In the summer of 1960, I was working as a lifeguard at Cedar Beach, a county beach on Long Island, NY. In those days, Division 1 athletes were allowed to go home for summer vacation. When I signed to play football for Georgia Tech I imagined that I would be given a summer job as that was the custom. The better you were, the better the job you’d be given. True to form, I was given a job working for Delta airlines at Idlewild Airport (which later became JFK) as a ramp tramp. The job was fun. I was assigned to work with the man in charge of everything from fueling the planes to running around in a cart seemingly making up things to do. I was being trained, but I wasn’t sure for what!
While the job was fun, the commute was brutal. Driving from my parent’s home in Amityville to the airport, a trip of about 30 miles, took about an hour to 90 minutes in serious traffic. My mother had a friend who was in a carpool and I was invited to join. I rode with them one day. Four guys that worked at the airport. It was my introduction to a life that I never wanted to have. They talked nonstop about the life that they didn’t want to have, either.
Toward the end of my first week I made my first “reasoned choice,” I resigned! Then I made I made one of the most important decisions ever. I became an Ocean Life Guard. Now there was plenty of time to train, run on the beach and learn to paddle and catch waves on these huge rescue boards. As the saying goes, once the sand got into my toes, my skin got tan and my hair turned blond, I was introduced to the life I was meant to have.
Around the World in Eighty Days
One night during this magical summer, I went to see the movie “Around the World in Eighty Days” at a Cinerama that had the three screens. When they finally got to Hawaii and showed surfing on these long waves in beautiful water with theses unreal colors I made a decision. After my career in football was over I would move to the Islands.
As they say, the rest is history.
I graduated from Georgia Tech in the spring of 1965 and in August I flew to Hawaii (lived in the YMCA close to the University of Hawaii). I registered as an unclassified graduate student at UH (they had lost my acceptance papers to graduate school which eventually got worked out). I found a house in Waikiki on Paoakalani Street,attended class two days a week, surfing the other five.
My first friend was a guy named Roger Pfeffer who introduced me to the famous Hawaiian surfer Ben Aipa. The next day Ben took me to Makaha to surf and meet the local supreme water-man Buffalo Keaulana. There, I was introduced to what I call “having a card.” Buff said to mention his name if I ever had trouble, me being “haole” (a new comer that is Caucasian/white). One day Ben told me that I was really handling being haole well. I remember telling him that being haole was really easy compared to being a “yankee” at Georgia Tech.
On our next trip, Ben took me to the North Shore where I met brothers Eddie and Clyde Aikau. We surfed Laniakea. The waves were three to four feet and I was in heaven. Warm water and everything smelled so good. Super long lines, these waves like I had seen in the movie back when I made my decision to come to Hawaii. Waves that were easy to ride and just went on forever. Two weeks later I returned and it was early winter, six- to eight-foot waves with really intense conditions.But as time went on, I learned how to surf both in town and in the country.
It was now 1968 and I had surfed for three years. I was hired to teach at Punahou School in Honolulu. I had gotten married and surfed whenever I could. In 1971 I moved to the country, the north shore of Oahu. In the winter of 1972 I made a decision to surf every swell possible. I made good on my decision and for the next seven years I did surf every swell. It was during this time that I developed great relationships, with the likes of surfing legends Eddie Aikau, Barry Kanaiaupuni and of Aussies that came to spend the winter..
To Eddie I was Braddah Brad. The entire Aikau family went out of their way to make me feel welcome. Their friendship helped me to become confident in my ability to surf Sunset. Eddie made a point of announcing that we were Braddah-Braddah. His way of letting me know that we were a special kind of friend. He pulled me in and it felt great.
I remember when he won the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Meet. All of his hard work surfing Sunset and Waimea made him dominant at those breaks. On that day he was clearly the best guy in the water. I felt very fortunate to know him and have a chance to acknowledge him in person. He was sitting in his car by Three Tables Beach. I was on my way home from school and work. I pulled my car over, walked up, and as he got out of his car we hugged. I remember telling him how great it was that he had won. After a few moments, our conversation turned heavy. He mentioned his upcoming trip abroad the Hokulea. Later I learned that he knew something bad was going to happen but at the same time he knew he had to go. That was the last time I saw Eddie. It was 1978.
I remember sitting on the beach with local surfer and carpenter Jeff Johnson at his house close to Ehukai Beach Park. The wind was blowing out of the North really hard, like 30 knots. Jeff who had sailed his own boat to Hawaii from California back in the day looked at me at me and said, “The Hokulea left today, they should have never gone.” That night was the last time anyone saw Eddie. To this day I wish I had told him how much our friendship meant to me.
Eddie was a presence. Success and fame never changed him. He lived with Aloha and created "Pono" (to make it right) in his life. He surfed with the fire and passion that separated him from the rest. Eddie was the best example of someone who lived his truth. He had the courage to be so calm and strong in the moments that shaped his career as a surfer, lifeguard and man.
