Issue 11.1: February/March 2008

Night Shift

story by Derek Ferrar
photos by Chris McDonough

 

It’s midnight in Waikiki, and I’m walking barefoot and shirtless through the concrete heart of Honolulu’s beach metropolis, my eight-foot town funboard tucked under my arm. All around, the sidewalks are crawling with other creatures of the Waikiki night: decked-out clubbies, furtive trash-can scavengers, knots of tourist revelers. Offshore, head-high breakers glitter in the refracted light of a full moon and the city electric.

“What, you going surfing now?” a beefy braddah hanging out on the corner barks incredulously. “Brah, that’s nuts.” But I’m hardly alone; Kalakaua Avenue is buzzing with posses heading to and from the waves, devotees of that sub-culture of a sub-culture: night surfing.

To call the night-surfing experience “cosmic” is as much fact as it is surf-speak cliché. It is a fundamentally celestial pursuit, possible only when the moon—that cool, radiant muse of poets, shamans and lovers through the ages—is in her monthly fullness, with no veil of cloud hiding her face. And when you paddle out at night, the ocean itself resembles the void of space—a vast, enveloping blackness that renders you weightless.

Night surfing is predominantly a communal activity—after all, no one really wants to be out there alone among things that go munch in the night. And Waikiki, with its comparatively mild surf and reassuring thrum of humanity, is an especially storied spot for after-hours ripping.

Tales of surfing under the stars at Waikiki stretch back as far as the modern history of wave-riding itself. In 1909, eccentric wandering journalist Alexander Hume Ford—who introduced the royal Hawaiian sport to Jack London, and thus to the world—wrote of Waikiki beachboys fastening lamps to their long redwood boards “to ride the breakers in a circle of light” as part of an annual beach carnival.

Tom Blake, a legendary early surfing innovator who migrated to Waikiki in the Roaring ’20s, wrote of riding waves under the moon: “In the moonlight, incoming swells creep up like great shadowy creatures. One cannot realize the silence of the ground swells until waiting for them at night. From the shore, surfriders in the moonlight look strange and unreal ... one is never sure what it is until a rider lets out a yell. At night it is easy to yell because a person’s nerves are on edge in spite of the fun and beauty of the scene.”


 

 

These days, the full-moon crowds at Waikiki rival the daytime hordes. To keep from being mowed over in the mob, those in the know wear luminescent glow-sticks around their necks. Those who don’t take their chances.

As my trusty night-patrol buddy Ziggy and I pick our way across the slippery rock breakwall, we can see a swarm of glow sticks bobbing in the darkness like fireflies. “And that’s just the ones you can see!” Ziggy observes. Sure enough, there is a healthy crowd when we get out to the break, but the vibe is friendly despite all-too-frequent fender-benders.

During the day, surfers tend to be a little stand-offish, to say the least, but at night, camaraderie prevails, and anonymous conversation comes easily. I ask one girl, who stylishly sports glow-rings around her wrists and ankles—“to give me that glowing feeling,” she says—if she comes full-moon surfing often. “Only once a month,” she giggles.

She tells me her name is Esther, and I ask her what draws her out into the waves at night. “There are usually less people at night,” she says, “and the ones that are out are nicer. The wind is calmer, and you’ve got the moon, the city lights. Sometimes you can hear the music from the hotels. It’s pretty magical.”

Catching a wave at night requires a kind of extra-sensory perception. You stare into the darkness, scanning for hints—the wave crest that glimmers higher and longer than its neighbors, the trough that is deeper and darker. In the darkness, sound is amplified; your ears pick up every slosh as you paddle, the wet crash of the falling lip, the satisfying swoosh of your board cutting across the face. But in the end, you feel the wave as much as you see or hear it. You just have to let go and trust your gut about where to be in order to snag it.

My favorite thing about night surfing is the way the wave unfolds out of nothingness just in front of your board, forcing you to truly surf in the here and now. The only problem comes when the space in front of you unfolds with someone else already in it. Then there is the sound of fiberglass meeting flesh, and perhaps some of that yelling Tom Blake wrote about.

That starts to happen more and more often as the night goes by and the crowd grows even thicker. Ziggy gets nailed by somebody; I nearly take someone else out. We both start to feel a little spooked, so we call
it a night.


 

My own experience with night surfing is limited to waves that are solidly within the comfort zone of playful size, but there are those who have far more gutsy tales to tell.

