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Rabbit Kekai memorabilia courtesy Kekai Family / California Surf Museum

Albert ‘Rabbit’ Kekai (1920-2016) was a legendary waterman and a member of the Pantheonic pre-war Waikiki beachboys. He is lauded for almost single-handledly ushering in the act of hot-dog surfing. Considered one of the all-time great canoe steersmen, Rabbit has won his share of grueling O’ahu to Molakai events and trophied at paddle-board events and surfing comptetitions around the globe. Inducted into both the Surfing Hall of Fame and Surfboard Shapers Hall of Fame, Kekai’s competitive edge came packaged with a great sense of humor and dedication to what they call in the Hawaiian Islands the ‘Aloha Spirit’—defined as the coordination of the True Self ’s mind, heart, and soul by thinking good thoughts and being kind to others. “Duke Kahanamoku always taught me to give back to the people. The Duke was my guru.” The following is a meeting OceanMag recorded with Rabbit at Canoes . . .

Waikiki Beach 2006 “I was born in 1920, on the other side of that big rock over there,” Kekai said, pointing toward Diamond Head. “My mother named me ‘Rabbit’ when I was a little kid. Every time she put me down, I’d be gone. ‘Where’s Rabbit?’ she’d say. I was fast. That’s how I got my name.” At only 5 years of age, Rabbit scampered down to a local surf break known as “Public Bath” to learn the art of surf riding. “We were riding big, heavy koa wood double-enders,” Rabbit said of his earliest surfing memories. “Even the bottoms and tops were the same shape, so you could paddle them both ways, and even flip them over. I could hardly move them, but I’d go out and paddle up and down and chase the little waves and stand up. I was hooked.”



As Rabbit’s surfing skills improved, he and his buddies would continue to work their way up the line, trying out the various surf breaks along Waikiki—but it wasn’t always all that simple. “When we were kids, were weren’t allowed to go here, and we weren’t allowed to go there. The big guys would kick us out,” Rabbit remembered of 1930’s Waikiki scene. “But they couldn’t kick us out because we surfed close to the white water. They didn’t like the white water. When they got close to the white water, they’d bug out.

“I started surfing old style, just standing up and riding the green water. Then I got a smaller board and started hot-dogging, crouching down, following the curl close to the white water, doing cutbacks and walking the nose.” And then the big guys took notice. “The Duke used to come down to our place at Public’s to watch us small guys out there on the big stuff. He watched me and saw how good I was surfing, so he wanted me to come down to his spot here at Canoes to surf with the big guys. He took care of me, took me under his wing and taught me all the finer points

of surfing and canoe steering. He taught me everything I know.” At only 14 years of age, Rabbit was considered an expert waterman and obtained his license to become a beach boy at Waikiki. This gave him the authority to take tourists out for canoe rides and teach them to surf….safely, of course. “I was the only little kid among all the old-timers,” Rabbit said proudly. “I’m a firstgeneration Beach Boy.” During this period, Rabbit began competitive canoe racing and was considered one of


Hui Nalu’s Canoe Club’s best steersmen, coached by ‘John D’ Kaupiko. “The Duke was with the Outrigger Canoe Club when they were our chief competitor. He was their best steersman. That’s when he took notice of me and taught me the finer points of steering and how to get the inside lane when we paddled. The Duke was smart and taught me a lot of different moves so when you turn, the inside guy doesn’t get by, like at the racetrack. One competition I beat the Duke by half a boat. I went up and got the trophy and brought my crew up. All six Kahanamoku

George Downing and I used to rule the roost. In our time, we were top dogs.

brothers lined up and shook my hand. And oh, the cheers came down the isle you know, from the old man especially. Duke came up and shook my hand and said to me ‘So you learned something, eh?’ It was an honor in those days.” Basking in ocean memories of old Hawaii, Rabbit recalls the surfing pecking order. “Even though there were what you would call today ‘territorial rights’ over certain breaks, Waikiki in the 1930’s was still uncrowded. You had the whole ocean to yourself and that was the best thing. You could catch a wave and go all you want. “We hung out right where Public Bath is,” speaking of himself, Louie Hema and his brothers Niga and Sam. “We were really good down in Waikiki. Our names were pretty big and when you’d get down to Queen’s, that’s all they’d look at, you know, Rabbit, Louie, Niga and Sam.” Many of Rabbit’s most famous competitive surfing wins were in the 1950’s, but Rabbit considers the late 1930’s and early 1940’s the time when “I was in my prime. We had our own cars, like woodies—stacked them with ten or twelve boards on the roof, with everyone chipping in a quarter for gas and bringing a dollars’ worth of food—rice, pork and beans—