Shortly after I arrived in Hawaii, I went to Ma’ili Point. The surf was the most beautiful and perfect thing I had ever seen. The waves were breaking off the point on a sandy bottom, the light shined through the waves. This was before they built the breakwater that ruined the wave.
This was also my introduction to Barry Kanaiaupuni. Barry was out in the water and shredding. He was amazingly strong in the water. He was holding court and putting on a clinic. He got every wave he wanted, turning off the bottom with so much power and speed. It was a sight to see. Up until that point I thought surfing was more about being graceful than punishing the wave. Barry’s lower body was so strong and he was able to channel all of this energy into the wave. I was in complete awe of his power.
Fast-forward about seven years and we’re living in Pupukea. My wife, Elise, and my son, Reyn (who was two years old) spent each day at a beach called Tide Pools. One night at dinner Elise said, “I met this really nice lady at the beach today. Her husband is a famous surfer. He is known by his initials and we're having a potluck dinner on Saturday night at their house.”
Imagine my surprise as we show up at the house of BK. All I could do was laugh. I’m standing with the guy I love to watch surf with so much power. In person he is gentle, soft–spoken, very personable. This was the beginning of a great friendship. BK was and is a regular guy that was just able to generate this amazing energy in the water. I was soon to learn that the secret behind his power was the mental fitness to knowing exactly what he wanted to do. Like his no-paddle takeoff on the steep west peak at Sunset, BK knew how to handle the drop and he made it look easy.
When he was done surfing he just paddled in and that was it. He was done. No explanation. He just paddled in. From Barry, I learned about how much better life works when you are clear with yourself and you really know what you want.
The Visiting Aussies
For me they were represented by Keno Kennerson and PT (Peter Townsend), MR (Mark Richards, above) and Mark Warren. Keno was the prototype to describe someone that I knew for two weeks. We lived together at a house at Leftovers. He was on his way home to Australia.
Keno simply loved to surf. He was “blue-collar.” He was always ready to paddle out. And he was fun. He had an old Chrysler, the one that had buttons to control the transmission. I had a ’52 Plymouth that was given to me by a friend. Keno was so proud of his car he told me it was “wrapped for the Queen.” In those days Haleiwa was quiet and laid-back. For a short time we lived the simple life of surfing the North Shore before the crowds came. That was a special time. No pretense, just surf.
The next Aussie to influence me was Peter Townsend. It was a few years later and I was now a regular at Sunset. Around this time they had the first Duke Kahanamoku Surf contest. Peter and a group of his friends stayed to surf Sunset. We had a north swell with north winds that no one usually surfed! Then PT and his friends paddled out and showed the rest of us how much fun it could be. From then on I loved to surf the point with north winds.
Then MR came and taught me how to stretch before paddling out and how to surf when the conditions were really junk. First the stretching, MR had a really bad back. It was during that time that he won the world title on his twin fin design. MR’s routine was very sophisticated and he was light years ahead of his time.
Surf when it’s junk. I had been working in my garden in Pupukea and I came down to take a swim and wash off. As I pulled in to the Embassy (Bernie Bakers home and yard) I was amazed to see MR stretching as if he was going to paddle out.
I said, “MR I know why I’m here, I need to wash off but why are you here?” MR replied, "I love it when it’s like this." As I looked out at Sunset it was victory at sea. I couldn’t see a lineup. “Why?" I asked,” “Because, I have to find the rhythm of the place. It’s what I do to focus in a contest.” I said, "Well, can I go out with you and see if I can do it?" “Sure,” he said and so I paddled out with MR, followed his lead, and had the time of my life. Surfing waves, that without MR, I couldn’t even see.
Then Mark Warren came and stayed with Bernie for a few weeks after he won a Duke Meet. Mark is a really friendly regular guy and we became friends. He is an excellent surfer and totally unaffected by his career.
So, in short, the Aussies taught me a bunch of lessons of how to approach surfing to get better, to have more fun and to make friends in a short period and have them last for a lifetime.
The North Shore Experience
The period of time I have written about here is characterized by great friendships held together by the passion we all shared for surfing, the joy of living the life on the North Shore and the sheer beauty that surrounded every moment.
When we first built our house in Pupukea above Waimea Bay. We were like pioneers. As far as you could see in either direction there were majestic views. The one neighbor we did have was very well educated and even more aware of the beauty that surrounded us. One day he pulled me aside and said, “Brad,” looking out at the Waianae Mountains and Kolekole Pass, “don’t miss the light show!”
From that moment forward to this day I never fail to appreciate the clouds, the colors, the dramatic changes in the weather, the surf and the magical times when the colors seem to come alive and sparkle. All of which provides a spiritual sense of perfection to this life! My neighbor was right…don’t miss the light show!
If you enjoyed these memories, check out my earlier posts on Lessons Learned, Thinking Makes It So, Get Home Before Dark, The Embassy, The Faces of Her Beauty, The Power of Flow and When it's Over