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More crowded but more local: Community spirit warms the surf breaks in Waikiki

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  • Video by Dennis Oda /

    Locals have reclaimed Waikiki surf as the COVID-19 pandemic has mostly eliminated tourism.

                                There was much activity Wednesday at Canoes surf spot, above, with the first big swell of the summer.


    There was much activity Wednesday at Canoes surf spot, above, with the first big swell of the summer.

Summer arrived early, with an epic swell on Wednesday that pounded Oahu’s South Shore from inside breaks to the outer reefs, where deep blue waves with 6- to 10-foot faces folded, feathered and peeled so far that sometimes a wave that began at one break connected through to the next spot down the line.

“I got really long rides,” said John Clark, the author, surf historian and retired Honolulu firefighter, who was drying out in the sun along the waterfront walkway near Public Baths in Waikiki after surfing the Publics break on his thin, skegless, wooden paipo board.

“On my last wave, I finally got a good, long ride all the way past the Wall,” said his friend John Cavaco, a longboarder, referring to Kapahulu Groin, which lies about a half-mile Ewa of Publics. The remark prompted Clark to recall Duke Kaha­namoku’s 1917 traverse of Mamala Bay on a single, 20-foot wave he caught at Castles, off Kaimana Beach, and rode on his 16-foot-long redwood board for more than a mile.

>> PHOTOS: Hawaii surfers reclaim Waikiki waves with most tourists gone

More than 100 years later, the clean mid-morning sands of Waikiki evoked those pre-mass-tourism days, stretching nearly empty of people from Kuhio Beach to the end of the bay.

Hawaii’s most famous beach has been virtually depopulated since March 26, when the state’s two-week coronavirus quarantine depressed visitor arrivals from 30,000 daily to between 100 and 500, albeit steadily creeping upward in recent weeks.

Asked if there were also fewer people than usual in the water, surfers paddling in from Queens with shining, happy faces said no, the waves had actually been more crowded than usual during the past two months — adding that, although surfers hate crowds as a rule, they were enjoying the water more because, for the first time most could remember, it was almost all locals in the lineup.

“It’s really mellow, the vibe’s really different,” said Kalihi resident James Harris as he rinsed off with his longboard in the Kuhio Beach showers.

“More locals are out because they’ve lost their jobs or are working from home and have more flexibility,” he said, adding that while his own work had slowed down, he felt healthier and less worried about the coronavirus because he was surfing every day.

“It’s definitely more crowded, but I like it because it’s all local people out there, without tourists getting in the way and cutting you off because they don’t know what they’re doing,” said Kona Kaumatule, 25, an ironworker and Kapahulu resident who surfs his “shortish” board at Canoes and Queens.

“There’s more aloha,” he said, adding, “A lot of people lost jobs, which is unfortunate.” Kaumatule noted he had been laid off two weeks before.

“If it was all tourists we would never come — too crowded, no parking,” said Jerard Jardin, a Kailua surfer who had brought his young son and their dog for a swim. “It’s awesome to come to Waikiki and be able to enjoy it, like all the locals should.”

And there was less traffic getting here, Kaumatule said.

Before the beaches reopened, the waves weren’t crowded, said Alexis Damo, who’d been bodyboarding at Walls. “Today it’s very crowded, with a lot of local kids.”

“But the ocean’s healthier, the water’s clearer,” said Ric Damo, her father. “The fish look a lot happier; there’s some good and some bad.”

“We used to see a lot of plastic bags,” his daughter added. “There’s not as much pollution now.”

In the water nearby, Gilbert Gerardo of Waikiki and his friend Curtis, a Nuuanu resident who wouldn’t give his last name, stood hip-deep in the ocean fishing for sardines and halalu, baby big-eye scad, which were schooling in a long, dark cloud that filled a third of Kuhio Beach lagoon.

At the end of March, “Waikiki became quiet and the water came much better without all that sunblock,” Curtis said.

“It’s getting back to the original, how it used to be, without rubbishes all over. Now everything’s clean,” his friend said.

It was the same around the island, surfers said: At Diamond Head Cliffs, where he used to see lots of tourists, they now comprised “maybe 1%” of the crowd, according to Harris; Lindsey said the crowds were all local at Kaisers and Ala Moana Bowls; and North Shore surf spots in April were packed with local residents, with “a lot of kids and a good feeling,” said a longboarder who’d relocated from New York to Oahu 25 years ago and wouldn’t give his name.

“There are no tourists at all, they’re all local,” said Clark of Publics and other “secondary” spots he frequented.

And moods had improved: “I don’t hear people calling other people off waves, and everybody’s more forgiving if you make mistakes.”

Lindsey described the oceangoing community as coming together “with more consideration for each other’s safety, giving each other space.”

“As waves get bigger, it gets more mellow because it’s only experienced surfers and everybody’s more spread out,” Cavaco said. “It’s social distancing at its finest, Hawaiian style.”

The festive mood along the sun-baked shore, cooled by wave froth and brisk winds, evoked pre-western days when, it was said, kahuna at Papaenaena Heiau on the slopes of Leahi would raise signal flags when the surf was up at Waikiki and everyone would go surfing.

Now, as then, seemed to be a time islanders could believe the islands belonged to them.

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