AIRDROP: Life Imitates Art
A Reflection on the Limits of the Possible
I drew this picture in my notebook at Hawaii Loa College a little over 30 years ago and gave it to my shaper. I was 21 years old: a sophomore studying philosophy, anthropology, and surfing Sunset Beach. Owl hung it up in his (what was also Brewer’s) shaping room, at the time, in a horse paddock behind the Shipman’s house, which sits directly across the street from Sunset Beach on the corner of Paumalu Road and the Kam Highway. Until he (Owl, that is) got kicked out. There was a trap door in the floor of the shaping room. Owl often used it because, I guess, someone (Brewer? Chuck or Phyllis Shipman?) had the front door padlocked and Owl didn’t have the key. Someone didn’t want him in there.
Getting a 9’ blank into that room wasn’t easy; nothing bigger could possibly fit — talk about the limits of the possible! Crawling around in the dirt and horseshit, dragging a Clark Foam plug and trying to fit it though this trapdoor was a three-act play — he’d go in first (of course) and I’d have the not so pleasant, muddy task of figuring out the puzzle of transporting the blank, snaking down on the ground, wriggling around the foundation posts, and fitting the thing ever so carefully up between the shaping stand above into Owl’s hands. It was ridiculous. That didn’t last long.
I took this photo with my old Olympus OM-1 at Sunset Beach, in front of Lifeguard Tower 25, just across the street from the shaping room/shed described in this story. Circa 1989/90.
After that fiasco, Owl hung the picture I gave him in his kitchen at his place on Kapuai Street, “Backyards.” At that point (around 1992), I had graduated from Hawaii Loa (with a degree in Cultural Anthropology), had a job washing dishes across the street at D’Amicos (a pizza and beer joint on Kam Highway next to Ted’s Bakery — $20 a shift, baby!), and was living downstairs in the studio he rented to me. There it hung high on the wall above the stove until Owl got kicked out of that place in 1994 (another story), at which point the picture I drew came back into my possession, slightly worse for the wear (notice tear in lower left, water stains upper right). I’m lucky it survived since it was drawn with chalk pastels and is very fragile. One could literally blow or simply wipe it all away without much effort. Yet it survives — reminds me of one of my favorite Dead tunes, “China Doll”:
Take up your China Doll
it’s only fractured —
just a little nervous
from the fall . . .
Nevertheless, it came back to me (eternal return) and I buried it along with piles of other drawings, paintings, scraps, photos, and writings I had composed over those early years. A couple of years ago, while cleaning out my shed in the backyard — a place I built in 2005 to house my books, boards, and take naps — I came across it again for the first time in at least 15 years. Looking at it with new eyes, as it were, two decades into the 21st Century, I realized that this image wasn’t as far-fetched or fantastical as it may have seemed when I first drew it.
At that time, back in 1990, I conceived and executed this pastel impression of the epitome of the ultimate big-wave fin-out, freefall, airdrop, it looked exaggerated and improbable, if not simply impossible — given the incredibly small board (can’t catch a giant wave on such a tiny board, at least not paddling); the apparent poise, calm, and control of the rider (me, I fantasized); and the massive, outrageous size and proportions of this throbbing, heaving Behemoth. Bear in mind, this was the early 1990s, at least a couple years before the so-called “revolution” in motor-assisted, jetski “tow surfing” — which would be initiated just across the street, behind our house at “Backyards,” not 100 yards from the ocean where it all began. Indeed, Lifeguard and Waimea maestro Darrick Doerner (who, along with Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox literally invented and perfected this new age in big-wave surfing that revolutionized everything in terms of what was possible) lived two houses to the West, not a stone’s throw away. The point is that this image appeared to be way beyond the limits of the possible.
