Going Deeper at Makaha

by Chris Dixon

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Photograph by Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

In the islands where surfing began, the waves on that particular day were a disappointment—mushy, chest high, and annoyingly infrequent. Still, Hawaiians have never needed much of an excuse to grab a board and hit the ocean, and the takeoff zone was packed. Teens on shortboards. Moms on longboards. Grade-schoolers on bodyboards. A guy with a gray ponytail on a stand-up paddleboard. Some had tribal tattoos in the style of Polynesian warriors. Straddling my surfboard in the deep water beside the reef, I surveyed the crowd with a knot in my stomach, feeling that I didn’t belong…

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Moroni Naho‘oikaika, a musician who lives near Makaha, hikes south of Kaena Point with his son Ezekiel. He wears tattoos of things that are close to his heart: the outline of Hawaii, footprints of an older son, a shark for protection, and verse that speaks to his faith. “Jah is God,” he says. “God’s word is the music.” Photograph by Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

Thus begins John Lancaster’s 3200-word treatise on Makaha, the West Side of Oahu and the history of surfing for the February issue of National Geographic. It’s a solid read that reveals surprisingly deep societal truths and lays bare beauty and struggle along this coastal, cultural vestige of ‘Old’ Hawai’i.” In one passage, Lancaster describes navigating the cultural divide at a place like Makaha through a meeting with local enforcer and surfboard shaper Bruce DeSoto. As a visiting surfer, Lancaster is shown that introducing yourself to even the heaviest-looking Hawaiian locals is probably the least-intiuitive, but most important thing you can do (though as one of my only two critiques of the article, he fails to add that your self-introduction to those locals can be greatly enhanced with a six-pack of Primo). He goes on to deftly describe the tolls of haole colonization on Hawaii; from whaler-borne diseases to missionary abuses to the modern scourge of methamphetamine before narrowing his focus to struggles of a wildly talented young surfer who, despite prodigious gifts in the water, still fell through the cracks. Of equal importance, Lancaster introduces NG‘s mainstream readers to Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana and his son Brian, patriarchs of a big Hawaiian family that personifies the myriad of subtle meanings behind words like aloha and mana.

Lancaster writes: (Buffalo) Keaulana’s renowned waterman skills earned him a prominent role in the Hawaiian cultural and political awakening that came to be known as the Second Hawaiian Renaissance. In 1977 he kicked off his eponymous surfing contest, whose party atmosphere and multiple events—canoe surfing, tandem surfing, longboarding—recall the ancient Makahiki festival held in honor of the Hawaiian god Lono. Keaulana’s chieflike status was enhanced by his burly physique and, when necessary, “a look that chills your bones,” in the words of his eldest son, Brian, who added, “Every local kid knows that look.”

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Ha‘a Keaulana prepares for one of the worst surfing mishaps“a wipeout that would hold her underwater—by running on the ocean floor while carrying a rock and pulling her friends. Her father, Brian, pioneered this technique to train lifeguards. Photograph by Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

Brian is a renowned big wave surfer and probably the world’s pre-eminent aquatic stuntman. Though he never claimed a patent, he also invented the rescue sled you see behind every jet-ski during big wave surf missions. I might add that not only was Buffalo Makaha’s first-ever lifeguard, but it’s a little-celebrated fact (my second minor critique of Lancaster’s article is that he didn’t mention this) that Buff was also the main oarsman during the 1976 journey of Hōkūle‘a – the first successful crossing between Hawaii and Tahiti of the massive sailing canoe. “My job was to steer,” Buff once told me a few years ago. “You use this huge oar, it weighs 100 pounds. I was the biggest, so I steered the most. One thing about steering, you’re always in the back of the boat, so you can always see who’s fucking up.”

During that trek to Oahu, I spent several days with the Keaulanas. Rather than write an article about the experience though, Surfer’s Journal editor Scott Hulet and I agreed that maybe it was just better to let Brian, Buff and his wife Momi talk story about their harrowing and hilarious journey through life, while sharing elephant-sized nuggets of wisdom along the way.

