The day I discovered the Pupukea surf

June 9, 2021 | Surfing
Pupukea: one of the gems of the Seven Mile Miracle | Photo: Shutterstock

Larry and George Segedin lived together in a white house near the top of the inhabited part of the Punchbowl Crater.

There Larry did his renderings for various architects, and George was studying for registration exams to become a professional engineer.

He had previously spent many years in the Philippines and the Far East as a construction engineer for Hawaiian Pomeroy, Bechtel, and Dredging.

George was ten years older than Larry and extremely responsible; he ran the house like a well-run ship.

Larry was one of the world's nice guys.

Transparently honest, he was entirely without the aggressive insistence of some honest people; in compensation for this, he had an engaging naturalness.

He was almost, but not quite, to quote Cyril Connolly, "honorably ineligible for the struggle of life."

Shortly after we started surfing together, a charming house above them at the top of Alapai Road had become vacant, and I moved in as I needed a piéd-a-terre during my stay in Hawaii.

Together we shared more than an acre of garden filled with mango trees, thevetia, and many varieties of palms.

Both houses and some others on the property were owned by Miss Ruth Jeffs, a handsome and dignified English lady with a very erect bearing who was blessed with the truly delightful personality you so often find in the older generation in Hawaii.

She and her widowed sister lived in a large roomy house in the center of the garden.

Miss Jeffs had once owned Honolulu's most illustrious dress store on the corner of Fort and Beretania. She seemed to epitomize the gentle but firm materialism of the older generation in Hawaii.

Like the often quoted chestnut about the missionaries, "they came to do good, and they did right well."

"I saw this real estate thing coming 20 years ago," she said in her piping English voice, "so I sold my dress shop and got into real estate."

Not a bad choice, I thought, standing on half a million dollars worth of her diverted interest.

Miss Jeffs looked in her middle 60s, but I bullied her sister, who was 82, into telling me her age. It was 87.

They had lost a brother just the other day, the sister told me.

"He was 94," she said in answer to my obvious question. "Our mother was taken from us some years back through."

She was 100, it turned out! With the natural longevity of island people to consider, they looked as if they had half their lifetimes before them.

Honolulu, Hawaii: the good old days | Illustration: Shutterstock

An Odd Fishing Adventure

Because of the proximity of our houses, Larry, George, and I would often eat together. The boys stuck to their healthy foods, although they did eat meat.

They couldn't understand my own natural predilection for steaks and french fries but shared my vast enthusiasm for fruit salad, a dish which has such exciting possibilities on the Islands.

Often when everyone else was finished, and affecting a studied nonchalance, Larry would make furtive trips to the refrigerator to stoke up with more of the papayas, melons, mangos, and pineapple, which were the mainstay of the concoction.

The discussions continued far into the night sometimes, as George played to us from his collection of native folk music.

The subjects would range from surfing, always a favorite topic, to fitness and food, architecture and planning, and sometimes into the dangerous world of ideas.

Larry, it turned out, was not presently pleased with the professional way of life.

His commissions had dropped off lately - no one wants to do anything in the summer in Honolulu, and he was depressed about it.

The professional way of life was not natural, he asserted.

Now take a Japanese fisherman in Honolulu harbor; he had a natural way of life - he got the same sort of satisfaction in his relationship to the sea that the surfer did, only he made a living at it.

He was really a part of surf and sea and sky... And the fisherman was a food producer - we professionals were in essence parasitic on him.

Larry had momentarily forgotten the supreme pleasure of being a busy professional artist in constant demand, wanted by everybody.

As the days wore on, he grew increasingly morose, and George found him difficult to live with.

This continued for the better part of a month and was beginning to make us all gloomy, but one day at dinner time, he seemed terribly pleased as if he had just shaken off a bad illness or somebody had handed him a $1,000 bill.

We knew that something was up. At last, he blurted it all out.

He had been down to the harbor the day before and had discussed things with the skipper of an aku boat that fished between the various islands of the Hawaiian chain.

This man, a Japanese, had agreed to take Larry on his next trip for a day at least, and if he liked it, he could have a permanent place on the crew.

Larry was obviously ecstatic, and although George and I were doubtful, the romance and potential of a life fishing between the Hawaiian Islands suddenly appealed to all of us.

We had dreams of a ketch and copra, Tahiti, The Marquesas, and the lot.

Larry's role was advanced to that of missionary and "inside man" for the three of us.

That day was a Sunday, and the atmosphere of our last meal together before the great adventure was tense with suppressed excitement.

At 4 o'clock on Monday morning, Larry set off for his aku boat, and at 6:30, when George and I went surfing, the sea felt strangely empty without him.

