Each morning Jesse Aurrecoechea jumps into his truck and makes the familiar drive to his longtime playground of choice, Sandy Beach. When he arrives, a handful of people are perched on their tailgates, sipping coffee and checking the surf as dawn creeps into day. The clouds entertain soft tints of pink and gold until the sun bursts from the horizon, revealing the water’s texture and a carpet of whitewash where the surf retreats from the sand.
If Aurrecoechea’s not there at sunup, he feels like he missed something. “It’s kind of like church in the morning—the vibe is mellow.” He sits on the empty beach to put on his fins, keeping his eyes on the sets. Often he’ll jump in first with his camera to document the purity of the morning waves—clean and glassy before the wind kicks up. His Instagram feed (jess_4_today) is a diary of the rising sun framed in liquid barrels.
Eventually he grabs his bodyboard to get a few rides and boost his adrenaline before work. Even if the surf is mediocre, the ritual is rewarding. “Sometimes it’s the company in the water—they’re like family—that can make the perfect day. Some-times it’s nobody being around that makes it incredible,” Aurrecoechea says. “Either way, I like to think every day that I got the best wave of my life.”
Twelve miles from the high-rises of Waikīkī, Kalaniana‘ole Highway climbs up the hill above Hanauma bay and winds around the raw, undeveloped Ka Iwi coast to the Hālona blowhole lookout. From there the shoreline reaches out to Makapu‘u, where the prominent rock formation known as Pele’s Chair guards the point. One long stretch of sand interrupts this otherwise rocky shoreline, aptly named Sandy Beach.
One of the most dynamic beaches on O‘ahu, Sandy’s catches swells from multiple directions, offering wave breaks for all varieties of expert surf-riding: At the east end, surfers ride longboards and short-boards at Full Point. Bodysurfers, body-boarders and intrepid shortboarders split the waves over the shallow reef at Half Point and into Pipe Littles. Sandy’s trade-mark feature is its heaving shorebreak, wrought by a blunt drop-off that forces waves to rear and pitch before slamming into the beach. This reeling sledgehammer of water is the reason Sandy Beach has the highest incidence of neck and back injuries of any beach in the country.
The lifeguards report that most injuries occur when the waves are small and bodies are pitched, often headfirst, onto the hard-packed sand. Bigger surf pulls the sand off the beach and deposits it offshore, creating undertows and rip currents that necessitate frequent rescues. “There’s never really a safe day,” Beach in 1972. “Once in a while it’s like a lake, but that’s pretty rare.”
In the 1970s, Sandy’s lifeguards were on their own. There were no radios to call for backup. Instead, the guards relied on an emergency landline that direct-dialed the Honolulu Fire Department for assistance. “We used to call it the Wild East,” Lee remembers. “On many weekdays when there were only two guards scheduled, if one called in sick, you were there alone—which meant you didn’t want to take a lunch break because if something happened during your break, you’d feel horrible.”
Sandy’s early lifeguards were mavericks of ocean safety. They didn’t have jet skis or ATVs, but they were ferocious watermen who had the brawn and grit to match their prowess. If you were in trouble, they were your best hope.
“To learn how to guard a beach requires personal experience and learning from those who were there before you,” says Lee, citing a string of mentors. “It was almost magical to see guards like Eddie Aikau punch through huge Waimea shorebreak on one of our old red boards and bring tourists safely back to shore—an indelible part of my memory to this day.”
“I remember in the early ’70s our superiors entertained the idea of cross-training us by having Eddie Aikau temporarily go to Sandy Beach and me to Waimea bay,” Lee says, contemplating what it would have been like to transfer to the North Shore beach that draws monstrous surf each winter. “Eddie did not want to go to Sandy Beach, and big Waimea scared me to death!” The switch never happened, so for twenty years Sandy Beach was the home field for Lee, who loves it the way Babe Ruth loved Yankee Stadium. Eventually he became a captain who shared his own wisdom with younger guards.
