Every day after Washington Intermediate School let out, 13-year-old Joey Hamasaki walked the 2 miles back to her home and climbed a tree in her family’s front yard. It was the late 1950s, before the Ilikai condominiums walled off the sea, and the Hamasakis’ house on Ala Moana Boulevard enjoyed views of the boat harbor and Ala Moana Bowls. From her treetop crow’s nest, Hamasaki would check the surf.
“If the waves were breaking,” says Hamasaki, now 73, “I’d walk over with my board.” With the scrappy arena of Bowls as her home break, Hamasaki, a 5’1″ regularfoot whom Gerry Lopez remembers as “so tiny that the waves always looked huge on her,” earned early recognition as an outstanding surfer with a lyrical, minimalist style.
Her career highlights include winning the 1962 Hawaii State Junior Championship, the 1965 Western Regional Surfing Championships, the 1966 Malibu Invitational, and the 1967 US East Coast Surfing Championships. She also placed well in other contests, including as runner-up behind Joyce Hoffman at the 1964 Makaha International, the 1966 World Championships, the 1965 and 1967 USSA final ratings, and in the Surfer Poll Awards from 1965 to 1967.
“Joey surfed with a poise and grace that seemed to epitomize Hawaiian surfing style,” says Lopez. “Casual, at ease, unhurried, and unforced. That she was a champion goes without saying. To those of us from Hawaii, she was much more. She was da local girl who made good, and that made us proud we were Hawaiians too.”
Mickey Muñoz, who worked with Hamasaki at Hobie Surfboards in California and surfed with her for the storied Windansea Surf Club, compares her to fellow Hawaiian Ben Aipa.
“Joey was strong,” Muñoz says. “She had good wave judgment and was pretty much all business in the water. At that time especially, when a woman went out in a pretty much male-dominated sport and could surf as good as anyone in the water, it put her in an elite category.”
Why, then, in 1973, did Hamasaki, who was building a successful career in surfing in Southern California, suddenly call it quits and return to Hawaii without a word? Why, then, just a couple of years later, did she stop surfing all together?
The first time we speak by phone, Hamasaki’s soft, youthful voice sounds hesitant. She’s fine with being interviewed, she explains, but also says it isn’t a good time to meet in person.
“I’m really busy,” she says matter-of-factly. “I have breast cancer and I’ve been in chemotherapy for a year. It makes me sick and my hair’s falling out and I’m losing my teeth.”
She says that, unless she has a doctor’s appointment, she sleeps all day and stays up until three o’clock in the morning watching television. She also explains that her memory is spotty, but she’s able to run through an outline of her life and surfing career.
At age 10, she learned to ride waves at Waikiki with her cousins Jimmy, Kent, and Lyle Hamasaki, all of them taught by her uncle James “BJ” Hamasaki, who started them out belly-boarding at Walls on paipo boards he’d made. A year later, when Hamasaki said she wanted to stand-up surf, her uncle made her a balsa surfboard and would drop her off at the beach with Kent.
“My uncle would give us lunch money, we stayed all day, and he came and picked us up,” Hamasaki says. There were tourists, she remembers, but hardly any hotels at Waikiki then. “Now it’s wall-to-wall hotels, but in those days, looking [landward] from the surf, we could see the mountains.”
By 13, Hamasaki had moved on to more-advanced breaks, her favorites being Number Threes and Bowls, where she was a peer in the lineup of Raymond, Robert, and Ronald Patterson, Donald Takayama, Paul Strauch, and David Nuuhiwa. She says that despite often being compared to the latter two, she was most influenced by Reno Abellira, the versatile flying ace of Bowls. Like Hamasaki, Abellira also was regarded by many as a quiet and shy person with a laid-back, understated surfing style that belied its compact boldness, speed, and drive.
“I liked his style—really smooth. He wasn’t that big, a small guy,” she says. “I thought he was cute.”
Asked if she agrees with one writer’s description of her surfing as “grace personified on a wave, with a hip-cocked, back-arch bottom turn that helped define the mid 1960s surfing style,” Hamasaki demurs.
“You can’t go backwards,” she says. “You have to lean forward to make a bottom turn.”
