The Last Beachboy

Rabbit Kekai, on his education from the Duke, on toughening up today's pros, and more

Photo: Maki, 1949
Rabbit Kekai was just 8 years old when The Duke became an mentor to the future high-performance stylist. Photo: Maki, 1949

(This interview was originally posted on July 22nd, 2010)

Hawaii’s Rabbit Kekai, 83, is proof positive that surfers are staying on it longer than ever. Today, when he’s not surfing his beloved Queens, this veteran Waikiki beachboy spends much of his time with his charitable Rabbit Kekai Foundation, which promotes kids surfing and education through a series of contests. But he also still makes his living off riding the waves, so in that sense, he’s the oldest pro surfer around. We decided to throw him on the grill to talk about his early days with Duke, pro surfers today, and his chances for a world title.

So did Duke subscribe to the grommet abuse theory?

He didn’t tie us to palm trees or anything, but he told me to scram all the time. Little guys weren’t allowed out with the big boys.

Did this have anything to do with the fact that you and your little friends were a bunch of hoodlums?

It may have. Y’know, we had interesting ways of obtaining our boards then. Those guys were riding these big long logs, about 16 or 17 feet long, and when the board came inside shore, we were on it, and we’d paddle away and take off down the beach. From that one big board, we’d cut ‘em down and make two small boards (Laughs). We shaped them ourselves and put the varnish on and everything.

Were they ever suspicious?

They wouldn’t know who it was, because we’d get the boards and hide ‘em in the sand, bury them. Then, every time we paddled out, we were riding a new board, but they knew it wasn’t theirs because the boards were so small. We didn’t do it with Duke’s board. You didn’t dare mess around with the old man.

When did Duke take you under his wing?

Well, when I was about eight years old, that’s when Duke started to take me under his wing. I had my own two-man canoe, and he liked the way I surfed it, and how I stayed away from the big boys. He taught me about steering, and how to compete.

Were you a ladies man back in those days?

So-so (Laughs).

So it’s safe to say you milked the Beachboy lifestyle?

Oh yeah. We had a tandem paddle race one time, and Duke’s brother Sam had been training with Doris Duke [heiress to the Duke Energy fortune], but at the last moment, he dumped her for Barbara Hutton [heiress to the 50-million-dollar Woolworth fortune]. Doris was real pissed, because she’d been training really hard. So Duke asked me to race with her, and man, we kicked everyone’s butt. So next thing you know, I had the run of her place in Diamond Head, and I got to drive around in her speedboat. Me and the fellas would go fishin’ all the time. Living large. She gave me two boards, too. That was a good time.

Who else have you taught how to surf?

Ah, jeez, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas and his kid, too; David Nevin, Peter Jennings…I can’t even name them all.

Were you in the water when Pearl Harbor was bombed?

Yeah, we were surfing. We could see the smoke and this guy paddled out and told us about the attack. Then one of those Japanese bombers got lost, and he dropped a bomb on everyone’s favorite liquor store in Waikiki. Luckily, it was a Sunday and the store was closed.

You served in the war, too?

Yeah, I did UDT, or underwater demolition. They give you a mask, some fins and stick a propeller up your ass and say go. We had some good guys in my group, but only four of us came back out of 12.

Surfers today must seem like a bunch lightweight pansies from where you’re sitting.

You better believe it. It’s funny, when Andy [Irons] and Bruce were little kids, their dad asked me to coach them. I asked him, “Do I have permission to kick their ass?” and he told me yeah. So I said to them kids, “Hey, you heard him.”

You think you got it in you to make a late run for the title?

Nah, maybe not anymore, I might be getting a little too old now.