To be a surfer girl in Maui is to be the luckiest of creatures. It means you're beautiful and tan and ready to rip. It means you've caught the perfect dappled wave and are on a ride that can't possibly end.
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The Maui surfer girls love each other’s hair. It is awesome hair, long and bleached by the sun, and it falls over their shoulders straight, like water, or in squiggles, like seaweed, or in waves. They are forever playing with it—yanking it up into ponytails, or twisting handfuls and securing them with chopsticks or pencils, or dividing it as carefully as you would divide a pile of coins and then weaving it into tight yellow plaits. Not long ago I was on the beach in Maui watching the surfer girls surf, and when they came out of the water they sat in a row facing the ocean, and each girl took the hair of the girl in front of her and combed it with her fingers and crisscrossed it into braids.
Resurfacing ‘Life’s Swell,’ the Story That Produced ‘Blue Crush’How Susan Orlean reported the classic Outside story about the surf girls of Maui.
The Maui surfer girls even love the kind of hair that I dreaded when I was their age, 14 or so—they love that wild, knotty, bright hair, as big and stiff as carpet, the most un-straight, un-sleek, un-ordinary hair you could imagine, and they can love it, I suppose, because when you are young and on top of the world you can love anything you want, and just the fact that you love it makes it cool and fabulous. A Maui surfer girl named Gloria Madden has that kind of hair—thick red corkscrews striped orange and silver from the sun, hair that if you weren’t beautiful and fearless you’d consider an affliction that you would try to iron flat or stuff under a hat.
One afternoon I was driving two of the girls to Blockbuster Video in Kahului. It was the day before a surfing competition, and the girls were going to spend the night at their coach’s house up the coast so they’d be ready for the contest at dawn. On contest nights, they fill their time by eating a lot of food and watching hours of surf videos, but on this particular occasion they decided they needed to rent a movie, too, in case they found themselves with 10 or 20 seconds of unoccupied time. On our way to the video store, the girls told me they admired my rental car and said that they thought rental cars totally ripped and that they each wanted to get one. My car, which until then I had sort of hated, suddenly took on a glow. I asked what else they would have if they could have anything in the world. They thought for a moment, and then the girl in the backseat said, “A moped and thousands of new clothes. You know, stuff like thousands of bathing suits and thousands of new board shorts.”
“I’d want a Baby-G watch and new flip-flops, and one of those cool sports bras like the one Iris just got,” the other said. She was in the front passenger seat, barefoot, sand-caked, twirling her hair into a French knot. It was a half-cloudy day with weird light that made the green Hawaiian hills look black and the ocean look like zinc. It was also, in fact, a school day, but these were the luckiest of all the surfer girls because they are home-schooled so that they can surf any time at all.
The girl making the French knot stopped knotting. “Oh, and also,” she said, “I’d really definitely want crazy hair like Gloria’s.”
The girl in the backseat leaned forward and said, “Yeah, and hair like Gloria’s, for sure.”
A lot of the Maui surfer girls live in Hana, the little town at the end of the Hana Highway, a fraying thread of a road that winds from Kahului, Maui’s primary city, over a dozen deep gulches and dead-drop waterfalls and around the backside of the Haleakala Crater to the village. Hana is far away and feels even farther. It is only 55 miles from Kahului, but the biggest maniac in the world couldn’t make the drive in less than two hours.
There is nothing much to do in Hana except wander through the screw pines and the candlenut trees or go surfing. There is no mall in Hana, no Starbucks, no shoe store, no Hello Kitty store, no movie theater—just trees, bushes, flowers, and gnarly surf that breaks rough at the bottom of the rocky beach. Before women were encouraged to surf, the girls in Hana must have been unbelievably bored. Lucky for these Hana girls, surfing has changed. In the ’60s, Joyce Hoffman became one of the first female surf aces, and she was followed by Rell Sunn and Jericho Poppler in the seventies and Frieda Zamba in the ’80s and Lisa Andersen in this decade, and thousands of girls and women followed by example. In fact, the surfer girls of this generation have never known a time in their lives when some woman champion wasn’t ripping surf.
