Sunday, January 7, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 7, 2001

Forever stoked: Beachboy Rabbit Kekai

By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

Legendary waterman Rabbit Kekai parks illegally on Kalakaua Avenue in front of the police station, in a rush to apologize to a reporter for running late to an interview. But he is having a hard time getting the few steps from the sidewalk to the C & K beach boy shack where he works when he’s in town. He is stopped repeatedly by friends who are hanging around the beach, enjoying the idyllic weather of a November morning as they wait for the start of Kekai’s birthday bash at Duke’s Canoe Club later that day.

They shake hands, local-style, hug, chat. Finally, he manages to traverse the 30 feet.

Looking decades younger than his 80 years, sporting Clint Eastwood-style wrap-around sunglasses and a silver goatee, and dressed in Birkenstocks, jeans and an aloha shirt, he gestures to what he considers overly formal attire and grimaces: "I go home and change," he says. "I’ll be back." It takes him even longer to return to his car.

Rabbit Kekai is one of the Islands’ best-known beach boys and surfers, and one of the few who bridges the generation gap between today’s surfers and the old-timers who sported colorful nicknames and lived even more colorful lives. The protege of a great waterman who came before him, he now inspires a younger generation, lending his name to a prestigious contest and continuing to compete himself. Dividing his time now between Hawaii and California, working when he wants, surfing every day, he still relishes the beach boy life and seems amused by the attention this birthday is receiving.

Thirty minutes later, he settles onto a rock wall near the beach boy shack wearing shorts and a Rabbit Kekai Toes on the Nose Longboard Surf Contest T-shirt, with a backpack slung over one shoulder. On the water, surfers are assembled in clusters, gleaning what they can from Waikiki’s small winter waves. No wind blows. The ocean is glassy, the palm trees still.

The hum from the constant stream of cars and the crowds of people blanketing the sand make it difficult to imagine the quiet village this was in 1925, when the only completed hotel was the Moana and tourists trickled in by steamship. That was when 5-year-old Rabbit Kekai started surfing.

"You see the catamarans down there at Publics?" He gestures toward the Outrigger Canoe Club to an outside break. "That’s where I learned to surf when I was a kid."

He looks around, as if trying to remember the Waikiki of old, shaking his head at what it has become. "It was paradise," he says. "No surfers in there to bother us - the crowd I mean. You get up there and have your battle with the ocean and the wave."

By the time he was 6, he was "out there with the big boys," he recalls. "I was what you call a tiger. I used to surf with the Duke."

The late, legendary swimmer, surfer and cultural ambassador Duke Kahanamoku remains a constant source of inspiration to Kekai, who recalls the day when the Duke approached him and asked if he knew how to steer an outrigger canoe. He wanted the young Kekai to start racing.

"He took me out in a two-man, and he was surprised that I could steer real good. So he started to teach me how to go inside." By age 14, Kekai was one of Hui Nalu’s best steersmen, holding his own against Outrigger Canoe Club, then coached by Kahanamoku. Kahanamoku taught him so well that Kekai went on to become one of the most skilled watermen in the Islands, even edging out the teacher himself in one canoe race.

Kekai is considered the father of modern hotdogging, but he credits Duke with possessing all the grace: "He had a style that I don’t think anyone can duplicate."

However, according to University of Hawaii oceanographer and big wave surfing pioneer Rick Grigg, 63, Kekai, too, has an artistry unlike anyone else’s.

"Rabbit’s a totally unique individual, even among surfers," said Grigg. "First, he’s 80 and he’s still going strong and actually surfing very well, not just for 80, but period. I came to Hawaii when I was 16 and Rabbit was one of the hottest hotdoggers around. I remember watching him hang five or ten, and it was amazing because his toes looked like ginger root."

Grigg laughed. "He’s the most stoked surfer I’ve ever met, bar none. There’s an enthusiasm and a total commitment to his sport that exceeds anything I’ve seen."

Quick-footed style

Randy Rarick, 51, executive director of the Triple Crown of Surfing, agreed: "His style was quick-footed and very agile. Guys from California came over and saw his style and took it back with them, and that became the basis for the well-known California surfers. It all originated with Rabbit."

The label "hotdogger" meant something specific, Grigg explained: "It meant you were doing every trick in the book on small waves, and doing them first, and doing them well. He was an innovator."

