We were on Hawaiʻi island this long weekend, as a birthday present for the girls. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to find time to really surf with how packed our days were, not to mention that I had no board. Nearly every time I looked at the sea, which was often, I saw waves to be surfed. On this day, we drove to Spencer Beach Park in Kohala, south of Kawaihae, to hike down the coast line to Mauna Kea beach, named for the hotel named for the mauna, erasing what this shoreline might have been called and why.
The walk was amazing, the trail taking us over crumbling lava fields, across a beautiful stream with water the color of clear breakfast tea, past countless tiny coves and crevices. There are a few proper beaches along the way, but we didn’t stop for long until Mauna Kea beach, fronting the resort. Along the way, mongoose dashed through the dust and dolphins danced just off the rocky shores.
The bay, our destination for midmorning, is spectacular despite the hotel and golf course. As we crested a small hill at the edge of the bay, I could see a right that wanted to break off a shallow reef near the north point, and there were little right hand peelers, knee high but perfect, on the inside. Across the middle a sand bar had set up and the swell, small as it was, broke there, sometimes in a nice a-frame. Further down the curve of the beach, where more of the energy was showing up, the waves were just dumping over, none of them big, but all of them fun looking.
With no board on me, I settled for a short bodysurfing session with my daughters. I pulled Violet into a few with me and then had fun watching her, under water, repeatedly dive under the larger waves as they crashed over her head. She is a natural under the water, as is Evora, who stuck around a bit longer to catch a few waves as well. Most of them were small, crumbly, and fun, but a few rose up and showed clean blue faces down the line.
Time was short, its temper is always to speed along, and we still had to hike back to the car, drive up for shave ice and lunch before heading up and around Kohala mountain, so I headed in, showered and enjoyed a snack with the family.
The wind has been howling for most of the week, well beyond the normal trades. The east side is huge, wild, unsurfable in most spots. Kealia, the salt encrustation living up to its name, is all the shades of blue from white to black, every breath is filled with salt air and every surface is bejeweled with salt crystals. S– and I planned to try Wailua today, but he called in sick. The waves were still rolling in there, across a mean looking rip. “Probably not worth it,” I mumbled as I continued my drive to work. Sidewalks is an option for the weekend.
The tide is under the moon.
It pushes us
January 12, 2020
A surfer’s nature, maybe just human nature exposed by water, is to check. We crane our necks at every glimpse or flash of ocean, even as we drive. We struggle not to stop at every potential break on the way to where we know we will surf, pulled by where we might surf. M– always pushes against this tendency, insisting that we drive all the way to the end, to Waikokos or Hideaways or Polihale, before checking spots on the way back. A–, on the other hand, has me walking down cliff sides and scrambling over boulders at nearly every turn. This need to check alters our behavior even in the water, as we paddle. 9 times out of 10, if a surfer sees what might be a wave on their paddle out to the main break, that surfer will stop to explore, to check, just to see, is this a wave?
M– and I planned to meet this morning at 8:00 at the far corner of Kalapakī, in an attempt to get out of the wind, still howling, and find something rideable. The tide was well over 2 feet at 5:34 a.m. The skies have been dark for days. I had a suspicion we might find a reprieve from the wind and maybe a wave out at Sidewalks, at the end of the cliff under the little light house. I was right about the wind, but the waves hauling around the corner of the cliff did not look promising. Mostly, they just exploded on the rock and then crumbled out into surging brown water. I could see other huge waves rushing straight into the bay, towards Amonias, that shallow jumble of rock and reef and rebar mere feet in front of the break water and ocean liners. Some swell rushed in towards middle of the main break, but nothing seemed to be working very well once the wave arrived at their respective lineups, fizzling out or exploding on rock, the tide probably still too high.
As I waited for M–, the only decent wave I saw was on the inside, glorified beach break in front of the activity hut with the red awning. I pointed all this out to M– once he made it down. He was not impressed by my analysis and decided to go to the dump and to Home Depot instead while I decided to give the little beach break runners a try.
