Feature article in magazine STANDUP JOURNAL of big-wave rider Dave Kalama of Maui.
by Teia Maman
David Ilima Kalama will leave an indelible impression on the history of sports, even though his chosen form of expression leaves no trace, being written in water.
And such variety of expression! Longboarding, shortboarding, tandem, outrigger, hydrofoil, kite…plus tow-in surfing the largest waves on the planet, windsurfing his way to a world title, and standup surfing in waves big and small, across ridiculously wide stretches of ocean and at speeds that make him arguably the fastest downwind racer in the world.
As Laird Hamilton put it, "Anything he tries, he's proficient at in no time, and then before you know it, he's a pro.”
Gerry Lopez seems to think the same thing. "In many ways he’s like a throwback to surfers of yesteryear, but he also takes the whole surfer’s image we are accustomed to and kind of blows it all away…he’s everything you can be or do in or around the water, and he does them all well.”
How do athletes push themselves to such heights? Dave attributes his success to hard work and a determined attitude. According to him, he's just a normal guy, lucky to live the life of his dreams.
"I don't feel that what I'm doing is grand or superhuman in any way," he said. "I don't have any more talent than anybody else. It comes down to work and attitude. Nobody spent more time in the water than me, and I don't think anybody loved it more than me."
Sure, thousands of athletes share his physical and cultural advantages, but to do what Kalama does on a regular basis requires something more -- exceptional powers of focus and concentration, a compelling sense of purpose and sheer courage. And if genetics count, Dave inherited a natural affinity for water sports. His name, Kalama, means 'light' or 'torch' in Hawaiian, a fitting name for a family that passes the flame for surfing from generation to generation.
He was born in '64 in Newport Beach, California, where his grandfather Noah founded the first outrigger club and pioneered West Coast bodysurfing. Dave's father Ilima Kalama won the 1962 world championship in surfing and excelled at outrigger paddling.
An adventurous kid, Dave learned to surf when he was seven, with lessons from his cousin Kaulana. "I was never serious about it, just a grom!" Dave said. "Like a lot of kids back then -- no Wii, no Playstation, so from dawn to dusk we rode our bikes, skated. People like Buttons, Gerry Lopez, Larry Bertleman were my idols."
When he was 13, his family moved to Mammoth, where Dave skied competitively. At 16, he learned how to windsurf, and a few years later, while in college in Sacramento, he got fully hooked at the blustery Rio Vista Delta.
In 1985, while on vacation with his parents in Hawaii, he glimpsed the windy beaches of Maui, and immediately decided to move there. He's lived there ever since, and now owns a comfortable home in Kula, on the slope of the active volcano Haleakala. From his lanai, he can check conditions on both coasts of Maui's isthmus: the whitecaps indicate wind speed, and the white ribbons wrapping around the coast denote the size of the waves.
Dave lives with his wife Shaina and his children, Sunny, 13 and Austin, 11, who are both learning standup, and their 2-year-old boy, Cash, who is next in line.
Dave is half-Hawaiian, but it wasn’t until moving to the islands that he really connected with his Hawaiian roots. "I definitely got closer to my Hawaiian family and more into Hawaiian culture then, but my focus is more on the surf and paddling activities, not so much the intellectual knowledge of it."
After the move to Maui, Dave started competing and soon went pro. He won, and kept on doing so, ultimately winning the 1991 Hard Rock World Cup of Windsurfing/Ho'okipa, one of the highest-paying events in the history of windsurfing.
He continued to explore surfing in all its forms and experimenting with equipment, an interest that developed into a life-long passion. The talent was there and his skills grew apace with his time in the water.
Of course, his gladiator's physique came in handy too! Nearly six feet tall, with a back, torso, shoulders and neck all slabular muscle, hard to hide even in the loose t-shirts he favors in and out of the water. Middle age has not settled on Dave, not a bit.
His face is deeply tanned, with the sun squint and smile wrinkles of the indefatigable surfer. He reveals a calm, upbeat personality when he speaks, reflecting before answering questions, seeming to stare into memories of roaring water, of gliding under stars or racing across deep water. Then his hazel eyes light up, he lifts his head, you feel he's reliving the events second by second. He doesn't deny the wonder, the awe even, that he feels for the ocean and his own exploits.
