O Beachboy, Where Art Thou?

Searching for the caretakers of aloha in modern Waikiki.

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It’s summertime in Waikiki and a south swell gradually fills into the usual reefbreaks. There’s a vibe of anticipation in the air, shared by surfers and tourists alike. The ingredients that make Waikiki such a desirable destination are obvious. 

It’s almost comically sunny, and that stunning great star does its daily arc and drops right into the western corner of one’s frame every evening, prompting iPhones to lift in unison to catch that pseudoscientific “green flash” between mai tai slurps at Duke’s. The sea is an inimitable hue that neither Crayola nor Pantone can quite replicate. The water is 82 degrees year-round, undulating on golden sands that are combed neatly every morning by the city, even if those grains are transplanted from another source. The trade winds that blow directly offshore are dampened further by a row of towering hotels, causing the ocean’s surface around Queens and Canoes to remain in a perpetual state of glass. And those same winds blow through the countless coconut trees, producing a constant white noise like a mother rocking and cooing her baby to sleep: Shhhhhh…shhhhhh, childyou’re in paradise

There are also rideable waves nearly every hour of every day, a different break presenting itself every five or so minutes as you paddle from the western foot of Diamond Head down to Number Threes. At the same time, it’s often hard for a surfer to decipher whether Waikiki is a celebration of our “Sport of Kings” or conversion therapy into something far from it. 

Many beachboys had signature dance moves that were as iconic as their nicknames. Chick Daniels drops his “cocktail shake” hula along with (front row from left) Coconut Willie Cohen, Panama Dave, Mystery Cockett on the bass, Melvin Paoa on the guitar, Duke Kahanamoku, and Kalakaua Aylett. Seated on the sand with a towel around his neck is Jimmy Hakuole, posted up next to Don the Beachcomber. Photo courtesy of the Bishop Museum.

I ponder that thought for 20 minutes as I search for parking, finally finding a spot that’s still a half-mile walk from the beach. I stroll down Waikiki’s seaside strip, Kalakaua Avenue, and observe the circus. I encounter a group of gutter punks—decked in frayed black denim, sprawled out in the sun, half on the sidewalk, with a poor panting dog as an accomplice—as they gaze up from their iPads and beg passersby for money. Specifically $5, they stipulate. I notice a large woman in a “Jesus Is Lord” tee draped over a sarong tapping at a crude wood tiki carving of the old gods. Just beyond her, an old-timer with a menacing Buck knife hacks away at the dead skin on his calloused feet. He sits beside a cardboard sign that reads, “I’m a veteran and I’m hungry.” I pass a young girl wearing headphones sitting at the base of a coconut tree, scribbling quietly into a notebook, while, not 5 feet away, an addict writhes violently in the sand next to a pair of Converse sneakers that someone has laid neatly beside her. There are a zillion people out in the water. Fine, let’s go with 70 at Canoes and 60 at Queens. I sigh.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Waikiki—mostly the latter. However, I credit the place for first sparking my love of surfing. When I was 10, my dad would take me to Canoes and I’d do cutbacks and bunny hops in the user-friendly rollers for hours until we’d go get curly fries from the (then) Jack in the Box beneath the (still) gay bar.

My plan today is to journey into the belly of the beast to find and speak with one group that historically has navigated these shores better than anyone: the Waikiki beachboys, those demigods Jack London once described as “Mercury—a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea.” 

They have existed within, if not transcended, the blurred lines between the current capitalistic fallout/surfing hallowed ground, with unquestionable authenticity. They are also a community to which arguably the entire tourism industry in Hawaii owes its existence.

I want to know if there are any “real” beachboys left beyond the sea of Dive Oahu umbrellas spread across Kuhio Beach like an inflamed, unnamed rash. I’m under no illusions that the true era of the Waikiki beachboy could possibly be anything but gone. Surely Instagram and Tripadvisor have dealt near-death blows to their operations. And yet a sigh of their spirit must surely exist among the splotchy mess of flesh and humanity sunburning at Waikiki Beach.

