First Hotdogger, Last Beachboy
Aloha and welcome to another chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS collection!
Enjoy, spread the stoke, and
-- if you have the time -- let me know how I'm doing.
Photo: Rabbit Kekai, Waikiki Surf Club, 1945 - Courtesy of "Surfing For Life"
and those guys would start way outside and just go. They were trimmers.
They'd pick up the wave on those sixteen-foot boards and stay out in the
green all the way, they never stayed close to the white water, and they
would go a long distance. As kids we watched Tom Blake and all those guys
do their trim jobs. Duke and those guys used to just stand and do what
we called 'pose.' They used to hold their pose for a mile. At times you'd
see them bend down to just take a little drop, then pick up speed again
and that's how they'd go. But they never did cutbacks; it was all angle.
They'd shout, 'Comin' down' or 'No drop-in!' if we looked like we were
thinking about going in front of them.
-- Rabbit Kekai
all trimming and long rides… I started with the old style but then I got
my smaller board and started hot-dogging – following the curl."
-- Rabbit Kekai
go for tubes. When Queen's was about five feet and really good inside and
the wall tapering all the way down, we'd see who stayed in the tube the
longest. I was a top rider. I'd trim high and go flyin' across. That was
my style. And those guys, they'd get down low in the center of their boards.
I'd ride there too but my style was up high, trimming on the top of the
-- Rabbit Kekai
did see it break out there again. Big Castles maybe, but not Bluebirds.
I never see it crack like that again."
-- Rabbit Kekai
Born in 1920, Rabbit Kekai
came into surfing at a time when the sport was barely two decades "new"
– having been revived from near-extinction shortly after the turn of the
century. Duke Kahanamoku still ruled the
beach at Waikiki and it, itself, reigned supreme as the epicenter of wave
riding. The major influences on early modern surfing – guys like Dad
Center, Dudie Miller, John D. Kaupiko – were not only still around,
but at their prime. And, importantly for Rabbit, being a beachboy was the
closest thing you could find to a life dedicated to the surf.
abundant legends that surround him testify to his stature as an authentic
folk hero," wrote C.R. Stecyk for a profile on Rabbit in a 1994 edition
of The Surfer’s Journal. "Hawaiian history has traditionally been
passed down in oral narratives. To focus on the veracity of the countless
Rabbit stories of romantic conquest, martial arts conflicts and incredible
sports feats is to miss the point of the man. Rabbit is a legend who thrives
in the present. He is in the water daily, and in the finals of most contests
he participates in. More importantly, his labors as a coach helps to bring
traditional skills to the current generation. Kekai’s devotion to his charges
is such that he’s been known to recycle his own contest trophies just so
that the local kids could have decent prizes for their event."
Waikiki, mid-to-late 1920s
if you will," wrote Paul Holmes for Longboard magazine in 1998,
"Waikiki in 1926. A stretch of pristine beach
far removed from Honolulu’s bustling port and downtown, Waikiki is still
a village. An arc of bright white sand abuts aquamarine ocean speckled
with surf dancing on coral reefs. Overlooking the sweep of the bay, stands
majestic Diamond Head, a dark, sphinx-like sentinel. The Royal Hawaiian
Hotel is still under construction. Plans are underway to drain the pond
and swampy area behind Kalakaua Avenue. Tourism is so far still limited
to the select few who can afford transoceanic steamship travel. Only a
handful of buildings dot [the] beach front. Among them is the Moana Hotel,
one of just two hostelries on the shore among the coconut palms, banyans
and hau trees."
In the basement of the Moana," Holmes continued, "is
the locker room of the Hui Nalu surfing club,
from whose ranks come the beachboys – the expert local watermen enlisted
by the hotel’s concessionaire Dudie Miller to take visitors for canoe rides
and surfing lessons. A similar service is run from the rival Outrigger
Club, just a few hundred yards up the beach. As the late afternoon sun
sinks behind golden clouds billowing on the Pacific horizon and the workday
draws to a close, a handful of beachboys gather at the pavilion out on
the tip of the Moana’s 300’ wooden pier. Soon strains of song and ukeleles
spill out over the sea, where a bunch of little kids is splashing in the
shorebreak on paipos. One of them is five-year-old Rabbit Kekai…"
Rabbit started surfing at age five. Some of his earliest
memories are of Duke, "the real old guys," and "the big guys" at Publics:
"Me and my younger brother learned to surf and angle cut
the curl real early," Rabbit told Steve Pezman and C.R. Stecyk for a 1995
interview in The Surfer’s Journal. "When you get young training,
like 5, 6, 7 years old, you get good basics. The way I learned was from
watching the big guys. My uncle was a lifeguard and every day we'd go down
to the beach, we'd see the big guys hanging around. My cousin Louie Hema
and I used to look up to David Hema (his father) and Albert Kauwe (who
was custodian at Public Beach Park). Another guy in our family we also
used to look up to was Chuck-A-Long, he was one of the greatest, and a
guy named Gabe Tong who was a fire chief, and another guy they called 'Hawaiian,'
his name was Carlos Naluai. They used to be the big guys down there, riding
those 11' to 12' redwood planks out at Publics."
"We were riding big, heavy clunkers, koa double-enders,"
Rabbit said of his elders in the interview for Paul Holmes’ "Rabbit Kekai:
Last of the Beachboys, First Among Equals". "Even the bottoms and the tops
were the same shape, so you could paddle them both ways and even flip ‘em
over. My uncle had one about 14’ or 16’ long, and I was just a little guy
so I could hardly move ‘em. But I’d go out and paddle up and down and chase
the little waves and stand up. An, oh… I was hooked, you know."
Asked in another interview about the longest boards of
the time, Rabbit answered, "That was only Duke and the real old guys who
rode those sixteen footers. Of course, there was Blake and that other guy,
Sam Reid, who about that time introduced the hollow, cigar-shaped box boards."
Rabbit Kekai estimated that there were well over a couple
of hundred surfers riding Hawaiian waves toward the later part of the 1920s.
