Boards & Spikes
story by Catharine Lo
photos by Dana Edmunds
Water polo began as a novel combination of two popular pastimes: swimming and rugby. It was invented in the late nineteenth century by a Scottish swim instructor named William Wilson, who called the game “aquatic football.” The game employed a soft ball made of Indian rubber known as a pulu; the British pronunciation of the word that gave the sport its modern name.
In his 1935 book, Hawaiian Surfboard, surfboard innovator and ocean athlete Tom Blake writes about surfboard polo, a game he credits Louis Kahanamoku, Duke Kahanamoku’s brother, with inventing. The sport was originally played in the 1930s and 1940s by the Waikiki beach boys and eventually crossed the pond to California and then all the way to Jones Beach on Long Island, New York. Many people know that Duke won numerous Olympic medals in swimming; not so many know that he was also awarded a bronze medal as an alternate on the US Olympic water polo team in 1932. Surf polo was the Waikiki beach boys’ adaptation of water poloa fun way to exhibit their paddling and surfing skills in a beachfront arena.
Five years ago, the city’s Ocean Safety Division chief, Ralph Goto, and some of his colleagues brought the sport back to the water as part of the Duke Kahanamoku Foundation’s annual OceanFest, a weeklong commemoration of the legendary waterman’s birthday. This year, eight teams will compete in a day-long surf polo tournament, resurrecting a game whose whimsical yet competitive spirit celebrates the “ocean” in OceanFest.
The rules remain close to those of the mother sport: Each team has five field players and one goalkeeper, all of whom play on surfboards. Players advance the ball across the 50-meter field of play by throwing or paddling with it (one-hand only), and the winning team is the one with the greatest number of successful pitches into the goal during two 10-minute halves. Fouls result in free throws for the opposing team; they come from restricting a throwing player’s movement, forcing the ball underwater when touched by an opponent, touching the ball with both hands (unless you’re the goalie), shooting from inside the 5-meter line, sending the ball out of bounds and unsportsmanlike conduct like kicking or hitting.
In fact, one of the first people Goto calls before organizing the tournament each year is Dave Fasi, the only referee, Goto says, who can “control this mob.” Fasi has twenty-six years of experience refereeing water polo for high schools, the NCAA, USA Water Polo and internationally.
“I refereed the first one, and it was the wild, wild West out there in the water. We were still coming up with the rules,” remembers Fasi, who swam and played water polo at Harvard University. He says the surfboards make it a much faster game (“you can paddle much quicker than you can swim”), and they inject a different level of above-the-water physicality. “If you hit or kick somebody underwater, the impact is muted by the water. On the surfboard, the impact is that much greater,” Fasi explains. Fortunately, the boards themselves are made of soft foam. The sport is aggressive, but nowhere as belligerent as hockey. No violence is tolerated, Fasi says. “One punch, and you’re out of the game.”
For those who don’t surf, surf polo might seem as absurd as football on skateboards. For those who are well-acquainted with foam-and-fiberglass planks, however, it becomes a strategic exercise in creative applications of surf knowledge. “The board is the great equalizer,” says Goto: The surfers have trouble catching and throwing the ball (particularly with only one hand) while the water polo players have a hard time maneuvering and balancing on the board.
“If you’re just a water polo player, you’re not going to do very well. It’s definitely a hybrid sport,” says Team Paumalu co-captain Aukai Ferguson. Raised on O‘ahu’s North Shore, Ferguson grew up surfing and picked up water polo in college. Then he founded the Paumalu Water Polo Club. With some of the North Shore’s most experienced surfers on its roster, Paumalu (the Hawaiian name for Sunset Beach) has won the OceanFest surf polo tournament three times. Ferguson believes that after water polo experience, surfing skills are critical. “You need to know how to turn those boards around and balance,” he says. “You have to be able to go from prone to sitting to standing and not lose control of the board.”
Anthony Vela, captain of the LA County Lifeguardsthe only other team to have won the OceanFest tournamentconsiders paddling speed to be a principal advantage. “It helps if you can at least play good defense. Paddling speed cuts off the counterattacks,” he explains. Vela trains junior lifeguards and coaches water polo at Chadwick High School in Palos Verdes, while fellow team leader and former US national water polo team member Larry Felix coaches at North Hollywood’s Harvard Westlake (which has churned out a number of Olympic players). Throw in master paddleboarder Tim Gere, a past winner of paddleboarding’s two most demanding long-distance races, and you can see why the LA County Lifeguards are serious contenders.
Still, Paumalu is hard to top. From 1999 to 2001, Ferguson served as a development coach for the US Olympic-bound national team. His Paumalu teammates, Doug Cole, Craig Watson, Scott Harvey and CJ Smith, are USA Water Polo All-Americans. Team Paumalu was runner-up in the 2006 USA Water Polo Men’s National Championships. Both teams’ high caliber of talent feeds their rivalry. “We’re friends before and after. But it does get heated!” Ferguson chuckles, admitting that it’s helpful to play the tournament in Waikiki rather than in colder West Coast waters.
“Everyone wants to take down the Californians,” laughs LA’s Vela, who says the California team is honored to be part of Duke’s birthday celebration. “We can’t really come out lazy because we’re going to be pounced on. We try to get early goals because it’s pretty hard to come back.”
And it’s not just all Paumalu and LA. Not to be overlooked, many of the other teams in the tournament include veteran lifeguards, national-level water polo players and Hawai‘i’s top watermen. Their collective water prowess, not to mention the comic wipeouts, make surf polo a wildly entertaining spectator sport. And since the sport is relatively nascent, who knows what new tactics they’ll try?
Leave it to the Keaulana brothers, the famed Makaha surfers who embody the spirit of Duke Kahanamoku, to come up with clever surf polo techniques. Former lifeguard captain Brian Keaulana describes a technique that unfolded during a game between the Honolulu lifeguards’ surf polo team and the University of Hawai‘i women’s water polo team:
“First I would paddle up to the goal net and go broadside. My brother [Rusty] would paddle up and T-bone me with his board. Now the board get all this stability, right? So I go, boom, boom, and lock ’em down, holding the boards like this,” he continues, demonstrating with his arms. “Then Rusty stands up, he runs with the ball and BA-BAH! No mercy!
“The whole time the women are going, ‘Come on, challenge us to a real game,’” he recalls with a grin. Water polo without boards? “We were like, ‘No way. You’ll drown us guys!’” HH
The fifth annual surf polo tournament will take place at the Diamond Head Basin, Waikiki Beach, as part of Duke’s OceanFest, which runs from Aug. 18 to 26.