Christopher Kalima is surfer/waterman raised in Hawaii. Besides being featured in the epic bodysurfing film, “Come Hell or Highwater” alongside Mark Cunningham and Keith Malloy, Kalima is the creator of Buoy Alert, a sophisticated online wave tracking system. We spoke with Christopher to learn more.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I was raised in Hawaii, but I was actually born in Boston. I remember riding my BMX bike a lot. The closest I got to bodysurfing before we moved to Hawaii was shooting down hills in a red snow saucer. Do kids still ride those things? My family lived in Massachusetts until I was eight, then we moved to Hawaii Kai, a suburb on the southeast side of Oahu.
My parents would take my brother and me to Waimanalo and push us into little wind swell bumps. That’s where I first started riding waves. We had an orange and blue Morey Boogie bodyboard with a top deck that felt like sandpaper. Three waves into a session and your stomach would be shredded. Plus there were always Portuguese Man-O-War floating around, and you’d inevitably get wrapped up in one. I’d head home with sashimi belly and itchy welts, but I couldn’t wait to get back out in the water.
Where were you educated?
Wave riding definitely dominated my free time, but I never cut school to do it. My parents were pretty strict and focused on the importance of education. As a result I was pretty studious. I was fortunate to attend Punahou School in Honolulu, then college at Harvey Mudd in California. It was a bit of culture shock for me moving to the Inland Empire. Harvey Mudd is a great institution, but it’s tiny and very academically intense. It’s kinda like the movie Real Genius, without Lazlo lurking in the closet. I managed to find a solid group of friends and graduated four years later with an engineering degree. I think I surfed three times during that stint in California.
After college, I went back to Honolulu and wasn’t quite sure what to do. I ended up working for an educational startup, then at a post-production house for a few years. Eventually I launched a design studio with a former colleague called Airspace Workshop. In the decade since we started, we’ve designed solutions in print, digital, and broadcast for both individuals and publicly traded companies. It’s a great experience running your own business, both extremely rewarding and challenging.
What is it about bodysurfing that you love?
Growing up, my family lived about two miles from Sandy Beach, but I wasn’t allowed to go there. At least, not at first. It’s an unforgiving shoreline, notorious for breaking necks and sending people off in an ambulance. My parents thought it was too dangerous, but I was intrigued. Eventually I started sneaking down there and flailing around in the shorebreak. I’d ride anything I could get my hands on (kick boards, bodyboards, those plastic service trays from McDonalds) or just bodysurf. The wave is so steep and hollow, it doesn’t matter what you’re on, you’re going to get barreled.
The scene at Sandys is dominated by bodyboarders and bodysurfers, but in hindsight I think my preferences were shaped more by the wave itself. Sandys just isn’t that fun to surf, although there were a handful of surfers that definitely made it look fun. As a grom I watched Gavin Sutherland punt full-rotation reverse airs at Half Point, and Eric Barton always surfed super fast and smooth. He actually got the first Teahupo’o cover shot in 94′. But at the same time, you also had this stand-up bodyboard movement with guys like Danny Kim, Chris Won, and Cavin Yap. Do a YouTube search for Cavin and check out his massive gouges at Off The Wall. Ridiculous! Then there was Jack Lindholm, Aka Lyman, and Kainoa McGee pushing the drop-knee. Kainoa was drop-kneeing second reef Pipe and getting spit out! For me, there was just so much potential in a bodyboard, especially in thick, hollow waves.
How is it different for you than stand up surfing?
I feel like mainstream surfing is focused on performance. Doing turns, hitting sections, there’s a lot of maximizing and maneuvering. Bodysurfing is much more symbiotic, because you’re in the wave, so you need tighter positioning to maintain speed. Stylistically, it’s much closer to longboarding than shortboarding. It’s really difficult to pump or drive around sections when you’re planing on your stomach. You’re working within the confines of the wave and it’s more of a subtle dance than a shred-fest.
That said, I find it interesting how people limit themselves to one particular style of wave riding, or judge someone strictly by what they ride. I still believe in the waterman/waterwoman ideal, where respect is earned by your experience and comfort with various crafts in all ocean conditions. Not just shortboards, longboards and alaias, but canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards too. They’re equally relevant to me, and each has its time and place.
Where is your favorite place to surf?
