story by Julia Steele
photos by Dana Edmunds
Hui tandem: Bear and his partner
Tiffany Rabacal do a high
swan of Waikiki.
Bear Woznick is a big, solid guy. Picture a sun bear, maybe even a grizzly. Then add a surfboard to the scene, a great giant one, done up in vibrant yellow with blue flames. Picture waves with six-foot faces, sparkling ocean waters, clouds speckled on the horizon. Feel the day’s heat on your skin. Smell the salt in the air. Now: Are you ready to go out there on a board with Bear and let him hoist you into the air?
Sure you are.
Practice onshore first (“don’t lock your knees”; “keep your body right up against mine for balance”; “jump as hard as you can”), then paddle out. In the line-up off Waikiki, Bear is… let’s just say that long before he tells you he’s half-Norwegian, you’ve realized he’s a Viking. Woe to anyone who gets in his way. Watch for waves, Bear picks one, you’re off. “Paddle, paddle, paddle, dig, dig, dig,” he yells as it approaches. It lifts you and you’ve got it. “Up,” Bear yells. Stand, grab his wrists, knees soft, wait for it… “Turn,” Bear yells. Arms up, turn, keep the two bodies as close as possible, right arm around his neck, left hand grabs right hand, wait for it… “Jump,” Bear yells. Spring knees up high, get caught, get slung around and perched on Bear’s shoulder, wait for it… “Arms,” Bear yells. Spread arms out a la Kate Winslet in Titanic, arch back, straighten legs out behind you, cross toes. And then: Enjoy the ride. You may only be doing the swan, one of the easiest lifts in tandem, but way above the water, riding the ocean, everything slows down into a peaceful euphoria, and after all those years of watching svelte young Russian couples take gold on the ice, you suddenly have an inkling of what it felt like to be one of those women perched up nearer the heavens.
Remember those faded kodachrome pictures of a girl sitting on a guy’s shoulders laughing as he surfed toward shore? Forget them. These days tandem surfing is more likely to evoke the Shanghai Acrobats or high flyers in the big top. Twenty-first century tandem is a sort of surf du soleil that mirrors the complexity of gymnastics and the fluidity of dance. There are now forty-six official lifts in the sport, complex maneuvers with whimsical names like the back angel and the grass shack and the arabesque. The first time you see tandem, out in the line-up off Waikiki, you may find yourself astonished: “Hey, are there two people on that board? And is he… is he lifting her up? Oh my God, look at that, she’s upside down and backwards and she’s doing the splits.” Tandem has become a story of bigger breaks, harder moves, more audacious stunts. The one constant that remains is the one that made it all so improbable to begin with, the one that still renders it mind-boggling—the wild card of the wave. Unlike ice-skating, unlike cheerleading, this is a sport where the ground is in perpetual motion: Tandem surfing is like doing the tango on a trapeze. “Our dance floor,” as one of the pros puts it succinctly, “is coming to getcha.”
When you see tandem off Waikiki Beach these days, chances are you’ve got Bear to thank: The guy is on a one-man mission to give the sport a second heyday, fifty years after its first. Bear has paddled a board across the Moloka‘i Channel, ridden a bicycle across the United States, but it’s tandem that’s captured his heart—one glance at the surfing duos
tattooed on his left bicep is all you need to figure that out.