Sublime elements among the tourism scrum: From no-foot to head-high, the area adjacent to Canoe Surf remains the global peak of a user-friendly surf resource. Photos by John Hook.

I’ve read their tales. Heard their stories. Seen the black-and-white photos of old. The names themselves are fantastic and evocative: Panama Dave and Chick Daniels, Blue and Ox, Turkey Love and Tarzan, Dude and Blackout, Rabbit and Steamboat, Squeeze and Splash and Freckles and Tough Bill. 

They were fabled watermen. They were expert swimmers, canoe paddlers, fishermen, and divers. Some allegedly could swim after fish and catch them with their bare hands. 

Joseph “Scooter Boy” Kaopuiki would ride waves with his poi dog, Sandy. Gene “Tarzan” Smith crossed the 26-mile Molokai Channel on a crude 13-foot paddleboard in 1938 in just over nine hours. He’d go on to cross the 100-mile channel between Oahu and Kauai two years later. Duke Kahanamoku won his first Olympic gold for swimming in 1912 and two more in 1920. 

The beachboys were also merry pranksters, disseminators of pre-contact Polynesian culture, infamous lovers, heroes, disasters, alcoholics, gamblers, cross-dressers, world-renowned recording artists, and handlers to Hollywood movie execs, copper magnates, tobacco heirs, beverage-industry titans, oil sheiks, and royals. They would conduct impromptu parades down Kalakaua for the hell of it. Certified mensches. If any singular thing, they seemed really fucking fun.

“The beachboys provided the world with much needed comic relief (what characters! everyone said),” wrote Grady Timmons in his book Waikiki Beachboy. “They took anxious, overachieving executives and taught them how to relax. They took their children and taught them how to surf. They took women who were recently divorced and taught them how to laugh and love again. In return, movie moguls took the beachboys to Hollywood, and entertainers such as Arthur Godfrey took them to New York. It was hard to imagine another group of men in any period of history who led a similarly ideal existence. In the eyes of the world, beachboys did not work for a living. They played for a living. They belonged to life’s greatest profession.”

Surely my own life’s goal has always been to tip the scale between work and play toward the latter—if not find a way to somehow make the two indistinguishable. 

Could the beachboys still teach me a thing or two, if I could find them?

“What’s hurt us the most these days is the pop-up surf schools,” says Harry D. “Didi” Robello, a lifelong beachboy, son of beachboy legend Harry S. Robello, and great-nephew of Duke Kahanamoku. He inserts this observation between countless “Howzit, Uncle?”s and “K-den, Didi”s, which fly at him from all directions. 

“It’s like anyone that knows how to surf starts a surf school,” he says. “And that kills us legitimate beachboys. Back in the day, you needed a second-captain’s license and surf instructor’s license at a minimum. And that was in the ’50s. Prior to the ’50s, if the beachboys saw you teaching and they didn’t know who you were, that was the last time they saw you teaching.”

Robello, owner of Aloha Beach Services, was raised on Waikiki Beach—conceived on it, he jokes—carrying on the tradition from his father. His two sons work for him, along with a cast of local beachboys like Dwight “Uncle Lumpy” Kinoshita and a guy various sources have told me to speak with named JP. I sit and listen to Robello talk story with Uncle Lump and another old beachboy employed by a neighboring outfit, Waikiki Beach Services, in front of the Royal Hawaiian. 

As any beachboy in Waikiki today, Robello included, will tell you, the heyday is long over. “These days, sadly, you don’t have as many guys worried about the safety and well-being of the guests—more about the money,” he laments, his eyebrows raising over large polarized shades. “But you gotta worry about the guests first. If guests stop having a good time, then it’s all over. For us, safety is the first priority, money is second—just like it was back in the day. Of course, you gotta have some class, gotta be an overall good person. Not someone who just kiss-asses to the tourists, then forgets their name the next day. You gotta really care. You gotta be first class. Sad to say, the gene pool these days is dying out fast.