"Way more," than a couple hundred. "They were all over. Queen's, Canoes
and every place you can think of. Publics was the most noted spot for big
wave riding at the time. Duke and those guys would start way outside and
just go. They were trimmers. They'd pick up the wave on those sixteen-foot
boards and stay out in the green all the way, they never stayed close to
the white water, and they would go a long distance. As kids we watched
Tom Blake and all those guys do their trim
jobs. Duke and those guys used to just stand and do what we called 'pose.'
They used to hold their pose for a mile. At times you'd see them bend down
to just take a little drop, then pick up speed again and that's how they'd
go. But they never did cutbacks; it was all angle. They'd shout, 'Comin'
down' or 'No drop-in!' if we looked like we were thinking about going in
front of them."
1930s Paipo Beginnings
Hawaiian wood boards, like paipos, about 5’ long,
no skegs," Rabbit recalled. "… with a deep vee in the bottom at the back.
It helped turn ‘em, and that’s how we learned to maneuver better, stepping
hard like that on the back."
Rabbit put it another way:
"We used to have what we called paipo boards, similar
to the Morey Boogie Boards [the modern body board]. We used to belly board
over there [at Sunny Cunha’s – now known as Cunha’s], knee ride, do everything
like that. On my first paipo boards, the shape was about five feet long
and narrow – like 18" wide, cause we were narrow you know. With 60/40 rails
– 60 on the bottom, 40 on top. They were flat. I had my rails more tapered
up in the middle part of the board so you could lean on it. The nose was
the same as Takayama’s noserider [created in the 1960s]. We used to do
a little concave in the front. That’s where Donald got the idea (chuckling).
He used to surf there when he was little. We used to have fun.
"Like you see, everybody, what they’re doing now is just
making a copy of all of the versions of what we had before. They are calling
them twin fins and all that, we used to have it in our days, just like
what you call channels now, but with two ridges on either side, just like
catamarans. That’s what we called a twin fin in our days with no fins –
on a belly type of board, with grooved, channel bottoms. And it holds!
You can stall them, you can do turns, just like you do on a twin fin."
"My first board was about five feet with 60/40 rails,
with the 60 on the bottom and flat," Rabbit remembered. "The width was
about 18 inches wide with a nose like Takayama's noseriders with a little
concave in the front. We had twin channels in the bottom in the early thirties.
You get that V back there, that boat bottom, and you step back on that
and you're using it like one fin and you can really pull it around. In
our days, we'd practice riding up forward and slide ass, doing sideslips
and making the waves."
Rabbit did his basics in Queens’ Surf, then graduated
to Publics. "I started to get outside to Publics where the big guys were,"
he said, "And that’s where I really learned. The big guys would kick my
ass and try to get me out of there because I was too small. But I’d just
stay out there and when they see I could handle it they let me stay. I
can’t remember all the names, but they were good, old-style surfers – catch
the wave, turn when the curl started to come up, and then trim down the
wall. It was all trimming and long rides."
John D, Duke & Dad
A member of the second generation
of the Hui Nalu, Rabbit not only got into surfing, but outrigger
canoeing, also. When he was still just a kid, he had his own two-man koa
canoe that he would take out to ride waves by himself. One of his major
mentors was Lukela "John D" Kaupiko. By age 14,
he was one of the club’s best steersmen, competing against the Outrigger
crews coached by Duke Kahanamoku. Rabbit
told of his interaction with Duke Kahanamoku, specifically with regards
to canoe racing:
"The Duke was with the Outrigger [Canoe Club] when they
were our chief competitor. He was their best steersman. When I was a kid,
I used to hang around, and when I was about 12 years old  I was a
hot-shot in steering two-man canoes. We used to have kid races, the old
man brought me up as steersman, cause I used to have my own two-man canoe.
I'd go out at Publics. I used to keep it at Sonny Cunha's place [for whom
Cunha's is named after]. The steps that he built down, we had two guys
carry the canoe across Kalakaua, set 'em down, get one rope and slide that
thing down the steps. To bring them up, you had to pull it up, one guy
push and the other guy pull. Get it up, run across the street and leave
'em in his yard. He used to let me park my boat there. There was a lady
that lived at the far end of his place, she was a b-i-t-c-h (Rabbit spells
it out), she wouldn't let anybody around her property. That's where Bobby
Krewson and I used to go and invade! There were a lot of her rich old haole
friends over there with their boards. We'd fix 'em up (chuckling). But,
it was really good in our time."
"That's when the Duke started to take notice of me when
I was a kid, like that. Give me all sorts of pointers for steering canoes,
and I got to be one of the best out there. Later on, Blue Makua was with
me, but he used to go down to the club because his uncle used to be down
there (his uncle was one of the noted guys, they called him Boss
Makua). I respected that man. My biggest coup in canoe racing was (Rabbit's
voice lowers in respect and he almost whispers the next phrase)... beating
the Duke at his own game. He taught me how to get the inside lane when
we paddle. He'd always shut you out on the inside, he's smart and he taught
me a lot of different moves so when you turn, the inside guy don't get
by, like the racetrack. The outside guy gotta swing wide, by the time you
swing wide, you are left behind. That old man was smart. He knew all the
angles and everything. So he used to tell me to watch the guys, that sometime
on the outside, you get no choice. Watch him, stay with him right there
as close as you can, if he goes close to the buoy you have to swing wide.
>From outside you get a shorter distance to cut in. So I did that on him,
I pulled his own trick! I turned inside and I had the run going inside.
When he came out wide. I beat him by half a boat."
Rabbit was asked if Duke had a sense of humor about being
beaten by his student. "Well, that day when I went up and got the trophy
and brought my crew up," Rabbit answered, "all six Kahanamoku brothers
lined up and shook my hand. And it was an honor in those days, and oh,
the cheers came down the isle you know, from the old man especially. Then,
my coach was John D. Kaupiko, and he tells me, 'Where you learn that?'
