He‘e Nalu / Surﬁng
Brian Lopaka Keaulana
Mākaha Beach is on the leeward coast of O‘ahu, just beyond the northernmost reach of urban sprawl. Over time, storms have blown away most of the shoreline trees, leaving the broad arc of sand shadeless and open to the cobalt sea.
The water is cool and clean at Mākaha, irresistible for leeward youngsters on summer vacation. Children splash and swim in the shorebreak all day long, and their parents picnic and relax on the beach, grateful for an ocean that never tires of playing with their keiki.
In winter the scene changes. Great Paciﬁc storms send ocean swells pulsing to O‘ahu. Waves wrap around the North Shore and build into mountainous surf as they trip up on reefs and rocky points. The truly big winter waves rarely reach Mākaha. When they do, the inside shore break explodes on the sand, and the beach becomes an arena for spectacular surﬁng at Mākaha Point, about a half-mile off the coast. Unlike the celebrated North Shore surf breaks at Pipeline, Sunset, and Waimea, Mākaha is rarely jammed with sightseers. When O‘ahu residents go to beaches on the leeward side, they go as a guest or with a friend, with humility. If they don’t, the phrase “Locals Only” may take on physical ramiﬁcations.
“We got a bad rep this side,” said Brian Keaulana, a thirty-four-year-old lifeguard captain in charge of overseeing all the lifeguards along the leeward coastline. “You go down to Mākaha, you get raped, you get murdered, you get ripped off. But that’s just the reputation. That’s not really how it is. But in one way the reputation is kind of good. [Mākaha] gains a lot of respect from a lot of people real fast. They don’t seem to take advantage. When they go North Shore, they take advantage. . . .
“Over here, if you really get to know the people, the people are nice. They help one another. Like the lifeguards that work on the west side; they kind of feel at ease because if something happens in the water, the whole majority of the community, everybody, kicks in and helps if somebody’s life is in danger. People over here think differently. Life is precious to these guys.”
Brian Lopaka Keaulana is more than a lifeguard to the people on the leeward coast. He is the friend who watches their children. He is the waterman who risks his life to save others. He is the surfer who trains constantly for the ultimate ride. He is the son of Buffalo Keaulana, the pure Hawaiian surﬁng champion who showed the world he could ride the best Mākaha could offer. He taught Brian how to live with the sea and share it with others. “Mākaha is my ﬁrst home,” Brian said. “I was born and raised right there. I know every single [underwater] rock and crack, how the currents move and the waves change.”
For Brian, Mākaha is family. He grew up on the beach. The ocean kept him ﬁt as he matured. It gave him the knowledge and skills to support himself and, after his wedding on Mākaha Beach, his growing family. When Quiksilver, U.S.A., a surf-wear company, announced it wanted to revive Mākaha’s big-wave glory days with a prestigious surﬁng event called the Point Challenge, Brian understood why some Mākaha regulars grumbled about the news. The one-day meet would showcase Mākaha’s legendary surf and offer an exclusive opportunity for the world’s best big-wave riders. But the local boys felt the break was their spot, their surf, their turf; they resented having their waves--the best waves of the season--off limits because of a surﬁng contest, even for a single day.
Brian and his family supported the Point Challenge. They wanted to see the break recognized once again as a great surﬁng spot, the way it had been when it was the site chosen for the original International Surﬁng Championships. But there were limits to how much Brian was willing to share his home and way of life. When surf magazines asked him to write about the beach where he was raised, Brian recalls that he “thought about it. After that, nah. We get so much stories already. I ﬁgure, just keep the feeling the way it is. I don’t need to explain it, tell them how it is down here. When they come down, they ﬁnd out what it is. . . . We don’t need to get hyped-out like North Shore.”
Brian tells a story about a convoy of tour boats motoring up the coast with paying customers intent on snorkeling and diving in the waters off Mākaha. The skippers tossed anchors onto the reef, damaging the coral heads. Surfers ﬁled a complaint out of concern for the living reef and for their waves, which are shaped by the coral. Boat operators agreed to put in a single permanent mooring with a buoy, but when the waves were big, it bobbed right in the middle of the surfers’ impact zone. Someone went out and cut the buoy rope.
“We kind of live day by day and take it as it comes,” Brian said. “The thing is, we gotta kinda keep control of whatever situation happens. The guys down here, they’re real tight. If the water gets too crowded, then the guys down here are going to do something about it. If the guys earn their waves, then that’s all right. But down here can get pretty ugly. Guys can really get nasty if they wanted to.”