“I’d really like to see the beachboy culture keep going and all the fly-by-night guys gone,” he continues, referring to the other stands and mobile units I’d seen while walking here. “Kalakaua [Avenue] and Waikiki Beach need to be aligned and teamed up. They are not when it comes to the homeless. Which can be dangerous. Let’s face it: The luster is gone, you smell urine, there’s peddlers. It’s like we’re selling the people a false narrative. It’s not like the old Hawaiian songs anymore. Now you gotta be on guard, especially at night. It threatens tourism. We find needles on the beach. People, men and women, pulling their pants down and peeing on the sand. Imagine if your kid was digging a hole in the sand and came up with a needle in their hand? You’d be infuriated, yeah?”

A waist-high lump that’s reached our shores, generated from a massive storm system off of the North Island of New Zealand some 4,000 miles south, propels our outrigger canoe with a little help from us novice paddlers. 

“Paddles up!” shouts our beachboy steersman as the craft gathers velocity, hull slicing through the aqua-blue surface toward shore, ama lifting from the water as trade winds flick salty air and water into our faces. It’s a few days after my conversation with Robello and I’ve decided that the only way I can truly experience this era’s beachboy culture might be as a tourist. My wife’s family is in town from Barstow, California—a lot of sand, but no beach—so perhaps the spirit will reveal itself in some way to at least one of us, I figure.

The sea of bodies clinging to giant rental soft tops magically—frantically—parts as we slide along the wave into frame. Suddenly we are a postcard: Diamond Head starboard, water photographer (where’d she come from?) portside, snapping our best Splash Mountain faces as the canoe picks up speed, the six of us cheering as the wave hits a shallower patch of reef. We lift into space and time, gliding the 100 yards toward the pink hotel as surfers waiting for the next set look at us, oddly nonplussed.

A typically composed beachboy gives his visiting charge a sense of “this thing of ours.” Photo by John Hook.

That’s one, I think. We get one more wave, and then that’s a canoe ride, the second item on most beachboy menus after a private surf lesson. Exhilarating, but brief. A little like sex as a college freshman. I’m also a surfer, so I’m spoiled, as opposed to my in-laws in the boat with me, plus two other tourists from Australia, who all appear impressed, even if the whole thing took about 15 minutes. 

I think of a story Robello mentioned about canoe rides in the ’50s: “My dad would tell me about taking some rich guys out in the morning around 10 a.m. for a canoe ride and they’d be so blown away by that one ride that they’d go to the Moana for a beer after and then sit there until 6 p.m., hammered, just off that one ride.”

Back on shore, I watch a man spray Banana Boat sunscreen into his wife’s face before she’s fully closed her eyes. His mistimed effort doesn’t seem by accident. Through the sea of rental chairs, I catch a couple dry-humping next to a speaker blaring Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s explicit version of “WAP.” I glance into the water and catch another couple humping-humping. I presume they think they are hidden by their inflatable swan. 

I look at my in-laws, who appear to be noticing the same shit, and give them an apologetic shrug. 

“Sorry about all this,” I offer.

“The golden age of beachboys has long passed in one sense,” says DeSoto Brown, a Hawaii historian and the collections manager at the Bishop Museum Archives. “With literally millions of people passing through Waikiki each year, the level of personal attention that any beachboy can give any particular tourist is extremely limited. Furthermore, tourists are not as likely to even seek their services or know that they exist, in comparison to the Waikiki of 60 to 100 years ago. There should never be a time when beachboys are not present at Waikiki, but their influence and stature will never be what existed in the twentieth century. This is purely the reality of change, whether for good or bad.”

Indeed, I’d gotten a taste of this change on the way to Robello’s op. Between the couplets of waddling flesh donning fake leis, unsheltered addicts, and bachelorettes gone wild, I certainly noticed a few outfits advertising the usual fare: surf lessons and outrigger canoe rides. Most of them gave me a quick and indifferent glance from their stands—perhaps registering that I wasn’t just off the jet—before sinking back into their phones.

“It can also be said that beachboys were embodiments of the spirit of aloha, which sounds clichéd and maybe a bit non-PC today, given that they were working for a living and needed to be nice to potential customers,” continues Brown. “Yet aloha is real, and offering their talents and abilities to entertain and enlighten people was the actual practice of it. I think they truly were spreading their cultural traditions, not something imposed by commercial interests purely to sell a commodity. They had, and still have, control over this process.”

