Gerry Lopez: A SATURDAY AT ALA MOANA
An excerpt from his latest book, "Surf Is Where You Find It," A new revised edition from Patagonia Books
The year was 1971. Wayne Santos and I both shaped surfboards for the brand-new Lightning Bolt Surf Shop, which Jack Shipley and I, with a little help from Wayne, had just opened two summers before on Kapiolani Boulevard. The shop was selling surfboards almost as fast as we could make them, so Wayne and I had all the work we wanted. But the truth was that we really didn’t want to work and would take any excuse, like surf, to do something else.
Wayne was one of the best surfers I knew. We surfed Ala Moana in the summer, the Country in the winter, and lived together in a little house out past Kane‘ohe in Kahalu‘u on the east side of the island.
The surfing industry, a generous description of the business of surfing at that time, was mostly in California. Several years earlier, surfboard designs had begun to undergo a tremendous upheaval, and what would later become known as the shortboard revolution was in full swing. Any revolution is all about change, and only for this reason could a bunch of dropouts like Jack, Wayne, and me have any chance of success with a surf shop business.
During the preceding decade, almost all surfboard manufacturing took place in Southern California. The big brands like Hobie, Greg Noll, Bing, Hansen, Dewey Weber, Gordon & Smith, Jacobs, and others based in California built and sold a lot of boards during that first surfing boom. Except for a few local builders like Inter-Island and Surfboards Hawai‘i, neither of which lasted out the 1960s, most of the surfboards in Hawai‘i came from California.
By 1969, surfboard shapes were evolving at a pace so rapid, it was only the surfers on the beach riding the new boards that were able to keep up. So it was that many of the boards began to be shaped and glassed in the backyards and garages of these surfers and, almost overnight, an underground industry was born. Hawai‘i, with all its waves winter, spring, summer, and fall, became a focal point for design innovation and suddenly found itself at the forefront of this new wave of surfboard making.
My own entry into the business began when I invested
fifteen dollars in some resin and fiberglass, stripped the glass
off my old longboard, reshaped the blank, glassed it, and headed
down to our local spot to see how it went.
My own entry into the business began when I invested fifteen dollars in some resin and fiberglass, stripped the glass off my old longboard, reshaped the blank, glassed it, and headed down to our local spot to see how it went. That surfboard, at 7'6" in length, rode like the wind … at least in my mind. When I paddled in and climbed up into the Ala Wai Harbor parking lot, there was a gang of all my surf buddies waiting to take a closer look at my very, for the spring of 1968, short board. One of them had eighty dollars cash in hand and extended it my way, I handed over the dripping board, and just like that, I was in the surfboard business.
Pretty much anyone with some craftsman skills, or even just a gleam in their eyes, was doing exactly the same thing. Some may have had a little experience working in surf shops; or, like me, they repaired dings, a much smaller step into actually building an entire surfboard. Most just winged it, asked a lot of questions, or did the trial-and-error method and discovered that making a rideable surfboard wasn’t that difficult. It wasn’t long before almost all surfers wanted boards just like those they saw ripping apart the waves at their local spot but couldn’t find in any of the existing surf shops, which relied on the big mainland manufacturers for their inventory.
Much of this board building was happening in garages or little hole-in-the-wall operations where the neighbors didn’t complain about the stink of resin or the piles of garbage. Our Lightning Bolt shop was just the showroom where Jack sold the boards. Wayne and I shaped anywhere we could. Our friend Wylie Artman rented a rundown dump behind Seagull Lake in Hale‘iwa with a small garage and some plywood additions, which we turned into a shaping room and glass shop. That was fine during the winter when the surf was good out there, but when spring came and Ala Moana began to break, we had to come up with something closer to Town.
I found a little industrial space behind the fire station in Kaka‘ako, where we built three shaping stalls and still had space enough for glassing if necessary. By then, there were other glassers who would come by, pick up the shaped blanks, and deliver them back to Shipley at the shop when they were done. This was a much better arrangement since Wayne and I could concentrate on our shaping, but mostly because it allowed us more time to surf.
Having a whole stable of board builders working for our shop created a competitive atmosphere where everyone was constantly raising the quality of their work. Looking back on that time, the level of the creativity in the shapes, tint and opaque laminations, pin line and lightning bolt color work, and polishing reached an unprecedented height never before seen in surfboard building. The boards were works of art, but at the same time totally functional, and therefore highly coveted surf vehicles. Hence, they flew out the door. Surfers from California, the East Coast, Australia, Japan, and the rest of the world couldn’t wait to get to our shop to buy a surfboard.