Brian knows both worlds, the good and the bad. Mākaha Beach is just a few blocks from his house, and people constantly stop by the lifeguard towers to check the surf, drop off family or friends, swap stories. Some arrive clear-eyed, with athletic bodies toned and tanned from years of surﬁng Mākaha. Others shamble in a fog, bellies drooping over their shorts as they gulp another Budweiser. Businessman, derelict, or high school student--Brian regards everyone equably. “You treat people nice,” he said, sitting in the lifeguard tower while his eyes remained focused on the beach, “people treat you nice. We get treated accordingly.”
Brian joined the Honolulu County Department of Parks and Recreation as a lifeguard in 1978. After serving at various O‘ahu beaches for eleven years, in 1989 he was promoted to lieutenant for Leeward O‘ahu, and then captain in 1993. He supervises all the lifeguards on the coast, making sure the beaches are staffed and equipped, and if he can’t ﬁnd a substitute for a vacant tower, Brian covers it himself.
When Brian is on duty at Mākaha, he keeps watch over children at the water’s edge and occasionally rescues tourists from the rip. On work breaks and weekends, he paddles his surfboard out for a few sets. If the surf is meager, Brian bodysurfs. If there is no surf, he sails his canoe or a board. If the wind isn’t blowing, he paddles, dives, or ﬁshes. After buying a WaveRunner III (Yamaha’s version of a Jet Ski), which dramatically reduced the time for performing sea rescues, he and three friends circled O‘ahu on their jet-propelled craft. Many people focus on one ocean sport and denigrate others, but “we on the west shore are bred as watermen,” Brian said. “We enjoy the ocean regardless of what we are doing. Our ancestors weren’t just surfers. Their whole life-style was based on survival--‘We have to feed one another. We have to get water. We have to ﬁsh.’ When there was time to relax and surf, they went out in the water and played. For us guys, it’s the same way of living, in a modern sort of way. My friends who work on the beach, they living from paycheck to paycheck. The career lifeguard is not really doing it for the money. They like to help people.
“And [while helping], we try and perfect each thing that we do. That’s where I think we got our competitive attitude. I kind of like to compete and see where I stand, what caliber. If I’m not good in that [sport], I kind of concentrate on that more. . . . I like to enter events, any kind events, just to keep the competitor in me up. You can always learn more strategy. You always can ﬁne tune your ability in contests. For me, I enter everything and anything. . . . It’s kind of like sharpening the knife so it doesn’t dull.”
Brian is tall, slender, and deeply tanned, with reﬂexes and muscles honed by the ocean. And when he smiles, he shows the relaxed conﬁdence of the great Hawaiian watermen--the same smile and conﬁdence you see in photographs of Nainoa Thompson or Duke Kahanamoku.
Brian’s familiarity with the ocean, his training to become a waterman, began in 1961, when his father, Richard “Buffalo” Kalolo‘okalani Keaulana, ﬁrst took him surﬁng; Brian was three months old. From 1960 to 1968, Buffalo (nicknamed because of his affinity for water) was the county caretaker for Mākaha Beach Park, a job that provided his wife, Momi, and their ﬁve children with a house on the sand.
Buffalo, a barrel-chested man with reddish brown hair bleached even lighter by years in the sun, grew up in Hale‘iwa and Nānākuli, rural O‘ahu towns where children had lots of time and not much to do. Life was hard for Buffalo. His father had died saving three men from a plunging wrecking ball at Honolulu Harbor. The ocean became Buffalo’s preferred environment. He often slept at the beach. The water cured him when he felt sick, refreshed him when he felt tired, exhilarated him when nothing else could. He became one of the best bodysurfers in Hawai‘i, but he wanted to ride a board and regularly traveled eight miles north from Nānākuli to Mākaha to learn how.
In the mid-1950s, California surfers began taking their fancy boards to Mākaha, where Buffalo and other Hawaiians surfed on older versions made of plywood, Styrofoam, and ﬁberglass. Californians had revolutionized the sport by adding skegs to the boards, bottom-mounted ﬁns that increased maneuverability and tracking. In 1958, boards got lighter and faster when light polyurethane foam replaced wood as the core material. As interest in surﬁng grew, prompted by the Hollywood infatuation with surﬁng and beach movies, experimentation increased. With each modiﬁcation, previously unsurfable waves were challenged, and mastered. Boards got shorter and shorter, and the once stately art of surﬁng evolved into a gymnastic display of athleticism and courage.
