Reprinted with permission from
Kohala Mountain News, March 1, 2000
Often this place is deserted, but not today. Today the vehicles stand in rows three or four deep, and people crowd the area, both on the ground and in the water. They meander in and out of the tents along the breakwall. Families lounge under beach umbrellas, while kids and dogs scoot underfoot. The place is Pua Ka`ilima `O Kawaihae Cultural Surf Park. The day is Saturday, February 12th, scheduled to be the first day of the ninth annual Pua Ka`ilima Longboard Classic 2000, familiarly known as the Tiger Contest.
Even though the event is supposed to be a competition, the atmosphere is fun, festive and informal. In fact, the waves don’t quite cooperate—not consistent enough to make a good contest—and competition is deferred until the next day (the surf will be better tomorrow, everybody seems certain). No matter. This crowd is out to make the most of the occasion. They enjoy watching the surfers take off three or four or five at a time, on “party waves.” “I counted ten people on one wave a little while ago,” says Gary Keller, a surfer from Kapa`au and one of the contestants.
Kawaihae has been popular as a surfing spot for a long time. Dave Barclay, on the board of directors for Pua Ka`ilima Surf Park and contest, points out that the favorite wife of King Kamehameha I, Ka`ahumanu, is said to have enjoyed riding the waves here. Of course, she saw a very different scene from that which exists today at Kawaihae. The first part of the breakwall was constructed with the help of the U.S. Army in the mid 1950s, which radically changed the landscape.
The credit for creating a surf park goes to surfer Tiger Espere, who recognized the historical and cultural importance of the area. Bob Simms, also on the board of directors for the Pua Ka`ilima contest and park, explains that Tiger brought a resolution to the state asking for the land for a surf park. He made the arrangements “Hawaiian style” and came back with a signed lease within eight months, an incredible feat that combined political savvy with some hard work and a stroke of luck. In 1988 the directors obtained a lease from the Department of Transportation for the use of 1.4 acres, between the Kawaihae breakwall and a seven-acre U.S. Army camp. Tiger launched the first Tiger Espere Longboard Classic in 1992, so called because surfers must use boards at least nine feet in length in the contest.
The bounty of the state did not extend beyond the use of the land; no funding was provided for the park. Little by little, volunteers have been making up for that lack; the group includes Richard Crawford, Rex Thompson, Buff Williard, John Keolanui, Dave Barclay, Bob Simms, Tom O’Leary, Mike Stevenson, Brooks Thomas, Gary Keller, Roger Harris, June Balanga and many others.
At first, the surfers dedicated enough to clamber over the breakwall had to climb down the rocks to the water—and later, back up again, carrying their boards. It was dangerous business, as surfer Debbie Keller can attest. She has a scar on her knee where some stitches were required to close a cut she got when her foot slid into a crevice between the rocks. It was worth the pain to surf in this spot, she says.
Later, a ramp made the process a little easier, but the footing was still somewhat precarious. In early 1998, Gary Keller helped install a set of wooden stairs he had built, along with other volunteers, for the purpose. Now surfers can stroll down to the water in comfort, with even a handrail to grasp if they feel the need.
The park shows other evidence of the efforts to make it both attractive and convenient. A small screen house shelters vegetation being propagated to be planted around the area; the first plantings have already been put into the ground. A shower has recently been turned on after a hard-working crew borrowed a DitchWitch and dug trenches for the pipes to supply the water. Plans call for public restrooms, a clubhouse and more landscaping: trees, windbreaks, grassy expanses. A lot of work remains to be done, but the people who use the park feel good that a start has been made.
“The park has been well received by the community,” says Dave Barclay, pointing out that many people have contributed generously of their time and energy to help the project grow. Bob Simms adds, “We’re finding people will give the money when they see it all happening.”
It doesn’t sound very big—1.4 acres—but it feels like a big place, especially taking into account the vast sweep of ocean where surfers flock when conditions are right. For the contest they come from around the Big Island and beyond, some getting here a day early and camping out. Today a band called Solar Wind fills the air with music.
The waves are picking up a bit as the tide goes out, but the contest has been officially postponed until Sunday, the 13th. “It’s an opportunity to get the paperwork out of the way today, so we can start early tomorrow,” Bob points out.
Sunday arrives—and with it, the predicted waves, six to eight feet. The 87 hopefuls compete in eight different categories, which are divided into “heats” of six people each.
Dennis McKenna sums up the attitude of many of the participants. “I’m not really into the contest scene, but it’s fun and it’s for a good cause.”