Water Home

This article first appeared in

Honolulu Magazine

The first wave I ever caught rolled through the  shallow-water section of a surf spot called Tongg’s, just off the point of Diamond Head, in the
summer of 1964. As with most novice surfers, I paddled after waves to the point of exhaustion ― either missing them for lack of strength or from burying the board’s nose in the water.

But this time everything went right. I felt the small wave lift the back of the board. I paddled. The board tilted and seemed to hang just a moment―the wave, it seemed, deciding whether to accept me or not. Then the board came to life. It slipped, as if by magic, across the water. I laughed. I didn’t even try to stand up. I just lay there, as if on an enchanted carpet, looking through the water as a landscape of coral canyons glided beneath me in the opposite direction. I can still remember the vivid turquoise color of the water, the foam at the edges, the smell of wax and salt and the rapidly changing coral below. The ride ended too soon.

Tongg’s took its name from the neighborhood that fronted it―a three block cluster of gingerbread houses at the foot of Diamond Head. That’s where my friends and I lived; though, to us, the real neighborhood

began where the ocean began. We grew up in a neighborhood of water.

Tongg’s, the surf spot, was the fluid counterpart, the “other self” to the land where we slept. And, for a neighborhood of water, its borders, short cuts and alleys were all very clearly marked.

The water began abruptly at the foot of an eight-foot high, stone, sea wall that supported the last row of cottages. The waves began 400 yards from shore, where the mosaic of shallows and coral gave way to deeper water.

The eastern border was a deep, sandy channel that had been dynamited clear of coral and ran straight out to the deep blue water of open ocean. This was one of the routes to the waves. We would paddle our surfboards out the channel, past a gate formed by low sinister, protruding heads of coral, then turn right and continue to any of four adjacent, but distinct, surf spots.

The first, immediately after you left the channel, was called Graveyards. Its waves broke close to the reef which frequently became a sort of last resting place for errant surfboards.

The next spot, only 40 yards away, was called The Winch―so named for the rusty, coral-encrusted hump that lay at the edge of the reef. This protuberance really was a winch. It had been part of some barge that had run aground on the reef decades before.

The swells of the next spot, Tongg’s itself, formed in deeper water and offered bigger waves and longer rides. On a good day―with waves four to six feet―one could go all over the place, nose-ride, become enveloped inside the wave itself and still ride all the way to shore.

The last spot only broke when the waves were very, very big. It was called Ricebowl. It was located over a sandbar 100 yards farther out to sea and only broke when the waves hit eight to 20 feet. Those waves were steep and cavernous, and they cupped around themselves sideways in the shape of a bowl. It was no place for kids.


We were kids. We were 12 to 13 years old and it was the mid-’60’s and the Beach Boys were very popular as they sang about our pastime to the rest of the nation. In those days, a 90-pound kid used a nine-foot surfboard―enormous by today’s standards.

We surfed every day. On certain mornings, before we even got out of bed, a particularly clean, warm, salty smell told us that the day was windless, and the waves clear as glass and perfect. On Christmas Day I was surrounded by white water and considered it snow.

But paddling out into the line-up at Tongg’s was more than an athletic or sensual pleasure. It was our neighborhood. It was where we would find our friends clustered together, sitting on their boards, exchanging lies about sex and other mysteries while waiting for another pulse of big water to arrive. Here friendships were initiated, pecking orders established, and tests of courage undertaken. Tongg’s, just between Ricebowl and Graveyards, was our street corner.


The first time I came close to drowning, I was only 14 years old. Ricebowl was breaking and Tomi Winkler, a skinny, 13-year-old dare-devil, dared me to go out with him. A boy had drowned the day before. The huge summer swells had pushed him deep underwater and somehow he had become caught, wedged in a coral formation. But we didn’t know him. Death was a myth, a plot device used in stories told about imaginary people.

The afternoon was overcast and chilly―its mood disturbed by the same storm that had generated the waves. Spray from the unceasing breakers hung over the island. We could see explosions of water taking place miles from shore.

I followed Tomi out through waves that grew steadily and became increasingly hostile the farther we paddled out to sea. We were trespassers in a dark and suddenly violent place; the waves like guardians, aroused by our intrusion.

It seemed impossible that we even made it to the line-up without being driven back by powerful white water, but somehow a treacherous lull allowed us through. Once we got out there we were terrified―and trapped.

Each time a massive swell would lift us―we could see that it, and every wave behind it, was a wall extending as far as the eye could see from one end of the island to the other. We could not paddle around them and get back to shore. We would have to catch one eventually. And there was no end to them. The waves were lined up to the horizon like malevolent legions--indifferent to those they would overrun.

Frightened, but resigned, I finally tried for a wave. After that, things happened very quickly. The board lifted then dropped and I was standing, then flying, down and across the face of an avalanche. The wave dwarfed me and the top was beginning to feather all the way across, meaning the whole wall was going to collapse. No escape.

The entire body of water dropped on me hard and I was knocked down through the water and repeatedly slammed against sand. I knew that Ricebowl broke in about 20 feet of water. I was at the bottom.

When my air started to give out, I climbed for the surface. But near the top, the water was still churning furiously and hurled me in unpredictable directions. I became disoriented and, for a moment, did not know where the surface might be. I began to thrash around wildly―wasting my remaining oxygen―and could feel panic begin to move into me as if from the water itself.

I surfaced in a pool of foam―too thick to breathe through, too thin to swim above. I tried to pull in some air and was immediately driven down again by the next wave. I inhaled salt water.

The next time up I was gagging, unable to take any air. I was crushed downward again. I realized then that I was going to die like that boy who had died the day before. Into my panic came a feeling of surrender and then sadness―the sadness of things ending, of things I would never do, of defeat. Oddly enough, I remember thinking that my parents were not going to like this; they had told me not to go surfing that day.

But, of course, I survived. One of the older boys in the neighborhood, a Hawaiian named Alika, pulled me onto his board and paddled us to safety.

Tomi rode several waves before coming in. He was daring. He used to hang 10 toes over the roof of a 30-story condominium to show us his courage.


Now some of the old houses are gone, replaced by condos. And many of the faces are different, too.

Tomi died when he was about 19 or 20 while on a skiing trip in Colorado. I heard he passed out in the snow one night after drinking heavily at a party; but it may have been something else that took him. His friends brought his ashes home, paddled through the channel and scattered them just outside of Graveyards.

Things change. Some of us no longer surf. Some have become executives on the Mainland. Some play golf more than they surf. Others have died―none in ways that I can find fair of even acceptable.

Neighborhoods change, too. Tomi’s old house burned down and was replaced by apartments. Some additional condominiums have replaced the homes of other friends. Many of the residents there now are new and wouldn’t know me.

But I can still go back and feel welcome; because the water-home―unlike those homes built upon rock―has been immune to change. The waves break in exactly the same manner and locations that they did 20 (and probably 2,000) years ago. The Winch is still there. The kids who surf there now still use the names we used for each surf spot. I can surf there now without having to scout the wave patterns.

All of which suggests to me a comforting paradox: My true neighborhood, its surface always moving, constantly disturbed by winds, waves and tides, is in continuous flux, is never the same from one moment to the next.  But that fluidity―the fact that it cannot support anything more weighty or permanent than waves and surfers―guarantees its own sort of permanence. Waves are continuous. They cannot be razed or built upon.

No matter what else happens, ever-changing Tongg’s will always be there; preserving, as only one’s old, untouched neighborhood can, a time in the sun.