And when I told him he said, 'You listen to him.' I learned everything
I did under John D., but the Duke gave me fine pointers. There was another
coach from the Outrigger, Dad Center, he used to own all this property
around here. Dad was another good coach. Being a haole, you know, you usually
don't get anything from them, but Dad used to take me alongside and talk,
and he tells me how to train. So I don't knock 'em, I listen, that's the
way I learn -- I listen. I listened to the Duke, I listened to Dad, I listened
to my coach. Then whenever I get inside, I think, 'Oh, that'll work.' So
I pull one again and I get ahead of those guys."
Rabbit took exception with those who said that because
Duke Kahanamoku was in the rival club, he was never Rabbit’s teacher:
"Some of the older guys said, ‘Bullshit. Duke was never
your coach.’ And I talked back to them in Hawaiian because I wanted to
teach them a lesson. Then I said, in English, ‘Did you understand what
I just said to you?’ And they said… ‘No!’ And I said, ‘Remember the times
you guys would come into the canoe shed and Duke and I were talking in
Hawaiian? And they said, ‘Yeah… what the hell were you guys talkin’ about?’
And I said, ‘That’s right, he was teaching me and he didn’t want you guys
to know about it.’"
Recalling his very first victory against the Outrigger
Canoe Club and afterward, Rabbit said:
"Duke had come up to me on the beach that day and shook
my hand and he’d said to me, in English, ‘So you learned something, eh?’
And that night at the awards dinner all five Kahanamoku brothers had come
up and shook my hand and not just because I was Hawaiian. No, they wanted
to show respect for the knowledge I’d learned from Duke."
Hot Dog Beginnings
While still surfing Publics,
Rabbit phased into hot-dogging. "I started with the old style," Rabbit
admitted, "but then I got my smaller board and started hot-dogging – following
the curl, inside and close to it, following the curl down the line." Older
guys would kick out on the trickier section, inside, but Rabbit and his
young peers would keep going. "We knew where the rocks were and we’d zoom
in between them without getting hit. That was the start of hot-dogging."
Not long after, the big guys were trying the maneuvers
the younger guys like Rabbit were making. "They learned how to cut back
and do some of the things we were doing," Rabbit noted, "But they were
still doing those gradual turns – Society Turns we used to call them, and
they were always out on the green, not back in the curl or in the whitewater."
Many of the "clunkers" were eventually cut down into what
became the forerunners of the Hot Curl board.
"Everyone pretty much shaped their own in the day," Rabbit said. "You just
trim it down, trim it down until it felt right for you. Speed was what
we were looking for in my time."
Rabbit’s first board is now in the Bishop Museum. "I don’t
know how it got there," he said with a laugh. "It disappeared one day and
I hadn’t seen it in years. But I know it’s my board!"
His abilities in the water
earned him an early position among the beachboys who worked the beachside
"In those days only the big guys, the old timers had the
license to be canoe captains," Rabbit recalled. "They were guys who’d really
paid their dues, put in a lot of water time, knew how to handle all the
equipment, steer the canoes safely and teach people how to surf. Duke Kahanamoku,
John D. Kaupiko and Dad Center were the guys who
said yea or nay and there was a test."
Rabbit was only 15 years of age when he was granted a
captain’s license. By so doing, he joined the elite group of Waikiki beachboys
– guys like Steamboat, Turkey Love, Tough Bill, Chick
[Daniels], Blue Makua, Sally [Hale], Panama Dave and Scooter Boy.
By the mid-1930s, tropical fruit still grew wild on the
shore at Waikiki and the reef was home to an abundancy of fish. To be a
beachboy there and in that time was not only to have a cool job, but a
lifestyle at surfing’s very center.
Even though "There were what today you’d call territorial
rights," over some particular breaks," Rabbit remembers, Waikiki in the
1930s was still uncrowded. "You had the whole ocean to yourself and that
was about the best thing. You could catch a wave and go all what you want."
"We hung out right where Public Bath is," Rabbit recalled.
Speaking of himself, Louie Hema, and his brothers Niga and Sam, Rabbit
said: "We were really good and down in Waikiki [--] our names were pretty
big and when you’d get down to Queen’s that’s all they’d look at, you know,
Rabbit, Louie, Niga and Sam."
"We’ve heard stories over the years," Stecyk and Pezman
mentioned to Rabbit during their talk story with him, "that without your
approval nobody came in and surfed there [Public Baths]."
"No, that’s before my time," Rabbit clarified. "When we
were there anybody comes in. In the ‘40s, the guys who ruled the roost
were the Cross brothers Jackie and Dicky,
Froiseth. George Downing was a little punk like I once was. He used
to get out there a lot. But the regulars were like Smokey Lew, Hyah Aki,
Louie Hema, Mongo Kalahiki and myself. We were about the first real good
hot curlers out there, guys used to watch us… We’d go for tubes. When Queen’s
was about five feet and really good inside and the wall tapering all the
way down, we’d see who stayed in the tube the longest. I was a top rider
[meaning he’d stand tall, stay high]. I’d trim high and go flyin’ across.
That was my style. And those guys, they’d get down low in the center of
their boards. I’d ride there too but my style was up high, trimming on
the top of the wave."
Some days, Rabbit told Paul Holmes, he and his friends
would surf from one break to the next, using one reef as a launch pad to
the next, all the way to Kings’ Surf down by the Honolulu Harbor. The spot
was once out in front of the royal palace and the exclusive domain of the
Hawaiian aristocracy. In an ironic twist of fate, it became a garbage dump,
later to be filled in and the land reclaimed. All the changes on land ruined
the waves, there, forever. Rabbit recalled the place with fondness. It
was "a sweet break," he said, "with a sandy bottom where you could take
off and go both ways." He also remembers it being sharky and he and others
having to wait for the sharks to finish feeding before going out to surf.
