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The Ocean

By Marshall C. Whitfield


Who has not tasted the salt in a drop of their blood? That salinity whispers of our ancient link to the ocean, mother of all life on earth.

Like countless millions who love the seashore, I find quiet contentment with my toes in the sand, just gazing out, soaking up the vastness and timelessness of the ocean. But the sea keeps calling me into a greater intimacy. In my early morning swims and body surfing sessions, I commit myself to the ocean.

Alone in the ocean, civilization quickly slips beyond your reach. A hundred yards out, and you’re in a primordial world, where sharks, not humans, are at the top of the food chain. Everyday concerns and worries wash away. You feel vibrantly alive, responsive only to the ocean and her moods. And how bewitchingly changeable they are! From soft and embracing when calm, to harsh and dangerous in a storm.

On Oahu's North Shore, the ocean’s moods create dramatic seasons. A sleepy, placid ocean lulls us in summer. Tourists snorkel peacefully with sea turtles at Shark's Cove, and babies play at the water’s edge. Then, in September, as sudden as an early snowfall in the high Rockies, the first storm waves roll in and summer is gone.

As huge surf builds, Shark’s Cove becomes a churning, deadly cauldron of white water. Like gunfighters drifting into town, professional surfers start arriving from Australia, Chile, Brazil, South Africa – hard-muscled young men with fierce eyes. Sea mist and testosterone mingle in the air. The wildness of the winter ocean casts its spell, and the North Shore crackles with excitement.

The secret to this seasonal magic lies far off in the immensity of the North Pacific. Year round, a massive river of warm ocean water from the Philippines flows slowly north, past Japan toward the Aleutian Islands. In summer, balmy breezes co-exist happily with this current, and calmness prevails. But in winter, icy winds roar off Siberia and collide violently with the warm water, creating a gigantic storm engine, largest on earth.

Gale- and hurricane-force winds in these storms generate monster waves. Propelled out from the chaos of the storms, the waves smooth into majestic swells. A thousand or more miles south, Hawaii lies directly in their path. Rolling undisturbed until they encounter the reefs on Hawaii’s north shores, they rise up and crash, angry at having their serene journey abruptly ended. These are the world-famous waves of Hanalei Bay on Kauai, Jaws on Maui, and Waimea Bay and Pipeline on Oahu.

I admire those few surfers who can challenge 40-foot waves, much as I admire the obscure group of free-divers who ride weighted sleds down to 500 foot depths, just holding their breath, hoping they can swim back up before drowning. Young surfers brag about “shredding the wave.” My relationship with the ocean, however, is different.

I no longer challenge the ocean. My last body-surfing contest was several years ago. You can’t “win” against the ocean. It covers seventy per cent of our planet, was here before our continents formed, and will be here after we’re gone. I prefer to make love, not war, with the ocean. On a long bodysurfing ride, I feel like I’m being borne on the breast of mother ocean, and I accept it as a gift.

As a swimmer and bodysurfer, I have no board, sled, or jet ski between me and the ocean. It’s bare skin against water – a tactile, intimate connection. I do wear goggles, which transform the ocean from a sparkling surface to a crystalline blue-green room. Beneath the waves, rainbows of fish flash across dappled sunlight on the reef below. I see forbearance in an old turtle’s eye.

But alas, I will never be at home in the ocean quite like a Hawaiian. Years ago, on one of my first visits to the Islands, I was driving around the east end of Molokai when I saw four kids in churning water close to some rocks. My long-dormant lifeguard instincts kicked in and I pulled over, trying to remember if I’d thrown my swim fins in the trunk of the car.

After stopping, I could see the kids were laughing and playing in the ocean, letting the waves throw them up on the menacing rocks like sleek little seals. Until that moment, I’d believed that my own childhood, playing in tiny waves on a soft, sandy East Coast beach, had introduced me to the ocean. I’ve been similarly chastened many times since.

A Hawaiian bodysurfer friend on Maui, some years later, insisted that I meet him in Paia at 5AM. “Be first at the best spot” he explained. Although suspicious of a practical joke, I groggily showed up in the darkness. He was there. “Okay,” I grumped, “what now?”

“We go listen.” His natural terseness suited my mood at that hour, so with no further conversation, I just followed along. He walked to the water’s edge at a half dozen spots, listened for waves, sniffed the air, and looked for luminescence in the blackness offshore. Finally, he announced that we’d found “the spot.” Streaks of light in the sky by now. We swam out, and by sunrise, I could see that he had found the best, most uncrowded waves – which we confirmed on our drive back.

Hawaiians were molded by the ocean. Their prehistoric ancestors were land people when they first ventured from New Guinea into an unknown sea, in primitive watercraft. Most drowned in storms or died of thirst or starvation before reaching an island. The survivors were those best able to endure the elements and live from the sea. In turn, the descendants of these robust survivors started the next exploration eastward. And so they continued, generation after generation.

Over the millennia, island by island, across thousands of miles, a new race of people emerged: the Polynesians. In physical appearance and culture, they bore almost no resemblance to their Asian ancestors – or to any other race on earth. They had become people of the sea, at home on and in the ocean.