“When I used to speak to new recruits, I’d ask them how many ‘I’s are in the word ‘lifeguard.’ Most would say ‘one,’ and I would tell them, ‘It is two. Both of your eyes. Even when you are conversing with someone, both eyes should be scanning the ocean. Your eyes are one of the most important tools of the job,’” he says.“A lifeguard can be the best waterman or waterwoman on Earth, but if you don’t spot’em, you don’t got ’em.”
Lee’s vigilance and charisma have earned him the moniker “Mr. Sandy Beach,” the lifeguard his successors aspire to be. “Lifeguarding was an awesome career for which I am forever grateful,” Lee reflects. “It does not fill your pockets, but it will fill your soul if you invest your heart into it. We have this saying, ‘Lifeguards for life.’ We are one big family even after we retire.”
Fast-forward to 2018: the demands of the job have evolved. Tourist numbers have ballooned—beach attendance jumped from 363,058 in 1997 to 531,672 in 2017—and the overflow crowd from nearby Hanauma bay often ends up at Sandy’s. On a hot day visitors are eager to cool off, and most don’t recognize the hazards. They just see surfers having fun in the waves.
“The locals make it look easy. We’re lucky—they help us with rescues,” says Donovan Lewis, who has guarded pre-dominantly Windward beaches for the past twenty-one years. One of the biggest problems, he says, is that newcomers don’t realize how serious the waves are until they get in and it’s too late. “The current sucks people out so fast, and surfers carry them in on their boogie boards. I would like to give those guys credit. Without the locals we would definitely have more drownings.” Ironically, the same shorebreak that gives Sandy’s its less innocuous nickname,“Broke Neck Beach,” makes it a mecca for skilled bodysurfers and bodyboarders. It was a stomping ground for bodysurfing’s most notable pioneers, including Boots Matthews, who introduced a revolutionary style of hydroplaning with arms extended in the ’60s, followed by renowned lifeguards Bobo Tobayoyan and Mark Cunningham in the ’70s. Photos of Barack Obama bodysurfing the shorebreak in 2008 went viral, putting Sandy Beach on the social media map.
From 1972 to 1994 the Sandy Beach Bodysurfing Championships showcased Hawai‘i’s best shorebreak riders. Besides bodysurfing, the early contests featured the choice equipment of that era: paipo (traditional wooden bodyboards that preceded foam boards), handboards, mat surfing (on inflatable mats) and sand-sliding (the precursor to modern skimboarding). There was also a special event that featured a lone surfer named Al Santos, the king of what he called “belly-bagging.”
Santos’ wave-riding vehicle was essentially an enormous puffed-up pillowcase—a king-size bedsheet (“it’s gotta be percale —cotton won’t hold the air”) folded in half and sewn together by his wife, Kitty. With a running start from the beach, he would launch into the backwash, flip off the top of the incoming wave and ride the inflated bag back to shore on his belly. On bigger days Santos swam out to the waves using his fins while trailing the deflated bag behind him like a snake. “I picked the spot where I wanted to start bagging and raised the bag above the water. The wind filled the bag real quick, and I twisted it so the air wouldn’t come out. I slid myself on top to make sure it was solid. Then I got off and I waited. When I saw a wave coming, I rolled on top of the bag, and off I went!” he continues, his 85-year-old voice turning giddy as a grom’s. “‘Hold on to your hats ’cause you’re going to fly!’”
Through the 1970s bodysurfers from nearby Kalama valley and Waimānalo reigned supreme at Sandy’s. “We surfed and dove during the day, caught fish and barbecued at night. That was the scene back then,” remembers Greg Kekipi. In the ’80s Sandy’s remained a locals’ beach— notorious for its outlaw drag races and massive concerts in the park. When body-boarders began to saturate the lineup in the mid-1980s, Kekipi hung up his fins. “Bodysurfing, you’re on the bottom of the food chain, so to speak. It’s just you, your fins and your ability to swim,” he says.
In the spring of 2006, he brought his son to Sandy’s. The surf was churning and nobody was out. Kekipi observed, “Wow, nice-looking waves. I used to have fun out here and tear it up, you know.” The 17-year-old didn’t believe him. “Yeah, right, Dad.” “No, really,” Kekipi insisted. “We could all jump in the water, swim and catch waves without fins. Herbie did it. Bruce did it. Everybody did it.” “Nah, I don’t think so,” his son replied.