Mākaha locals continued to favor longboards, and Buffalo became a world champion on the waves at Mākaha, along with George Downing, Rabbit Kekai, Conrad Cunha, Peter Cole, and Wally Froiseth, among others. The International Surﬁng Championships were held at Mākaha every winter from 1953 to 1973, drawing the world’s best surfers to the leeward side long before any hundred-thousand-dollar contests were taking place on the North Shore. This was Buffalo’s world, and he became a legend in it--a masterful longboard surfer riding the sleigh-ride waves that shouldered up off Mākaha Point. But Buffalo was more than a legend. With his wife, Momi, they took in and fed boys who were in trouble, just as their home also welcomed famous visitors from around the world. On the beach, Buffalo kept the peace and taught people how to live with and off the ocean, while Momi made the house a refuge.
Their son Brian grew up on the sand watching his dad ride the waves, which would rise to thirty feet every few winters. “When I was small, surﬁng to me was huge surf,” Brian remembered. “I used to look out the window of our house on the beach and see George Downing or Buzzy Trent or my dad streaking across twenty, thirty-feet Mākaha. Even now, when you see somebody doing that, it’s one awesome sight. . . . I always used to say, ‘I can’t wait to enter those contests.’”
Even though the family moved off the beach in 1968, Brian’s father continued working as a lifeguard at Mākaha. He insisted that his children go to the beach after school and get out in the water--it was a good way to avoid the temptations of drugs and trouble onshore.
Brian needed no prompting, but ocean sports were not recognized as legitimate physical education by his school, which focused on land-based studies and athletics. For Brian, organized school sports looked like a dead end. “My best friends and cousins were football stars in high school, but they couldn’t afford college. After that it’s like, what happens? What’s next?”
At Wai‘anae High, Brian’s coach told him he had to choose between football and surﬁng. There was no choice. “I lived right next to the ocean. I learned more [there]. I learned how to feed myself, to feed off the ocean. I learned how to stay in shape. I learned how to survive. I learned how to save people.”
Brian was lucky. The watermen who hung out at Mākaha looked out for him and gave him their support. Dennis Gouveia, a Mäkaha lifeguard who grew up on the coast, remembers how they encouraged the boy. “‘Good wave Brian.’ ‘Nice ride Brian.’ Not all the kids get that opportunity, get that kind of praise. To be recognized now, you gotta do the drugs. By the time they ﬁgure that one out, the competitive edge is gone. They cannot get that back. All that time is gone. Local kids can surf, ﬁsh, dive unreal. But they aren’t recognized, so they think it’s nothing.”
Dennis remembered seeing a boy called Danny Kim surﬁng a bodyboard at the Tumbleland break in Mā‘ili. The boy rode well and Dennis took him to a competition at Sandy Beach, which was ninety minutes away in Honolulu--unreachable for most leeward coast youngsters. Danny made the ﬁnals and was persuaded to try harder. “Now he’s touring all over the U.S.,” Dennis said. “Of all the kids from Tumbleland, he’s the only one that is recognized. Eight other kids could be world class Boogie Boarders, but they just stay at their spot and do their thing.”
As Brian learned about the ocean, he also dreamed the teen surfer’s dream of being on the cover of a surf magazine. Because his father was famous, he had a better chance then most. During high school, in the late 1970s, a photographer approached him about doing a feature story about him--the hot young surfer, son of a legend. Before the writer could proceed, Brian needed his father’s permission. Being Buffalo’s son was not easy. As with the children of other celebrities, the public did not expect Brian to be as good as his father, but demanded that he be better. Everybody expected more, including his father.
Brian recalled the offer from the magazine. “I was all excited. I thought I’d tell my dad and my dad would tell me ‘Yeah.’ So I told my dad, ‘I get these guys from this magazine. They going take pictures of me and put me in a magazine, but I gotta ask your permission. They like call me Baby Buffalo.’ My dad, he wasn’t saying anything. ‘So what? I’m going tell ’em, Yeah? Can?’
“He tell me, ‘No.’
“He go, ‘No. I’m just telling you no.’
“I was all mad, just stomping out because he give me no explanation, nothing. And then, after, he tell me, ‘You know what. I no like you living off my name. Later on, you make your own name for yourself.’
“But I was ticked off and mad, just pissed to the max. I didn’t even bother going back to the magazine guys. . . . I went to school. I got into ﬁghts. I got beat up from classmates and then came home. ‘What happen to you?’ And I never say nothing. Just kept to myself. Went back the next day to school, fought the same guy, got licking again, came home. Dad kept asking me, ‘What’s the matter?’ and I would tell him nothing.
“Later on, ﬁghting the same guy that was licking me, I got to beating up him. In that way, I learned how to really ﬁght my own battles. . . . I never did use my dad’s name. I always did things on my own, tried to be more independent; but he helped me out in a lot of stuff. He taught me a lot of things in surﬁng, sailing, and ﬁshing--all the basic knowledge that I know. I just progress as I go on.”
