It Ends A The Water’s Edge

“We’re from Minnnn-eh-sOOOHta,” a woman explains. “It’s our third time. We love it here.”

She looks like an experienced visitor: her sunhat and lurid, shoulder-covering mumu speak of one-too-many sunburns splashing across the pale expanses of her skin. She takes half a step towards her acquaintance, a younger Black man in a billowy white t-shirt. “Where are you all from?”

He wears a gold chain and a shiny stud in his ear, and gives the Minnesotan a grin that, I’m convinced, she will recreate in her mind’s eye during her husband’s next business trip.

“I’m from Alabama,” he says in a sun-drenched drawl that sounds at home in this sparkling sunshine.

I step from the grassy park onto golden sand. Chunky grains exfoliate my feet as I pass babies in sunglasses and adorable floaty outfits, palid midwesterners wrestling their girth in and out of the ocean and leggy teenagers posing for profile pics. A nearby chain resort disgorges tourists onto the coarse sand, but the green sea turtles and the monk seals have got it figured out: they simply haul themselves up to the tideline, and a couple of human lifeguards clear us out to make way for their basking.

I play my own role in this stereotypical Hawaiian vacation scene: a sunburned desk jockey picking my way to the water’s edge with a battered rental surfboard under my arm. After spending a winter attempting to not drown under mountains of freezing grey seawater near Seattle, it almost feels wrong to step into this clear, glittering, bath-warm ocean. I feel naked without seven millimetres of neoprene to shield me. I wade out a little way, clamber onto the board and begin pulling at the water. Knobbles of coral slide beneath me, jet black flashes of urchins waggling their spines and fantasizing about impaling an appendage.

The resort sits atop a shallow point looking directly at the waves. As I near the break, a crescent of reef beyond the end of the point, there are more midwesterners spilling out of their adirondack chairs less than 30 meters away. If I pay attention I can hear the clinks of their mai tai glasses, but I’m fixated on the figures scratching over the sets up ahead, silhouetted against the early afternoon sunshine.

The waves are breaking at the tip of the reef. It’s possible for two surfers to split one wave between them, provided that one takes the longer, speedier right-hander and the other takes on the shorter, shallower and more powerful left-hander. The waves are about head-high, which isn’t particularly large or scary (especially by Hawaiian standards) but they do have enough power to keep the learners away and create some reasonably memorable rides.

A crew of locals are dominating the lineup: five gigantic men and one slender woman, who sits at the head of the pack. Her black hair is tied back into a pragmatic bun, and a large tribal tattoo snakes down her left leg. She is the best surfer out here, possibly one of the best surfers I’ve ever seen. She rides waves with an effortlessly smooth power, with none of the gimmicky snaps or airs popular among pros or Aussie teenagers. She pops to her feet, drops down the face and leans into her bottom turn with a drop-kneed grace, aims her board up at the crest and then, with sudden violence, blows half of the wave back out to sea with a powerful top turn. She takes the best wave of every set with a self-confidence that demands fealty. The crowd parts before her, and then she blows our minds all the way down the reef — left, right, she doesn’t seem to have a preference — before paddling back to the top of the pack, bantering with her companions (they might be siblings, cousins, uncles or just friends) in Hawaiian pidgin.

Her companions may as well be riding toothpicks: tiny shortboards curved like talons to handle steep drops in serious waves. They struggle to float under their riders’ enormous bodies. When sitting up on them between waves, several of the men sink up to their nipples. But even they surf with a kind of lumbering grace, standing tall and styling down the line, and effortlessly floating through tricky sections.  

I grew up in a smallish town about three hours’ drive from the New South Wales coast, which meant that I did my surfing whenever my family took a weekend break or a summer holiday to the coast. A perennial outsider with no “home” break, I always sat at the bottom of the food chain in Australia’s heavily patriarchal surf culture. With no local clout and no exceptional talent to set me apart from the pack, I learned to be a groveller. While everyone fought over bigger sets, I sought the inside sandbanks where small-but-shapely waves might be hiding. I watched other surfers to learn who was likely to fall or miss their wave, and positioned myself to pounce on the scraps. A successful groveller is invisible, an alien face getting his fix without getting in the way.

With the Hawaiians dominating the main peak, I sniff out a spot a little further down the reef, which makes decent right-handers out of occasional swells coming in at a slightly different angle to the Hawaiians’ spot. The waves aren’t as picture-perfect over here, but I do have them to myself and for a groveller like me, quantity trumps quality. So I’m sitting in my little secret spot, picking waves and watching coral sliding beneath the rental board as I guide it down the line. In between sets I squint at the horizon, taking visits from sea turtles and eavesdropping on the Hawaiians, understanding nothing.

The turtles are bloody everywhere

It’s the first time I’ve heard the language spoken — a creole that mainly mixes Hawaiian and English. I’m sure I’ve seen people speaking it, glimpses of patchy lawn backyards among hordes of barefoot children and barbecuing uncles, or service job smoke breaks in some resort parking lot. But on land it is a marginal language, reserved for home and friends and kitchens and road crews, a working class language for working class people, folks whose ancestors were colonized and then colonized again. 

