The Windrider

Maui’s windsurfing maestro Rob Funk is the unofficial mayor Ho‘okipa
Story by Paul Wood. Photos by Hugh E. Gentry.

The first time was to help me find him in a Pā‘ia bar called Rock & Brews. No need to ask. I spotted him immediately at the far end of the bar wearing a Dodger-blue LA Dodgers jersey and cap. I already knew that he is a walking Wikipedia of baseball stats and that his passion for accuracy sometimes causes late-night bartenders to urge him to stop arguing and go home.

But that afternoon at Rock & Brews, night was still an hour away, and he was grinning like a boy on an adventure. His eyes shone in his longish, sun-beaten face, his silver hair bushing out from under the baseball cap, a pint of Longboard beer at hand. He looked like a kid from the ’60s who’s now in his 60s. He started explaining how he got to Maui: Circa 1980 he was plying the waves at Seal Beach, California, obsessing over the rapidly changing new sport of windsurfing. “I had a custom sail made in Newport Beach. But then I saw in a windsurf magazine that my style of sail was already old. Every time the magazine came out, my sail got older.” So, frustrated, he moved to Maui where things were moving as fast as the sport itself. “Been here ever since.”

Windsurfing legend Rob Funk has called the Maui town of Pā‘ia home for almost forty years. Funk ran the building project that created this local pizza joint Flatbread Company; he has had an honorary chair there ever since.

Then a man walked into the bar and interrupted our conversation, a stocky, shaved-head Brit named Innes. He had just returned to Maui, having stopped in LA to buy Rob a Dodgers baseball cap. (“Not from the souvenir shop. A real team cap.”) Rob swapped the one on his head for the new one. Innes told me, “This guy taught me everything I know about windsurfing. He changed my #%* life. This guy’s a #%* legend.”

The meeting at Ho‘okipa is not much different from that one except that it happens outside, midday, while wave watching, and the tradewinds are punching from the east hard enough to whip the contact lenses out of my eyes. Ho‘okipa, the most famous windsurfing spot in the world (they say), is a skinny county park that provides automobile access to a half-mile of reefy shoreline below a high-speed stretch of the Hāna Highway. The park’s crunchy little road goes one way only. Drivers enter from the Hāna side, where there is bluff-top parking for gawkers. Any car that rambles from that entrance area down along the long shoreline ultimately has to ascend to highway level and scoot into traffic heading toward Pā‘ia town, two miles west. I’ve agreed to meet Rob there where the road ascends.

The waves at Ho‘okipa are Rob Funk’s playground. “I am very, very lucky,” he says. Funk made the move to Maui in the early 80’s when it was a mecca for windsurfing innovation.

He calls this spot Heckle Hill. It has benches, so anyone can sit here and shout at the windsurf action below, down a grassy bluff then straight ahead. Rob made these benches himself from two-by planks that a friend’s daughter then painted with gaudy colors and breezy slogans. They are mounted on the flat, fat tops of guardrail posts. On one bench, middle-aged men are loafing and hooting at dashing runs and botched stunts. The waves today are sloppy and wind-toppled, the sky brooding. Some three dozen sails flick out there, parti-colored and partly transparent, looking like plastic petals or as though insects have been blown into the sea and are trying to unstick themselves from the blue and rise back into the sky. A couple of photographers with foot-long lenses snap at the distant action. Far to the right, near the bluff at the park entrance, six or eight boardsurfers catch what action they can. That break, called Pavilions, gets reserved mostly for non-sail, old-school surfing. The breaks closer (Middles, Green Tree) mush about, vacant today. A Hawaiian monk seal basks unbothered on the sand. Straight ahead, the break known as H-Poko, a windsurfing playground, drives fiercely into a rocky point where brown lava boulders snarl under the surging water. To the left, outside the park, at a break called Lanes, kitesurfers are practicing their novelty long-line antics. World-famous Ho‘okipa—Funk’s home stadium.

An hour after I arrive, Funk comes running up from the parking area, wet and barefoot in rashguard and boardshorts. “Did you see me out there?” He’s stoked. Then, “Oh, you probably don’t know my sail.” No. You must know everyone out there, I say. “Oh, yeah, most of them.” He starts listing nationalities: French, Cana-dian, Dominican, Australian, some Kiwis. People from Germany, Italy, England, Finland, Norway. And the Japanese. “And Irish. I’m mostly Irish.” Orange County California Catholic American-Irish.

Esprit de corps: Windsurfers travel from around the world to challenge themselves in Maui’s waters, and Funk is always happy to share his local knowledge with others.

He points to the action in the water.“I can see what a guy’s going to do before he does it.” After thirty-five years of involvement in every North Shore windsurf competition—setting out timing flags, judging, commentating and above all competing, standing on the winners’ podium time and again—he knows what he knows. “You learn fast from being around the best. They don’t even know they’re teaching you.”

People approach him. Teenage boys, mostly, who come near and stand at a polite distance, also studying the waves. When Funk acknowledges them, they sidle up and quietly ask advice. Suddenly he shouts, “Chris! Swim, dude, swim!” Slanting shorebreaks have shoved a rig, sail flat, toward the rocky point. Windsurf equipment is expensive. Funk jumps to his feet, halts and says politely, “I’m going down to get him out of there. You don’t mind?” Then he’s off like a hare. Six minutes later he’s trotting back up bearing a sail and rigging. Downcast Chris is right behind with his board. They go past to the parking lot.

