Searching for Koa

A simple side-rip can become an odyssey.

Light / Dark

I was chest-deep in the shorebreak with my feet on the bottom. Then suddenly the sand was gone. I’d bodysurfed, swum, and surfed along that beach hundreds of times, going back 40 years, a place along the east side of Kauai, a sweeping cove bordered by deceptively engaging reefs. I saw it all receding, my closeup of paradise turning telephoto as I was sucked away from shore.

I’d been in powerful currents in that very spot over the years, on bigger days with more water moving around. I knew to swim sideways to the shore. I was maybe 15 yards from the beach at first. Then I was 30—and then 40. I was swimming hard, parallel, but getting nowhere. In fact, I was getting pulled farther out. Next stop: dragged across the reef? The next cove? The open sea? It was looking like the latter.

How had this happened, this deep, raw confrontation with the passing of time and fading strength? I’d taken many trips to Kauai. I used to tell people I was born there, and maybe in a way I was. I felt strong on the island, confident, in tune with all the numinous energy. I first arrived in the late 1960s, when there were very few haoles and the only traffic signal was in a cane field near the south shore. I’d returned for extended periods many times in the intervening years, and I knew the beaches, the breaks, the currents, the myths, the mysteries, the stories of people getting swept off rocks by rogue waves, the ocean grabbing the uninitiated and the torrents taking them to its bosom. 

Now I was between a rock and a hard place, like Odysseus in the Strait of Messina, Scylla the monster on the jagged rocks, Charybdis the whirlpool. Odysseus had ignored the signs. So had I that morning. Hubris.

It wasn’t the first time I’d disregarded an omen. A few years prior, at 67, seeking the rejuvenation of adventure to ameliorate a post-midlife crisis, I’d planned a solo trip to Indo. A few days before I was scheduled to leave, I was walking and a hawk flew—crashed is more like it—into the back of my head. Both my kids told me to cancel the trip, that it was a sign. I went anyway, and my adventure, which was supposed to invigorate me, had quite the opposite result. Injuries and an intestinal infection put me on the couch for weeks. But that was far in the past in my mind that day on Kauai. Even when the omens appeared.

It had been a weird-ass morning. As my girlfriend and I had bumped over the dirt road winding down to the beach, a huge black plastic trash bag danced upright in our path like a quivering scarecrow doing St. Vitus’ dance. Then, a little farther along, a small black pig, barely able to stand, shook and foamed at the mouth like it was having an epileptic fit. It was sad to see—and spooky.

I knew the beaches, the breaks, the currents, the myths, the mysteries, the stories of the ocean grabbing the uninitiated and the torrents taking them to its bosom.

The air was heavy, a streaky combo of fog and clouds, with an occluded sun barely visible, like a streetlamp through Venetian blinds. In the dirt area on a bluff, where beachgoers park, there were no cars at all. Very unusual, even on the flattest of days. My girl, a bit of the seer in her, was still haunted by the specter of the ailing pig as she dropped me off. 

“Be careful,” she said.

“Yeah, no problem,” I said. “See ya in an hour or two.” 

I got my board and backpack out of the car and she took off for Kapaa. I walked down the bluff through the pines. Their rustling in the breeze seemed like a whisper. That was cool. I love it when nature speaks to me. I came out on the sand, thick-grained, like rock salt, and warm. Not a soul on the beach or in the sluggish surf.

As I walked up the shoreline, there was a weight on me. It had been there the whole trip. Before the trip, even. I was plagued by a problem: my fading powers as a surfer. Of late, I had been slow popping to my feet. My instincts were failing me. I was in doubt about where to line up. I couldn’t quite get in the right spot out at Hanalei Bay. The crowd bothered me. I felt at its mercy. All this at a break I’d surfed for more than four decades.

Yeah, it happens, I told myself. It was age related, but I didn’t want to give in to that scenario. I didn’t want to be one of those “old guys” who drop off the scene and stash their boards under their houses—left to grow painfully dirty, walked on by rats. Moldy wetsuits scattered across a seatless bicycle in the yard, unused bars of wax melting under a window in the garage as they “talk story” and share glorious photos of epic days, their only go-outs now being dips in the sea.

I was riding an 8’0″ Rusty Desert Island. Maybe I needed more volume, more length, less crowd, a better attitude, an age transplant. Yeah, I needed a genie to come out of a bottle and say, “Dude, you’re 25 again.” I was 75 and struggling between two approaches to handling the reality of my years: the old Dylan Thomas dictum of raging against the dying of the light on one hand, and the Stoic-like acceptance of life’s never-ending changes on the other. It was a constant battle between the two.

I paddled out by the river mouth to the jetty right. It wasn’t big and there was a funky wind on it. A longboard would have been the call. My friends had been telling me to step up in length for years, but I’d resisted. I was paying for it with shaky takeoffs and blown waves, paddling back to the lineup chagrined and at the bottom of the pecking order. Demoralization would lift when it would all come together for me for a session and I could pull it off again—at least as much as an old fart can pull it off. But I was in a slump that day and had been for months before I arrived on the island.

After I caught a few waves, I walked back up the beach toward where my backpack was stashed under an ironwood tree, passing a couple of local boys about to paddle out. They were ripping within seconds. I sat in the sand thinking about it. I wasn’t going to give up, dammit. I was in love with the sea, the waves, the whole cornucopia of divine beauty. I might as well be dead rather than give it up. 

Still, nobody was on the beach or in the water, only those young dudes on their potato chips. The marine layer had burned off and the sun was saying, Yes, you are in paradise.