When King Kamehameha died in 1819, two of his wives — Keopuolani and a Maui chiefess named Ka’ahumanu — used the weakness of his successor to abolish the taboos governing Hawaiian life. Known as kapu, these taboos prevented women from eating with men, or from eating a wide array of foods (including banana and pork) used in sacrificial rituals. At a feast, the queens induced the new king, Ka’ahumanu’s son Liholiho, to sit at a table with the women and begin eating. Ka’ahumanu reportedly described the occasion to a Christian preacher in 1826 like this: 

“After the guests were seated, and had begun to eat, the king took two or three turns around each table, as if to see what passed at each; and then suddenly, and without any previous warning to any but those in the secret, seated himself in a vacant chair at the women’s table and began to eat voraciously, but was evidently much perturbed. The guests, astonished at this act, clapped their hands, and cried out, ‘Ai noa! — the eating taboo is broken.”

With the taboos broken and no apparent consequences issuing from the heavens, the traditional structures of Hawaiian life collapsed quite suddenly. An extraordinary period of taboo-breaking followed, known to history as the ‘Ai Noa. Temples were vandalized, women and men ate freely together and some of the more salacious correspondents report scenes of sexual license and liberation. The move solidified the political power of the late Kamehameha’s family over local religious officials, but it had two more enduring effects: it broke the power of the kapu and freed women from onerous taboos governing their lives; and it opened the door to protestant Christianity, which New England missionaries began spreading in the years following ‘Ai Noa. 

Christianity still holds an important place in Hawaiian society but, as with the rest of the U.S., most of the islands now worship at the secular altar of the dollar. It comes in the pockets of mainlanders streaming in from the sky, where it gets us a piece of paradise, a grin and an aloha, a mai tai and a shaka. I could live here, we think. Why don’t I just move here? 

Out in the water, however, the only currency that matters is how local you are. Surfing skill can compensate for non-localness, but only in massive quantities. The best a mediocre haole (variously claimed to mean “without breath” or “those who don’t know their ancestors”) like me can hope for is to stay out of the way, accept the waves that come to me and give enough respect to receive it in return. The rules are clear, even though they aren’t written down anywhere. It’s just something you know by instinct.

So that’s why I can immediately feel the tension when another white guy paddles out, this one on a flashy new longboard, and makes a beeline toward the head of the pack. He’s about my age, tall, with sun-bleached hair and the beard of an office worker easing into the work-from-home lifestyle. A set rolls in as he paddles up the reef and, like everyone else, he watches the Hawaiian woman carving her art across the taut face of the biggest wave. She pulls off the back of a shorter ride and paddles back to her place beyond the men. And the blonde guy? He follows her. Right to the top of the pack.

At first I’m embarrassed for him — he must be a beginner, unattuned to the subtle hierarchies that govern the lineup. But then a set comes. He turns and takes one. He’s not a great surfer, but he’s not a beginner either. He knows enough to know better.

So now the Hawaiians’ banter has stopped. They’re watching blondie paddle back to the top of the lineup, eyes fixed on the horizon. He paddles past the crew of stink-eyes — apparently oblivious — and sits beside the woman, a little further out than her. The woman turns back to look at the men, an eyebrow arched. Who does this guy think he is?

If there’s a golden rule in surfing, it is this: you do not mess with the locals. By “mess with,” I mean you don’t drop in on their waves. You don’t even compete with them for waves. You don’t position yourself in a way that gives you priority on the next wave. You don’t follow them around the lineup. You do your own thing — so long as your own thing doesn’t interfere with their own thing.

And if there’s a golden golden golden rule of surfing, it’s this: you absolutely do not mess with Hawaiian locals. Especially if you’re a mainlander haole flaunting an expensive new longboard.

It’s like this bloke has brought the implicit, invisible hierarchies of land society into the ocean, where it doesn’t belong. The lineup ain’t no meritocracy. You’ve got to have respect to get respect, and respect is something you build up iotas at a time, over years, with no shortcuts or get-respect-quick schemes. Back in Australia, I’ve seen punches thrown, boards broken and windshields waxed for transgressions. And this is the first time I’ve seen someone cross the line on Hawaiian turf. I’m like a witness to a car crash: morbidly fascinated. The locals’ bemusement is turning to dangerous annoyance. I’m careful to avoid being caught staring, but it’s getting to the point where I’m letting waves go just so I don’t miss the fireworks that are now almost surely coming. 

Blondie goes for another wave, stands up, flubs a turn and falls in the midst of the local crew. He surfaces to find himself surrounded by enormous Hawaiian men who are eyeing him with an incurable case of stink-eye. Blondie flounders back to his board, a small hint of fear in his eyes now — is that confusion, or does he know? — and starts stroking toward the horizon.

And then, at last, one of the Hawaiians speaks. It’s the first time I’ve heard any of them say anything in American English. He’s a giant, sinking his tiny board, titanic arms folded across his tattooed chest. He wears his hair in a pair of cornrows curving over his head. In a hoarse whisper that somehow carries across the entire lineup, he mutters, “Go back to Oahu.”

The Kauaian interior

That’s all? That’s all. We all hear it, local and tourist alike. And blondie sure as shit hears it too — he points his board back to the packed resort beach where, above and behind the flabby midwesterners in the adirondacks, palm trees are leaning with the tradewinds. Heavy clouds leer up above the mountains of inner Kauai, dangling curtains of rain, but it doesn’t take tourists long to learn that the wet weather almost never reaches this southern shore. 

Silence reigns across the water, which is turning to a metallic grey sheen as the clouds reach for the sun. Then, just before blondie begins to stroke out of earshot, grim faces at the head of the pack collapse into broad grins, tears of laughter. The howls and cackles only last a few minutes, but I imagine they will follow the blondie around in his head for a very long time. 

If you enjoyed this one, you might enjoy the book I have coming out soon about a cycling journey from Canada to El Salvador. Follow this here link to get your hands on a free advance chapter, in which I run afoul of the US Border Patrol.

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