By Bunky Bakutis
Nanakuli valley, a cascade of mountain-to-ocean terrain on the Wai‘anae Coast, is the stuff from which legends are forged. It’s also the home of mischievous Maui, the legendary demigod fisherman, where he dug in his heels to hook the sun, in efforts to slow down its course. Here, salt water seems to run in the veins of Hawai‘i’s people. Makaha boasts living legend Richard “Buffalo” Kalolo‘okalani Keaulana.
At 77 years old, he can trace his genealogy to King Kamehameha I (on his father’s side) and King Kekaulike on his mother’s side. And although the Keaulana family’s connection to the ocean is known from Japan to France, their fame had humble beginnings. Buffalo grew up a poor, homeless Nanakuli boy, whose father died a month after he was born. He was exiled from his mother’s home because of an abusive step-father.
“If you had a father and mother, life would have been better. I never had that, so my life was really hard,” Keaulana says, adding that he would often trade fish he caught for vegetables, to round out his diet.
“I lived on the beach… My life of surviving was in the ocean,” Buffalo reminisces from a large dining table in his Hawaiian homestead, surrounded by surfing trophies and ocean-related memorabilia. “When I went to school, I never had lunch money. So I would hide my spear. (At) lunchtime, I would jump in the ocean, poke a few fish, bring them back to the cafeteria, give them to the lady there and trade the fish for lunch.
“It always wasn’t like that though,” he says, recalling the times he bounced around between friends’ houses or slept on the beach. When the waves didn’t cooperate, he’d catch chickens.
As adulthood beckoned, Buffalo looked for an escape. “When I got older, I wanted to get in the military, even if it meant going to the Korean War … I just wanted to get away.”
Following service as an Army lifeguard in Hale‘iwa (and receiving an honorable discharge), Buffalo knew it was time for a job.
“I didn’t know how to read or write,” he says. “I stuttered. I was one of those ‘nothing’ guys.”
But his reputation as one of Hawai‘i’s top surfers already had begun to build. In 1954, he won the body surfing division at the Makaha International Surfing Championship, the most prestigious surf contest in the world. Buffalo went on to win bodysurfing three more times.
In 1960, he married a Waikiki beach concession worker, Leimomi Whaley, and landed a live-in, park-keeping job at Makaha. The same year, he won the International’s surfboard division, remaining among the top five for the next five years.
As Makaha Beach park-keeper, Keaulana gained recognition in water safety. Although beyond his duties, he rescued numerous swimmers.
“People would come to the comfort station, pound on my door upstairs at night, and yell for help. My wife would come out and they would be crying, ‘Please help! My wife is out there.’”
“I’d been out late drinking that night, and came downstairs … hung over,” Buffalo recollects. “The husband showed me where he last saw his wife and told me she could only swim on her back. So I figured, if she was swimming in, she would only see darkness. She wouldn’t like that. But if she turned around to see the lights on shore, she would be paddling out. Sure enough, I paddled way out, a quarter mile past Makaha Point. I was yelling for her and I could hear her yelling back. I paddled further out and got her on my board.”
“When we got to shore, the husband was so happy and hugging me. I just wanted to go (to sleep). So here I am, lifeguarding at 2 a.m., on overtime—plus it’s not my job,” Buffalo says with a laugh. “But when I save somebody, I feel good. That’s how I want to feel—good.”
Buffalo’s lifesaving accolades came to the attention of then-Mayor Neal Blaisdell, who appointed him to a lifetime lifeguard position at Makaha, the first such position in Hawai‘i. He held the job for 35 years.
In the meantime, Buffalo and Momi raised their five children at the beach: the oldest being Brian, followed by Jody, Lehua, Rusty and Jimmy. All were taught how to survive in the ocean and eat from the sea. Some followed in their father’s footsteps. Brian became a water safety expert; Rusty a three-time long-board world surfing champion, Jimmy a body-board champion and throw-net fisherman.
En route to 50 years old, Brian has developed the jetski as a water safety tool, an ocean risk-management program and underwater defense training. He has applied his expertise to lifeguards locally and worldwide, Navy Seals, police and firefighters, and his current job as stuntman and part-time director for a majority of films made in Hawai‘i. Brian is quick to praise his father’s guiding hand.
“The ocean is the glue of life. It keeps our family bonded … Dad kept us in it. From the time we were small babies, he would throw us in the rip and swim with us. Mom would freak out with the strong powerful currents. Dad would make it a game, laugh and look into our eyes. He would tell Mom, ‘It’s not ‘if,’ but ‘when’ they get caught in a current, and I’m not going to be there.’”
Now a parent of two children, Brian has kept his daughter Ha‘a and son Chad in the water as much as possible. Reflecting on many in his generation who have either died or gone to jail, Brian says, “I think that was my success, being kept so grounded in the ocean and surf. That gave us the opportunity to bloom.”
Although Buffalo raised his children with a cultural connection to the ocean, he views his own youth as focused on survival.
“They would say this is my culture,” Buffalo adds. “To me, it’s just what I do—because it’s survival. It’s for my health and keeping my body strong, my eyes and my legs. It makes you a better person, every day, if you do something to survive… “
In the mid 1970s, at the height of Hawaiian cultural renaissance, Buffalo again expanded his ocean-going horizon by studying Polynesian sailing. He was selected by the Polynesian Voyaging Society as steersman for the double-hulled canoe Hokule‘a on its maiden voyage to Tahiti. During the 35-day sailing voyage, it was Buffalo who discovered that the canoe’s forward holds were taking on water, thus averting disaster. Years later, crewmates still praise Buffalo’s ability to surf the canoe.
Upon return, he turned back to his surfing roots, and in 1977, founded Buffalo’s Big Board Surfing Classic—an event that included the old style of fun surfing on boards measuring over 10 feet long, as well as a royal court, live Hawaiian music and hula. While most surf contests begin with a horn, the Classic required a traditional blessing. “Before we start the meet, we have to thank God for this day, thank God for the water, thank God for the people, thank God for everything we do,” he explains.
Thirty-five years later, the Classic is now held over the last two weekends of February. It has grown to include eight disciplines of surfing, from body surfing to canoe surfing spread over 14 divisions, which include “big people” (250-pounds-and-over).
According to Buffalo, the “melting-pot” event is canoe surfing.
“They would all come to Makaha, and, gosh, what a great scene to see all these canoes. One year, I counted 25 canoes on the beach—all ready to go out and charge 8-to-10-foot surf.”
The legacy, for the last seven years, now heads overseas to put on a similar Buffalo Japan Classic. But most importantly, the waterman’s legacy is assured by his children.
“The ocean is the biggest teacher for our family, because everything is honest in the ocean,” says Brian, who doubles with his father as contest director. “You cannot lie to the ocean. You cannot tell the ocean ‘I’m in great shape, I’m going out there and tackle the biggest wave.’ The ocean is going to pound you down and show you how honest you are and how great shape you are in.”
“To exist with all that energy, you feel everything and you see everything—not just visually,” adds Brian. “You become one with that part of nature, that ocean. That’s always been something I love. Now, my son is doing it—that’s the scary part.”