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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 15, 2002

'60s surfing legend catches waves in writing

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

Kimo Hollinger doesn't surf the big waves anymore. But he does rise at the first sliver of light each morning to make a quick check of the waves near his Waialua home.

Kimo Hollinger says he still surfs in the mornings if the waves aren't too big.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Hollinger is a former lifeguard, a retired fire captain, a father and grandfather, and author of the newly published short story collection, "Kimo" (Anoai Press, paper, $14.95).

"He is a hero surf figure of the '60s," said Steve Pezman, publisher of The Surfer's Journal and one of Hollinger's writing mentors.

Even today he is still — and always will be — a surfer. And, at 62, he is a member of a disappearing generation of guys who can remember skeg-less wooden boards that required the force of a Mack truck to maneuver.

Some years ago, Hollinger watched a dear friend take to drink when he couldn't handle the big ones anymore. It was a lesson, like so many others that Hollinger has learned, most of them the hard way.

So when at 35 he nearly drowned at Waimea, churned in the shorebreak, praying desperately while lifeguards, firefighters and fellow surfers formed a human chain to pull him out, he knew he had to come to terms with the fact that he was no longer a top-of-the-line surfer.

It was hard at first, he says, "but then I began to realize just being a participant was great, and just being an observer was great."

These days, if the surf's too big, he'll play golf. Or he'll head home, talk story with his wife, Bunnie, watch a little TV in the recliner in the carport, or write a short story.

But if the waves are breaking nicely in the 6-foot range, he'll paddle out on the 11-footer some friends made for him when he turned 60, and get in an hour as the first light warms the world.

At about the time the rest of the lineup is waxing up, he's a little tired and ready to head back in to the beach to watch the next generation.

Don't ask him exactly which breaks he favors; he'll go cagey on you.

"If I told you that," he says with a twinkle in his searching hazel eyes, "I don't think the guys I surf with would like it very much."

The most specific direction he'll give you is a vague wave in the direction of Mokule'ia.

Much about the competitive, merchandise-driven world of surfing today makes Kimo wince. But for the surfers themselves, he has nothing but aloha.

"These kids today are such beautiful, beautiful surfers, and they do such daring maneuvers. I'd like to say we were better," he says, referring to his cohort of '60s-era big-wave riders, "but there's no comparison."

He makes a point of mentioning how respectful the younger generation has been — guys like Lance Ho'okano and Bonga Perkins.

But he also says that with the heated tempers that increasingly infect the lineups, he tries to surf where he's known.

If he gets hassled, he says, "I mouth off and I come in. It's not worth it."

What is worth it is telling his stories, just as he once listened to his elders' stories while growing up in Waikiki, Wailupe and then 'Aiea Heights with a Portuguese-Irish father and a Hawaiian-Caucasian mother.

Henry "Chubby" Hollinger Sr. was a firefighter. Kimo's mother, "Dutchie" Hollinger, was a musician who played with Johnny Almeida's band. The two surfed Waikiki tandem.

Kimo was a shy boy, short and pudgy. The kupuna liked him because he was quiet, a listener, and they would call for him to come visit them.

Then, at 15, he experienced an extraordinary growth spurt that took him to his present lanky 6-foot-3. At about the same time he enrolled at Punahou, he began hanging with a bunch of townside surfers.

Kimo Hollinger book kickoff and signing

1-4 p.m. Sunday

Strong Currents surf shop and surfing museum, Hale'iwa

His uncle gave him an old redwood board that had been stored under the house, 10 feet long and as thick as a tree, so heavy that young Kimo could barely carry it. At 16, he got a lightweight balsa board.

"It was like not even the same sport. I didn't have to go straight anymore, I could turn," he recalls with a laugh.

His friends took him out to Makaha and, though his mother deplored his penchant for riding the walls of water there, he couldn't stop.

"It was so beautiful, so exacting," he recalls.

Tracing the wake of mentors Rabbit Kekai, Wally Forsythe, George Downing and Buzzy Trent, he surfed whenever he could, worked summers as a lifeguard and, at 18, traveled to California to check out the waves there.

Eventually, he followed his father into the fire department, married and fathered two daughters.

But they were not tame days.

"We were so skilled on the water, but when we came on the land, we were such dummies," he says.

Kimo quit big-wave riding at 35 but didn't stop drinking until he was 45. Jesus, he says, let him get a look at himself, how he was acting, and he didn't like what he saw.

When he was younger, he said, he didn't care. "Now I'd like to be thought of as someone who cares. That's how I wanna be seen."

He cares about the way that recreational surfers are increasingly taking a back seat at the beach to pros, surfing competitions, moviemaking and other pursuits.

"It's Parks and Recreation, not Parks and Commercialism," he says.

His writing, he says, is a way to say what he thinks without boring anyone. This is typical of the persona Hollinger has cultivated, said Pezman.

"He masquerades as an uneducated, dumbfounded, tongue-tied person, but really, he's a hip, erudite, educated observer of the human condition," said Pezman, who has serialized Kimo's stories in his magazine, which is aimed at the experienced surfing audience (www.surfersjournal.com).

Hollinger, he said, is respected because he is humble while possessing unimpeachable authority.

"He's not a guy trying to get notice, but there's some part of him that doesn't mind coming out of the closet with these writings," said Pezman, who appreciates his friend's unadorned, straightforward writing style, and the ironic, cynical, philosophical or sometimes touching zingers with which he often embroiders his stories. "He's a jazz musician, but his instruments are the words, and there's always a little rim shot at the end."

In the new collection from Anoai Press, Hollinger writes about the old days in surfing, about dangerous rescues in his firefighter days, about old friends like his pal Chubby Mitchell and the legendary Eddie Aikau, who helped rescue him at Waimea.

He tears up when he talks about Aikau's disappearance in an attempt to help his friends aboard a swamped voyaging canoe.

He was angry about that for a while, he says.

But now he knows better: "You cannot hold a grudge. You cannot hold your anger. You have to aloha the good and just know the bad is there, too."