Just five minutes from the shop were Ala Moana, Kaisers Bowl, Rockpiles, and the parking lot at the small boat harbor. There was our home away from home. Actually, at that point in our lives, it was Home, and where we would be most of the daylight hours during the spring, summer, and early fall. The south swells coming from the Roaring Forties latitude in the Southern Hemisphere focused on that little stretch of coastline, and we wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else except there to meet them.
There were many other excellent breaks within sight, but Ala Moana was the crème de la crème of them all. The long, fast-breaking left was a challenging wave at any size from two to ten feet, and most of the best surfers found their way there, if not daily then, at least when the south swell pumped. The best of it was when the surf was big enough for the Bowl to break, which we would call Pole Sets at Ala Moana.
In the early 1950s, the City and County dredged the natural channel to create a safe access for the growing little yacht harbor. In doing so, they also made two natural surf spots much better. Across from Ala Moana to the west was Garbage Hole, called that because all the debris from the boat moorage and the Ala Wai Canal flowed out on that side of the channel. It was a bowling, hollow little right, which Wayne Miyata made famous in Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer . But the Magic Island project got underway not long after Hawai‘i became a state and buried Garbage Hole under a landfill. Ala Moana was unaffected and actually gained a perfect viewing area from the new park across the channel.
Needless to say, the lineup at Ala Moana was very crowded
whenever the waves were good, and even on the less good, small days during the south shore surf season. It was here that the most progressive surfing went down on a regular basis and, with it, the progression of the shortboard shape for smaller waves.
Needless to say, the lineup at Ala Moana was very crowded whenever the waves were good, and even on the less good, small days during the south shore surf season. It was here that the most progressive surfing went down on a regular basis and, with it, the progression of the shortboard shape for smaller waves. On any given day during the summer at Ala Moana, one would find the best surfers doing the most advanced surfing on state-of-the-art equipment.
A thing to note was that there were a lot of great surfers all the time at Ala Moana, not any one particular standout. Conrad Cunha and Sammy Lee were older and well respected, and Donald Takayama or David Nuuhiwa might show up for a day or two from California, but overall, it was everyone’s show.
If someone felt he deserved more than he was getting, he would just have to suck it up. There were too many others of equal, if not more talent, on the next wave or the one after that … or more than likely, on the same one Mr. Hotshot thought should be his. Even when the contest came around, whoever won knew that he was the lucky one for just that day, and the next day the lineup would be level again.
This was the natural order of things, and while egos might have gotten out of hand, that happened mostly in the parking lot and hardly ever in the lineup. At Ala Mo’s, it was always about the wave more than the surfers, and the high level of the surfing was expected given the quality of the surf.
The arrival of a significant swell could have several effects. Usually, everyone would show up and the lineup would be even more crowded. Sometimes, however, a new swell would open up a variety of other spots and have the effect of dispersing the crowd to the different breaks along the South Shore.
It was a Saturday morning when I drove into the parking lot and noticed it was almost empty except for a few of the boat owners’ cars. I was surprised to see a nice set roll through the Bowl and no one on any of the waves. But I didn’t think much of it as I changed into my surf trunks, unstrapped my board, waxed it up, and headed out.
In the mid-1960s, another break wall had been added to create more moorings for boats, so we would paddle across the slip, between the boats, and climb over the rocks. From the outside break wall was a better view of the wave, and again I was surprised as another set came through the lineup without anyone on a wave.
On a five-to eight-foot day like this, the first waves
of a set would start from the middle lineup and peel through
several tricky sections; if one was skilled enough, or lucky,
these waves would offer a long, fast ride.
On a five-to eight-foot day like this, the first waves of a set would start from the middle lineup and peel through several tricky sections; if one was skilled enough, or lucky, these waves would offer a long, fast ride. The bigger waves later in the set would invariably shift over toward the channel to create the Pole Sets that set Ala Moana apart from most of the other summertime surf breaks. A good wave at the Bowl was a punchy, thrilling, deep, and hollow tube that would spit a fortunate rider out with his hair still combed.
There was a steel pole about eighteen inches in diameter anchored into the reef that marked the east edge of the channel for the boats coming and going from the yacht harbor. The position of the pole was almost exactly where the big waves stood up, so it also marked a perfect place to wait for the sets. Most of the summertime South Shore waves around Waikiki were on the gentle side when compared with similar size waves out in the Country, but the Bowl at Ala Moana packed a wallop and could rough up a surfer, pin him on the bottom, and give him a good scare.
After seeing the size of the waves, I just paddled out and sat by the pole to wait for the next set. Glancing around, I saw a couple of surfers up toward Rockpile and more at Kaisers, but here, the lineup was empty. There was always an early-morning crew, guys who worked the late shifts at the restaurants and nightspots in Waikiki and came straight from work to the beach, but maybe they had come and gone, as it was already midmorning. Looking the other way, I could see a few guys down by Big Rights and Tennis Courts in front of the Ala Moana Park. I thought I saw someone with a tripod set up on the break wall at Magic Island, but a set was coming so I didn’t have the time to be sure.