The beachboys had a reputation as partiers and this they
embraced with an open pride. However, Rabbit never got into that aspect
of the lifestyle, in part because of his age, but also because of other
"I’d go there to parties with those guys," he said, "But
I eat and then, ‘bye… I go." This attitude may have been due to his family’s
"My Dad didn’t like to think my brothers and I would be
sneaking booze and drinking like that. So he said to us, ‘if you guys want
to drink you come sit down here and drink with me. And if you don’t want
to do that just don’t let me ever catch you drinking.’ So that sorta put
me off and after that it never happened. I was an athlete. I was always
playing football, basketball, baseball. I never had time for it and I always
hung around with guys who were athletes who were just down to their business…
no fast life."
Like many of the beachboys, however, young Rabbit did
gain a reputation as something of a ladies’ man. This aspect of his life
he is reticent to talk about, in deference to his wife. Rabbit was and
is a gentleman.
Rabbit made his first trip
to the Mainland "Just before the war," he recalled, "in 1938 or ’39, on
a vacation. I met Opai and Whitey and those guys at
Onofre. That’s where everybody used to go [on the Mainland]. I surfed
In His Prime
Even though many of his most
famous surfing competitive wins were in the 1950s, Rabbit considers that
it was during the late 1930s and early 1940s when, "I was in my prime.
We had our own cars, like woodys, stacked ‘em with 10, 12 boards on the
roof, everyone chipping in a quarter for gas and bringing a dollars worth
of food – rice, pork and beans – and we’d go to Makaha, Haleiwa, Sunset
"One day we had a contest at Queen's to see who was the
better one. We'd go for tubes, take the drop and see who could stay in
the longest. Smokey would do something, then Hyah would do something else,
then I'd go. Each time we'd say, 'That's it, that's the best.' But you
could never tell. Each ride would be better than the last."
George Downing recalled a particular incident that was
not uncommon. "Back then you couldn't get into Queen's if you were an outsider.
The only way in was if a local got you in. Now some of the boys learned
to shape fast. This one fella who shaped a lot of his own boards was known
for being real quick. Once this guy on a good redwood plank drifted into
Queen's. The guys saw it was a nice piece of wood, so they let him catch
a wave. Right away they shoved him off and the board floated inside.
"On the beach there were concessions and a lot of local
activity. They had this one area where they kept the drawknives, saws and
all the tools necessary to carve a board. So anyhow, this uninvited visitor's
board floats in, and by the time he swam in, the real quick guy had already
cut a new outline shape and had turned one rail. When the owner walked
up, the speed shaper was pulling his drawknife down the other rail. Now
the outsider is a little suspicious and he asks the shaper if he's seen
his lost board. Then he goes, 'Hey, that board looks like my board.' The
answer came back, 'No way brah, I've been here working on this for weeks.
Your board's probably caught in the rip. I'd go look down at Publics.'
So the guy walked off looking for it."
"Rabbit wrote the book on dirty tricks," he said of himself,
with a kind of devilish laugh.
in the Steamer Lane
Rabbit well remembers the
time of the first known big wave casualty and of riding Waimea at 20-to-25
"That was the year Dickie Cross
drowned there," Rabbit recalled of 1943. "The waves were cracking all the
way from Kaena Point to Kuhuku."
The biggest surf Rabbit remembers was not on the North
Shore or even Makaha, but right off of Waikiki:
"The biggest surf I’ve seen and been out in was during
the ‘30s at a place called Bluebirds, in the steamer (shipping) lane. Hard
to estimate. I don’t know how big, but according to George Downing and
Wally Froiseth, it was about 30’-35’. But we couldn’t estimate the height
"The waves crack way outside in the blue water and there’s
no way to line up. You can think you’re in the right place and the waves
will crack way outside you. So we sit out there and watch and try to take
off toward the edge so it really cracks behind you. Then you can make it
all the way down through Outside Castles and all the way through Big Publics.
Then you have to kick out because there’s just a big wall all the way down
to the Royal Hawaiian. Anyway, that’s what they call Zero Break or Outside
Zero and there were six of us out that day and we practiced the buddy system
– anybody get wiped out we’d go inside and help ‘em out."
"That day the Lurline (632’ ocean liner) came out and
came right by, between us and the shoreline, in the regular shipping lane
like that. And just after he got by us, just past the break, a big set
came and we had to run for it. And the wave cracked way outside and I’m
sure the captain must have just shit himself when he saw that, because
you know what would’ve happened if he’d been caught broadside like that.
Afterwards I went down to the harbor and talked to him about it and he
said he’d seen us sitting out there and wondered what the hell those crazy
surfers were doing out there in the steamer lane.
"I never did see it break out there again. Big Castles
maybe, but not Bluebirds. I never see it crack like that again."
Rabbit recalled exceptional days – in the 15-to-20-foot
range -- out at Castles, too:
"You get that and you can go all across Big Publics, all
the way down through Cunhas and sometimes right through to Queens. But
not like they say Duke rode – all the way from Big Castles to (where now
is) the Royal Hawaiian. It is possible. But Duke and those guys had big
16-footers and they could do on the green like that – they could just track
Why don’t we see anything like that, today?
"There’s sandbars and sections now," Rabbit echoes a similar
observation that I had heard more than once before by elders of the tribe.
"Before, when we were young, you’d see one line of wave all the way across.
Reefs grow. Sandbars form. Things change."
During the early part of World War
II, Rabbit trained in an UDT training unit stationed at Hale`iwa. "Two
hours or four hours of the day on the job," Rabbit recalled, "Most of the
day free to surf, whatever. By the afternoon, he was usually back on Waikiki
Beach, riding waves or working concession. "It was okay," he summed-up
his early military experience.
Later on during the Second World War, however, things
got a lot more radical in "the island chains of Micronesia," Paul Holmes
wrote, "slipping underwater demolition charges onto enemy defenses, clearing
the way for troop landings as the U.S. took back territory occupied by
"Of our ten man unit," Rabbit sadly remembers, "only four
came back. I had three and a half years of it and that was enough. I didn’t
want to make a career of it. I wanted back on the beach."
