Something kissed the surface of the water off to my left. Reflexively, I began pulling my feet onto the board. Rodney was on shore, wrestling with his ankle-strap; his surfboard drifted in the tide pulling at the strap like an impatient child. The rental guy had mentioned how to attach the strap to the board, but excitement and eagerness to start had smothered any useful advice.
“We’ll figure it out,” Shannon had said. It’s practically a family motto.
We had searching half of the morning for a ideal surfing spot and the remaining half for surfboard rentals near Kapulua. The beach was located on the western side of Maui, just south of Lahaina. Large black stones like giant pebbles scattered across the sand. Smoke billowing from townhouses past the park promised barbecues; a few families ate box lunches at picnic benches; a man strummed his guitar while his wife stared into the tide. Otherwise the beach was empty.
Only a handful of surfers sat among the waves, which was fine with us. We did not want an audience. None of us felt overly confident to figure out surfing on our own — except for maybe Shannon, who might wrestle an octopus, if it risked an opportunity to surf in Hawai’i. Kevin sought any excuse to return to the resort and sleep. My ability to balance on flat ground was infamous at best; on a wave, I was certain to capsize and drown. Rodney was eager to try something new, but doubt crept into his voice after reading the warnings about coral near the picnic benches.
“They’re concerned about us damaging the coral,” he explained as Shannon and I loosened the tethers holding the surfboards to our rental car. Avis had given us a Ford Echo, basically a mini SUV, for the family trip to Hawai’i. The surf shack near Kapulua Beach had strapped them to the hood, like a trophy stag, and the overall impression — in my mind at least — was badass. Four guys, two boards, one mid-sized American gas junkie cruising down the island coast: we had jumped into a Beach Boy album cover art and Jimmy Buffet was singing the soundtrack.
“Coral?” Kevin asked.
“Apparently there’s a reef right off of this beach,” Rodney said. “They’re asking surfers to avoid damaging the coral when they fall into the surf.”
“When?” Shannon laughed, hefting the surfboard over his head. With a shout he jumped down to the beach.
“It’s like the sign was written with us in mind,” I grunted, dragging my surfboard to the shore.
“What I don’t get is what are they goin’ to do when the coral damages my feet . . .” Rodney frowned, following us to the water.
“Or when the sharks start to smell blood from your cuts,” Kevin added.
“Jesus Christ, man.”
We all stopped to glare at Kevin and his serious breach of surfing protocol — as we’d come to call it.
“Thanks for the reminder,” Rodney laughed nervously.
“Dude . . .” I sighed. In truth, the threat of sharks did not appear as serious a threat as coral, which I knew could slice easily through legs and feet. Of course, snorkling expedition near Ko’Olina last week had shown most of the off-shore coral to be young and thus compacted near the ocean floor. This wasn’t the Great Barrier Reef. As long as we did not try to touch the bottom, we should survive the wildlife.
Then again, sharks can sense a drop of blood from a quarter mile away. Thank you for that bit of trivia, Discovery Channel.
“Calm down. Jeez, it’s true. Besides, Shark Week begins tomorrow,” Kevin shrugged. “I figured everyone was thinking ’bout it anyway.”
“Just cause, we know it does not mean we need remindin’,” Shannon growled. “Here, help me with my strap. I’m gonna be the first to do this. If I start bleeding, I want to be back on shore, recuperating if any . . . sea-life gets curious.”
With that comforting thought planted firmly in our minds, we spent the remainder of the afternoon paddling out into the ocean and, well . . . waiting. The shallow waves that we initially thought would afford a gradual learning curve didn’t allow much practicing. A hopeful swell might build behind us but only result in several yards of bodysurfing. I learned quickly that paddling back and forth from the ocean to the shadows was exhausting. No wonder so many surfers seemed so Adonis-like. The effort of hauling your body through the ocean was draining. Thus, Rodney and I learned to be selective about which wave to chase, choosing to watch other surfers to signal when dive on our boards and paddle like hell.
I was sitting atop my board, huffing from the effort of paddling, staring at our ersatz surfing teachers, and rubbing my thighs, which had grown red from chafing against the board — all of which creates an unfavorable image, I realize now; I’m surprised no one reported me — when plop plop. I was not alone.
At this point, my mind quickly considers the cuts on Rodney’s and Shannon’s feet, the penalty for kicking coral, the pools of blood collected in the surf. Instinctively, I pulled my feet from the water, tried balancing for a moment and . . . promptly fell off my board.
There was a moment of panic then and there. If my feet had touched anything, coral, stones, any living thing, I would have lost it. Bloody lost it. Fearing unknown monsters lurking beneath the water’s surface is one thing. Knowing and physically touching unknown monsters lurking beneath the water’s surface represents an entirely new category of fear. Instead, I clung to my board like a stunt man clings to a building ledge. One or two minutes passed while my lungs recalled the whole breathing process. And . . . plop plop. Behind me this time.
Hesitantly, I twisted my neck. The sea turtle stuck its head out of the water, winked like an asshole, and swam off.
By this time, Rodney had finally attached his strap and swam out to join me.
“You okay, man?” he asked. “Coral stab ya?”
“No,” I sighed climbing on my board, “just watching sea turtles. One swam beneath me a few seconds ago.”
“Well that’s good,” Rodney grinned. “I stubbed my toe after the last wipeout. It’s been bleeding like crazy for the last hour, so keep an eye open for sharks, you know? Hey, those girls over there are starting to paddle. Let’s catch this wave!”
My arms burned, but I paddled like crazy. The wave caught the board, and together both board and tourist flew across the water. Unsure about my ability to stand, I only managed to get to my knees and extended my arms. Eat your heart out James Cameron. Okay, not a true standing-surf, but I was happy with the results. The feeling was exhilarating, totally addicting. When we finally parked among the sand and stones, I lifted my beautiful wonderful surfboard, rotating it back out to the waves . . . and clotheslined Rodney in the face, off his own board, and into the surf.
We called it a day after that. Coral: 5 Sharks: 0 Noob Surfer: 1