There was a house once, a very simple cottage, the very first home along the sand at Sunset Beach. I didn’t own it, but it was mine for many years, probably more years than I should have been THAT lucky to have lived in it. And living next door to me was a Hawaiian fisherman by the name of John Bull who had tons of local and haole friends and when there was no more room to park in his yard he and I had an agreement that everyone else could park in my yard and that was cool.
One of John’s friends was Tiger Espere, and that’s how I got to know Tiger, parking over at my house and surfing Sunset in the winter or the point on the small days or Val’s reef (in front of my house) on the smallest swells. Barry Kanaiaupuni and Brian Suratt surfed Val’s on those mini-days – all the kids in the Sunset Beach neighborhood surfed Val’s. And so would Tiger. And we’d laugh later on about how amped all the “kids” were on a good day at Val’s – you’d think they were competing for the Duke trophy!
I didn’t grow up with Tiger, so I didn’t get to watch him surf town in the summer. But there’s great stories about him rushing the big left at the ewa end of Magic island, past where Garbage Hole lined up. I only saw him surf with his crew of friends at Sunset and Waimea Bay in the winter and in front of my house at Val’s on those iki days. There was Tiger, Squiddy, Boom-Boom, George Ramos, Jimmy Cullen, the Fosters, Leroy Pao, Russel and another dozen just as good as them.
Like I said, the “neighborhood,” quite a tribe. And watching Tiger surf Val’s Reef with everyone else was more a lesson in classic island surfing than it was just watching a great waterman tear it up in the shore break surf at Sunset. He had that classic “t-stance”, with a smooth, almost floaty-like trim style, on a racy, single-finned diamond tail. And that WAS cool.
The fun thing about surfing with his totally relaxed vibe in the water was just that, his demeanor. Tiger was aggressive on the face of a wave and more so, but his persona was one of being humble, sharing – sort of cruisey. Out of the water there was this Hawaiian guy who seemed on one side of the coin, happy-go-lucky, but on the other side a deep thinking kind of soul who you could tell was always aware of all that was around him and the problems he was going to sort out. And he had that smile that showed it.
Besides his early years as a North Shore lifeguard he spent later decades as a Big Island “paniolo” (cowboy), working on the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule`a and as a writer of Hawaiian culture. Then there were the most recent years, living with his wife Karen, in Japan, where they researched the connection between the earliest Japanese settlers and Hawaiian peoples of the same period. The man’s attention to life and giving was inspiring, phenomenal is a more truthful description.
A sunrise service was held at Waimea Bay, days after his passing away. There were so many surfers, family and friends in attendance there that the beach-side was shared by no less than three circles of people holding hands, sharing in the prayers and chants. Summer’s pre-dawn clouds had spilled over the Pupukea hills, burying the rising sun. But, when all of us paddled out to the middle of the Bay to honor and revere the man, we floated next to the voyaging canoe Hokule`a, bathed in a sun light that had cracked through the clouds and focused right onto the hull of the canoe and everyone aside it. He was there, on that sun beam, with us. Days later, Tiger’s ashes were returned back to the Big Island waters near Kawaihae’s surfing beach, north of Kailua-Kona and where Tiger had developed a surfing park.
You know, there are so many beautiful stories of remembrance about the man and his personal missions in life, as there should be.
I know only a few, in the recent days passed I’ve heard more and I can only wish that one day someone will gather up those images and share them with the world at large. This world today could learn much from the man we simply called “Tiger.” – Bernie Baker