Brian’s math teacher encouraged his students to make a list of goals they wanted to accomplish. Brian’s was to win a surﬁng championship from every O‘ahu beach, and soon Brian’s trophies stood alongside his father’s. After high school Brian traveled around the world, surﬁng the professional circuit, but his father urged him to get a steady job and become a lifeguard. “In his time, surﬁng wasn’t a thing you could survive on,” Brian said. “I told myself I can still do the lifeguarding stuff, taking time off when there is a surf meet on weekends. . . . Until you go out in the world and look at what other people are living in, you can’t really appreciate where you come from. I never saw a Third World country before [surﬁng the circuit]--people living in cardboard houses and no sanitation and hepatitis just running around like a cold. It’s good to travel, but I cannot see myself anywhere else. Mākaha is such a special place for me. I like to come home. Home is where my sanity is.”
Dennis Gouveia remembered when Brian decided to stay in Mākaha. “When he got out of high school, he’d say, ‘I can do this. I can do that.’ I’d tell him, ‘Brian, show me, no tell me.’ Last ﬁve, six years, he would just progress so fast. All this conﬁdence he was talking about, he had ’em.
“He took the sport of sailing and surﬁng canoes, and it was just like he went another step. Handful of guys surf canoes and go straight. Brian rides across the wave. He’s trying to challenge bigger waves. Ride, cut back with canoe, back and forth. Surf ’em like one surfer would ride ’em. Canoe surﬁng was one old sport. He took it one more step.
“His attitude is more of a traditional type. It’s not like today’s surfer--not out there for competitiveness of it all. He is challenged by bigger waves, to be on top of a bigger wave. . . . Brian always looking for the biggest wave. He gives away waves. He’s taking it a step more. ‘I want to ride the big wave and make ’em; not just ride one of the waves.’ That part of his surﬁng is special. In the [big surf], there are only a handful of guys that really go after the waves with conﬁdence, and Brian is one of those guys. Even in really heavy surf, he’s relaxed.”
Brian’s ambition to improve himself, to train constantly, and to always treat others with courtesy and a smile gives him opportunities that make living more comfortable for his wife, Nobleen, and their two children. It also compensates Brian for not trying to be ranked among the world’s top three hundred competitive surfers. Photographers, whose image making is critical to a surf professional’s career, call Brian when they need help, and he readily gives it. In return they focus on him for Mākaha stories or photograph him surﬁng in a lounge chair, on top of a ladder, with his pet pig, Chop Chop--images that have been published around the world.
Brian’s supervisors needed a lieutenant to oversee all the lifeguards along the leeward coast, and Brian said he would take the promotion if he got time off for winter surf meets and any large waves that rolled in. They agreed. When organizers of the North Shore contests needed a new water patrol association to rescue surfers and clear noncompetitors from the waves, they groomed Brian for the part-time job because promoters and surfers respect him as a person, and more important, as a waterman. He got a loan for a $5,000 jet-propelled WaveRunner so his business, Water Patrol, could do its job faster; a surfboard rescue that once would have taken forty minutes might require only forty seconds with the WaveRunner. After he and lifeguard Terry Ahue performed two hundred rescues with their own machines, the ensuing newspapers stories helped the county Parks Department decide to get six WaveRunners for other lifeguards on duty at dangerous beaches. When the director for Kevin Costner’s ﬁlm “Waterworld” needed stuntmen on the Big Island, Brian was hired, and that lucrative work led to additional television and ﬁlm roles that required more time off from his lifesaving responsibilities.
Brian Keaulana gets a lot of publicity without surﬁng competitively, which is why Hawaiian Style surf-wear also provides Brian with a sponsorship salary and clothing, and why the Da Kine and Russ-K Mākaha surf companies give him equipment and boards and sometimes pay for travel expenses abroad. Brian’s success with a Da Kine leash on a Russ-K board, wearing Hawaiian Style trunks, means buyers for the companies’ products.
Unlike his brother Rusty, whose natural surﬁng talent earned him the Oxbow World Longboard Championships in 1993 and 1994 and the opportunity to open his own surf shop, Brian is a great waterman and surfer because he constantly works at improving his strength and abilities. “If I had [Rusty’s] talent, I’d be world champ. He can pretty much do anything. I got to really train and ﬁght hard to achieve what I want to get.”
Gaining a top ranking from the Association of Surﬁng Professionals (ASP) requires a few additional skills that Brian does not want to have: the ability and patience to travel the world and compete year-round on short boards in small waves. “Shortboarding--it’s more like work,” Brian said. “You go from surf meet to surf meet and everybody’s competing. It’s an intense kind of competition. Longboarding is more fun.”
