Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Peculiar Politics of a Popular Surf Spot

Any time I surf at Queens and don't get yelled at is a good surf session.

Queens is the spot right in front of the Duke Kahanamoku statue on Waikiki. Look at an old black and white post card of people surfing in Hawaii in the '30's and '40's, with Diamond Head in the background, and you're looking at Queens. Anyone who visits Honolulu and wants to try his hand at surfing, tries it at Queens. It is the most crowded single wave in the surfing universe with the possible exception of Malibu on a good day.
It still looks and feels just like this.

 Malibu doesn't have very many good days, in spite of what you've heard, but the waves at Queens are fun and rideable almost every day, and some days, with the right southwest swell and a medium tide, Queens is fantastic. It breaks both left and right—better to the right, but you can go either way—and there's an outside peak and an inside peak called Baby Queens and even with 40 surfers in the water, everyone can catch some waves.

Because Queens is directly in front of our layover hotels in Waikiki, it was the first spot I surfed when I started coming out here regularly two years ago. My first time there, I paddled out on a rented fun-board on a 4-foot day and within 20 minutes I had caught arguably two of the best waves in my life, right there in front of the hotels and the traffic and a city of 350,000 people. Pretty soon I was surfing Queens once or twice a week on an Infinity longboard I bought for sixty bucks from a Swiss med student leaving the island. And I began my education in the peculiar politics of surfing in the islands.

The crowd at Queens.
The customs and courtesies of surfing I learned growing up in Southern California don't apply here, even at a spot as overrun with tourists and beginners as Queens. Generally, the surfer closest to the peak has priority; you don't take off on a wave in front of another surfer already established on that wave; if a wave breaks both ways, you call your intended direction of travel, "Coming right!" or "Left, left!" to ward off interlopers. The young hotdog and the oldtimer on his monster longboard all observe the same rules, and it works pretty good.

Here in the islands it work s a little differently. Even on a big, wide-shouldered wave like Queens, the rules favor not the surfer who manages to hustle himself into the best takeoff spot (more on that in a minute) but rather an intricate hierarchy of locals, locals' girlfriends, children of locals, brown people generally, and accepted haoles who've been around a really, really long time. A fair-skinned visitor on a borrowed board fits into none of these categories, and must content himself with whatever smaller waves happen to pop up in front of him while no one is looking, and there aren't very many of those. To do otherwise, as I soon learned, is to invite everything from a mild scolding to a wrathful lambasting in a language whose words you do not understand but whose meaning is clear.

It is futile to protest or attempt to explain yourself. You might think you could just ask how the system works; the resulting lecture on "respect" will not clear things up. You're going to have to learn for yourself, as I did, that haoles are expected to yield to stand-up paddlers, all girls, keiki (children), Hawaiian locals, non-Hawaiian locals, and anyone with an acre of tattoos on his back. This means fewer waves on a crowded afternoon, but at least you'll get out of the water with your dignity intact.

Reflecting back on my upbringing in Southern California, I now realize my surfing elders did me no favors by teaching me the habit of always jostling and hustling and maneuvering for the best spot on the next wave. A scarcity mentality prevails in California because really, really good waves are, once again, rarer than a smog-free day in LA, and the conditions that created this morning's overhead west swell with offshore winds and hollow peaks might not repeat itself for weeks or months! You gotta get every wave you can because, son, it might be awhile! Thus the need to snake and parry and weasel your way into position on every single wave and the ensuing bad feelings when someone drops in on your perfect setup for that glassy inside section.

Here I must admit the Hawaiians have developed a healthier attitude towards the whole enterprise, but they can afford to because, out here, there's always good surf somewhere, and if not today, then tomorrow; by Friday at the latest. The appearance of wanting too many waves, of striving a little too hard, the scheming subtle shifts in position that let you score a few extra waves—that is all highly frowned upon at Queens and every other spot I've surfed so far, and people will definitely talk to you about it. And they'll talk about you, within earshot, to all of their friends: "Dis guy, what he think, he gotta get every wave? What you think, you gotta catch every wave? Relax!" And you look at them blankly, trying to figure out what you did wrong this time. You think, there was no one else on that wave. I wasn't in anyone's way—this doesn't make sense! What'd I do?

You paddled back out and right into another wave. You hustled—you caught your share and then a few more than your share. You strove. You didn't know it, but you were making a spectacle of yourself, a fair-skinned haole spectacle. If everyone came here and did that, it would be just like California, and that, that is what you are to understand when they talk to you about respect. This is someplace else, a special place, and these unbelievably good, consistent fun waves are God's special gift to these islands and these surfers, who have no choice but to share them, but on certain terms and conditions: Wait your turn. Let others go first. Take your time. Enjoy the sunset, feel that wind, look at what's beneath your feet in this clear, perfect water. Our great-grandparents, they would say if you really gave them your full attention, surfed here on alaia and poipo and this is our heritage and our home and you're a guest here—an uninvited one at that. So chill!

I have come to believe that the only thing a Hawaiian surfer enjoys more than a great ride on a perfect wave, is watching his best friend have a great ride on a perfect wave. Since I've learned to adopt that outlook, I paddle out almost anywhere I want and I don't get yelled at. I've even made some friends! And I still get a lot of really, really good waves.