Led by Zane Aikau’s authoritative voice and the steering of his paddle, the motionless outrigger canoe suddenly exploded forward, slicing through the blue Waikiki Beach saltwater at a surprisingly fast speed.
All 7 members were furiously digging their paddles into the sea. Minutes prior, the team, which consisted of Australian tourists, collectively pushed the outrigger canoe from Waikiki’s crowded sands into the glassy sea, paddling opposite of one another to the rhythm of Zane’s commands. Then, sitting hundreds of yards offshore near the wave known as Canoes, everyone kept a watchful eye on the horizon until a lump appeared, growing taller as it approached.
Zane swung the canoe around with ease and continued to command and motivate the team until the pulse energy launched the canoe forward.
“OK, everyone stop! We got it!” Cheehhuuuu!”
At that moment, the wave shot us in the direction of the beach with the wind whipping by our ears and sea spray exploding into the air. Because everything was moving rapidly, it was impossible to take in the entire scene, with the gargantuan skyscrapers surrounding the beach and Diamond Head watching from its eternal perch. The moment seemed to be in slow motion for Zane, who methodically steered us through the zoo of surfers staring with wide eyes.
“Has much changed since you first started being a beach boy?” I said, directed towards Zane as we paddled back out. A soft mist began to fall from the sky.
“Nah brah, it’s mostly the same,” he responded. “Teaching surfing, going canoe surfing, even being lifeguards, making sure everyone is safe…I became a full time beach boy in my 20s, spent a lot of time riding in Uncle Clyde [Aikau]’s canoe and learning. One thing I remember all the beach boys saying was that if you wanted to be a beach boy, you had to do three things: not just surf well, but also surf canoes, play ukulele, and weave coconut hats.”
“What about the most important quality of being a beach boy? What do you think that is?”
“Oh, the way you treat people,” Zane said. “Spreading aloha…it’s also important to treat everyone the same, treat them well. Here we go, everyone start paddling!”
Oars were immediately in the water, and as a blue set corduroyed toward us, the canoe raced in the direction of beach once more.
“Paddle harder! Harder! Ok, we got it!”
Again, the addictive feeling of riding a wave returned and instead of eyeing the unforgettable and historic scenery, my mind drifted to the deeper meanings of the cultural time machine I was riding in.
“Howz this!” said Zane, skillfully keeping the canoe in the pocket of the wave until we nearly reached shore. “I love this rain! We might have a rainbow soon guys, but for now let’s take her in.”
“I meant to ask earlier – you said that in order to be a beach boy, you have to also be able to weave hats,” I said as we rowed closer to shore. “Just out of curiosity, why is that aspect so important?”
“The hats…if it was a slow day and you needed to make some extra money, you could weave them out of leaves and sell it, you know?”
“So there was an entrepreneurial spirit…”.
Zane’s commands to paddle backwards to beach the canoe stopped me mid sentence, and moments later, we were back on the sand, with Zane taking a seat under a blue umbrella. He pulled an appropriate snack out of his pack: fish.
He looked my direction, his eyes a sea of mesmerizing blue. “Yeah brah, all this… it’s just another day at the office.”
What started as an offhand workplace conversation at the Freesurf office developed into an investigation into history books, talking story with present day beach boys and landed me in an outrigger canoe steered by Zane Aikau: what does it mean to be a modern day beach boy? Is it anything like it used to be, and what does the future hold for those that call themselves beach boys?
It’s been said that in order to understand where a culture is going, its people must first realize their roots and where they came from. The same can be said about the history of the beach boys. So where does their story begin?
Other than tales told around the beach bonfire and petroglyphs, the first recorded account we have of surfing is from Captain James Cook in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. Explorers on his expedition, along with later settlers, witnessed a native culture that considered surfing as an integral part of their lifestyle, with certain surf breaks reserved for Hawaiian royalty and other breaks allocated to common people.
