Two young men and one older guy are staring at the surf break known as Bowls just off Waikīkī, boards in hand. That’s a pretty common sight here at Magic Island; could be father and sons or uncle and nephews. But no: This trio is two of Hawai‘i’s top competitive surfers and their coach.
“Well, what’s the plan? What’s the tide doing?” says the older guy, surfing coach Rainos Hayes. Loud, energetic, with a shaved head and bright smile, Hayes combines high school football coach enthusiasm with surfer chill. His protégés are 13-year-old Kai “Kai-boy” Martin and 20-year-old Seth Moniz; the former is the 2018 Hawaii Surfing Association Boys Under 14 champ and the latter has a real shot at making the World Surfing League’s world championship tour next year. Hayes also coaches current WSL World Junior champion Finn McGill, who is playing hooky today (i.e., chasing a huge swell in Mexico). Today will be a “mellow” session to fill the lull between the Mainland summer competition season and Hawai‘i’s epic winter surf.
I’m tagging along to get a feel for what a highly successful surf coach does. In the past twenty-five years, Hayes has coached Hawai‘i’s youth to fifteen World Junior Championship titles (think the Farm League of surfing; winners are destined for the pros when they turn 18). If you can name a pro surfer to come out of the North Shore in the last two decades, like Pancho Sullivan or Keanu Asing, they’ve probably called Rainos “coach.”
You might expect a top-tier surf coach to be harsh, doling out scoldings for mistakes and putting his charges through endless drills. But Hayes isn’t the boot- camp type; he guides surfers to deepen their feeling for the sport. “Do the famous Moniz warm-up!” he tells Seth. Instead of push-ups or jumping jacks, Moniz sinks into a graceful, yoga-like movement. Martin follows suit. “It’s about activating the body, preparing their muscles for the demands of high performance surfing,” Hayes says as the two surfers transition to another dynamic pose. “This pose activates the hips and low back. When Seth’s brother Josh started doing this before heats, he stopped falling off and started winning.” It’s an awkward pose with knees going one way and feet going another. If you’ve ever wondered how surfers can miraculously keep the board attached to their feet during high-flying, point-scoring maneuvers, this is your answer.
Like a lot of Kahuku High School grads, Hayes spent as much of his free time surfing as he could. “As a kid, I always pictured myself turning professional someday, but the bar was so high, I never thought I could achieve the level my mentors and idols did,” he says. Even if he couldn’t reach the rarefied high echelons of surf pro stardom, Hayes found a niche. “My gift came when my friends would call me ‘Coach Nos’ for always trying to help them out with their surfing. Later, it came naturally to help the kids I got the opportunity to work with.” To evolve into some kind of surf professional, Hayes knew he needed the best tools of the trade. “I approached Hawaiian Island Creations and told them I would do whatever it took to gain sponsorship for surfboards,” he says. Like a golfer lusting for a set of high-end clubs, he wanted a quiver of HIC boards “to make the most out of the variety of conditions we see on the North Shore.” Not to mention the reefs and pounding surf have a tendency to break surfboards like nowhere else. “I told them I’d sweep floors in the factory.” HIC finally offered him a management position overseeing their junior surf team in 1994.
Hayes got his boards and never had to sweep floors because the first day on the job, his team finished first. Not only was he a natural, it turns out coaching is in his DNA. His great-grandfather, Maurice Tommy Thompson, was a multisport coach in Minnesota and “a great golfer, a great storyteller,” Hayes says. “He empowered his athletes. He supported people with knowledge about themselves. He got people to trust not only their abilities but also their feelings. That’s my own approach in a nutshell.”
Today Hayes coaches for Billabong, the Australian surf brand that sponsors elite surfers and supplies them with gear. They approached him in 2003 about being a team manager because of his record of success and his knowledge of Hawai‘i’s waters and talent. It’s important for all surf companies to have a presence in Hawai‘i because, Hayes says, “it is both the birthplace of the sport and its ultimate proving grounds. The North Shore is an elite venue. This is the Mount Everest of surfing. Pro surfers come out here to see if they have what it takes.” And it’s those North Shore breaks, he says, that have made him into the surfing coach he’s become.
