The Shot -- 7/11/98

The Money Shot--Kanoa Dahlin going mental!

Part 1: The Practice Session

"The contest is tomorrow?", I asked in disbelief. My friend Reid Inouye had called to remind me of the Hawaiian Longboard Federation (HLF) contest he wanted me to photograph. I had stupidly thought it was the following week and had already planned out my weekend.

This was going to be more than just a photo shoot for me. Reid was going to let me surf the contest, helping me temporarily satiate my desire for competition. It would also reconnect me with the surf contest scene--a scene with which I was intimately involved with for so many years.

After getting the green light from my understanding wife and after apologetically canceling my Sunday sesh with Bud, I was good to go. My anticipation was magnified by the knowledge that the surf was coming up for the weekend; but by exactly how much, I wasn’t sure.

Dawn patrol at Kewalos. The full moon revealed just how big it got overnight. The surf was somewhat inconsistent, but when the sets came, it was pretty awesome--at least four feet (Haw'n). The angle was from the south-southwest, with the lefts wrapping nicely into the channel. The rights were fast, but makeable in the morning. It was perfect for some pre-contest warmup.

It’s always nice to surf with friends, but you know your true friends when they call you out in the lineup. One such guy was my friend Tommy Chun-Ming. Family man, born-again Christian, workaholic, zinc oxide user--Tommy is all that and more. Never the conformist, Tommy rode a plugless 9'0" twin fin swallow! We talked story and surfed together as much as we could in the crowded lineup.

Lance Ho'okano, Joey Valentin, Kanoa Dahlin were also on hand early on, just styling in the morning. Surprisingly absent were world champs Rusty Keaulana, Bonga Perkins and Dino Miranda. But even without them, the competition was still top-knotch.

I got in just about two hours of practice surf. Waves were head-high plus and really fun. Caught just a few of the lefts before the lineup got clogged with contestants. With all the world-class longboarders in the water, I didn't even try jockeying for the longer lefts. Anyway, I had much more fun on the zippy, closeout rights, taking off late on my tank, pumping a couple of times, then kicking out over the shallows. Despite a nasty spill that bruised and lacerated my left foot, I was feeling pretty confident about my surfing, even though I rarely surfed the spot.

I was ready for my heat.

Contest Time!

Part 2: The Heat

Coming in from my practice session, I was greeted by a few more "Howzits" and "Long time no see's". It was nice that people remembered me, especially after my long hiatus from the contest scene. However, I didn't get much of a chance to talk story--Rabbit told me I was slated to surf in the fourth heat out. And I found out that I would be going against my friend Tommy Chun-Ming!

When it comes to longboard contests I have a terrible attitude. Since I don't practice much and don't consider myself even at an average level of expertise, I go in with the mindset that I will lose anyway. I know that if I took a more positive approach, I could do better despite my skills. But for some reason, I just don't think that way. I'm just looking for a bit of contest angst, some good waves and a nice t-shirt.

But that doesn't mean I'm not trying. I go through the standard strategy-planning process prior to a heat like everyone else. You have to first think about what the judges are looking for and execute accordingly; anticipate the rhythm of the ocean and position yourself to catch the waves. The bottom line, however, is to just surf better than your competitors. When you have only 15 minutes to get three decent waves, it really becomes a rigorous test of surf knowledge and skill (with a bit of luck thrown in).

My regular plan of attack is to live and die waiting for the big ones. However, I knew that it was inconsistent, and some heats were skunked for any good waves at all. So I departed from my usual modus operandi and planned to hunt down the smaller ones.

A horn blast signaled the start of our heat, so I synchronized my watch to countdown the heat time and paddled to the lineup with the rest of the contestants. Here's a play-by-play of what transpired:

The end of the previous heat saw a decent set at the end, so I let the other contestants rush ahead into the quiet lineup. A couple of guys caught some tiny, but nicely walled ones. I waited. My first wave: chest-high left, good wall, slow carves up and down backside, rode it pretty far. On the inside, I unceremoniously fell forward off my board in two feet of water, scraping both forearms on the shallow reef--no biggie. Second wave: wanted to wait for a set, but by then it seemed like everyone already had two fair rides. Started to get impatient. I chanced a small one, but got thumped on the Kewalos peak that sucks right over that shallow spot (which I had put a mental note during practice to avoid). Of course, right then a mini-set came in. I got stuck in the soup and had a front-row view of two of my fellow competitors riding overhead waves. By the time I got back out, the horizon went flat again. Third wave: in desperation, I paddled inside and quickly wiped out on the takeoff on a lousy right. Fourth wave: caught a dribbler and alternately stood and proned to make the inside section, eventually floundering in the shallows. Very lame ride. With a minute remaining, I was too far inside to paddle back out, so I just waited for the heat to end.

Five guys were listed in our heat, four guys showed up, top three advanced. Without looking at the results, I knew I didn't make it. Actually, I was pretty close to the third place guy, points-wise, but I really didn't deserve to advance. If only...

Competition is a completely different realm of surfing. I love to participate, but I will never master it. Don't have that killer instinct--don't want it.

Adding injury to insult (flip-flopped the cliché), I sliced my foot (again), this time just climbing out of the water. It was bad enough to have to have it tended to with antiseptic and bandage. It was turning into a punishing day for my body.