The beachboys were fabled watermen. They were expert swimmers, canoe paddlers, fishermen, and divers. They were also merry pranksters and disseminators of Polynesian culture.

The very first beachboys were thought to have emerged around 1901, with the completion of the beachfront Moana Hotel, sparking the advent of the Hawaiian tourism industry. However, it was a Chicago newsman and promoter named Alexander Hume Ford who helped to market surfing and other previously prohibited Native Hawaiian activities, like outrigger canoe paddling, to mainland tourists by establishing the Outrigger Canoe Club in 1908. 

While the Outrigger Canoe Club had a whites-only membership policy at the time, an adjacent canoe club was formed, called Hui Nalu, that set up shop on the beach right next door and was made up of mostly Native Hawaiian beachboys—and Duke Kahanamoku. The two clubs maintained a healthy rivalry for decades, and some years after the Outrigger Canoe Club ended its racist policy, Duke became a member and remained one until his death. 

Beachboys in both clubs acted as Waikiki Beach’s first lifeguards while also offering surfing lessons, canoe rides, and a wide range of other services (normally for tips) to the growing number of visitors and high-society clients, from Cary Grant to Bing Crosby to the Maharaja of Indore, who would hand the beachboys envelopes of cash at the ends of their stays. 

Unfortunately, the carefree lifestyle—the prototypical one associated with beachboy culture—also came with a heavy dose of the financial inequalities and Indigenous disenfranchisement typical of the era. “With the beachboys, I always sort of flip back and forth between whether they had it made or were living in a kind of tropical trap,” says author Matt Warshaw. “Those old photos are so beautiful and nostalgic, but you’re never too far away from American imperialism and that dark side of tourism. For example, there was this one beachboy whose schtick was to dance in front of the tourists until his pants would fall off his hips. So he’s doing this thing, hammered, and everyone’s laughing. He’s the life of the party, but at what cost? I’m often confused about where the fun part of being a beachboy ends and where the troublesome part begins.

“At the same time, part of me is attracted to the fact that it was all kind of a hustle and the point was to make a life on the beach or near the beach or in the water, and to avoid getting a job in the pineapple fields or whatever limited options there were back then. It’s really like they invented a career. And that career allowed them to do a lot of stuff that they’d be doing anyway. They hacked the system to work in their favor.”

Duke Kahanamoku famously turned the beachboy life portable, traveling the world, hewing surfboards from local materials, and coaching willing participants. Photo courtesy of Dale Hope.

One recurring theme within those black-and-white images that Warshaw references, which I’d found particularly interesting, was not only the countless photos of Native Hawaiian men mingling, laughing, and shaking hands with mainland haoles as early as the 1920s, but also the dozens of photos documenting beachboys embracing white women. In a country where people of color were barely seen on television until the 1970s, the photos of the Hawaiian beachboys steadying white women’s waists while tandem on a board or paddling them back out with their chests plopped right on their rumps seemed to break every rule of what was considered socially acceptable. 

I wondered how this paradox might have occurred. “Beachboys—and Hawaiians in general—occupied a particular place in the American interpretation of race and how it fit into general society,” answers Brown. “In spite of being dark-skinned, in American popular culture, Hawaiians and other Pacific people were seen as proto-Caucasians, who could mingle with white people acceptably. This was most pronounced in how Hawaiian women were shown as not only desirable, but as potential wives to white men. In the same way, it was okay, but still sometimes disapproved of, for Hawaiian beachboys to physically touch haole tourist women when teaching swimming or surfing to them. While sexual contact was not socially permitted, it was still acknowledged as going on between beachboys and visiting women. And the physical strength and good health of beachboys was considered admirable, with the caveat that these were more ‘simple’ or ‘natural’ men who might not be considered intellectually up to the standards of white men, but who could be envied for purportedly being closer to nature and less spoiled by modern civilization.”

“Hawaii just seemed so removed back then,” adds Warshaw. “It’s like what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas.”