Surf Club, Late 1940s
Rabbit was one of the many noted
1940s surfers who banded together to form the Waikiki
Surf Club. "I was in the Waikiki Surf Club with George Downing and
those guys," Rabbit said with pride.
Rabbit was there at the Waikiki Surf Club when the first
and second major waves of California surfers started coming to Waikiki
after the war. He’d already established friendships with Mainland surfers
after visiting Southern California in 1939. At that time, he hung out at
San Onofre with Whitey Harrison and
Wert. This time, on O`ahu, he hung out with not only with his long-time
friends, but also the new California transplants like Joe
Quigg, Matt Kivlin and Dave Rochlen.
Woody Brown was a member if
only due to placement. He was raising his family, next door, and very influential
in the surfboard designs of the time. Rabbit was at Waikiki in the 1940s
when Woody Brown first developed the catamaran.
"That guy pancaked a glider from about 5,000 feet and
walked away [in the 1930s]," Rabbit began. "Just like he did at Waimea
Bay [in 1943]. That guy is charmed. His first wife had passed away back
in California and when he first came here he slept on the beach just like
a typical haole guy. We sorta took a liking to him. He had a balsa board
he used to knee paddle. He’d come out surfing with us guys and we had fun
together. We sorta took him in under our wing. He had a lot of knowledge
of board building… It was mostly Wally and Georgie who befriended him.
Then he married one of the Hawaiian ladies down here, one of the best hula
dancers you’d ever see. He hooked up. Maw Brown we called her. She raised
two kids. And Woody was a good provider."
"Woody shaped good boards," Rabbit continued, "balsa,
balsa-redwood. Then he started building catamarans. He was the first to
bring them down here. They were about 14’ and had lateen sails. I used
to sail it off Diamond Head where the ‘leahi’ wind blew, and when we’d
get knocked down over there, he’d get so mad."
About sailing, Rabbit acknowledged, "Well, it comes natural
to all us guys. When I first got onto that cat I told Woody I knew how
but I really didn’t. But I used to go out and sheet for him and I watched.
And I learned. I got good enough to heel that thing over – it was fun!
Then Woody built the first big catamaran, the Manu Kai, in his backyard
[at the Waikiki Tavern]. Forty foot. Everybody pitched in. We rolled the
damn thing down the highway and it took about sixty guys to lift that cat,
walk about ten feet then put it down. Rest. All the way down to a lagoon
where we put it in the water. Then Woody sailed it to Waikiki for the first
time. He somehow got licensed to be the first guy out there."
and I used to rule the roost… In our time George and I were just… top dogs,"
"… Georgie was more of like a white water rider. He’d
get going on that wall from way back, and when it came over, he’d drop
down and just go. Like he was glued on. Power! I’m a power surfer too but
I like to stay in the green, just outside the thick part and just shoot
it and make it!"
Noting Rabbit’s classical surfing, he was also asked about
his nose riding.
"Well, when you trim you move up to make it go faster,
right? So we used to do like cheater fives then just pull into standing
island pull-outs at the end. And it went from there… the modern day floater,
in our days we called that… a mistake! You’d try to get out of the wave
and you’d get stuck on the top and then come back down again and you’re
still on it! We used to do reverse kickouts too. Backside, kick it out,
spin around the other way and catch it."
Rabbit was there when the
post World War II California surfers started coming over – guys like
Quigg, Tommy Zahn,
Matt Kivlin and Melonhead.
He befriended them and many others to follow them. He became close friends
with Matt Kivlin, especially.
"I think he was the best… in my own opinion," Rabbit assessed
of the early California surfers he knew in the 1940s and early 1950s. "He
had a real stately stance, like straight up, you know? Real graceful. I
used to watch him a lot. Matt gave me a balsa board that he’d shaped similar
to our style, a hot curl but with a fin. He made that board for his wife
and then I rode it and liked it and he gave it to me. That was in 1954.
And I won the Makaha with that board in ’56 and ’57. I rode it in Peru
[a couple of months later] and won with it there too. I ended up selling
it to the President of Peru’s nephew for $1000."
were about 16 pounds, sometimes 18," Rabbit said of his last redwood boards.
"I’d go heavier because in bigger waves you needed momentum." Asked if
such lightness in a redwood board was the result of having taken so much
out of the wood, Rabbit replied, "No, you get the light ones [lightest
redwood blanks in the stack]. Some of the redwoods were just like balsa
boards. You’d look for the straight grain and they’d be really light."
Rabbit’s favorite redwood board of all time was the board
he named "Chi-Chi Bobo."
"… nobody knew (laughter) what it means! George’s were
Pepe. That means ‘baby.’ He still got it there."
As for all his old boards, Rabbit replied:
"Deteriorated! You just throw ‘em under the house and
they’d get a lot of drillers in ‘em – termites! They get to ‘em, you know,
or when you leave ‘em hanging in a ceiling. They deteriorate, you get rid
in the 1950s
In the early 1950s, Rabbit
steered the Waikiki Surf Club to victory in the
second of the then-newly inaugurated Moloka`i-to-O`ahu canoe paddling race.
"The waves were 15’-20’ out in the channel," Rabbit remembered.
"And our crew did it what we call iron man – no substitutes, no relief
paddlers, just one six-man crew. The Waikiki Surf Club had another canoe
in the race and they’d gone south, and the escort boat had followed them.
But I’d gone north so nobody even knew where we were. We had no radio contact,
nothing. We capsized three times out there. A big wave came and I didn’t
have a chance to turn in or back it in. We were down in the trough like
a dead duck with another wave coming and I realized ‘We’re gone now!’ I
just had time to yell, ‘Watch out!’ and the next wave threw the boat [canoe]
right over the ama. Three times that happened but we managed to get the
boat up again and keep going. In the surf it’s pretty common. Thunderbirds
we call ‘em, and then you’re pretty close to shore, so no problem. But
out in the open ocean… it was hairy, boy."
