Wild Kauai: Surfing With A Hawaiian Legend
I looked through the sliding glass doors of our beachside rental, past the palm trees and rain-soaked grass, and out to the water. The early light showed Hanalei Bay to be a windswept jumble with not one surfer out on dawn patrol.
At 6:30 a.m. my friend Sarah bounded in. “The guys just texted. Kilauea gas station at 7:15,” she said. I hoped conditions would be better over there.
I was halfway through an eight-day stay in Kauai with three girlfriends, enjoying curling, consistent waves every day. Despite the aching arms typical of other surf trips, that April visit was proving to be more than a wave-catching vacation. I was riding swells with Hawaiians who embodied not just the local surf scene, but the untamed spirit of Kauai itself.
Titus Kinimaka pioneered big wave surfing and has ridden some of the biggest rollers ever seen. With his flowing hair and intense black eyes, Titus looks like the man of the sea that he is, with an instinct for the ocean. Titus always had a plan to find the best waves, and the rest of his crew — Titus’s nephew Kaimi Kaneholani, fellow big wave surfer Clay Wolcott, and Kauai-born photographer Ry Cowan — never questioned it.
Titus commands respect all over the Hawaiian Islands. With Titus in our midst, we were able to surf at Anahola, a surf spot on a long, undeveloped beach accessed through “The Rez,” the homestead set aside for native Hawaiians, where non-locals are unwelcome. Although Titus’s presence meant I could paddle out unperturbed, I still had to cede most waves to the experts there.
While the Anahola day had been sun-drenched and hot, this morning started out gray and wet. I roused my friend Suzie and San Francisco neighbor Caitlin while Sarah started a pot of coffee. We pulled on bikinis and board shorts, gulped down our muddy caffeine and climbed into the dowdy beige minivan I’d rented to hold our many surfboards. I drove us eastward on Highway 56, away from the popular bohemian town of Hanalei on Kauai’s northern coast and to the tiny village of Kilaueu in the northeast.
The drive was just 10 miles, but it was well past 7:30 a.m. when we reached Titus and Kaimi seated in Titus’s weathered white pick-up truck. They looked like they’d been waiting hours. After a lifetime of wave riding, Titus still rises at 4:00 a.m., too excited about getting into the water to sleep any longer. Before daybreak he meditates and completes hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups, staying mentally and physically tough enough to tow into and ride 100-foot waves whenever he can find them.
We followed Titus’s pick-up down a winding, slippery road to a clearing above Rock Quarry Beach where Clay and Ry awaited, sheltered from the wet weather in their own pick-ups. I sensed their exasperated amusement at our lateness. The beach was a deep, wooded cove, protected from the gale that was blowing out the surf elsewhere on the north coast. With the board under my arms, I felt the mud squish between my toes as I picked my way through the needled ironwood pines towards the beach.
I paddled ahead of everyone out towards a speedy breaker that fell out from under me. As I was trying to master this tricky wave, the drizzle became a downpour, pock-marking the water with increasing ferocity until the water dimples merged into a whole. The ocean became an undulating inky mass that mesmerized me. When at last I looked up, I saw that my friends were back on land, driven shoreward by the grim conditions. We’d missed the early morning window to surf here. Kaimi was on his board nearby; the guys never left us alone in sketchy swells.
Reluctantly, I followed Kaimi back to shore. There, Titus announced we would travel to the west side. From where we’d started that would be over 70 miles, three-quarters of the way around Kauai. If the island were a clock face, it would be like driving from high noon to 9 o’clock. The final quarter of coastline, from 9 to midnight, has no roads at all; it’s dedicated instead to wilderness reserves and the otherworldly Na Pali cliffs that have featured in many films, most recently Jurassic World.
We headed next to Titus’s home in the Anahola homestead to pare down to just one surfboard-laden pick-up truck and the minivan. Painted to match the aquamarine sea, his house had a corrugated metal roof and was raised above the ground. In the enclosed entry porch, trophies smothered a large, wooden table; they were framed by two of Titus’s many coveted “Eddies,” metal and wood surfboards awarded to participants of the exclusive Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational. Beyond the porch, the ample, sparely furnished living room held further evidence of Titus’s stature in a wall-sized portrait of him with a tattooed shoulder, burly bicep and menacing gaze.
Suzie, a professional ski guide for high-profile clients, is not one to be intimidated, and she ribbed Titus from our first surf together. She continued at our next stop, Duke’s, a beachside restaurant on Kauai’s sunny south coast named after Duke Kahanamaku, an Olympic champion swimmer who introduced surfing to the world outside Hawaii. We were whisked to a prominent table where Suzie promptly ordered the most awkward drinks on the menu: piña coladas in hollowed out pineapples with extra mini-umbrellas. Her bid to embarrass Titus failed, as he seemed to enjoy tackling his silly fruit cocktail brimming with colored paper parasols.
