10 Jan 2023

Mel Keawe: The Bodysurfer

Mel Keawe
As told to Rae Sojot | Images by John Hook and Philip Kitamura | Source: Hale Season 9

Growing up, I was always into sports. I played baseball when baseball season was on, football when football season was on. But the offseason? That was my chance to surf.

My dad’s house was right across the street from Nānākuli Beach. Back then, there wasn’t a four-lane highway, just two roads into Waiʻanae: one way in, one way out.

Mel Keawe

As kids, every day we had to clean the yard first before we could go swim. We had rules too: We weren’t allowed to cross the street by ourselves. We got to the beach by going under the stream bridge. And we had to be home before sunset. If Grandma wanted you home early, you’d hear the first whistle. Then the second whistle. If you heard that third whistle, you knew you’d be getting lickings.

There’s a spiritual part about bodysurfing too. I like to be in the ocean–not close to the shore, but way far out, in the middle of the blue. You look to the coastline and you feel at peace. It’s just you and the waves.”

I started bodysurfing when I was 8 years old. I remember being amazed at the bodysurfers, how they seemed to float on the water. One day I got my fins and tried it for myself … and then realized how hard it was. With bodysurfing, you’re constantly swimming. But I kept trying and trying. I looked up to the old-timers, like Uncle Buffalo at Mākaha, and watched how they did it.

Over the years I also took the tricks I learned from riding bodyboards and BullyBoards and combined them with bodysurfing. I liked pushing myself to see what I could do, how much more I could get out of a wave. Mākaha will always be my top wave on the West Side because of its challenges: It can get really big, there’s current and four sets of backwashes, there’s the competing against surfers to get a wave. And Mākaha has distance too: You can ride a wave football fields long all the way to the sand.

Mel Keawe

Later, I got into extreme bodysurfing— riding bigger, dangerous waves. When those kinds of sets start to come in, you get butterflies. I still get them every time because you know it’s going to be big, but you just don’t know how big until it gets to you. It could be a 40-foot face. Then you try to anticipate where the wave is going to turn and where it’s gonna break. It’s all about positioning. Those butterflies— that’s the nervousness heightening your awareness. That little bit of fear makes the adrenaline kick in.

As the wave comes, the flat water begins to bend. Once you catch it, there’s this feeling of sliding—the wave is chasing you and, at the same time, pushing you faster and farther. It’s adrenaline flowing through the water. It’s like you’re flying.

Mel Keawe

But for me, there’s a spiritual part of bodysurfing too. I like to be in the ocean—not close to the shore, but way far out, in the middle of the blue. You look to the coastline, and you feel at peace. It’s just you and the waves.

Born and raised in Nānākuli, Mel Keawe holds numerous bodysurfing accolades, including podium wins at Pipeline Bodysurfing Contest, Sandy Beach Bodysurfing Contest, and Da Hui Waimea Shorebreak Slam. In 2015, he organized the Mākaha Bodysurfing Classic to perpetuate and celebrate Hawaiʻi’s bodysurfing culture.


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