During his more than 40 years
as a beachboy, Rabbit came in contact with a number of well-known people.
Asked for any "interesting encounters with celebrities over the years,"
"Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Red Skelton, William Bendix.
I worked in a lot of the movies that were filmed in Waikiki. Gidget
Goes Hawaiian. The Old Man and the Sea. Mr. Roberts.
Here To Eternity. Hawaii. Diamond Head. All the ones that came
down here, everyone got in ‘em. I made good money. Georgie was pissed at
me because he was handling all the extras and getting ten percent of their
pay, but he couldn’t get any of mine. Working on the movie Blue Hawaii,
I got in a beef with Elvis. I could handle myself with him, no problem,
but I went to the director and told him hey, I’m out of here."
Other noted celebrities included Redd Foxx, Dorothy Lamour,
Deborah Kerr, Michael Douglas, David Niven and Gary Cooper. Gary Cooper
enjoyed Rabbit’s company so much, he wanted to take him to dinner with
his family to one of O‘ahu’s fanciest restaurants. "I told him I couldn’t
go because they had a dress code and I didn’t have clothes for that place,"
Rabbit remembers. That didn’t stop Cooper, who outfitted Rabbit with appropriate
attire in order to make the occasion.
When the owners of the Dodgers baseball team – the O’Malleys
-- put their championship team up at the Royal Hawaiian for an off season
break, Rabbit got a chance to meet a number of famous ball players all
at once. He took both Sandy Koufax and Drysdale out in an outrigger that
pearled on a First Break swell, pitching the canoe over their heads and
fill with water. "I made a quick move and bring the nose up and got it
all the way back to shore. But when I asked ‘em if they wanted to go out
for one more they both jumped out and said, ‘No way.’ It was pretty hairy,"
Rabbit admitted with a laugh. "They’d never forget that day. They had a
ball surfing though. I took ‘em surfing on my big Hobie tandem board and
got ‘em all standing up. We had so much fun that year."
There Were Pictures
been there before them guys," Rabbit said of the Coast Haoles who usually
get the credit for being the first ones to re-open the North Shore. "I
hate it when they (the media) say they were the first."
"Da Bull, Peter Cole, Van Dyke,
they said they were the first, and all those guys, you read about ‘em in
the magazines, they were the first guys to ride Waimea. I said hey, we
been here before you guys, but the pictures were taken that publicize you
guys. I said you were the first to be photographed, but not the first to
Remembering that at least he and his friends were riding
the North Shore "In the ‘30s and ‘40s," Rabbit specified it was "Mostly
Haleiwa… and Sunset" on planks.
"Peter Cole and those guys," Rabbit went on, "we sat down
and had a big argument, especially [Fred] Van Dyke. They say they were
the first and all that, but they all came down ‘56-’58. I asked them if
they every heard of a guy named Dickie Cross? They said, ‘Yeah he died
at Waimea.’ I said, ‘Right. In the 1940s, think about it.’ Two guys that
went out that day were Woody Brown and Dickie Cross. A guy named Stew Sakamoto
and myself, we missed our ride going down with them that morning, we came
about half an hour later. That evening we heard the news."
Debunking the popular myth that the North Shore wasn’t
ridden until the 1950s by California surfers, Rabbit pointed out that in
the 1940s, surf safaris were taking locals all over the islands. As an
example, "George Downing and everybody had a surfin’ safari, started at
Diamond Head right around the whole island, every surf spot you can think
of. That was back in the ‘40s."
Rabbit mentioned that they were surfing Pipeline way before
Edwards broke it open at the beginning of the 1960s and before
Simmons and Flippy Hoffman were bodysurfing it in 1951, when they lived
at Kahuku. "We were surfin’ the Pipeline way before that… board surfing
Pipeline. We had a family home down on Paumalu [Sunset Beach]. We used
to stay out there, in like a big army barracks, you know, our family place.
And in the back there was a kitchen and outside there was a bath house,
it was a big property out there. During the weekends the family went out
there. So during weekdays, Richard Kau, Squirrley, all us guys, we buy
bread, pork and beans, sausage, whatever we could afford and we stay down
there in the place and we surf all the places down there. Out in front
close to where we lived there, we used to surf that place every day, they
call that V-land now. That’s Paumalu, that whole district by Sunset. The
kids talk about V-land and I say we used to surf there, it’s a left, not
"… In those days the reef on the left made for a big,
long wall, and we’d mow the left. We used to like the left because we were
used to going left at Publics, and we’d get good surf, no reef problem.
Now, hey you got rocks over there on the left, look how shallow it is.
It’s a big, steep break going to the right. But try to go left over there
somedays, and the thing just collapse on you."
Rabbit gives credit to the older guys for being the first
to open up Makaha and then the North Shore. "Nobody used to go out there.
Then the town guys started to go. The pioneers I would say would be George
Downing, Wally [Froiseth], Henry Lum, Woody Brown…"
As for Makaha, "The first time I rode Makaha," Rabbit
recalled, "it was about an 8’ day. One time it got big and George and them,
they went out, and they came back and said, ‘Hey Rabbit, try there, breaking
big, the point.’ So that’s when we’d go. We used to ride the point a lot.
Woody Brown, Wally, George, Henry Lum… they were what you call the regulars,
and I used to tag along. And after you go there a couple of times you just
get the bug."