One of them is superstar lifesaver and big-wave charger Brian Keaulana. For the last twenty-five years or so, he and his A-list crew have made a tradition of paddling out each New Year’s Eve at their illustrious home break of Makaha on O‘ahu’s west shore, to catch the last wave of the outgoing year and the first wave of the next. The tradition started when he and the late “Queen of Makaha,” Rell Sunn, were looking around for an alternative to the New Year’s ritual of getting wasted and blowing off firecrackers. “The first year, there were just a couple of us,” Brian says. “The second year, there were ten, then fifty. Now everybody goes—my wife, kids, the whole West Side.”

Brian says he and his family have had “thousands” of night-surfing adventures. One particularly memorable exploit took place one night when he and a few of Makaha’s finest decided to go out torch surfing—paddling with one arm and holding a lit torch with the other—when the surf came up big.

From the sound of the surf, they figured the waves were lining up off the point of the bay and breaking at maybe 10 or 12 feet. “But me, I thought I’d go out to the 15-foot peak outside the bowl,” Brian says, “because I’d rather have me get one big wave than the big wave get me.”

So they paddled outside the impact zone to a spot where they could feel familiar boils coming up from holes in the reef. As they debated where the waves were going to come in, “All of a sudden, boom! One big wave went break outside and clean us up,” Brian remembers. “Torches all snuff out, one guy popping up over here, another over there. But all of us was big-wave guys, so we was just laughing. Finally, we just all caught one big white-water together and came in.”

The undisputed mack daddy of all night surfing stories, however, is an often-told legend of how the great North Shore style rider and big-wave pioneer Jock Sutherland supposedly surfed 20-foot monsters at Waimea Bay one moonlit night in 1969, reportedly while tripping on acid. (This was the ’60s, after all.)

Years later, a well-known surfing scribe wrote of being there that night, “watching as wave after wave was taken and mastered, deep snaking board-wakes, Jock himself invisible in the moon shadow under the lip.” Later, according to the story, a piece of Jock’s board washed ashore, rescuers were summoned to no avail, and Jock was given up for dead—until he nonchalantly came walking down the road, having swum in at Pipeline, more than a mile away.

Enthralled by this epic tale, I track down Jock himself, who still lives and surfs on the North Shore, to ask him about that night. Graciously, he says he’d love to tell me all about it—except that none of it actually happened. No riding giant waves under the moon, no rescue call, no Pipeline swim and no acid.

What really happened, Jock tells me, is that he paddled out to Waimea alone late one afternoon thinking it was a do-able 15 to 20 feet, when in fact there were sets coming through every hour or so that were breaking all the way across the bay.

“I rode three or four waves, still in daylight,” he recalls. “Then, just as it was starting to get dark, a huge set came in and I got caught inside. I tried to push my board over the top as I dove under, but it went over the falls and was gone.”

As he struggled in the water, night fell. The massive waves kept breaking farther and farther out, swallowing him in whitewater that eventually carried him toward shore and slammed him on the beach.

“The truth is that I nearly drowned,” he confesses.

“I was just happy to survive.”


 

 

According to Tibetan Buddhists, the effects of one’s actions are multiplied a thousand-fold during a lunar eclipse. So when just such a celestial event is set to unfold over the Islands during a small south swell, I figure every wave I catch could be worth a thousand—doubling or tripling my lifetime wave karma in a single night.

Ziggy and I check out Waikiki just before the eclipse is due to start, but it’s utter lunarcy out there. So instead we drive to a spot at the foot of Diamond Head where we’re sure we’ll be alone, but where the deep, dark drop-off just past the reef raises the sketchiness factor considerably.

We paddle out just as the first hint of earth’s shadow nibbles at the moon and catch a bunch of super-fun little backside peelers all to ourselves. Between waves, we watch the moon go through its changes. First it looks like an eyeball, then a cocktail olive, then a luminous cookie with a perfect bite taken out of it—although, floating out there in the darkness, we’re not that stoked on thinking about bites being taken out of anything.

Bit by bit the moonlight fades, but it’s hard to head in when the waves are so choice. As the shadow continues its march across her fair countenance, the pale goddess changes color—first a fuzzy yellow, like a ripe peach, then an ashen crimson with orange highlights that Ziggy pronounces to be “just like a perfectly ready coal in the barbecue.”

When a bank of clouds moves in, we call it quits. By then I figure I’ve caught at least ten or fifteen thousand waves, by Tibetan Buddhist count. Stack them one on top of the other, I tell myself, and they might just add up to one of Jock’s mythical Waimea bombs. HH