Exploring Honolulu's vibrant surf culture

March 27, 2019 | Surfing
Steve Brown and Kenny McOmber: surfing is friendship

In October 2016, Steve Brown lost his left arm to cancer. As a result, he had to relearn to surf again with one arm.

In January 2019, he was in Hawaii for two weeks, during which he got an introduction into just a bit of the local surf culture.

Here's what he felt he needed to share with the SurferToday readers.

Surf's Up

A predicted breezy morning has turned nasty.

When we left the water and rinsed off the ocean, Surfline described the last 90 minutes as "victory at sea" conditions with Portuguese Man of War pushed into the beach by the wind.

It was my last day surfing at In-Betweens with waterman and photographer Kenny McOmber.

Walking through the open-air lobby of the Ilikai Hotel, my 9'6'' longboard in the bag, strap over my shoulder, I am suddenly pinned against a low wall.

Being held under on dry land meant turning my parachute into an airplane wing to slowly work my way toward the beach.

Ten minutes and 50 yards later, Kenny finds me and lends a hand to make it to the beach.

I figure it is a busted day beyond talking about the basics of nose riding. But Kenny thinks we can try to find something, so we paddle out.

Hawaii Five-0 Beach

As I rub on a light coat of wax, it hits me: what if the lead characters in the long-running TV show "Hawaii Five-0," Steve McGarrett and Danno surfed?

They would start at the same spot and head to Ala Moana Bowls.

If you ever watch the show, the little beach is right behind Kamekona's shrimp truck, in front of the Ilikai Hotel, and next to the Ala Wai boat harbor.

The two characters would have had skills for the big summer swell and earn their spot in the lineup by being there most mornings, sharing waves, knowing the difference between a local chatter and a hot tip.

Megumi Taara: sliding into a longboard-friendly roller | Photo: Kenny McOmber

Where It All Started

Ala Moana Bowls is a local's break and an important part of modern surfing history.

According to surf specialists, during the heavy summer swell, it's the premier spot on Oahu's South Shore.

The rest of the year, it produces longboard-friendly slow rollers, usually a bit taller than the rest of the South Shore.

Located at Ewa - Honolulu's term for the east side of Waikiki - it has public parking with just enough beach for an easy walk in and out.

For a state and city that makes a good living from sharing its beauty and culture, there needs to be a spot where the people who actually live there are able to have priority at a great spot.

Paddling out to Bowls, you pass by two other breaks.

Its cousin Kaiser's one break toward Diamond Head - is also a local's spot, but without the fame. It gets the big summer swell, plus in the winter it can capture a little wrap around swell from the northwest.

Kenny McOmber's truck: fully loaded and ready to go | Photo: Kenny McOmber

The other spot where Kenny and I surfed, located in the middle of the two breaks, is known as In-Betweens.

Although the locals are protective of their home break, this is a spot where the Aloha spirit is shared.

For someone used to surfing the shallow reef spots closer to Diamond Head, with deeper water and a little more swell, In-Betweens is your taste of life if you had the privilege to ever earn a spot at Bowls.

To complete the picture, there's a shallow area inside for beginners and a few surf lessons going on.

The first of my three days at In-Betweens, we sneak over a little closer to Bowls for a few minutes and catch a couple of small waves the group outside has let pass.

Ala Moana Bowls

While the ancients surfed the South Shore, Bowls was created by the re-routing of the Ali Wai Harbor from the Kewola Basin in 1952, and the creation of Magic Island in the 1960s.

It was previously a right-hand wave called Garbage Dump.

"The Encyclopedia of Surfing," quoted in an article from Ward Village Magazine, relates how this very new wave was thought too fast to ride.

But that may have tantalized local heroes Donald Takayama, Paul Strauch, and Sammy Lee to show it was rideable on a longboard.

In the 1970s, recognizable names like Larry Bertleman, Montgomery "Buttons" Kaluhiokalani, Gerry Lopez, and probably a few others with skill bigger than their fame continued to challenge what many call the birthplace of modern tube riding.

Walking through Chin Ho's Ilika with a longboard is to time travel back 50 years to the original "Hawaii Five-0" TV show.

The original beachfront high rise condo at this end of Waikiki is still used as a backdrop in the new show.

Ilikai Hotel: still used as a backdrop for the new Hawaii Five-0 TV series | Photo: Kenny McOmber

Surfing is very much an in-the-moment sport.

It is also one where you can actually surf the same places as the greats.

Very few people will ever get to play golf at Augusta, take batting practice at Yankee Stadium or play small side soccer at Camp Nou.

But you can be in the same break as those who came before.

When surfing closer to Diamond Head, I am taken back to the days when the Hawaiians created the sport.

Taisuke, Toru Yamaguchi, and Rei: ready to hit the surf | Photo: Kenny McOmber

Roy Vierra: a Hawaiian surf legend | Photo: Kenny McOmber

Local Flavor

The almost continuous easy swell from the south, ten months of the year, allows the regulars the luxury of not having to rush.

A slow paddle out, absent of shore break or a real impact zone, sets one mind up for a lot of ride and glide.

Knowing there is another wave on the way, allows one to savor the small waves until the right one comes along to ride the nose.

Kai Sallas: he knows Honolulu and its waves like no one else | Photo: Kenny McOmber

This is also a break that creates long rides, often by accident.

Riding along and just playing with the wave, one tends to forget how long you have been riding.

You have made a few cuts, walked up and back, done a Huntington Hop to pick up speed and then snap to and start to wonder if this ride will ever end.

You are past the point of a long paddle back out. You are now thinking that maybe you can ride this all the way in and step off, like the beach break in Southern California.

It is your only 150-meter ride of the day, but you swear never to do it again.

With all the long rides and waves you have already caught, that long paddle out at the end of the session is not needed.

Which is just fine until you are back out, sit up, and try to figure if this is what Surf Ranch is like.

Micah Moniz: style is everything | Photo: Kenny McOmber

There is also something very calming about the way the riders here seem so serene and effortless in their approach.

Much like a great bowl of ramen, there is a deepness and appreciation of the wave - they ride as if the wave has entered into them.

It is not the cut-and-slash rush which has its merits and joy.

Instead, you ride what you are given, and this group has chosen to master the smooth, gentle motion that was generated by the Tasman Sea.

With that long journey, you try to listen to the story of this wave.

Lai Ming Tam: the new generation is already taking over Oahu's South Shore | Photo: Kenny McOmber

Back on the Beach

No good day of surfing is complete without rinsing off from a two-spigot shower with unheated water.

Kenny and I caught a few waves.

My one arm ala Bethany Hamilton pop-up that worked flawlessly earlier in the week was gone.

But my surf school knee-up got me onto a couple of chest-high swells where it was hard to tell where the wave started, and the two-to-three-foot wind chop ended.

So, I did it.

The Summer Surf Gear Guide 2019