Eric Haas is a mystery. Regularly short-listed for “best all around big-wave charger on the North Shore” during the 80s and 90s by connected insiders, he has remained all but unknown outside of the 808 area code. Had he cared about such things, he might have been perturbed by the willful ignorance on the part of the surf media. But Haas has never really been media friendly.
A troubled fellow, he operates outside of any bureaucratic considerations. There have been difficulties with family, and the law. He lives between the seams, and catches his waves where he can find them. Variously, he lives with an uncle near Ala Moana, in the kiawe bushes of Kalalau Valley, or (reportedly) in a storm culvert near Makaha.
Regular TSJ contrib and ex-North Shore lifeguard Jeff Johnson related Eric’s vibe, if not his life story, in our pages back in 2000. If you missed it, enjoy. If you caught it, reacquaint yourself with one of the practice’s most sideways and legit participants. —Scott Hulet
He’s one of the best surfers in the world and you’ve probably never heard of him. With a legendary reputation and high praise from world-renowned watermen, he remains an enigma, a single soul drifting through a life of countless waves. His name: Walter Eric Haas. His age: 33. His home: anywhere in Hawaii.
Brian Keaulana: “One of the most talented surfers ever. When I think of true watermen, only a few guys come to mind and Eric’s one of them. Like my father or George Downing or guys like that who pioneered big waves and lived the ocean lifestyle, he lives that life of a waterman. He can fish, dive, and surf anything you throw at him. Nowadays, the attention seems to be focused on equipment instead of ability, and Eric’s ability is to utilize his surroundings to the fullest, to use what’s available. The equipment is the guy, not the board. At the lifeguard run- swims, where you’ve got well-trained guys in Speedos and all the right gear, Eric will show up in pants or whatever and no goggles and smoke ’em. Never been taught, just his own style—hot.”
Haas won’t be seen on the North Shore for months, but on the best day of the year you’ll overhear guys that night at Foodland or Sugar Bar talking about him getting the wave of the day and pulling off the heaviest maneuvers. Like the time he paddled out at perfect 15-foot Hanalei Bay and got the tube of the year, soul arching and stroking the roof of the barrel with both hands, only to return that evening to do it again under a full moon. Or at 12-foot Sunset riding a lifeguard rescue board fully clothed and getting big barrels, spinner drops at the Eddie Aikau contest on a borrowed board, windsurfing on a rescue board using a trash bag as a sail, and fin-first takeoffs at nasty Haleiwa. He’s surfed tube after tube beneath huge cliffs on the Napali Coast alone and with no leash—never a leash. And his boards? Mostly borrowed or taken from countless stashes in the bush, always beat up and usually ancient. Longboards, shortboards, big guns, rescue boards, single-fin, twin-fin, thruster, or no fins. Frontside, backside, switch foot or headstands, in 2- to 20-foot surf, he does it all.
Eric was born in San Diego and moved to Oahu when he was three months old. His parents, busy dealing with their own lives, were at times unable to keep him within close range, thus leaving it up to the Waikiki beach boys to help raise him. He a lived various backstreet dwellings, and learned to surf at the Waikiki Wall using whatever flotsam he could find. While spending endless hours in the water, his skills were sharpened by watching guys like Buttons, Larry Bertlemann, Dane Kealoha, and many seasoned beach boys. By that point, several father figures had taken Eric under their wing, one of them being Ben Aipa, who gave him free boards and encouraged him to compete in local contests.
Brock Little: “He was the king, the best kid. We used to surf in the Menehune division (under 12) and he was way ahead of his time doing frontside and backside 360s. He rode for Aipa, getting free boards and stuff. You were bummed if he was in your heat ’cos you knew you were gonna lose. He used to win ‘super heats’ where you take all the winners from each division and throw them in a heat. He’d take them all. He’d even take down guys like Derek Ho, who was quite a bit older than him. Just phenomenal.”
