Interview by Glenn Sakamoto
Rabbit Kekai is a legendary Hawaiian surfer who grew up under the mentorship of Duke Kahanamoku. A true Waikiki Beach Boy and expert waterman in his own right, Rabbit excelled at competition and is often referred to as “The Original Hotdogger” with his innovative maneuvers. Now approaching his 90th birthday, Rabbit is a direct descendant from the early days of surfing.
What was life like growing up?
I was born and raised in Diamond Head. I was a punky kid – a real rascal. My Hawaiian nameKolohe – means rascal. I would get into any kine thing you could think of. The name “Rabbit” came about because I had speed. I used to run in the nines in the 100 yard dash in track. That’s fast. My speed also comes from running away from cops! (laughs)
How important is it to be Hawaiian?
When I was growing up, I went to school with a mixture of races – Japanese, Germans, and Hawaiians. If you mentioned you were Hawaiian, people looked down on you – like a lower caste. It was racial prejudice. The Hawaiian culture, especially from the olden days is now lifted up.
I was brought up with the Hawaiian language. I didn’t know English. So I would sit there in school like a dummy. Everybody would just look at me and they would tease me and taunt me. One day, I heard my teacher say something in Hawaiian and my ears went up! I told her to translate the English into Hawaiian so I could understand. Mrs. Pa, she was a kind lady and she would teach me English after school.
Tell us about your first board
You wouldn’t believe it. It was a 16 foot board, solid redwood, about 100 pounds. It was what you would call a double-ender. If you lose your board or flip over, you could just ride it backwards. As a little kid, I would ride it all the way in. When you get in, you don’t turn the board around – you turn yourself around!
Also, I grew up on short boards like the paipo. The paipo boards were mostly flat back then, but mine had a vee-tail. I used to stand up and ride ‘em. They were short – about 5 feet. We would stand up and do spinners on them.
Tell us about being a “Beach Boy”
The term “beach boy” is an overused word. Some guys claim to be beach boys but they were not. A beach boy is what we called “earning your money” or your living down by the water.
Tell us about your relationship with Duke Kahanamoku
Duke is my inspiration. When I hung around with him, he was much older than I was. By then, he was already an Olympic champion. When we would have races from the seashore to the buoy and back, I used to beat everybody. And I was a waterman – swimming, body surfing, surfing – everything. Because swimming was his forté, I got his attention.
Duke took me under his wing. He did everything for me and would take me inside the club and we would sit and eat in the dining area. Duke was the only “outside” nationality to get in the club. It was all haole, or white at the time. One time, Duke’s wife Nadine took me there to eat and I was the only Hawaiian at the table. I was surrounded by all of the old “hens” – with their noses in the air. They had to tolerate me because I was associated with The Duke!
What about Donald Takayama?
I actually taught the guy how to surf! (laughs) He was a real hotdogger and we used to surf a place called Kuna’s. When it gets about 8 feet, you get these long tubes – he used to like that. Also, his favoriteplace that he used to surf was called Magic Island. I used to put him in contests with people like Gerry Lopez and he kicked ass and beat everyone! He’s still number one. (laughs) Nobody drops in on Donald. He’s treated like royalty.
Tell us about your surfing
When I was a kid, I was a considered a “hotdogger”, the best around. I used to shape my own boards. They were about 5 feet in length. Hotdoggin’ is about doing everything. I would do spinners on a wave, and slap the wave and do off-the-lips. Nobody was smacking the lip of the wave. Everybody else was surfing what I call “society-type” surfing – just standing there. I used to whip my board up the wave and come back down. I would even surf switch stance and ride back down backwards.
I was inspired by trial and error. One time I got wipeout and I was still on the board like that. That’s how I learned. That is why everybody copied me – to this day. That’s why they call me “The Original Hotdogger.”
In surfing, they also called me “The Innovator.” Moves that I do – guys copy. I was so far ahead of everybody. I used to do spinners and guys would say “What the hell you going?” (laughs) They never did see anything like that. They would also see me crack the lip and come back down.
You are credited with being the first on the nose. Tell us more about that
Nobody used to do noseriding. Most people do the Cheater Five, but I used to get ten over. They called it a Hang Ten. Nobody used to do that.