The Hana girls dominate Maui surfing these days. Theory has it that they grow up riding such mangy waves that they’re ready for anything. Also, they are exposed to few distractions and can practically live in the water. Crazy-haired Gloria is not one of the Hana girls. She grew up near the city, in Haiku, where there were high-school race riots—Samoans beating on Filipinos, Hawaiians beating on Anglos—and the mighty pull of the mall at Kaahumanu Center. By contrast, a Hana girl can have herself an almost pure surf adolescence.
One afternoon I went to Hana to meet Theresa McGregor, one of the best surfers in town. I missed our rendezvous and was despairing because Theresa lived with her mother, two brothers, and sister in a one-room shack with no phone and I couldn’t think of how I’d find her. There is one store in Hana, amazingly enough called the General Store, where you can buy milk and barbecue sauce and snack bags of dried cuttlefish; once I realized I’d missed Theresa I went into the store because there was no other place to go. The cashier looked kindly, so I asked whether by any wild chance she knew a surfer girl named Theresa McGregor. I had not yet come to appreciate what a small town Hana really was. “She was just in here a minute ago,” the cashier said. “Usually around this time of the day she’s on her way to the beach to go surfing.” She dialed the McGregors’s neighbor—she knew the number by heart—to find out which beach Theresa had gone to. A customer overheard the cashier talking to me, and she came over and added that she’d just seen Theresa down at Ko’ki beach and that Theresa’s mom, Angie, was there too, and that some of the other Hana surfer girls would probably be down any minute but they had a History Day project due at the end of the week so they might not be done yet at school.
I went down to Ko’ki. Angie McGregor was indeed there, and she pointed out Theresa bobbing in the swells. There were about a dozen other people in the water, kids mostly. A few other surfer parents were up on the grass with Angie—fathers with hairy chests and ponytails and saddle-leather sandals, and mothers wearing board shorts and bikini tops, passing around snacks of unpeeled carrots and whole-wheat cookies and sour cream Pringles—and even as they spoke to one another, they had their eyes fixed on the ocean, watching their kids, who seemed like they were a thousand miles away, taking quick rides on the tattered waves.
After a few minutes, Theresa appeared up on dry land. She was a big, broad-shouldered girl, 16 years old, fierce-faced, somewhat feline, and quite beautiful. Water was streaming off of her, out of her shorts, out of her long hair, which was plastered to her shoulders. The water made it look inky, but you could still tell that an inch from her scalp her hair had been stripped of all color by the sun.
In Haiku, where the McGregors lived until four years ago, Theresa had been a superstar soccer player, but Hana was too small to support a soccer league, so after they moved Theresa first devoted herself to becoming something of a juvenile delinquent and then gave that up for surfing. Her first triumph came right away, in 1996, when she won the open women’s division at the Maui Hana Mango competition. She was one of the few fortunate amateur surfer girls who had sponsors. She got free boards from Matt Kinoshita, her coach, who owns and designs Kazuma Surfboards; clothes from Honolua Surf Company; board leashes and bags from Da Kine Hawaii; skateboards from Flexdex. Boys who surfed got a lot more for free.
Even a little bit of sponsorship made the difference between surfing and not surfing. As rich a life as it seemed, among the bougainvillea and the green hills and the passionflowers of Hana, there was hardly any money. In the past few years the Hawaiian economy had sagged terribly, and Hana had never had much of an economy to begin with. Last year, the surfer moms in town held a fund-raiser bake sale to send Theresa and two Hana boys to the national surfing competition in California.
Theresa said she was done surfing for the day. “The waves totally suck now,” she said to Angie. “They’re just real trash.” They talked for a moment and agreed that Theresa should leave in the morning and spend the next day or two with her coach Matt at his house in Haiku, to prepare for the Hawaiian Amateur Surf Association contest that weekend at Ho’okipa Beach near Kahului.