As soon as I paddled out, I noticed that the waves were much larger than we had anticipated and the current was hauling faster than Mahaʻulepu on a big day. It was all I could do to make it over to the corner to find the lefts I had seen. The waves were shifty, the current was terrible, and there was a lot of water moving, but by paddling nonstop, I kept myself in position for a few fun rides. As I paddled to stay in place, I had time to realize that this was some mystery sandbar and all the energy rushing into the bay was running out right here off the back of the bar.
Over the next few hours, a few people paddled out: an older guy on a rented stand up, a local guy with an old broken nosed longboard, C–F–, and a young guy on an epoxy rental, but no one stuck around long. The wild conditions and the current were regulating the lineup today. C–F– greeted me with his usual cool-guy-who-downplays-everything tone, “It’s exercise, I guess,” and later “This is the definition of insane.” The conditions were not ideal, but the waves were beefy, brutal, long, and some of the lefts ended in a nice bowling, spinning wall before a close out barrel.
“Was it good?” No, but I possess so little cool that I can say “This is fun,” as a smile creeps over my face.
“I hope I don’t sound too insane when I say there is darkness all around us…”
This time of year was once unnamed, an empty space between the end of the beginnings of winter and the first hints of spring. January gets its name from the Romans, related to Janus, the god that guarded doors, beginnings, and endings, a fitting moniker for where this journal starts and ends.
January 1, 2020
I met M– at Maha’ulepu for an afternoon session. As is now normal during this winter break, cars lined the stable road nearly out to the junction. I parked, with some difficulty, halfway down the last hill and then sat to watch the waves for a minute or two. The tide was low, rising just a bit, slowly. The winds were light and variable and the waves were consistent, with head high+ sets. After waiting and watching, I impatiently ran down the hill and paddled out around 2:45, before M– made it out. I had time to notice the rescue ski cruising in and out of the break, buzzing ominously around the edges before speeding away, something I have never seen out here.
The current was extremely strong but not visible from shore today, pulsing even stronger after larger sets pushed across the far east side of the reef. We are used to calling Maha’ulepu a treadmill but today was different. The current was so strong this afternoon that I had to paddle nearly nonstop to stay in position and not get sucked too deep. The water was clear even though the stream was still swollen and deep red brown with muck after the christmas storm. The waves were clean, fast, and strong by Maha’ulepu standards, though many of them were breaking farther east than normal, leading to shorter rides. M– left to tend to his modern family and diffuse any new cat related issues and I stayed out until about 5:15, paddling the entire time.
I am still tired.
January 2, 2020
I tried to meet M– at Maha’ulepu again today, shooting for 2:00, but the Kapa’a bypass road was completely backed up. I decided not to waste patience and gas in the traffic and turned around as soon as I could. After running an errand, I parked at Anchors. The wind was from the north, brisk but just light enough to groom the rights nicely. The tide was low again, rising slightly into the evening, with the top of the anchor peeking out between waves. The water on the east side has still not fully cleared from the christmas storm, leaving the waves at Anchors greenish today. Clouds obscured the sun, causing the green water to seem even darker. I could tell that the waves were bigger than the other times I had surfed here and with the added wind and not clear waters, I was a bit nervous. Until now, I had only surfed Anchors on extremely clear, windless days.
I planned to paddle out wide and sit on the lefts that I could see peeling through after the larger sets washed over the outside reef. As I paddled out, the true size and speed of the waves dawned on me, adding to my nerves and solidifying my plan to sit on the left, which fizzles out into a deep channel. I found my spot, using the channel markers and the bridge over the canal as guideposts.
