Into the Maelstrom Fabled surfer MEL PU'U took on the epic swells of Makaha in a one-man canoe--just to see if it could be done

May 27, 2001

To know what Mel Pu'u risks, you have to know what happens inside
a huge north Pacific storm swell as it advances upon the Makaha
reef, off Oahu's west coast. The cobalt mountainside towers up,
curls and topples, expending 10,000 tons of force in an avalanche
that clearly seems unsurvivable. Who hasn't watched white water
bury men on boards and not shivered, imagining the shock, the
blindness, the pressure? But Pu'u is here to tell you that what
really recurs in your dreams is the maelstrom's animallike
grabbing and pulling, as it gouges and twists and yanks you down,
to where your fate might not be all that bad. Because below the
roaring turbulence lies the seductive secret of all surfing.

The anatomy of a wave gives its captives a way out. Salvation may
only be a foot away. Every wave has beneath it a sharp border
where its roiling fury stops and still water begins. You can
survive virtually any surf if you can get down under all that
passing power and weight. Of course, if one flailing foot kicks
back up too far, you'll be sucked into the chaos again, yanked
another 50 yards and hurled to the surface with your breath
pounded out of you and another avalanche staring you in the face.
When seized by white water, the idea is to swim for the bottom
(if you can tell which way that is), pray to stay relaxed and
conserve your air, because if you're going to surf big surf,
you're going to have to live under a train of seas, not only this
one.

The world knows Makaha as the monster break where in 1969 Greg
(Da Bull) Noll became the first in the world to surf a 30-foot
wave. For 40 years this beach has been the site of lessons--both
oceanic and human--that bind much of the Hawaiian community on the
Waianae Coast. The legendary Buffalo Keaulana, who saved so many
people as a lifeguard and won so many longboard and canoe surfing
contests here, became a great force for good, counseling children
to avoid drugs and violence. The Keaulana family took Pu'u under
its wing, and he grew up the inseparable brother of big-wave
surfer Brian Keaulana, Buffalo's son. Pu'u, now 40, is Buffalo's
literal and moral heir, having in much the same way opened his
home to several young locals with difficult family situations.

"Buffalo kept us in the water all the time," says Pu'u, who at 11
was barely strong enough to drag his 13-foot board through the
sand. "It didn't matter what other temptations there were, we
were too tired to care."

Buffalo trained the boys to surf, dive, paddle and lifeguard, and
they learned the latter so well that they forever transformed
Hawaiian lifesaving by adapting Jet Skis to pluck struggling
victims from the impact zone and shoot them back to the beach in
seconds. Pu'u and Brian surfed the biggest waves, won the biggest
contests and never tired of the lure of the maelstrom, despite
several "close encounters," as Pu'u delicately phrases it.

"I remember Brian not coming up after one wipeout," says Pu'u.
"His board tombstoned out of the wave, and I got to it, and he
was hanging from it, his jersey gone, his shorts ripped to his
ankles. Same day, I free-fell down one wave and hit bottom, and
before I got up, the second break took me. You feel a tingling in
your limbs as your oxygen is depleted. I saw little sparkles that
day, stars under a double wave."

After every scare, every eternal wait for the other to surface or
be dragged up by his leash, the anguished brother would scream
the same thing into the other's gasping face: "Don't you ever do
that to me again!" Neither, of course, could obey. So the legend
grew. If one wanted to test oneself, or one's craft, against the
full force of the sea, one turned to Makaha, to Mel and Brian.

It happened that paddling coach and boatbuilder Karel Tresnak
Sr., having popularized one-man outrigger canoes for racing and
training (he turns out a fair number of the 1,000 made annually
in Hawaii), was casting about for an indelible image of a canoe
to use in advertisements and to solicit sponsors, and he kept
picturing one descending a huge wave. One-man racing canoes are
not shaped for surfing. They're delicate. They don't fit the
curve of a big wave, the outrigger drags, and they can't be made
to cut like a surfboard, can't move across a wave's face from
danger to safety. Ancient Hawaiians depended on the surfing
ability of their koa wood canoes, which hold six riders, and Pu'u
had been canoe surfing competitively at Makaha for 28 years. But
those races were all in strong, four-man hulls on waves that
averaged six to eight feet.

Tresnak wanted to try at least 15-footers. (Wave measurements
have long been a topic of debate among surfers, but in Hawaiian
usage, a 15-foot wave has a 30-foot face at its peak.) So in
1999, instead of a normal, 22-foot, 25-pound, $3,000 composite
eggshell of a one-man racing canoe, Tresnak made one with a
22-foot hull that weighed about 40 pounds, with double layers of
S-glass, graphite and Kevlar, separated by vacuum-bagged foam.

The moment it was ready, the surf died. Renowned waterman Todd
Bradley had planned to test it on a historic break off Waikiki
called Castles, site of many memorable canoe wipeouts over the
years, but only one big swell came from the south all last
summer, and that was when Tresnak was in Australia. Finally, Pu'u
got a call.

"Whoa," said Pu'u, "it's O.K. to trash your expensive boat?"

"I think of this," said Tresnak, "as one wave, one canoe, one
photo."

"You are on, man. But if you're going to do that, make it
worthwhile. Bring it to Makaha on a 20-foot day! An epic day!"