Logistics became the topic. One of the biggest riddles facing a surfer girl, especially a surfer girl in far-removed Hana, is how to get from point A to point B, particularly when carrying a large surfboard. The legal driving age in Hawaii is 15, but the probable car-ownership age, unless you’re rich, is much beyond that; also, it seemed that nearly every surfer kid I met in Maui lived in a single-parent, single- or no-car household in which spare drivers and vehicles were rare. I was planning to go back around the volcano anyway to see the contest, so I said I’d take Theresa and another surfer, Lilia Boerner, with me, and someone else would make it from Hana to Haiku with their boards.
That night I met Theresa, Angie, and Lilia and a few of their surfer friends at a take-out shop in town, and then I went to the room I’d rented at Joe’s Rooming House. I stayed up late reading about how Christian missionaries had banned surfing when they got to Hawaii in the late 1800s, but how by 1908 general longing for the sport overrode spiritual censure and surfing resumed. I dozed off with the history book in my lap and the hotel television tuned to a Sprint ad showing a Hawaiian man and his granddaughter running hand-in-hand into the waves.
The next morning I met Lilia and Theresa at Ko’ki beach at 8:00, after they’d had a short session on the waves. When I arrived they were standing under a monkeypod tree beside a stack of backpacks. Both of them were soaking wet, and I realized then that a surfer is always in one of two conditions: wet or about to be wet. Also, they are almost always dressed in something that can go directly into the water: halter tops, board shorts, bikini tops, jeans.
Lilia was 12 and a squirt, with a sweet, powdery face and round hazel eyes and golden fuzz on her arms and legs. She was younger and much smaller than Theresa, less plainly athletic but very game. Like Theresa, she was home-schooled, so she could surf all the time. So far Lilia was sponsored by a surf shop and by Matt Kinoshita’s Kazuma surfboards. She had a twin brother who was also a crafty surfer, but a year ago the two of them came upon their grandfather after he suffered a fatal tractor accident, and the boy hadn’t competed since. Their family owned a large and prosperous organic fruit farm in Hana. I once asked Lilia if it was fun to live on a farm. “No,” she said abruptly. “Too much fruit.”
We took a back road from Hana to Haiku, as if the main road weren’t bad enough. The road edged around the back of the volcano, through sere yellow hills. The girls talked about surfing and about one surfer girl’s mom, whom they described as a full bitch, and a surfer’s dad, who according to Theresa “was a freak and a half because he took too much acid and he tweaked.” I wondered if they had any other hobbies besides surfing. Lilia said she used to study hula.
“Is it fun?”
“Not if you have a witch for a teacher, like I did,” she said. “Just screaming and yelling at us all the time. I’ll never do hula again. Surfing’s cooler, anyway.”
“You’re the man, Lilia,” Theresa said, tartly. “Hey, how close are we to Grandma’s Coffee Shop? I’m starving.” Surfers are always starving. They had eaten breakfast before they surfed; it was now only an hour or two later, and they were hungry again. They favor breakfast cereal, teriyaki chicken, french fries, rice, ice cream, candy, and a Hawaiian specialty called Spam Masubi, which is a rice ball topped with a hunk of Spam and seaweed. If they suffered from the typical teenage girl obsession with their weight, they didn’t talk about it and they didn’t act like it. They were so active that whatever they ate probably melted away.
“We love staying at Matt’s,” Lilia said, “because he always takes us to Taco Bell.” We came around the side of a long hill and stopped at Grandma’s. Lilia ordered a garden burger and Theresa had an “I’m Hungry” sandwich with turkey, ham, and avocado. It was 10:30 a.m. As she was eating, Lilia said, “You know, the Olympics are going to have surfing, either in the year 2000 or 2004, for sure.”
“I’m so on that, dude,” Theresa said. “If I can do well in the nationals this year, then …” She swallowed the last of her sandwich. She told me that eventually she wanted to become an ambulance driver, and I could picture her doing it, riding on dry land the same waves of adrenaline that she rides now.
