By Doug Patteson
I could hardly believe my good fortune. I was on an all expense paid work trip to Oahu courtesy of Uncle Sugar. It was the late 90’s and I was on my 3rd tour with the Agency. I was in Hawaii for…reasons, but that’s beside the point.
Our work days really didn’t start until after lunch. That schedule meant I could surf every morning.
I started surfing in high school on the Texas Gulf Coast, took a few trips to the California shore during college and surfed a couple of countries in South East Asia while with the Agency. It had been a while since I’d dropped in on any real waves, but I’d grown up dreaming about surfing Hawaii and wasn’t about to miss my chance.
It was summer, which meant only Oahu’s South Shore was pumping with meaningful surf. I dismissively passed on Waikiki’s gentle longboard waves and headed immediately for Ala Moana Park and its famous Ala Moana Bowls.
With the confidence of youth and not knowing any better, I lathered up this Scotch/Irish complexion and headed to the jetty in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Looked to be about chest to shoulder high with occasional head high set waves and not many folks out yet this early on a workday morning. I’d jetty jumped in Galveston before, but there you couldn’t see what you were jumping into.
Paddling out, I stayed on the outside gauging the crowd and the mostly locals vibe. The power in these waves was unlike any I’d experienced before, packing a punch far heavier than their apparent weight class.
Eventually the timing worked in my favor and I began to paddle into my first wave. A couple of locals who also started paddling stopped and let me have it. As the wave began to pitch, I looked down the face through the clear water directly into the reef. Crystal clear. Small fish skittered in front of the wave and while the reef hadn’t sucked dry, it sure as hell felt like it. Or at least like there was no more than 6 inches of water. Between the power and the shallowness, I was terrified.
It was in that moment I knew I wasn’t ready for Bowls. I immediately started back paddling, trying desperately not to get sucked over the falls. The same locals that had given me the wave, shook their heads and laughed at the haole so clearly out of his depth.
I wouldn’t be given a shot at another wave that morning. Everyone knew I wasn’t ready, so why waste a wave on someone who shouldn’t be out there in the first place? It’s a story that happens daily at many of the world’s best breaks.
After a while, I sheepishly made my way in, never having caught a wave. I spent the rest of the trip on a longboard off Waikiki’s other beaches. I even made it up to the North Shore to do a couple of dives at Waimea Bay. I had fun, but that first morning definitely was humbling.
Never hesitate to push your limits; nature and the locals will keep your ego in check. I still surf, but today my pride and my abilities are better aligned.