We had dinner together that night in a house that didn't feel right at all.

We played some music and chatted, hoping that Larry would soon return and regale us with his exploits.

At 10 o'clock, no Larry. At 11 o'clock, still no Larry.

So we went to bed reasonably early as is traditional in the Tropics, with visions of storms at sea and Larry garrotted on fishing poles.

I dreamed we were all fishing, but the aku were leaping into the boat, and we were heaving them off again to stop her sinking.

The next day on my return from the office, I was informed that Larry was still not back. And on Wednesday evening, he still hadn't returned.

George and I sat morosely pondering his fate in the grey quietness of the Larry-less house.

At about 11 o'clock, I looked out of the front door and saw someone painfully ascending the stairs with his body bent almost double.

"There's an old man outside," I said to George doubtfully, but it wasn't.

It was Larry. His face was creased with the constant exposure, and his skin was cracked and flaking.

He looked old enough to be a distant ancestor of Miss Jeffs.

He walked with his back curved in pain and with his hips in a strained position so that only his legs moved gingerly one after the other as he climbed the stairs.

Altogether he looked horribly depressed and unhappy. Bit by bit, the story came out.

The sea had been rough for the full three days he had lasted with 10 to 15-foot swells and trades up to 30 or 40 miles per hour.

They had gone off the first morning and had soon run into a school of aku off the north end of Oahu.

The aku, which is a small relative of the tuna, is known as yellowtail on the Pacific coast. It averages about 25 pounds.

Larry had been given a pole and was apparently expected to haul the fish up one after the other over the stern of the boat.

Twenty-five pounds of wriggling aku is no lightweight.

To facilitate the journey of the fish from sea to the boat, the captain had thoughtfully removed all traces of railing so that if a fisherman were caught off his balance, he would have nothing to hang onto and would end up in the drink.

Larry tried valiantly.

He seized the pole and jig and tossed it over the side, simultaneously sitting down with an undignified thud on his back-side in an attempt to retain his balance.

Everyone around him was taking it in their stride on their experienced "sea legs."

Soon it became obvious that the art of keeping your balance on a heaving deck while trying to drag in a violently threshing aku without being swept overboard was too much for Larry, even with his big wave stability stance.

After several more ignominious thudding sit-downs to avoid falling into the ocean, he gave up and spent the rest of the voyage as a spectator.

The joys of fishing diminished rapidly.

Firstly, the crew, although friendly, when they were not busy, spoke only Japanese, so Larry kept his own company.

After three days of this at sixteen hours a day, he was not sure whether or not he liked himself.

Secondly, the crew ate only raw fish, canned franks, rice, and soda pop, an interesting experiment for a single meal but disastrous at the box office after three whole days.

And thirdly, after a thorough inspection, Larry found to his utter horror there was no toilet aboard.

At first, he thought that the crew kept themselves to themselves until they tied up at night, although they didn't seem at all sulky or repressed.

Later he found that one was given a rope with a large knot at the end and expected to hang onto this with one's rear end hoisted over the side, trousers down, a spectacle he later scrupulously avoided, to prevent bursting into uncontrollable laughter as he had when he first saw it.

They tied up that night in a cove near Punaluu.

The next day they ran into a storm and heavy surf, which Larry was not tempted to ride.

In fact, he could no longer stand on deck without support, and the severe exposure to sun and wind was beginning to take its toll.

By the third day, he was slightly seasick and exceedingly constipated with the plethora of rice and franks. This had later accounted for his undignified posture on the stairs on his return.

He was convinced, he said, using the more formal naval term, that he would never pass stools again. He couldn't bear to laugh; it was too painful.

Fortunately, some architectural rendering commissions came in before the end of the week, and Larry, somewhat crestfallen and completely chastened, went back to work.

We have rarely talked about fishing since.

Punaluu, Oahu: a fishing spot for catching octopus | Photo: Shutterstock

Shooting the North Shore of Oahu

Toward the end of October, I had to return to the mainland for a month, during which time I determined to write this book.

I also had the problem of getting some photographs.

With this in mind, on my return and with our surfboards strapped on top of my car Larry and I and hotdog Hansen, the friendly Frenchman, set off for the north side of the island.

George had departed for California, New York, and other points east to take his exams, and Bob Hansen had replaced him as the third member of our surfing triumvirate.

He was one of the few gentlemen surfers I have met, with no visible means of support, who followed the surf year-round.

Nearly a decade ago, he had discovered a method of making money by international exchange, and he had seldom worked since.

With Bob's Leica M3 and 200 mm telephoto lens, Larry's tripod, and my film and photographic genius, we determined to try Makaha, Sunset, and anywhere else where the surf was up.

