Facing Down Jaws


From the get-go, we were launching into the air over swells and crashing down on the water. In the dark, it was impossible to ready myself for impact. All I could do was hold on for dear life. All I saw were shadows of what looked like towering waves coming in to swamp us. I was pretty sure Uncle Dougie couldn’t see any better, either, but that didn’t stop him from accelerating to top speed. I couldn’t figure out how he was navigating until he yelled over the crashing waves, “EH, TRY LOOK BEHIND YOU FOR TWO RED LIGHTS AND SEE IF THEY MATCH UP.”

I turned and saw two flashing lights — buoys, about a hundred feet apart. This was Uncle Dougie’s only way of knowing he was heading for the opening and not about to crash into the concrete break walls.

Somehow we made it out into open waters, the waves doing an Oscar-worthy impersonation of The Perfect Storm, and Uncle Dougie piloting like he was on The Dukes of Hazzard. I lost count of how many times we launched into the air and crashed down.

As the sky lightened, I saw the ocean for the first time that morning. To our left were mountains of water, swelling and smashing onto the shore to our right. Whitewash and mist covered the beaches from Kahului to Pā‘ia.

We got to Jaws just as the sun rose, and I welcomed the chance to breathe and think. That’s when I realized I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I asked Uncle Dougie.

Peahi challenge wipeouts
Contestants Shane Dorian, Albee Layer, Greg Long, Ian Walsh, Billy Kemper, and Gabriel Villarán.

“We supposed to keep people from interfering with the surf contest,” he said.

Me: So if we see someone that isn’t supposed to be here, we kick them out?”

Uncle: “Yep.”

Me: “What if they don’t want to leave?”

Uncle: “Then they going see the bottom of my boat.”

Me: “Oh. Okay.”

Turns out Uncle Dougie taught a community kung fu class in Keanae. At seventy-three, he looked a fit fifty-three. Everyone in the water came by and shook his hand, and bowed their heads in respect while they did it.

His son Puali is a quiet guy in his twenties who smiled a lot and kept trying to take video of the waves with his GoPro. They were an efficient team. I felt like an outsider until Uncle Dougie asked me, “Eh, you Hawaiian, yeah?”

Me: “No, Uncle, I’m Portuguese and Filipino.”

Uncle: “You sure? Because riding out here, I heard you chanting like one Hawaiian.”

Then Puali and he laughed their asses off. I realized they were talking about the noises I made every time we went airborne and crashed down: “OOOH, AHHH, UGHHH!” I laughed, too, and suddenly I was part of the crew.




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