Local surfers reflect on territorialism in Hawaiian surfing culture

By Léo Azambuja

Surfers worldwide dream about Hawai‘i’s warm waters, crystal clear waves and hollow barrels. The average visitor comes to Hawai‘i eager to experience aloha spirit in the birthplace of surfing. But the visitors who come to surf are aware that their Hawaiian dreams can quickly become nightmares – Hawaiian local surfers have developed a fierce territorial reputation over the years. But is this reputation unfounded? Three local surfers expose their personal views on localism in Hawai‘i.

In surfing vocabulary, localism translates into hostile attitude from local surfers toward visiting surfers. But there is a lot more to it. Localism can mean local surf clubs organizing beach cleanups, parties, surf contests, neighborhood watches, keeping real estate development at bay and preserving forests near surf breaks.
However, whenever the mainstream media report on localism, they tend to do so with sensationalism. On the other hand, whenever the surf media report on localism, they tend to be biased toward locals.

The beginning of localism in Hawai‘i dates back more than 30 years. Eddie Rothman, a Sunset Beach local better known as “Fast Eddie,” said that in 1974, “we got together and started a surf club, called the Hui O He‘e Nalu.” Back then, any 10-year resident could join the club.

Hui O He‘e Nalu club members would paddle out wearing their signature black shorts, and other surfers would feel intimidated. But Rothman said this intimidation was unfounded, since they were doing nothing wrong.
 “I think it started with a bunch of the Australians,” Rothman said. Ian Cairns and Peter Townend, who later became a friend of Rothman, were “lipping about the bronzed Aussies are here taking over the surfing world,” he said.

“You’d go in the water … after working all day,” Rothman said, “and there’s some foreign clown yelling ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’” The Aussies were the ones yelling at people and calling kids off the waves. “I guess we were deterred against that,” he said.

photo by Léo Azambuja

After retiring from professional surfing, Max Medeiros coaches surfing to children on Kaua`i, his home island. His wife Renee, an avid surfer, often comes along and surfs with the children.

Former professional surfer Max Medeiros, who was born and raised on Kaua‘i and lived on O‘ahu for 15 years, defined localism as the “way of life.” But it doesn’t happen only in Hawai‘i; a lot of places in the world have localism too, he said.
During his competitive years, Medeiros travelled all over the world. He said he never encountered any problems outside of Hawai‘i. “If you surf good and gave the locals respect,” he said, “they’ll give you respect.” It’s a trade. “You cannot go in anybody’s place and act like you can fight them all,” he said. “That’s showing disrespect.”

Medeiros and other Hawaiian surfers were usually welcome at other surf spots around the world. “Mostly the Hawaiian people, the Hawaiian culture was always (about) friendship,” he said. “So I think that anywhere we go … we are always welcome.”

Kaipo Jaquias, one of the most successful professional surfers from Hawai‘i during the 1990s, said that localism might sound like a bad word, but “it’s more like keeping the value of what the place is.” The locals love what they have and try to preserve it, while teaching the kids things like surfing etiquette and respecting elders, he said.

 “It’s kind of a catch-22,” Jaquias said, admitting that foreign surfers travel from afar, spending a lot of money to surf Hawaiian waves. “But at the same time,” he said, “you gotta pay your dues. You don’t come here and jump right up into the line up and be like you own it, like you’ve always been there.”

Jaquias started his surfing career on Kaua‘i, his home. Localism on Kaua‘i is more on an “island sense,” he said. Locals move around the island looking for good waves. On O‘ahu it’s so overcrowded that surfers tend to be more territorial than on the outer islands. Jaquias lived on O‘ahu from 1989 until 2004, when he returned to Kaua‘i. Although Max Medeiros introduced him to locals on O‘ahu, Jaquias said it was up to him to build his own trust with the locals there.

Rothman blames the media for hyping up frictions in the water between local surfers and visiting surfers. “The people in our club fight with each other, fight with other locals, real fights,” he said. “Because now somebody wears a pair of black shorts and got in a fight in the water it was a big special deal.” Somebody gets slapped in Australia, Brazil or somewhere else and nobody makes a big deal about it, “this happens every day,” he said. But when it happens in Hawai‘i it blows out of proportions.

The police can’t enforce surfing etiquette, and there are no laws about it. Jaquias said Pipeline is one of the most dangerous and popular waves on the planet. “The law makers don’t swim, they don’t surf,” he said. “Obviously they don’t know what it is like to get hurt in conditions like that.” Surfers come from all over the world to surf Pipeline. A lot of them end up doing stupid things and risking lives while trying to get recognition. “That’s why a lot of those guys (locals),” he said, “do step in and slap those guys in the head.”

“The laws can only do so much,” Jaquias said. “I think localism basically is our version of laying the law down.”

“You’ll get some guys who are arrogant and need some kind of discipline,” Medeiros said. Because of modern-day lawsuits, fights in the water are not so common as in the past. “Back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, you’d get disciplined real quick,” he said. Besides that, the surfing industry boomed in the last few decades. “It’s a corporate money-making machine,” Medeiros said. Fights in water can hurt the tourism industry, and the government is eager to punish aggressive behavior in the water.

But “what looks bad for tourism is sewage floating in Waikiki,” Rothman said. “And that’s the fault of Mufi (Hanneman) and his gang.” Rothman, who got community members together and supported Mufi Hanneman’s bid to become mayor of Honolulu, accuses the state and the city of leaving local surfers behind. After campaigning and donating money for Hanneman’s campaign, Rothman said that they were denied a reasonable waiting period to hold a contest in Pipeline, while body-boarders were awarded with a contest right in the middle of the surfing season. 

On another episode in which Rothman suggests discrimination against, the Hui O He‘e Nalu and the Wolfpak surf clubs organized a beach cleanup on O‘ahu’s North Shore, and the City and County gave them permits to hold an after- party in Haleiwa until 9 p.m.; and even then, only after much arguing – the original permit was supposed to be until 6 p.m. But the organizers of the Hawaiian Triple Crown of Surfing got permits to hold their party there until 12 a.m. “A little prejudice?” Rothman hinted.

But not only local governments make life hard for local surfers; the omnipresent media is always ready to publish sensationalist articles. Jaquias said that the media like to stereotype Hawaiians. But according to him, the visitors who come to Hawaii and experience aloha from the Hawaiians know that a lot of it is just bad publicity.

“There’s not enough where they (the media) write about the good stuff that really happens,” Jaquias said. “It’s up to you to judge, but if they (tourists) are still coming, basically people are having a good time and experiencing what Hawai‘i is all about.”

The well-traveled Jaquias works as a county lifeguard on Kaua‘i, where he is one of the biggest ambassadors of the aloha spirit, always helping others with a friendly smile. But he still defends localism. He said that sometimes locals get aggressive, but all they’re doing is making sure that the surfing etiquette is being followed and that they are being respected. 

“If it was always great, everybody would be happy, but life is never a smooth ride, I guess,” Jaquias said, before heading off to a surf session on Kealia Beach, his home break.

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