Hawaii's daredevil surfers grab their boards to ride hurricane's epic waves

As Hurricane Lane pummelled the Hawaiian islands this week, surfers headed out into the swell, despite official warnings

As Hurricane Lane approached the Hawaiian islands this week, residents made different preparations. Some boarded up windows. Others rushed to stock up on water and food. Others decided that the best thing to do was grab their surfboards and head out into the waves.

Mike Nees, 54, was one of them.

“I’m an ocean person,” he said, as he packed his surfboard in his car on the roadside near Ho’okipa beach on Saturday morning. “It’s where I find my sanity. If I don’t get in the water I go crazy.”

Although more rain was on the way, torrential downpours had given way to light showers. The sun peeked from behind the clouds.

Nees looked out on one of North Maui’s most popular surf spots. About nine or 10 surfers bobbed on their boards near the break. Nees has lived on Maui for 14 years, and surfs almost daily. Before that, he lived on Oahu, where he “pretty much surfed all the storms”.

So despite news of a possible category 4 hurricane headed his way, and his wife’s concern, Nees went surfing on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. On Wednesday, he said, the waves were good: about 6ft from the base, or 4ft by Hawaiian measurements, which gauge the wave from the back. On Thursday, he encountered stormy seas that made him think twice about going out.

“The wind was blowing pretty hard from offshore,” he said. “And when it’s like that, it’s really hard to get into the waves at all.” And, he said, in a storm like that waves often become choppy and hard to catch. They just keep coming, without the usual intervals between sets.

“It can get big but unpredictable,” he said. “There’s always a lot of negotiation with my wife before I go out.”

And yet for Nees, and many other surfers in Hawaii, the best part of storm surfing has nothing to do with the waves.

“The biggest draw is that that there are not a lot of people are out during a storm,” he said. “You have the waves to yourself more.”

Tom Niland, 67, said: ‘When it’s like this, sharks make mistakes.’
Tom Niland, 67, said: ‘When it’s like this, sharks make mistakes.’ Photograph: Breena Kerr

Nearby, Tom Niland, 67, of New Jersey, stood with his board on a cliff. He has been surfing for “a long time”, lived through Hurricane Katrina, and said he routinely braves the Jersey Shore’s mediocre surf for love of the sport. But as he surveyed the waves on Saturday, he seemed skeptical.

“I don’t like this murky water,” Niland said, pointing to the grey waves and beyond, half a mile offshore, where the mud and dirt of rain runoff finally met the crystalline seawater. It’s something that happens whenever big rains wash dirt and other runoff down the rivers and streams that lead to the ocean.

“When it’s like this, sharks make mistakes,” he said. Indeed. Although sharks don’t usually like human snacks, they did make six “mistakes” in Hawaii last year. Murky water was often a factor.

Niland loves surfing. He spent the prior evening watching the film Endless Summer. But despite seeing multiple other surfers get in the water, he decided to tote his longboard back to the car. “I’ve got two weeks here,” he said. “I’ll be back.”

Jonah Dayan also surfed during the hurricane, on the north and south of the island. Like everyone else, he did so despite warnings from state officials and the fact that all the beaches were officially closed, unmanned by lifeguards. According to some of those lifeguards, they rarely get called out to rescue local surfers. The warnings are more of a precaution for visitors unfamiliar with local surf breaks.

When he went out on Thursday, Niland said he saw some beginners taking on big waves. The sight was somewhat concerning.

“There were a bunch of tourists out there and I was sort of fearful for them,” he said, “but no one broke their necks and they had so much fun – so it was fine in the end.”

That’s the way Niland feels about going out himself – it might sound scary, but for people like him who surf almost daily, it’s manageable. Storm surfing isn’t so dangerous for experienced surfers. But in the end, storm surfing is fun because it’s technically against the rules – a nod to the barefoot, wild, rebellious nature of the sport itself.

“It’s that attitude of, ‘They tell us not to surf there, but we’re going anyway,’” Niland said. And this week, they did.


Breena Kerr in Maui

The GuardianTramp

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