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Still Stoked on Surfing
Tom Koppel - Click to Enlarge
Tom Koppel

“Keep an eye out for us tomorrow,” a Honolulu friend who surfs regularly tells me over the phone.  “Down at the public racks where we keep our boards.”  I agree to meet and take a closer look at the Waikiki surfing scene.  Next morning, from my hotel balcony I watch the early birds as they catch their first waves at dawn.  The room is too high for a clear view, so I assume that these are all your typical young surfing daredevils. 

What a surprise, then, when I stroll down the beach after breakfast to the heart of the action, near the giant bronze statue of the late Duke Kahanamoku, the revered Olympic swimming champion and acknowledged father of modern surfing.  Waxing up their boards among the youthful beach boys is a bevy of silver-haired seniors who surf here almost every day.  Some of them have been doing so all their lives.  “I was surfing right here the day they bombed Pearl Harbor,” says Tom Nekota.  He was 15, and could see the smoke rising in the distance and the insignia on some of the Japanese planes as they flew away.  Now, at 76, after working as a swim coach and public recreation director for the city of Honolulu, Tom is slim, bright-eyed and incredibly fit.

So is the amazing Lex Brodie, 89, the “tire king” of Hawaii, whose face and voice are well known throughout the Islands from TV ads for his chain of tire stores.  Raised on the island of Kauai, where he was the only white kid in his class, Lex surfed in the 1930s with the illustrious Duke Kahanamoku himself.  He hung out at the local hotspot, the Outrigger Canoe Club, which attracted numerous Hollywood stars, including another legendary “Duke,” John Wayne.  (Today the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach hotel stands there; it’s popular beachside bar and restaurant is called “Duke’s Canoe Club.”)  Even pushing 90, Lex is still wiry and muscular.  As we chat, he bends and stretches easily while preparing his board.  Then he excuses himself and heads for the water.  Nothing will stop him when the surf’s up, although behind his back a few of his pals joke that he’s finally slowing down a bit.  Nowadays, they claim, he waits and only goes for the really perfect waves. 

Some of the group only began their serious surfing later in life.  One of the most impressive is D.J. Lehman, a handsome, strapping 200 pounder who flew 747s for Continental Airlines.  “I’ll be 69 on Sunday,” he tells me.  You sure don’t look it, I say.  “Well, that’s what surfing does for you.  But I’ve only really taken it up since I retired at 65.  I’m just getting into it heavy now, and I still think I’m getting better.  Because I go out every day and try to improve myself.  I’m competing now with guys who are very good surfers.  They only go for the big waves, and I’m surfing with them.  So I had to get better, or I was going to kill myself,” he laughs.

Other relatively late starters are Caroline and Don Yacoe, who could be retired but stay busy collecting and dealing in Oceanic art and making films about Pacific island cultures.  Both only began surfing after moving out from New York in the late 1970s.   Don is about to turn 80 and is bald as a cue ball, but like Lex Brodie, he’s still tall, wiry and moves without apparent effort.  Caroline, 67 with long white hair, recently entered a competition for women over 50, and although she did not make the finals, she still feels good about her performance.  “I had modest goals.  I didn’t want to fall off.  I wanted to get my required number of waves and not finish last.  And I managed to do all that.”  She got an award for being the oldest woman in the contest, but she’s not resting on her laurels.  “Next year, my goal is to make the finals.”

Hey, I think to myself after hanging around these folks for a while, if they can do it, why can’t I?  After all, I’m only 59.  At home I swim laps twice a week and feel healthy and agile.  Not that I am without trepidation.  A couple of friends who’ve tried surfing have told me that it’s almost impossible at first to get up and maintain your balance.  So I hesitate, worried about looking and feeling like a fool.

But then I watch as a compact, bronze-skinned, gray-haired guy gives a lesson to a couple of pre-teen girls from Canada.  Impressed by his calm and confident teaching style, I approach him afterward.  Herb Cuban, now 65, grew up here.  His father put him on a surfboard before he learned to walk, he jokes.  But he only became a professional beach boy after retiring from a career as a Honolulu police officer.  His easy manner overcomes my qualms, and we agree on a one-hour personal lesson. 

Herb selects a wide, fine looking board that should be quite stable for someone my size.  As he applies the wax that will give my bare feet a good grip, he explains that the goal of a first lesson is to give the beginner every advantage in getting up, staying up and enjoying the thrill of riding a wave.  The surf this day is quite gentle--only two or three feet high at most--so that’s in my favor.

With the board resting firmly on the beach, he directs me to the correct position for lying down on the board and paddling with my arms.  Then he shows me how to spring up into the slightly crouched position for riding the wave, with one foot a bit ahead of the other, as if I were boxing.  Some people find it hard to push up fast and get to their feet in a single move, he says.  But I manage it quite easily, and I can see that he is relieved not to have a stumblebum on his hands.  After a few safety pointers, he attaches the bungy-like leash to my ankle, so the board cannot get swept away when I take a spill, and we head for the water.

Herb leads me out to a depth of three to four feet, where he can stand on the sand and coral bottom, and where the small waves are not quite ready to break.  I lie down on the board, facing the beach.  He tells me to wait until I hear him say “paddle.”  A bit later, he’ll shout “get up.”  Then he keeps an eye out to seaward, watching for the right wave and making sure no other surfers are about to come racing down on top of us.  All I have to do is start paddling madly when he tells me to, and then spring to my feet at his cry of “up.”  The idea is to be going as fast as the wave by the time I get up to ride it.

