We hadn’t spent too much time sipping our chai teas and making small talk at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center Starbucks when Archie Kalepa got down to business.
“What are your goals here?” he asked. “Because I don’t want this story to just be about me.”
I stared at him a moment. About five-foot-seven and possessing the build you’d expect from a world famous big wave surfer, Kalepa is also the chief county lifeguard. He wanted me to focus my story on ocean safety and the rest of Maui’s lifeguards, while I… well, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
The day Kalepa and I met was also the first high swell of the winter surf season. As a waterman, this had a big impact on Kalepa’s day. Kalepa is not only a celebrity surfer, but also a leading activist in ocean safety. That he appeared on Baywatch playing himself is only a frilly detail.
“It’s not easy to be me,” he told me at one point, which was kind of the whole reason I was having tea with him. Juggling his job, big-wave surfing, a family and his ubiquity in the community creates a sea of responsibility for any guy. Between his sport and his profession, he said he sees himself as a lifeguard first, so that’s where we began.
Located in Kahului’s community center, his office is a small building buzzing with secretaries, lifeguards coming and going and the constant chatter of radios and telephones. Walking through, I felt the place pulsate with the goings-on of Maui’s entire coastline.
Kalepa spends his workdays at the desk, which he admitted can seem confining after so many years on duty at the beach. Many times during our talk he had to stop and answer his phone, pick up the radio or just talk with one of the other lifeguards shuffling about.
In the past few decades on Maui, lifeguarding has evolved from its initial laid-back “beach-boy” style to a serious profession. “Every day is different,” one lifeguard told me. “We react to whatever happens.” These guys are working in a dynamic environment where they are expected to respond quickly and effectively to any potential situation.
“I come from old-school, and broke every rule in the book back in the day,” Kalepa said. It’s been 25 years since Archie first became a lifeguard, embracing its glamorous image and killer opportunity to check out babes on the beach.
Today agencies from around the world ask him for ocean safety education. The U.S. military wants his advice on jet-ski training. Even countries like Taiwan, China and Japan have asked him to help launch rescue-ski programs.
Exploding Maui tourism meant expanding ocean safety. Kalepa lobbied for greater funding, better equipment and upgrades in career opportunities available for lifeguards. He led a movement that made Maui the first and only water-state to deploy an ocean safety team connected to the 911 emergency response system. His push for putting lifeguards on jet-skis met county resistance until Hurricane Iniki in 1992, when he managed to save a bunch of sea-stranded people while perched atop a jet-ski.
“People see the beauty in the ocean and not always the beast,” said Kalepa. “For natives the water may be second nature but there are many visitors to Maui that don’t see past the fun in the water, to its life and death potential.”
Throughout our day, Kalepa spoke passionately about the obstacles of the ocean-safety program here, its need for structural development, a better career ladder for lifeguards, broader budgeting and getting more public support. He said lifeguards average 5,000 public contacts a month and 300 rescues a year. He said the ratio reflects the county’s efforts to be more preventative than reactionary.
When I asked Kalepa to define a big wave, he said simply, “It’s a wave that scares me.”
Tow-in surfing arrived with the tide of big-wave surfing. It allows surfers to catch waves that are too far out or dangerous to merely paddle into. Tow-in surfing is one of the few, true extreme sports—it requires extreme conditions and extreme athletes. It’s also extremely expensive.
They say in tow-in surfing that you’re only as capable as your partner. Kalepa spoke admiringly of his partner of three years, Buzzy Kerbox. Both riders for Honolua Surf Company, Kalepa and Kerbox have a symbiotic relationship when on board and jet-ski, helping each other confront bigger waves and feel safe doing so, providing emotional support and pooling their wave knowledge.
“It’s a short window of time and you have to be incredibly focused,” Kalepa said. “Because it’s life and death out there.” It’s also, he said, a supreme adrenaline rush. “Big wave riding is the best damn drug out there,” he said.
Located on Maui’s north shore, Jaws (known in Hawaiian as Peahi) boasts some of the biggest waves in the world. It typically breaks during the winter’s north swells. Having ridden Jaws countless times, Kalepa’s made his mark. In 2004 he was a finalist for the biggest barrel and biggest wave at the Jaws competition. This year, at the age of 43, he was up for the biggest barrel ever ridden.
In 1999, Kalepa told Maui Time about one especially big wave he encounted at Jaws.
“I was riding this wave at Peahi, a perfect wave, so smooth, and I went up to the top, came back down, went back up and the helicopter was right in front of me,” he said. “I’m looking through this helicopter, looking at the pilot and the cameraman, looking down at them. I could feel the wind from the helicopter hitting the water and lifting my board. That was a heavy experience.”
Kalepa was born on Maui’s Westside, grew up on Oahu’s North Shore, then returned to Maui to complete high school at Lahainaluna. He’s lived here ever since.
