st ory by

Cimeron Morrissey

photos by

Linny Morris

L e a r n e d a s e C r e t h a n d s h a k e .  It’s sunrise here on Oahu’s North Shore,  » I ’ v e j u s t and I’m walking toward the ocean through a wild coconut grove. A radiant white-haired surfer, still 
glistening from her dip in the sea, crosses my path. She glances at the 11-foot longboard balanced on  my head, then nods conspiratorially. It’s a Hawaiian surfer’s greeting that says: “You’re about to experience a rare joy that most will never know, but we do.” Just offshore, four women are bobbing in the  swells, basking in the secret I’m here to discover for myself. Five other ladies splash into the salty shallows beside me. We’re all here because of the same reason: Queen Kelea. Hundreds of years ago, the  revered ancient Hawaiian chiefess surfed these same waters. Legend  has it that Kelea’s love for surfing not only attracted her king, but  also eventually drove her to leave him for one who lived closer to the  waves. I wonder what it is about Hawaii’s surf that has inspired such  devoted enthusiasm in women throughout the ages — and whether  a week at the Kelea Surf Spa will be enough to inspire me too. For  the moment, watching this tight-knit club of which I’m not a member yet navigate the waves towering above them, all I feel is nervous. 

New surfers head out from the Kelea Surf Spa on Oahu.


It’s been less than a year since her last chemotherapy  treatment and a little more than 10 years since her son  died. Yet here, in Hawaii’s warm water, all of that appears  to have washed away. “Surfing was the only reason I got  up in the morning,” she had whispered to me earlier,  looking out over the sea. “At one point, I couldn’t even  stand up, but I paddled out on my board, held on and  caught waves like it was a body board. I was so excited,  I’d be shouting ‘Yeah! Woo hoo!’” But I didn’t understand. I kept asking how she had managed to surf while  suffering from the draining effects of chemo. “I can’t tell  you what it’s like,” she said. “You just have to experience  it for yourself. The world looks different when you’re out  surfing.” I grab my board, take a deep breath and jump in. Senses heightened by the new and unknown, our  tribe of new surfers ooh and aah at the bands of pineapple sunlight stretching out through fluttering palm  fronds, the great green volcanic peaks standing sentry  in the distance and the skinny trumpet fish swimming  around us. Elenice Senn, co-founder of Kelea Surf Spa,  paddles behind me. “Some women who come to our  camp are afraid, but they give themselves an opportunity to learn and they do it for themselves, just like Kelea.  She surfed for herself, and like her, women come here to  leave everything else behind and just enjoy surfing.” We  quietly skim across the surface of the sea, skirting an  outstretched shoulder of land covered with a feral forest  that’s layered as densely as a king’s feathered cloak. “Just  look around — there’s nothing like this anywhere else.” I spot two enormous turtles swimming beneath my  board and nearly fall off when I crane my neck to watch  them. Gripping the board’s rails with white knuckles,  I look to the misty blue horizon to steady myself but  t   eeter again when I see a bus-size humpback whale  shoot out of the water in the distance.  I’ve visited Hawaii more than 15 times. I’ve explored  hidden waterfalls to remote beaches. But being out in  the ocean at eye level with the water is a surprise.  In my daze, I’m caught off guard by a small wave that tosses me into an airy  cloud of whitewash. Holding my breath I plunge under the Pacific. My limbs go  limp at the eerie high-pitched song of whales that whistle and moan nearby, as  clear as if it were playing through headphones. I think of Kelea dipping her body  in the sea for kapu kai; my violent plunge is so different from the purification  ceremony I am picturing Kelea taking part in. When the wave passes, I don’t  want to get up. Instead, I linger underwater as long as my lungs allow. Maybe to  become a real surfer, a true wahine, I need to keep falling in. |  surf with pros  >> 

When she took to Hawaii’s waves, Jeannie Chesser found a respite from her battle with cancer.