Fortified with a lunch and woozy from a pineapple-full of libation, I passed the wheel to Kaimi who drove us westward before ascending nearly 3,500 feet. With Clay and Ry following in the pick-up, we tumbled out an hour later into the parking lot of the Waimea Canyon Lookout. There, Kaimi walked to the lone concession stand where a salesman stepped out from behind a snack table. The two men approached each other and stopped a few inches apart. They put their foreheads together, noses touching, and inhaled deeply.
The salesman was another of Titus’s many nephews, born from among Titus’s 15 siblings whom I’d met all over the island. Titus greeted this nephew in the same way as had Kaimi: with touching foreheads and closed eyes. They were acknowledging one other in a manner much weightier than our mainland kisses and backslaps.
Throughout the week I’d experienced more than world-class surfing. I’d glimpsed this singular island way of life in the Hawaiian pidgin banter that Kaimi shared with his fellow surfers at Anahola; in the Hawaiian surfer who fetched us fresh coconuts after we surfed his home break or surf spot; in the hours that young Ry and his willowy girlfriend Avery Rowan whiled away sharing beers with us.
Just the previous evening, the guys and their partners had come over for a barbecue with Titus, a soulful singer, strumming a few chords on his guitar. Titus’s wife, Robin, told me then of her eldest daughter, Maluhia, a champion surfer and college freshman, and Maluhia’s efforts to reconcile how her competitive Stanford classmates treat others with the way people interact back home. I was beginning to appreciate Robin’s words. In Kauai’s small, supportive community, relationships aren’t stepping stones to something else.
There’s also danger in Kauai’s wildness, which I admired from the overlook of Waimea Canyon, a ten-mile-long, 3,000-foot-deep red earth gorge cleaved through the emerald plateau. Known as the Garden Isle, Kauai is the least populated of the major Hawaiian isles, with more than half of its 562 square miles covered by forests and nearly all of it green. From the canyon we drove higher to Koke’e State Park to view the Na Pali cliffs. Although the sky above was clear, from our 3,600-foot-high vista point, when I looked down I only saw cottony clouds. The Na Pali bluffs came to life instead in my imagination as Clay shared grizzly tales of hikers dying there.
Throughout the week Clay, a former lifeguard, had recounted his mostly successful rescues of drowning swimmers. Titus, in turn, had described the capture of the shark that bit off famed surfer Bethany Hamilton’s arm, and his own well-documented surf injury. During a big wave competition, a mammoth wave had slammed atop him, shattering his femur. Fellow surfers had risked their own lives to save Titus, holding him for 45 minutes on a swell-battered reef until a helicopter finally arrived.
Clay and Titus still take the ultimate risk every time a jet ski tows them into monster wave. Photographs of them slicing across the watery goliaths unnerved me. Contemplating the dangers lurking in this breathtaking isle, I felt how immediate their reality is. Life for them occurs in the present.
And my own present called for more surfing, even as the sun was dipping lower. We drove back to sea level, stopping at the unassuming Ishihara Market in Waimea town for fresh tuna and salmon poke — Hawaiian ceviche. It was late afternoon when we parked near Pakalas, a murky break by a fish-filled river mouth. Showers trickled through the thicket of trees as we passed curious bulls brought there decades ago to scare away trespassing surfers. I was aware that Pakalas is notorious for shark sightings, but I didn’t mention it to my girlfriends.
Surfing with Titus, Clay and Kaimi, I had an admittedly willful sense of security; they were always watching out for us. Ry was onshore, covering his camera and telephoto lens with an umbrella. No one else was in sight. I paddled out for long minutes to where the endless waves were breaking, cleanly and potently. After a false start, I caught the next wave, popped up and glided leftwards down the line or across the wave face, cutting back to stay near the crest. Under a pewter sky, the whipping rain was obscuring my vision, but I carved the wave up and down, on and on, until there was no wave left to ride.
As I paddled back out towards my fellow surfers, elation gripped me. The darkest and possibly most dangerous day in the ocean was also the most exhilarating. Back at the roadside, after the rain ebbed and dusk arrived, it seemed none of us could let the day end, popping open beers by the minivan. As we tailgated, pick-up drivers heading home shouted greetings at Titus. Eventually we trekked the 70 miles back to our rented cottage where I collapsed into bed and awoke again at dawn the next day.
On the last night in Kauai, we shared small plates and sipped margaritas at Hanalei’s trendy Bar Acuda. Outside after dinner, Suzie asked Titus about the way he’d greeted his nephew at Waimea Canyon. Titus explained that honi is a respectful salutation to exchange one another’s ha, or life energy. Titus and I put our foreheads together, noses touching, then closed our eyes and inhaled at the same time.
But Titus, Kaimi, Clay and Ry had been sharing their energy all week long. They had shown me Kauai’s elusive essence, and I carried it home in my lungs and in my heart.
Titus Kinimaka runs the Hawaiian School of Surfing in Hanalei, Kauai
Photographs by Ry Cowan and Noelle Salmi
Noelle Salmi has lived on five continents, and surfed on four of them. She is the author of several Frommer’s guidebooks, and her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jornal do Brasil, Bay Area Parent, Indagare Magazine, Tablet Magazine, and other online and print publications. For more visit NoelleSalmi.com.