I spent a lot of time trying to picture where these girls might be in 10 years. Hardly any are likely to make it as pro surfers—even though women have made a place for themselves in pro surfing, the number who really make it is still small, and even though the Hana girls rule Maui surfing, the island’s soft-shell waves and easygoing competitions have produced very few world-class surfers in recent years.
It doesn’t seem to matter to them. At various cultural moments, surfing has appeared as the embodiment of everything cool and wild and free; this is one of those moments. To be a girl surfer is even cooler, wilder, and more modern than being a guy surfer: Surfing has always been such a male sport that for a man to do it doesn’t defy any received ideas; to be a girl surfer is to be all that surfing represents, plus the extra charge of being a girl in a tough guy’s domain. To be a surfer girl in a cool place like Hawaii is perhaps the apogee of all that is cool and wild and modern and sexy and defiant. The Hana girls, therefore, exist at that highest point—the point where being brave, tan, capable, and independent, and having a real reason to wear all those surf-inspired clothes that other girls wear for fashion, is what matters completely.
It is, though, just a moment. It must be hard to imagine an ordinary future and something other than a lunar calendar to consider if you’ve grown up in a small town in Hawaii, surfing all day and night, spending half your time on sand, thinking in terms of point breaks and barrels and roundhouse cutbacks. Or maybe they don’t think about it at all. Maybe these girls are still young enough and in love enough with their lives that they have no special foreboding about their futures, no uneasy presentiment that the kind of life they are leading now might eventually have to end.
Matt Kinoshita lives in a fresh, sunny ranch at the top of a hill in Haiku. The house has a big living room with a fold-out couch and plenty of floor space. Often, one or two or 10 surfer girls camp in his living room because they are in a competition that starts at 7:00 the next morning, or because they are practicing intensively and it is too far to go back and forth from Hana, or because they want to plow through Matt’s stacks of surfing magazines and Matt’s library of surfing videos and Matt’s piles of water-sports clothing catalogs. Many of the surfer girls I met didn’t live with their fathers, or in some cases didn’t even have relationships with their fathers, so sometimes, maybe, they stayed at Matt’s just because they were in the mood to be around a concerned older male.
Matt was in his late twenties. As a surfer he was talented enough to compete on the world tour but had decided to skip it in favor of an actual life with his wife, Annie, and their baby son, Chaz. Now he was one of the best surfboard shapers on Maui, a coach, and head of a construction company with his dad. He sponsored a few grown-up surfers and still competed himself, but his preoccupation was with kids. Surfing magazine once asked him what he liked most about being a surfboard shaper, and he answered, “Always being around stoked groms!” He coached a stoked-grom boys’ team as well as a stoked-grom girls’ team. The girls’ team was an innovation. There had been no girls’ surfing team on Maui before Matt established his three years ago. There was no money in it for him—it actually cost him many thousands of dollars each year—but he loved to do it. He thought the girls were the greatest. The girls thought he was the greatest, too.
In build, Matt looked a lot like the men in those old Hawaiian surfing prints—small, chesty, gravity-bound. He had perfect features and hair as shiny as an otter’s. When he listened to the girls he kept his head tilted, eyebrows slightly raised, jaw set in a grin. Not like a brother, exactly—more like the cutest, nicest teacher at school, who could say stern, urgent things without them stinging. When I pulled into the driveway with the girls, Matt was in the yard loading surfboards into a pickup. “Hey, dudes,” he called to Lilia and Theresa. “Where are your boards?”
“Someone’s going to bring them tonight from Hana,” Theresa said. She jiggled her foot. “Matt, come on, let’s go surfing already.”
“Hey, Lilia,” Matt said. He squeezed her shoulders. “How’re you doing, champ? Is your dad going to surf in the contest this weekend?”
Lilia shrugged and looked up at him solemnly. “Come on, Matt,” she said. “Let’s go surfing already.”
