With its variety of magical waves, from Honolua Bay to Jaws, and its legacy of surfing pioneers, from Woody Brown to Laird Hamilton, Maui has proven to be one of the most important places in the evolution of surfing.
But across the channel on Oahu, nestled along the wild west side, one particular surfing locale has been called the soul of Hawaiian surfing—Makaha. From Buffalo Keaulana to Rell Sunn, the waves crashing along the shores of Makaha have given birth to some of surfing’s most revolutionary characters. And nobody understands this better than surf aficionado Stuart Coleman, Hawaii’s regional coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation and author of the seminal Eddie Aikau biography, Eddie Would Go. Coleman’s new book, out now, is titled, Fierce Heart: The Story of Makaha and the Soul of Hawaiian Surfing.
We recently sat down with Coleman to discuss the details of this enjoyable, informative summer read, which depicts the lives and culture of a people deeply anchored in the power of the sea.
How did you choose the title, Fierce Heart?
Makaha literally means “fierce,” and so many people from there have such heart, and are full of such aloha. At first, I was really intimidated by the mystique and localism of the place. Makaha is on the outskirts of the island, where the locals were pushed aside following statehood, and they’ve been fierce about protecting the place. But when I met with professional surfer and lifeguard, Brian Keaulana, I learned more about the meaning of aloha in our four hours together than I did in my previous six years of living in Hawaii. And then once I got to know more about this small place and all these larger-than-life characters who came from there—Buffalo Keaulana, Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, Rell Sunn—I found that the common trait in each of them was the ferocity of their good hearts.
With all the surfing history of Waikiki and a billion dollar industry centered each winter on the North Shore, isn’t it a pretty bold statement to call Makaha “the soul of Hawaiian surfing”?
Maybe, but as far as modern surfing goes, Makaha is really where it all started. Guys like Woody Brown and John Kelly were riding waves in Makaha as early as the 1930s. Also, Makaha was home to the Makaha International Surf Contest, the biggest surfing contest in the world before the Duke Kahanamoku Classic. So really, the entire competitive surfing circuit and its industry can trace its roots back to this magical wave. And the wave itself is such a miraculous break. Makaha is one of the few waves that can handle faces anywhere from 2 to 25 feet. The wave and the people who call it home are so dichotomous, at once both gentle and deadly, protective and loving.
You write a lot about the Keaulana family. Why have the Keaulanas had such an impact on the surfing world?
Buffalo and Bryan Keaulana really epitomize what it means to be a waterman. Buffalo has such deep roots in modern Hawaiian surfing, but also as a lifeguard, sailor and a fisherman. They used to say that when Buffalo went out with his spear, people would immediately start building a fire because it was inevitable that he’d be back with a ton of fish. Brian Keaulana is one of the greatest big wave surfers of all time, but also helped revolutionize lifesaving. He was the first one to introduce the jet ski to water rescue, and with the help of guys like Maui’s Archie Kaleppa, the jet ski changed the field forever. He also invented the sled towed behind the jet ski, so that guys like Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama could extract one another from the bowels of Jaws. In fact, Hamilton and Kalama used to invite Keaulana when they first began surfing Jaws, saying they felt safer when Brian was with them.
Why should every surfer in Hawaii read this book?
This book is definitely not just for surfers. It has much more to do with Hawaiian history, and the lives of amazing people who just so happen to be surfers. Fierce Heart is the story of a people who take a lot of pride in their country, but have also been pushed aside by those foreigners and struggled to keep their identity alive. And now that we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of statehood, with a president sympathetic to the plight of the Hawaiian people, the ambiguities of that relationship—one of pride in their country versus the preservation of their culture—is more important than ever. You don’t have to be a surfer to take something away from this book. MTW
Stuart Coleman will be on Maui this weekend for two book signings: Saturday, May 23, 4pm at Borders Books in Kahului; and Sunday, May 24, 2pm at Barnes & Noble in Lahaina.