Always click on the LEGENDARY SURFERS icon to return to this homepage. LEGENDARY SURFERS
A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By  Malcolm Gault-Williams

This Chapter Updated:  28 June 2005
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Rabbit Kekai

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"



Contents


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.
-- Rabbit Kekai

It was 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

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. 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."
-- Rabbit Kekai

I never 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.

The 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

Imagine 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

We had 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 [1932] 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!"


The Youngest Beachboy

His abilities in the water earned him an early position among the beachboys who worked the beachside concessions.

"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, Wally 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 factors:

"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 influence:

"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.


Mainland Trip, 1939

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 San Onofre. That’s where everybody used to go [on the Mainland]. I surfed Malibu, too."


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 and V-land."

"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.


Bluebirds in the Steamer Lane

Rabbit well remembers the time of the first known big wave casualty and of riding Waimea at 20-to-25 feet.

"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 out there.

"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 across."

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."


WWII UDT

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 the Japanese."

"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."


Waikiki 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 Opai 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 "Spider" Brown

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."


Georgie Downing

George and I used to rule the roost… In our time George and I were just… top dogs," Rabbit recalled.

"… 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."


Matt Kivlin

Rabbit was there when the post World War II California surfers started coming over – guys like Joe 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."


Chi-Chi Bobo

"My boards 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 of ‘em."


Outrigging 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."


Celebrity Encounters

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," Rabbit replied:

"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. From 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."


Before There Were Pictures

"We’d 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 ride Waimea!"

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 Mike Doyle and Phil Edwards broke it open at the beginning of the 1960s and before Bob 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 a right."

"… 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 haole-centric tendency:

"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."


Waimea Wipeouts

"You 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 free.

"Another thing, some guys like Van Dyke, Tommy 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."


Rabbit as Coach

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 my protégé."

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."


Passing 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…"


Still Surfin'

"If you 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 Kivlin, Quigg, Edwards, 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 Makaha.

"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:

  • Rabbit Kekai
  • Russ Takaki
  • The Surfer's Journal
  • Woody Brown


  • Related Resources:



    TOM BLAKE: The Journey of A Pioneer Waterman

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