The coaching is only half of Hayes’ job; he’s also the team manager, always ready with spare fins, leashes and of course an ample supply of fresh boards in case a bad wipeout snaps one. This on top of planning travel, coordinating interviews and the inevitable transportation duties—Martin and much of Team Billabong are too young to drive. The goal is to turn young men and women into professional, well-balanced athletes.
Hayes seems to have that tough-but-fair approach down to a science, with a healthy dose of holistic life coaching thrown in. And he has an eye for talent. Hayes picked up Moniz for the Billabong team when he was just seven years old. “Many of the kids I’ve coached are still involved in the surf industry,” Hayes says. Some are coaches, team managers or even sales reps for surf companies. “I started by wanting to help them become good humans. What I ended up with is a lot of great friends.”
Hayes’ well-balanced athletes are poised to do more than merely win competitions. Moniz, for example, is at the vanguard of the evolution of modern surfing. Not only has he landed monstrous backflips on perfectly engineered waves in a Texas wave pool, he’s one of the first surfers to land a backflip in competition. “There were a lot of things that had to be in place for Seth to do that,” Hayes says, understating the enormity of the feat. “We assessed the conditions and were shooting for excellent scores on a challenging day. It was risky, but as always, the higher the risk, the higher the reward.”
Today evolution can wait because the ocean calls. A quarter-mile paddle away, Bowls is looking promising with a decent south swell. The surf is picking up as the trio paddles out to the break. Everyone is getting waves. Derek Ho, Hawai‘i’s first professional world champ, is out having fun. Settling into the lineup, Moniz is a natural aloha ambassador, happily shaking hands with everyone. Martin seems more introverted and focused as he dismantles the very same break at which he won his title last April.
Between sets, Hayes quizzes his team. “If this were a competition, where would you line up to have the best shot?” Moniz says something about positioning, then offers that he would get as deep as he could to get the most critical waves. Hayes points to a cluster of hotels on the Waikīkī strip and tells Martin and Moniz, “When that white building disappears behind that blue one, you are probably too deep.” Meaning the wave will break too suddenly into a wall of whitewater, not the curling tube that surgeons like Moniz like to slice up. Class is adjourned when a set comes in. Hayes catches one, his first of the day, and to demonstrate his point he effortlessly tucks into an impressively deep barrel.
Another set gives Moniz and Martin refreshing rides, then class is back in session. Coach Hayes’ assignment is to sit out a set and find the sweet spot—where to position yourself so you have the option of catching the smaller or bigger waves of the set. The sweet spot might be second nature at a surfer’s home break, but competitors have to show up at foreign breaks with only a few practice sessions to glean crucial knowledge like this. Hayes’ teaching can help Moniz and Martin get the inside scoop on the break in a matter of minutes.
Outside of the brief lectures, Hayes lets go of the reins and watches his charges surf. Training is essential in any sport, but Martin and Moniz happily do this in their free time anyway. He admires their surfing, saying, “being a great surfer isn’t just natural ability, and it’s not just hard work. It’s the combination. It also takes a deep connection to the magic of the ocean, commitment, passion and exposure to different types of surf. It’s an alchemy.”
As you might expect, someone like Hayes has his finger on the pulse of surfing as it changes—in particular in the age of artificial waves. “I see that some competitive aspects of the sport will evolve into the more controlled environment of wave pools,” he says. “The technology is advancing rapidly, and being able to produce a similar wave canvas over and over again, makes practicing variations on aerial maneuvers a real part of the sport’s future.” Purists might balk, but he has a point: Who wouldn’t want predictable, perfect waves in the safety of a landlocked pond?
Of course there will always be the ocean to surf, where big-wave elites seem ever more willing to take on whatever challenges it can throw at them. “Over the last ten years or so, surf forecasting and knowledge of so many big-wave spots have allowed top athletes to chase and ride the largest surf they can get their hands on. With technology and good old trial and error, they have fine-tuned both their equipment and technique. The limit to what they can ride today is limited only by what Mother Nature can produce,” he says. “She still makes the rules.” HH