So they planned it: one Jet Ski for Brian and a photographer (a
second photographer was on a Boogie board), another for two
rescuers. Still, they had to wait. The great swells, generated by
storms between Japan and Alaska, may hit Oahu's north and west
reefs only four or five times a year. It was Christmas morning of
2000 when weather buoys hundreds of miles out radioed that the
swells' height and interval had grown to a staggering 20 feet and
22 seconds. "We were going to get huge surf, and the peak would
come about noon," recalls Pu'u. "Word went out."

The beach was jammed as Pu'u walked the yellow canoe down the
sand, everyone asking if he was gonna go. First, he and Keaulana
scouted the surf in a Jet Ski, choosing a point from which to
take off. Then Pu'u took the canoe and paddled out, the good
people of Makaha shouting that he was insane. "I went outside, to
a quiet place, and had a little prayer for the ocean, for me and
my family," says Pu'u. "My worst fear was a wave coming right
down on top of me and shattering the boat into a lot of sharp
pieces."

As he approached his takeoff spot, the surfers backed
respectfully away. "On a big wave, it feels like jumping off the
top of a telephone pole," says Pu'u. "No one wants to be in that
water anywhere near a one-man."

Craig Davidson, one of the rescuers, yelled that the oncoming
wave looked clean. Pu'u put his head down and paddled hard. "The
wave jacked up and up, and I felt like the boat was being sucked
up backward," he says. "Then I got speed, and tipped to the side
to lift the ama [outrigger] into the air."

The wave was 15 feet and breaking to his right. "The canoe nose
was plowing under water," says Pu'u. "I leaned back, but the
wave's shoulder pushed me to the right, the wave went left and
under me, and I was O.K. I thought, That was too easy. I'm going
to try to break this boat."

He paddled back out and moved left, "behind what we call the
second bowl," he says. The crowd shouted that this was suicide.
Davidson yelled that the second wave in the coming set was the
biggest. Pu'u yelled back, "If I make this, it'll be the
ultimate! If not, hope you got filmmmm!"

Then he caught the second wave, an 18-footer, with a 36-foot face
at its peak. "I get on it and look left, and there's a big old
lip of dropping white water," says Pu'u. "I look right, and
there's another one. I'm in a closeout section, and it's
finishing right on top of me. It's my worst-case scenario. I
gotta use all my power to get down the face as far as I can." He
drove the canoe to the base of the wave, staring up at the mass
of falling white water, and saw that he was losing.

"My only real escape was to do a little head tuck off to the side
and count on the buoyancy of the boat to get it safely away from
the nonbuoyancy of me. But I might have been a little late...."

The white water hit his feet before he was out, pounding them
against the rudder pedals. "But I twisted off to the side and the
force drove me down," he says.

Boat and man disappeared in white thunder. "They said I was under
awhile," says Pu'u. "But I didn't feel it." When he surfaced, he
saw both Jet Skis crisscrossing the area. "People kept yelling,
'Where's the boat?' I said, 'Uh, what about the guy? You can pick
me up anytime.'"

Davidson did so. "Where is the boat?" asked Pu'u.

"We don't know, man."

Then, out of the back of a comber, straight up, rose a huge
yellow javelin, as if pushed out to sea by Poseidon."It's O.K.!"
yelled Pu'u. "Let's do it again!"

It wasn't quite O.K. The canoe's seat was gone, the i'akos (the
struts that hold the outrigger) bent and the rudder broken. Pu'u
only discovered the latter when he set off on another wave of at
least 20 feet and couldn't steer.

Pu'u brought in the canoe, wild to fix the rudder and keep on.
Tresnak, marveling that the superstrong hull was sound, embraced
Pu'u, asked him to stop and said, "This boat is yours." Pu'u's
wife, Momi, sweetly asked him to remember that he was father to
four young children, that he had a big dog, Shaka, and that he
was a singer with a CD (Roxy Girl, by Blue Makaha, released last
April). A man, in other words, with a full life.

Finally, Pu'u's adrenaline ebbed. He accepted that he was done
for this day, this swell, this winter. "My whole mentality was to
trash the boat, not to make the biggest wave possible," says
Pu'u. "So that means a whole lot more is possible. We learned. We
could have stayed over the shoulder like the first one and caught
15- to 20-foot waves all day long. But the idea was to be
dramatic. Well, we did that."

Pu'u has repaired and stored the boat at his lifeguard substation
and studies it often. "You know," he says, "the canoe's shape
might even fit better on a bigger wave."

How big?

"How big ya got?"

Tresnak admits to relief that the project caused no injury. "It
proves we can challenge that ocean on a one-man," he says. "Not
that I expect there will be a run on boats for big surf. But
it's one more step. As long as Mel has that boat, he's gonna try
for a 25-footer. So I'd stay tuned."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK Why not? Outrigger canoes are made for racing, not big-wave riding, but Pu'u saw a thrilling possibility. COLOR PHOTO: BERNIE BAKER The Big One On the day the huge waves arrived, Pu'u caught an 18-footer in Tresnak's unique boat--and lived to tell about it. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Watchful eye At his lifeguard station at Makaha Beach, Pu'u keeps Tresnak's canoe close by and waits for an even bigger wave. COLOR PHOTO: JOSS DESCOTEAUX Safety first Pu'u helped change lifesaving in Hawaii through the use of Jet Skis, but even as a father of four, he still loves a wild ride.

"It's O.K. to trash your expensive boat?" Pu'u asked. "I think of
this," replied Tresnak, "as one wave, one canoe, one photo."

Pu'u scouted the surf, then took the canoe and paddled out, the
good people of Makaha shouting that he was insane.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)