– Duke Kahanamoku
As both a teacher and a surfer, I’ve witnessed many students looking and feeling the same way: tardy, wet and shivering from the morning’s dawn patrol, their thoughts rolling in and out like the tides, staring down clocks on the walls like they’re sets on the horizon and doodling empty point-breaks and hollow barrels that crash on their notebooks.
Surfing requires an incredible amount of knowledge, discipline and concentration. So it’s no surprise when I find the focus of surfers breaching the classroom walls and pouring back into the sea.
But could their drifting minds be moored if the principal gave warning: “Study and keep your grades up, or you won’t be surfing for us anymore”?
For far too long now, the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) has prevented such a statement from being made. Although most people around the world recognize Hawaii’s introduction of surfing as its greatest legacy, the DOE refuses to sanction surfing as an official sport, thereby ostracizing our young surfers when they should be revered as ambassadors of the sport of kings.
Kim Ball, owner of Hi Tech surf shop and coach of the Lahainaluna wrestling team, has been lobbying for over a decade in hopes of implementing surfing into the high school athletic scene. He understands the significance of surfing to the Hawaiian people, their ancient predecessors and especially to Hawaii’s students.
Ball’s perseverance is finally paying off. “This is a big year for us because we’ve jumped through enough of the DOE’s hoops to give us ‘club’ status,” he says. “We’re not yet sanctioned by the interscholastic athletic leagues, so surfing will still not be recognized as an official sport, but this is an important step in what has been a long road.”
For Ball, that road began in the 1980s, when he was coaching at Lahainaluna High School. “I knew we had kids on the team that wouldn’t be in school if they didn’t have wrestling in their lives,” he remembers. “But also, I was seeing all these kids who had surfing as their thing, and it was just so clear to me that we had nothing for them.”
Ball approached an athletic director about starting a competitive high school surfing contingent. “Basically, he told me to forget about it,” says Ball. The DOE gave him the same response.
Several schools in the United States have discovered the benefits of interscholastic surfing. Dr. Bruce Gabrielson, founder of organized U.S. high school surfing and chairman of the National Surf Schools and Instructors Association, pioneered the first high school surf team in Huntington Beach, California in the early 70s. “As in all other high school sports, organized athletic competition encourages commitment and discipline, enhances leadership skills, plus helps develop teamwork skills and a personal code of honor,” says Gabrielson.
Gabrielson feels these skills are especially pronounced among surfers. “Surfing is unique compared to other sports in that it represents a culture, a lifestyle and both a team and individual sport,” he says. “It continues to exist outside the playing field, permeating throughout the participant’s environment and all aspects of their life. Unfortunately, it has now taken many years for educational institutions to fully recognize how much influence this particular sport has on developing important skills in our youth.”
Knowing the importance of these skills and the DOE’s failure to recognize them, Ball took matters into his own hands. In 1994, he began holding an annual underground high school surfing competition. Students throughout the island would meet, form teams and represent their schools. Without support from the DOE, Ball created a non-profit, the Maui Sports Foundation, in order to help pay for liability costs and the county fees necessary to hold the event at Hookipa beach park. For the first eight years, the meets went undisturbed.
In 2002, Ball received a memo from Patricia Hamamoto, Superintendent of the DOE, that said no school names or logos should be used in the competitions for liability reasons.
Ball responded by renewing his calls for the DOE to legitimize competitive surfing. With supporters from both Maui and Oahu, Ball attended a Board of Education meeting, hoping to make a stink.
But the real stink came later that year in the form of a DOE report. Although they had heard hours of public testimony in support of high school surfing, from parents, teachers and professional watermen, administrators ultimately rejected the cause.
“Our two biggest concerns with surfing have always been cost and liability,” explains Dwight Toyama, Athletics Administrator for the state Department of Education and Executive Director of the Oahu Interscholastic Association.
The budget projections and liability issues contained in the 2002 report were shaky at best. The proposed budget itemized superfluous expenses such as: 24 surfboards for 44 schools at $400 each; 24 bars of wax at 50 cents each; and 100 T-shirts at $7.50 for each contest. Between equipment, coaching, transportation and lifeguard fees, the inflated budget for one year of high school surfing totaled over $2.6 million.
The worst part is that none of us were included when they manufactured this report,” says Ball. “I mean don’t you think a lot of these kids might use their own boards? And $400 a board? They obviously did not consider purchasing wholesale equipment. And 100 T-shirts for every contest? What for? I own a surf shop, so I was blown away when I saw these budget projections.”
Another blow from the report was the liability issue. “Since surfing is in the ocean, you can’t control the environment as well as you can in other sports, so we had to take that into serious consideration,” explains Toyama. In an attempt to illustrate the ocean’s danger, Toyama handed Board of Education (BOE) members copies of newspaper clips detailing several shark attacks that occurred in Hawaii.
Paddling is a DOE-sanctioned sport that takes place on open waters with uncontrolled variables. And thus far, there have been no reports of sharks attacking the paddling teams.
In a DOE athletic injury report from 2002, there were 942 injuries reported from varsity football alone. In the fifteen years that Ball has been holding his contests, he says no serious injuries have occurred. “Sure, we’ve had a minor reef cut here and there,” he acknowledges, “but definitely nothing to indicate surfing is any more dangerous than football.”
