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‘Mother Nature at her gnarliest’: Lane draws surfers seeking epic waves

Surfers ride southshore swells generated by Hurricane Lane on Friday off of Waikiki Beach . (AFP/Getty Images)

KONA, Hawaii — With a historic hurricane threatening the islands here, most residents had batteries, food and water on the brain. But surfers like Guyvan Taevil had something else in mind.

“Waves,” Taevil said, clutching his blue body board on the shores of Kona. “It was the first thing that popped into my head.”

Despite beach closures and endless warnings from officials telling people to stay out of the ocean, adrenaline junkies like 22-year-old Taevil couldn’t keep away. Tropical Storm Lane, one of the most powerful storms Hawaii has seen in decades, is expected to whip up massive waves for days. Before Lane was downgraded Friday night from a hurricane to a tropical storm, officials had predicted a storm surge of up to 25 feet would cause major flooding and destruction throughout the state.

Heavy rain fell on Hawaii on Aug. 23, resulting in flooded residential streets as Hurricane Lane approached Oahu. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Amber Ferguson, Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post, Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post)

The ocean, Gov. David Ige (D) stressed on TV, “is not a safe place to be.”

Yet the lure proved irresistible. People were still bobbing out in the water with their surf boards and body boards Thursday afternoon in some areas despite the blare of emergency sirens warning everyone to take shelter.

Hono­lulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell acknowledged the trouble officials were having in getting visitors to heed the warnings. Tourists swam along Waikiki Beach even though it was closed to the public.

“Some of them have no idea, which is surprising at this point,” Caldwell said. “The surge in Hawaii is just so much stronger.”

But that very surge is why carpenter Michael Mitchell took to the choppy water on Oahu’s south shore Thursday after being ordered home from his work site ahead of the hurricane. He boarded up his house and headed out, as he does almost any time a big storm is bearing down on the island.

A Big Island, Hawaii, resident captured the rise of flooding next to her home on Aug. 24. Hurricane Lane was downgraded to a tropical storm that evening. (Video: Krystal Ho'onani via Storyful)

“When a hurricane’s coming . . . you’re not working, you might as well come down and check it out,” he said after paddling around the prime surf spot of Kewalo Basin. “And it’s Mother Nature at her gnarliest too . . . so when the waves get big, it’s not a bad idea to come down.”

There are downsides, of course. After Hurricane Iniki in 1992, Mitchell encountered hordes of Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish that had been blown in.

“We just wore long sleeve jerseys and just kind of paddled them out of the way,” he said. “We got stung about 10 times, but we had the unreal waves.”

Iniki was the last major storm to hit Hawaii as hard as officials are still anticipating with Lane, which has dumped more than two feet of rain on the state’s biggest island. The prospect has surfers thinking they won’t again see waves like this for decades.

The locals maintain that they understand when to stay out of the water and closely follow weather reports.

Will Thayer, an off-duty surf instructor, said he knew when “the most dangerous conditions” would be and so could avoid the water then. But he didn’t want to miss the barrels — the hollow part of waves just as they break — that the hurricane could bring.

“I just really hope that it doesn’t really have an effect on us, and I hope it just makes the waves really good, and everyone has off work and school, and we all just surf,” Thayer said. “That’s the dream.”

As dark clouds passed over Ho’okipa Beach Park on the shores of north Maui, Justin Fishberg rubbed surf wax on his shortboard.

“I just moved here from L.A. two weeks ago, and I’m a little nervous to do this,” the 25-year-old admitted Thursday while spraying himself with sunscreen. “My family keeps calling me and begging me not to go in the water.”

By 11 a.m., after a night of wind and rain, swells that usually reach only a foot or two in the summer had grown to as much as six feet.

“I probably shouldn’t go in, but the longer I wait, the worse it’ll get,” Fishberg said, eyeing the surf before jumping in with others to ride the waves.

Taevil was almost poetic when describing the rare wave breaks that come before or after a storm, allowing him to surf higher for longer. “The rain makes it glassy, and you can see through the barrel,” he said. “Sometimes you can see the sunset through it.”

One surfspot in Kona is nicknamed “Suicides” for its short turn between riding high and plowing headfirst into rock-hard reef break. “The ocean doesn’t have any mercy,” Taevil noted — but he pushes the dangers out of his mind.

He’d spent four hours body surfing in the area, and he planned to paddle himself back into the water right after Lane departs.

“This is once in a lifetime,” he said. “I know for a fact in another 20 or 30 years I won’t be doing the same thing, so I got to get it in while I can.”

Kerr reported from Maui; Teague reported from Oahu. Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang in Washington contributed to this report.

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