They went down to surf at Ho’okipa, to a section that is called Pavilles because it is across from the concrete picnic pavilions on the beach. Ho’okipa is not a lot like Hana. People with drinking problems like to hang out in the pavilions. Windsurfers abound. Cars park up to the edge of the sand. The landing pattern for the Kahului Airport is immediately overhead. The next break over, the beach is prettier; the water there is called Girlie Bowls, because the waves get cut down by the reef and are more manageable, presumably, for girlies.
A few years ago, some of the Hana surfer girls met their idol Lisa Andersen when she was on Maui. She was very shy and hardly said a word to them, they told me, except to suggest they go surf Girlie Bowls. I thought it sounded mildly insulting, but they weren’t exactly sure what she was implying and they didn’t brood about it. They hardly talked about her. She was like some unassailable force.
We walked past the pavilions. “The men at this beach are so sexist,” Lilia said, glaring at a guy swinging a boombox. “It’s really different from Hana. Here they’re always, you know, staring, and saying, ‘Oh, here come the giiiirls,’ and ‘Oh, hello, ladies,’ and stuff. For us white girls, us haoles, I think they really like to be gross. So gross. I’m serious.”
“Hey, the waves look pretty sick,” Theresa said. She watched a man drop in on one and then whip around against it. She whistled and said, “Whoooa, look at that sick snap! That was so rad, dude! That was the sickest snap I’ve seen in ages! Did you see that?”
They were gone in an instant. A moment later, two blond heads popped up in the black swells, and then they were up on their boards and away.
Dinner at Matt’s: tons of barbecued chicken, loaves of garlic bread, more loaves of garlic bread. Annie Kinoshita brought four quarts of ice cream out of the freezer, lined them up on the kitchen counter, and watched them disappear. Annie was fair, fine-boned, and imperturbable. She used to be a surfer “with hair down to her frickin’ butt,” according to Theresa. Now she was busy with her baby and with overseeing the open-door policy she and Matt maintained in their house.
That night, another surfer girl, Elise Garrigue, and a 14-year-old boy, Cheyne Magnusson, had come over for dinner and were going to sleep over, too. Cheyne was one of the best young surfers on the island. His father, Tony, was a professional skateboarder. Cheyne was the only boy who regularly crashed at Matt and Annie’s. He and the girls had the Platonic ideal of a Platonic relationship. “Hell, these wenches are virgins,” Annie said to me, cracking up. “These wenches don’t want anything to do with that kind of nastiness.”
“Shut up, haole,” Theresa said.
“I was going to show these virgins a picture of Chaz’s head coming out when I was in labor,” Annie yelled, “and they’re all, ‘No, no, no, don’t!'”
“Yeah, she’s all, ‘Look at this grossness!'” Theresa said. “And we’re all, ‘Shut up, fool.'”
“Duh,” Lilia said. “Like we’d even want to see a picture like that.”
The next day was the preliminary round of the Quicksilver HASA Competition, the fourth of eight HASA competitions on Maui leading to the state championships and then the nationals. It was a two-day competition—preliminaries on Saturday, finals on Sunday.
In theory, the girls should have gone to bed early because they had to get up at five, but that was just a theory. They pillow-fought for an hour, watched “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and “Boy Meets World” and another episode of “Sabrina,” then watched a couple of Kelly Slater surfing videos, had another pillow fight, ate a few bowls of cereal, then watched Fear of a Black Hat, a movie spoofing the rap-music world that they had seen so many times that they could recite most of the dialogue by heart. Only Elise fell asleep at a decent hour. She happened to be French and perhaps had overdosed on American pop culture earlier than the rest.
Elise sort of blew in to Hawaii with the trade winds: She and her mother had left France and were planning to move to Tahiti, stopped on Maui en route, and never left. It was a classic Hawaiian tale. No one comes here for ordinary reasons in ordinary ways. They run away to Maui from places like Maryland or Nevada or anyplace they picture themselves earthbound, landlocked, stuck. They live in salvaged boxcars or huts or sagging shacks just to be near the waves. Here, they can see watery boundlessness everywhere they turn, and all things are fluid and impermanent.
