Aloha, until it's not
Ticket is booked and I’m ready to shoot my 3rd Winter on the North Shore. There’s truly no place on earth like the North Shore in Winter, especially if you surf. It’s a who’s who of the best surfers, surf industry leaders, photographers, and surf groupies all at one place at one time. An unparalleled collection of cool kids. It’s winter, but water and air temp is in the high seventies. Nothing but board shorts and thongs and humans that look great wearing them.
I’ve spent 20 days on the NS in total between the trips. From the start I made an effort to fit in as much as I can. A self proclaimed quick learner. North Shore is technically Hawaii and Hawaii is the most recent state to join the union, but it feels more foreign than most foreign countries I’ve visited. An island vibe with it’s own set of rules. You don’t see police. It’s self policing. Respect the natural habitat, don’t be a douchebag, and make sure you drive the right direction through the Foodland parking lot and you’re usually going to be ok. Or maybe not…or maybe I fit into the douchebag category, I’ll leave it for you to decide.
It was my second trip in early ’15 after of my first Winter in December ’14. I highly recommend Chas Smith’s “Welcome to North Shore, Now Go to Hell” which I read on my first flight out. It’s an entertaining read that gives you some insight of what not to do, along with a few local bra beat down stories to go with the what not to do part. Nowhere in the book do I remember reading “stay away from the East Side.” Thanks for that, Chas. Or maybe it was so well known that he must have thought it to be a lame insert and common sense.
I’m usually fully aware of my surroundings. Traveling as much as I have in my life, I’m not without at least a couple of should have known stories. Strong case in point, I once went to a Disco Tech alone in Rome only to realize it was a gay bar. Oh, but not right away. Took me 3 beers and having to pee to realize it. I walked down the steps to hunt for the bathroom, only to find a bunch of dudes on couches partnered up and going at it. As I pissed and half chuckled at myself I wondered, what signs did I miss? In my defense, there were a lot of chicks too and everyone was dressed in what I can only describe as a harder version of the 80’s Mod Look. I just chalked it up as an Italian Punk Scene.
Exiting the club, the signs were there, I just missed them. While retrieving my jacket from the coat closet, there they were. Two Calvin Klein underwear posters with dude’s junk just staring at me. I notice a quick chuckle and smirk from the normal looking girl behind the counter, who was polite enough to keep my jacket to the side. She knew that I didn’t know. Her entertainment for the night.
Quick to exit, I get my ass slapped by a big bouncer at the door. Actually the group of bouncers were all laughing, as if they had a bet on how long I’d last. Whoever bet over 3 beers won. It didn’t bother me really, I’m not a homophobe, just a dummy.
Back to Hawaii. I linked up with my buddy Johnny at Off-The-Wall, a famous surf spot just a few hundred yards west of the most famous spot of all, Pipeline. After getting some sic shots of Johnny charging huge barrels over shallow reef, he invited me over to BBQ/House Party. Johnny knows everyone and just takes up residency with friends he’s met through the years.
After a quick rinse at Backpackers Hostile I headed to the address he gave me. While Backpackers is not the Turtle Bay Resort, there are a few rooms that aren’t terrible. The price is right. I have my own room and I don’t mind sharing a house and beers with a few broke surfers just living the dream.
Arriving at the address given I head up the dark driveway to a crew of fifteen chillin on the patio. Johnny introduced me to everyone and I remembered about three names. I’m brutal with names, great with faces and events. Justified weakness.
One that stood out was Maria. She was from San Diego, shoots with a Nikon, and has a DSL Water Housing. Right there we have three things in common. She’s cool and an easy conversation. Some good stories floating around and found myself enjoying the stories more than sharing. Eight beers deep and close to midnight, the party was dead, and so was I. It was 3am my time anyway and a full day of North Shore sun in me. My new friends invited me to join them for a surf the next morning, so I’d meet them on the same patio at 9am.
Johnny was now in route to Australia on his next surf journey, so it was just me and a few new pals. The morning crew consist of 2 hot chicks that were friends with Maria, names I forgot of course. Also along was an Aussie that looked like Nathan Hedge that I lined up as my best potential drinking partner the rest of the trip. Of course I couldn’t remember his name either, but we both laugh a lot and drink a lot. I like him.
We headed out. East. I wasn’t even sure where we were going. We’re on a island and the beach is in front of us, so there’s only 2 directions, East and West. I’m cool with West. I’m from the West Coast back home after all, more 2PAC than Biggy. I also know that if you go west and keep going, guess what, you’re at the airport. East is different. I’ve been to Oahu many times and going East this trip brought back my worst Hawaii Memory, getting robbed right after I proposed to my wife in Lanikai. Yea, good times and that’s a fucked story for later.
East it is. After all, I’m with people from here that know where we’re going and what we’re doing. I’m a tag along tourist basically, here for a good time not a long time.
We passed the Polynesian Culture Center and I’m just geeked out to get in the water and shoot. Besides a washing machine session at Waimea shore break, I really have had my feet planted in the sand. Who comes to Hawaii and doesn’t enjoy the water.
