Friday, July 29, 2011

Dawn Patrol at Publics

It's tough to find an uncrowded place to surf near an island city of 375,000 residents, all of whom seem to have a longboard in the sideyard. But if you're willing to get up early and paddle out through a shallow reef in the dark, you can capture 30 minutes of alone time even in Honolulu's dense urban-surf environment. The other day I caught four or five uncontested waves at Public's as dawn crept over Diamond Head, with nothing but reef fishes and a solitary sea turtle to keep me company. Or so I thought.

As daylight came and made the pass through the inside reef a little more discernible, Jessie paddled out and joined me. Jessie's a big Hawaiian on a big longboard who sits outside the normal lineup and waits for the clean-up sets. He paddles out in an upright seated position with his legs in front of him. We've never  been introduced, but I know his name because on crowded days the other surfers yell "Go Jessie!" when he lines up that big noserider for a long ride to the jetty. Jessie nodded to me as he paddled by.

Within an hour there were five or six of us out there: Todd on the 6'8" epoxy fish identical to mine, a kid on a boogie board, and the kid's friend on a thruster. There was also an old guy I see all the time who rides a homemade paipo, which is an authentic wooden bodyboard like the Hawaiians rode in "pre-contact" days. The rest of the crew is not there: Allen, Lance, Ken, Robin, others.

On an average day, Publics is cleaner and more consistent than the best days at my home break back in LA. On good days, at a medium tide with a solid 5-foot south swell and light trade winds, Public's is worthy of a surf magazine centerfold.

Jessie caught a wave in to the reef and as he paddled back out, he casually mentioned that he'd seen a 6-foot tiger shark in shallow water near the reef. Later on I passed this information to Todd, who said sharks were common at all the south shore reefs. One time, Todd said, he'd taken a ride on the tourist submarine off Waikiki and was amazed at the population of big ulua, ono, and sharks just a few hundred yards offshore. Sure enough, from his perch outside the lineup, Jessie called out that he'd seen the same small shark again, jetting across the sandy bottom below him.

No one seemed disturbed by this second sighting. I wondered if it should bother me. I've always reasoned that sharks and other menaces probably loiter unseen around the shorelines where I surf all the time. Attacks on surfers (outside of Australia, anyway) are so rare that the chances of becoming a victim are extremely remote. I figured, "If these Hawaiians I'm surfing with become nervous, I'll take that as an indication that it's time to leave." Aside from an occasional glance below their feet, Todd and Jessie did not seem concerned. We kept surfing.

Michael, a surfer and one of the valets at the hotel, told me that afternoon that there is a well-known local tiger shark, at least 12 feet long, that regularly cruises between Diamond Head and Waikiki. That's a big shark. A shark that big bites you, it might leave a scar. Michael shared his philosophy: "When we go in the ocean, we enter the food chain." Yes, I said, and we're not necessarily at the top of that food chain. Michael laughed, but suggested that tastier fare was much easier for the average shark to come by. A reassuring thought: they'll leave us alone, because we taste bad and we're probably not worth the trouble.

I'll keep all this in mind when next I paddle out through the reef at Public's in the dark for some alone time.