After a minute or so, he tells me to start paddling.  I dig in with my arms and take a few powerful strokes.  Then he shouts to get up.  I push down hard with my arms, bring my feet forward and begin to stand, but the balance is all wrong, and immediately I keel over sideways, kicking the board away as I plunge into the wave.  I come up from the maelstrom to find the board slapping on the surface about ten feet away at the end of the leash.  Sheepishly, I walk the board back out to Herb.  He says that I was just a bit too nervous and did not get my feet positioned right before trying to stand up.  Okay, we’ll try again.  “Relax, relax,” he says.  “This is gonna be fun.”

Another wave approaches.  Again he tells me to start paddling.  Then “up,” and I try even harder to spring quickly to my feet.  Again, my stance is not right, because right away I feel the board tilting and slipping away sideways just as before.  So I paddle back out.  We go through the whole routine once more, and this time I almost get up into a stable posture.  For an instant, it feels as though I will be able to stay up.  But then the wave seems to surge up on one side, and it tips me right over into the drink.

“I think you’re getting up too quickly,” Herb says.  “Too soon after I tell you.  Next time, count slowly to two and then get up.”  So I try that, and again I go for a wet spill.  “You were counting too quickly,” says Herb.  Give it a real, full two seconds, like one one-thousand, two one-thousand.  Okay?”

And this time, miraculously, it works.  I start paddling toward the beach, staying just ahead of the wave.  Then he shouts “up.”  I slowly count to two as I prepare my next move.  Meanwhile, the wave is just coming up under the rear of the board and lifting it smoothly, so that my head is tilted slightly downhill.  I push up smoothly with my arms and my feet snap into place right under me.  Then I rise into the boxer’s crouch and, lo, I’m riding the wave, rushing along much faster than I could ever swim.  My feet are nicely spread, so that when the board tips a bit too much to one side, I automatically compensate by shifting my weight.  The wave sweeps in toward the beach, where some children are playing in the extreme shallows, and I cruise along with it.  Then, suddenly, the wave bottoms out and disintegrates in a cascade of foam.  The board just sort of sinks under me, and I fall off sideways into water that’s barely two feet deep.  

I look back out at Herb, who’s shouting and waving.  “That was great,” he calls and beckons me to paddle back out.  When I reach him he’s grinning and laughing.  “Hey, you were really surfing,” he says. “Give me five,” and he slaps my raised palm.  “Okay, now let’s do it again.  Just remember to take your time--a nice slow count--before getting up.”

I ready myself, he gives me the go-ahead, and once again with the slow count the wave is just lifting the board as I spring to my feet.  Again, I’m up and riding the wave.  The board gets tipped to the side at one point, and it feels as though I might lose it, but I manage to shift my weight in time to stay up and ride the wave right in to where it peters out.  

“Whooa,” Herb cheers when I reach him again.  “Now you’re really stoked.  That was terrific.  You’re a surfer!”  We prepare for another run.  But before I get my next chance, a teenage boy comes careening past, cutting us very close before he slips and falls off his board.   Herb’s former cop persona emerges.  Firmly, politely, but in no uncertain terms he explains to the kid what a danger it is to surf down on top of others.  And he doesn’t want to see it happen again.  The boy mutters an apology and drags his board away, chastened and in no doubt about who’s boss on this beach.  I know I’m in good hands.

I ride at least five more waves, holding my stable crouch each time as the wave sweeps me in toward the beach.  Eventually, paddling back out against the waves gets tiring.  My arms are not used to this particular exercise.  But the ride itself is a hoot.  I can see why surfing turns so many people on. 

Then, while getting up onto the board to paddle out for yet another wave, the board surges and bangs hard against my ribs.  By the time I reach Herb, it really hurts.  I tell him about it.  “There’s still a little left on your hour,” he says.  “Time for a few more waves.”  “Better not,” I decide.  Why spoil a good thing and take a chance on a worse injury.  So I swim the surfboard back to the beach, feeling pretty good about my first outing.  Of course, it’s only a beginning.  To continue, I’ll have to take more lessons, and learn to judge the size and timing of the waves for myself.  But if the people I’ve met are any indication, my age should not be a problem.

Take Herb, for instance.  Even at 65, he still loves to get out there on the water every day.  It’s a way of life, he says.  “I grew up on Oahu, four blocks from the beach.  My dad was a surfer.  He’s 90 now, although he doesn’t surf any more.  He lost the stoke when he was in his 70s.  Me, I’ve always surfed, and I’ve never lost the stoke.”

                                                 - end -

If you go

I stayed at the elegant and superbly located Outrigger Waikiki On the Beach hotel, 2335 Kalakaua Avenue, Honolulu.  Beachfront rooms have spectacular views of the local surfing action, and there is a also a small but interesting surfing museum that is worth a visit.  Among the hotel’s fine restaurants and bars is Duke’s Canoe Club, where the younger surfing crowd hangs out.

Phone:  808-923-0711, or see

I flew to Honolulu with Aloha Airlines, which offers excellent service and convenient flights from many West Coast cities.  See

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Email: (TOM KOPPEL) 

Tom Koppel is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C., Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc. Tom is now working on his third book as well. (More about this writer.)


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