My first paddle out on Kauai’s south shore reminds me of the difference between surfing coral reefs and the sand bottom beach breaks and points I have surfed most of my life.
At this coral reef, waves come of nowhere, bent over the reef and slammed in front of me. I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on.
The wave was a classic A-frame breaking on a shallow reef a couple of hundred yards from shore. My sons, Israel and Daniel, are surfing a left down the beach. Another wave that is even hollower breaks just a bit west.
Surfers paddle around me as if I am not there. As a first-timer to the reef, I am really just in the way.
I catch a few rights and remember the sound advice given to Israel by South Bay Union School District Trustee Dave Lopez before we departed.
“You have to really paddle over that hump to get into the wave. You have to be committed,” said Dave, who is an excellent surfer and lived in the islands for years.
He gets it.
My strategy at this particular spot is to sit inside the main crew, a tight group of older surfers (okay—my age—fortysomethings) who surf very well and have the lineup dialed. A younger core group of rippers sits inside and snaps up everything the older guys can’t get into.
What I fail to realize is that the current sweeps across the reef. When a set comes I am smack in the middle of the impact zone.
Three surfers paddle for the first wave of the set. All three take off.
Normally I would have been okay. In any other location three surfers would not have dropped in on the same hollow wave breaking over a shallow reef.
The guy closest to the whitewater, who should have had priority, doesn’t see me inside of him. I hope he will decide to go left to avoid me.
No such luck. He is heading straight for me. At the last minute I bail my board and dive deep. He completely runs me over.
After bouncing around underwater I emerge and see his board but there is no surfer to be seen. After what seems like eternity, he emerges from the foam. Luckily we are both okay and our boards weren’t dinged.
And then two more set waves hammer me.
Welcome to Hawaii.
The boys and I surf with only a few other people each morning. The locals know there is no need to dawn patrol. The trade winds blow sideshore-offshore all day, every day.
A couple of days later the surf picks up again. I notice a group of surfer girls paddle out at the left where Israel and Daniel are out surfing.
One of the girls, a tall blonde, has an odd way of paddling. It is as if her arm is tucked below her board.
It is Bethany Hamilton, a professional surfer and the subject of the film Soul Surfer. When she was 13 and in the waters of Kauai's North Shore, she was bitten by a 14-foot tiger shark and lost her arm.
When I saw her, she had just recovered from an injury she received while surfing in Indonesia.
By the way, Bethany rips.
What most impressed me about our time on Kauai was the passion locals have for the ocean. The old guys are ripping on short boards. The young guys are shredding.
People are paddling into critical waves, paddling their outriggers outside the lineup and everyone seems to have a smile on their face.
One evening just before sunset, a local paddles out at the reef. He looks like a UFC fighter, ripped, arms covered in tattoos, with long bleached hair.
This is the local I’ve been dreading. The one who is going to look at me and tell me to leave.
But as he enters the lineup he is grinning and warmly greets his friends, and smiles as he paddles by me.
I smile back as the heavy local paddles hard for a wave but doesn’t quite make it. “There will be another one, brah,” he says to me. “There will be another one.”
Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and the author of Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.