Surfing Waikiki presents the version of the sport most akin to the horrors of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Once you overlook the long-breaking waves and the beautiful, turquoise expanse, all you see is a crowded lineup and you can easily pick out those who are accident prone.
When I first glimpsed the wave between my terrace on the Outrigger Resort and whatever hotel stood to my east, I got a vertical panorama of a swell line that came to fruition well before the longboarder sliced his way into my frame. He swung the board to the right, stalling to find the wave’s motor and when he lined himself back up, he shot forward and continued his ride, nearly back out of my frame. It was near sunset; my wave would come with sun up.
The next morning I paddled out, having already been warned by a cabana boy that he had been chased from one peak days earlier by a few “big uncles.” I had always known about Hawaii’s element of localism and I got to know it even more after circumnavigating Oahu, where “Respect Locals” stickers were pasted to trash cans beside a few conservationist causes, so it looked like it was one cause, as if borrowing a wave or two was like neutering an endangered species. Anyway, it’s my general rule to be respectful of most people on waves, yielding to the rightful rider, whether it be a local or a kook.
But at the peaks of Waikiki, surfers learn quickly that etiquette is a thing best reserved for most other breaks. While there are peaks as far as one could see, they all looked packed, especially the pair of waves just outside of my hotel. Despite the crowds and the transition from dawn patrol to bedlam, I tried to commit to two basic principles while surfing in Hawaii: refrain from drop-ins and should should a Polynesian-looking fella take my wave, I would bite my tongue. But eventually, both of those rules developed certain caveats.
At first, I found myself being a bit too passive when dark-skinned-Pacific-Islander-looking-surfers snaked me on the inside or “presumed” a closeout when it was clear I would make my section. I just gave them the waves, deciding to respect the locals. But on one such occasion, the local paddled back out, nodded at me, and then said fucking “Konichiwa.”
I wondered how many waves I had deferentially turned over to well-tanned Japanese tourists.
(Still, to be fair to Waikiki, despite the crowds, I caught more waves than I would have on a crowded day back home. Partly because there were more novices in the water than I had ever seen before and partly because I was borrowing a board from Faith Surf School, which was was more ding resistant than fiberglass. Anyway, even if it did take awhile to nab a good wave, once you’re on one of those long rides, and flopping over into warm, turtle-filled waters, with double rainbows and Diamond Head to your back, you forget about crowds and pecking orders for at least a little while.)
A few days later, I left Oahu, the land of a thousand surfers, for Maui’s Western shores and the land of a thousand peaks. When I saw a dozen surfers spread out on two dozen peaks, I pulled off of Highway 30, which runs along the narrow strip of beach at Ukemehame Park. I rolled the family from the road to the sand, where kiawe trees provided minimal shade and barbed the beach with their spiky branches. A few old men with young Thai wives had a grill going beneath a blue tarp. Their Malibus were scattered about like expensive driftwood.
I paddled out over the dark and shallow reef, spinning when one of the consistent two-foot peaks started to shed its blue for white. The Maui trade winds should have been up–it was already noon–but only a light ripple cut through my path. I flew down the line, watching a much darker reef speed past, and then paddled back out for wave after wave. Never did I have to abandon a wave and not once did I filch one from another surfer. Life was good at Ukemehame.
In between sessions, as I made my way up the beach, one of the older men barbecuing beneath the kiawe tree asked if I had left him any waves. Maybe not at my peak, I joked, but, as only a few people could see, there were hundreds of empty ones left unridden.