Hamasaki dropped out of high school at 16, because she “wanted to surf so bad, it was in my blood,” and in 1963 went with a friend, Johnny Ho, to California, where “all the guys I surfed with [in Hawaii] had moved.”
She lived for a while with the Takayamas, and later with Robert Patterson and his wife. Raymond Patterson got her a job at Hobie and taught her to glass and gloss boards. She then moved to Dana Point, where she worked and rode for Hobie, Jacobs, Weber, and Wardy Surfboards. Phil Edwards designed a Joey Hamasaki signature longboard for Wardy. And as the shortboard revolution dawned, she was one of the first surfers to make a successful transition, trading in her log for a 5’1″ Takayama.
Her favorite spots were the defining lineups of the state: Trestles, to which she was introduced by Joey Cabell; Malibu, with its “perfect waves that could be ridden forever”; and Doheny, where, she said in an interview with History of Women’s Surfing, a digital archive, “it was so fun and the water was so clean. I used to go to the river there and pick cilantro. It grew wild.”
Windansea paid for her travels, and she traveled often. On a 1967 Windansea trip to Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, and Tahiti, she participated in the making of The Fantastic Plastic Machine, an experience she calls an “endless bummer” because she didn’t get to surf many good waves.
One of her highlights of the period came in 1968, when she and three other women, including best friend Sheri Crummer, drove across the United States in a Volkswagen bus, met up with world champ Linda Benson in Florida, and flew to Puerto Rico to cheer on friends in the world contest that was taking place.
“I remember Joey surfing at a wave in Puerto Rico, near Jobos,” Crummer says. “She took this big left and got pitted—was so deep I couldn’t even see her—and all of a sudden it started to close out and she came out the doggy door.”
Crummer also remembers the surfers’ surprise and delight when they went to a Puerto Rican jazz club and Hamasaki sat in on drums. “I used to go over to her house in Dana Point,” Crummer says, “and she’d play jazz records and tell me why she liked certain musicians. She’s a very private person and really shy, and I was even shyer, but she brought me out of my shell.”
Crummer had only one unpleasant memory from the trip. At a diner in rural Arizona, “when they saw these four not-so-girlie girls in surf wear get out of a hippie Volkswagen van, they refused to serve us. It was creepy, like out of Easy Rider.”
While living in California, Hamasaki came home to Hawaii each year to surf in the Makaha contest and spend Christmas with her family. She’d also visit Martha and Rell Sunn at their family home at Makaha Beach on weekends, where she learned to freedive from Buffalo Keaulana.
In a film clip shot in California during that era, she looks lighthearted and pretty, a fresh-faced teenager with long black hair that she tosses as she looks back over her shoulder with bright, clear eyes and a quick smile. In another segment, her hair cut short in a thick nimbus, she walks the nose on long, skinny legs and glides backside, looking down the line, speeding ahead of the curl in a laid-back, hips-forward stance that evokes her Honolulu friend and fellow California transplant Nuuhiwa.
“It was lotsa fun,” Hamasaki says of her California years. “It was a happy time.”
So, why’d she bail?
In the absence of comment from the reclusive Hamasaki herself, those who knew her have speculated on the diminutive, reputedly shy Hawaiian’s departure from the surf world.
“I loved competition,” says Hoffman, Hamasaki’s main rival during her competitive career, “but for Joey it maybe went against her natural inclinations. It wasn’t what she wanted to do with her surfing. She had a lovely style, and she was bridging that gap from feminine to more aggressive, boy-like surfing with bigger turns.”
It’s a reason that makes sense, especially for an era in competition when, as Hoffman and Crummer explain, women were routinely sent out in lousy waves while the good conditions were reserved for the men.
Muñoz has a similar, albeit more economic, take.
“Joey was quiet,” he says. “She wasn’t this beautiful, dazzling, vivacious female. Judges tend to be swayed by different things, and in the case of a woman, beauty never hurts. So it’s very possible that she got soured on decisions where she felt like she had actually won, but didn’t. When Joey dropped out, it could have been partly that she felt like she was getting robbed.”
Winning, then as it does now, translates to sponsorships and thus the ability to make a living. Crummer says she agrees that, overall, the growing commercialization of the sport might have killed Hamasaki’s drive to compete. For example: Despite her competitive results, being the first female glosser at Hobie, and her overall talent in the water, Hamasaki’s signature model under Wardy—the one designed by Edwards—was never commercially produced after the label went under.