After blowing minds as a youngster in the competitive world, Eric dropped out—a blessing for the other kids who now had a chance in the contests. He then began a life as a vagabond islander, living anywhere possible, dividing his time between Oahu and the outer islands. It wasn’t until the winter of ’88 that he surfaced, sending a wild buzz through the Hanalei community. Ripping the Bay with power and style reminiscent of earlier standouts like Bill Hamilton and Joey Cabell, Eric made a name for himself.
“Brudda Waltah” (as some people call him) is difficult to find. You just don’t call him or stop by. You put the word out and through a bizarre chain of events you’ll eventually connect. A friend of mine received an assignment to interview Haas, and knowing how I’ve always wanted to write about the elusive legend, he asked for my assistance. We told the lifeguards at Ehukai about our plan and immediately the coconut wireless was clogged with rumors of Eric’s whereabouts, and consciousness. (Depending on who you talk to, his state of consciousness is often in question.) Since all our leads seemed fruitless, we simply waited. Weeks later, we received a phone call claiming Eric would be at the Sunset Beach lifeguard tower before dusk. Classic Eric Haas. Mysterious yet punctual on his own terms, a complex man borrowing time from his simple life to commit to a scheduled meeting. We were lucky it only took two weeks.
Haas showed up at Sunset Beach as planned. He looked as healthy and clean-cut as I had ever seen him. He was freshly shaven, hair-trimmed and combed, and was sporting a new gingham-patterned outfit, shirted tucked in, of course. He was excited, a bit nervous, and you could tell he didn’t really know why we wanted to interview him. Extremely humble, he doesn’t even realize how incredible he is. And because of this lack of ego, it was difficult to get detailed replies from our self-inflating questions. In turn, this left us with a less than desirable outcome. Like his surfing, it’s not always what he does, but how he does it.
Because of his bouts with certain controlled substances and other related difficulties, it is sometimes hard to understand where Eric is coming from. It is apparent he lives in his own world but will occasionally step into ours. Some might say he’s a little off, or a bit spacey. But I feel that beyond the crazy sımile and confusing speech lives an intelligent man way ahead of his time, laughing at the outside world. Needless to say, one cannot help but notice Eric’s abounding humility, inflexible respect, and genuine compassion for others.
The interview became more of a “you had to be there” thing than a piece to write about. So I took it upon myself to tell some of the many legendary stories that have circulated throughout the Hawaiian Islands. I researched the ones that are not of my own account, getting firsthand information so that I wouldn’t be spreading myths.
On an overcrowded day at Sunset, 10 to 12 feet, Eric was seen in the channel paddling a lifeguard rescue board with a canoe paddle while standing up. Designed only for rescues, this board is difficult to ride in 2-foot surf, let alone huge Sunset. He casually stroked past the bewildered crowd and in one swooping turn connected with a giant wave outside the pack. With paddle in hand, he began a deep fade. Negotiating the large crowd and movement of water, he drew out a long bottom turn, stuffed his paddle in the face, and pulled himself into a gaping, stand-up barrel. Gliding into the channel, he simply paddled to the sand, stepped off his board, and walked to the tower leaving the hardcore arena in awe.
Eric has the habit of training in unorthodox fashions, including running, swimming, and surfing fully clothed. His theory? “Doing these things with all my clothes on is very difficult, so when I just have trunks on, I’m that much faster.”
During another big day at Sunset, he was seen swimming in the turbulent rip wearing a jacket, an aloha shirt, and jeans. Upon coming in, he took off the jacket, grabbed a rescue board, and paddled back out. Again, guys not knowing who he was likely wrote him off as a kook. But to everybody’s surprise, he caught a few bombs and pulled into huge barrels wearing his aloha shirt and jeans.
Joe Golonka (veteran North Shore lifeguard): “Super waterman, as good as it gets. He has some weird ways of training—swimming in his clothes, stuff like that. But when it comes down to his water knowledge, he’s as good as any. He’s strong, fearless…a little different. I was working water patrol at the Eddie Aikau contest and he was doing switch-stance spinner take-offs. Everyone else was taking off at the same spot and just making the wave—pretty impressive. I wish he was still working with us, but I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.”