During the past ﬁfteen years only two or three men from Hawai‘i have been rated among the world’s annual top twenty shortboard surfers, and it was not until 1993 that a Hawaiian, Derek Ho, won the ASP world championship.
About 450 men and women from all over the world surf the ASP circuit, at about thirty sanctioned surf meets in Europe, Japan, Hawai‘i, Australia, South Africa, and the west coast of North America. Surf culture is an international phenomenon; brand names like Quiksilver, Billabong, and Local Motion can be found on T-shirts in Fiji or France as easily as in Malibu. Nationally, the sport and its related industries generate up to $2 billion in annual sales.
Worldwide in its fashion inﬂuence, the surf industry often focuses on Hawai‘i, traditional home of the sport and scene of the world’s most photogenic and accessible big waves. For ambitious athletes, Hawai‘i--speciﬁcally, O‘ahu--is where careers, legends, and money are made. Surfers want the big waves, the attention, the publicity. Or they just want to be able to say they have surfed Hale‘iwa, Pipeline, Waimea, Rocky Point, and all the other North Shore spots they have read about for years. The number of surfers at the famous breaks on O‘ahu has grown relentlessly, and surfers have become ever more aggressive to stay ahead of the pack. During the winter season, riders cram the lineup, steal waves, and bump away others’ boards as they slalom through an ocean ﬁlled with photographers treading water.
Each December, the ASP’s ten-month, around-the-world pro-tour comes to a climax in Hawai‘i with a three-contest series called the Triple Crown. At least one of the meets is traditionally held at Sunset Beach, where steep waves break in shifty, unpredictable patterns that elude newcomers looking for the lineup. Neophytes can get trapped in the vicious rip current, which sends lost boards eighty-ﬁve miles away to Kaua‘i. The contest organizers hire Brian Keaulana’s Water Patrol to make sure the surfers remain close to O‘ahu.
Sometimes Brian competes in the preliminary heats to see if he can reach the ﬁnals. When he is not competing, he or one of his colleagues scoots about on a WaveRunner, clearing noncompetitors from the area and ferrying surf photographers to the lineup or back to the beach. When the waves peak, he moves out of the competitors’ way and watches to make sure no surfer is in need of rescue before the next set. Although the WaveRunner improves the Patrol’s ability to save lives, once in a while Brian and his machine get caught inside the impact zone, where waves smash man and machine.
Above Sunset Beach, the competition officials set up a portable viewing complex on top of an air-conditioned trailer housing the computers that record the judges’ scores and heat-by-heat results. Announcers sit on the trailer, offering play-by-play and color commentary for the ﬁve thousand spectators. Will the aging Cheyne Horan (twenty-nine years old) win the $50,000 ﬁrst prize--in a contest dominated by competitors ﬁve to ten years younger? (He did in 1989.) Can Derek Ho ﬁnally bring the Triple Crown back to Hawai‘i? (Not that year.) Tell me Randy, why does Australian champion Gary Elkerton hide in France with his lovely missus after the season? (No distractions, Beau.) And will Martin Potter, the exploding “Pottz” of Great Britain, win the ASP championship after several failed attempts? (Yes! And $117,000 in prize money for 1989, too.)
On the beach, competitors watch their opponents and wait. When each heat ends, packs of Japanese women tourists run down to snap photographs as contestants emerge from the water. Kids eager for autographs push contest programs and posters into the faces of surfers, who stop for a quick scribble.
In the water for the next heat, competitors once again transform shivs of ﬁberglass and foam into antigravity machines. They dance down the face of the waves before twisting into heavy g-force bottom turns that zip them back up to the lip for a cutback and a ﬂoater over the topside.
Surﬁng is no longer just a water sport--it has become airborne, too. Professionals normally try to catch the judges’ attention with a variety of acts that use the waves and sky as surfaces on which they display original choreography or the season’s latest gymnastic trick. This approach works in smaller waves, but when the swells reach overhead, the more outrageous moves become unsafe, and some surfers, fearing a reef thrashing, strap on helmets for protection.
The risks, especially at the nearby Banzai Pipeline and Waimea breaks, make Hawai‘i one of the most spectacular places to witness a surﬁng event. Spectators compare the competitiveness to the intense energy rolling off the waves. When a surfer wipes out, everyone on the beach groans in sympathy. When he or she emerges unscathed from a collapsing tube, the crowd’s cheer rises over the roar of the ocean. They love the show. Sponsors love the publicity. And the winning surfers love the prize money and an end to the grueling season. “It’s great,” Brian said. “It’s like sharing. Everybody gets something out of it.”