Fast-forwarding to the early 1800s, missionaries arrived on the Islands and had a significant impact in shifting surfing’s popularity.
“I’m not familiar with specific edicts, I know that missionaries had a puritanical view. They also had a work ethic, and I think they were more interested that,” said surfing legend Fred Hemmings, the winner of the 1968 World Surfing Championships and founder of the Pipeline Masters. “Everyone became caught up in being westernized, and surfing and Hawaiian outrigger canoe racing went by the wayside.”
While a gray area exists regarding this time period – some believe, like Hemmings, that westernization stymied surfing, and others hold true that missionaries sought to abolish the sport, viewing it as an hedonistic act, and succeeded, all accounts agree that by the end of the century, surfing was rarely practiced.
This changed in the early 1900s, when a surfing renaissance began, in part, under the guidance of two surf clubs: The Outrigger Canoe Club and the Hui Nalu Club.
“Duke Kahanamoku and a group of his pals, mostly Hawaiian lads like himself, gathered daily under the shade of a hau tree by the Moana Hotel,” wrote David Davis in his book Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku. “They spent countless hours listening to stories from experienced watermen and studying the ways of the water. It was the education of a waterman, with the sort of knowledge that one didn’t learn in school: wave formation and its tendencies, the effect of the reef on different breaks where the best fishing areas were located.”
Years later, Duke Kahanamoku, Knute Cottrell and Ken Winter founded the Hui Nalu Club, based at the Moana Hotel in Waikiki, with swimming serving as the primary activity of the club in the early years, along with surfing and canoe paddling.
“Hui Nalu members supported themselves this way, giving surfing and swimming lessons to tourists and taking them for rides in the outrigger canoes for a dollar a person,” Davis wrote. “The beach boys made sure visitors didn’t get too sunburned and were there to aid inexperienced swimmers. They taught tourists how to eat poi and cooked them crab and squid over open fires. They put pungent lei around their necks, rubbed oil on their backs, weaved hats for them…Then, as the sun disappeared over the horizon, they took out their ukuleles and crooned soothing melodies on the pier.”
Davis also noted in his text that much of the allure surrounding the beach boys was that of charisma, charm, and that they were cultural phenomenons: “They were jesters and musicians, philosophers and tour guides, with nicknames like ‘Steamboat, Splash, Panama, Turkey, Chick and Mystery,’” he wrote. “They worked for tips and meals and more, symbols of the casual hedonism of sunshine, swimming and surfing found only in Hawai`i.”
“They set the gold standard for aloha,” said Hemmings. “The great attributes of that generation was their ability to befriend everyone with rapport and not judge them for the content of their pocketbook.”
Other than being entertainers, the earliest beach boys are also credited with popularizing the sport. Because not only were they teaching surfing to travelers who would return home with unbelievable stories of wave riding back to different parts of the globe; Duke, certainly the most renown beach boy of them all, took on an ambassador role and traveled extensively, showcasing his swimming and surfing skill, along with the message of aloha in places like New Jersey, Southern California and Australia.
Back in crowded Waikiki, the Renaissance era of surfing was a ticking clock and ended the moment billowing, black smoke rose from Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. During the war, barbed wire fences and Military patrols replaced waves of tourists and beach boys.
Post World War II, tourists once again flocked to Hawai`i and the role of beach boys once again continued, but by most accounts, duties shifted from being entertainers to focusing on beach services. Though the era was forever relegated to history books, the sport of surfing was alive and well.
“Growing up in the 50s and 60s, there was a shadow over being a beach boy,” explained Teddy Bush, the owner of Waikiki Beach Services. The career runs in his blood: Ted’s grandfather, Kim Wai, was one of the original members of the influential Hui Nalu Surf Club.