Sometime in the first few centuries AD, Polynesian explorers discovered an uninhabited chain of islands north of the equator, which we now call Hawaii.

Within a few more centuries, Polynesians were repeatedly and accurately traversing 2250 miles of trackless ocean between Hawaii and Tahiti. These epic voyages took place many centuries before Columbus.

In contrast to the later European navigators who benefited from compasses and quadrants, the Polynesians had it all in their heads. They accomplished their voyages using a deep understanding of their environment – the stars in the night sky, drifting clouds, the flights of birds, ocean currents and wave direction.

These ancient Hawaiian navigation skills were recently saved from extinction by the construction of the Hukule’a, a replica of ancient Polynesian ocean-going canoes, and by its successful voyages to Tahiti, the Marquesas, and Easter Island.

Nainoa Thompson, a Hawaiian, was navigator on ten of these voyages. In his quiet but articulate way, he offered me a revealing insight about a phenomenon known in Hawaii as “Island fever” – a sense of claustrophobia from being on a small island. Hawaiians tend to be immune from this, he explained. “We have an oceanic perspective, as opposed to a land perspective. We feel connected to the ocean, and the ocean is limitless.”

Those of us who enjoy the ocean today owe our enjoyment to the Hawaiians. They led us into the ocean. Until a century or so ago, most people (especially Europeans) feared the ocean and its dreaded sea creatures. Few people could swim. Meanwhile, for thousands of years, Polynesians have been swimming in the ocean, diving for fish, and surfing the waves. Far from fearing the ocean, it was their highway, their pantry, their playground.

“Hawaiians introduced us to playing in the ocean.” says legendary big-wave pioneer Peter Cole, “We’re just joining them.” Peter has lived on Oahu’s North Shore for 47 years, and at 75, he’s still surfing big waves. “I love simply being in the ocean – not just riding the waves, but being out in them, diving under them, the whole experience. The ocean still captivates me because it’s dynamic, ever-changing, always new.”

Many of the world’s great surfers have absorbed this Hawaiian sense of playfulness in the ocean, as well as the Hawaiians’ spirit of aloha. I’ve seen this in Ken Bradshaw, a famous big-wave surfer, contender for the “biggest wave ever ridden.” He was the first to welcome me with aloha in the water when I moved to the North Shore. “I’m actually more comfortable, and certainly happier, in the ocean than on land,” he told me recently. No surprise there: his joy in being out in the ocean, even in small waves, radiates infectiously to everyone around him.

Peter and Ken enjoy a relationship with the ocean that’s as natural as a Hawaiian’s. I’m still feeling my way in, however – searching for that balance between awe and comfortable familiarity. Seeking guidance, I talked with Buffalo Keaulana, beloved patriarch of all watermen on Oahu. Buffalo has been a surfing champion and long-time lifeguard, is known on Oahu’s west side as “da unofficial mayor of Makaha,” and the annual Buffalo Big Board Surfing Classic carries his name.

We talked awhile about bodysurfing, us old guys and the younger generation, and ocean experiences. He was silent for a moment, looking out at the water, and then turned to me, teeth flashing in a mischievous grin. “Hey, Mashoo, you evah bodysurf naked?" I hadn’t, but I immediately thought of the slippery sensuousness of a bodysurfing ride. How incestuous would that contact be with mother ocean? Buffalo laughed and added, “Don’t worry, Mashoo, the fish are all naked.”

I feel most connected to the ocean when I’m alone in it. At one of those times, I had an unexplainable Hawaiian ocean experience. It happened in Waipio Valley on the Big Island -- remote, largely uninhabited, hauntingly beautiful. To native Hawaiians, a highly spiritual place.

Friends had dropped me off and gone exploring in the valley. I was bodysurfing by myself outside the valley’s river mouth. No one else in the water. Brooding valley walls looked down on a deserted beach.

Suddenly I was struck by how it must have looked when 10,000 Hawaiians lived in the valley, before Europeans brought their diseases and a different way of life. In my mind, I saw the smoke from hundreds of cooking fires, dozens of fishing canoes offshore, little brown kids running on the black sand beach -- and some of the Alii (royalty) surfing at this very spot. Distracted, I rode too long on a wave and cut myself slightly on the river-mouth rocks. As I swam back out, I smiled, realizing that many ancient Hawaiian surfers must have done exactly the same thing.

There was Alii blood on those rocks.

On the very next wave I caught, something big bumped into me, jostling me. It was moving, riding the wave with me, like another bodysurfer. Startled out of my skin, I quickly looked around and under the water, half expecting to see a dolphin grinning at me. Nothing but clear water. For the rest of that day, I had what the Hawaiians call chicken-skin. I got it again now, just recalling this.

Hawaiians nod knowingly when I relate my experience at Waipio Valley. It does not surprise them. To my Western mind, however, it seems best left as one of the ocean’s many mysteries.


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Originally published in July/August, 2006 issue of Aloha Airlines Magazine

Source for Polynesian history: Yosihiko Sinoto, Bishop Museum, Honolulu

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Copyright © 2011 Marshall C. Whitfield


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