For fun and camaraderie, Brian prefers longboard competitions like his father’s Big Board surﬁng classic in February, the week-long Biarritz Surf Festival in France, or the annual big-wave contest at Waimea Bay, the Quiksilver: In Memory of Eddie Aikau. It is held only when the surf exceeds twenty feet.
The Waimea contest honors Eddie Aikau, who lit up the surﬁng world in the 1970s when he rode the biggest of waves with a heart-stopping gusto equaled by few. As a lifeguard, he saved hundreds of lives along the North Shore but shrugged off his heroism the same way he ignored compliments from fellow surfers, who considered him a legend.
In 1978, Eddie joined the crew of Hōkūle‘a, a replica of the double-hulled sailing canoes. Its voyages of rediscovery conﬁrmed ancient Polynesian navigational techniques and mastery of the sea. Five hours after leaving Honolulu bound for Tahiti, a huge swell swamped the canoe in Kaiwi Channel. Then a bad squall hit, throwing up twenty-foot wind-whipped swells that began pushing Hōkūle‘a away from any hope of rescue. Eddie’s surfboard was lashed to the canoe, and he insisted that he could paddle through the storm and reach the island of Lāna‘i, twelve miles away. The captain could not hold Eddie back. A search plane found the crew clinging to Hōkūle‘a the next day, but Eddie had disappeared into the storm and was never seen again.
The annual Eddie Aikau memorial competition is held in December, January, or February, whenever a North Paciﬁc storm generates a day of rideable gargantuan waves. Nature does not always cooperate, and between 1985 and 1994, surfable Waimea waves only exceeded twenty feet twice. Each December, the waiting period begins with a late afternoon ceremony at the beach in Waimea. Most surf contests in Hawai‘i begin with a prayer, but for the Aikau, all thirty-three invited surfers partake of ritual. First, each one receives a lei. Then a kahu (pastor) blesses the men and their boards. Each surfer is given a handful of salt and instructed to cleanse his board. Then the surfers, friends, and Aikau family members launch themselves into the shore break. The group paddles out 250 yards, just off the bay’s northern point, which serves as the lineup on those rare days when the swells shoal into thirty-foot cliffs breaking clear across the bay, crushing anything beneath.
As the sun drops to the horizon, a glow warms the coast from Ka‘ena to Kahuku, and the participants sit on their boards and hold hands, forming a large circle. Incoming swells roll beneath Brian Keaulana and the other surfers, who work as board shapers, lifeguards, businessmen, or professional competitors. They are linked by more than their hands. They are fellow addicts--addicted to the speed, the height, the danger, and the force of big waves. They hold hands during the Aikau ceremony and listen as their colleagues speak about the Aikau contest and offer prayers of thanks and hope. One year, before calling out to Eddie three times and tossing their lei into the circle, the surfers listened to the words of the competition director, George Downing. George, who won the world surﬁng championship at Mākaha before most of these men were born, reminded the group that this annual event represents a fellowship for surfers, a gathering in honor of the memory of Eddie Aikau. It was not about the $55,000 ﬁrst prize or fame, but about love--for a man who had loved to surf big waves.
“I wouldn’t really care if the purse was $55,000 or $5,” Brian said after the blessing one year. “The money is great, but I’m more stoked about what this contest is all about. This contest represents the person, the man--Eddie Aikau. It’s a special thing.”
Anyone who has surfed big waves has a story about an awesome ride, a horrendous wipeout. Brian has had his share. On a morning when the Mākaha seas were calm and vacant, Brian sat in the shade of the lifeguard tower and talked story. Sunglasses protected his eyes from the glare reﬂecting off the sand, almost as bright as the ﬁne gold chains around his neck. Brian enjoys telling stories, and they spill out in a mix of his childhood pidgin English and the King’s English required for adult responsibilities.
He recalled the previous weekend when he took his WaveRunner and towed some friends from Mākaha to a secret surf break down the coast--a wild and arid strip of land that cannot be reached by car. They found ten-to-ﬁfteen-foot waves breaking clean and empty. As they surfed without buildings or crowds to distract them, Brian imagined how his ancestors must have enjoyed the water, their spirits and bodies in harmony with waves rolling beneath the sky. Brian knows of no sport that affects his senses the way surﬁng does, and on that day, his ancestors touched him. “It was heavy.”
He talked about his vision for a canoe surﬁng contest (which eventually became a reality down the coast from Mākaha at Mā‘ili). There would be Hawaiian arts and crafts, food and music, and instead of trophies, winners would receive a kukui or monkeypod sapling, or a sprouting coconut. Brian would tell them to plant the trophies and care for them until they became shade trees for their grandchildren and dropped seeds that would grow and become new trophies for the next generation of watermen and women.