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Here are a few gems:

On elephants and politics

Buffalo: There was this elephant at a carnival at Makua ranch. I saw this nice, round elephant shit. It was nice and dry, and I brought it home and put it in the Governor’s bowl —the governor gave me the bowl after the Hōkūle‘a trip. Then my wife brought a girlfriend over. She looks in the Governor’s bowl, and picks up this thing, trying to figure out what is this? Is this a coconut?

Brian: Then my mom’s cousin is one Supreme Court judge for Hawaii. He’s walking around looking around at all my father’s memorabilia—trophies and everything from around the world—and says, “Wow, check this out.” He sees the Governor’s bowl, and in it is this brown ball that looks like a coconut. He grabs it and says, “What is this?” My dad goes, “Don’t touch that, it’s my prized elephant shit.” He’s just looking at my dad, and Dad goes, “The first time I ever saw one big elephant, I saw this thing coming out and it never had a smell. I go, wow, one elephant came down to Makaha and shit right there. So I keep the elephant shit and put ’em in the Governor’s bowl. Because that’s where shit belongs.”

Momi: I threw one away and he went and got another one.

Buffalo: That second one was really crappy looking.

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On Brian’s first surfboard

Buffalo: We made him a little board—a Patterson Brothers board. And he snuck out to go surfing.

Momi: I said, “Do not go surfing unless I’m here.” So Brian tells a friend of Buff’s named Homer Barrett that it’s okay for him to go and get his board down for him. Homer said, “You sure it’s okay?” And Brian said he had an uncle who was going to watch him out there. I come home from the store and I’m looking outside at this little kid surfing. Then I’m looking around for Brian, and when I realized it was him, I started screaming at the top of my lungs. “Who took your board down?” Brian refused to say anything. So I grabbed his board and, pow, broke it in half.

Brian: (laughing): I do not remember this.

Momi: He was just crying and Buff came running down and goes, “What the hell’s going on?” Then his friend (Homer) came up and says, “It was my fault.” So I jumped all over him. Then Buff took Brian and got him another board. When Brian came home, I looked at him and I said, “You want this surfboard?” “Yes, Mommy.” “You want Mommy to break your surfboard?” “No, Mommy.” “You going to surf only when somebody is watching you?” “Yes, Mommy.” I said, “Okay, we don’t have a problem then.”

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On first dates

Momi: Buff was a beach boy, and we dated for a year before we got married. One day, Buff comes up to me and says, “Eh.” I look at him and I said, “A is for apples,” and turned right around. Then he said, “You like go out sometime?”

I said, “Have you ever heard of Emily Post?” He said, “What’s that?” I said, “Do you know what etiquette is?” He said, “No.” So I said, “Well, let me clue you in. One, you ask a girl, ‘Are you doing anything tonight?’ If she says no, you ask her if she’d like to go to the movies.” So he said, “Are you doing anything tonight? Would you like to go to the movies?”

I said, “No, I’m going out with another boy.” I wanted to show him that not all girls are easy.

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Brian (Left), Buffalo (Right) and Me. On the Shoulders of Giants at Makaha. Photo Courtesy: Eric Kiel.

On the countless lives he has saved as the first lifeguard at Makaha


Buffalo: I never remember all of
 them. Back when I was a lifeguard, I had a hard time spelling, 
so we hired Rell Sunn, and she
 was kind of my secretary. Every
time I saved somebody, she’d
 write something up—she was a storyteller. But when she wasn’t there, when some guy almost drowned, I’d bring him up on the beach. I’d be walking and he’d be falling. He’d say, “Aren’t you going to take my name?” I’d say, “Look up.” He’d look up at the sky. I’d say, “Thank you, God.” He’d say, “Thank you, God.” I’d say, “No worries.”

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More on Makaha: 

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Read all of National Geographic’s Excellent: Pure Hawaiian. Beyond the glitz of tourist beaches, locals cling to the spirit of the ocean.

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Order Surfer’s Journal‘s. Buff & Momi: The Keaulanas of Makaha. 

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Order: Stuart Holmes Coleman’s Fierce Heart: The Story of Makaha and the Soul of Hawaiian Surfing. 

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