As far as my contest goals: I got my angst, I got at least one good wave, and I got my nice t-shirt. Mission accomplished. Now it was time to take some pictures.

The best view in the house

Part 3: The Photo Session

With me out of the competition "picture", I could "focus" (so to speak) on the contest photography, which is what I was asked to do in the first place. I had some old print film left in my camera, so I took some practice shots on land just to see how the 500 mm would work. Although the sun sidelit most of the distant action, it was adequate.

However, water photography is what I was really looking forward to doing. I decided to jump in the water and practice by shooting the Boys division. Rummaging through my trunk, I was bummed to find that the viewfinder of my Nikonos camera got damaged. Damn! After tinkering with it to no avail, I swam out anyway, hoping that the camera would still be functional.

Even though the lighting was more backlit from the lineup, I was much closer to the action and could get more dramatic shots. Water photography is so interactive and much better at capturing a surfer's perspective. And getting in the water is almost as good as actually surfing... almost.

It's pretty difficult, trying to shoot a moving target from a fluid platform, all the while worrying about things like changing light conditions and waterspots. During contests, however, you have to be extra careful to stay out of the way (having a wide angle lens on my camera didn't help). Temptation always made me want to go for a good picture, but I had to keep reminding myself that these guys were trying hard to advance, especially the pros who were surfing for dollars. There were quite a few times when the surfers would wipeout just after they had passed me in the water. Although no words or "stink-eyes" were sent my way, I wondered whether my presence made them fall.

Swimming 100 yards offshore was tough, but duckdiving waves, then finding coral heads in my face just three feet underwater was downright spooky. It was a minefield out there! At least the current wasn't too bad, even though the full moon low tide drained the reef. I did take more than a few bombs on the head, but it was fairly easy to punch through, maneuvering between the underwater turbulence and the reef.

My original plan was to come in and reload film before the pro heats, but I ended up staying out all the way through the pro quarters. It eventually turned into a three-hour water-treading marathon!

After a while, I started feeling a tingling on my neck. At first it just felt like a light brush with a Portuguese Man-O-War, but it got progressively more painful. I finally realized that I was feeling the onset of a wicked sunburn. I had forgotten to put on sunscreen and was starting to fry. Just had to hunker down and suffer till the end of the heats.

The Boys and Senior Men surfed well, getting some excellent sets in their heats. But I was trying to save my shots for the pros. When you take water photos, you have to really ration your film. There's only 37 exposures on one roll, and a reload would require a swim back in, drying off of the camera, film swap, and swim back out--lots of time burned and opportunities missed.

Swimming without any board was so liberating. You can just position yourself so the tube just crests over you, yet easily duck safely through. Also, you can really feel the cyclical energy of waves. Since there were only four contestants in each of the pro heats, I sometimes found myself at the peak alone. I managed to bodysurf on a couple of nice ones, including snagging a really good barrel (Rick and Doug, you guys would've been proud).

Finally, the last pro heat ended. Just in time too--it got overcast and I was on shot number 36. I dragged myself in, dehydrated, sunbaked, weary, but super stoked.

After talking story a little bit and feeding my growling stomache, I ventured back to the small jetty to shoot some more land pics, this time with the good stuff (actually Ektachrome, yuck!). Conditions weren't as good as the morning, with overcast skies and even a bit of rain. However, I still managed to get some pretty good photos.

Bummer of the day was my hat. Since I was so burnt from the sun, I tried to cover up as much as possible, wearing a longsleeve sweater with hood. I plopped my favorite safari hat on top for extra protection. While shooting, a gust of wind blew it off my head and into the churning water in the channel. A girl standing next to me volunteered to get it and bravely jumped in. (Said she was going to go in for a dip anyway.) After many attempts in the rough conditions, she finally grabbed the soggy hat and tossed it up to me. It fell just three feet short of my grasp, and rolled right back into the water. We tracked it for about a minute as it was swept around by the strong current. Finally, it got thrust deep inside the rock pilings never to be seen again. Sob! Oh well, an honorable death for a good surf hat.

I was stoked that no one else from the media was covering the event. More chance that my photos would be used in some publication. "Banzai" Betty Depolito did come out in the water with me and shot some video for her show, but that was OK--different format. However, late in the day, a water photog ventured out and shot the semis and final pro heats. It was none other than Vince Cavataio, one of the North Shore's best. So much for scooping the event.

Despite the overcast skies, I managed to capture some decent images. The "money shot" was of Kanoa Dahlin (lead image), who did a maniacal re-entry attempt. He eventually settled for second in the pro division behind an on-fire Joey Valentin. My buddy Tommy Chun-Ming just missed getting into the pro final, but at least he won our Master's division.

Sunburnt face and neck, scraped forearms, lacerated foot, waterlogged head. I was banged-up pretty badly from the day's effort. Was it worth it? Well, even though I lost in my heat, I really enjoyed the contest challenge. I was stoked that the Honolulu Advertiser ran one of my photos in the Sunday newspaper (they used one of my practice shots). As for the rest of the images, hopefully someone out there will want to use them so the boys can get some coverage and incentives.

Flipping through surf magazines, it's easy to overlook all the effort put into surf photography. Just remember that there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears (and sometimes hats) sacrificed just to get "the shot".

Aloha from Paradise,
sponge (limping, peeling, but otherwise healthy)