The State of Aloha

A few weeks ago I found myself in Waikiki. The sidewalks and streets were jam-packed with visitors from around the world. Mainland, Asian and Australian visitors walked about in their shorts and distinctive white shoes (the hallmark of most tourists), hemorrhaging money at every bar, restaurant and ABC Store. As you can expect, you don’t really see a lot of local people on Kalakaua Avenue — the main drag running parallel to the beach in Waikiki. And we cannot forget the beach.

The golden-colored sands of Kuhio Beach hugging the shoreline on Waikiki has been a place of leisure from time immemorial. While most of Waikiki was a swamp, the beach brought high chiefs and royalty during the days of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the mid-19th century.

At the start of the 20th century and the territorial period, the beach became the center for the incipient tourist industry. In 1901, the Moana Hotel opened its doors to tourists who made the long trek (in those days the only real way for visitors to get to the islands was by boat) to Waikiki. The grand, gray building, now known as the Moana Surfrider, still remains at a prime spot on the beach.

The hotel set up a beach concession stand for visitors and promoted ocean activities like surfing and canoeing for guests. But there was a problem.

Tourists who had never seen a surfboard could not be expected to just paddle out and face the waves and shore break. The hotel recruited men from local canoe clubs to help the tourists get acquainted with the ocean.

The men who ventured into the surf with inexperienced tourists were great athletes. They were considered well-rounded watermen who could fish, dive, surf and canoe. They had to be. This was the start of the modern beach boy.

Things really took off in the 1920s and ’30s with the opening of the luxurious Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the distinct pink edifice that still stands among the tall buildings and shopping centers, and the simultaneous opening of Matson’s shipping lines from the Mainland to Honolulu.

It was the first time that tourists flocked to Waikiki en masse. (With the exception of World War II, the flocking hasn’t ceased.) Once they were there at a hotel right on the beach, part of the charm and experience of the tourist experience was to get a surf lesson or paddle out in a canoe under the experienced guidance of a local beach boy.

Beach boys had a strict code of conduct. They did not drink and gamble, and were responsible not only for the tourists, but the beach as a whole. They were a presence on the sands of Waikiki and kept the beach clean and safe. Then there are the names. Only in Hawaii will you have folks with names like Steamboat Mokuahi, Panama Dave, Turkey Love and, of course, Rabbit Kekai.

For decades the beach boys and canoe clubs were a constant on the beach at Waikiki. They helped thousands of visitors get more acquainted with the ocean through surfing, swimming and paddling.

One of the last beach boy organizations was Star Beach Boys, a group founded by union leader Arthur Rutledge and Steamboat Mokuahi in the early 1970s. As the organization became more modernized, the City and County of Honolulu would give them a permit to continue their ocean activities that would be renewed every five years.

This time the city did not renew their operation and awarded the permit to a new company called Dive Oahu and Surf. In November of last year, the city ordered Star Beach Boys to vacate Waikiki in May.

And they did. Star Beach Boys broke down its iconic stand next to the statue of the most famous of all beach boys, Duke Kahanamoku. Their equipment and the rustic stand itself are gone. They made way for a slicker-looking stand, blue cabanas and beach equipment, and uniformed employees confirming reservations on iPads.

Many see this as the end of the beach boys. Old-time watermen have refused to work for the new company and have lamented that Waikiki has finally cut off the last of its island roots and traditions.

It’s too bad. Just stroll around Waikiki and you can see it’s possible to spend your entire vacation with almost no real interaction with local culture. For many visitors, the surf lesson or the canoe ride is the only real interaction they will have with a local person.

There’s also the safety factor. The ocean can be an unsafe place. Surfers can be unforgiving when it comes to novices on the waves. Without the local knowledge, experience and reputation among other surfers from beach boys, the new company faces an uphill battle. If the dive company cannot get the locals, they may be sunk.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”