I don’t know what time it was when the kids finally went to sleep because I was on the living room floor with my jacket over my head for insulation. When I woke up a few hours later, the girls were dressed for the water, eating bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Honey Bunches of Oats, and watching Fear of a Black Hat again. It was a lovely morning and they were definitely ready to show Hana surfing to the world. Theresa was the first to head out the door. “Hey, losers,” she yelled over her shoulder, “let’s go.”
The first heats of the contest had right-handed waves, three or four feet high, silky but soft on the ends so that they collapsed into whitewash as they broke. You couldn’t make much of an impression riding something like that, and one after another the Hana girls came out of the water scowling. “I couldn’t get any kind of footing,” Theresa said to Matt. “I was, like, so on it, but I looked like some kind of kook sliding around.”
“My last wave was a full-out closeout,” Lilia said. She looked exasperated. “Hey, someone bust me a towel.” She blotted her face. “I really blew it,” she groaned. “I’m lucky if I even got five waves.”
Hana is far away and feels even farther. There is no mall, no Starbucks, no Hello Kitty store, no movie theater. Which means that a Hana girl is exposed to few distractions and can practically live in the water. She can have herself an almost pure surf adolescence.
The girls were on the beach below the judges’ stand, under Matt’s cabana, along with Matt’s boys’ team and a number of kids he didn’t sponsor but who liked hanging out with him more than with their own sponsors. The kids spun like atoms. They ran up and down the beach and stuffed sand in each others’ shorts and fought over pieces of last night’s chicken that Annie had packed for them in a cooler.
During a break between heats, Gloria with the crazy hair strolled over and suddenly the incessant motion paused. This was like an imperial visitation. After all, Gloria was a seasoned-seeming 19-year-old who had just spent the year surfing the monstrous waves on Oahu’s North Shore, plus she did occasional work for Rodney Kilborn, the contest promoter, plus she had a sea turtle tattooed on her ankle, and most important, according to the Hana girls, she was an absolutely dauntless bodyboarder who would paddle out into wall-size waves, even farther out than a lot of guys would go.
“Hey, haoles!” Gloria called out. She hopped into the shade of the cabana. That day, her famous hair was woven into a long red braid that hung over her left shoulder. Even with her hair tamed, Gloria was an amazing-looking person. She had a hardy build, melon-colored skin, and a wide, round face speckled with light-brown freckles. Her voice was light and tinkly, and had that arched, rising-up, quizzical inflection that made everything she said sound like a jokey, good-natured question.
“Hey, Theresa?” she said. “Hey, girl, you got it going on? You’ve got great wave strategy? Just keep it up, yeah? Oh, Elise? You should paddle out harder? OK? You’re doing great, yeah? And Christie?” She looked around for a surfer girl named Christie Wickey, who got a ride in at four that morning from Hana. “Hey, Christie?” Gloria said when she spotted her. “You should go out further, yeah? That way you’ll be in better position for your wave, OK? You guys are the greatest, seriously? You rule, yeah? You totally rule, yeah?”
At last the junior women’s division preliminary results were posted. Theresa, Elise, and two other girls on Matt’s team made the cut, as well as a girl whom Matt knew but didn’t coach. Lilia had not made it. As soon as she heard, she tucked her blond head in the crook of her elbow and cried. Matt sat with her and talked quietly for a while, and then one by one the other girls drifted up to her and murmured consoling things, but she was inconsolable. She hardly spoke for the rest of the afternoon until the open men’s division, which Matt had entered. When his heat was announced, she lifted her head and brushed her hand across her swollen eyes. “Hey, Matt!” she called as he headed for the water. “Rip it for the girls!”
