Nineteen-seventy-eight was the year Dane Kealoha officially “arrived.” He kicked it off on the cover of Surfer’s “Art of Small Wave Riding” issue. He scored a second Surfer cover later that year, a rare occurrence for anyone in that era, in a radical cutback shot in Town for the magazine’s “Magic of Hawaiian Summer” issue. Meanwhile, he started the event season by placing fifth in small waves at the Stubbies at Burleigh Heads. Surfer’s coverage mentions Kealoha, Larry Bertlemann, and Mark Richards as “ripping apart two-foot waves, just like they do six-footers.”
One reason may have been due to a switch from Sting single-fins to the Dick Brewer–inspired twin-fins that Richards had adopted exclusively in smaller surf. T&C’s manager, Tony Higa, had bought one of MR’s early twinnies in Australia and taken it back to the shop in Honolulu, where, according to Craig Sugihara, shaper Glenn Minami made a T&C version of the design. “We made Dane one,” says Sugihara, “and when we went surfing with it the first time, he wouldn’t even let me have a wave on it. He kept saying, ‘One more.’ When I finally got my own version, I realized the twin-fin released so much quicker. It was like having Dane’s power even for an average surfer like myself. That’s how different it was.”
That began a long and fruitful collaboration between Kealoha and Minami. And by midsummer of ’78, there were surf magazine advertisements for T&C heralding “Dane Kealoha Designs by Glenn Minami.”
“I had a lot of say in the dimensions I wanted in the boards,” says Kealoha. “Both small-wave boards and guns. All surfers want a board that’s going to help them get the creativity they want while surfing a wave. You want looseness and you want stability and you also want speed. I kept going shorter because I wanted to ride in the barrel as deep as I could and still have the ability to get in a few pumps and create speed to come out. I wanted to widen the turn in the tube.”
With his new boards underfoot, Kealoha continued to post solid, if inconsistent, results through the end of 1978. He finished ninth overall, part of a long-term, “step-by-step” approach, as he explains. Kealoha’s momentum continued into 1979 as events began in Australia, with a third-place finish at Bells. In the Coca-Cola Surfabout, he was back at Bells as part of “The Great Aussie Airlift” and again came in third, moving him to No. 5 in the ratings.
By this juncture, Peter Burness was almost frantic to get Dane Kealoha back to South Africa for the ’79 events. He knew the Hawaiian surfer was still troubled by his previous experience, and eventually he called Kealoha’s mother with a plan to make sure her son would be well taken care of.
“Peter Burness and Shaun’s dad, Ernie Tomson, were like father figures to those of us who surfed the Bay of Plenty in Durban,” says South African surfer Lista Sagnelli. “When international surfers came from Hawaii or Brazil, anybody who might have a problem, we went out of our way to make sure they had a good time and [to] protect them from running into trouble.”
Sagnelli, his brother, Chen, Shaun’s brother, Paul Tomson, and Wayne Shaw were thus enlisted to be Kealoha’s minders. The proposed security blanket was persuasive, both to Kealoha’s mother and, by extension, to Kealoha himself, and Kealoha agreed to revisit South Africa, this time surfing as a pro.
He made an immediate impact, winning the Gunston 500, the cornerstone of South Africa’s pro circuit, and in so doing put an end to Shaun Tomson’s six-year string of victories. Overnight, Kealoha became a household name in Durban.
“When Dane won the Gunston, everybody was rooting for him,” says Sagnelli. “Even Shaun’s dad. We threw a party for him at a restaurant and disco. But first we went to the owners and told them we were bringing a group of people, some of them darker than their usual clientele. The government’s position on international athletes at the time was they were free to do or go wherever, regardless of their color. But that didn’t stop some of these Afrikaaner owners of bars or hotels from turning them away. It did happen.”
At the beach and in the water?
“At the Bay of Plenty,” explains Sagnelli, “there was a sign that said ‘Non-Whites Not Allowed,’ and there was a colored beach and a beach for Blacks, which was the most treacherous beach around. But Dane never had a problem in the water, even at the Bay of Plenty, because the people who surfed knew who he was. When he paddled out, the crowd would just part for him, like he was royalty.”
“The younger generation wanted segregation over,” says Kealoha. “The Bay of Plenty was still for whites only, and I got harassed by the police until I showed them who I was and why I was there. I was probably the first ‘Black’ person to hit that beach during apartheid. The road split the beach and there was a hill overlooking the break. The day of the final, that hill was packed with Black people because they’d heard what was going on and wanted to see. Later, when segregation was over, Lista would call me and tell me how things had changed and how all these Black kids were learning to surf. So something good did come out of that.”
Sagnelli’s relationship with Kealoha also paid dividends when the South African visited Hawaii. “I got to surf places I probably wouldn’t ordinarily have. Velzyland, you just didn’t unless you arrived with someone like Dane. He told me, ‘You paddle out with me and sit by me,’ and one by one he introduced me to whoever was out. Still, sitting there with Mark Liddell, Bertlemann, Buttons—he’s the only reason I got to surf so many waves at Pipeline, because he’d paddle for a wave on my inside, then pull up and let me go. I even got to surf Third Dip on the Westside. The locals all paddled in and let Dane and I surf for an hour on our own. He’s a very loyal person.”
[To read the full feature, pick up a copy of TSJ 31.3 here. Feature image by Dan Merkel/A-Frame]