The 200 mm lens would enable us to get panoramic views of surfers in action showing the whole wave rather than just a close up which I didn't want.

It was the first Saturday in December, and we roared up the island highway past Schofield Army Camp, glad to get away from Honolulu.

We tore through the little town of Wahiawa with its burgeoning commerce and up the hill through miles of Hawaiian agriculture.

As we turned the corner past the lychee orchard and circled through the last avenue of towering Eucalyptus, the whole coastal plain came into view.

Behind us were the pineapple fields in their regular rows of fine silvery spikes.

Before us was a landscape incredibly green, rolling fields of sugar fading into the great strand forests of ironwood and Kamani trees.

And in front of that, the surf.

Long white ribbons extending far out into the ocean and ceasing only at the horizon on one side and cut off by a green and orange hill on the other.

So this was Haleiwa and Waimea Bay and Sunset - all the world's most famous big wave beaches.

We turned right at Haleiwa past its well-designed beach park and through its old-world stores and houses.

I wondered how long this lovely place would resist the march of progress and fell silent when I thought of the destiny which in a few years would surely engulf it.

The road to Sunset runs close to the shore, with most of the development on the beachside.

The first mile or two is marked by beach breaks with large lava rock outcrops.

You then curve around Waimea Bay which looks surprisingly flat and very small (it can only be four or five hundred yards across) and pass a couple of miles of weekend homes, all with red and green duroid roofs and large lanais in the Hawaiian manner, and surrounded by panax hedges, areca palms, lauhala, hibiscus, hau, and many other beautiful island trees.

These houses are all served by narrow access roads.

Every so often, there is a gap in the form of a right-of-way to the beach or a small park.

Sunset Beach is the first large gap in the beach homes, with the main road skirting the sand.

It is a wide bay like Waikiki with a great expense of open ocean, but I will describe it in more detail in the next chapter.

Although I have never been to Sunset Beach in the winter when there is no surf of some kind there, often the waves are of variable quality.

They are sometimes almost impossible to ride because of the wind.

A few breakers were peaking to the right, but there were at that time no surfers, so we retired to the adjacent beach, which we had discovered by accident the week before.

It is known as Pupukea and consists of a headland separating it from Sunset Beach and a wide strip of sand which flattens out parallel to the road for perhaps a quarter of a mile.

When the surf is running right, it is a sort of modified shore break and provides some of the best waves up to 15 feet on the Islands.

These can be caught close to the shore, perhaps three to five hundred yards out, and will almost bring you in without swimming if you lose your board, which is consequently always washed up on the beach.

Sunset Beach, Oahu: two 1960s surfers share a dreamy 12-footer | Photo: Desmond Muirhead

Challenging Pupukea

Less experienced surfers can surf Pupukea lying down on their boards from about 150 yards out.

It is also good for bodysurfing with a strong natural slide up the steep sand embankment at the end.

The waves at Pupukea are twice as powerful as those at Waikiki.

They are twice as thick and look much larger from the sea than they do from the beach. A wipeout at Pupukea can be serious.

You should consequently go to considerable trouble to avoid getting caught under a breaking wave there.

If the wave breaks right on top of you, the action is not unlike a washing machine.

You will get rolled over in the soup perhaps for as much as a hundred yards, spending up to half a minute underneath.

Under such conditions, a half-minute seems like half an hour; try counting 101, 102, etc., and you'll see what I mean.

Although there are quite a few surfers who can stand this sort of treatment regularly and come up for more, there are vast hordes who can't take it at all.

Also, the more powerful a wave is, the more chance you have of being winded and smashed to the bottom of the sea against the coral reefs or, at best, against a sand which yields little from the pressure of a human body.

There are both exposed coral heads and shallow sand at Pupukea, where 15-foot waves will sometimes break in 7 feet of water.

When going out at Pupukea, you have to paddle hard to get through even a small wave without being hurled backward.

As two or three feet of soup approaches, which you could take in your stride at Waikiki, you roll under your board and can really feel the power, you have to hang onto your board for dear life, or it will be gone.

I have seen surfers take half an hour to negotiate the relatively short paddle at Pupukea.

The most important new step which must be learned at Pupukea is diving to clear the board and going to the bottom until the turbulence is past.

Under normal conditions at this beach, if you are too far over and are sliding right and are going to get dumped, if you straighten off and head toward shore after the drop, you can prone out, and nine times out of ten, you will be able to hold the board in the soup.

If you can't avoid a bad wipeout or if you are trapped in the middle of a set by a breaking wave, take a good breath, dive or jump as deep as you can sideways away from the board and wait till the turbulence is past.

