get out.

The 51-year-old’s early stunt work enabled him to fashion a career working on films from Waterworld to Memoirs of a Geisha, and more recently on the new Hawaii Five-O. (He also played himself on Baywatch Hawaii.)

“In professional surfing,” Keaulana says, “I watched all these guys and I thought, ‘You have only this small window. How are you going to capitalize on it?’ I thought, ‘I’m a professional surfer now, but I’m going to market myself and promote myself as a waterman, as just who I am.’ ”


Darrick Doerner: The Student of a Legend Becomes One Himself

nullNeil DaCosta/Red Bulletin Magazine

A few weeks before Darrick Doerner graduated from high school, he put in his lifeguard application on Oahu and ended up serving his apprenticeship at Waimea Bay under a man named Eddie Aikau.

Thirty-five years after his death, Aikau’s legend endures. The first lifeguard hired to work on the North Shore, Aikau was the consummate waterman: Not one person was lost at Waimea while he worked there.

Aikau was lost at sea when the Hokule’a, a replica Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe, capsized in a storm. He begged the captain to let him help and started paddling his surfboard the 12 miles to the island of Molokai and was never seen again. The phrase “Eddie would go” defines ultimate bravery to this day.

“Eddie only taught certain people who wanted to learn,” says Doerner. “He taught me all of the elements of being aware of your scene assessments,” he says. “There was no technology -- it was all about experiencing the moment, how the surf was changing.”

Small and slender, Doerner, 55, is far from the image of star surfer. Yet Doerner is one of the greatest big-wave surfers of all time, a pioneer, along with Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox, of the Jet Ski-powered tow-in surfing that opened up new frontiers.

He worked as a lifeguard at Waimea Bay for 17 years, making his share of rescues before a tragedy he witnessed took its toll. “I pulled a kid out of the riverbed down there,” he says. “The worst thing you can see is a dead child.”

He worked construction jobs after leaving the tower and now runs DD SEA Adventures, a surf school.

Had his rise as a big-wave charger happened now, his life might have taken a different turn. “Now it’s a job,” he says. “Guys are out there trying to become famous overnight. It takes years of training to become a master waterman. We did it because we loved doing it. There were no promotions involved. Now you have people paddling out and if they lose their board, they can’t swim in.”



Check out the February 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands January 15) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.


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