For the past few summers, my family has had the ridiculous good
fortune to travel to the island of Maui in Hawaii. My wife Lala's sister, Emily, has a house on the island, and her family is kind enough to let us scruffy Santa Feans freeload for two weeks each June. Emily and her husband, Thom, are both expert skiers and cyclists, and their kids, Kipling and Olivia, have extended the family athletic prowess into team sports like soccer, baseball and the occasional hip-hop dance class. ***image1***Needless to say, they put my family and me (mostly me) to shame. After our first visit three years ago, it became pretty clear that if we wanted to stay under their roof and use their towels we had to pretend to be active at least part of the day. Poppy took one for the Wilder team and dutifully attended windsurfing camp with her two cousins. I tried windsurfing in Kanaha, the windy part of the island, but the learning curve was too great as was the stress on what few muscles I had left over from a very limited soccer career.
The one sport that we ended up tackling as a family was surfing. Poppy started by tandem surfing on a 14-foot board owned by a New Zealander named Mark, a close friend of Emily and Thom's. Mark, a former windsurfing champion in his own right, is skilled enough to plop four kids on the front of his long red board: usually Poppy, her cousin Olivia and the two most noticeably neglected kids on the beach. Mark is strong enough to paddle the extra 125 pounds and isn't afraid to catch the biggest swells with what amounts to be his own aquatic daycare. After Poppy, I was next on Mark's Hawaiian hit list. I'm past the point in my life where I need to prove my narrow athletic skills to anyone. Such bravado usually lands you under the knife or scope and looking like a sissy hobbling around on crutches to your next PTA meeting. My goal in surfing was not unlike my goal at the end of a late night in college: Just stand up. The board I chose measured over 12 feet and was appropriately ***image3***painted battleship gray since that's what it looked like compared to all the short boards the other real surfers used. I got a few laughs as I paddled out, a pale white guy with bad hair on enough fiberglass to build a houseboat. Lala said the sight of me flailing around on that oversized board reminded her of an obese mental patient undergoing strange water therapy.
I reached the bobbing clump of people waiting for the next set of waves and saw that the pack was not a place for a guy like me to learn. When I caught my breath enough to express concern to Mark, he happily chirped, "No worries, the better surfers will look after you." Then he did a headstand on his board and happily floated away. Since trying to maneuver the battleship was like steering a piece of drywall through a flood, I endured more than a few insults, threats and guys with tribal tattoos trying to surf over my head.
As I looked around for a shark to mercy-eat me, I noticed Butch, a local guy we knew, off to the left where the waves were smaller and less frequent. I paddled over to him, my arms and shoulders sore even though I had yet to catch a wave.
"Hey Rob," Butch called, fishing some water from his ears. "Here to chill out with us senior citizens?" He said he was too old to hang out in the pack but I knew this wasn't true. Butch and his ***image5***family were famous on Maui for their skill both on boards and in outrigger canoes; even an idiot mainlander like me knew that. I think he was tired, having started work at 4 am, and being around the hardcore surfers would push him to compete. Before I could even say "aloha," Butch said, "OK, here we go. Start paddling." As I sadly slapped the water, I felt the hand of God on my board propelling me forward. Butch had pushed me onto the wave. I could feel the acceleration as the wave grew in size and speed. I paddled once more, then stood up clumsily, like a newborn deer learning to walk. Because of the board's width and weight, it didn't tilt much, so I stood up for a few brief seconds before falling. I felt like a goddamn hero. I had actually stood upright on a surfboard. Okay, so I had help and the board was huge but that didn't dampen my elation. Between Butch's pushes and Mark's earlier advice, cobbled with my memories of bodysurfing as a kid on Long Island, I started to get a limited hang of it. I could catch a wave, stand up on the battleship, and ride straight into shore. Within a few hours, I was surfing on the shoulder of the pack with Thom, Emily, Mark, another friend named Sunny and my nephew Kipling who is as natural on a surfboard as I am on a couch.
When I came back to shore, our crowd was impressed by my improvement, which meant I looked slightly less foolish than when I had paddled out. They obviously thought that my skills were limited to eating the sashimi my family wouldn't touch and gulping Thom's wine at dinner. I wouldn't say I was cocky, but I felt that ***image2***warm glow of pride as folks tried to get me to step up my game.
"Try the nine-footer, you'll be able to turn better…" Sunny said, referring to a sleek green board under a nearby palm tree.
"If you move your back foot just a bit more then you'll be able to cut against the wave," Thom offered, pointing to my soggy boot.
I eyed some of the smaller boards, freshly waxed, and imagined myself inside the curl of the wave trailing my fingers in the wall of water. I thought of the surfing DVDs we viewed at night and inserted my fat head on Laird Hamilton's body as he surfed Jaws, a beach only miles from where we were standing now.
A host of shrill whistles woke me from my sleepy surfing safari. People were pointing, trying to get our group's attention. I thought they were reacting to Mark spinning on his head with the kids; then I saw Kipling riding a wave very close to the beach. Around his neck was a red scarf or bandanna that violently clashed with his black rash guard. Then I realized, as did Lala and Emily who started screaming in terror, that Kipling's neck was bathed in blood. He hopped off the board, hit the beach, and ran to our table where everyone nearby surrounded him. My teacherly instincts kicked in, and I immediately imposed a toddler lockdown on all the ***image4***little ones. I held them all at the tide pool, far away from the scene, even Olivia who was desperate to see her brother. The Hawaiians and surfers are accustomed to tragic events and quickly put Kipling under a tree and pressed towels against his wound. Cell phones were ripped from their waterproof covers and pruned fingers repeatedly dialed the holy trinity of digits: 911. Emily and Thom ran to the aid of their son.
We found out later that Kipling's board had popped out from under his feet, flipped, and the board's fin had punctured the base of his neck, the tip breaking off inside the wound. (The fragment was removed at the hospital and passed around that night after Kipling was released and we had all medicated ourselves with local beer.) Once he was safely stowed in the ambulance and everyone got to see that their cousin, nephew, brother or fellow surfer was OK, we all watched as the vehicle with flashing lights sped down the narrow road toward the hospital. There was a long pause back at the picnic table where the boards waited quietly. After the siren's wail could no longer be heard echoing off the mountains, the scene magically repaired itself. You couldn't tell anything dramatic had occurred. The weather was still idyllic; the water sparkled cerulean blue and a series of barbecues grilled a plethora of savory meat products.
"There's a set," Sunny said and pointed to a group of waves to the right of where we had been surfing, pre-accident.
"I'm ready." Mark grabbed a yellow tube of sunscreen and began applying it to his face and shoulders.
"Rob, you ready to try the nine-footer?" Butch said, half-teasingly.
Seeing Kipling on that wave sobered me up quite a bit since my Step Into Liquid fool's fantasy. The battleship stood cold but steady, leaning against a tree slightly away from the pack of more colorful and ambitious boards.
"I'm in," I said and rubbed the back my neck. I've always been a glutton for punishment. "Anyone got a helmet?"