This story appears in the October-November 2018 issue of Hana Hou! magazine. Big mahalo to all the lifeguards, surfers, and regulars who took the time to share their experiences at Sandy Beach with me. There were so many more marvelous memories than could fit in the story. Here are some of my favorite quotes and anecdotes that were left out. Also, thanks to John Clark and Bruce Lee for sharing their epic photos!
“At the right time, at the right angle, it looks like a yellow brick road,” says Jesse Aurrecoechea, whose Instagram feed (jess_4_today) is a diary of the rising sun framed in liquid barrels. Eventually he grabs his bodyboard and joins his friends to get a few rides before work.
I ask him about the allure of catching waves that will likely be closeouts, where the heavywater door simply slams in your face. “Maybe it’s being able to control the way you ride something that’s totally uncontrollable."
“Being raised in Waikiki in the ’50s, we all looked up to the Beach Boys, and they all have various animal names like Buffalo, Turkey, Rabbit. One guy had it all. His name was Animal,” Bruce Lee says, laughing. “So we all tried to emulate that by giving ourselves nicknames. Goose rhymed with Bruce, so why not?”
“Lifeguarding was an awesome career for which I am forever grateful,” Lee reflects. “It does not fill your pockets, but it will fill your soul if you invest your heart into it. It can be stressful, but it can also be fun. We have this saying, ‘Lifeguards for life.’ We are one big family even after we retire.”
“We went every morning before school, then we were there as soon as school ended. If my friend's dad wouldn't take us, we'd hitch hike,” Patrick Von remembers. “On the weekends, my mom would drop us off at sun-up, and she would pick us up when it got dark. And five bucks would basically cover you and all your boys at the slush truck, all day, ‘cause manapua was fifty cents and noodles were fifty cents.”
“I was a Pipe Little’s guy,” the Kaiser High School grad continues. “You had all the surfers at Full Point. Half Point was pretty much the pros. Shorebreak was where the big boys went—we called them the Black Shorts gang. You definitely didn’t drop in on them.”
One day, Von was late getting to the beach, so he parked outside by where the food trucks are today.
“This guy Kana‘i—a SUP guy now—was a skimboarder then. We hated those guys because we always collided with them,” he begins. “These two Jeeps come rolling through the parking lot. Kana‘i is driving one of them, and these goofy-looking tourist guys are hanging out of the jeeps. We were, like, who are these guys? Turns out, it was the New Kids on the Block.”
“Of course, reggae and Hawaiian were all we listened to, so everybody just loses it. Everyone’s going off on Kana‘i and telling them to beat it,” he laughs. “I mean, taking them to Waikiki probably would’ve been a parade. Why he took them to our beach, I don't know. Anyway, they go park outside because they’ve just been exiled.”
“Later I‘m walking to my car, and I notice they parked right by me. As I get closer, these guys are staring at me, and Kana‘i’s bummed. So I’m thinking maybe I’m gonna get into a fight with the New Kids on the Block, I don't care. I go around to put my board in. And then I remember the bumper sticker.”
“It was big—like two feet long—and it was right on my back window. I was in Dago Choppers in San Diego to buy these biker shades. As I was leaving I saw this great bumper sticker, and I said, ‘I’m gonna buy that and put it on my car.’ It said ‘The New Kids Suck.’”
On the afternoon of Nov. 21, 2003, Kalai Ahuna drove down to Sandy’s, where people lined Kalanianaole Highway to watch the surf. “It was the most ridiculous day. I’ve never seen waves that giant,” Ahuna says. “From Kahuku to Makapu‘u, it wasn’t rideable, but at Sandy Beach, because the tradewinds were east-northeast, it was primo conditions.”
Fifteen years later, Ahuna recalls the view from Kamehame Ridge vividly: “It was just corduroy lines—twenty, twenty-five feet—swells breaking top to bottom, moving from the Rock Chair all the way through Alan Davis. It died out at Irma’s, right by the stoplight. Then it picked up again outside Pohaku’s by the far bathroom, and that thing just roped all the way through Full Point, all the way through Generals, all the way in, before it whacked the Blowhole. The Blowhole was 500 feet high that day from the spray.”
“If you watch the bodysurfers, they can get down the wave and into the barrel because of their fins. Some of the tourists and teenagers that come, they’ll try and catch the wave, but they get stuck at the top because they don’t have enough propulsion,” says Donovan Lewis. “They end up doing a scorpion—head going down, back arched, and legs flying up. It’s only, like, one foot of water where the wave sucks out and their head hits the sand.”
"One thing we always say when we warn people is that we have the highest rate of broken necks and backs in the nation. One good thing is to let teenagers know to get a pair of fins—they sell them at the surf shops—before they want to try Sandy Beach and Makapu‘u. Also to try out mellower spots first, like Sherwoods in Waimanalo. Maybe Waikiki Walls. Just to kind of start at more novice spots. And same thing for the tourists, too. Even before that to learn how to swim, also."