I first started taking annual trips to Hawaii as a youngster with my family in the late ’50s. My dad, Walter Hoffman, was a surfer and had been stationed in Honolulu during the Korean War, where he spent much of his time when not on duty surfing and shaping boards on the beach at Makaha. Though young, I was struck by the poor housing conditions as we left town and headed out to the west side in a rusted-out Plymouth. For a family hailing from California during one of its hugest building booms, the poverty was a startling contrast. But all would be forgotten once we got to the beach, with perfect surf, warm trade winds and the welcome my dad would receive from many old friends. The days were fantastic but by night anything not completely locked down would be missing by sunup. It pissed me off that my underwear, bathing suit and beach towel were stolen out of the dryer, but I didn’t have the maturity to understand what happens to people when there’s a lack of opportunity. I was still in single digits and completely naive.
By the late ’60s my husband, Herbie Fletcher, and I were living on the North Shore and had the Clark Foam franchise for the Hawaiian Islands. (Clark Foam was the core of all surfboards made between 1961 and 2005.) Walter spoke to Gordon “Grubby” Clark of Clark Foam, longtime family friend, and with his promise of credit, we were on. There was a heavy drug influence in the thriving underground economy then that helped fund so many surfers in the early days and made it possible for them to travel and surf pristine waves around the globe, not to mention a growing international demand for contraband substances. The popular music of the day, too, was filled with drug references, and the traveling surfer, who by his very nature was a risk taker, seemed to be a natural for the opportunities offered in the high-stakes, big-gains, easy-turnover drug-smuggling business. As there was no real “surf sponsorship” program in the industry then, this seemed like the perfect alternative.
The North Shore itself was an unblemished haven. With flawless surf, a relaxed lifestyle, no phones, newspaper delivery or TV and no real police presence, it was almost like being removed from polite society altogether. Given these pluses, it was a magnet for all sorts of people looking to fly under the radar. The drug smugglers were able to rent the few finer homes that existed at the time, filling them with exquisite oriental rugs, beautiful embroidered tapestries, opium beds and all manner of exotic furnishings, a testament to their travels. The kitchen cupboards were stocked with health foods shipped in from the mainland, and the yards had every imaginable toy to satisfy their ever-growing inflated egos. Huge trucks parked behind the chain link with guard dogs patrolling the perimeter added to their sense of security.
Meanwhile, the average mainland surfer on the North Shore lived four guys to a roach-infested house on one of the mostly mud streets, so aptly named Roach Road or Marijuana Alley, and used hitchhiking as their main method of transportation; either that or they went in together on the purchase of a rusted-out 15-year-old bucket of bolts that sucked up enough gas that they couldn’t afford the overpriced stale snacks they survived on. But they all seemed happy enough with a sleeping bag, a couple pairs of trunks, a few doses of Blue Cheer or whatever the latest designer acid was called, some good pot and a great-shaped board.
The locals were certainly feeling the disconnect between the haves and have-nots; most had been subsidizing their meager incomes through petty crimes like breaking into cars, lifting surfboards or bikes—anything that was relatively easy. The North Shore was a different place completely from the tranquil days in the early ’50s. The island had changed, and the stakes felt much higher.
With the noticeable difference in lifestyles, it wasn’t long before the hookah-smoking, pseudo-hippie-chic smugglers became prime targets for the once petty thieves, who had banded together after an unchallenged coup and formed a much more sophisticated organization with far better managerial skills. This virile, young, ukulele-playing ring of surf thugs changed what had once been an idyllic refuge for the usurper drug barons into hell as soon as the sun went down. With no threat of reprisal, it was a lucrative enterprise while it lasted, but the reputation of these fierce young locals was broadcast way beyond the coconut hotline, casting a long shadow about the personal safety of visiting surfers looking to make their names in the waves that defined careers.
New surf brands were also cropping up and money was starting to flow into advertising budgets, and where better to create the look that brand owners hoped would spark sales than on the pristine 7.5-mile stretch of beach between Haleiwa and Velzyland. As contest organizers planned events in their offices in Costa Mesa, CA, they, as others before, seemed to forget about the hungry local surfers, but with a few well-placed “suggestions” from the self-appointed spokesman to the corporate heads at Quiksilver, it was agreed that they—Quiksilver—would start making black board shorts with gold and red stripes down the sides for those locals, who would now be paid to organize and run the water patrol. The name “Black Shorts” was soon to refer loosely to a group of islanders ready and willing to fight for a piece of the ever-expanding surf-industry budget and a place in the contest heats from which they, due to a lack of travel budget and no surf sponsorship, had been excluded. They were going to surf in their own backyard, and that point was driven home with a rather aggressive control of the lineups, which were and still are strictly enforced. With the huge winter migration of surfers growing every year and the danger of overcrowded breaks, where there are now so many kooks in the lineup jeopardizing everyone, having a well-defined pecking order becomes part of survival, part of surf lore, but step over the line and reprisal is swift and without apology.
As the years have passed and issues of importance have changed dramatically, so have the fight and goals of the young and older men and women who call Hawaii home. Having honed their skills of protest against the surf “industry,” they now march for Hawaiian land rights; stand up against improper farming; take bus tours across America teaching kids with cystic fibrosis how to surf; spend time visiting hospital rooms of children dying of cancer; organize giant beach cleanups and luaus to play music and share the spirit of Aloha. What started from a sense of desperation has morphed over the years into a group that is dedicated to promoting respect and equality for the Hawaiian people. Hui O He’e Nalu—“Club of Wave Riders” or Da Hui for short—has come of age in a time and place that would seem idyllic to most visitors as they stroll the beaches on vacation. But with all the land bought up by rich developers and jobs in short supply, this fight for rights of land ownership and to surf the waves in their own backyard has not been without some serious growing pains. I wish my friends well.