My favorite bodysurfing waves are hollow and maintain a steady speed down the line. It’s the Goldilocks of surf, not too fast and steep, but not too slow and mushy either. Point Panic does that when it’s working, that’s what makes it so amazing. You can sit on the foam ball in the barrel and read the paper. There’s a reef break at Sandy’s called Half Point that’s pretty fickle, but really fun when it’s on. In terms of size and shape, I haven’t bodysurfed a wave better than Pipeline. The Wedge is another great bodysurfing wave, and there’s a solid crew of talented bodysurfers who are always on it.
You appeared in the bodysurfing film, “Come Hell or High Water.” How did that come about? What was the experience like working with Keith Malloy and his crew?
I was living on the North Shore with Dave and Crystal Homcy and they kept mentioning this bodysurfing film that Keith was working on. They put me in touch with Keith, who explained the concept of the film to me and asked if I wanted to be involved. It was a no-brainer, the project sounded awesome.
The highlight for me was heading to Tahiti with Cunningham and Stewart. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both of those guys, and to be on a surf trip with them was amazing. Plus, who goes on a bodysurfing trip?! It was only the second surf trip I’ve ever been on! I was super psyched.
Both Mark and I were seeing Teahupo’o (and Tahiti) for the first time, and here’s Stewart, he’s one of the first to ride it! He was definitely the veteran down there. Things couldn’t have gone smoother either, the waves were flawless 4–6 feet, the perfect size for bodysurfing. Mike was a little disappointed that it didn’t get bigger, you could tell he wanted a bomb, but it was too perfect to complain.
And it wasn’t just the waves either, the whole crew was solid. Raimana and his family were amazing hosts. Dave Homcy and Jeff Hornbaker are legendary cinematographers. Chris Burkard was already in Tahiti shooting with Dan Malloy, so they joined the mission. I’m afraid to go back because it was such a perfect trip, it’d be impossible to top it.
Do people recognize you in the lineup?
As far as being recognized, I guess I have a few lines in the film that resonate with people. I was in Oceanside for the World Bodysurfing Championships and someone brought me a “Bodysurfing Magazine” they had made at home, to prove to me that there was in fact, a bodysurfing magazine. Aside from that, I’m still just a random guy floating in the line-up. I get the “what’s this guy doing?” look all the time.
What was your inspiration in creating your website, Buoy Alarm? What are your hopes for the site?
A lot of people in Hawaii track the NOAA buoys to tell when a swell is hitting, but it requires either calling NOAA for the report (888–701-8992) or checking the buoy website. I thought, instead of having to constantly check, what if you could set an alarm for a particular set of conditions and be notified when they were reported?
That’s basically what Buoy Alarm does. It allows you to set conditions on any combination of observations reported by a buoy, and once they’re met, it will notify you. I actually maintain a number of alarms across various stations, but one that’s most useful is set for long-period northwest forerunners on the Northwest Hawaii buoy. That way I’ll know when a new swell is starting to build and I can fine-tune the arrival time to my favorite spots.
We also record historical data (useful for looking at previous swells) and provide a detailed 5-day wind and swell forecast when available. I have a number of additional features in mind too. It’s currently invitation only, but if any Liquid Salt readers are interested in checking it out, they can register for an invitation and I’ll fire off an account for them.
Describe a perfect day.
Wake up on the North Shore of Oahu before dawn to a building west-northwest swell. Grab a coffee and head down to Ehukai for a look at the surf. Get a session in at Pipe before the photo-hungry masses start filtering out of the team houses. Ride my bike to the Haleiwa farmers market for lunch and some smoked ahi. Cruise back to the house for a quick nap, then swim out for an evening session. Watch someone get the wave of their life as the sun sets. Hoot from the channel. Head back to the house for a homemade dinner with friends and family. Pass out by 9 p.m. That’d be perfect, but I’m thankful for every day I’m able to get in the ocean.
What’s next for Christopher Kalima?
Hopefully a surf. I’ve been on the road the last few weeks helping my lady with her cookbook tour. It’s been great visiting different cities across the nation (we’ve been to 7 in the past two weeks), but I’m starting to dry out! We’re currently in San Francisco and the forecast looks good, so I’m going to head down to Ocean Beach tomorrow and try to avoid looking like a delicious seal.
To find out more about Christopher Kalima’s Buoy Alarm, check it out here. Photography by: 1) Tim McKenna, 2) Franco Tramontaro, 3) John Minar, 4) Chris Burkhard, 5) Franco Tramontaro, 6) provided by Christopher Kalima