Catch the wave

Our intrepid writer finds that surfing Hawaii's legendary breakers is harder than it looks.

I love weddings. They appeal to my sensitive side. But when I found out I'd be in Maui this summer to watch a friend get hitched, I didn't think about ceremonies in beautiful old churches, heartfelt speeches or two souls becoming one. I thought about surfing. I imagined paddling out into the ocean at dawn, catching a monster wave and heroically riding it all the way to shore. After stepping on the beach, I pictured myself being mobbed by locals: the men chanting loudly “Big Kahuna!” and the women offering me leis. My actual Hawaiian surfing experience didn't quite live up to this fantasy.

Until this summer, my time on a surfboard had been confined to the virtual world. So after arriving in Maui, I dropped US$55 on a two-hour beginner's class at the Goofy Foot Surf School, in Lahaina. (The fee included surfing booties, a rash-guard shirt and a soft longboard, as well as the guarantee I would ride at least one wave.) Its instructors–who all looked like they fell out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue–teach at Breakwall Beach. That spot is ideal for virgin surfers, since the waves form a gradual slope when they curl, and feature rides that can be almost a minute long. Plus, the water is warm and shallow. In fact, Hawaiian royalty considered Breakwall a good enough place to surf during ancient times.

For the class, I was grouped with a young couple from Chicago and my totally stoked girlfriend, Sarah. Our teacher was John Cordes, a shirtless, gum-chewing Californian who liked to end his sentences by bobbing his head and saying “all right.” While we were still on land, Cordes explained the basics of surfing, including techniques for getting into the standing position (one of the most challenging aspects of the sport), paddling (easily the most time-consuming and tiring part) and safely wiping out (something I would later find particularly useful).

After our group slipped into the water, the students stayed to the side of the surfing zone, while Cordes weaved his way through a crowd of surfers to the sweet spot for catching waves. Measuring between one- and two-feet high, the waves weren't anything like those in my daydreams, but I figured a Big Kahuna needs to start somewhere. Our foursome took turns paddling to our instructor, who then helped each one of us ride our first wave.

As I lay flat on my board beside Cordes, he carefully studied the oncoming waves. “OK, buddy, we're going to try to catch this one,” he finally announced. “Paddle!” He gave my board a push. After a few strokes, I felt the wave begin to lift me. I quickly assumed the pushup position, then slid my knees toward the front of the board and popped to my feet. I was surfing! The ride only lasted a few seconds, but the thrill was enough to hook me on the sport. I only caught one wave that day. Nevertheless, I vowed it wouldn't be the last of my trip.

The next day, Sarah and I rented boards from the Maui Waveriders Surf School, in Lahaina, and returned to Breakwall. Over the next three hours, I amassed an extensive collection of wipeouts. Face-first, butt-first, bellyflop–I fell off my board in seemingly every possible direction and manner. My girlfriend didn't fare much better. I grew to appreciate my board's soft rubber coating, since it whacked me on the side of the head multiple times. And I swallowed enough water to satisfy my daily recommended amount. But that morning, the joy of riding my second wave eluded me.

After calling it quits, my girlfriend and I quietly carried our boards back to the Maui Waveriders Surf School. We decided we needed another lesson. When we reached our destination, we bumped into one of the school's instructors, Kimo Chung. The 49-year-old Chung could easily pass for a Hollywood version of a surfing guru. He lives on Maui's Haleakala mountain, has ridden the 20-foot waves at Hawaii's legendary North Shore and is partial to the ponytail. What's more, he believes the most important part of his job is helping people better understand themselves. “The way you surf can tell you about issues you're having in your life,” he says. “Once you discover those things, you can change yourself, if you want to.”

On one of our last days in Maui, Sarah and I met Chung for an early morning lesson at Breakwall. When we started the session, we had the beach to ourselves: the only sound was the cresting of the waves. The sun had just begun to rise above the horizon. After 10 minutes on the sand, we moved into the water. As we paddled into position, I noticed the waves were much larger than those my girlfriend and I had faced during our other outings.

Sarah suddenly made surfing look easy, riding one wave after the other. (continued on page 7)

(continued from page 5) I made it look hard. I just couldn't balance myself on the board.

After about a half-hour, Chung quietly said to me, “Brah, your lady has caught something like six waves. Focus and pull it together.” I nodded. On my next attempt, I concentrated hard–but tumbled into the water before I could get to my feet. As I shook off the fall, a wave came crashing down on my head, forcing me under the water. The back of my right leg scraped against a piece of coral. When I finally pulled myself on top of my board, my right calf was covered in blood.

Next, Chung tried to use my heritage as a source of motivation. “You're Chinese, right?” he said. “Yes,” I replied. “I'm Chinese, too, Hawaiian-Chinese,” Chung said. “Don't embarrass our race.” But five minutes later, I did just that, falling face-first into the water on the next wave. To make matters worse, Sarah had meanwhile progressed to intermediate surfing techniques, like turning and smoothly transitioning from one wave to another.

As our lesson came to a close, Chung gave me some advice that hit home. “You're a thinker,” he said. “You're like a kid trying to figure out how to ride a merry-go-round when you should just ride it. Surfing isn't a thinking sport. It's a doing sport.”

The next time a wave came rushing behind me, I took a few deep breaths and cleared my mind. Before I knew what had happened, I was standing on my board, riding the wave. I adjusted my stance, then increased my speed by pumping the board with my feet. With the awesome power of the ocean beneath me, my girlfriend cheering me on, and the pride of over a billion Chinese-ancestry people around the world restored, I became a surf god–for five glorious seconds.