No Man’s Land

Pipeline charger Takayuki Wakita was in Japan when one of the most devastating earthquakes in modern history struck the country. Months later, as the nation rebuilds itself, he takes us home with him.

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Takayuki was 18 the first time he surfed Pipe. He's since had this section of the reef named after him. Deep in the barrel at Wakita's.

By Tetsuhiko Endo

Photos by Kinmoto

On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m. one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded sent a god-awful explosion of colors radiating across NOAA’s Pacific wave-modeling chart. Inside thick bands of red, pink, and purple there were two colors that most surfers had never seen: gray and black. They corresponded to wave heights of more than 240 feet and they sat like a pall against the coast of Japan.

Professional surfer Takayuki Wakita was in his home in Tomari, Japan when the quake struck. It was the longest and strongest he had ever felt. His thoughts immediately turned to his two children, Taichi, 12, and Sara, 9, who were sitting at school nearby. He and his wife, Sayuri, rushed outside and looked toward the sea. Wakita has built his career on heavy moments in the heaviest waves on the North Shore. As he scanned the horizon, he felt a familiar fear and with it, a certain comfort: as long as he was afraid, action would come naturally.

In September, six months after the catastrophic earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown devastated Japan, Wakita picked me up outside of Tokyo. We were headed toward a surf competition in Ibaraki, a town located some 60 miles south of Fukushima, where stricken power plants were still leaking Iodine-131 into the Pacific. He spent the next two hours, nearly uninterrupted, talking about radiation. At almost 40 years old, he was devoid of the menacing stoicism that one expects from those who carry the title of “hellman” on the North Shore, and instead buzzed with nervous energy. He may have been the slightest of any of the invitees to this year’s Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau, but you get the feeling that for Wakita, size and strength are not mutually exclusive.

Every so often, we passed through small towns and he pointed out the government-issued blue tarps that still covered damaged homes. As we headed north, closer to the quake’s epicenter, closer to the site of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, Wakita told me how one goes from surfing Japanese beachbreaks, to having a section of Pipeline’s reef named after him. “Wakita’s” sits in the no-man’s land between Off The Wall and Backdoor. Where most go right, Wakita goes left.

“The waves that you catch from there tend to be thicker and moving a lot faster,” says North Shore jack-of-all-trades, Mark Healey. “It can be very ‘high risk, low reward’ there. On the other hand it’s less crowded, and when you get a good one from there, it’s as big and as heavy as Pipeline.”

Wakita began surfing in Shonan, the cradle of Japanese surfing, when he was 14. Four years later he bought himself a ticket to the North Shore with money made from working nights on an assembly line.

“It was my first time out of Japan, and I didn’t even speak English,” he said. His English, learned mostly in Hawaii, has a pidgin lilt and is peppered with the occasional “Ho!” and “Ya?” With a child’s bike as his vehicle and not much guidance, he didn’t take the islands by storm, but he did get his first session at Pipeline, sort of.

“It was small, not even Pipe,” Wakita said. “But I paddled out like, ‘Ho! This is Pipeline!’ The swell was coming up and by the time I started to come in, it was like 4- to 6-feet. I was so scared, but I tried to catch a wave that was maybe 3 feet. I poked the nose, wiped out, hit the reef, and came in. Then I realized, ‘Oh, this is Pipeline.'”

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Amidst the adversity, ever-poised at Pipe.

Two years later, Wakita returned to the North Shore, and has since gained confidence, respect, and a spot among the North Shore pecking order. “All the guys that I know who grew up on the North Shore speak highly of Wakita,” says Wade Tokoro, Hawaiian shaper to the stars, who now shapes Wakita’s boards. “It’s pretty rare to get that type of respect from the ‘heavies.'”

Wakita’s secret, if you can call it one, was taking waves that no one else wanted. “After Liam [McNamara] introduced me to some of the gnarly local guys, they would occasionally tell me, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ and no matter what, I would always go on those waves.” His body is now so covered with reef scrapes you would think he trains grizzly bears for a living. After his 10th set of stitches, he stopped counting. He’s cracked ribs on three separate wipeouts at Pipe, simply from the force of hitting the water.

“Wakita has taken more heavy wipeouts than any surfer in the history of Pipeline, and I’ll stand by that,” says McNamara, a man who once broke his femur in two places at the same spot. “The Japanese are known as mellow, non-confrontational people, and Wakita has been blatantly burned by a lot of people over the years. But he just deals with it, puts his head down, and paddles back out. In all the years I have known him, I’ve never seen or heard about him getting into a fight or an argument out there.”

Ibaraki looked like a ghost town. Wakita and I checked into a traditional Japanese inn, laid out our futons, and tried to sleep.

“You feel that?” Wakita’s voice came through the dark. There was a slight tremor in the ground that I had taken for a passing train. “That’s an aftershock.” Japan has experienced regular aftershocks, some marking as high as 6 or 7 on the Richter scale, since the March quake. Each time the earth trembles, the entire country holds its breath. Wakita and I lay there staring into the darkness until it passed. “So many aftershocks…” came his voice. “Scary, ya?”

The following morning, we headed down to the contest, where a competitor’s meeting had just gotten underway. Wakita raised his hand and told the competition directors that he was uncomfortable surfing in a town that had closed its fishing port due to elevated levels of radiation. The directors insisted there was nothing to worry about; the government said it was safe. The other competitors looked at their feet.

“All the surf industry is really going down because of the radiation,” Wakita said later over lunch at an empty restaurant. We looked at the seafood-based menu for a long time, trying to decide which fish were not sourced locally, and therefore would be less likely to have high levels of Iodine-131. “Some people are still coming to surf, but many people aren’t coming to the ocean any more. Some people quit surfing. Others moved. It’s really different now.”

A few weeks after the competition, Wakita and I went for a surf in Tomari. The beach looked post-apocalyptic, covered with debris like broken timbers, shingles, and chain-link fences. Further north, they say, there are still bodies in the water.

Although Wakita has a house in Tomari, he stays with his parents. He showed me the school where he and his wife had retrieved the kids before the tidal waves hit, and where they had spent the night in the hills, huddled with many of their neighbors, in the clubhouse of a golf course.

He admitted that he eventually hoped to leave Japan for good, to take his family away from earthquakes and tidal waves and radioactive water. Unfortunately for Wakita, when deciding long-term visa eligibility, the American immigration bureaucracy awards no points for surviving Third Reef sneaker sets, getting dropped in on and paddling back out with a smile, or looking over the edge of some of the heaviest waves in the world and willing yourself to stand up. These are not qualities deemed valuable in prospective citizens, but they are the qualities that Wakita has dedicated himself to.

“It’s hard because you don’t know. You can go surf every day and you won’t get sick for 30 years,” he says. “And then when you do, you can’t prove it was radiation. I don’t think about me because I’m old, but my kids want to surf every day and I don’t want them exposed to that.”

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