In 2003, after more meetings and testimony, a BOE special programs committee voted unanimously in favor of implementing surfing at the club level. Clubs can meet on campus, fundraise, practice and compete against other clubs. However, they are not allocated money from the budget.
By the following year, the DOE formed an advisory group of surfers, ocean safety professionals and educators tasked with creating a statewide surf club program, which would be the first of its kind. Although it took several years to draft the policies, surf clubs are now official.
A crucial aspect of the program is training the coaches. They must go through more than any other coach from clubs or sanctioned sports by passing a rigorous, three-day DOE-mandated Ocean Safety Management Course.
Archie Kaleppa, tow-in-surfing pioneer and head of ocean safety operations for Maui County, helped design and instruct the course. “This is not your typical Red Cross lifeguard course,” says Kaleppa. “We’ve taken 50 years of self-taught lifesaving knowledge from the state’s most advanced lifeguards and put it into a curriculum for these coaches. I’m confident that upon completing this course, the coaches have more respect for the ocean, for lifesaving and are fully prepared to be the coaches of their schools’ surf teams.”
Aside from the swim tests, class tests, cultural lessons, first aid and rescue scenarios, coaches must also prove their merit as surfers. (Could you imagine a high school football coach taking a tackle from the team’s star linebacker?) And also, since they’re only clubs, surf coaches are neither compensated for the $330 course nor paid for all the work during the season.
In Hawaii, the birthplace of surfing, both bowling and air riflery are sanctioned sports—with paid coaches—while surfing continues to be ignored.
“Look, surfing might become an officially sanctioned sport one day in Hawaii. I could see it happening,” says Toyama. “But you have to keep in mind that with the current economy, we’re experiencing big cuts in our athletics budget. I mean, surfing will have to wait its turn—we can’t just let the surfers kick aside the bowlers.”
Budget cuts and bureaucratic red tape have not quelled the enthusiasm on Maui. On September 19 of this year, 13 coaches from Kapalua to Hana showed up at the Lahaina Aquatic Center to participate in the three-day Ocean Safety Management Course. The coaches represented eight high schools: Maui High, Baldwin, Hana, Kamehameha Schools, King Kekaulike, Lahainaluna, Maui Preparatory Academy and Seabury Hall.
“It was an intense course,” says Jen Wiseman, representing Seabury Hall. “But after this training, I feel prepared to handle any situation that might occur in the water. It was really interesting and I learned a lot, but it was definitely not a walk in the park.” Wiseman holds state titles and records for swimming in California.
Coaches must now draft constitutions and ocean risk management plans while students have to pass a physical, a junior lifeguard course and have consent from a parent or legal guardian. Also, members of the club must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0.
“I think the club thing is great, but it would also be cool to see it as an interscholastic sport,” says big wave hell man and professional surfer Ian Walsh. “This is Hawaii, and out here we grow up in the water. Being part of a surf team would really inspire kids to do well in school.”
Since 2004, Walsh has been holding the “Menehune Mayhem” contest on Maui, an ongoing effort to introduce and promote surfing to the state of Hawaii’s youth.
By his senior year at King Kekaulike, Walsh was being recognized throughout the surfing world for his big wave prowess, competitiveness and tireless devotion to the sport. He was also valedictorian of his graduating class. However, since surfing was neither a club nor a sanctioned sport, Walsh was never even a candidate for athlete of the year. And as long as surfing remains at the club level, members will not be eligible for such accolades.
But organized competition isn’t the only reason for surf clubs. “The whole point of this to me is not to groom some super competitive surfers that are going to rise to the top of professional surfing,” says Baldwin High surf coach Keoki Pfaeltzer. “The purpose is to preserve the cultural heritage of a sport that was born on these islands, and given as a gift to all the world.”
In the true Aloha spirit of surfing, Pfaeltzer is giving back; on the first two days of sign-ups, 57 students joined the surf club. And Pfaeltzer is planning on using his pack of surfers to participate in an upcoming beach cleanup at Paukukalo. “Back in the day, if you were going to act like it was your break, then you had better be the one taking care of it,” he says. “These are the things we need to teach today’s surfers. We need to preserve and protect these values for the future of surfing. There is so much more to this sport than just maneuvers and clothing labels.”
Ball understands that high school surfing has a lot more to go through if it ever does become an interscholastic sport. “I know we’re not officially sanctioned, but it’s still pretty cool to have these clubs. It’s going to be an exciting season,” says Ball. “You know there were times during all of this when I just really felt my back up against the wall. I remember this one particular BOE meeting on Oahu—we were completely shut down and afterwards, I just sat there shaking my head in disbelief. After the meeting, a woman on the board came up to me and whispered into my ear, ‘Don’t give up.’ I’m glad that I haven’t.”
By refusing to concede defeat, Ball is giving many surfers a legitimate reason not to give up on school, a chance to be something more, outside of the water.
Like a man caught inside the impact zone, with forceful resistance hindering each stroke of progress, beaten but unbowed, Ball has pushed beyond the breaks in his path.
The way of the surfer. MTW