On a long hike, I got a stone in my boot. The hike was grueling, steep, and treacherous. Stopping was not an option, so I put up with the annoyance. Eventually, the discomfort became a part of me, and although vaguely aware of its presence, I was able to plod on, though at a slight disadvantage. Upon reaching a certain vantage point, I was able to stop and remove the stone. It was only then that I realized how much it had been affecting me, and felt a certain liberation and appreciation for my normal, non-stoned state of being.
Although not an exact metaphor, this should give an idea of how I felt when finally able to get a good night sleep after a week of camping in less than favorable conditions. As magical as our time at Anini had been, the elements soon began to take their toll on us, as the winds became ferocious, and the rains became nearly consistent in their frequency. Even Hawaii does not experience endless summer in the depths of winter. Days on end of this had become nearly unbearable. Every night, our sleep was interrupted by the flapping of the tent and howl of the wind. We became exhausted over the course of our first week, and were unable to do much beyond take care of our basic survival. Making a simple meal became an ordeal, and we began to frequent restaurants, guiltily savoring our meals in the knowledge that we had somehow failed at our self-imposed attempt to play Swiss Family Robinson. Slowly, hesitantly, we realized that for the sake of our mental and physical health, we would need to find a rental house for the month.
We were fortunate enough to quickly find a place that perfectly matched our needs. Cyrus’s Auntie Eleni had a friend with a rental in Kilauea that happened to be empty for a month, and we were able to get it at a regular price, and not the usual quadruple rate for short term accommodations. Vacation rentals on Kauai start at $800 a week, and we were able to get a full month for $1400. Although unfurnished, it was a cute semi-private cottage on a 4-acre property covered with organic fruit trees. Best of all, it was within 15 minutes of all of our favorite beaches.
Cyrus had a newfound passion for boogie boarding, which is similar to surfing, but on a smaller board that you hold out in front of you rather than stand on. Boogie boarding can be great fun, and can be done almost any sized wave. It can be as safe as you want it to be, and is popular with children and novice surfers. Some ‘spongers’ (as they are called by surfers) wear flippers, and ride the bigger waves, but this can bring the risks of those waves, which include getting tumbled in the surf, and crashing into a reef. When you catch the wave, it shoots you forward like a rocket, and you get a sense of the powerful forces that are making a plaything of you.
We made it our daily mission to seek out the beaches with the best boogie boarding waves, which differ from good surfing waves. Good boogie boarding waves will break gently, closer to the shore, and won’t be more than 3 feet tall. Our mornings were spent doing several hours of school work, and after lunch we would venture forth to find some good breaks. With education like this, who needed classrooms?
We soon had a favorite beach, Kalihiwai, which had a couple of good surf breaks, and a nice middle section with a gentle sand bar break. Getting out in the waves is all about mastering your fear, as the ocean is far more powerful than you realize until it has you in its grasp, and must be treated with the utmost respect. A large and looming as a wave a tall as you has at least as much power beneath the surface as what you see above. And much of that power will flow back out after releasing itself on the shore. One moment you are bracing against the crashing curl, and the next you are fighting a current trying to carry you back out to sea.
This is known as a rip tide, which is a concentrated current of water flowing back out to the sea, with deeper water, and smaller waves. If caught in the rip, it is useless to fight it, as even the strongest swimmer will tire and drown. You are far better off to let it carry you out while treading water, then swim perpendicular to it and let the incoming waves carry you back in. Surfers often use the rip to carry them out to the bigger waves, but they have the advantage of having a floatation device. The islands are rife with tales of drowning from unsuspecting swimmers who get caught in the rip. (RIP to those who have been caught in the rip).
When playing in the waves, you can make a game of ducking under the huge waves crashing down. As long as you can easily touch the bottom, diving through the waves becomes an exciting ritual of purification, letting the current move you as it will without harming you. If you happen to be on a board of some kind, be it boogie or surf, you run the risk of having the wave slam you into your board, or tossing and tumbling you like a rag doll. Having this happen while trying to ride the wave makes you realize that we don’t own our bodies, we are only borrowing them for a while, and the loan can come up at any time.