Off came Kekipi’s shirt, and into the water he dived. He stroked out to Pipe Littles, caught a set wave and swam right back out to get the next one. When he returned to the beach, his son was astonished. “I don’t believe it,” he told his dad proudly. “Now you do, brah,” Kekipi said, laughing. “Let’s go, I’m tired.”
The impromptu session reignited his stoke for bodysurfing, and Kekipi made a comeback. Today the 68-year-old retired firefighter remains a fixture at Sandy’s, taking advantage of new fin designs and surfing techniques. “It’s a Zen thing for me,” he says. “Just getting out there and relaxing, weightless, not having to worry about anything.”
When he lived on O‘ahu in the 1970s, bodyboarding and bodysurfing legend Mike Stewart spent countless summer days at Sandy’s, where he found rideable waves that were diverse, powerful, technically challenging and beautiful. Stewart won his very first bodyboarding contest in 1982 at a wave called Generals, which breaks out-side Half Point on bigger swells.
Even when it’s really small, the shorebreak can challenge—and injure—experienced riders, he warns. “It’s abrupt, it’s very intense and it’s quite technical. For me, surfing a shorebreak like that for twenty or thirty minutes is equivalent to surfing other waves for hours. When you take off, you gotta negotiate this pretty thick closeout. So that means dealing with the dynamics of a very hollow wave—which are really cool,” he continues. “You’ve got all kinds of stuff going on that is beyond the viewer’s perception from the beach. When the lip hits, it makes a big trench, there are explosions going on inside the wave, and then getting out through it, well …” He pauses and credits the wave. “I’ve learned how to get through hollow surf by learning about the low pressures at Sandy Beach first.”
Stewart says Sandy’s also taught him how to fall and how to react after getting pounded. “That’s the violent part of it. On the flip side there’s a sensory experience that’s fantastic,” he says. “It’s kind of like a kinetic spun-glass art show, pulling into these big cylindrical tubes of water. It’s so pretty—the sun coming through it, the interaction between the sun and the white sand, the reflection of the light. The combination of those two sides—that’s what makes it so addicting.”
For local teenagers Sandy Beach has long been the hangout of choice. Kaiser High School grad Patrick Von enjoyed Sandy’s in its heyday, from the late ’80s—when the Gotcha Pro was a wild stop on surfing’s professional world tour—through the early ’90s, when the City and County pulled the sand from the water to bulk up the beach. (Von remembers when it was knee-deep to fifty feet out.) This was the era of fluorescent slippers and big hair. No one had cell phones. No one took selfies.
“We went every morning before school and were there as soon as school ended. If my friend’s dad wouldn’t take us, we’d hitchhike,” Von says. “On the weekends my mom would drop us off at sunup and pick us up when it got dark. Five bucks would basically cover you and all your boys at the slush truck, all day, ’cause manapua was 50 cents and noodles were 50 cents.”
“Some of the best moments of my life were there,” Von says, chuckling at the memory. “On the weekends there were two hundred people on the beach. It was every-one you knew. At my lowest of lows, I would go at night, jump in the water, sit on the lifeguard stand. It was a lifesaving place for me.”
On November 21, 2003, an exceptionally rare northeast storm a thousand miles away generated thirty- to forty-foot waves, some of the biggest ever to hit the Windward coast. Homes on Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i Island were evacuated. A Coast Guard spokesman likened the conditions to those in The Perfect Storm. That afternoon lifeguard Kala‘i Ahuna drove to Sandy’s, where gawkers lined Kalaniana‘ole High-way. “It was the most ridiculous day. I’ve never seen waves that giant,” he says. “From Kahuku to Makapu‘u it wasn’t rideable, but at Sandy Beach, because the tradewinds were east-northeast, it was primo conditions.” On the outside four guys were tow-in surfing, using jet skis to sling their surf-boards into avalanches of water. There was only one surfer in the lineup: a monk seal, casually bodysurfing the inside.