Describe a perfect wave
You can never say “perfect wave.” It’s the hardest thing to judge. Once and a while something comes by you. Like, the wave’s going to defeat you. It’s like down at Makaha. I took off on the biggest waves you can ever see and whole walls are like coming over. You can never make it but somehow I made it – I cut down and was in the tube all the way – they thought I was smashed! Then I came out on the other end.
Everybody likes to ride the tube. What I like about it is the challenge of getting’ out! That’s it! (laughs) Sometimes you gotta stick your hands in the wave just to hold yourself into it. Cause if you don’t, you lose your grab and slide slip. Now, everybody is doing that. Even some of the top riders like Kelly Slater.
Kelly is also a good friend of mine. Kelly used to sit down with me at the big contests. The tube at Pipeline is so long that you can never make it. At this particular contest, nobody could make that long tube. One time, I was watching the wave and Kelly was with me during the finals. I told him “Kelly – the backdoor is open.” He looked at me and said “No way.” I said “You gotta do it. Try it.” The first wave he went down, he got covered for so long, everybody thought he got smashed. He came out by the end and they saw him flip up off the top and saw him put both arms up in the sky. He had won the contest. When he got back on the beach, they were carrying him and then Kelly went back and lifted me up and took me right up to stand with him! Nobody knew why.
A lot of guys will come sit next to me at contests. Guys like Brucie and Andy Irons. Like I am some guru. I tell them to do what I ask them to do. They ask me, “Why you telling me to do that?” I tell them that the waves are changing. You gotta change. The waves are never the same way twice. It changes and so does the tide.
What was your most memorable contest?
The Makaha World Surfing Championships in the mid-fifties. I won the first two – in a row. Big waves. 10–12 foot outside and we were making every one of them. Me and Buffalo (Keaulana) sat on the outside while everyone was hotdoggin’ on the inside. In the end, it was so close between Buff and I.
What California surfers impressed you?
Corky Carroll was one. He was the #1 guy down here at the time. I still beat him in contests, one of them was in Huntington. Dewey and “No Pants Lance (Carson)” were also a great ones. I also really liked Phil Edwards. He didn’t compete or enter contests, but he was a hell of a surfer – the style! He was admired and guys put him above all the rest.
How important is the water for you?
Water sports and everything in the ocean are my lifestyle. We lived close to the ocean and it was my playground. Everyday you can’t get me out of the water. Bodyboarding, bodysurfing, swimming, and surfing. You can never miss a day down by the water. We walk by, waves good – we jump in. I believe in respecting the ocean – it gives us everything – mana, and our food.
What’s the “golden rule” that you live by?
Do unto others as they do unto you. How they treat you – you treat them back. You punch me, I’m gonna whack you back! You don’t like that? Then don’t do that to me. If someone is getting picked on, I will stand up for them – and everybody. You treat me good, I’ll treat you the same.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Anything. Anything that is good. I like Hawaiian music, though. Nowadays, everybody is going to see Hawaiian music. I like any kine – even the long-hair stuff. I listen to them and sometimes I like it.
What kind of board are you riding these days?
Longboards mostly. Donald (Takayama) shapes all my boards. Singlefins. For shortboards, I surf twin fin fish.
What’s you favorite meal?
The way I look at it, food is food. Whatever you serve in front of me, I eat. Good you like, bad – well, you don’t eat. I eat everything: Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Chinese, and all of that. I learned to eat those kinds of food because they were the people I was with. Whatever they give you – you eat. Poi is my favorite, though.
How old are you? What is your secret to longevity?
This year I will be 90. My secret to longevity is to do what I wanna do. Relax and just take life as it goes. Just live it. I don’t feel old or anything.
What are you most grateful for?
To learn more about Rabbit Kekai, check out his profile at the Toes on The Nose website. If you are in the Waikiki area, Rabbit will be hosting the Toes on The Nose/Rabbit Kekai Longboard Classic, August 24 to 27, 2010. Photographs courtesy of Lynn Kekai and are under copyright by their respective owners. Portrait of Rabbit Kekai by Glenn Sakamoto.