Surrounded by water, he’s gotten creative on it. He was the first person to paddle surf—standing on the board, paddle in hand—from Molokai to Oahu in a scorching time of six hours and 40 minutes. With no team to speak of beyond an entourage of boats and no medal or finish line, Kalepa had to motivate himself. Stopping to stretch when his legs would cramp up, his resolve to finish the voyage propelled him on. When I asked what possessed him to do this, he said simply, “It had never been done before.”
After spending a couple hours at the lifeguard offices, I met Kalepa at his house in Lahaina. His living room is like a water museum, exhibiting paintings and photos of nearly every ocean sport. There are also photos of his wife Alicia, a former Miss Maui.
Mixed in there was a photograph of Kalepa riding a 60-plus-foot wave at Jaws. Another captured him on the wave that won him third place in the world tandem-surfing championships in Australia. It showed a younger, studly-looking Kalepa riding a wave with a bikini-clad woman, striking a pose with his hands stretched overhead. There was also a painting of the Hokule’a, a traditional Hawaiian canoe Kalepa and crew sailed to Tahiti.
Kalepa doesn’t limit himself to water sports, and enjoys dirt bike racing. He’s raced in the New Mexican desert and recently finished seventh in a 100-mile contest on the Big Island. He also enjoys 10 mile runs in the mountains “to stay in shape.”
When I asked what type of board he used at Jaws, he showed me his stash, one of which was a small camouflaged fish board weighted with gold ball bearings. Without the added weight, a fish this size would never sustain the muscle of a 70-foot wave. As I gazed at the snowboard-like bindings, he told me that when you’re tearing down a wave at speeds of 35 miles per hour, foot-straps are mandatory.
While we waited for his wife to get home, Kalepa popped a couple DVDs of some of his big-wave surf trips into the player the way my brother slides a videogame into his X-Box. Watching the movies, it became clear that these guys are charging the forces of nature and putting themselves at its mercy without thinking twice. It’s just what they do.
I saw guys like Kerbox and Laird Hamilton out on the boat, having a grand time, totally in their element. The guys were ripping up the screen with the occasional heart-stopping wipeout where a surfer would disappear into the exploding whitewater caused by a crashing 60-foot wave.
They took everything in stride, showing concern when someone bit it and sheer excitement and appreciation when someone caught a sweet ride. The camaraderie and love for the sport was manifest in the guys’ flair on the waves and ongoing playfulness with each other.
That afternoon we loaded some long boards into Kalepa’s big gold truck and headed north to Honolua Bay, to see just how big the waves were. Honolua is picturesque even on a flat day. But today it was truly a spectacle, with a virtual city of surfers spread across the bay, point and cave breaks. The ocean heaved forth one beautiful wave after another, peeling to the right crisply and patiently, setting many thrilled surfers up for barrels they’d never forget.
My original plan was to go surfing with him, but the waves were a bit out of my league. So I stayed on the shore and watched from the cliff.
“I usually skip the first day of the season,” said Kalepa before he headed down to the water. “Everyone’s aggressive and it creates a lot of tension in the water.”
He was right. People were getting feisty, greedy for waves and snapping at even the hint someone would drop in on them. But Kalepa, by virtue of his mere presence paddle-surfing the big waves, didn’t get caught up in the melee.
It turned out that this day was just the second time anyone had dared paddle-surf the bay. Of course, Kalepa was also the first guy who paddle-surfed it. He deftly maneuvered his long board to the outside break, his balance imperturbable over incoming waves.
“What is that guy doing?” one girl exclaimed, never having seen a paddle-surfer before. When it became clear he knew what he was doing, she said, “He looks like a ferryman, but one that can rip.”
The heightened swell brought the rippers out of the woodwork and it was a real pleasure to watch. But Kalepa seemed magnetic above it all with his ability to read the waves, pick a beauty, then catch it with seeming ease and finesse.
His grace on a wave and oneness with the water gave the suspicion that he was born to surf. His style on such a big board was not to carve up the face of the wave, but to move in rhythm with it, slicing his paddle across the front. The visual effect was that he had somehow tamed the water, an illusion only an extraordinary waterman can create. When his ride had fizzled, he’d paddle back out and repeat the process.
By now a crowd had formed around me. All eyes were on Kalepa. After riding his fill of pedigree waves, Archie paddled back to the shore and picked me up.
Driving back to Lahaina Town under the dusky sky, I was amazed at how much Kalepa felt like one of those cool, down-to-earth guys Maui seems to breed. Surfing defines him—and has chiseled him into history—but is only one layer of his identity. He is proud of his Hawaiian roots, feels blessed to have a wife who keeps him grounded and inspired and works very hard running a division of lifeguards who try to keep us safe in the ocean.
For me, the excitement of the day was off the charts. Yet for Kalepa, the sky was darkening on just another average day of work and play. As a lifelong team player and sports nut, I often mistakenly assume athletes can walk on water. After a day of shadowing, chatting and cruising with Kalepa, I was surprised at what a normal and accessible person he is. Though on a surfboard he does seem to walk on water. MTW