The inspiring adventure of Steve Brown, the one-armed surfer

June 30, 2021 | Surfing
Steve Brown: a one-armed surfing legend | Photo: Brown Archive

In the late spring of 2015, after retiring from bike racing and having a less hectic business calendar, I made much-delayed plans to take a surf lesson.

Before I had a firm date, I read "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life" by New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan.

If all went well, then a little of that could be my life, too.

By September of the following year, I was catching a few easy lefts at Old Man's in San Onofre, California.

In October 2016, my left arm was removed due to cancer.

Twelve weeks later, I'm in the water, off the Natatorium in Honolulu, next to the break known as Publics.

Lowen Tynanes, from Kai Sallas Surf School and now an accomplished professional MMA fighter, is working with me to figure out how to surf with one arm.

Over the next year and a half, his associate, Makani, would help me figure what to do next by shoving me into numerous small waves at the same uncrowded location.

The following year working with waterman and haole beach boy Kenny McOmber, off Rock Piles, next to Ala Moana Bowls, I was launched into a summer of chest-high waves on the west coast of the mainland.

Covid-19

The last week of March 2020, recovering from the removal of the upper right lobe of my lung, there was mention of two cases of Covid-19 in the other ICU unit.

As the world would try to cope with the pandemic and the worst threat to western democracy since World War II, my goal would be to surf as much as possible till I could not.

After a summer and fall of training and surfing the cold waters of the Oregon coast, in March 2021, I'm back on the south shore of Oahu.

The return to Hawaii yields mixed results.

Heavy rains dumping dirt, sewage, and whatever else was on the ground into the ocean make the decision to even be in the water difficult.

By switching from a different board I use on the west coast of the mainland, I need to adjust my position on the board.

With one arm, it is not a quick move to scoot back a little if I see the nose digging in or getting forward if the wave is a little slow, so you've got to have it right before you paddle for a wave.

The first air trip out of Covid-19 jail was also disorienting.

Covid-19 test within 72 hours of the flight, several attempts to download it to Hawaiian Safe Travels, queuing at Hawaiian Airlines for a colored wrist band showing negative status, public restrooms, lines, six hours in a plane, strangers with masks.

I hope my vaccination works.

Did I just waste lots of money, time, and effort for this result, or is this just a normal surf trip and s**t happens?

Steve Brown: riding a beautiful wave at Waikiki | Photo: Brown Archive

Santa Cruz, California

In April, on the way back from a return road trip to Palm Springs, Barry Green of Centered Surfing is helping me find a wave on a declining swell at Privates Beach in Santa Cruz, California.

The place has a mellow vibe.

Otters are floating on their backs in the kelp beds; fifteen feet away, a seal pops its head out of the water and stares at me for a long time.

A long period, gentle swell rolls into cliffs, breaking on shallow ledges.

Huntington Beach may have more surfers, but you get the feeling people in Santa Cruz just dropped what they were doing, deciding it was time to get in the water.

At several spots, there is no shore break. There is no separation between land and sea.

One feels in California and Oregon, caused by the rough water between the edge of the sand of the sea and the beginning of the real waves.

I ride a few warm-up waves to get centered. Then, catching a small right, I feel the power of the ocean radiate up through my feet.

The next day, an almost flat ocean sends us to the only bump close by - Capitola, a break Barry quickly calls "the mini-golf of surfing."

You paddle out alongside a 60-foot jetty, head straight south, and you're behind the break.

It is a right, heading into the cliffs, breaking on the rocks.

On the last wave of the day, I'm up quick, looking to my right, along the face of the wave, and I can also see "land ho."

I extend my backside look along the face of the wave into a turn.

Down the line, I run against a two and three-quarters-foot-high ocean headed for the base of the cliffs.

The wave ends. I kick out and fall over just before the basalt.

The reason for the fall over has to do with the mechanics of only having one arm and the nature of eccentric weight training.

Try lowering your body in a push-up position via one arm - if you can, you are a beast.

I can do 20 one-arm style push-ups and can't do it at 138 pounds.

Landing flat on my back, always assuming a shallow bottom, I keep my heel on the board, so it's right there.

The energy put into my body from the ocean has centered me.

Making the turn, I was at one with the ocean and the planet, or as close as I can get. And even if it's still a bit further, it's close enough, and it feels pretty good.