I sat in the warm sand by a dragon-size piece of driftwood. I was in the very location I imagine when I meditate, but my changing fortunes in the surf troubled me, taking me out of the dharma groove.

I watched those young guys surfing, marveling at how they played in the waves like dolphins, spinning 360s and pulling gravity-defying off-the-lips. The stunning vision of what was possible both awed me and made me nostalgic. My time was past. And yet time seemed to stand still there on the beach under the ironwood tree as I relived those idyllic days of endless waves at the end of the 1960s. 

I drifted in my thoughts to the very moment I’d first set foot on the island. The plane landed. I stepped onto the tarmac. There was no “airport” then. Something hit me at that moment, like, Whoa, man, you’re home. How could I resolve the conflict between yearning and resignation? The pain of yearning was the price for the ecstasy of all those waves. 

I noticed an hour had passed. Still nobody on the beach. Just the two boys surfing.
Strange. And it was odd that my girl, usually Miss Punctuality, was two hours late. I figured I’d go for a bodysurf over by the reef, where I’d done so many times before. I waded in, loving water 20 degrees toastier than frigid Point Dume, where I live now. 

I couldn’t power through the current. I was in serious trouble. Trouble like I’d never been in before in the water. Death was suddenly very real. 

A wave broke and rushed at me, the sea-foam like a bubbling sauna, and I dove under. Another set came and I dropped into a tube and bam, I felt young again. I rode another one, skimming left toward the reef. I ducked under the remaining waves in the set and began swimming away from the rocks. Then I noticed I wasn’t going anywhere, and my feet couldn’t touch the sand. I stroked hard, but still was being pulled out. I grew tired. Damn! Where did my strength go? 

I was hit with the inescapable realization that the stamina of youth had faded away like the ghost from an old house. I couldn’t power through the current. I was in serious trouble. Trouble like I’d never been in before in the water. Death was suddenly very real. It was ironic that my great love—the sea, something so beautiful and inviting—could kill me. 

A wave of fear passed through me. I used to like being scared in the water, the rush of a massive set coming my way. Now I was just scared, period, without the rush. Strangely, there was no flailing panic. It was all happening slowly, like a free fall off a cliff. 

I side-stroked, still trying to move parallel across the current, but continued to be sucked out to sea. The shore looked like a faraway heaven—the sand, the driftwood, the trees behind it waving. I was outside the reef and into the open ocean. It would be a beautiful, divine place to die if I was ready to go. But I wasn’t ready. I swam. The body did its best. 

Then I heard vague shouting. Two guys stood on the sand, small in the distance, holding boards. It was the two local boys whom I’d been watching surf. They were gesturing like you would point to a disoriented traveler, showing them which way to go. Yes, I knew what they meant: Swim cross-current. Thanks, boys. I know. I’m doing that. I turned over to backstroke, but I was out of gas, being swept away.

And then they were there beside me. One gave me his board. “Rest awhile,” he said. He was treading water, unconsciously confident in his element. He was everything I wanted to be at that moment. Everything I had been when I was his age, everything that was seeping out of me day by day, year by year, over the past few decades. Everything I was searching for in Indo and here on the island. He embodied the great prize at the heart of the epic battle between not going gentle into that good night and acceptance.

I tried to paddle his potato chip, but I was flailing like a kook. He pushed me from behind toward shore. His friend offered to tow me with his leash. It took 20 minutes before my feet were on the sand again. I was stunned. I grabbed the young man by the shoulders, speechless with gratitude. I looked into his eyes, asked his name. “Koa,” he said. I held his gaze; he understood. “It’s okay, man,” he said. 

Koa means “valiant, heroic” in Hawaiian. “What would have happened if you guys hadn’t been there?” I said.

He smiled with genuine warmth. “Let’s not think about that. Careful, though. Two locals drowned here recently.”

They were walking away. I was still stunned and shaky. “Wait. Let me buy you lunch,” I said. It was so awkward, so lame: a lunch for a life. They didn’t take it that way. “It’s alright. Junior lifeguards,” Koa said. 

They trekked off, up the bluff. I sat on the sand in a kind of trance until my girl showed up. She could feel the vibe. “What happened?” she asked. I had no words. “Oh, my God, I knew it,” she said. “The black bag, the pig…”

The next day, I went in search of Koa, to no avail. Days later, when I got back to Point Dume, we searched Instagram and Facebook. We found a few Koas, but not the kid who saved me. A dark mood sat on me for a week or so. I wanted to be grateful—and I was—but the flip-flopping between raging against the dying of the light and acceptance was making me toxic. Rage is a monster, acceptance like the whirlpool. Something had to give. I’d been a rager and it had done me no good in life, except to help me survive as a child. I realized it had to be all about gratitude now, because rage was a kind of death of the spirit.

The rage has calmed in recent days and I’ve been surfing better. If not exactly like a young man, it’s good enough, and while it might not be pretty, it’s fun.

I am grateful. And I notice death around me. The vast fields of poppies that bloomed so vividly in the spring are dead weeds now. The sea lion rotting on the beach with flies and worms about it joining the food chain. Relationships ending. Old dudes seen at the break are no longer there. The four noble truths of Buddhism are no comfort at all, cool as they are. The distance increases between who I was and who I am.

Some 27,000 days seem like the fleeting passage of one sweet summer month. The dark mood comes back sometimes, and then an osprey flies over. A pod of dolphins cruises past, a set wave comes, and I’m up, flying across the face like I was 25. I’m stoked for days from one fabulous ride. The mood lifts. I’m at peace that I will never be young again.

I’m still looking for Koa and his friend, by the way.

[Artwork by Hattie Stewart]