Interview by Glenn Sakamoto
Buttons Kaluhiokalani is a surfer from Hawaii whose energy and radical maneuvers in the ‘70s set the stage for modern surfing. After trouble with drugs, he has kicked out those demons and is super-charged with a mission: to give back, surf, and enjoy every day.
What was it like growing up in the Islands?
My family was originally from The North Shore and we moved to Waikiki, where I was raised by my mom. I was six years old and my Uncle Buddy had this 10 footer at the house and every day he would walk to the beach and I would watch him surf. He had served in Vietnam and he had super long hair. I would follow a few feet from him as he walked to the ocean and I would sit on the sand and just watch and be amazed at what he could do on a surfboard. When I was eight, I used to hang out at Waikiki with my friends and I taught myself how to swim, got my first paipo board and it was on after that, baby!
Who did you look up to and admire as a young man?
Where I grew up, Reno Abellira lived down the street from me and Barry Kanaiapuni used to surf in town. As I got older, 12 or 13 years old, my idols were like Jock Sutherland, Sam Hawk, Gerry Lopez (of course), and Rory Russell. And let’s not forget Eddie Aikau. Those guys were my heroes.
What was it like when you first stood up on a surfboard?
To tell you the truth, I was a natural at it. I started standing on my paipo board and then learning to do it on a surfboard. From that day on, I was like, “Whoa.”
Even when I was a kid, I did these crazy things that pretty much no one was doing at the time on a foam board or paipo board—360’s, spinners, switchfoot. As I grew into a teenager, I was doing even more crazy things on my surfboard!
How is it you were able to pull off such radical maneuvers in your career?
I’ll tell you this: I am half-Black and half-Hawaiian. So I guess it was my genetics.
Where did the name “Buttons” come from?
When I was born, I was premature at 4 lbs. and my hair looked like little buttons. So my Grandma named me “Buttons.” My given name is Montgomery Kaluhiokalani. My mom named me after her favorite actor, Montgomery Clift. Buttons fits my personality (laughs)!
Of all the places you’ve traveled, what was the most memorable and why?
I got a chance to go to Tahiti. It was only my second time with the towing in. And for me being 51 years old and being towed into Teahupo was the gnarliest thing I have ever done in my life. It’s this wave – this pit that is to da max! That was definitely the most insane thing I have every experienced. And I’d do it again!
What period of surfing holds the most cherished memories for you?
When I was 21, I did the Pipe Masters and the Sunset World Cup. I did the Sunkist Malibu Pro and won. Being in those contests were the best surfing times of my life. I was doing moves that were ahead of their time.
How do you choose to live your life?
I just cherish life more—to live one day at a time, and to go out and fun. Cherish it. I love life – I have a nice beautiful child, a nice lady. I just don’t take life for granted anymore.
Who /what inspires you?
My family, the ocean, my surroundings. I have 7 kids and 7 grand kids. And I couldn’t ask for anything more beautiful than where I live. I have a beautiful life and a beautiful family. Those are the things I cherish the most. Most of all, God inspires me. He gives me hope – he’s my savior. He’s pulled me out into the right direction.
What meaning does surfing hold for you?
The love and the passion. That love, passion, and mana of surfing. I’m the kind of person that lives and dies for surfing.
Who do you think are the people that are shaping the path for surfing today?
You know, surfing is a Hawaiian sport. And it’s a history that has been passed down to every generation that comes after. It all started in Hawaii since the 1700’s.
It’s those up and coming kids, man, kids like Mason Ho. You know, Michael and Derek Ho and myself, we all have kids. Those kids and others like them are the next generation that will bring surfing to a whole new level.
How important is it to be Hawaiian?
The Hawaiian tradition has to live on. We cannot forget where we come from. I cherish what I am and who I am and my Hawaiian blood. It’s really important to me that the culture lives on from one generation to the next. I get my power, or mana, from the Hawaiian gods. I am so proud to be Hawaiian and there are not a lot of us out there.
And I would tell the next generation of Hawaiians that you never forget where you come from. Know where you come from. Don’t forget the culture—go to school and learn the Hawaiian language. Keep the mana, keep the Hawaiian spirit, and keep the aloha going—and the Hawaiian culture will live on.
What is you favorite board in your quiver?
My favorite board right now is a twin-fin from Nelson Sadoy. And a quad shape Tim Bessel that is the bomb, bro. In addition I also have a quad fish shape from my new sponsor, Cote de Azul.
What is your favorite surf spot?
Sunset. Backyards. It is such an epic right, bro. It’s one of the coolest waves. It’s awesome. And also Waimea Bay. I just love that drop! I love the feeling and the rush of that place. I still surf Backdoor Pipeline, too. At 51, I am still charging. It’s like I’m a little kid.
What’s your favorite meal?
Oh man, for me it would be sashimi and rice. Ahi is what I love the best. And I would wash it down with a nice glass of juice or water.
What would you say to people who are thinking of using drugs?
I am not embarrassed to say that I am a recovering drug addict. And I have been sober for almost 3 years now. In life, we have to make the right choices. The devil is all around us. Stay around good, positive people. Do not use drugs because it will take you out. Live life to the fullest and make the right choices—and give it to God.
What else are you doing?
Well, I have a surf camp called Buttons Surf School. We’ve been in business for three years. It keeps me going, to see the students’ faces, to see their smiles. And every first Saturday of the month, I take physically and mentally challenged kids surfing from Access Surf Hawaii. It makes me happy to see them catch waves and makes me feel good inside for what I do.
What’s next for Buttons?
For me it’s just staying healthy, surfing, sending out messages to schools and sharing my testimonial of my life. I am sure I have touched some hearts and have gotten a lot of friends out of it. It is important for me to give and share my strength with others.