If you get to the bottom, dig your hands into the sand and hold on.

If you get caught by the soup, which is inevitable from time to time, roll up in a ball with your head against your knees, your legs tucked up, hands covering your head, and your forearms protecting your face.

One of the most horrible feelings at Pupukea, which you are bound to encounter, is when you just make it going out over the top of a breaking wave.

You hear a giant sucking sound - slooch - behind you, and your heart starts beating like a gong. Inevitably sometimes you are caught.

Individual surfers have different methods of handling breaking waves.

Some dive down deep and stay there.

Some slide off their boards and go down to the bottom feet first; others merely swim around underwater deep enough to avoid the turbulence.

In repeatedly breaking waves, you have to rise to the surface at the right moment before the second one dumps its contents on you.

If you go up too quickly, you may get sucked back into the wave and panic.

If you are up too slowly, you may be just in time for the second crash.

John Bloomfield recommends looking up from the bottom and waiting until you see air bubbles rising to the surface.

This should take place about five seconds after the wave has broken.

You can then shoot to the surface for a breath, appraise the situation and if necessary, go down again to avoid the next break.

After wipeouts at Pupukea and other big wave beaches, you will get plenty of opportunities to bodysurf, a form of entertainment much practiced at Makapuu on the other side of Hawaii Kai, where many enthusiasts use a small board and swim fins to help them.

Roughly, bodysurfing consists of riding the waves like a surfboard only using your body.

You must match the speed of the wave by sprint swimming, doing the crawl or trudgeon until you are lifted as a board would be, and then hold the wave with hunched shoulders to get the center of gravity of the body as far forwards as possible.

Speed may be maintained by kicking with the legs.

Breathing is usually effected by holding one arm against the side and the other forward and taking a sideways breath as in the crawl.

Considerable practice and experience are needed to hold waves while bodysurfing and to get the correct balance of the bodyweight for an optimum ride.

Perhaps it's worth it since a ride back to the shore is a much more pleasant prospect than a long swim.

When we arrived at Pupukea for the second time, the Australian team which had come over to compete in the International Surfing Competition was there.

They had rented a large house a couple of miles from Sunset Beach and had bought two of the most battered-looking cars in the Islands for transport.

Their surfboards, which also looked as if they had been through a lot, were stacked in phalanxes on top of the cars.

Many of the faces were familiar. Dave Jackman, who had recently attained fame by cracking the 25 foot Queensland Bombora, Midget Farrelly, hotdogger par excellence, Bob Pike, Nipper Williams, Mick Dooley, and several other well-known Aussie surfers.

There was no surfing at Pupukea when we arrived; however, these Australians had been out in the early morning when it had been very good, they said.

At my request, they kindly repeated their performance while we shot the pictures, some of which can now be seen in this book.

This was especially appreciated since a heavy sea was running, and the strong offshore wind, although it held up the waves, also made them difficult to catch and hold.

There were some spectacular wipeouts, but I have never seen surfers less affected by them.

They were such powerful swimmers and accomplished bodysurfers that they recovered their boards from the beach almost as fast as if they had surfed in on the boards themselves.

They also put on a terrific display of surfing in the waves, which averaged about 20 feet and were breaking hard.

Soon a good-sized crowd had gathered to watch them.

Later we moved to Sunset Beach, and I took some pictures while Larry and Bob went out to try the waves.

I was lucky enough before the end of the day to see Pat Curren handling some 12-foot Sunset steamers.

Pat is recognized as one of the best big wave riders, and it is invigorating to see an athlete in such good condition handling the waves so consistently well.

But as I have said before, there will be more about Sunset Beach in the next chapter.

We drove back to Honolulu with the straps which were holding our surfboards whirring in simple harmonic motion, making a gigantic whine which we studiously ignored as we couldn't be bothered to fix it after such a perfect day.

I had tried to take some photographs illustrating the surfer in relation to the whole wave, not a piece of it, and conditions could hardly have been better.

The only thing I regretted was the height of the camera, which was perched up above the beach, and the fact that Pupukea waves often don't look like much to a spectator, which is not fair to the surfer.

As I have said before when you are out there, Pupukea waves are real monsters, but unfortunately, from the shore, people can't see the horrible mountains which the surfers are sliding down.

Only the elevations of the wave are visible in two dimensions, and so much of the glittering heroism goes unnoticed.


Words by Desmond Muirhead | Golf Course Designer and Author of the Book "Surfing in Hawaii" (1962)

Chapter X of "Surfing in Hawaii" was published under the authorization of Rosemary J. Muirhead, one of the three daughters of Desmond Muirhead

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