Kahuna Come Lately

Call him a gorilla on Popsicle stick, but he's finally caught his wave

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Of late, my ears have been reconfiguring the familiar: The bell notes of blue jays sound like sea buoys, passing cars assume the cadence of distant surf. Over on the east coast, in Melbourne, Florida, 140 miles from my home, David Hamilton is shaping one of his Vector boards for me. Through my office window I can hear his brush strokes in the oaks.

On the phone, Dave tells me that a guy my age, my size, definitely needs a long board. He says, "A long board, that's the way to go." I tell Dave, "Yeah, a long board. Precisely what I want." As I speak, I picture it: Corvette-bright with pinstriping, an iconic shape that would not seem out of place if spiked into a bluff on Easter Island.

Dave tells me that he's going to build the board with extra tail rocker, three stringers, a long V-panel to facilitate rail-to-rail turns, and thinner rails that will make it easier to keep an edge in the face of a wave.

I don't know a rocker from a rail, but I answer, "Absolutely. The thinner the rails, the better."

"And you want it glossed and polished, right?" Before I can answer, he's describing the process: careful sanding, sealing with rubbing compound and ebony wax, hand buffing.

I picture Dave laboring over the board, and see the material come to life beneath his hands. Dave is six-foot-six, with salt-bleached hair that hangs to the middle of his back. He started shaping in his Miami backyard in the sixties but later moved to California and opened a shop near Encinitas. He ended up in Melbourne, and at 44 he's still wearing flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts, still closing shop when the surf is pumping. Who am I to question a veteran?

"Of course," I tell him, "glossed and polished."

He says, "Oh yeah. And I'll create a mild nose concave to facilitate nose riding."

I picture myself crouched on the board, pursued by a wall of water, hair streaming as I tightrope toward the nose.

"Which is why," Dave explains, "I'm recommending a nine-six. 'Cause of the extra flotation. A guy your size and age, you're really going to need it."

Why does he have to keep saying that?

My imagination blurs. The wave collapses. I no longer tightrope, my hair no longer streams. These days, I am reminded, I don't have enough hair to sop water.

Dave says, "If that's the board you want, I can build it. But it'll cost some money."

I tell Dave, "Do it."

I am 45 years old and weigh 220 pounds. friends and family have been selecting delicate, convoluted routes to tell me that I am too old, too bearish to learn to surf. I accept their concern as a measure of their affection. They refer to my knees. Haven't 30-some years of baseball, squatting behind the plate, slowed me down? They mention my back. A biking accident in the Bahamas made my fourth lumbar vertebra as treacherous as a chained dog. What if I suffer a seizure while in the surf?

"All it takes is one wave," a doctor friend warns me.

I prefer to alter the inflection, so that his warning becomes a dictum: All it takes is one wave.

I've been anticipating that wave for longer than he knows, for longer than I should have allowed myself to wait.

I'm thinking of a farmhouse, seven miles from a microscopic grange town that you won't find in any atlas. My room was upstairs, with a window that faced west. I spent a lot of years viewing the world from altitude: pear tree, garden, windscapes of corn, sunsets, and new moons. At night, my radio picked up WLS in Chicago and sometimes WBZ in Boston--the outer perimeter of human contact. I heard a song: "Surfin' USA." With haying money, I bought the album and a record player. I heard another song: "In My Room." I'd leave the window open and listen to the music, feeling the sanctuary, absorbing a westerly wind.

Another covert surfer was talking to me, telling me something.

Late one night my buddy Alan Ring called with an outrageous story: Parked outside Becker's Restaurant downtown was a car with California license plates.

"You're lying," I said.

"I'm not. Trust me!"

The last time Alan had urged me to trust him was when he tried to convince me--unsuccessfully, I'm relieved to say--to stick my tallywhacker into the tubes of a milking machine. He claimed to have been doing it for months with startling results.

I got my bike from the barn and flew back roads into town. No streetlights, no traffic, nothing but corn stubble and isolated house lights. It was cold, and I wondered why anyone from California would come to northwestern Ohio.

The car was there, a red Corvette with gold-on-blue license plates and some kind of strange rack on the back. Two guys in their early twenties sat inside Becker's reading menus while, outside, locals demonstrated their fascination by affecting a rural indifference.