When Mākaha’s waves scrape the sky, Brian’s dreams stop, he wakes up, and he goes out into the water. He recalled one night at home when he awoke to the sound--the feel--of the ocean reverberating through the darkness, pounding the nearby shore. In the dark, he got out of bed, picked up his board, drove to the beach, and waited for enough light to paddle out to the lineup. Whenever Brian sees the big waves, his feelings contradict one another. “[The surf] looks nice. It looks intense. It looks powerful, mean. It gives me a heavy rush that I’m gonna get out there. [But] for me surﬁng big waves really takes out a lot of stress. Surﬁng big waves gives me a peace of mind, because I understand so much. I’m comfortable enough to play around, to practice different sorts of things out there.”
The giant waves at Waimea require a surfer to plunge down the face and execute a quick bottom-turn to escape to the safety of the wave’s broad, safe shoulder. But Brian says surﬁng Mākaha is like racing down a long hallway as fast as you can before the door at the end slams shut in your face. To survive, a surfer has to stay as high as possible on the wave, picking up maximum speed as the wave builds into the long, peeling cliff wall that delivers surfers into Mākaha’s notorious bowl. That’s where the water over the reef shallows abruptly, where the waves peak suddenly and break prematurely before rolling into the channel. If a surfer does not have enough speed and height to get across the bowl, he wipes out in it, and the wave rolls and punches his body over the reef, all the way to shore. In the Surfer’s Guide to Hawai‘i, surf journalist Greg Ambrose describes it: “A wipeout [at Mākaha Bowl] is the most serious moment you will ever experience surﬁng.”
On the thundering morning when the surf roused Brian from sleep, he paddled out and waited for his wave. When it came, he took off and hung in close to the lip until the wave bulged and pitched his board into the air. Brian’s feet stayed on the board as it free-fell into the trough. Back on solid water, Brian maneuvered the board back up the face and gathered speed. He had to beat the bowl. “I went back up and the thing pitched me out again. I fell back down and went up for the third time.”
When the lurching wave ﬁnally reached the bowl, Brian encountered the surfer’s ultimate nightmare. “Suddenly it changed shape again and pitched me way out to the point. I was just ﬂying. When I landed, I tried to turn. My skeg slipped and then I fell, just tumbling, tumbling, and then the wave hit me. Boom! I went under. The only thing you think is just to relax, save your oxygen. Don’t ﬁght it because the ocean is way stronger than any Olympic swimmer. I was just tumbling down, tumbling, tumbling. All of a sudden I hit the bottom. Boom! Boom! I started rolling on the bottom of the reef. I got my grip, stood up, and tried to get back up. But the thing just kept shoving me down, and I was thinking, ‘Wow. I’m under kinda too long.’ Then, all of a sudden, my eyes, everything, just started blacking out; started getting weak; this tingling, like needle pokes all over my body, and this numbing feeling. I got kind of mad with myself like, ‘Oh no, I ain’t going like this.’ So I got this extra kick and just started powering out, powering out, and broke the surface.
“And as soon as I came up and got a breath, the next wave was right there, a twenty-footer. Boom! It took me down again, and I was tumbling, tumbling, tumbling, but this time I went blackout a little bit faster. So I reached for my leash and started pulling myself up. Finally I got ahold of my board, which was underwater with me, and we was tumbling around until my board came shooting up. When it shot up, I took a breath of air real fast--and the next wave came and pounded me. I got whacked ﬁve times. The same thing, over and over until I reached the channel. I was like low power, dead, like one piece of dead meat just ﬂoating. I rested there for like half an hour.
“Most guys, if they freak out on that kind of wipeout, they paddle in. That’s it. They’ll never surf again. So I went out and stayed in the bowl and caught one of the biggest bowl rides, free-fell down, made the turn, and got this humongous barrel and came out. All my fears were like gone.
“If anybody is going to die outside in the ocean, it ain’t going to be me. I’m probably the most conditioned guy out there. It’s not bragging. It’s like psyching yourself in your own mind.
“When you get out there--hah, your mind goes blank. You forget your name. You forget where you live, who you live with, your wife’s name. You forget everything. Your basic instinct is just survive. That’s all you thinking about. Point A to point B--how I’m gonna survive. And once you wipe out, the next instinct is just air. That’s how I release my tension and pressures.
“People, they sometimes come down to the beach and tell us we’re crazy. I’m not crazy. Crazy is the guy on the streets, smoking crystals and destroying his mind. [It’s not crazy] exercising and training and trying to eat the right foods and not taking any kind of drugs and no drinking, and then going out and catching thirty-foot waves.”