Apparently, this tricky, quickfooted agility, along with his spirited personality and active social life, were the reasons why the old beach boys nicknamed the young Albert Kekai "little jack rabbit," from which he became, simply, Rabbit.

Though he is a longboard specialist, Kekai has evolved with the sport. "He’s really keen about contemporary surfing," said Rarick, who has worked with Kekai on the Triple Crown for 30 years. "Rabbit can watch a heat and without even listening to judges, he can tell you who made it out."

Back at the beach, Kekai is saying that he rides surfboards ranging in length from 6 feet 6 to 14 feet. But his heart remains with the hefty originals. "Longboarding is here to stay," he declares. He should know. Not only is he still surfing 75 years later, he sponsors one of the most prestigious longboarding contests in the world, held annually in Costa Rica.

Included in the constant stream of friends and acquaintances who approach throughout the morning is his wife, Lynn. She kisses him on the cheek, then joins him on the rock wall for a few minutes.

Asked how long they’ve been married, he gazes at her as she rejoins her friends and replies, "Oh, quite a while. With me, years just go by. Like my age. It just goes by." This is a second marriage for both, and they do not have children together. Kekai, however, has five grown offspring who are married and scattered around the country.

Lynn, a school teacher in San Pedro, Calif., near the home in Lomita where they live when not in Hawaii, seems to understand what her husband needs. "She pushes me to travel, to surf," he says. "And she comes with me when she can."

Another surfer ambles over to give Kekai a message: "Gidget says hi."

Minutes later, someone comments on his new buzz haircut. Kekai chuckles. "I fell asleep on the lawn. Lawn mower got me!"

Though Kekai has been known to engage in playful games of one-upmanship with fellow surfers, self-deprecation and humility are essential components of his personality. Said Danny Tamonte, a beach boy who works with Kekai at the C & K beach shack, "It’s like working with my dad. He never put himself high like that."

But humility doesn’t mean giving up the autonomy associated with attaining kupuna status. Asked if Kekai worked a regular schedule, another beach boy at the C & K shack, Michael Corpuz, 27, said, "He works when he wants."

"When the waves is up, you won’t catch me around," confirms Kekai. "Hell with the lessons!"

He gestures to an outside reef. "When it’s breaking out there, I go out 6 in the morning, come back 9:30, eat breakfast. At 12, I’m out again. Surf all day, like about six hours. Life of a beach boy. Easy, you know? Go with the flow." A hearty laugh escapes.

Rich and famous

Though he admits the reputations of beach boys in Waikiki’s golden era were that of ladies’ men and tireless revelers, he claims that, even then, he limited his participation in the wild life. He did, however, cater to the rich and famous. And made himself a legendary instructor in the process.

Queried about which movie stars he taught to surf, he waves his hand. "Oh, everyone," he says, as though people like Red Skelton, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas and Peter Jennings were anybody’s typical students.

When the conversation shifts to his fame and success at the beach, Kekai becomes deferential. "I owe everything to that man over there," he says, pointing toward the statue of Duke Kahanamoku on the beach walk. "He’s a guy I honor and look up to, because he’s not only my mentor and teacher, but a man of nobility also. He gives out aloha. And that’s what he taught me to do. He taught me to hold my head up and look the other way on bad things and to give back what he has given me."

Giving back to his sport, teaching and sharing are Kekai’s missions now. Beyond that, surfing remains an essential source of spiritual renewal. "You get all the guys coming back in the water and they say, Hey, it’s just like when we were kids,’" he says. "And I tell them, that’s the name of the game. Getting in the water can cure anybody. Look at me. I’m 80, and I’m well-preserved from that water!"

Rarick said that Kekai continues to influence surfers of all ages: "Here he is at the Pipe Masters. Thirty years later, he’s handing out jerseys to a third generation of guys who have come and gone, and he’s still kickin’. He’s the quintessential beach boy who’s lived a good life and continues to enjoy it."

State senator and founder of the professional surfing movement Fred Hemmings, 54, called Kekai "one of the great icons in the sport of surfing," and said he "should be a true inspiration - especially to young people of Hawaiian ancestry. He has preserved his culture in a very positive way, and that is simply by living it." Yet another surfer approaches, board tucked under his arms, hair dripping. Kekai motions toward the sea with a thrust of his chin: "Waves look pretty good for play."

The surfer nods. A grin creeps across Kekai’s tanned face. Soon the adult distractions of interviews and interruptions will disappear, swallowed by the the salt water that beckons this 80-year-old child of the ocean.

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