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Surfing instructors Miles Apuakehau and Daylne Vickery

Surf School {format} 14:49 Scott Carrier

Learing to surf the water and the culture of Hawaii.

Broadcast: Sep 26 2003 on PRI/MPR Savvy Traveler Subjects: Sports, Travel, Native

Surfing School

by Scott Carrier

HOST: Ever been so intrigued by the surfing mystique that you thought seriously about traveling to Hawaii to learn how to shoot the curl in the iridescent blue and green waves and be part of that ÒEndless Summer?Ó Well, reporter Scott Carrier did. Problem was, the surf school he chose online wasnÕt exactly what he was expecting. When he got to HawaiiÕs North Shore, the only surfboard they had for him to use was a windsurfing board with a very sandpapery top. Regardless, he made the best of a bad situation and had a great time learning to surf by making friends with his a full-blooded, rough-hewn Hawaiian teacher. So, he learned many things over the week, such as: Hawaiians donÕt listen to surf-guitar music like we think they do, Hawaiians are desperately trying to hold on to our Hawaiianess, and surfing is actually a state of mind.

(Mermen music)

I always wanted to learn how to surf. Surfing is the only sport with it’s own music. Baseball has the Wurlizter organ and football has the marching band, but surf music actually describes the thing itself. Or maybe it doesn’t describe it, maybe it only points to the movement, the moment that the wave rises up and curls, the moment that can not be stopped. I love surf music, and for a long time I thought that I could learn to surf just by listening to the music alone. Like the Mermen, my favorite group—a bass, a drummer, a lead guitar. They became my teachers, and I learned a great deal from them. I walked around, ate slept and worked with Jim Thomas’ liquid reverb stuck in my head like a cosmic mantra. But there came a point this last summer when I realized that my study had reached a point where it could go no farther, and that in order to progress I would actually have to get wet. So I went online and found a surf school on the web. It was in the surf mecca of the world, the north shore of Oahu, and the advertisement said that the students camped out on the beach, right next to the ocean. It seemed perfect, so I signed up, no questions asked.


But when I got there to the campground in Kahuku, on the northern tip of the island, I realized that the school was not what I’d expected. I was the only student and the school didn’t even have a surfboard for me to use. The woman who ran the school said she’d been in business since 1997, but the instructor she’d just hired, a full-blooded Hawaiian named Miles Apuakehau, told me she’d only had one other student and he’d left early out of disgust. Miles said she knew nothing about surfing or running a business, that all she knew was how to do was make a website. And she was really cheap--she’d bought a little pup tent for me to sleep in for 40 bucks and then told him make sure it didn’t get damaged because she was planning to take it back for a refund. She’d also told him not to eat any of the good food, the expensive food, as it was just for me. This really pissed him off, and he was thinking about quitting right then and there. Let her teach you how to surf, he said. So that was kind of a drag.

Another thing I didn’t expect was that I couldn’t understand Miles when he spoke. I didn’t know that Hawaiians, or at least some Hawaiians, speak with a thick accent, dropping off parts of words, using other words I’d never heard.

(MILES— I’m the guy in the water. I can stand on the beach, I can tell you some stuff. That’s why you came down here. When you’re just beginning, smile. You won’t catch no wave if you don’t smile at everybody else who’s been there for awhile. Smile, talk some story, so when the wave comes they’ll say go, go, your chance. Go. Other than that they cut you off every wave or kick you out of the water. Stay way inside, no come outside. Easier to learn on the white wash. Put your feet up so when the white wash hits you it’s like hitting a wall. Unless you get a nice rolling wave, only the top third of the wave breaks and just keeps on going. That’s Kahana Bay kind but we rarely find the places like that.

You get that? Neither did I when I first got there.

Miles didn’t quit, I think mainly because he’d said he was going to do this thing and it was beneath him to go back on his word, but whenever the woman who ran the school came around she and Miles fought like cats and dogs. Luckily, she didn’t come around that often. I will say one thing for her: she was smart enough to hire Miles as my instructor. He was the vice president of the north shore surf club, Da Hui, which he described as basically a gang of thugs who kept tourists and other houlies from surfing in the best places, and he kind of had an attitude about white men and the whole conquest and acculturation thing, but he was an amazing guy, and not just because he was a good surfer. He had a big heart and was completely up front and honest with his feelings, and he could do things like weave a hat out of a palm frond, and open a beer bottle using the top of another beer bottle without spilling a drop, and use a key ring to turn on a shower faucet that didn’t have a handle. I saw these things as I followed him around, tagging along like a puppy, but actually I saw it right when I first got there-- he was putting up a big tent made from heavy sheets of plastic and poles of iron wood he’d cut down, tied with knots I’d never seen before, using golf balls to hold the plastic so it wouldn’t rip in the wind. It was like a Bedouin shelter, very simple and primitive but perfect. And he had a bicycle with a kid’s BMX frame, forks from a ten speed, and a 40 year old Schwinn extra wide slik back tire. He had spare wire wrapped around the front post, spare rope wrapped around the seat post, a big machete hanging down to the pedals, and a tool kit on the back rack that included channel locks, some socket wrenches, and a drawing compass, with an extra golfball wedged in under the seat, and no brakes. I asked him how he stopped and he said, oh, you just stick your foot on the front tire. Looking at the bike and the tent I knew he was the real thing--a surfer, not a bum, but someone who’d figured out how to live close to the land, close to the things that made him truly happy.