This is the message Brian takes into the schools, where he shares his surﬁng experiences and urges students to avoid drugs and take advantage of opportunities for learning. Preparing for big surf, he tells them, is no different than getting ready for any other challenge in life. “My training is like just nonstop training. You just keep training your body, training your mind, keeping everything focused into one point. Big surf, really big surf, only comes maybe four times a year, so you have to be ready.”
Before Brian paddles out, he already knows the beach, its surf, his abilities, what his board can do, and the risks that may come with an unexpected gust stalling a takeoff, the freak set of gigantic waves that prevents escape, the shark no longer willing to share his home. This awareness, added to a lifetime of experience, enables Brian to surf the waves before getting wet and provides an emotional safety net that landlubbers cannot appreciate.
Yokohama Beach is six miles beyond Mākaha, where the asphalt road disintegrates into an isolated beach park. Fishermen go there to cast for ulua from the rocky ledge. On days when the surf runs higher than ten feet, tourists like to stand on the ledge, watching the surf and spray, feeling the waves smash against the rocks. Fishermen never turn their backs on the ocean because an unexpected set can climb over the twenty-foot ledge and swiftly drag you into the sea. Anywhere else, a local waterman would try to freestyle through the waves and stroke over to a nearby beach, but the Yokohama ledge is riddled with sea caves, and if you do not swim away fast enough, big surf can pulverize you against the rocks or--if it chooses a slower death--push you inside a sea cave and block your escape until you die of hypothermia and exhaustion.
When disaster struck in 1967, WaveRunners and cellular phones had not yet come along to transform lifesaving. Buffalo Keaulana and rescue officials were called to Yokohama after three people became trapped in one of the sea caves. Through the roar of rapidly rising surf, they could hear a man inside the cave shouting for help. Buffalo waited while his superiors debated what to do. They agreed Buffalo should try to paddle his surfboard into the cave. He managed to get in and bring out two boys, but before he could go back for the man, the surf increased to ﬁfteen feet and blocked the cave entrance. All anyone could do was wait until the man’s shouted pleas stopped. The surf subsided the next morning, and Buffalo paddled in and retrieved the man’s body.
Twenty-six years later, on the afternoon of January 25, 1993, a big wave washed a man named Hugh Alexander off the Yokohama ledge, and the relentlessly pounding waves pushed him into a cave. Each time he tried to swim out, the surf battered him against the rocks and forced him back inside the cave.
Brian Keaulana knew the area well. He and the other lifeguards had been there six months earlier, practicing rescue techniques in heavy surf. At that time, football pads and a helmet had seemed like a good idea until they discovered what happens to the equipment when it gets caught between an immovable object (coastline) and an unstoppable force (surf). The lifeguards practiced with a line tied to a rescue tube and tried ﬂoating it into the cave, where a person in trouble could grab the tube and be pulled out, but the surges and backwash kept pushing the tube away from the entrance. They tried using the jet-propelled WaveRunner; it can carry two people, tow a rescue sled, and elude vicious surf. One man drives and the other rides in the sled, ready to haul the victim aboard.
When the lifeguards arrived at Yokohama to rescue Hugh Alexander, they decided to use the WaveRunner. On Brian’s ﬁrst approach to the sea cave, the WaveRunner hit a submerged rock and was swamped by an incoming set. Brian and his partner, Craig Davidson, escaped harm, but the Air One helicopter from the Honolulu Fire Department had to tow the WaveRunner away. As they waited for another craft to arrive from the North Shore, Brian swam into the cave with ﬁns and a rescue tube, but it was impossible to locate the man amid the high surf in the dark cave. Brian could hear him, though, and before diving underneath the incoming surges and ﬂeeing the cave, Brian told the man to try and swim out so they could grab him at the entrance.
Fireﬁghters used megaphones to let the rescuers know when they spotted a lull between the sets, and Brian and lifeguard Earl Bungo were ready with the new WaveRunner when the badly bruised man appeared at the mouth of the cave. They raced in and Earl pulled Hugh onto the sled. Brian accelerated the WaveRunner through an incoming wave, but the impact knocked Earl and Hugh off the sled. Brian circled around and pulled them to safety. After treating Hugh for multiple head and body cuts and bruises, the hospital released him the same day. The U.S. Lifesaving Association awarded Brian their Medal of the Year.
“I hardly ever think about things [during a rescue],” Brian said later. “I know exactly what my body can do. I know exactly what the machine can do. I know everything there is to know about the area and what might happen. I know I can utilize all that. I’m not even thinking about it. It’s in me already. If you think about things, it’s too late. . . . The ocean is never predictable. You have to be ﬂexible. You have to be just like the water. Smooth and calm. Also strong and ferocious.”