D e c e m b e r 2 0 0 9 ISL A N d S . c om


» I’m looking for real surfers.
A mere mile and a half from my beginner’s lesson at the Kelea Surf Spa is the worldfamous Pipeline break, the proving ground, the legendary hollow wave that draws  the best surfers from around the globe. But right now the water looks flat. Still,  I count 80 people tightly bunched together beyond the break vying for a chance  to tame a demon that’s not there. Nearby, a multitude of long-lensed cameras  strapped to idle photographers are waiting. For what, I don’t know.  Amid the men furiously jockeying for position is a single pink rash guard. As the  woman wearing it rises and falls with the swell, I feel as if I’m sitting on my board  beside her instead of here on the solid beach. When I turn my gaze farther out on  the ocean, I see a liquid monster rise up to  become the size of a house in an instant, its  sheer vertical wall sucking all the water from  the shallow coral reef below. The pink-clad  surfer digs her arms into the swelling water  and outraces the men beside her. The guys  pull back and shout, “Go KK!” She weightlessly flies down the jaw of the beast and  disappears behind its teeth that threaten to  pulverize her. When the wave chomps down,  I gasp and feel the rush in my gut. My own  morning surf session is still fresh in my mind.  Then the wave spits her out the side of its  mouth and shoots her toward shore.  The cameras, quiet before, are now firing. I finally realize who is wearing the pink  rash guard: 31-year-old pro surfer Keala  Kennelly. I recognize her from Blue Crush, a  2002 hit movie about female surfers, which  was set here on Oahu’s North Shore. Many  credit the film, and Keala, for the current  boom in women’s surfing. Her name is  strikingly similar to Queen Kelea’s. But  Keala’s version of surfing seems like a distant relative of the sport that the ancients  practiced with 25-foot solid-wood boards. Keala’s name is appropriate; she is  the new version of Hawaiian royalty. I request an audience with her. She agrees,  and soon we’re sitting down at the local surfer bar, Shark Cove Grill.   Noisy roosters walk past our table with puffed chests, followed closely by a group  of male surfers still wet from Pipeline and Waimea who boast loudly about their  best rides of the day. When they see Keala, they grow silent, take a table nearby and  lean in to eavesdrop. “After Blue Crush, you saw a big boom in women’s surfing and  a big increase in the number of women in the water,” she says. “That movie made  the statement that surfing is not just for the boys, and a woman’s place doesn’t have  to be on the beach watching. Surfing can change your life, and so can this place.  And that’s open to women of all ages now.” The men raise their eyebrows and  snap upright in their chairs. I feel like taming the ocean. |  catching the wave  >> 

Pro surfer Keala Kennelly (above and opposite) is often the only woman facing down some of Oahu’s fiercest waves.


D e c e m b e r 2 0 0 9 ISL A N d S . c om

K r i S t i N S c h O lt z / c Ov e r e D i m ag e S / aS p / g e t t y i m ag e S

D e c e m b e r 2 0 0 9 ISL A N d S . c om

coordinated outfits and luxurious agendas — will also channel the restorative

» Maybe these girls — with their colorpowers of surf.

The beauty of Hawaii’s surf culture: From hip boutiques to perfect breaks, surfing is queen.


D e c e m b e r 2 0 0 9 ISL A N d S . c om

D e c e m b e r 2 0 0 9 ISL A N d S . c om


the smooth water.

» My surfboard shatters
As I paddle out, Maui’s Honolua Bay becomes a million glittering ripples. I  see exactly what Queen Kelea probably saw when she surfed these Hawaiian  waters: the knotty heads of old turtles that pop up for air, rainbow-striped parrotfish swimming past white coral and the limitless expanse of an empty ocean.  I glide past three young women with manicured nails that match their brandnew rash guards in tropical fruit colors: bright guava pink, juicy papaya, ripe banana.  They’ve come straight from the spa and shops at the nearby Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua.  “Hey, no need to rough it when you go on a surf trip with  the girls,” one of them says, grinning. They’re luxe take  on surfing seems like a far cry from Queen Kelea. And  yet, maybe not. These are the same waves that compelled  the queen to leave her chief; they enabled Keala Kennelly  to initiate a revolution in women’s surfing; they helped  Jeannie Chesser get out of bed in the morning when  everything seemed hopeless. Maybe these girls, with their  color-coordinated outfits and luxurious agenda, will also  channel the restorative powers of surf. I paddle out farther to a local man in his late 50s, and  he welcomes me with a slow smile and that all-too-familiar  nod. I ask him if he minds sharing the waves with me. His  shoulders relax as he sits up on his board. “Everybody out  here is part of a community,” he reassures me. “Surfing  is part of everyday life here.” What a wonderful gift the  Hawaiians’ ancestors have passed down. While we wait  for the swells with our slumped backs and swirling legs,  we compare the rounded contours of Molokai’s spine with  the whales that slowly rise from the water. Then I feel the sun warm my back as the ocean lifts me  to the sky. A wave pulls me up its face, and in one motion,  I push myself up and pull my feet underneath me. The  intensity of the experience roots me to my surroundings: I feel the ocean’s energy beneath  plan your my feet and water dancing down my arms and  trip p. 8 8 legs. The whooshing sound of the crumbling  surf fills my ears as an almost magnetic connection binds  me to the swell. With a rare certainty, I can feel that  every tingling molecule of my being is perfectly synchronized with nature and Hawaii at this exact moment. I’m  surfing. Laughing with abandon, I too soon fall backward into the welcoming embrace of the warm water,  happy that I finally know the secret shared by surfers  throughout the islands and the ages. As I later walk back  to shore, my board tucked firmly under my dripping arm,  I pass another surfer. I give her a nod, a knowing smile.  Hawaii will never look the same.

hawaiian women have surfed maui’s honolua Bay for generations — and will for years and waves to come.


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