Surfing in Waikīkī

This post is dedicated to my dad.

For as long as I can remember, my father filled my head with stories of Hawai’i. He spent several years stationed at Pearl Harbor as a young naval officer and, appropriately, had the time of his life. He’d talk about days spent running road races around the island, hanging out at the beach, eating local food, and learning Hawaiian slang. Hawai’i gained a mythical status in my imagination, bolstered by the stunning imagery I’d seen in pictures and movies. It was one of my father’s dreams to take us there as a family and it became a dream of mine, too.

In 2019, we finally took that family trip. There were many experiences and sights that I was eager to take in, but there was one solidly at the top of my list: surfing. It always surprised me that my father never got into surfing while living in Honolulu. He was an ocean lover and an athlete, so it seemed like a natural fit.

For several years now, I’ve become fascinated with surfing. I love the skill it requires, the deep connection to the ocean it fosters, and the culture it creates. Unfortunately, I have a major problem.

I am a terrible surfer.

I’ve taken a few surfing lessons over the years, but I’ve never managed to actually catch a wave on my own without being pushed by the instructor. Needless to say, I was thrilled at the opportunity to surf on the storied waves of Waikīkī Beach.

Hawaiians have been surfing at Waikīkī, the famous Honolulu neighborhood, since the 1800s. Traditionally an activity for the ali’i (royalty), surfing became a popular pastime. After nearly disappearing because of the arrival of the Protestant missionaries, surfing experienced a resurgence in the 20th century in no small part to the beach boys, local surfers who taught tourists how to surf. Waikīkī’s sandy bottom, shallow water, and long waves make it great place to learn.

I arrived at the beach just past 7:30am, when the sun’s rays were still hidden behind the silhouette of Diamond Head. As I walked along the beach, I came across a group of tanned, tattooed men with a little camping tent. One of the men introduced himself as Dave and explained that they were Waikīkī beach boys. He offered to rent me to a beat-up longboard for $20 for three hours. I had just read an article about the beach boys a week earlier and while I didn’t know if these guys were official, they were friendly and welcoming, so I went for it.

I hauled the longboard (which was three times my size) out into water and started paddling out to the break. I was actually doing it! With the vast, blue Pacific Ocean stretching out in front of me, I felt like anything was possible.

Waikīkī Beach at sunset

The first wave tugged at my board. This was it. I turned around and started paddling with everything I had and… missed it. Then missed another one. I spent the next 30 minutes flopping around like a fish out of water. No matter how hard I tried, I could not catch a wave.

At one point, I just laid down on the surfboard, face against the waxy surface in defeat. My shoulders and arms were on fire, my legs bruised, and my ears full of water.

“You’re paddling too early!” Dave called out. “And you’re too far up on the board.” He was out in the water giving someone else a lesson and had decided to take pity on me. He floated over and explained that I wasn’t letting the wave do enough of the work. By paddling too early, I wasn’t letting the natural movement of the wave carry me. When I asked him how to stand up in time, he just said, “Just stand up!”

Simple advice for a seemingly impossible task. I watched the other surfers around me, rising effortlessly to their feet on the top of the waves. They made it look so easy.

I tried a few more times with no success. By wanting to surf so badly, I was overthinking each step of it. I wasn’t actually having any fun. Why was it so hard to just let go?

One more try. I told myself that I’d give myself one more chance and then throw in the towel.

I paddled back out and positioned myself. The undertow pulled and I quickly turned the board around. The water began to rumble as the wave broke around me. I took a deep breath and stood up, just like Dave told me. Suddenly, I was on top of the board, rushing toward the shore on white water. It’s cheesy to say, but it felt like flying.

The wave ended and gently deposited me into the water. I floated next to my board, laughing hysterically with disbelief and pride. I actually did it!

How did I even get this longboard into the water?

On shore, I thanked Dave and the beach boys for their help and walked back to our hotel, feeling sore, sun-soaked, and giddy from the experience. I had been out there for over an hour and only caught one wave, but it was all worth it. My first surfing experience in Hawai’i taught me the importance of enjoying the moment, letting go, and not giving up. That feeling, and the joy of seeing my father showing us around a place that he loved so much, will always stay with me.

Tips for visiting

> Get to the beach early. The later it gets, the more crowded the waves become.

> Take a lesson if you’ve never surfed before. There will be a lot of people out there and it’s a good idea to have someone show you the ropes to avoid injury to yourself or others.

> You can rent a surfboard from one of the many vendors on Waikīkī Beach. The oceanfront hotels also typically offer rentals to non-hotel guests.

> Before you hit the waves, educate yourself on the legacy of surfing in Hawai’i. It’s an essential part of being a respectful tourist. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Conde Nast Traveler, “A Look Back at Waikiki’s Surf History and Why It’s Still the Best Place to Learn The Sport.”

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