I remember a brief portion of their conversation.

"What's that rack for?"

"Their boards, you dope."

"Boards? Jesus Christ, why would anybody carry lumber on a car like that?"

The guys were lean and blond and wore chambray shirts and jeans. They ignored us. One of the local girls strolled by their booth, hoping to goad an introduction. They ignored her, too. My confidence drained--there were things I wanted to ask. Were they from Hawthorne, California? Did they know Brian Wilson?

I'd positioned my bike so that they had to walk past me to get to their car. As they exited the restaurant, I tried to make eye contact, tried to say hello, but couldn't. They were getting into their car when I finally found voice, asking the only question that I could think to ask: "Do you guys surf?"

The Californian on the passenger side peered up from the bucket seat and allowed a patient smile. It was as though I had asked if the world were round, and yet, I believed, there was also something fraternal in his expression, an acknowledgment of acceptance for no other reason than that I knew the word. As he closed the door, he answered me--"Fuckenay, man"--and then they drove off, popping through the gears, laying a yelp of rubber.

I watched the Corvette meld with the highway and was mesmerized by the potential of a road that really could be ridden from there to anywhere.

That was in 1963, when I was 13. It was November, a month easy to recall.

There are things that can be owned which also represent aspirations that cannot be purchased. I have a friend whose garage is a trophy room of climbing gear. My wife puts her running medals in a drawer but arranges her Nikes as carefully as a row of candles. For me, important things that come to mind are a Sea Master fly reel, a Wilson Pro-Toe catcher's glove, a Hewes flats skiff...and a custom surfboard.

David Hamilton says it'll take three weeks before mine is ready, maybe longer. Something about getting "just the right blank."

I tell him, "No rush." After postponing the acquisition for more than three decades, what's a month? To me, this slow approach to a thing I've always wanted to do isn't puzzling, yet I can offer no simple explanation. Surfing, as I always perceived it, is not a sport that can be attacked. It has to be encountered, waited upon until the time is right. There is pleasure in believing that the moment will come.

Here are things I never expected or associated with surfing: Oneness with All Things. Mother Ocean. Mother Nature. Mother Earth. Flipper. Mood rings. Perfect waves.

Here are a few things that I do associate with surfing and find attractive, things that add overtones and depths of inference: Highways. Seascapes. California in the seventies. Sex Wax. Pet Sounds. Summer nights and the potential of undiscovered places.

I read surfing magazines, kept up on the controversies. Would long boards be eclipsed by super-short, tube-probing plastic machines? Would grommets and ho-dads and surf Nazis ruin it all for the few Soul Surfers? And what about those goon cords, or ankle leashes? Was the purity of the sport being compromised?

A year didn't pass that I wasn't waiting.

The question is, have I waited too long? The first time I paddled out into big surf, a board beneath me, I was certain that I had. There are factors that those of us who've ridden only surrogate waves choose to ignore--among them, that surfing is one of the most physically demanding of sports, that surfers may be the most underrated athletes in the world, and that paddling alone through breaking surf is scary as hell, an existential prologue that scatters romance like so much chaff and leaves the pretender quaking like an aspen leaf.

Me, the pretender.

I got hammered. I got dumped and spun until I didn't know which way was up. Once I lost purchase in the belly of a wave, and the board whacked me so hard in the face that I saw cartoon starbursts. I not only couldn't catch a wave, I apparently couldn't even make it out beyond the reef break.

Later, when a friend told me that I'd resembled a gorilla trying to drown a Popsicle stick, I thought, How can she be so flippant? Doesn't she know that this is important?

This was several months ago at a surf spot called Beacon's, 30 miles north of San Diego, when the weather was right, the mood was right, and it seemed to me the handwriting was on the wall. I believed that it was now or never.

I had read that surfing was one of the few sports that could not be taught. I found that attractive. The timing, the balance, the ability to read waves were not linear components like a golf swing. Even so, earlier in the week someone in San Diego had told me about a man who taught surfing. I found him under "K" in the business pages of the phone book--Kahuna Bob Edwards. Kahuna told me that in the last nine years he had taught more than 3,000 people to surf, including men who were older and larger than I.