"The ocean helps me reach a certain balance, makes me consider the experiences I've had and the situations I've put myself into. It creates bonds, gives me a sense of purpose -- to think it's all just coincidence doesn't add up. There's something more to it. I don't believe it’s just random luck -- there is a true spiritual connection to the ocean."
The ocean feeds his soul, the soul of a sup speed demon! For example, on Maui's eight-mile Maliko Gulch run, Dave averages 10mph, in ocean swells with 20-30 knot tailwinds. That means he travels at 4 or 5mph part of the time, and up to 15mph or more the rest of the time.
"It feels great to go that fast, like flying! For hours I’ll be planing. It’s like surfing down the whole coast. I’ve got my music on, paying attention to the water, keeping the glides connecting, rocking out. I’m consumed by the whole thing. There’ll be times on a glide, when I stop paddling and it feels almost like being in a video game, in my own little world. Whatever troubles or responsibilities I’ve got on land don’t exist for a while. I’ll be maybe one or two miles out, but it feels like I’m in mid-ocean. I might see a dolphin, or a shark or turtle or whale -- when I do, I feel very fortunate. Not many people get to experience that, or the feeling of being at the very top end of your sport -- like how it must feel to Kobe Bryant when he shoots the winning point in a basketball game, or to Tiger Woods when he makes the putt to win the Master’s Tournament.”
There is also a dark side to ocean pursuits, and that brings out something gritty in Kalama’s attitude toward fear, pain and death.
"There's got to be some element of bravado in it, as it is a dangerous thing. I'm not motivated by beating other people in competition; before I was, but now I just enjoy being out there doing something really intense.
"You know that it's the real thing - life or death. It sits in the back of your mind and you try to shelve it and not dwell on it. Everything happens so fast that you can't deal with it on a conscious level and your mind isn't capable of making decisions that quickly. Surfing then becomes a natural instinct, all that you've been through, all that you've learned, all your decisions are made by your subconscious mind. It's a wonderful feeling to let your conscious mind go and to let all of who you are come out instinctively. You enjoy life, knowing that death is potentially imminent. It's strange that the closer you are to death, the more alive you feel. It's a very addictive feeling.
"I realize I'm not going to be doing it forever, charging waves, so every time I do, I really appreciate it."
He started charging giant waves close to 20 years ago when he and a group of surfers combined tow-in surfing with boards fitted with footstraps. Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner invented the towing, while Dave, Brett Lickle and Mark Angulo added the footstraps. The rest is history, much of which was enacted at Pe’ahi, aka Jaws, on Maui.
Big storms cause huge waves -- up to 70 feet huge -- to form on Pe’ahi's barrier reef. Dave windsurfed there in 1988, when it was breaking at 'barely' 14 feet, but he didn’t go back until 1991 -- he was busy winning windsurfing contests. And Pe’ahi intimidated everyone (why else call it Jaws?) With a rocky coast and swell that rolls in at 30mp, it was nearly impossible to paddle out on big days. But in 1992, Dave and Laird Hamilton became tow-in partners, and they were the first to tackle these Himalayas of saltwater.
As for standup, Dave said the biggest waves he’s ever surfed were at Ho’okipa, 30-foot faces. And his favorite sup conditions for waves? “A hollow right, 10 to 15-foot faces, not too big for doing top turns – cutbacks, off the lips."
Not too big for Dave, but we mortals might have to push our limits to paddle into one of those.
"You have to build up to it, through confidence in your ability at riding waves that size. Without confidence, you'll panic. You've got to take all the steps from A to Z, with a stop at each letter! As you gain experience, you learn how to ride it, how to judge it. From that point on, it's all mental. Even with the highest degree of skill and top equipment, the mental barrier must be overcome."
Pe’ahi and Ho’okipa do not break year-round; in fact, good waves on Maui are few and far between, and surfers have to be creative to find a thrill. To wit, one day in 1995, Dave and Laird were doing a photo shoot for Oxbow on longboards. The surf was too small to be fun, Dave recounts, and they got bored. So he grabbed some canoe paddles "to fool around with." They had such a blast that the very next day, Laird had some more suitable paddles made, and standup surfing was (re)born.