Still, there’s no more reliable word than the source herself. Finally, on the phone one night, I’m able to ask Hamasaki outright why she quit.
“It just happened one day,” she says. “You have to have that urge or something inside you that drives you to compete. It went away, so I stopped.”
She then adds a story about driving up to Doheny one day shortly after her decision, only to see that a harbor and breakwater had been built. “I went to look at the waves to see if I would get it back,” she says, “but it never came back.”
Muñoz, a longtime Dana Point resident, says he understands the sentiment, literally and figuratively.
“I was too young and dumb to bitch about that harbor,” he says, “even though I knew it was kind of the beginning of the end. The dredging and the breakwater changed the topography of the ocean and the wave. It wiped out MeePees, a little hidden break where I used to see Joey [surfing].”
“The harbor turned Doheny into kind of a slow-rolling mush,” Hoffman echoes, on both the changing landscape and, as a result, the culture.
“Joey always seemed like a really sensitive person, so maybe that was overwhelming for her.” This reminds me of something else Lopez says: “Watching Joey ride a wave was witnessing a person in total harmony with the natural world.”
“Joey was a purist,” Hoffman says, in a powerful summation.
Another reason she quit surfing, Hamasaki offers, was that she had to work for a living in Hawaii. After she moved back home, she took a job as a custodian at Kaimuki High School. One day at work she jumped off a pickup truck and felt a serious pain in her hips that continued to get worse as time went on. At age 30, she had a double hip replacement, and she stopped surfing completely. But she could still swim, and enjoyed drinking and bodyboarding with friends off the cliffs at Black Point.
“But they’re all dead now,” she says, “so I don’t go out.”
There’s a pause, and in the silence her disappointment resonates.
Hamasaki and I finally meet in person at the top of the rather steep cement driveway in front of her house in the Kaimuki Hills that overlooks a small public park, the profile of Diamond Head, and the brutalist towers of Waikiki.
She’s tiny. She’s also wearing enormous sunglasses and a Sherlock Holmes hat in a blue-and-black checkered pattern. Her legs, in faded Hawaiian-print shorts, look painfully thin. She leans on a cane. But her feet are well placed. She’s in a surfer’s stance.
Our conversation is brief.
I ask if I can see the Takayama she brought back from California. She shakes her head.
“I don’t have it. I do have Linda Benson’s board. She was a stewardess, so she kept it here. My brother’s ex-wife has my board. I loaned it to his son, who got too big and quit. I hope she didn’t sell it in a garage sale.”
I ask her what sort of jazz she listens to, and if she still plays.
“John Coltrane. Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond,” she says. “I sold [my drums] before I came home. There weren’t many women playing jazz back then, just like with surfing.”
As for the company she keeps, Hamasaki, who lives in a house divided into two living spaces for herself and her brother’s family, says that she hardly sees anyone apart from her doctors. She is friends with a neighbor, copy editor and musician Mark Coleman, and has long phone talks with Crummer every few months. Sometimes Linda Benson calls. She laughs.
“I have a parrot, Pickles, who keeps me company. I didn’t name her. I’ve had her since she was 6 years old. She whistles, and I whistle back. She says, ‘Hi, hello, you okay?’ She keeps me going. She’s gray and green and small, about the size of a little mynah bird.” She looks like a little bird herself.
I ask if she’s ever dated much.
“No. I ran around with this guy who belonged to Windansea; his name was Ed. But after we came back from the trip to Australia, I never saw him anymore. And I used to run around with Johnny Ho. He asked me to marry him, but I said no. I heard he died [recently].”
I ask if she can take off the dark glasses for a minute—we’re in the shade, after all—but she says she can’t. She just had eye surgery. Then we say goodbye. But before I turn back to head down the driveway, she says something else.
“Because of the cancer, I just learned to be happy that I’m alive.”
Later that night, I think of that breathtaking clip of her in the black-and-white video from California nearly 50 years ago. There’s the wide-eyed, confident girl with black hair blowing in the ocean wind, living out just what she’d sought.
I remember, too, one of our phone conversations from late at night.
“It’s very dark in here,” she says in a hushed voice. “But there’s a little light, just enough for me to see by.”