We met the next morning at La Jolla Shores, where on a soft foam board he demonstrated the basics. This was in waist-deep water with a gentle beach break. Kahuna, middle-aged and athletic, made it look easy. Surfers always make surfing look easy.

I floundered around for an hour but couldn't manage to stand. It was maddening. My first attempt at snow skiing, I went down the mountain; my first time in a kayak, I made it down the river. Surfing required more. Toward the end of the lesson I got briefly to my feet and then crashed off the board into the sand.

I'd done it: I'd surfed. Or so I told myself. But it was a lie, and the lie grated on me over the next few days, which is why I called Kahuna Bob again and how I ended up at Beacon's fighting for my life in a screaming riptide. I wanted to try the real thing. Beacon's was the real thing.

Kahuna put me on an old tandem board that he called The Beast and selected a board for himself, and I tried to follow him out through the surf. I kept dumping the board. When I was engorged with salt water, exhausted, Kahuna paddled back and yelled, "We're almost outside the break. It's nice out there!"

It was nice out there. When I finally made it, I sat and looked shoreward. It was like floating on the membrane of some great respiratory system. The beach would rise out of the sea, dilate into a golden border, and then vanish as I watched the backside of breakers sail past.

It was so nice, so peaceful, that I was reluctant to return to the rim of the break. Yet that's the essence of surfing: to goad yourself into a position to be swept away. I did, and got thrashed. Tried it a second time and felt my right groin muscle tear. Had I not been so frightened of paddling back through the breakers, I wouldn't have tried a third time, but I did. I felt a wave inflate beneath me and felt the sudden transfer of velocity as the board gathered buoyancy. I almost tumbled as I got to my feet, but caught myself. And then I was... standing, gaining speed as the cliffs rushed toward me, viewing the world from altitude.

I rode the wave all the way to the beach, where a woman with bleached hair and wearing a black wetsuit stood watching. She may have thought me mad the way I, a stranger, hobbled toward her, calling, "Did you see that? Did you? That was my first wave!"

Her expression was amused, fraternal, and distantly familiar. She grinned and said, "Yeah, I saw! Man, you're really stoked."

The next week I called Dave Hamilton.

My surfboard now leans against an office bookcase. It's candy-gloss white with Corvette-bright pinstriping--just like I'd pictured it. Near the nose, the Vector logo is backdropped by a line drawing of the world. I like that. I am also pleased by the board's shape. It would not be out of place if spiked into an ancient hillside anywhere on that map.

I am less heartened, however, by my recent attempts to catch a wave. I took delivery of the board two weeks ago and spent the next few days on Florida's east coast, morning until night, being humiliated by Atlantic winter surf. Not once did I get to my feet for more than a millisecond.

Late yesterday afternoon I drove to Captiva, an island off Florida's west coast, in hopes of taking advantage of surf created by 40-knot winds. In a parking lot, the wind ripped my board off the roof rack, and it hit a rental car in which were two big German women--a circumstance that was never idealized by the Beach Boys.

It was getting late. During the long wait for the police, I used sign language to tell the women I was going into the water. They demanded to keep my driver's license until I returned. It seemed petty at the time, but it actually turned out to be smart. Once I was beyond the breakers, a riptide carried me out to sea. Tourists lined the bridge to watch this Real Life Drama.

It was after sunset before I finally battled my way to the next island, happy to be alive but absurdly distressed that I had not had a shot at a single wave. The Germans were unsympathetic. The sheriff's deputy, who was an occasional surfer, couldn't have been kinder. "Maybe your board blew off for a reason," he suggested.

"Well... maybe," I said.

Fight it as I might, I am finding it impossible to approach even the periphery of the sport without continually meeting people who take karma seriously. At Beacon's, after riding The Beast clear to shore, I'd walked to the top of the bluff and met Rod Aries, a big guy in his forties who is a former ballplayer turned surfer. Aries owned the house across the street, and so for him, checking the break was a morning ceremony. When I told him about catching my first wave, he shook his head with mock sadness and said, "It's all downhill from here, buddy."

Even so, he continues to prod me along through the mail. He recently wrote, "In baseball you follow the flight of the ball and you experience it from afar. In surfing you are the flight of the ball and experience it firsthand."

Surfers say things like that. It can't hurt to listen.

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