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Waikiki Surf and One Legendary Ride

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Noe Tanigawa

Summertime means surf on the south shores of the Hawaiian Islands. On Oʻahu, that means in Waikiki, where chest-high waves out there now should gradually wane this week.

Surf historian John Clark served 33 years with the Fire Department, mostly on the North Shore. Retired now, I caught him near his favorite surf spot at the Diamond Head end of Waikiki.

"Right now we're sitting in Kapiʻolani Park, we're sitting near lifeguard Tower 2F, 2 Foxtrot. And the surf spot, Publics, is directly offshore."

Clark also spent two years as a lifeguard at Sandy Beach. That's when he started trying to reach swimmers with information before they hit the water. He has authored 10 books now about Hawaiʻi's shorelines, beaches and place names.

John Clark Waikiki.jpg
Noe Tanigawa
Surf historian John Clark at Publics in Waikiki

"The thing most people don't realize is that Waikiki is actually a bay on the west side of Diamond Head. And that bay was created by fresh water flowing from the inland valleys, Makiki, Manoa and Palolo."

Clark says streams from those three valleys empty into Waikiki, and Waikiki Beach used to be a strip of sand between the wetlands of the three streams and the ocean.

"So all of that fresh water created this bay. And at the same time it made the bay, it made these fantastic surf breaks from one end of the bay to the other."

With the decision to develop Waikiki in the 1920s, the Ala Wai Canal was dredged to drain and fill in the wetlands.

"Waikiki means bubbling springs. Even though we don't have the streams flooding down to Waikiki anymore, there are still fresh water springs all along the shoreline here."

"So if you're swimming along here, the surf spot that's right out here is called Publics. If you paddle out there, you hit cold patches and warm patches. Every time you hit a cold patch, you're going through spring water that's emerging from the ocean bottom."

John Clark on The Aloha Friday Conversation on Aug. 13, 2021
Full Interview with HPR's Noe Tanigawa

We're sitting under banyan trees just 'Ewa of the green bathhouse and the refurbished Barefoot Beach Cafe. The area is known as Queen's Surf.

"You can see there's a little wall behind that banyan tree. There was a restaurant called the Queen's Surf and their imu pit was right where that tree is."

All the famous surf spots fan westward along the coast toward the center of Waikiki, from Publics, to Canoes outside the Moana, Populars, Threes, Fours, Kaiser's and finally Rock Piles outside the Ala Wai Harbor and Hilton lagoon.

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Noe Tanigawa
Waikiki Beach in April 2020 at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic

Hawaiʻi's most famous waterman surfed over a thousand yards from Publics to the Moana in a single ride. That was Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, born in 1890.

"He was an exceptional athlete. He was big, he was strong, he had a powerful kick. The race courses they did back in the day, when people realized he was doing all these amazing times in a boat harbor, whatever the conditions were..."

"So when he actually got into a swimming pool, a tank as they would call it back in the day, he was into fresh water and having walls where you could make a turn and push off. His times got even better."

Kahanamoku won three Olympic gold medals, in 1912 and 1920 and set world records in that time. He was considered the world's finest freestyle swimmer, renowned internationally for the Kahanamoku flutter kick. He's also recognized as the father of modern surfing.

"Now he was famous for a ride that went over a mile. Straight out in the darkest blue out there, there's a surf spot called Castles. The Hawaiians called it Kalehuawehe, they had their own name for all the surf spots. Duke caught a wave in 1916, at Kalehuawehe at Castles, it was a left, and he rode it all the way into Waikiki Beach, right in front of the Moana Hotel."

Clark says surfers have been trying to duplicate that ride ever since. It has been done.

"But you have to have a perfect swell. It has to be really big and it has to be lining up just right and it has to connect all the way through to the heart of Waikiki beach."

Talking with surf historian John Clark, as part of HPR's series "Waikiki Summer."

Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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