“My parents and everyone else’s parents my age were really upset that we chose this career. Everyone thought we were lazy bums. So a lot of times we didn’t even feel comfortable with ourselves, but then we saw people like Rabbit Kekai and others, just super hard workers, talented in the water and you know, just true Hawaiians. I came down to the beach and I saw the true culture, the true spirit. Nobody was putting them down.Everybody got hold of the culture and everybody’s was really proud to promote it, to speak about it.”
According to the 68-year-old, who boasts a glistening smile and tall frame, there was never a guidebook or class for learning the intricacies of the beach boy trade. Instead, the job was passed down through mentorship.
“In those days…you come on board, you take baby steps, you watch, you go out and hopefully you catch the eye of some old timers, then they take you under their wing,” said Bush. “But you have to, a while before that, prove that you are not a waterman. You’re a water baby. Because we had some down times too where we didn’t make any money, there were no tourists in town. So we had to survive on the beach and the water out there, so we did our fishing, and diving. But the older beach boys kept an eye on us.”
“It was an easy lifestyle, there wasn’t too much complaining,” said Sam Rodrigues, who was a beach boy “back in the day when everyone wore 40-40s. We’d hang out and help and they would take us to, for example, the Makaha contests. A lot of them had a lot of other jobs. Some were policemen, others musicians. We used to rake the beach every morning before people were walking on it, and you could see these beautiful lines when you come in the morning when no one has walked on it.”
“Learning to be a beach boy, it takes time, like a flower,” said Tony Moniz, 57-years-old, and founder of Faith Surf School. “It takes time like anything else. You can’t come in and force it, you have to work it, learn it. My impression on the early years of being a beach boy…the Uncles took care of us…literally feed us, encourage us… watching the Uncles down at these beach stands work, it is just a lot of sight, a lot of watching.”
“Who could argue with going surf every day?” said fellow beach boy and operator of Aloha Beach Services Harry “DiDi” Robello, whose dad was a first-generation beach boy and mother was a second-generation Kahanamoku. “You know, as a kid I was out here surfing. Then all of sudden it started: go help the boys in the canoe, start carrying boards, hey fix this, fix that, watch the desk… Next thing you know I’m running the show.”
What is one aspect that hasn’t changed about being a beach boy despite the changes in time? As Zane alluded to, having a multiple skillset.
“A surfer, a waterman, a canoe guy, a fisherman, the guys grew up on the beach, I think that is the pure definition of a beach boy,” said Moniz.
Another quality paramount to being a beach boy is, according to Tony Moniz, maintaining that entrepreneurial spirit that Duke and the original beach boys exhibited.
“Nothing was given to me on a silver platter, and I love challenges,” he said. “I started off alone, and just worked it. I would walk up and down Diamond Head cliffs, loading boards, unloading boards alone, with my little Mazda truck picking up people from hotels, so it was the love. Being able to come on to the beach at Waikiki to teach, you need what we call a “blue card”, so as soon as I got my blue card, then I got an office, so one thing led to another, and it is pure passion, going back to it. We went from having one or two employees to having twenty.”
That passion, along with the surrounding community, is one of the driving forces to becoming a beach boy today, according to John Paul Kaleopa’a, currently in his early 30s.
“I really do call myself a beach boy,” he said. “If not one of the last. I save a lot of lives, I try to perpetuate what was real… For example, I took out this girl when she was a kid and now she’s married, she has a kid and I saw her yesterday. I’ve had connections with people so many times over the years that I can’t leave, if I did leave, then I lose a connection, and a piece of me.”
At the end of the day, whether it’s John Paul taking someone out on their first ever surf lesson, Zane Aikau steering tourists into their first wave or Tony Moniz speaking with beachgoers on Waikiki’s iconic sands, the focus always was and will forever be on the travelers.
“Hopefully our gang here can infect this beach with being true ambassadors of aloha,” said Tony. “Sharing the love, sharing what we are here for. Knowing that this is a privilege for us to be located right here, to teach surfing, to give people the best we can. They save all their money years and years to come here for a week, two weeks, and the best we can do is put a smile on their face.”