Deep down in the steamy, emerald forests of the Brazilian Amazon, boys from the Sateré-Mawé tribe as young as 12 years old collect Paraponera clavata, otherwise known as bullet ants. As an initiation rite, the insects are naturally sedated then woven into large oven mitt-like gloves made of palm leaves, their stingers facing inward. The young men must then slip their hands into the mitts, wearing them for around 10 minutes at a time, enduring excruciating pain as their hands and arms often become paralyzed from the venom. They wear the gloves 20 separate times to become warriors.
On Pentecost Island in Vanuatu, young men tie tree vines around their ankles and dive headfirst from crude wooden towers 80-feet tall toward the earth below, a perilous ritual created to usher in a fruitful yam harvest. The closer one’s head gets to the earth, the more fruitful the yield. In the Solomon Islands, Malaitan islanders would gather around Langa Langa Lagoon, where a designated “caller” would chant and coax a shark into shallow waters and then a young boy would grab ahold of the dorsal fin, riding the fish near the shoreline. In Ethiopia, Hamar boys leap over rows of bulls, while in Kenya, young Maasai men once hunted lions, alone. In South Africa, many Xhosa boys still get circumcised in their teens, then must wander into the bush to heal, reflect, and transform.
And on the North Shore of Oahu? Adolescents take soft tops out to the heaving, sand-sucking monster called Ke Iki shorepound and stroke into unmakeable ledges that collapse like God’s angry fist mere feet from the golden grains on shore. Yes, young men like Barron Mamiya, Noah Beschen, Makana Pang, and Kalani Rivero run into that churning, violent blue while cackling madly with adrenaline and youth. They scream and goad each other with three short words that prod and poke at the animal called dignity trapped in the cages of their souls: You won’t go. Which of course makes it so they do.
But why? Why was Jeff Hakman out a big Waimea Bay when he was barely 14? Or the late Eric Diaz when he was just 12? Why was Mark Healey prepubescently packing closeouts at Sunset Beach? Is there something in the tap water on the North Shore? Or is it simply a product of the environment? Is it some ancient-warrior impulse? A form of natural selection signifying their reproductive viability? Peer pressure?
“I think the ‘you won’t go’ attitude is universal among young boys,” says Shane Dorian. “They just have a lot of energy. It’s a natural, competitive, adolescent thing. But what separates Hawaii from the rest is the exposure and access to heavier opportunities. I mean, there’s only one Ke Iki shorebreak in the world, or one Pipeline—so kids growing up on the North Shore have a lot of opportunities. Coming from the Big Island, I definitely felt like I had to prove myself more. So I grew up wanting to ride bigger waves, but was also very terrified of them. Then once I became a teenager, I met guys like Ross Williams, Todd Chesser, Jason Magers, Keoni Watson, and they were already surfing pretty big Waimea at 13 and 14 years old. So I sort of wanted it, but didn’t really know I did until I was actually put in that situation.”
“I think it’s a cultural thing in Hawaii,” counters Mark Healey. “For instance, you can be the cool guy in California with the nice car and people put you up on a pedestal. But in Hawaii if you don’t earn your stripes, whether in or out of the water, then you have a glass ceiling of respect. And Hawaii is all about respect. Thank God it’s still that way. I think you have to prove yourself in more of a primal way than other places in the United States, too. You have to prove your valor and your worth and that translates into proving that you can be relied on and not turn and run when things get tough. And those are important values in Hawaii. But I think being a haole kid growing up on the North Shore—maybe you’re offered more opportunities to prove yourself, you know?”
Certainly, Hawaii is a different place, in the water and out. It’s the 50th State in the Union, sure, but you might as well bring a passport. There are unspoken rules. Different courtesies and codes of conduct. A more pared down, or “primal” as Healey puts it, definition of respect. And in the water? Just because you give it sure don’t mean you’ll get it, but give it you must.