Home

Back in Portland, vaccinated and pushing for peak fitness to match my mental state, it's three runs a week and three swims, interspersed with pop-ups on the pool deck.

Plus, lots of visualizations of stance and movement on the board.

The goal: focus, relax, keep my head centered because, in another month, it's back to Oahu.

Steve Brown, Eddie Fiel, and Carie Brown: sharing the Aloha spirit | Photo: Brown Archive

Oahu, Again

From the first wave, I'm in the groove - three super sessions in the water and plenty of adventures when not surfing.

Honolulu is almost open, and I am spending time with friends - the Aloha spirit abounds.

With one last surf session scheduled for the next morning, my wife Carie and I enjoy a sunset drink and Pu Pu's at the Mai Tai bar at the Royal Hawaiian.

Watching the surfers at Waikiki milk the last of the sunset, it's time to see what the fuss is all about.

I text my friend Eddie Fiel of Island Fiel Surf, who has been running the show for the week: "Surf Waikiki tomorrow?"

"Ahhh, yeah!" is the reply.

A New Morning

Three minutes before our arranged pickup at 7 am, Eddie calls.

"Bethany is here - do you wanna come down?"

If you are a one-arm surfer, it's hard not to be in the shadow of Bethany Hamilton.

For the past five years, surfing with one arm, the most common comment I receive is, "have you ever met Bethany Hamilton?"

"No" has always been my honest reply.

Early on, I watched videos of her pop-up and listened to interviews to see if I could learn any tricks of the one-arm surfing trade.

The one-arm surfing pop-up involves arching one's back, doing a one-arm push-up, then a serious abdominal crunch to bring your feet underneath your body onto the board, all the while the surfboard is moving in three dimensions and forward at 16 miles an hour.

There are countless YouTube videos of two-arm pop-ups.

But no one-arm pop-ups until I posted one in August 2020, made one last summer with the help of my daughter's boyfriend, a gifted video media artist for a local advertising firm.

With one arm or two, flexibility, core strength, and a good sense of timing help.

In 2017/2018, I tried to contact Bethany - first with the help of the prosthetic arm company we share and second through her foundation.

There was no response from her end and, in early 2019, nailing my pop-up on my own, I put the idea of meeting Bethany and picking her brain aside.

In the early summer of 2019, I registered OneArmSurfer.com.

I had just retired and would use my free time to be my own brand.

But the real goal is to share the delight I had meeting so many wonderful people and visiting incredible places.

If I could write off some of my surfing travel and expenses, "mo bettah." I would make it on my way as a one-arm surfer.

A month later, a follow-up scan shows tumors have metastasized in my lungs. I might have two years if all goes well.

Cancer patients know the drill. Put your things in order and get ready for chemo. So much for my new scheme.

My Caring Bridge handle became "Cancer Don't Surf," a take-off on "Charlie Don't Surf," and I moved on.

Face to Face

Bethany is standing at the far back edge of the little beach on the Diamond Head side of the Ala Moana Boat Harbor jetty.

The camera is rolling as she walks past a statuesque middle-aged woman.

Shooting pauses, and Bethany takes time to meet the people who are walking up to say hello.

Smiling, gracious, apparently effortless, she seems genuinely nice and happy to acknowledge her fans and admirers.

I approach her security person, get the nod and step forward to say hello and introduce myself.

To break the ice, I try humor, "I thought I had one-arm surfing wrapped up on the South Shore."

It sounded pretty funny to me - a bit of irony combined with the appropriate amount of self-deprecation.

She takes a mental step back and almost apologizes for a perceived intrusion on her part.

Quickly I apologize - not what I intended - and turn to her security person:" just wanted to say hello; felt it was important."

"Maybe we will see you in the water," the security person replied.

"Cool," I responded.

She is working, and there are more people to greet. I quickly step away and get ready to get in the water.

In the lineup, waiting for the next great wave, warmed by the sun on a morning with no trade winds, looking down the beach toward Diamond Head, it is a happy place, and the smiles on many faces show it.

Close by, I recognize a woman who was out there earlier in the week.

Today she is with her twins, maybe 11 years old, their sister, maybe 13, and their mom's friend.

Mom paddles over to Bowls to get a closer look at Bethany surfing and maybe get into a background shot.

Most of the conversation is about Bethany. The girls are adorable.

I tell them at least they have me. And then, it looks like they are rolling their eyes.

