Our surf correspondent Dave Sweedler had a chance to talk with Hawaiian waterman Dave Kalama over breakfast at Charley’s this week. Kalama shared his vision and insight into big wave riding, international travels, and his Maui lifestyle.
Dave Sweedler: Can you give us a little history about your family’s roots in Maui?
Dave Kalama: My great grandfather Samuel Kalama was from Hana, His father was the first generation which makes me a fifth generation Kalama.
Sweedler: Where did you grow up?
Kalama: Unfortunately I didn’t grow up here on Maui. I was born in Newport Beach, California. I didn’t move here until I was twenty. It was the summer in 1985 and I moved here to windsurf.
Sweedler: How old are you?
Kalama: Thirty-two or thirty-three, I kinda lost track a few years ago.
Sweedler: How old were you when you first started surfing?
Kalama: I was two when my father used to put me on a board and push me into waves. I didn’t really start getting into it until I was eight or nine.
Sweedler: Who are your influences?
Kalama: I really looked up to my cousin when I was a kid. But my big- gest influence was my father, Ilima. In 1962 he was the US surfing champion. He was and still is my hero. Also Laird Hamilton.
Sweedler: How do you prepare yourself to ride waves at Jaws?
Kalama: It’s a little bit of everything. First, you have to be physically prepared. I don’t really have a training schedule, I just try to stay as active as I can in as many sports as possible.
Sweedler: What keeps you in shape during summer when the waves are small and what other sports are you into?
Kalama: Windsurfing,volleyball, mountain boarding, tow in surfing and canoe surfing. Anything that keeps your body balanced and sharp.
Sweedler: How active are you in the wind surfing circuit?
Kalama: I compete overseas in special events. My specialty is wave sailing. I mostly windsurf Maui and test sails for North Sails.
Sweedler: Do you have any advice for people who are into competition?
Kalama: Take it seriously, but not too seriously. Don’t base your worth or value on results. People see how you surf. Just let your surfing do the talking.
Sweedler: Where have your travels taken you? any favorite places?
Kalama: Australia, Costa Rica, France, Germany and Holland. I recently got back from Norway. Fiji is my favorite. It has epic windsurfing and surfing. There’s this island we stay at–no phones, cars, no TV and no distractions. The people are great. I love it down there.
Sweedler: Do you have any advice for someone interested in tow-in surfing?
Kalama: People don’t really see everything that goes into the preparation, they just see the end results. You need to know how to drive the wave runner and also have to know rescue techniques. There is a lot of team work that goes into the whole thing. You have to know each other inside and out.You also have to know how someone will react in any given situation and know that you can rely on them in case of a bad situation.
Sweedler: What is the worst situation you’ve seen out at Jaws?
Kalama: I’d have to say when my friend Maria got crunched by a big wave and almost drown. She got herself in a very serious situation. She’s lucky to be alive. Its very sobering how fast a fun time can go bad.
Sweedler: Have you ever seen someone paddle out to Jaws without a wave runner?
Kalama: Yeah, I’ve seen Laird and a few other guys.
Sweedler: Have you had any close calls at Jaws?
Kalama: Yeah, I was on a 16-to-18 footer, the wave closed out, I had to straighten out and I was thinking, “OK, let’s see how bad this is going to be.” The first wave crashed on top of me. I came up to the surface and thought, “that wasn’t too bad I can handle this.” Then after the third wave pounded me I started getting tired. I was handling, but I was losing my energy quick. I was diving under eight feet of whitewash, and almost got washed into the rocks. Just when I was almost out of breath, Laird pulled up and got me.
Sweedler: What are you feeling when you let go of the rope?
Kalama: Really excited! Before I let go of the rope, I’ve looked both ways and assessed the situation. By the time of the release, I‘m amped and frothing to go.
Sweedler: Is there one wave you’ve ridden that surpasses the rest?
Kalama: Yeah, two winters ago I pulled into an 18-foot tube. I took off on an outside peek, and there was a west bowl starting to stack. I lined up just like you would on a six-foot wave, I saw the whole thing setting up and I pulled in.
Sweedler: What does it look like standing in an eighteen foot barrel?
Kalama: I was just thinking… “yeah, this is it.”
Sweedler: What did it sound like in there?
Kalama: Deafening and silent at the same time. You’re not really listening, but you can feel the rumble around you, it’s loud. One thing that sticks in my mind while I was in there is that I saw this big puka and I’m saying to myself, “I’m coming out of this thing.” I come flying out thinking, “I can’t believe I made this.” It was a very humbling experience.
Sweedler: Do you think that pulling into big tubes is where the future of tow-in surfing is going?
Kalama: Yeah definitely, but carving and riding is what takes technique, judgment and timing are everything. There’s so much face on the wave and you’re moving so fast that you have to judge what is happening to stay far ahead of yourself. The wave starts out real soft and you’re thinking this isn’t so bad. Then you do a bottom turn and come to the top and then drop in 50 feet. It’s such a rush!
Sweedler: How big are the boards you ride?
Kalama: Between seven and seven and half feet. Sixteen inches wide.
Sweedler: Who makes your boards?
Sweedler: Tell me about your movie Wake Up Call.
Kalama: It’s a story about several of us who use straps and surf. We’re not the first ones to do it. We’ve just figured out to apply this technique to big waves and aerial surfing. Check this movie out, it shows what’s going on with strap-in surfing today.
Sweedler: Do you have a new video out?
Kalama: Yeah, it’s called Rail to Rail. It highlights me and all of the sports I do along with all the local guys using straps and also my father. It’s a video about my philosophy on surfing, which is Do Everything.
Sweedler: Who are your sponsors?
Sweedler: Are you married. Any children?
Kalama: My beautiful wife, Oriana, and I have a daughter named Sunny and another child on the way.
Sweedler: What can surfers do to help the environment?
Kalama: Well they can do a lot. Just pick up trash on the beach. Something as simple as making sure your beer can makes it in the garbage can instead of next to it. There are beach clean up days that you can participate in and you can also join the Surfrider Foundation which helps the cause.
Sweedler: What is your mission in life?
Kalama: To represent the sport of surfing and myself in a positive way. To take care of my wife and daughter.
Sweedler: What is “Maui Time” to you?
Kalama: Letting go of necessity to completely feel in control all of the time. Go with the flow.
Sweedler: Do you have any last words?
Kalama: I don’t have anything to prove, I just enjoy surfing for what it is.
Check out Dave Kalama’s new video Rail to Rail. You can get a copy at Hi-Tech Sailboards or any other fine surf shops near you.
This story originally ran in MauiTime’s July 8, 1997 issue.
Photo: Erik Aeder Photography