Besides Miles, there was his girlfriend, Daylne Vickery, who was also working for the school but without pay. Her job, officially, was to help out around camp, but really she was more like an interpreter—not for Miles, but to explain Hawaiian culture to me.

(DAYLNE— To be Hawaiian is a state of mind, anybody can be hawaiian at heart. Hawaiians love to love, they like simple, they like smooth, they like to rise with the tide, go with the flow. Yeah it’s you know Hawaiians love Hawaii with all their heart, with all their might, they love Hawaii, not just the land, they love the ocean because the ocean surrounds us like a womb so we are safe.

You can see a Hawaiian from far away by the way they walk. Look at Miles, the way he walks, his back is straight, he looks you straight in the eye. I don’t turn away when I talk to you. I look you straight in the eye. So we can see what kind of person you are.

I think people are people all over the world, it’s a given, but Hawaiians are desperately trying to hold on to our Hawaiianess, and in this day and age it’s hard to see Hawaiianess because there’s so much pollution out there. Every kind. Besides the environment, pollution in our brain. We are so conditioned to live the white man way because it was rammed down out throats, when our way was just fine for millions of years, we weren’t broken so why fix us. White man’s way is, I want it so I take it. They mostly take and we mostly give because we are forced to and that’s where the animosity and generations of anger come from. But we are basically a gentle people so we hold on to anger way down until it explodes, every once in a while, and it can be terrible to witness the rage that comes out, because of the hundreds of years of being stepped on our necks, to call down to another way of life.

But luckily for us we invented surfing and that’s awesome. Sufing is state of mind too, you can surf any which way you want, you can surf with a board, you can surf with your body, you can surf in your dreams.

It only takes a little bit to give aloha. It takes a lot of energy to be mean and hurtful. It takes a lot of energy to be fucked up. It’s takes all your energy and time.

The three of us spent six days together, surfing and walking around during the day, staying up late at night, talking story, as they say in Hawaii. Daylne was 46, Miles was 42. They’d grown up together right there in Kahuku, been best friends when they were little, but then they’d both gotten married had kids and didn’t see each other for about 20 years until both their marriages fell apart and they ran into each other by chance and sort of stuck like glue. They had nothing in the way of possessions and had been living on the beach, which was fine with Miles because he could live off the land like a primitive—fishing with a throw net, climbing trees for coconuts, finding things along the beach or on the road—or, actually, wherever he went he found things. Sometimes it was more like if he came within an arms reach of something then it was within his domain and he just sort of claimed it as his own. For Miles, ownership was a fuzzy concept. For instance he didn’t believe that he could own land, he believed that the land owned him, that it took care of him and provided everything he needed to live, and he was happy that way. So was Daylne, but I think she was the one who talked Miles into taking the job working as a surf instructor, something he could do, a way for them to make some money and maybe get a roof over their heads, except then it all went bad pretty quickly, because, as we say around here, Miles was a bad machine, not the employable kind.

(more Mermen music)

But anyway, the surfing, how I learned to surf. Although the woman who ran the school didn’t have a surfboard, she did provide me with a windsurfing board, which was kind of like a surfboard except that it had a sandpaper surface on top that Miles said was going to give me a rash. I didn’t care, I just wanted to get in the water. So the first day we went down to the beach and sat there looking out at the waves. I thought Miles was going to give me a long sort of philosophical lecture on how to do it, but all he said was watch out for Portugese men of war and don’t turn your back on the ocean. That was it. I tried to follow him as he paddled out but I got stung by a man of war about 20 feet from the beach and while I was flailing around trying to get it off my leg a wave broke on top of me and sent me to the floor while my board flew up in the air and then came down on my head.

The first thing I noticed once I got going was that paddling was hard. The windsurfing board was heavy and awkward and the wind was blowing me back to the beach and the current was taking me down the shore line, and my arms felt like toothpicks in the water. Plus it was hard to hold my head up off the board. I was using muscles I didn’t really have. And then, I’d say within the first half hour, that 80-grit on top of the board tore the skin off my chest. It hurt. Salt water does not feel good on abrasions.