Depending on whom you ask, Duke Kahanamoku was either never, in fact, a beachboy, or he was the greatest beachboy ever to have lived—two views conveyed sometimes by the same person making said claims. I figured I’d ask someone who actually knew him. “Duke certainly wasn’t a beachboy and he wasn’t considered a beachboy,” says 1968 world champion, Hawaii state legislator, and Waikiki local Fred Hemmings over an açai bowl at the Outrigger Canoe Club, the two of us staring out at Old Man’s. 

As we speak, I notice a lot of cosmetic surgery among the members prowling the snack bar. Indoor kids with bored faces stuck in iPads wait at the umbrellaed tables for their parents to return from foiling, while paradise beckons to them unsuccessfully in the background. And even though the races may have blended here over the last hundred years, the class thing is still pretty evident: In 1908, club membership fees were $5 a year (about $161 in 2022). These days, they’re more than $15,000.

JP Kaleopaa, with the sort of deft, loose-footed control that has become universal shorthand for “surf style.” We’d do well to remember that it all started here. Photo by Nolan Omura.

“He never worked as one,” continues Hemmings. “The beachboys were the men for hire to teach you to surf or take you out on a canoe. Panama Dave, Rabbit Kekai—they were for hire. But I think what sets the original Waikiki beachboys apart is that there’s good surfers, and then there’s watermen. They are the men and women who are adept in all the different kinds of relationships you have with waves in the ocean. They’re divers, they’re swimmers, they’re tandem surfers, they’re canoe steersmen. The beachboys of old were true watermen. Their pleasure was being in the ocean. They also lived aloha. They were very gracious and wanted to share surfing. They were gentlemen.”

Hemmings was a close friend of Duke’s toward his later years and is still a celebrity here in town and at the club. I ask him about the hijinks, to illuminate the beachboys’ feats of grandeur or to at the very least demystify their aura. What’s the gnarliest thing he’d ever seen a beachboy do?

“Most of the beachboys lied like hell,” he says, shrugging. “But there’s nothing bad you can say about Duke. He was a man who lived aloha. You just can’t tag him with anything. And I don’t know if I can say that about any other man I’ve known.”

I follow the sidewalk down to Queens, weaving through the throngs of slippery visitors squeaking in Day One sandals with every step, the sound amplified by the sweat and sunscreen that’s flowed into their soles. I walk toward the brilliant banyan tree that roars with bird life behind the Kuhio Beach hula mound, searching for Kaniela Stewart’s unmissable puff of sun-bleached hair, which adds at least another half-foot to his slender, 6-foot-2 frame.

Scanning a 20-by-20-foot patch of AstroTurf, I overhear two newlyweds having it out in the middle of the pathway, questioning aloud if they’ve ever really “been seen” by one another, a query I’d have to assume is more existential than literal.

Stewart throws me a shaka from the naupaka bushes, where he’s hidden several longboards. He’s cruising with his sister, mom, aunties, and uncles—blood and not blood—like he does every day in this exact same spot. At the moment, the 21-year-old is one of the best longboarders in the world, carrying on a long tradition of Queens-bred specialists like Bonga Perkins, Lance Hookano, Dino Miranda, Duane DeSoto, Kai Sallas, and Kelia Moniz. 

His cousin, 17-year-old Kelis Kaleopaa, will, the following week, win the women’s longboard division at the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach. 

Waikiki-raised Kelis Kaleopaa. The 17-year-old famously won a Duct Tape Invitational at age 13. Stylish beyond measure, she was a founding member of the Waikiki Grom Squad (WGS), local surfers with living beachboy provenance. Top photo by Tony Heff. Bottom photo by John Hook.

Stewart introduces me to Kelis’ mom, Malia, and Malia’s mom, Auntie Lorie. The pair of them, beneath umbrellas in one corner of the mound, are diligently filming the dozen or so young longboard prodigies in the water. Floating about the space around us, like a leaf in the wind, is Kelis’ dad, John Paul “JP” Kaleopaa, a former longboard tour competitor and lifelong beachboy, who is performing dynamic yoga poses in headphones.