As in all his other athletic pursuits, Kalama pushes standup to the limit. Sometimes, that involves falling off. “I’ve had my share of long swims and broken leashes, but never any serious trouble. I believe unless you’re falling a fair amount you’re not pushing yourself over your limits. I actually fall quite a bit, probably every third wave.” He then adds with a laugh, “When no one is looking!”
Buzzy Kerbox, who has known Dave for 20 years, said Dave has been very significant on Maui as far as standup paddling goes. "He was always a longboarder, so it was a natural transition for him. He rarely surfs on other boards now. In the last few years, Dave has won virtually every sup race. He has impeccable paddling technique. He helps me with my technique -- I used to basically grab the paddle and go."
The Rainbow Sandals Moloka'i-Oahu race, 32 miles across the 2300-foot-deep Kaiwi channel, is the ultimate challenge for paddlers, standup included. Dave has won the relay with his cousin Ekolu three times.
Windsurfing champion, now standup master Alain Cadiz has been racing against Dave in this and other races for years.
"I used to paddle it out with Dave and a bunch of guys on the Maliko Gulch run," Cadiz recalls, "but I only caught up with him a few times. We did the Moloka’i-Oahu race in teams, prone paddling, then he and Laird discovered standup, and they paddled down the coast and beat all of us. That was back in the beginning.
"In standup, there's a lot of crossover, and because Dave's a superb waterman, he's able to use his experience in those other sports. He does what I call 'ocean surfing.' It's all about the glide. Strength is certainly a factor but paddling's like peddling a bike uphill -- if you go at 100 percent of your ability, your heart and lungs will be no good, it takes too long to recover. It looks easy when Dave does it, but it's far more technical than it seems."
Dave's favorite downwind runs are the Maui-Moloka’i and Maliko Gulch. He regularly finishes ahead of the pack when racing Maliko, but he likes to cruise it alone too.
"I don't go out there to break any records, or paddle fast, but just enjoy it, connecting glides. Sometimes I feel this sense of euphoria, this feeling of, 'God, this is incredible.' I don't even have to go that far out to sea to get a little smile inside and say to myself, 'I can't believe this is your life.'
"Some days, on the same run, I can get so frustrated. Those are the days I'm trying to go fast, working on something. That's me, always trying to improve, and wanting to figure something out that'll make me faster!
"One thing about surfing, or anything for that matter, is that I really enjoy improving. As soon as I think I can't improve anymore, then I usually lose interest. I've been doing standup a long time, but I can still improve a lot. I like that challenge. That motivates me more than anything else."
Another motivating factor is peer pressure, which he says is "grossly underestimated."
"As soon as you see somebody do something, who you don't feel has any more talent or ability than you do, you automatically think, well if he can do it, I can do it! Not with Laird, obviously! That motivation has to come from myself, pushing myself."
All the same, Laird catalyzes that motivation.
In October 2006, he and Dave biked and paddled the entire Hawaiian Island chain -- 450-miles – in one week.
“The standup part of it felt absolutely impossible at times,” Dave relates. “I remember thinking, ‘How did I get myself into this?’ Like the day we were paddling across the Oahu-Kauai channel. The winds were Kona so we were fighting the whole way over. The first 10 to 12 hours, I was doing it just to be the one not to quit first.
"I was following Laird, and experienced a do-or-die moment. Fifteen hours into the paddle, Laird had gotten far ahead of me, and I had to catch up. I rose to the occasion. He was going at his pace, I was going at mine but was having trouble keeping up. I worked myself into this almost possessed state, paddling so hard. I didn't think I'd have to push myself that much to catch up. I had to reach down really far. A lot of self-discovery there, to see what I was made of.
"That awareness has entered into my paddling. I know I can do almost anything, if I can get myself to that point. It's not like flicking a switch -- you work yourself slowly into it, it takes a lot of effort, commitment. Even then you're not always going to find it, but I know it's there. I can find it if I do it right. That confidence alone is probably enough."
He definitely shows confidence and control when surfing. He goes out without hesitation, without difficulty, without boasting. We see that in his surfing exploits, documented in films like Riding Giants and All Aboard The Crazy Train, Path of Purpose, Endless Summer II, Step Into Liquid, and WaterMan.