We pull up to a big parking lot a few miles past the PCC and jump out of multiple cars. Me and Hedge lookalike in one, hot chicks in the other beater. Excited to see what I’ve signed up for, I look out and see a wave breaking. It wasn’t easy to see. Squint eyes actually. It appeared about a mile out, but still visible. They geared up and I asked about distance and got the reply, “yea, it’s a long paddle but a pretty fun wave.” WTF, why did I not just grab a long board at that house.
Still stoked, slightly perplexed. I’m a problem solver by nature. I notice a lifeguard getting ready to launch his ski in the far side of the lot and figure, it never hurts to ask. Point proven. He’s with his son and the response was, “sure, no prob, we’ll give you a cruise out!” Difficult to reasonable, just like that.
When they launched I jumped on the rescue slide and thought to myself, I absolutely love how everyone is so cool here. Two trips and 12 days in at that point, haven’t met a shitty person yet. Feeling the Aloha.
If you’ve ever seen A Bronx Tale, this was indeed my Mush Moment.
I get dropped off a few hundred yards outside the break, well offshore. I consider myself a fairly strong swimmer, so my concern is not getting back to shore. It’s still a trip being that far out and shooting surfers on a wave that’s short lived until the water hits the deeper channel behind where I’m swimming, where the wave dies and the sharks live. I’m one for life journeys and have stumbled onto a doozy. A mile offshore looking at land from a strange angle. Nothing but fins and a water camera and friends I’ve known for less than 12 hours. Still good.
I’m not a pussy. Far from it. Grew up playing ice hockey and not afraid to scrap. 6’1 210 in my playing days, and a bit heavier now. I honestly don’t back down from any confrontation, for better or worse. Another self proclaimed weakness. This scenario would be different though. Much different.
I wasn’t treading and shooting for more than 10 minutes when this guy about my size, but weight distributed in younger places, catches a wave. Nice bottom-turn, somewhat stylish carve off the top, and he’s past me. My guess would be about a 7’6 Brewer. Good surfer for a big moke.
On his paddle back out my Hawaiian Experience took a turn.
His words, “What da fuck yu doin here?”
He honestly looked a bit confused. But also in shape big, tribal tatted out, and most of all, PISSED OFF.
I responded with a crackled voice, “I came with the girls.”
I can’t remember a time in the last 25 years of my life where I’ve felt more intimidated and uncomfortable. To say I was at an element disadvantage would the understatement of the year. I don’t even have a board to fall back on.
He’s 15 feet away. After 2 quick strokes, he’s now in my face. “You need to get the FUCK OUT OF HERE. NOW!!!”
A lot of things went through my mind at that moment. The 10 guy and few gal lineup on this secluded break was focused on US. Nobody gave 2 shits about waves, the horizon was flat.
It was also clear that nobody wanted to end up any closer to the tension. I could feel people paddling further away even though my eyes were occupied with my situation. Not eye contact, but sort of like my dog when he knows he’s been bad. Aware, but not engaging.
In my most sincere voice I responded, “I’m sorry for being here, I’ll start swimming in now.” Not good enough.
He yelled in my face, “Go now! GO. FUCKING GO!!!!!” Each GO was louder.
Then he proceeded over to question and lecture the girls I rolled in with. I’m positive they sold me out. I could see him going off on them for bringing me and them responding that they don’t know me at all. In which case the next paddle he makes is back my direction.
I’m watching this dialogue go down and I don’t need to hear the conversation. I speak fluent body language and anticipated another paddle my way, even though I was already 40 yards closer to shore, flipping away belly up backward, now 40 yards short of a mile basically. A nice set may have been what saved me, as the whole lineup paddled outside so they wouldn’t be cleaned up. It broke up their conversation and I’m certain the gals would have rather taken one on the head vs get the treatment.
My mind has never raced like it did during that swim to land. Complete panic and difficult to relax. In my mind, this confrontation was not over. I have no idea how long he had been surfing and was almost certain that by the time I made my mile swim in, he would also be on his way in and this would become a land issue. Finding any bit of positive I could, I thought to myself at least I have a punchers chance if it goes down. I’m not giving him over my camera to crush, which would probably be a minimum compromise in his mind. If it’s conversation 2.0, it’s a fight for sure.
As I swam, my brain would just take each scenario further and further, a very steep drive down paranoia avenue. Picturing myself in a fight, I’m screwed if we go to the ground. He had grappler written all over his chiseled tribal body. My only chance is if he’s right handed and wants to box. I’m left heavy. I did well fighting on the ice because right handed guys aren’t used to a left coming straight in as they throw a right. It’s a timing, luck, not-afraid-to-get-tagged thing.