Any day at Ala Moana with an empty lineup is too good to be true, but on a day with sets in the Bowl, it was crazy. I figured Wayne and our other surf partner, Big Roy Mesker, would show up soon, but no one came. It really was a fine swell, the sets pumped, and I had my pick of any wave I wanted. Every time I rode a wave in, I’d look in the parking lot, actually hoping some of my pals would come out.
Being a weekend, the harbor was busy, and the boats going out the channel offered some great entertainment. It seemed that every time a boat tried to breach the channel entrance a set would roll through. On the biggest waves, the channel would actually close out and break all the way across. It certainly wasn’t a top-to-bottom wave like the Bowl, but there was a lot of whitewater. If the boats mistimed it, which they almost always did, there were some tense moments as they crashed up through the soup and slammed down on the other side of the wave.
After several hours of having the whole place to myself, a couple of guys paddled out. I was glad for the company even if they didn’t last long, losing their boards, and taking the long swim in. With a good swell, the rip would run along the break wall, so unless one swam in quickly, the lost board would get taken down toward the channel and eventually right back out. I never did it, but I always thought one could just swim over to the channel and wait for a lost board to come back around.
Wayne and Big Roy never did show up that day, and even though I wasn’t the kind of person to rub it in when they missed something, I wondered why they weren’t there and would be asking. After all, at that point in our lives, surf was the central focus of what we did every day. The buzz of not having to jockey around for waves wore off and was replaced, as strange as it seems, by a slight melancholy of not being able to share this beautiful day with my friends.
Don’t get me wrong: When a good set approached, I would
focus on it completely and, except for the task of putting myself together with that wave, no other thoughts crossed my mind.
Don’t get me wrong: When a good set approached, I would focus on it completely and, except for the task of putting myself together with that wave, no other thoughts crossed my mind. Pole Sets Ala Moana was serious surfing, and a surfer needs to give it his or her complete attention, or be ready to pay some serious dues. That kind of intense surfing takes it out of a person, but a good ride puts the energy right back in.
There is a give and take going while surfing. Burning up the juice by paddling hard to catch waves, surviving horrendous wipeouts, swimming in after a lost board—all that effort makes surfing one of the most strenuous sports. Then the thrill of a good turn, a difficult but successfully executed tube section, a flowing cutback reversing direction back into the power, the end of a long ride, paddling back out watching a big set rolling in—all these pour the energy back in, easing any fatigue. The back and forth between the body and mind, one using up the gas, the other refilling it, is like a tally on a ledger. Inevitably, the gas tank is being emptied a little faster than it can be filled. It is a combination of several factors, the waves and the stoke, balanced against the time spent doing it. Eventually the gas tank goes dry, and it’s time to go in.
Later that fall, Wayne decided to accompany me on one of my increasingly more frequent mainland business trips. I’m sure his interest had less to do with any actual business and more to do with the California girls. Wayne with his shoulder-length hair, broad shoulders, and piercing eyes was one of those guys that women swoon over. Both Wayne and I had been born and raised in Honolulu and, in comparison, California was like the center of civilization or, at least, some sort of imagined Babylon. We parked our rental car on a side street in downtown Huntington Beach, and I took him on a small tour, starting on the pier. Watching the surfers from above on either the north or south side has always has been a great show, and we spent the better part of an hour looking at the waves, the surfers, and the people on the pier.
Later we walked up Main Street to George’s Surf Shop where a local surfer girl named Jan ran a great juice-and-sandwich bar. As we walked into the shop, there was a copy of the latest Surfer magazine, which Californians would have long before anyone in Hawai‘i. Wayne looked at the cover and muttered, “Who’s that f@#%*n kook?” And there I was, just like Dr. Hook sang, right there on “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.”
I was in total shock, and I’m pretty sure Wayne was too. No one in our group had ever dreamed we would make a cover shot. We opened the mag, and there was a feature on Ala Moana by John Severson. I remembered the day and seeing the guy on Magic Island with the tripod.
Wayne was still muttering about the feature just showing a bunch of kooks, and I felt bad that there were no shots of him or Big Roy since both of them surfed better than I did. I reminded Wayne that it was the Saturday they both had missed, he with a toothache and Roy with a modeling job, but I could see it still rankled him.
As we looked at the cover again, I added, “Well, I ate shit right after that picture. You can see I’m catching my rail.” That mollified him somewhat, along with my offering to pay for lunch.
As he put the mag back on the shelf, I heard one last, muffled, “Kook!”
This is an excerpt from Gerry Lopez's newly revised book Surf is Where You Find it, from Patagonia Books. It features new stories and additional photography. Available at Patagonia or your local book seller.