Cyrus’s Uncle Ryan had kindly (or perhaps foolishly) lent me his softboard, which is like a surfboard, but made of covered foam, and is much less painful when it clobbers you after a bail. I had a quick lesson in why learning to surf on a softboard is a good thing, when I had several waves ‘close out’ on me, which is when the whole wave dumps at once, leaving no surfable edge. Most experienced surfers can ride out of these, but I was far from experienced. If you’ve ever watched a heavy duty washing machine on the extra-dirty cycle, you can get an idea of what it looks like to take a dive in heavy surf. Despite this, those times when you catch a wave leave you feeling like you have tapped into the essential life force of the universe. Time stands still, and like, dude, it’s so gnarly. There are no words. It is highly addictive, and will leave you wondering when you can go out again. And you will go out again, even if it might kill you.
On one of our beach hopping days, Cyrus and I were lucky enough to come upon hordes of trucks parked at the end of a dirt road which had beach access via a steep trail down into Larsen’s Beach on the North Shore. We had no intention of swimming there, as it was known as a deadly beach, having claimed numerous lives over the years, but it was a prime surf spot known only to locals, and oftentimes you would catch a pro surfer or two out on the giant swells that blasted the short break into the reef infested beach.
As we watched several fellows who were decidedly not surfers jump out of their vehicles carrying some serious looking camera gear, we began to suspect that something totally tubular was up, and it was probably the surf. Arriving at the first lookout, we spotted several surfers rising up and down on swells unlike anything I had seen before, with several jet skis darting in and out, being careful to avoid the cresting waves. Slack jawed, we watched as a surfer latched onto a tow line, was lured to the top of one of the monstrous swells, and caught the cresting wave. Boom! He was in! Even from our high vantage point, we could hear the roar of the waves, at least four times the height of the surfer, as he did his best to maintain against the power of the ocean.
Riding out before the close of the wave, he was towed back to safety in the line of surfers awaiting the next perfect wave. This was big wave surfing, something I had only seen in movies, and let me tell you, they do no justice to the jaw-dropping power of the ocean. I had the presence of mind to get out my own small but capable video camera, trying not to feel camera envy for the fellow beside me, who was sporting a somewhat larger professional looking unit, probably paid for by some travel or surfing mag.
We watched as the next surfer lined up, caught the tow, and caught the wave. A group of us made our way down the steep trail to another vantage point, lower down, closer, and with plenty of tree roots to perch on. My camera clad buddy and I both started recording what unfolded for the next hour or so, and he confided in me that surfing great Laird Hamilton was among the dozen or so surfers jockeying for position on the back side of the bread. Laird is one of the giants in the big wave surfing world who happens to live on Kauai, and to witness him playing in his own backyard was a rare and serendipitous treat.
Surfer after surfer, wave after wave, we witnessed some of the finest surfing I had ever seen in person or on a screen. As the sun set, the light faded, and the surfers started dissipating, until there was one lone surfer and jet ski. Most of our companions had left as well, the fading light making it hard to clearly make out what was happening on the waves let alone film. We watched as the last surfer caught the last wave of the evening, and watched aghast as he got caught in the close out, getting pummeled by the twenty-foot wave. I had experienced the pain of a four-foot wave, enough to knock the breath out of me and leave me disoriented as I tumbled around under the water. I couldn’t even imagine what this poor fellow was experiencing.
The we spotted him, coming up for air, getting his bearings as another wave crashed on him. He was in the break zone, and we could only watch, helpless, as he was tumbled again. The jet ski couldn’t get in to him, as it would be a deadly disaster to be caught in the zone on a motorized toy. Seeing him surface again, we cheered, as he tried to catch the frothing remnants of a wave. Again, he was pummeled by the froth of a wave, but he was no longer in the break zone. Making a mad dash around the break, his jet-ski companion made a break for it, and managed to get into the churning froth. As another wave approached, the jet ski lurched forward, careful not to get caught between the wave and the reef, which would have been deadly for both man and machine.
Finally, the jet-ski was able to circle back and tow the poor surfer, who was by now probably quite beaten and worn, into the safer calm where the whitewater washed over the reef. Watching him laboriously paddle over the reef towards the safety of the shore, I decided that as enticing as it may seem, big wave surfing is something left to those who know what they are doing. We gave a small cheer before heading back up the steep bluff, basking in the sunset glow of knowing that we had witnessed something truly Hawaiian, unstaged and real, humans putting their lives on the line in pursuit of passion. What more inspiration could we ask for?