A bit later he’s hailing down a rental car that has unwittingly started the wrong way down the one-way. Suddenly a loose plastic bag comes rolling over the grass. It stumbles and puffs, shooting past us like a runaway jellyfish. Rob leaps toward it, his feet faster than the rest of him, and he slides on his rear end into the grass, snagging the bag. Funk was a hometown all-star in little league baseball five years in a row. Same guy. Only the game has changed.

“It’s the coolest thing in the world to watch faces light up the first time they catch a wave,” says Funk. As the master demonstrates, the feeling never gets old.

Hugh Starr opened Picnic’s, a sandwich and to-go restaurant in Pā‘ia, in 1979. That was the year the surfers at Ho‘okipa were first astonished at the sight of a shiny, towering windsurf rig cutting their waves. Mike Waltze, a wave technology pioneer, had suddenly “discovered” Ho‘okipa. One year later Peter Boyd came to Maui and performed the first windsurf aerial loop, a feat considered impossible. Three years later a dude named Rob Funk showed up.

In those days Pā‘ia was almost a ghost town. You could play football on Baldwin Avenue in front of the newly opened Mana Foods. The first Hi-Tech outlet functioned from a Quonset hut across the street. Local boys ruled the town, and the roughest hung out at Augie’s Pool Hall. The only “traffic jam” occurred when the sugar mill let out at 3:30. At night the town was blind dark. But Hugh Starr, in the early ’80s, kept Picnic’s open after dark, not for business, but for impromptu town hall meetings. North Shore people came to voice their upset. Windsurfers were streaking over divers, cutting their lines. Boardsurfers had their own way with the waves and resented the reckless “wind kooks.” Says Starr, “I would feed them. They argued, hashed it out.” From that came a North Shore Recreation Plan mapping out zones and conditions in which windsurfing is not permitted.

Today windsurfing cohabits on the North Shore scene. But now here come kitesurfing, stand up paddling and foil surfing. Also, foot and vehicle traffic in Pā‘ia, rocketing real estate prices, the influx of prosperity. Says Starr, “I worry for Pā‘ia. The challenge is going to be to retain its character.” That character, he says, is retained in its characters. “These amazing athletes who live here, who just love the sport and the camaraderie, do a lot of the heavy lifting for the day-to-day culture.”

Funk scans the waves with Sarah Hauser, a windsurfer from New Caledonia who is featured in the film Girl on Wave. “An amazing athlete,” says Funk.

“He’s basically the unofficial mayor of Pā‘ia,” says Josh Stone of Funk. “He knows everybody. He never fails. He never lets people down.” Stone is a pioneer of freestyle windsurfing, the world champion in 1999 and 2000, the half-Hawaiian son of O‘ahu surf legend Tom Stone. “Robby’s one of the very last characters—people who live for the moment, for the now, the present. People like him teach us good lessons about how to live. If you need something—jumper cables, squid lū‘au—he’s got you covered. He’s not a beach bum. He never mooches. But he only works for what he needs, no more.” Stone sounds a bit wistful saying this. These days his own time in the water gets curtailed by his career in real estate. By the way, Funk helped Stone build the wildly popular Flatbread Company restaurant in Pā‘ia. That was a dozen years ago, but the restaurant still keeps a special chair set aside for him, the Funk Chair.

Funk makes his minimal income using his level-headed reliability to manage residential properties in various locations along the North Shore. He works mornings before the wind comes up. (Windsurfing is forbidden in Maui waters before 11 a.m. in order to keep the waters free for fishing, diving and surfing.) He aims to earn what’s sufficient by Wednesday morning. “If you’re going to be poor,” he says, “might as well be poor on Maui. I’m still able to live in the best town on the best island in the best state of the country, period. I am very, very lucky.” His freedom allows him his unpaid career as unofficial mayor. One of his ongoing mayoral projects is keeping the peace among the wave-riding cultures. Locals have known him for thirty-six years; they treat him like family. Newcomers need to understand how it is here, wave etiquette. The ten-man rule, for example. If ten or more surfers are catching waves at H-Poko, the windsurfers have to clear out. Sometimes visiting sailors, the big spenders, assume special privileges, so they need friendly, firm explanations. Funk provides that service. He also loathes jaywalking and flung cigarette butts and has been known to offer very loud advice to people on the streets of Pā‘ia town. Stone calls him “the regulator.”

The ocean might not always be pretty — it can be cold, angry and treacherous — but it’s always a blast, and Funk has built his life around it. “This guy,” says one admirer, “is a #%* legend.”

And he teaches people, strangers he meets, how to surf and windsurf. He doesn’t charge fees. “I don’t like to commercialize surfing. I want people to understand why they are surfing. It’s the coolest thing in the world to watch faces light up the first time they catch a wave.” He says this while sharing a plate of food (Rock & Brews again) with a woman named Flora. It’s a Sunday. He met her on the beach. She didn’t know how to windsurf. She’d run her rig into the rocks and given up. Rob spent a morning teaching her. When Rob steps away from the table, Flora, who is French, says to me, “He says, ‘Here, use my board.’ He wants you to do good. You need people like that. He’s not a dream-killer. He’s, ‘You’re going to be fine, you’re going to have fun.’ And I did have fun.
He empowers people on the wave.” HH