Like Laird, Dave has managed to forge a career based on his passion in life. As a stuntman, he surfs in the opening sequence of the James Bond movie Die Another Day, and appears in American Express and Davidoff TV commercials. He’s sponsored by Oxbow, Quick Blade and H2O Audio, a maker of waterproof iPod cases. In 2008, a new sponsor came on board.
A yellow board, you think Naish. Well, think Kalama now too, who is not just a standup team member but a major contributor to Naish standup board designs.
"One thing I enjoy about being a waterman is the creative part, making my equipment better and being involved in product development," Dave said. "It's working out great with Naish -- I've known Rob forever, and have always had huge respect for him. A lot of companies don't want to commit funds to R&D, and are content being half a step behind, but Robby likes to be at the forefront; and puts down the money to produce prototypes.
"Working with Naish, I can experiment with my ideas on designs. I go to Harold Iggy [long-time Naish shaper], who knows the wave board process in and out. I tell him what I'm thinking -- this kind of rail shape, that kind of bottom contour -- and he'll ask, 'Why? What are you trying to achieve?' If my design concept matches up with his theories, then it works really well. His first boards for me were home-runs, and I can be rather picky!"
Dave helps promote the brand by representing Naish in races, at expos and on surf trips. He said he likes sharing his know-how and enthusiasm for standup, encouraging people to learn and practice the sport.
"One beautiful thing about standup is that it's so easy to learn, safely. You just go to a back bay, or lake, the calmer the better, and go at your own pace. Once you learn, you can start to put yourself in situations that will challenge you, and that feels rewarding and adventurous. It makes you happy, and the more happy people we have on this planet the better.
"I enjoy meeting new people and talking to them -- that's my job, and if that's the worst thing that can happen, it's a pretty good job. Plus the surf trips are like gold to me!"
"Naish is good for him, and he's good for Naish," said Archie Kalepa, who has known Dave for 16 years. "They're getting one of the best watermen in the world. They inspire each other. Dave Kalama lives the spirit of aloha -- the way he trains, his work ethic, his surfing etiquette. He really cares about standup paddling and everything about the ocean.
"He'll never lose his touch. He and Laird are so consistent. It's the time in the saddle, the preparation. When you go out there with your partner, it's like marriage. You know you have a good partner if all you need is eye contact -- no screaming. After a long time, you know what each of you wants."
Dave agrees. "Laird and I have worked together as a team longer than anybody. I know how he's looking at the wave and where we want to be; we judge waves the same, so there's actually very little communication. We just know each other's wants, and the rest is fine-tuning. It's like the Magic Johnson no-look passes -- he knows where his team-mate will be so he doesn't need to look. Same with Laird. We might not see each for four or six months, and we can jump on a ski and go out, and not miss a beat."
He said his best surfing moment was with Laird during the last big day at Pe'ahi.
"I saw Laird was really pushing it deeper, and I tried too, but almost came too close. I was all set up, then Laird dropped me where I wanted, I faded to the peak, then came back. The wave had shifted over, and I thought, 'Oh, oh, gotta get going.' I stayed real high on the wave, but still almost behind the peak and the wave broke. I saw the lip out of the corner of my eye, way out there, and this internal conversation starts, a devil saying JUMP, BAIL, and a little angel on the other shoulder saying, 'No, hold the line, stay committed to the bottom turn or you're not going to make it.' I'm on the chopping block if it lands right on me, but I got out from under it and went flying out the back off the top.
"And I thought, 'If I never ride another wave, I’ll die a happy surfer'. I didn't have long to gloat about it. Laird just smiled at me and said, 'Shut up, here comes another one.' Classic!"
I'm just one of many unabashed fans of athletes like Dave -- we feel good just knowing they exist, happily doing the 'impossible' and having fun at it. They inspire us to get out there, not just into the water, but into life. Our limits are undoubtedly far behind Dave's, but if we surmount our defeatist thoughts and play the game, if we pack as many thrills as possible into our given time, we will feel satisfaction and happiness. To keep the torch lit, to hold on to the passion, isn't this success in life?