Fifteen years later Ahuna vividly recalls the view from Kamehame ridge of the waves jacking up at each surf break along the three-mile coast: “It was corduroy lines—twenty, twenty-five feet—swells breaking top to bottom. The blowhole was five hundred feet high that day from the spray.” The next day Ahuna was one of seven lifeguards stationed at Sandy’s. Together they made more than a hundred assists and twenty rescues. After work he went surfing.
“There was a real distinct lineup. When the sets came, you had to be there or else you’d get caught inside. That day I was riding my 10’6” gun. Kimo Gaspar was my partner, and he had his 10’4” Fred Barker. These are our Waimea boards,” he says. “We weren’t used to that level of power at Sandy Beach. It was like surfing a whole new spot. Like twelve-, fifteen-foot Sunset, but in reverse! You’d go left and you’d kick out in the deep blue by the blowhole.”
After sixteen years of observing the daily shuffle of Sandy’s beachgoers, life-guard David Loui is attuned to its rhythm and motion. He counts at least four shifts of regulars: the early morning crew that surfs before work, the midday lunch crew, the pau hana construction guys who show up around 3:30 and the evening guys who fish or dive.
Because it’s so spectator-friendly, Sandy Beach invites the gathering of tribes—people from all over the island—who have formed a broad community. It reminds Loui of an old bumper sticker: “Come Eat at Sandy Beach Bar & Drill.” The message drives home his point that Sandy Beach doesn’t discriminate between locals and tourists. Serious consequences can befall anyone who’s in the wrong spot at the wrong time. And as a first responder, he bears the occupational hazard of losing people along the way.
His greatest anguish came in September 2016 when beloved musician Ernie Cruz was found unresponsive a hundred yards from shore. The two had worked on the docks together, Loui as a longshoreman and Cruz a crane operator, and they’d been friends for twenty years. Cruz lived in Kalama valley, two miles away.
Loui rode in the ambulance and did CPR compressions on Cruz all the way to the emergency room, where the doctor finally told him to stop. “I remember just thinking he was going to open his eyes for a sec, just open up and come through. He never did.” On the way back from the hospital, rounding the corner by the shooting range, a song came on the radio that punctuated the inconceivable loss. It was Ernie’s brother, John Cruz, singing the timeless ballad “Island Style.”
“Ernie loved coming to Sandy Beach. That was his favorite spot,” says Loui. “His wife Kahele came down to the beach a few days later, and I told her, ‘You know, I know this doesn’t sound anything right, but to be able to go to heaven in your most favorite place in the whole world doing what you like to do—it’s actually an honor and a blessing.’ We hugged each other, and she said, ‘Yes. You’re right. It’s where he belongs.’”
At each day’s close, retired fire captain Herb Knudsen makes the five-minute drive to Sandy’s from his Hawai‘i Kai home. Occasionally he combs the beach with a metal detector. Most days he freedives, hunting for valuables—wallets, gold chains, fins, you name it—unwittingly separated from their owners. For four-plus decades, he has been Sandy Beach’s self-appointed lost-and-found.
“In 1974 there was a big swell. So I called my friend and said, ‘Let’s go to Sandy’s,’” says Knudsen, aware of what the unique set of conditions meant. Every few years, with just the right wind and swell, a bizarre phenomenon called “money wash” occurs. The waves wash the carved out beach and hit the top of the sand bank. As they recede, jewelry and coins that have been buried for years surface—a sandy slot-machine jackpot.
“We got there and the coins were rolling, so instead of surfing we started picking stuff up,” Knudsen recalls. A few days later he went back for more, and treasure was still pouring from the sand. He found an engagement ring, a fortuitous find given the timing. “That was right after I asked [my wife] to marry me.”
As dusk settles at Sandy’s, Knudsen dons his wetsuit top and fins. Standing on the beach, the 73-year-old bodysurfer says it can be easy to find excuses not to surf. “It’s cold, there’s too many rocks, the surf’s junk. But if you go for a dive first, you’re just going for a dive.” Once he’s wet, a quick surf session becomes a no-brainer. Soon he finds himself suspended again in the waves that have brought him a lifetime of wealth, more than all the recovered treasure could ever amount to. HH