Owl loved this picture. He told me that many times. He’d stare it for hours — for years — and he said some pretty radical things. All of which got me thinking . . . Meanwhile, I’m learning to ride huge, powerful waves on big boards: long, sleek, beautifully foiled single-fin, pintail “guns” that Owl customed shaped for me (and others). He was and remains the master of the single fin pintail (with all due respect to his Guru, Mr. Richard Brewer, The Einstein of the Modern Surfboard). My first real “Rhino Chaser” was a 10’8” (1991), followed by my first 11’ (1993). There would be dozens more. Circa 1990-1994, Owl rode a clear 12’2” triple stringer that he and Brewer had shaped together. It was (and remains) so beautiful; and perhaps the best big-wave gun ever shaped. I think it’s hanging on the wall of the Waialua Surf Shop, at Third Stone Glassing, as I type these words. I could write (and probably will) an entire essay — if not a book — on that board alone. Owl rode this javelin regularly everywhere — much to the chagrin of the established status quo of the Sunset Beach surfing community — from 2’ Point, to 8’-10’ regular Sunset, to 20’-25’ Waimea Bay. And he rode it very well. I had the privilege of riding it one time at solid 12’-15’ Second Reef Sunset (by myself, only guy in the water, and got barreled on the outside — again, another story); and I had the pleasure of paddling it in a few of the North Shore “Summer Series” paddle-board races, one from Turtle Bay to Sunset (“Memorial Day”), another from Sunset to Pipe (“4th of July”); and still another Waimea to Haleiwa (“Labor Day”). It paddled great, just pure glide, zero drag; and I always placed in the top three of the surfboard division (although I never won). The point here is simply that both Owl and myself rode really big boards; and this image of a guy (me?) on a tiny little surfboard had nothing to do with our reality.
Top Guns: Owl and I at Kapuai “Backyards” circa 1993 with the boards he shaped & we rode. I still have the clear 11’ gun i’m standing with there — glassed by Pete Matthews of “Third Stone” Glassing at the infamous “Swamp”; custom fin by Tom “Tomahawk” Hawk.
Owl and the legendary Clyde Aikau (Eddie’s kid brother) inspecting another one of those giant 12’ pintails Owl shaped at the time. This photo was shot down at Waimea Bay, probably before the “Quicksilver: In Memory of Eddie Aikau” opening ceremony. I can imagine what Owl was telling Clyde at this point; and I’m sure that although he was rolling his eyes and more than skeptical, Clyde listened carefully to everything Owl was saying.
Still and all, I put the picture I had drawn away sometime around 1994 or 1995, forgot about it; and focused on real life and real surfing, both of which had very little to do with the implications of such extreme possibility. As a rule, I try to keep my surfboard in the water, connected to the surface of the wave. One’s odds of making the wave are much better that way. By this time, however, the tow-surfing rage is in full swing. Laird, Darrick, Buzzy — and most everyone else in the big-wave world on Oahu and Maui — are the super heroes of the generation. They were innovating: surfboard design; breaking down barriers; setting new limits; and standards of/for high performance surfing each and every swell. The Revolution is on. They might have started across the street at “Backyards”; but they quickly graduated to Maui, where they discovered and pioneered a new place that nobody had ever heard of (much less seen, except for a handful of windsurfers and fishermen) called Peahi. Now, everyone in the world (even those who don’t surf) knows about “Jaws.” And jetskiis have become a mainstay — even in Kelly Slaters landlocked wave pool, hundreds of miles from the ocean — of “surfing” for the masses.
Yet, the tow guys (the self-described “strapped” crew) weren’t doing anything remotely like what you see in this picture I drew — and making it. Not yet, that is. In fact, if one goes back and examines the photographic and video evidence on the established record of the early years of tow surfing at “Jaws” (and elsewhere, anywhere in the mid to late 1990s), one will find that most guys — most notably Laird Hamilton, who single-handedly led the vanguard —were taking off early, way before the wave jacked or hit the reef, running out in front of the lip-line, and racing for the shoulder. No disrespect, I totally understand — they didn’t want to risk drowning. That makes sense to me. If I remember correctly, Darrick Doerner was the first to actually pull in deep and get barreled (totally tubed) on a 25’-30’ at “Jaws.” That was insane. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Changed the whole game. Bar raised once more . . . and I’m sure Laird was pissed!
Darrick Doerner (aka: “Double D”) pulling in deep — for the first time — at Pehahi (“Jaws”) . . . DD was and remains a serious badass. One of the all-time best . . .
But, of course, that’s all changed. Again. All things in flux. Heraclitus was right about that, as he is about most everything. Kai Lenny. If you don’t know this name already, you should. Everyone in the surfing world knows who he is and what he represents: not only the ultimate big-wave rider, but the best, most accomplished all-around waterman of all time (so far). I know that’s huge claim; but it’s true. There’d be no Kai Lenny without all those who came before — Kanaloa, Kahikilani, Duke Kahanamoku, Tom Blake, Tarzan Smith, George Downing, Tom Zahn, Pat Curren, Ricky Grigg, Greg Noll, Tiger Espere, Butch Van Artsdalen, Eddie Aikau, Robbie Naish, Eric Haas, Laird Hamilton (et al.) — he stands on the shoulders of Giants. And he took everything they put into the foundation to another level. Off the charts. Kai Lenny is the man who has single-handedly transformed the rules and outer-limits of what’s possible in truly massive giant waves (25’ – 40’ plus = 50’ – 100’ faces) at “Jaws” (Maui), “Nazarre” (Portugal), and “Mavericks” (Northern California) — the Holy Trinity of big-wave spots on Honua (Planet Earth).