Eric’s most pronounced attribute is his ability to have an every-day surf in the ugliest and most adverse conditions. The surf could be 20 feet with howling north winds and rain…a day when any kind of surfing is out of the question. You’ll drive by Rockpiles (a dangerous stretch of beach even at 3 feet), and out of the corner of your eye you’ll see a tiny dot streaking across a lumpy outer reef beast. It’ll be Haas out there just getting a few all by himself.
November 17, 1996. Rain poured all night long accompanied by thunder and lightning. Certain parts of the North Shore were completely flooded. The following morning gave way to one of the biggest and ugliest days I’d ever seen. Chocolate brown water, a thick lingering mist, and storm surf clouding the horizon—25 to 30 feet. As a part-time lifeguard, I was called to work Waimea Bay, not thinking of this day as even being ride-able. Eric had been up all night partying at a friend’s house at Sunset Beach. At the crack of dawn, he paddled out through the channel between Phantoms and Backyards with a swim fin tucked into his trunks. A mile outside he realized how big it was. Being so far out, and with the mist so thick, he was unsure of his whereabouts so he decided to paddle the three-or-so miles down to Waimea. To insure his safety, he set a course way outside the deadly outer reefs. Once he got to Waimea, he was out to sea. The handful of guys that surfed that day saw him paddling in from the haze outside of the bay, looking as if he had come from Kauai. They shook their heads realizing it was Haas.
A few moments later, Eric took off on what he claims to be one of the biggest waves of his life, easily making it into the channel. Then, suddenly the horizon darkened, the cars lining the bay began honking their horns, and the lifeguards yelled through their megaphones as an enormous closeout engulfed the bay. Of the ten or 12 guys out, not one had a chance. From one end of the bay to the other, a giant wall of immeasurable height proceeded to jack, boil, and hurl forth the thickest of lips.
The wave bulldozed everything in its path, thrashing men like rag dolls, crushing boards, and snapping leashes. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt, just scared shitless, as the wave surged up the river and into the beach park. Only a few guys still had their boards as the rescue jet ski helped the others in. One of the guys that swam in on his own accord was Eric.
Because of the heavy rains, the river mouth in the accessible corner of the bay collided with the shore pound displaying a frightening force of nature. Swimming with sheer animalistic force, he battled the confusion for some time and finally made in. I watched from the road as he casually sauntered up to the tower to chat with the guards. After a few minutes, he noticed his board had washed up to the park bathrooms a good 100 yards from the waterline.
Glad to see it hadn’t disappeared, he grabbed it and ran back to the corner. Amazed, I asked him what he was doing and he softly replied, “Look, no crowd, gotta take advantage.” He jumped back into the turmoil and squeaked past the shorebreak unscathed (a maneuver that earlier took some Waimea regulars 20 to 40 minutes of multiple tries). For the next few hours he surfed the bay, his actions seeming effortless and his attitude equal to that of a boy riding 2-foot Chuns.
Owl Chapman: “Probably the most underrated surfer there is. There’s a lot of guys making a lot of money, and he’s twice as good as they are—makin’ nothing. He’s ridden a lot of my boards. I tell him to keep his chin up, to have faith, but that only carries you so far, you know? We haven’t seen the last of Eric Haas. He’s the best big-wave rider in the world…”
Eric embodies the very essence of surfing: a free spirit, totally natural amongst all elements. His innocent approach is virtually unaffected by the outside world, allowing him complete freedom of self-expression. Even the acts of purists these days seem quite intentional— well-planned and thought out. He doesn’t know these things, and why should he? To him, surfing is as innate as eating and breathing, the ocean is his life and he lives it well. Many people like to go surfing, whereas Walter Eric Haas, well…he is surfing.
Lately he has been working as a beach boy giving surf lessons in Waikiki. He might be found near the Duke Kahanamoku statue in front of stacks of rental boards. If you are lucky enough, you might get to learn from a legend. Just ask around, put the word out. I can’t guarantee you’ll find him within two weeks.