A Hawaiian surfing trip that taught a lot of lessons

I get asked often to talk about certain people, events or periods in my surfing life that have stood out to me as meaningful.  With that in mind, I thought that today I will do a little visit back to the summer of 1963 when I went to Hawaii for the first time and spent a couple of months surfing Ala Moana, on Oahu’s south shore.

This was a very meaningful time for me, it changed my approach to surfing and had a lot to do with teaching me how to keep my mouth shut when it did not need to be yapping like it normally did.

Ala Moana is a great surf break, a screaming-fast left-hander with a big bowl section at the end when it’s bigger.

I love that spot.  Here is a paragraph from my new book, “Not Done Yet,” describing a ride:

“It was on my first day out there that I met two of my all-time surfing idols, even to this day: George Downing and Paul Strauch.  The waves were big, bigger than I was used to anyway.  And they had the Hawaiian power and speed, which was much more powerful and faster than California waves.

“I had taken off on a big set wave and was screaming down the line going as fast as I could go.  All of a sudden I was deep in a very dark tunnel and the wave was roaring over my head like a freight train.  I panicked and jumped off, in the process I think I let out a very girlish-like scream.

“George and Paul had been paddling out and saw, and heard, the whole thing.  When I came up they were both rolling off their boards laughing.  Geeze, how freaking embarrassing was that.  Two of the biggest surf stars on the planet having witnessed THAT.  Argh!   But, to my amazement, when I finished swimming all the way in to get my board, and had paddled back out to the lineup, both of them were super friendly and offered kind-ish words of encouragement.  It was a humbling afternoon to say the least.”

That summer I got to witness first-hand the surfing of some of the greatest riders in the world, ones who I had only seen in the surf movies up to that point.

One who really impressed me was Conrad Canha.  He was known for being able to keep standing through the heaviest sections and whitewaters.  He was a kinda bow-legged and thick dude and was in his mid-thirties and slightly balding.  But it was his “tube riding” that stood out to me.

This guy was getting deeper in that bowl section than anybody I saw for many years surfing there.  In a 1967 interview in SURFING magazine, Conrad said: “If your timing is right, you can get locked in. I mean, completely locked in. People can’t see you from shore. When I’m making a ride like that, there is a feeling there that I’m all alone, just me and the wave, and nobody around me. All you can see is just a little hole in front of you. It’s fantastic!”

He was kind of a prequel to Gerry Lopez.

Then there was a whole crew of guys who were amazing that you never heard of.  Buzzy Knubell and Ivan Vanetta stand out in my memory banks as two of the best young surfers I had ever seen, not sure what became of them, but at that time they were A-list Ala Moana flyers.  Jackie Gonzales too.  “Gonzie,” also was a musician and I still remember he had a cool song called “Temple of Colors” that he showed me many years later on the North Shore.

Sometimes Freddy Hemmings would come out, he was close to the same age as me and was already riding big waves out at Mākaha.  Jeff Hakman too.

So many great surfers that it made me realize that I wasn’t as good as I had thought I was before going there.  I needed to be quiet and try to stay under the radar, they did not take to loud-mouthed California “haoles” who thought they were hot.  One day when I was first there a good local guy aimed a spear at me, this more than less made the point very clear.

So, that summer was a lesson in surfing more powerful waves and going fast, which definitely changed my style and approach to surfing.  I came home and won the United States championship in the Junior Mens’ division shortly after.

It also gave me a big dose of learning how to shut up.  Of course I still had a big mouth, no mistake about that, just not as big.


Q.  I am hitting the “can’t pop up easily” stage of my surfing life.  From what I understand this is part of getting on in your surfing life and happens to everybody at some point.  I just turned 68 and have been surfing most of my life, so this is not a happy turn of events for me.  But I understand, and have heard you point out in your columns, that there are options.  Could you run that down, the short version, for me?  Thank you, I will appreciate your input.

– Will Turner, Palos Verdes

A. Yes, this is a subject I can relate to, as I have recently gone through the transition myself.

Here is some food for thought:  As long as you are able to paddle out and ride waves, it becomes less important what you are riding than it is that you are just riding, period.

I went to a SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard), as I felt that I can still surf reasonably the same on one of those as a normal prone board.

In fact, I now feel that my current SUP rides better than any longboard I ever rode.  Having been on mid-sized boards, I did have to readjust my approach to a more “longboard” style.  But this opened up things like nose riding and other fun stuff that I had not been doing on my smaller boards … and it is just that, very fun.

Other people choose boogie boards, knee boards, surf skis and air matts.  All good.  There are also the super long “glider” boards that are so big and long it is easier to pop up.  The key thing with those is you do still have to pop up.

So, there are a lot of choices out there for you.  The key thing is to keep the stoke and ride something.  Good luck.



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