I spent about two hours in the water and all I did was flail around and get thrashed by the waves, my arms and legs pulled from their sockets, water crammed down my throat like I had my mouth around a fire hose. Pretty pathetic. I crawled up on the beach and lay there like a sick puppy.

The next day I refused to go back out on the windsurfing board. It was too cruel. My chest was like raw hamburger. So we hitchiked into town and Miles got his long board out of a friend’s garage. It was beautiful and must have been worth about a thousand dollars. I was worried I was going to mess it up and said I’d rather just rent a cheap board somewhere, but Miles insisted, saying that it was the perfect board for me because it was easy to paddle and stand up on. And he was right. It made all the difference in the world. I was able to follow Miles and watch what he was doing, and that was all it took, just watching what he did, no need for talking, just do it. Get out there in the right place, sit up on the board looking out at the waves coming in, wait until you see a big one coming then turn the board around and lie down in the right place on the board so your hands are on the sides about right in middle, keep looking back at the wave, and when it gets close you can tell if it’s going to be a good one, if it’s going to rise up and curl in the place where you’re at. And that’s an intense moment, it either breaks before it gets to you, smashing on top of you and all of a sudden you are in a blender set on pulverize, or it doesn’t break at all and just passes you by, or it comes up like living being, like it should have a name, and you know it’s there for you, so you paddle hard and the thing picks you up and throws you forward and the board is shaking and the sound is a roar, you’re flying, you’re strapped onto a rocket and just want to hold on but you’ve got to stand up, quickly push up and jump to the center of the board, feet spred out, knees bent and ride the thing, looking back, trying to stay on the edge of the white wash. I made a lot of mistakes, either standing up to far forward, or just falling off from the shaking, or not watching the wave until the last second so I didn’t know what was happening, or not paddling hard enough, but I did it right a number of times, stood up and got a good ride, and man, I’m telling you, it felt good.

To be honest, the waves where we were at were not that big, maybe five feet at the highest, measured from the front, but just right for learning. And the water was amazing, not cold at all, lumenescent, irridescent blue and green like it was lit from below. It was clean, that’s the only word I can think of—clean like Jim Thomas’ guitar, clean like fresh powder snow, clean like a cold morning in the desert, every cell in my body was happy.


After a couple of days surfing there at the beach where we were camped I asked Miles if we could go find some bigger waves but he said there weren’t really any bigger waves right then, that it was the wrong season, and no storms coming in, and anyway it was better for me to learn on this beach where there weren’t any rocks or coral or dangerous wave actions.

(MILES— It’s better that you learn on something like this, because dead guys they come and learn on reef surfing and they get slammed, they catch a wave and they go straight down hit the bottom of the reef, pick up some strawberries on the side not to mention the board might wack them, freaking gasping for air, and then a local guy come and wack them because they fucked up the wave. Look how much stuff happened to the guy, and he’s just trying to learn! He’ll jump out of the water and go home and sell the surf board. So when you are trying to learn don’t go where you think you can, go where you know you can, because accidents happen. And attitude about getting hurt, if you are going to get hurt you are going to get hurt, don’t worry about it because nothing you can do about it, like destiny. Like skateboarding, they say you can get road rash, broken your arm. I know a kid who scrapped the nose right off his face. But when you wipe out on a surfboard you got to learn to breathe too, unless you part fish, and only some guys part fish. If you are going to wipe out try to land on your ass. If you land on your face what are you going to do after that? Hard to score chicks on a fucked up face.

He was right. I couldn’t expect to know very much in just a few days. I’ve been skiing all my life and I still get lost and bewildered in the mountains, in fact all I really know about snow and mountains is that they are unknowable. You go up there with an attitude or too much ego you’ll get smooshed. So we pretty much stayed in that same place for the six days. One day we went fishing with Miles’ throw net. He didn’t catch anything but I got to spend the whole day staring into the water, looking for fish, which in my book is what it’s all about anyway. The water and the light in Hawaii is just amazing, the kind of thing you can feel going into your body and changing your chemistry, the kind of thing that makes you sick when you leave.

All in all, I had a great time. I wouldn’t really recommend the surfing school, I won’t even mention it by name, but I would recommend Miles as a teacher. He doesn’t talk much about surfing, but you can learn a lot by watching him. One other thing I learned, Hawaiians don’t listen to surf music. I asked Daylne if she’d ever heard of the Mermen and she said, the who? She said on Hawaii they listen to Hawaiian music, and she stuck in a cd of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, a man who’d died young in 1997 due to complications of his enormous size.

(Brother Iz—somewhere over the rainbow)

He weighed about 500 pounds, but was much loved by all Hawaiians for his big heart and beautiful voice. Not at all like surf music, not at all what I expected, but some trips are like that.