That night, a whole pack of them slept at Matt’s—Theresa, Lilia, Christie, Elise, Monica Cardoza from Lahaina, and sisters from Hana named Iris Moon and Lily Morningstar, who had arrived too late to surf in the junior women’s preliminaries. There hadn’t been enough entrants in the open women’s division to require preliminaries, so the competition was going to be held entirely on Sunday and Iris would be able to enter. Lily wasn’t planning to surf at all, but as long as she was able to get a ride out of Hana she took it.
This added up to too many girls at Matt’s for Cheyne’s liking, so he had fled to another boy’s house for the night. Lilia was still blue. She was quiet through dinner, and then as soon as she finished she slid into her sleeping bag and pulled it over her head. The other girls stayed up for hours, watching videos and slamming each other with pillows and talking about the contest. At some point someone asked where Lilia was. Theresa shot a glance at her sleeping bag and said quietly, “Did you guys see how upset she got today? I’m like, ‘Take it easy, Lilia!’ and she’s all ‘Leave me alone, bitch.’ So I’m like, ‘Whatever.'”
They whispered for a while about how sensitive Lilia was, about how hard she took it if she didn’t win, about how she thought one of them had wrecked a bathing suit she’d loaned her, about how funny it was that she even cared since she had so many bathing suits and for that matter always had money for snacks, which most of them did not.
When I said a Hana girl could have a pure surfing adolescence, I knew it was part daydream, because no matter how sweet the position of a beautiful, groovy Hawaiian teenager might be in the world of perceptions, the mean measures of the human world don’t ever go away. There would always be something else to want and be denied. More snack money, even.
Lilia hadn’t been sleeping. Suddenly she bolted out of her sleeping bag and screamed, “Fuck you, I hate you stupid bitches!” and stormed toward the bathroom, slugging Theresa on the way.
The waves on Sunday came from the left, and they were stiff and smallish, with crisp, curling lips. The men’s and boys’ heats were narrated over the PA system, but during the girls’ and women’s heats the announcer was silent, and the biggest racket was the cheering of Matt’s team. Lilia had toughened up since last night. Now she seemed grudgeless but remote. Her composure made her look more grown-up than 12. When I first got down to the beach she was staring out at the waves, chewing a hunk of dried papaya and sucking on a candy pacifier.
A few of the girls were far off to the right of the break where the beach disappeared and lustrous black rocks stretched into the water. Christie told me later that they hated being bored more than anything in the world and between heats they were afraid they might be getting a little weary, so they decided to perk themselves up by playing on the rocks. It had worked. They charged back from the rocks shrieking and panting. “We got all dangerous,” she said. “We jumped off this huge rock into the water. We almost got killed, which was great.”
Sometimes watching them I couldn’t believe that they could head out so offhandedly into the ocean—this ocean, which had rolls of white water coming in as fast as you could count them, and had a razor-blade reef hidden just below the surface, and was full of sharks. The girls, on the other hand, couldn’t believe I’d never surfed—never ridden a wave standing up or lying down, never cut back across the whitewash and sent up a lacy veil of spray, never felt a longboard slip out from under me and then felt myself pitched forward and under for that immaculate, quiet, black instant when all the weight in the world presses you down toward the ocean bottom until the moment passes and you get spat up on the beach.
I explained I’d grown up in Ohio, where there is no surf, but that didn’t satisfy them; what I didn’t say was that I’m not sure that at 15 I had the abandon or the indomitable sense of myself that you seem to need in order to look at this wild water and think, I will glide on top of those waves. Theresa made me promise I’d try to surf at least once someday. I promised, but this Sunday was not going to be that day. I wanted to sit on the sand and watch the end of the contest, to see the Hana girls take their divisions, including Lilia, who placed third in the open women’s division, and Theresa, who won the open women’s and the junior women’s division that day. Even if it was just a moment, it was a perfect one, and who wouldn’t choose it over never having the moment at all? When I left Maui that afternoon, my plane circled over Ho’okipa, and I wanted to believe I could still see them down there and always would see them down there, snapping back and forth across the waves.
This article appeared in the Fall 1998 edition of Women Outside.