George Downing also emphasizes this aspect of a
"I think we have been deprived of the opportunity to see
the Hawaiian race in its fulfillment, to where we also could get involved
in it. It's only through certain things that we did, that we even got a
glimpse of what they had going. One example would be the Hawaiian ideas
on the canoes. Every time that we'd get to a place where we'd think that
our ingenuity had given us some kind of unique knowledge, we would find
that they had already been there before us, they knew exactly, and we were
just trailing, hanging on the tail of something that had already been developed."
know," Rabbit said, "a lot of guys talk about surviving big wave wipeouts
at Waimea. To me, you do it like a paratrooper, spread eagle. It will tumble
you if you’re in a ball. But if you’re spread eagle it will push you down
but you can control yourself underwater. You just stay down as long as
you can then come up. Just like a paratrooper jumping out of a plane. Same
thing underwater. And go with the surge, it pushes you. The next one come
in you go down deep, spread eagle and it pushes you in till you’re home
"Another thing, some guys like Van Dyke,
Zahn, Peter Cole, they had a theory, they used to train in swimming
pools to stay under for one whole minute because that’s how long they felt
a big wave held you down. So one day I say, ‘You sure you stay down one
whole minute?’ And they go yep! So I say look, if surf breaking now – ten
to fifteen seconds interval. You tell me you always come up before the
next one come. But for one minute you gotta stay down four waves. You guys
never will do that. They started to think and when they got my drift, it
was Ricky Grigg who said you’re right Rabbit.
"Another thing, when you get nailed, you go down, get
rolled around, you don’t know which way the surface is. In the olden days
a lot of the guys would tie a balsa chip or ping pong ball up in a net
on a string. It told you which way up was. But the human body is like a
cat, you know how when you drop ‘em, they always turn feet first? With
the human body, if you relax, the head always turns back up. You try to
dive down in a pool, you’ll see. So, down in that turbulence, a lot of
guys they fight, they’re going down the wrong way. If you spread eagle,
you find that you’re able to come back up, naturally. This is survival
that I’m talking about. When you come back up, don’t take a deep breath
like everybody, that’s the worst thing you can do. You take a normal breath,
you can hold it longer.
"Another thing, when you think you’re running out of breath,
you snort out! Push out the stale air. (Rabbit exhales sharply through
his nose.) Blow it out! You find you’ve got a reserve air supply. And you’ve
got that much time to come back up. And when you snort it out, your whole
body feels light coming back up. That’s our theories. In the olden days
we talk about it. That’s how we find out. How, you know, survival on big
waves. Today, I don’t know if anybody got that kind of knowledge, but that’s
the way it is."
The bottom line?
"In extreme conditions," Rabbit said, "when something
happens, something goes wrong, you can get in situations you just can’t
get out of. You’ve got to know your limits. If you can handle it, do it.
If you can’t handle it, don’t do it. The smart guy is the one who knows
when he’s in over his limit and will just paddle in."
By the mid-1950s, Rabbit was an established authority
and a proven champion. He began to pass on his knowledge to the younger
generation of surfers then coming up in Hawai`i; guys like Joey Cabell,
Donald Takayama and Harold Iggy.
"I loved Joey," Rabbit said. "He was a funny little kid.
I used to watch him come down before he’d go to school. He would come out,
but he didn’t have his own board, and my boards were in a big banyan tree
there and he’d take down my board and go surf. We’d just stand our boards
in a tree and nobody’d steal boards, except us guys, we would steal somebody
else’s and shape’em down (Rabbit chuckles)!"
"You betta believe it!" Rabbit detailed another memory
of how the locals got one over on the tourists. "They were outlined by
the time the guy’d get in. A couple of the other guys, they got caught.
One guy, Mike Franks, would stick a template on the plank and then they’d
just outline the whole thing, saw through that thing so fast, draw knife
the thing, plane the bottom already, and the top, whatever paint the guy
had, or varnish, they’d plane the thing off so it’s just unfinished wood
by the time they’d get in. And they’d say, ‘Where’d you get the new board?’
And we’d go, ‘Lewis and Cook.’ (The local lumber company.) Wood was cheap
then. It cost about fifteen bucks for a blank. But the trouble was the
wood was in stacks. You had to go through all of it to find the good stuff.
See most of it was still wet. They didn’t kiln dry in those days."
"Nose Hemma was another guy. He wanted to get a board
and there were some boards guys had left in the locker that were brand
new from Sears & Roebuck. Hollow boards. Nose just painted one red
and left it laying outside the locker. Then he walked up right in front
of the guy who was looking for his board, picked it up and walked away
with his board. He got four boards like that."
Both Joey Cabell and Alan Gomes were influenced by Rabbit.
"Alan was the hottest," Rabbit recalled, "he was older
than Joey. Alan used to be George Downing’s protégé, he won
all the juniors, then right after that Joey started to come up. He was
Alan’s father was noted wood craftsman Abel Gomes.
"Well, he owned a shop where they made furniture," Rabbit
remembered, "so he [Abel] had all the tools and access to any kind of wood.
He shaped all of the boards for Alan. Boy that guy was making some unreal
boards, total craftsman style. Alan had all the best. Alan and Georgie
Downing and Wally Froiseth; they all used to live
in that one block on Tusitla (that’s Tahitian for a peaceful place to reminisce).
Abel made boards for a lot of those guys. Wally made his own boards and
he made boards for Georgie too."
"We all looked up to Wally because he was the oldest.
You always look up to your elders with respect." Rabbit said everyone’s
style was similar, "but Wally’s a trimmer. He’s got balls, and he would
stay deep in the pocket and just fly. In other words, he’d just let it
get as steep as he could and go for speed. That was everybody’s aim in
our time when the waves were big."
Even today, Rabbit spends a good deal of his time as Beach
Marshall for the annual Triple Crown pro events on the North Shore, the
HLF longboarding series, and scores of amateur contests for Island kids.
"I’ll be a coach for any of today’s guys who show that
they’ll listen," Rabbit said, also listing surfers as different as Kelly
Slater and Ken Bradshaw among those he’s guided.
"I see what they can do," Rabbit said about those he coaches,
"but the one thing now I notice that all the coaches… they don’t understand
waterman’s knowledge. They don’t look for the tide, they don’t look for
the type of break they’re getting and how to work the wave. That’s one
thing they’re lacking. I don’t say anything, I don’t knock ‘em down on
it, and I don’t give ‘em pointers. Cause some coaches if you give pointers,
they get pissed off at you. So I stay to myself. I use my water knowledge
and get the kids to do it. I teach different things different ways."