As time passed, I was frustrated with the way the lefts kept sliding to the north, leaving almost no shoulder and very little face, after the drop. I crept out a bit farther after each wave, searching for one I could catch at the first reef, hoping that a longer ride might be more fun. Eventually I made my way outside to the first peak and paddled for a medium sized wave. As I popped up, I realized that a right was materializing in front of me and I found myself flying off down the line, against my better judgement, towards the few inches of green water that covered the reef at that end of the wave. There is no safety channel on the right, just shallow, sharp reef, and usually more waves coming. I panic paddled out the back, got slammed by the lip of the real set wave, lost ground but eventually made it back outside the takeoff zone.
At this point, I was married to catching the rights, despite the fear pounding in my ears. I stayed well outside and north, ensuring I wouldn’t get caught too deep on a set. I bobbed around out there after that first right, just watching, feeling the waves’ energy in the water. They were green trains now, exploding across the reef, screaming past me and over whatever else was down there; much bigger and faster than I was ready for today. I settled in and found some perfect in between waves, a few feet overhead. After an hour and a half of this, a few bodyboarders paddled straight past the anchor and into the impact zone, just as the wind shifted and kicked up. I paddled over, found a left, and took the long paddle in.
January 5, 2020
After much back and forth texting, M– and I decided to meet at Maha’ulepu at 8:30. Yesterday was windy and rainy and the night was the same. I did not have high hopes but the morning dawned clear and settled to an almost calm by the time I pulled up to the stables. Working against us were the unusual tides, the low at .7 feet around 8:00 am and high tide at .9 feet around 10:30 am. Maha’ulepu works better when the tide is lower, under a half foot, but the wind swell was still big enough for some waves to roll through and break across the usual stretch of reef.
I asked M– if he had heard of the book In Waves, as I had brought him a copy as a late christmas present but of course he already owned it. I was partly relieved, somehow ashamed that the book was too on the nose. K–‘s passing was on my mind, as it always is during the first week of January. Who am I to pass around books about surfing through grief to people who actually live it?
A family pulled up as we got ready to walk down the hill. They asked if they could drive farther and I said no, as politely as possible. They then inquired about the heritage trail, which we assumed was the trail around the top of the cave. Once we had pointed them in the right direction, we headed down. I noticed two whales.
Once again, the stream was swollen and deep red brown with muck. I do not like walking through this stream at all, and I especially dislike doing so when I can’t see through the water. There are rocks, holes, tree limbs, and piles of bacteria hiding down there. The crossing today was fine except for the middle bit when I stepped into what felt like a centuries old but always dense and wet pile of crap.
“The bottom of this river isn’t sand,” I said sadly as I hopped out.
I walked over the reef to my path out and M– paddled out in front of the house. The water was clear, the sky filled with rainbows, clouds, and blue. The winds were typical trades and the current was present, strong, but not overwhelming. The waves were near constant at first. The set waves were solid, some sucking up at the take off point, some running all the way to that little bowling section over the barely submerged reef at the end. Eventually the swell direction changed or the tide inched just a bit too high, and things died down, which is just as well because it was time to head in, almost 11:00.
We spoke with another family, this one from Canada with two small children, as we packed up. They were prepared with body boards and snorkels somehow not noticing that this was not the beach for that activity. We gave them our prime spot in hale nalu and talked story for a bit, advising them against their chosen activities, pointing out some of the dangers and better ways to enjoy Maha’ulepu. How many people have we saved from a roll across that reef by now?
On January 1, 2020, I began writing every time I partook in my favorite outdoor activity: surfing. In my mind, surfing simply means letting water move you, so I wrote whenever I spent time letting water move my body and quiet my mind. This project began as little more than a writing exercise but grew into a reflective, meditative practice. The entries are part journal, part amateur philosophy, part poetry and photo narrative, part tide calendar and moon map. I delve into the mundanities of individual surf sessions, but I also explore the names of the months and I track the way this place and our lives changed over the course of an unknowable year, 2020.
Beginning in January of 2021, I will post a weekly entry, looking back on this week, last year. Join me.