Kai does exactly what I drew in that picture I scrawled 30 odd years ago, it’s his modus operandi, whether he’s getting towed into the waves or if he’s paddling. All the time. He’ll catch 50 or more waves every session. He surfs all day (dawn to dusk) when it’s pumping. Nobody else does that. And he never (or almost never) falls. Makes virtually every wave. Talk about “poise,” “calm,” and in “control.” As I said: he doesn’t just tow-surf; he’s one of the world’s best windsurfers, foilers, kiters, stand-up (SUP) paddlers/surfers, prone paddlers, and high performance big-wave paddle surfers (along with the best of his generation: Billy Kemper, Nathan Florence, John Florence, Grant “Tiwggy” Baker, Ian Walsh, Lucas Chumbo . . . it’s a long list and it’s getting longer). But Kai is in his own league, it seems to me. He was born and bred to lead the charge into the 21st Century. The once and future King.
No doubt, there will be others. It’s only a matter of time. Nietzsche writes (in his essay on history in “The Untimely Meditations”) that what was once possible may be so again — that’s the “monumental” benefit of the close, careful study of the past (i.e., philology), especially great cultures, civilizations, and their “highest exemplars” (the Greeks above all, according to Fritz). What was shown to be possible here — even though it might have seemed impossible not so long ago — becomes, if not routine, then achievable, possible (like the craziest climbing routes in mountaineering/alpinism, etc.); then the envelope gets pushed further and expands. So on and so forth. Just seeing it, knowing that it can be done makes an enormous difference, maybe all the difference (for most of us). Soon enough, I can see plenty — I’ll say dozens — of Aquanauts freefalling confidently, poised, with a smile on their face into the pit of a throbbing, heaving Behemoth. This and more, to be sure, as it’s all a natural part of the progression of attempting to ride giant waves. Then as now, I am amazed and in awe. And I am also pleasantly amused by own imagination, back in my early 20s, an aspiring wannabe with some foresight . . . although, I admit: I had no idea at the time.
Owl and I, Kapuai (circa 1994). Owl’s got that exquisite 12’2” triple stringer I mentioned that he shaped with Brewer — finest gun ever shaped? I think so . . .
Huelo Hale, Paumalu 2021
 In fact, the first board Owl ever shaped me in 1989/90 was a 9’1” shaped in that shed. As I recall, I ordered a 8’10” thruster (3 fin), I got a 9’1” single fin. When I got it, I asked: “Why so big? Why a single fin?” Owl said: “You don’t know shit. You’re a stone-cold kook. You don’t know what’s good for you or what you need. I do. What’s acouple of inches anyway?” Turns out he was right. That canary yellow 9’1” single fin, glassed by the master Jack Reeves, took me places that I never even imagined in my wildest dreams I’d go — but I went there: fast.
 Since he didn’t own or even technically rent the house we lived in, I found out years later that he simply pocketed the $700 a month “rent” he was charging me all those years. The guy (John) who actually owned the place was more than a little upset about that embezzlement. Whatever. I loved living there. It was an awesome little two-room studio, surrounded by a deck; there was a hot tub; my boards stashed in the rafters; a mere few steps to the sand across the street to the best waves in the world: Sunset Beach.
 Words by Robert Hunter. Music by Jerry Garcia.
 More on that later.
 Those guys were riding 8’ (or smaller: 7’”6) to 9’ boards for the most part from the mid 80s through the 1990s.
 I still have those old, torn and deteriorated T-shirts with wood-cut silkscreened art by the venerable South African gentilhomme: John Bain (RIP).
 Because they were literally “strapped” to their boards, like a snowboard binding.
 SEE: “The Logos of Heraclitus: The First Philosopher of the West On Its Most Interesting Term,” by Eva Braun (2011).
 SEE: “On the Uses & Abuses of History for Life” (1874): “[T]he demand for monumental history . . . is the belief in the solidarity and continuity of the greatness of all ages and a protest against the passing away of generations and the transitoriness of things. . . . [One] learns from it that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again . . . when you believe in [heroes] dare at the same time to believe in yourself! (become mature and accustomed to the heroic) . . . [and] live in that Republic of Genius of which Schopenhauer once spoke; one giant calls to another across the desert intervals of time and, undisturbed, the exalted spirit-dialogue goes on . . . [The] goal of humanity cannot lie in its end but only in its highest exemplars.”