"I remember one time, at Ala Moana, the bowl – a funny
thing," Rabbit continued. "We were having a contest and there was this
guy who was a big name. He comes out there dropping in on every damn kid.
And Ala Mo was his place. We tried to kick him out and he kept doing it
so I went out there and told him, ‘Come on, give it back to the kids, you’ve
had your fun.’ He said, ‘Hey, I want to surf, nobody’s going to chase me
outta here.’ And I told him, ‘Hey, give’em break.’ So I went inside and
sat and he lost his board [in the pre-leash days] and it came up to me
and stopped. As he swam up he smiled at me because I had hold of his board,
and I gave it one chop and his skeg went like that (Rabbit makes a fin
bend flat with his hand). I said, ‘Here, go surf.’ He didn’t do anything,
I didn’t do anything. I’d just broke his best board’s skeg! Boy he was
sick! (Rabbit makes sort of an abashed laugh as if the whole deal had amazed
him too.) Later he came up and apologized. I said, you want it fixed –
I fix it if you want. He said no. But you know, he learned a lesson without
us getting in a fight or anything."
on of The Calabash
In talking about the passage
of knowledge from one generation to another, Rabbit mentioned Dad Center.
"Good man," Rabbit said simply but with emphasis. "So you learn a lot from
those old guys. Nowadays, in my own opinion, I wouldn’t pass on the waterman
knowledge from those guys to the modern-day guys. If there’s a certain
guy that I see, that it’s worth passing on, I do it. But outside of that
I won’t, because these guys, they’re ego guys. Everything is for them and
I hate that. You see, pass on to something, do it right and try to share.
But a lot of these guys, modern-day coaches, I watch them and sometimes,
like the Outrigger crew here, the club, they had the best crew you can
get (I used to compete against them), but they never win, they’re way in
the back. Like eight crews and they’re number seven. They got pissed off
at their coach. So they came and asked me. I told them, you know what,
I cannot do it unless you get permission from the club and from the coach.
The coach tell me, ‘You think you can do anything better than what we’re
doing for the kids, you got my blessing out there.’ I asked, ‘Free hand?’
He said, ‘Free hand!’ In other words they don’t bug me. For four days I
worked the crew. The fifth day I got them to go slow for timing to iron
out all the kinks. They went in that next race and they broke the record.
One of the fathers had money, you know, he tried to push some on us. But
I said no, my reward is to see the kids win. But I created such a monster
by coaching those kids to win! All the other clubs that were losing, they
wanted me to coach."
Rabbit was asked what to him is a waterman and he replied,
"A guy that knows everything. He can handle himself in the worst situations,
and he can look out for other people. For instance, every time there’s
a body recovery they call us guys. We know the situation, where to go.
They say, ‘Why here?’ We just know the ground. One time this guy who was
Chief of Detectives come to me and say, ‘My son’s out there.’ So I took
my board out there and look around on the bottom… and found him… brought
in his little boy."
Asked who was worth investing in, today (mid-1990's); who had the waterman’s
spirit, Rabbit replied:
"There’s a lot of up and coming lifeguards who are watermen.
The pick of the littler is Brian Keaulana. Boy! He’s got all that knowledge
that Buffalo has pumped into him. That guy, he’s the best. Have you seen
that rescue he did with the jet ski and everything? I tell you, modern
day techniques with those jet skis are unbelievable. Before, we never did
have anything like that. The only thing we had was what we called the buddy
system. One guy go down, one stay up and look for ‘em, or we try to get
his board, in big surf we go out and grab ‘em tandem. When things happen
like that you just get ‘em in to the beach, smile and go back out."
Does he wear a leash?
"Right now, at my age, I’ll take it with!" Rabbit replied.
"I don’t want to swim in from way the hell out there. In our time, at the
Makaha contest, if you lose your board, you’re out. That’s why George Downing
and I, white water or not, we’d just prone it out. In our days proning
was chicken. It wasn’t kosher. But if you prone out, you live, and get
back up again…"
had to assign a label to Rabbit Kekai to classify him," C.R. Stecyk wrote
of a seemingly impossible task, "it would have to be something like, ‘The
father of modern hotdogging.’ Guys like
Dora, Takayama and
Cabell all regard him as a primary influence. Kekai’s contest record is
unparalleled and includes the Makaha and Peruvian International titles."
Asked if he had any special regimens or health practices
to keep fit, Rabbit replied:
"I get down if I don’t go surfin’ or get in the water.
You become like a couch potato. Sluggish. I gotta get in the water, so
even if it’s flat I’ll go paddle. And I like competition.
"I liked surfing in the Makaha contest and getting guys
like Eddie Aikau and
Phil Edwards in
my heat. And Jeff Hakman. Felipe Pomar. I remember one day it was so big.
I remember paddling out and passing the bowl and sets are coming in. Like
about five or six waves. And I just barely squeezed through one, paddling
for dear life out of the impact zone and the next one was bigger yet and
just about to peel over. I turned and paddled as fast as I could and caught
it and dove straight down, just like a plane doing a nine-G dive to pick
up speed, as fast as I could, through that whole big section, and I made
it out right into the channel. And Eddie was out there. Eddie looked at
me and he said, ‘No way, Rabbit, you’re crazy!’ And I said, ‘Life or death,
Eddie. To get outta there it was either that way or get nailed. I just
pulled it out.’ That’s always stuck in my mind, that time with Eddie at
"Eddie was special. To me, Waimea Bay was Eddie… and Jose
Angel. Those two guys are tops in my book."
Asked if there was anything left that Rabbit wanted to
achieve before his time in this life was over, Rabbit answered:
"Well, my dream is to surf as long as I can. Everybody
ask me and I say, ‘Hey, I’m looking at a hundred.’ They laugh but that’s
my thing, to keep surfing and keep competing and see how far I can go."
Other Sources Used In This Chapter:
TOM BLAKE: The Journey of A Pioneer Waterman
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