“I’ve watched these kids grow from babies playing in the sand to, like, winning world contests,” says Sallas, who shapes boards for half the pack. “What’s truly unique, though, is how many there are of them now. When I was young, there were a lot of good longboarders around, but not necessarily out of Waikiki. So what stands out the most is how many world-class longboarders from their generation are straight out of Waikiki. Kelis, Kani, Keani Canullo, Kelia, John Michael Van Hohenstein—they’re all world-championship-level surfers and they’re all, like, 18. There’s no place in the world with that much talent all coming out of the same spot. Where else would you find that?”

Stewart, Kelis, and a couple other of their friends look antsy for a surf, and JP offers me a board to join them. Two-foot Canoes in the middle of summer at 4 p.m. is as I expect: a total war zone, with a few dozen first-timers on soft tops, inner tubes, and rental boards flailing in the wide, gentle lines. I swear I see someone lying on their board upside down with the fin up, completely oblivious.

Somehow, Stewart and Kelis navigate the lineup as if no one’s out, cross-stepping between sections and shallow patches of reef to connect 100-yard rides, hanging heels through the chaos. Suddenly, I understand what the hell Jack London was feeling. Indeed, “in them is the swiftness of the sea.”

Stewart’s mom paddles up next to me and gives me a warm and protective maternal smile. A set approaches and she looks at me. “Go, boy, go!” she says, and I stroke into a left that has only four others on it, which I believe qualifies as a wave to myself.

“It’s true—growing up here, it can be hard balancing all the tourists and finding your own space, but the thing is, this place is our home,” Kelis tells me between sets. “Yeah, some outsiders or visitors might think that Waikiki is the most touristy place on any of the islands, but there’s still local families that have always been here. And I think that’s important, because Waikiki is the birthplace of [modern] surfing. This is where our kings and queens used to surf back in the day, so it’s only proper that we, as people who were born and raised here in Waikiki, continue that.”

What Kelis means by finding her own space is the dilemma she, her family, and many local people from Waikiki view as an intentional culling of kamaaina from this area. Whether it’s the lack of parking, declining beach access, shrinking spaces to lay a beach towel, or overall Cheesecake Factory–fication of Kalakaua Avenue, locals feel less and less welcome in their own home.

It’s a sentiment shared by longtime beachboy operations on Kuhio Beach, like Star Beachboys and Hawaiian Oceans, institutions that have been pushed away from that prime swath of sand behind Duke’s statue. In 2018, it all came to a head when the city granted the concessions permit to an outside operation, Dive Oahu, the highest bidder and the current owner of all the blue tents where the old guard once stood. After a few legal hearings, some protests, and a little local news coverage, the two beachboy services were forced to move 50 feet east, which is where Kelis and Stewart’s family remains, every single day of the year, a space the city also was not particularly psyched on them claiming. 

Kaniela Stewart—like Kelis, a member of the WGS—has a bottomless bag of flamboyant trickery at his disposal. He’s the son of a canoe-steersman father and a surf-teacher mother, and a direct link to the Town ripping of ’70s icons like Buttons, Liddell, and Bertlemann. Top photo by Tony Heff. Bottom photo by John Hook.

“Where else would we go?” Auntie Lorie sighs, throwing her hands up from her beach chair on the hula mound. Sort of everyone’s grandmother, she worked for Star Beachboys for years. “We’ve been here ever since and won’t leave until they physically force us out.”

“When [all the tourists] left during COVID, it was a time for us to reset a little and reestablish our ground,” adds Kelis. “We had it to ourselves again, which was crazy.”

Indeed, for a good few months in 2020, when the governor stopped all arriving flights into the state and the hotels stood still and empty with their windows black, the gang must’ve felt what Waikiki was like pre–tourism boom. Perhaps they felt something like what the beachboys of old once felt. 

Kelis’ mom and grandma describe a moment in time they couldn’t believe they’d experience: a listless, empty Kalakaua Avenue. Clean seas. The fish had come back after a 40-year sabbatical. Sea turtles and monk seals, too. Sure, it was still crowded in the lineups with locals, since no one was working, but it was also local families on the beach, enjoying the space they had felt was no longer theirs. 