This scenario is unlikely and I shake free of that thought. He’s not alone and these guys are known for pack fighting from what I’ve heard, and read. I’d put my odds at 8 to 1 against him, multiple dudes, I’m fucked. But let’s just say it is just him, and let’s say I get lucky and get the best of it, then what. Go straight to the airport and jump on the first flight and never come back? Well that thought really sucks. Or maybe he kicks my ass then I see him again tomorrow. What’s going to keep him from doing it again? If he kicks my ass he’ll then break my camera anyway. Maybe he does me so bad the first time that I’m in the hospital with a baseball bat indention in my melon eating through a straw. The most unpleasant of thoughts thus far.
Time to tread and assess where I’m at. Only half way, fuck. Is that him coming this way? At sea level, way too hard to tell. Probably not a good time to stop swimming either way. As the surfer paddling got within recognizable site, it was Maria. A comfort and relief.
“Holy shit, that was gnarly. You ok? Want to jump on my board?” She asks.
“No, I’m good, I’ll see you in.” I replied in the coolest way I could. After all, I was just somewhat stripped of my manhood in front of a healthy lineup, no way I completely puss out and get a lift in.
3 minutes later I even second guessed that decision, as I’d almost be in if I took her up on it.
The closer I got to shore the easier it was to breath. I may actually get out of this with nothing but a bruised ego.
I made it to land, which was an obvious instant relief. The panic was far from over however. I was fully prepared to leave my Aussie buddy that rode in with me. If trouble gets to shore before he does, I’m out! After all, everyone hitchhikes on the North Shore, it’s NBD.
He makes it in and I cruise him back to the house in my rental car, which luckily wasn’t broken into when I paddled out.
I felt ashamed and mentally drained. Like I’d done something terribly wrong in a sacred place. My intensions were good. How did this happen? If I had a single sign to not take a camera there I would have listened. I even asked and everyone involved in the journey said it was probably ok. Yet it wasn’t. I even got a jet ski lift from a lifeguard. How does he not give me the heads up? I’m still confused.
My remaining days I still could not sleep at night and kept looking over my shoulder. This guy would definitely be where I’m at. On North Shore, I often run into the same person four different places on the same day! I figured a run in was inevitable at the best theater in town, Pipe when it’s pumping, and it was pumping. He’d be looking to prove a point in front of everyone, adding insult to injury, literally. I’ve never felt anxiety like this.
I start to even get mad at myself. Who the fuck am I to come to a place as beautiful and sacred as this and do whatever the hell I want. I’m nobody here. Nobody. Whatever clout I had in my prime, or think I have in my little world does not apply. In fact, it works against me in every way in this place at this time, a big blonde dude that stands out like a sore thumb.
Here’s the kicker. I had this whole experience captured on my GoPro. My DSL water housing has a GoPro housing on top. I was rolling the whole time! My remaining days there I couldn’t bring myself to check out the footage. In part because I was capturing so many way more pleasant moments of surfers absolutely ripping. In part because I didn’t want to relive my discomfort.
When my trip was coming to completion I gassed up the rental car and was in a bit of a hurry, scrambling to make my flight. My GoPro was in the middle console of my shitty rental.
About a week after being home I thought enough time had passed that I should go through that footage. My curiosity had peaked. Was it really how it played out in my twisted mind or was I exaggerating? When something goes from really good to really bad, and really quickly, it’s hard to mentally catch up at times. I felt like that morning swim was a dream. Nightmare actually.
I scavenged through my stuff. Turned it inside out, but in the back of my mind I knew where the GoPro was and was just trying to be optimistic. The 3-inch memory box was left in the rental. 1-0 subconscious. As much as I tried to act like I wanted to see that footage, I really didn’t want to relive it. My $400 donation to an underpaid Hertz employee. A Hawaiian would get ahold of one of my cameras after all.
There’s a photographer etiquette. For example, if a pro or even good surfer shows up with his own photographer you don’t scoop the shoot and take a bunch of shots and publicize them. On the North Shore this etiquette gets thrown out the window during the Winter. Every surfer is game. There’s rippers on every wave and an average of 10-20 photographers/videographers at one spot at one time. Triple that for Pipe. It’s locally accepted and expected.
The North Shore overpopulated rules that have taken over do not apply to the spot I chose to shoot that day. It was off limits, THAT was my mistake. If I were to shoot some good pics with good waves, make them public, then the spot could blow up. Flipping the script, If I had to deal with huge crowds everywhere but had one last spot I could go and enjoy waves with nobody but a few other locals, I would be protective too. I deserved the ass chewing, and possibly more.
While I can’t say I haven’t done more than my share of foolish things in my life, this one stands out. Rookie move. When telling the story to those more familiar with North Shore than I, all I have to do is mention that I went to take water pics on the East Side, and heads start moving side to side. Everyone knows it’s a bad idea. Most indicate that I’m lucky because that’s a really sharky zone, with a number of white tip reef and tiger shark attacks.
45 years young, I’m set in my ways. I’ve always thought of myself as possessing street-smart qualities, perceptive to surroundings, well traveled. My senses seem to dull in exciting new environments. A big overzealous kid really. My mental seesaw gets loaded down with excitement, leaving the awareness end high in the air. Truly living. And a bit lucky through my ventures.
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