“If you were around the scene back then and you didn’t go…that wasn’t even a thought,” says Jeff Hakman, who moved to Hawaii in 1960 at 12 years old, and subsequently won three Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Championships. “If you were out, you had to go. It’d be humiliating if you didn’t. I don’t know how to explain it. It wasn’t an option. Especially because in those earlier years everyone was so macho coming over here, from Greg Noll to Jose Angel. All those guys were larger-than-life macho characters. And it’s kind of the same today. I just got dragged along and took off because I had to. I remember about 10 years ago, I was talking with George Downing about the first time my dad dragged me out to Waimea on a big day when I was about 14. He had asked George before the session if he felt like it was safe to take his son [me] out there. My dad never told me this, but George said he just looked at my dad and shouted: ‘No!’”
Certainly, young men performing acts of bravery, withstanding pain, or even just plain actin’ a fool to impress their peers is commonplace the world over. Whether it’s all beneath the umbrella of “becoming a man” (or woman, for that matter) there are rites of passage that exist in every culture, Aboriginal Walkabout to Brooklyn bar mitzvah. French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, who coined the term in his 1909 work, The Rites of Passage, likened these rituals to one passing through metaphorical doors within a house, entering different rooms of being.
Acts of bravery in and around the ocean are natural to Hawaii, so culturally there are obvious connections. At the Waimea jump rock, for instance, when the surf isn’t huge local boys will challenge each other with “suicide” jumps, an orchestrated faux belly flop in which the jumper extends all extremities like a free-falling skydiver, hovering over the water until pulling into a fetal position at the very last second to pierce the surface. Of course anyone can attempt a “suicide,” but perhaps the urge is embedded somewhere in a local boy’s DNA, or his sense of mythos. Legend has it that Chief Kahekili, a Hawaiian king in the mid 1700s, popularized lele kawa (cliff jumping) by leaping off of cliffs up to 200-feet high, urging his warriors to follow suit to test their loyalty and mettle.
And while these leaps of faith appear to be rooted in machismo, perhaps there’s something more metaphysical to the act. One of Kahekili’s most famous jumps was at a place called Pu‘u Keka‘a, one of several recognized leina—or mythic portals to the afterworld—where the souls of the departed leap into the ether after passing. Maybe there’s a fine line between terror and ecstasy. Maybe fear brings us closer to something sacred. Maybe children in Hawaii—whether consciously or subconsciously—partake in bizarre acts out of reverence. Certainly, there are dances that humankind seems to unknowingly know the steps to. Dervishes whirling into a trance state. Hasids rocking in prayer. Mark Healey going left at The Bay. Mason Ho backdooring the right at Castle Rock, inches from the naked pinnacles.
“For me,” says Billy Kemper, three-time Peahi Challenge winner, “there’s this little thing that happens when you’re scared and you overcome that fear, which is addicting. Somehow you almost feel invincible, and it’s like in those few seconds where you’re wondering, ‘Do I go or do I not,’ you suddenly go into this flow-space and pull the trigger. There’re definitely a few kids on the North Shore of Oahu who I’ve recognized that in lately—someone like Barron Mamiya or Seth Moniz. They go there. And I don’t really know if it’s actually unique to Hawaii. But I think people here are born with a different itch to their body. Maybe Hawaii does raise a different crop of humans, but you can tell just looking people in the eye out in the water who really wants it or not.”
Of course, those who have that “itch” aren’t only young men. As evidenced in art and story, surfing—at least in Hawaii—was participated in by all genders. And when you talk about acts of bravery, women warriors—goddesses and the like—have set the standard for millennia. Hell, the grit necessary to withstand the pain of childbirth is a feat women achieve over 250 times a minute across the globe, sans the chest beating.
“As far as us women in the lineup, I’d say we aren’t necessarily trying to ‘dare’ each other to do stupid shit,” says Maui’s Paige Alms, two-time Peahi Challenge winner. “We want to see each other push the limits and in turn, feed off of that and push ourselves the same way. I think it’s a bit more supportive. But you definitely have to show right away that you’re out there to catch waves, or you’re going to get trampled by the hungry guys that think you’re ‘just another girl in the lineup.’ It was actually a bit rough being only one of a few girls in the lineup at my home break. I had to learn to stand up for myself and sometimes I wish now that I didn’t have the armor I got from growing up. But on the other side of that, I feel like I learned a lot of very valuable lessons in my childhood.”