The dream lasted for only a few months—but at least they got the summer months.

“You like that board?” JP asks me. 

I shrug and lie, “Yeah, it’s fun.”

“Brah, it’s a plug,” he says, shaking his head and laughing. He looks over toward the Royal Hawaiian. “The kids are gonna go sand-sliding. You should really check it out.”

By “kids” he means Stewart, Kelis, two other Queens rats, and Kelis’ little brother,
Moses, also known as the Mayor of Waikiki, whom I follow over to some shorebreak that’s seemed to have formed with the dropping tide. I watch the gang use old bodyboards as skimboards, sliding into the wedged-up shorepound ramps, rocketing into the air in front of onlooking tourists. They do this for an hour. After that, it’s back in the surf for the umpteenth session at Queens. 

This is their life: the beach. Full stop. Tomorrow, they’ll get ahold of a large plastic sheet, set up a small ramp beyond the hula mound, and it’s Slip ’N Slide Sunday. Occasionally, Kelis, Stewart, and the family leave Waikiki for a longboard invitational in South Africa or to win a contest on the mainland. But it feels like it’s only because they have to.

Certainly, the level of devotion they have to this space is difficult to put into words. They live and breathe Waikiki. They are surprisingly kind and welcoming to outsiders and seasonal surf transients, brimming with aloha, whether that’s to a Floridian who’s come this far to surf with one of them after seeing a YouTube video or to some awkward journalist like me.

They look after one another and appear completely offset from the riffraff and drug addicts just beyond the boundaries of the AstroTurf. Their connection to this beach and sea is intense—Waiks fundamentalists. And they are certainly not the only ones. 

I cruise with JP a bit more, trying to get some insight into the psyche of a remaining full-time beachboy like himself, a guy who grew up literally sleeping beneath this deafening banyan where we now sit. Eccentric, if not a throwback from another era, he answers in riddles, dismissing my pontifications and my urges to put the beachboys of old onto a pedestal.

“Listen, the real beachboys aren’t famous and they don’t surf very well,” he tells me bluntly. “I’m serious. Most of my heroes that I looked up to as beachboys just went straight [on the wave]. But I think that’s the beauty of it. We’re not pro surfers. We’re teachers, we’re storytellers, we’re lifeguards; sometimes we save people. We show you where to catch the waves. Being great surfers—that’s not the real beachboy dream. Once you stop caring about ripping, that’s when the style comes into play. That’s where things get elegant.”

The beachboy legacy continues in ethos and practice precisely where it began nearly 100 years ago. Left to right: Fritz Belmoro, Ryan Robello, Gerald “Braddah” Campollo, Shayne Robello, Josh Silva, Dwight “Lumpy” Kinoshita, Didi Robello. Photo by Sean Marrs.

A local guy who’d parked to pick up his family from somewhere on the beach is creating a small traffic jam in the turnaround in front of the banyan tree. He’s beginning to get into it with two of JP’s uncles, who aren’t happy with the backup and are in defense mode. Yelling ensues, and a bit of posturing. Unprompted, JP strolls over and defuses the situation in the nick of time.

“What if we help this guy instead?” JP poses, walking with the stranger over to two large tents to help him break down and carry coolers and gear back to the car, the two uncles declining, still grumbling in the background. “To me, catching a wave is a gift,” he continues. “Honestly. It’s free, but it’s hard to put a value on that feeling. So many people don’t understand that. So many people don’t deserve it. Devotion: That earns you waves, I think. But a beachboy gives that gift anyways.”

He shrugs and looks back out at the surf. Somewhere in his work at the curb, the green flash had flashed. He asks me if I want to go back out. There isn’t much light left, but that’s another thing about Waikiki: All those hotels and tacky rooftop bars illuminate the waves well into the evening, making for fine night surfing. 

“I’ll give you the good board this time,” he offers.

[Feature image: The beachboys were surfing’s first professionals. Left to right: Curly, Steamboat, Chick, Splash, and Panama Dave. Photo courtesy of the Waikiki Beachboys Collection/Grady Timmons]