Teaching the Kids of Pipe

Matt is a school teacher. Big, black beard. 6’3, a bit of a gut spilling over his shorts. Maybe 250 lbs. I met him yesterday. With my feet cut up from the reef, my back and shoulders sore, my butt still bruised from the reef, I took a day out of the water. But I don’t take days out of the water easily. I find it difficult not to check the surf multiple times. So, this afternoon, after snorkeling, I bought an acai bowl, crossed the street to have a look at Pipe. Matt was there above the stairs down to the beech, on the pathway between the houses, with binoculars. I asked if he was watching the whales and he said “no,” he was there watching some of his students.

Matt teaches sixth grade at Sunset Elementary, the small school across the street from Pipeline. Finn McGill, the sixteen year old who won the Pipemasters Invitational the day before, was one of his students. Finn Mcgill said in his interview with Rosie Hodge on the WSL Broadcast that he remembers listening to the beach announcers call out the competitor’s scores and he would keep track of who was winning each heat while he sat in class. One of those classes was Matt’s. I asked how Finn was as a student. Unlike basketball or football, there is no scholarship sponsored surfing governed by the NCAA in college so the incentive to be as proficient academically as they are in the water is low. Virtually all the competitors on the world tour do not have college degrees. “He was fine” Jeremiah said. He’s a good kid.


Our conversation was punctuated by one of his youngsters taking off on a wave. “This kid is soooo good. He throws up rotations like they’re nothing.” I asked him how many of the kids in that school surf. He said, “not as many as you would think, only about thirty percent.” I said, considering the rest of the United States, that that was pretty good and asked “do most come from surfing royalty.” “Yes,” he said, “they do.” And these kids he said, “Oh my god, they’re fearless.”

The cool trade winds were settling down. The water was cleaning up, the surface returning to glassy. Perfect t-shirt weather. Classic Hawaii, not too humid and not too hot. A Hawaiian dove cooed on the path. The construction workers who had been working on the house next to the path we were chatting on unplugged their air compressor. The automatic nail guns stopped. You could hear their tool box opening and closing as they packed up and talked about their plans on where to surf and for dinner.

Each day after the bell rings, Matt goes over looks at tomorrow’s lesson plan, cleans up his desk, crosses the street to look at the ocean and watch his students surf. A little kid with black hair, in a spring suit, surfboard under his arm, passes by. “Hello John” Jeremiah says. The kid mumbles a “hello Mr. …” clearly not wanting anything to do with a teacher on his way to the water. Matt is a body surfer. He surfs but his thing is body surfing the Waimea shore break when it gets big. For him to say they’re fearless means something. I point out how young they are when they start and how small they are when they start. If they start surfing at four feet tall, with their knees bent they’re three feet tall, so a six foot wave is double overhead, hell, a five foot wave, is double overhead. I joke that surfing a six foot wave at their height isn’t any different than surfing a twelve foot wave when they’re fifteen. That surfing a nine foot wave when they’re that small is the same as surfing an 18 foot wave or bigger when they grow up. Matt says he’s teaching ratios and is going to use that in class tomorrow.

I grew up surfing in California and Baja. I didn’t grow up anything like these kids, surfing shallow coral reefs, warm water, two story surf. And I don’t have the gonzo gene. I walk up to the edge of things, look around, but a safety mechanism kicks in and I don’t jump off. Sure, I got pitched yesterday on a set wave because I did push myself over the ledge on a wave that didn’ want to be ridden. It happens. I hadn’t had a wave in 45 minutes and got frustrated and refused to let this wave pass. It wasn’t “big.” Only a few feet overhead. When I had to open my eyes underwater to see where I was I saw something red on the surface and didn’t know if it was blood. It was the bottom of a woman’s boogie board. When I paddled back out an Aussie said “You had to have hit bottom. You were down there for a long time.” “No,” I said and paddled in. I have friends that like to paddle out at a beachbreak when it gets in the 12-15 foot range, drop into waves with no shape, and get pounded just for the fun of it. That’s not me.

Every once in a while someone who doesn’t surf asks me if I’ve surfed Pipe. I have not. I’ve been here a week and I still haven’t. Mostly, when it is small enough for me to go out, there are better places to surf. When it is big, I have no interest. Throwing myself over an inverted edge with a reef a few feet below the surface on a wave taller than the second story of my house – I have things in my life to conquer, but that isn’t one of them. These kids, on the other hand, do. Their parents are big wave surfers. They walk by a plaque each day that lists the Pipe champions. The young girls are trying to surf better than the young boys and the young boys want to surf better than their fathers. Seeing these kids, and the men some of them become in their twenties trying to get the biggest barrel they can and follow it up by finding the next young, cute thing in the Surfer’s Bar in Turtle Bay at night – that life, its their life, their turn at that part of life, a life set up around “going over the ledge.” This isn’t my life, but I’m happy to watch.



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