A Maui surf photographer’s 50-year love affair
Story and photographs by Erik Aeder
My high school notebooks were filled with sketches of perfect tropical bays I had never seen – until I came to Maui in January 1975. Tropical bays are a surfer’s heaven. The water is clear. The coral reef is abundant. The waves build and break to one side.
In a tropical bay, surfers like me can live out their fantasies riding barrels until we’re too sunburnt to go on, then take shelter from the sun in the shade of a coconut tree, cook fish on an open fire, and hang out with our surf buddies late into the night.
Not long after I discovered Maui, Honolua became my tropical bay – and the object of nearly 50-year obsession entwined with surfing and surf photography. “Traveling will be my education,” I told my parents when I graduated from high school in La Jolla, California. “Good luck if you can make it,” they told me.
One year at the University of Guam got me addicted to tropical life. Determined to travel the world, I headed straight for Maui as my first stop and fell into this quicksand of paradise. Back then, there were no buildings visible from the Bay on Maui’s northwest coast. We were in our own private paradise, like the Hawaiians who lived here for centuries before European contact.
Surfing at Honolua Bay began many centuries ago with the pre-contact Hawaiians. The area was settled between 600-1100. By about 1500, Chief Pi‘ilani unified west Maui with its six bays, including Honolua. According to legend, one of his sons, Kiha‘a‘pi‘ilani, surfed Honolua.
Through King Kamehameha III’s Great Mahele in 1852, most of Honolua was awarded to William C. Lunalilo, who became king. After his death, the land changed hands several times and eventually went to H.P. Baldwin in 1889. Honolua and its Lipoa Point were used in a variety of ways – coffee and cattle ranches, a secondary airplane landing site in 1920, the West Maui Golf Club in 1926 and pineapple cultivation until the 1970s. In 1974, portions became under the control of Kapalua Land Co., which eventually led to a hotel, condominiums and a high-end subdivision being built at Kapalua south of the Bay.
In the late 1930s, two Maui brothers, Don and Tario Uchimura, were some of the earliest non-Hawaiian surfers, along with Woody Brown in the early 1940s. They rode solid wood boards that weighed more than 80 pounds. Don had the first surf shop on Maui in Wailuku’s Happy Valley in the 1960s. George Opelu, Snake Ah Hee, Buddy Boy Kaohi and the Aluli family were well-known Honolua surfers in the ’60s, along with a growing list of California transplants who were seeking nirvana at the end of the surfing rainbow.
The layout of the surf break at the Bay means anyone losing their board in a wave will see it go into the rocks at the base of the cliffs, the “Cave” is the Bay’s premier break and is an appropriate name for the wave because of an actual cave in the rock cliff face that fronts the wave. It swallows lost boards and dares riders to chase after them into its surging void.
With the advent of board leashes in the early ’70s, riders could afford to take far more chances at the Bay without losing their boards. Before leashes, there were up to 20 broken boards on a weekend that riders would race off to repair in town and be back the next day.
Honolua is a long bay with at least five breaks, including the Cave. Keiki Bowl is inside the Cave and offers a small hollow running wall. Outside Point has the mellowest of waves but has a rock obstacle protruding from the water.
Coconut Grove is a fast, hollow glory ride that has given many riders their ultimate thrill. Subs is the farthest out and breaks best large on a northeast direction when these swells are at their maximum. When the Bay is at its best it is a serious wave that demands respect. Approach it with humility and you might be rewarded with the ride of your life.
When I arrived to Hawai‘i, I tried out all the surf spots on Maui and O‘ahu to get that classic surf shot. Honolua was by far my favorite. As I would learn soon enough, swimming on O‘ahu’s North Shore at famous breaks like Pipeline tests your legs and lungs, while Honolua has a more predictable sweet spot for surfing and surf photography.
Honolua Bay’s Cave is moody like all surf spots, but when it is at its best, it is one of the greatest waves on earth. The first time I swam out to shoot photos at the Bay, I watched how the surfers would run out between surges to a jump off rock at Outside Point, then paddle across behind the waves to the Cave to get in position to catch a wave. Timing the jump-off is not easy. Get it wrong and a set of waves would drag me inside the break, where I would hide behind the rock at Outside Point until the set of waves was over, then swim across.
Once I learned the timing to reach the Cave, I would say “hi” to the surfers and swim inside to take up position for the show. A set of waves would approach, and I would do my best to kick into the right spot as a surfer suddenly turned and, with a couple strokes, surfed into the most perfectly formed wall of water beginning its fast race to the end of its existence.
The surfer would drop down to the bottom of the wave and stall long enough so when he came up into the wave face, the lip would pitch over him, and he would be locked into the ultimate thrill ride of any surfer’s dream.
