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Waves of Fear
A Busy Afternoon on Sandy Beach, the Most Dangerous Surfing Spot in the U.S.

By Alex Salkever
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 1, 1999; Page E01
   


"Dude, that guy just got slammed! I mean totally worked!"

A kid in a thick pickup parked to my left howls in a combination of sympathy and derision. From my vantage point in the parking lot above the steeply sloped crescent of Sandy Beach Park, I must say that I am in complete agreement. The young dude in question did get totally worked. In milder surfer terminology, he "wiped out." In layman's terms, he was pummeled, smashed and sandblasted, and possibly hurt. The victim bobs to the surface, a dazed look on his face, and starts to swim toward the shore.

Another set of spinning blue cylinders is already lining up. As the waves hit the rocks and sand a mere 50 yards off shore, a school of young daredevils jockeys for takeoff position as the wave feathers, rears and starts to throw. Another victim slithers down the face, disappears into the barrel of the wave and then gets snuffed as a huge wall of water collapses on him. He emerges dazed and smiling in the roiling backwash.

"Oh, dude!" says the kid parked next to me. "That's gotta hurt!"

So goes another afternoon on Sandy Beach, Oahu's ocean-bound answer to professional wrestling. Some folks pay 50 bucks for tickets to watch other people get slammed. All we have to do is go to Sandies, an otherwise beautiful beach poised near the western reach of America, where a wicked shore break that often tops eight feet top to bottom creates the best--and most dangerous--bodysurfing and boogie-boarding conditions imaginable. According to lifeguards, Sandy Beach has the highest rate of spinal injuries of any beach in the country. Military personnel in Hawaii are sometimes explicitly warned by their COs to stay out of the water at Sandies. A red lifeguard tower stands stark sentry atop the beach, and flags usually indicate dangerous surf.

Drawn to the waves are, naturally, the best bodysurfers on the planet--kids with raggedy side-shaved haircuts, loose walks and dead-eye cool in the face of a terrifying natural powerhouse. They calmly survey the conditions before donning fins and paddling out to partake. "You going out there?" I ask one of the boogie-board-bearing minions. "Yeah, cuz [short for cousin, used as general form of address among locals]! Not too beeg today! Looks kinda fun, yeah?" A loud whomp of the wave crashing on the sand punctuates the irony of his statement.

During summer, when the south swells stack up like corduroy on the horizon, Sandies starts to jump and the parking lot fills up. School is over, and the days are ruled by the waves. And the kids come from out of the bamboo. You'll see them hanging out in the parking lot, girls in bikini tops and shades, braddahs in low-riding shorts and rubbah slippahs (flip-flops). On the barren, rocky and windswept southeast shoreline of Oahu, where the ocean is a hundred shades of unreal blue, country and city meet. Kids from rural Waimanalo in monster trucks park next to kids from citified Pearlridge in their lowered, souped-up, metallic-painted Acuras. Everyone has a board and lots of time. In recent years, the number of women in the water has skyrocketed, making the wave lineup as much a social scene as the beach where kids wrapped in mirrored wedge shades sprawl on straw mats under the sun.

"You going out there?" I ask a petite lady holding a bright blue Morey boogie board in the parking lot. "Me? No way! This is my boyfriend's board," she says with a giggle. Like this young lady and myself, the fearful stay ashore; even swimming is dicey in this area, because rip currents have been known to whip stunned surfers more than 30 miles across the Kaiwi Channel toward the island of Molokai.

But staying dry at Sandies is far from boring. At the other end of the parking lot, a quarter-mile down the coast, young families dip their feet in lava rock tide pools and point out colorful fish and sometimes collect seaweed. I wander over to the pools and study a crab as it does laps in the green waters. On a grassy expanse behind the beach, two friends duel their stunt kites. The colorful fabric fliers swoop and dive through the cornflower-blue heavens, where clouds hurry by but the sun reigns supreme. I ask one of them how long it took him to learn to fly a kite like that.

"Not too long. A few weeks. Want to try?" he offers enthusiastically. I crash the kite several times in rapid succession and gain an instant appreciation for his skills.

A small line forms at the battered lunch wagon around noon as locals vie for plate lunches of chicken katsu, sticky rice, macaroni salad and the mandatory can of Hawaiian Sun, a tasty sugar water with such paradisiacal flavors as passion fruit, lilikoi and guava. With roots stretching back to the bento box lunches of immigrant Japanese fieldworkers, the plate lunch is a wonderful amalgam of Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian and mainland palates. Not for dieters, to be sure, but plenty good.

"You going to eat all that?" I ask a healthy-looking individual with a heaping plate of food. "Oh, for sure, brah!" he replies cracking a wide grin. "Got to eat to get energy for surfing!"

As the afternoon wears on, the sun retreats and the parking lot empties. A few couples and small groups stay clustered around glowing hibachis as the sky goes crimson. No buildings or hotels are on Sandy Beach, so the evening sky is lit with a million stars, unmarred by the urban glow of Honolulu proper. And if you listen, as the temperature drops a few degrees the sound of the surf picks up. In the crisp night air, the dull roar is a soothing sound that lures folks to sleep on beach blankets under the stars.

Sandy Beach Park (8800 Kalanianaole Highway) is off the coastal Kalanianaole Highway, about a half-hour east from Waikiki. Take the H1 Freeway east until it turns into the Kalanianaole Highway. Stay on the Kalanianaole for about 20 minutes. Sandy Beach is five minutes past Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. For more info, call 808-395-2211, or check out www.aloha.com:80/lifeguards/sandy.html.

Alex Salkever last wrote for Travel about a sushi restaurant in Maui.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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