Mixed Plate
The Polihale Incident -- 4/18/00

The potential of Polihale

This is an unsolicited true story that my good friend, Richard, sent to me about an event we shared back in 1983. I was really stoked that he took the time to do this. This session was by far the closest I've ever come to drowning, and in the future, I'll elaborate on my experiences on that fateful day.

Polihale is a place of deceptive beauty. White sand that rivals anywhere in the world against a half backdrop of the Napali Coast off to the left --- eleven miles of sheer cliffs which act as a protective wall against the huge north Pacific winter swells off the northwest shore of Kauai. The winter swells can reach 25+ feet. But, it was early summer, and Polihale was in its biannual slumber. The hour drive from Lihue allowed the anticipation to slowly rise and peak, just as all had expected the 2-4 foot waves to do that day.

We were rookies, although perhaps Neal had the most experience with his Mach 7-7 (bodyboard). He was already proficient in the art of 'drop knee' and with the right swell, could easily surf his board. Wayne, from Koloa, a short 10 minute jaunt to the renown south shore, was a familiar sight at Brennecke Beach pre-Iwa and Lawai Kai. More a bodysurfer than a board rider, he was nevertheless a gun. Richard, on the other hand, was more along for the ride and camraderie. Judging by his tan, or lack thereof, it was easy to discern that he had the least amount of board time. However, he, like his contemporaries Neal and Wayne T., was eager to hit the water and was confident in his abilities, or later as all would reflect, naive about his limits.

The pre-wave scoping indicated waves in the 2-3 foot (Hawaiian) range. Polihale is a multilevel sandbreak, and the waves were peaking mid-level. All instantly agreed that the water was right. Mistake number one: they failed to pay attention long enough to realize that rogue waves of the 5-6 (Hawaiian) had been slamming into the beach on that morning. Since Polihale faces the most dangerous ocean in the world, it has a reputation of surprising even the most experienced riders. Our three friends, in their youthful exuberance, lost sight of this fact. Richard, despite his willingness to kawabunga with his buddies, was definitely outgunned. Yet, our boys, with andrenaline in their veins and smiles on their faces, went for it.

Moving to mistake number two, Richard, in his haste and excitment of being with his friends on a warm early summer day, had forgotten his fins. Under normal circumstances, a single fin is enough to get one out of trouble. Naturally Wayne T. graciously offered up a fin, which was gladly accepted. If there was a problem out there, both Richard and Wayne T. would be in trouble.

Quickly moving out ahead of the pack, Neal was the first to grab a nice 3 footer. As I recall all these years later, it was a nice left with a small barrel. Technique is innate, and Neal was a star even back then. Wayne T., although handicapped by the lack of a fin, was the next on line. He caght a smaller left. Richard was the last to the break. Although he lack both style and form, he was happy just be on a wave. Those fleeting moments of joy were the last that morning.

While attempting to make it back out, the 6 footers arrived. Richard was caught flat-footed in the zone. He made it through the first and second waves of the set, but was overcome by the third. His leash snapped and his board went sailing like some extra sea foam. The single fin was not enough, and he was barely keeping his head above water. Neal had taken off on the first wave and as he passed his friend, hoped that Richard would be able to manuever enough to get under the following monsters. Neal had his own problems to deal with, as he got some bad air and crashed. He would have to fight the same monsters to make it out again. Wayne T. was also caught in the zone, but manage to laterally dodge the remaining monsters to the right.

Fortunately for Richard, the sea was 10-15 feet deep and the floor was sandy. The bottom he hit the first time after losing his board was sandy, and not covered by coral. It hurt, but he could push off and bob.

What saved him, however, were his two buddies in the water who had probably seen the terror in his eyes and who knew he was in trouble. Neal was the first one there. He powered through the white water at met Richard in minutes. After ensuring that Richard was holding his own, he reversed and scanned the horizon to see if any stragglers were in striking range. Wayne T. was not far behind. With Richard dangling between the two boards, all three made it in to the shore. When they finally reached the beach, all fell at the water's edge in vain attempts to catch their breaths. They would lie there collectively for the better part of half an hour.

Neal is today a semipro sponger/surfer/bodyboarder/engineer. Wayne T. is a vacation sponger/engineer. Richard is a recipient of sponge news/attorney.