As I swam in front of the wave, I held my position with camera raised and focused, then I fired shots until I went underwater. Timing the last duck underwater is a fine line, too: Duck too soon and miss the best shot; stay in the face of the wave too long and you get sucked up and over with the lip – most likely hit the reef. If I did what I set out to do, I recorded an intimate view of a fantastic ride.
For decades, surfing magazines have glamorized Honolua Bay as an idyllic surfing location that every surfer should experience at least once in their lives. When I first came to Maui, Honolua was quickly becoming discovered by an influx of surfers from California. In 1975, Surfer magazine published an article about the Bay titled “Paradise Lost.” Word travels fast in the surfing community, and Maui had all the ingredients for an escape from California’s freeways and cold water.
Honolua Bay became a powerful magnet for surfers of all levels of ability. From the top professionals who have come to ride forecasted swells, to the escapist looking for that transcendent experience. In the early ’70s, the Bay hosted championship surfers like Nat Young from Australia and famous pipeline surfer Gerry Lopez – at the time, both were developing completely new designs of surfboards and found the Bay’s classic waves the perfect testing ground.
The years have provided many stories of incredible rides and moments of tales at the Bay: from local surfers Lloyd Ishimine and artist Christian Riese Lassen riding deep in the barrel and carving high off the lip in the late ’70s, to the supreme stylist Albert Jenks’ classic stretch nose rides through the tube.
Fifty years later, Mark Anderson is still getting incredible barrels at a wave he knows better than anyone and creates beautiful surfboards ridden by many of the local carvers. Brothers Tide and Kiva Rivers have seen their share of monumental moments and even shared a classic pitching tube together at the Cave in 2012. In the late ’80s, Laird Hamilton powered his way into incredible rides before he went on to pioneer the biggest waves in the world at Pe’ahi on Maui’s North Shore.
The Honolua Surf Co. Legends of the Bay surf contest (Jan. 14-Feb. 28, 2023) has been running for more than 25 years and provides any willing surfers a chance to surf classic Cave waves with only five other surfers – a rare treat these days.
In the days when pineapple was farmed here, there was a sweet smell that lingered in the air. Black ash rained down on the blue water of the Bay when the sugar cane fields were burnt before harvest. Trucks loaded with pineapples would blow their horn as they approached the sharp curve to warn drivers coming the other way that it was swinging wide. As the horn blew in the distance, I remember watching sets of waves rotate around the point like spokes on a bicycle wheel. Surfers scrambled, paddling hard to be in position.
We would get up early – the dawn patrol. Our mission was to score less crowded surf. It often rained the night before, and the muddy surfer trail down the cliff needed negotiating with care. One morning I tried to stay on my feet, to no avail. I went down on my butt and slid down the trail toward the edge of the cliff until I extended my free hand like a ski pole and pivoted around a turn, narrowly avoiding the cliff.
Many cars (especially rentals) have been stuck and needed to be towed out, often by opportunistic locals with four-wheel drive trucks. Over the years, some cars went over the cliff and landed permanently on the rocks below to slowly rust to the axles. Whether they went over by sliding in the mud or by not using the parking brake, only the owners knew.
While driving to the Bay was sometimes eventful, sleeping at the Bay is whole other adventure. In the late ’70s, a friend and I pooled our money and bought a four-door sedan with reclining front seats we lovingly nicknamed “Rotten Egg.” We were unsuccessful in finding a house to rent, so one of us had a bright idea, “Let’s just sleep in the car at the Bay.”
That night, we parked next to the cliff above the beach. I lost the coin toss and got stuck with sleeping in the driver’s seat. A very hard rain, combined with my penchant for acting out my dreams, had me sitting up, grabbing the steering wheel and pushing hard on the brake pedal while screaming, “We’re going off the cliff!” My friend awoke in a panic, flung open his door and bailed from the car into the mud. He sat there stunned in the dark, then realized we weren’t going anywhere. He never let me forget it.
Accommodations at the Bay always were and are still rustic. Proposals to develop the Bay – from a boat harbor, to paving the dirt road down to the cliff, to installing bathrooms – have been proposed and defeated through the years, the result of various groups with missions to keep the Bay undeveloped. In 1979 the Honolua-Mokule‘ia Marine Life Conservation District was established to protect the Bay’s ecosystem for all to enjoy.
In the nearly 50 years now that I have been going to the Bay, I am thankful it has been preserved so surfers can continue to soak in the beauty that the Bay radiates. Just as they did for the ancient Hawaiians, its waves continue to roll in and break, weaving their magical spell on anyone who visits the Bay.