A one-arm "uncle" is no substitute for Bethany. Even if I had my own movie, it's not Bethany. But I am not disappointed; I know the score.

There I am, just like in the photos of surfing at Waikiki - Diamond Head in the background - or the drawings of the ancient Hawaiians.

A year without Hawaii, I placated my jones for it by learning more about its history and religion.

I consumed and shared with close friends the journals of Captain Cook, his Lieutenants, Kawai Strong Washburn, Maxine Hong Kingston, James Huston, James Michener, and the new Paul Theroux book about pro surfers and life on the North Shore, "Under the Wave at Waimea."

The Hawaiian religion, Hawaii's status as a nation, do John John and Carissa fly the Hawaiian flag at the Olympics - Hawaii is always on my mind.

I will never be able to live in Hawaii or be a citizen, but when I am on the wave, I feel as one with the earth, the ocean, and Hawaii.

But I am back, surfing better than ever.

Bethany is as far from my mind as the word that Kelly Slater stopped by for an evening session last week.

After paddling in, wrapping the leash around the board's tail, and walking up to the two-headed shower, two small pipes on the opposite ends of a 4x4 stuck in the ground.

I get out of my wetsuit top, towel off, and start the post-surf session chat with friends.

Bethany and her security person paddle in and get out of the water. The girls, who surfed by me, are close behind.

Bethany, still standing on the sand, talks to the girls, and they take a picture.

It is a pleasure to see again how nicely she treats her fans. Besides her celebrity, there seems a true warmth of Aloha's spirit in her approach.

Eddie asks me if I want to go over to see her again.

"No, not really."

She is a mom, obviously working, and who knows what else is going on. If she wants to talk to me, I am glad to, but not my right to impose.

Five minutes later, Eddie pulls me over to the tailgate of the Escalade SUV, where they are working on her makeup.

"Where are you from?" asked Hamilton.

"Oregon. It makes the water in Santa Cruz seem warm," I told her.

"Santa Cruz is too cold for me... all the wetsuits," she added.

The makeup artist: "I'm from Beaverton, Oregon."

"Cool. OK. Nice meeting you, thanks," I said.

And back to Bethany. That's it.

Steve Brown: a different kind of selfie with Bethany Hamilton | Photo: Brown Archive

The Emergency Room

Two days after returning from Honolulu, my doctor calls to tell me yesterday's blood test shows I have severe anemia, and I need to get to an ER as soon as possible.

I pull "Barbarian Days" from the bookshelf and head downstairs to the car.

The ER is not crowded.

I am quickly sent to a room, evaluated, and in a couple of hours get a new bed, and told there is no room in the hospital, and I am spending the night.

It had been a couple of years since my last read of "Barbarian Days."

Now I've got six years of surfing and many trips to Honolulu, surfing the south shore of Oahu.

The first two chapters about Finnegan's early experiences are soothing. I am right back on my board, looking for the next wave.

In the hospital, waiting in the short stay area, on a bed, right before being wheeled in for an endoscopy, the nurse approaches to place a blood pressure cuff on my left arm.

To her surprise, it's not there - pretty funny, at least I am entertained.

I tell her I am a surfer.

"Have you met Bethany Hamilton?" she asks.

"I did. Do you want to see a video?"

"Sure." She watches and smiles.

"She has been such an inspiration."

"She is."

Bethany Hamilton: chatting with fans at Waikiki | Photo: Brown Archive

Home, Again

My four-month cancer scan is on Wednesday, the following week.

I've been surfing well while dealing with extreme fatigue and seeing friends.

The distraction of Bethany - and most of the stress leading up to it - has been put on hold by my week in Honolulu.

Once again, to my surprise, the tumors have not returned. I will continue my surfing adventures for another five months.

I order a new board from Tim Bowler, Shapes and Hulls, in Goleta, California, a slimmed-down model for the sandbar breaks on the west coast, and a new 3/2 wetsuit for a delayed fall trip to Europe.

Dealing with life minus an arm has been an adventure into the unknown.

Reading Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" revealed it's not about the whale.

My surfing was fine before and after I met Bethany.

It was no different than any day a top professional surfer happens to show up at one of your favorite average surf spots.

As for Finnegan, who is rumored to have visited the north Oregon coast, maybe we will be at the same beach some morning, and I can ask, "Howzit?"


Words by Steve Brown | Surfer

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