[This piece originally appeared in SURFER magazine Volume 60, Issue 1. Click here to subscribe.]
Shock and awe are feelings I've experienced in Hawaii many times before—usually due to the power of the waves, their proximity to the reef and how swells there are prone to doubling in size if you take your eyes off the horizon for even half a second. But this was a different kind of surprise. This was simply more nudity than I was expecting to see in a public place on a Wednesday morning.
It was an otherwise serene setting in the lineup of an obscure Big Island reef. The rain had just stopped and the sun was coming through the clouds in golden columns of heavenly light. The wind had been offshore all morning and a head-high swell offered tapering rights that folded idyllically into thin-lipped barrels. There was also a rainbow, of course.
"This guy…" Hawaiian surfer Cliff Kapono said, signaling a disturbance in the dreamy session.
On the beach, a middle-aged, Caucasian male with long, dreadlocked hair and a thick beard attached his leash to his ankle and stood proudly in the sun. He arched his back and stretched his arms wide, attempting to create the broadest surface for the morning rays to land. He smiled, eyes closed, his entire body frozen in bliss. He wasn't wearing any shorts.
At first I was very confused, but then I remembered something Kapono had said days before, when we encountered a strange, shirtless guitar player in downtown Hilo. "Spiritual refugees," he called them: people who didn't feel at home where they were, so they came to Hawaii hoping to connect with the energy of the islands—or, at the very least, get rid of their tan lines.
"I try to look at it in a positive light," Kapono said with a laugh. "What does it say about Hawaii when people will leave it all behind and travel across the world to live here? It says that this is a special place."
That sentiment is surely doubly true if you like riding waves. Surfers from all over the world make pilgrimages to Hawaii, feeling the gravitational pull of surfing's motherland and the iconic waves that have shaped surfing history. Some of those pilgrims feel such exhilaration, such a strong connection to the place that they simply never book their return flight. In a way, Hawaii is every surfer's spiritual home, by virtue of the fact that Hawaii is where surfing came from, and so you can't feel a connection to one and not the other.
In this issue, we wanted to focus on the connections that we feel to certain coasts—the places we call home, either because we were born there, or because we chose them. You'll find my profile on Cliff Kapono, a Hawaiian surfer and scientist who left the islands to pursue a PhD in chemistry, and has since returned and dedicated himself to environmental research for the betterment of Hawaii. Senior writer Justin Housman went looking for the oral history of the Gerry Lopez house on the North Shore, which has served as a home base and incubator for some of the most legendary Pipe surfers of all time. Managing editor Ashtyn Douglas spoke with surfers who left their home coasts to find the waves that they ended up connecting with most, with some of them uprooting their lives in the process.
I didn't give much thought to the strange nudist's life before he arrived in the islands, as I was too busy stroking into a ledgy set wave. I stalled off the drop and the wave opened into a yawning tube, which stayed open for a short time before slamming shut and sending me underwater. Seconds later, I popped up and tried to catch my breath.
"That one sure looked fun!" a voice shouted right behind me.
"Jesus Christ!" I blurted, shocked the nude man had seemingly teleported from the shore to within a few feet of me. "I mean, umm, thanks?"
The man smiled and nodded, before paddling down the beach on his yellowed, elf-shoe thruster.
Over the next 30 or so minutes, I periodically saw flashes of flesh as he was pitched by the lip, dug his nose upon take offs and ditched his board before taking multiple set waves on the head. He may have felt a spiritual connection to the place, but I'm not sure that the feeling was mutual.