As it turns out, some lessons, especially those learned early in life, are crucial as we move forward. A few years ago, Surfing magazine asked Shane Dorian to surprise Seth Moniz, who at the time was 17 years old, with an invitation to a session at Jaws for a video feature. Seth’s parents approved the stunt and on the day of a potentially Eddie-sized swell, Shane popped into Seth’s place with a new 9’6″ Tokoro gun, a PSI suit, and said, “Wanna surf Jaws? Our flight leaves in two hours.”
“I felt a little bad about it at the time,” recalls Dorian, “because I’d never want to pressure anyone into riding bigger waves. But I also was really confident about Seth’s ability.” The pair arrived that afternoon as the swell was building, already nearly 20 feet (on the Hawaiian scale) and glassy, a bit of a rarity for Jaws. While having never ridden a board longer than 9 feet in his life, Moniz worked his way into the lineup and caught a few, rising to the occasion. What’s more, as the swell kept filling in, he came back and surfed with Dorian the following day for six hours, the young man quickly coming into his own.
This may be a rare and unusual example—and it comes back to environment and opportunity. But some of these elements, when clashing with, say, science, also start to explain some things about general human behavior. For instance, the open availability to build new synaptic paths (electric impulses that jump from neuron to neuron) in the mind, and the abundance of available synapses, is the reason young people have a much easier time learning new things, like languages and driving—or the skillset necessary to heave themselves over a hell ledge successfully.
At puberty, however, there comes a point when the brain turns to weeding out its weakest remaining connections in a process known as synaptic pruning. So if you’ve spent a lot of time until then engaged in certain behaviors, strengthening those paths, the chances are greater they’ll be preserved in your synapses as you move forward, while the rest fall away.
The catch is that all of this is happening in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, reason, and decision-making. The part of the brain that wants to think things through, like the consequences of an action and big-picture matters, is still under construction well into one’s 20s. In short, many young peoples’ brains ain’t all there yet. And they behave accordingly, which reinforces the brain patterns to keep doing it.
Hawaii seems to offer an ideal environment to foster certain behaviors in surfers from an early age, in a kind of merging of nature and nurture. “One thing that I’ve really noticed here on Kauai,” says Hakman, “at least as far as why kids get so comfortable so early, is that a place like Hanalei Bay, much like the North Shore on Oahu, is a one-stop shop. They start surfing when they’re four years old by the pier, then graduate to the middle of the bay where it’s bigger, then to some bigger beachbreaks, then to the outside reefs when they’re 12 or 13 years old. It’s why the Irons brothers and so many other good guys have come out of Kauai—you’re walking distance from a variety of waves that range from 2 to 20 feet.”
Gerry Lopez famously once said, “The safest place to be on a wave is inside the tube.” And while a trusted sage he may be…I’ve never really bought that one. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that quote was Gerry’s grand “you won’t go” statement to us all. And yet, growing up on the North Shore, the then-scrawny, freckle-faced, 13-year-old Mark Healey took Mr. Pipeline’s advice to heart—though perhaps for different motivations than safety.
“When I was young,” says Healey, “I used to go on any big closeout that would come, even at Pipe. But this was for two reasons. One, I wasn’t going to get the wave of the day. The older guys higher up the pecking order would tax that off me, I knew that. So I could wait for a good one that they weren’t on, which could take all year. Or get a year’s worth of barrels in a day pulling into every closeout. Two, by doing that, I proved to the guys out there that if something was coming to me, I was going.”
Up until the late 1800s, young men of the Mandan tribe around present-day North Dakota would partake in the torturous Okipa ceremony in order to become a warrior. In this ritual, wooden skewers were pierced through their chests and behind their muscles, then the skewers were tied to ropes that were pulled over the beams of a lodge, hoisting the braves skyward against their body weight, a rite to test their courage and gain approval from the spirits. In the Mentawai Islands, members of certain tribes still sharpen their teeth traditionally with files, while along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, young men are initiated with crocodile scarification, made to mimic reptilian scales.
“There’re a lot of different ways that primal behavior can manifest,” says Healey, “but nothing’s cleaner and healthier than out in the ocean. In the ocean, everybody understands that it deals with everyone evenly. It’s pretty cut and dry. You see who is hesitating or who is scared, and they know when you saw it. It’s great to have that outlet.”
[Feature image: Makana Pang, running the gauntlet between adolescence and adulthood—and land and sea—at the Ke Iki shorebreak. Photo by Marck Botha.]