and we’d go to Makaha, Halei’wa, Sunset and Velzyland. “One day we had a contest at Queen’s to see who was the best surfer amongst us. We’d go for tubes, take the drop and see who could stay in the longest. Smokey Lew would do something, then Hyah Aki would do something else, and then I’d go. Each time we’d say, ‘That’s it, that’s the best.’ But you could never tell. Each ride would be better than the last.” Of his long-time friend, the legendary George Downing, Rabbit recalls, “George and I used to rule the roost. In our time, we were top dogs. Georgie was more of a white-water rider. He’d get going on that wall from way back, and when it came over, he’d drop down and just go—like he was glued on. Power!” Incidentally, George Downing recalled a particular incident that was not uncommon down on the beach at early Waikiki. “Back then you couldn’t get into Queen’s if you were an outsider. The only way in was if a local got you in. Now, some of the boys learned to shape boards fast. One fella who shaped a lot of his own boards was known for being real quick. One day this guy on a good redwood plank drifted into Queen’s. The guys saw it was a nice piece of wood, so they let him OCTOBER / NOVEMBER 2020

catch a wave. Right away they shoved him off and the board floated inside. On the beach there were concessions and a lot of local activity. They had this one area where they kept the draw knives, saws and all the tools necessary to carve a board. Anyway, this uninvited visitor’s board floats in, and by the time he swam in, the real quick guy had already cut a new outline shape and had turned one rail. When the owner walked up, the speed shaper was pulling his draw knife down the other rail. Now, the outsider is a little suspicious and he asks the shaper if he’d seen his lost board. Then he goes, ‘Hey! That board looks like my board!’ The answer came back, ‘No way brah, I’ve been here working on this for weeks. Your board is probably caught in the rip. I’d go down to Public’s.’ So the guy walked off looking for it.” The largest surf Rabbit remembers was not on the North Shore or even Makaha, but right off Waikiki. “The biggest I’ve seen and been out in was during the ‘30’s at a place called ‘Bluebirds’. It was in the steamer lane. I don’t know how big, but according to George Downing and Wally Froiseth, it was about thirty to thirty-five feet. We couldn’t estimate the height out there.

International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame

“The waves crack way outside you, so we sat out there and watched, trying to take off toward the edge so it really cracks behind you. You can make it all the way down through Outside Castles and all the way through Big Publics and then you have to kick out because there’s just a big wall all the way down to the Royal Hawaiian. That’s what they call ‘Zero Break’ or ‘Outside Zero’, and there were six of us out that day and we practiced the buddy system—anybody that gets wiped out we’d go inside and help them out.

“The Lurline (632 ft ocean liner) came out and went right by, between us and the shoreline, in the regular shipping lane. Just after he got by us, just past the break, a big set came and we had to run for it. The set wave cracked way outside and I’m sure the captain must have crapped himself when he saw that, and if he’d been caught broadside, disaster. Afterward, I went down to the harbor to talk to him about it and he said he had seen us sitting out there and wondered what the hell those crazy surfers were doing out in the steamer lane!”

Rabbit remembered the fateful day at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. “We could see the Japanese fighter planes coming in, dropping bombs and the whole place going up. We drove up there to help out, but the Navy wouldn’t let us in.” Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rabbit began service for his country as part of the elite Underwater Demolition Team. The armed forces were especially interested in Rabbit’s expertise in handling explosives. “I was smack in the middle of it,” Rabbit said of his


Original Waikiki Surf Club 1948 tours of duty in the Pacific. “Of our ten-man unit, only four came back alive. I had three and a half years of it and that was enough. I didn’t want to make a career of it. I wanted back on the beach.” When the war ended, Rabbit received honorary discharges from both the Army and the Navy. Rabbit was one of the noted 1940’s surfers who banded together to form the Waikiki Surf Club. “I was in the Waikiki Surf Club with George Downing and those guys,” Rabbit declared with pride. Rabbit was there when both the first and second major waves of California surfers started coming to Waikiki after the war. He’d already established friendships with mainland surfers after visiting Southern California in 1939. At that time, he hung out at San Onofre with Whitey Harrison and Opai Wert. This time, on O’ahu, he hung out with not only his long time friends, but the new California transplants like Joe Quigg, Matt Kivlin and Dave Rochlen. During his more than 40 years as a beach boy, Rabbit came in contact with many wellknown people visiting and working in Waikiki.

“All the famous movie stars came to Waikiki,” Rabbit said. “Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Red Skelton, William Bendix. I worked in a lot of the movies that were filmed in Waikiki. Gidget Goes Hawaiian, The Old Man and the Sea, Mr. Roberts, From Here to Eternity, Hawaii, Diamond Head. “All the movies that came down here, everyone got in on and I made good money. Georgie (Downing) was pissed at me because he was handling all the extras and getting ten percent of their pay, but he couldn’t get any of mine. Working on the movie Blue Hawaii, I got into a beef with Elvis Presley. I could handle myself with him, but I went to the director and told him, ‘Hey, I’m outta here!’” Other noted celebrities included Redd Foxx, Dorothy Lamour, Deborah Kerr, Michael Douglas, David Niven and Gary Cooper. Cooper enjoyed Rabbit’s company so much he wanted to take him to dinner with his family at one of O’ahu’s fanciest restaurants. “I told him I couldn’t go because they had a dress code and I didn’t have clothes for that place,” Rabbit said. But that didn’t stop Cooper, who outfitted Rabbit with the attire to make the occasion. OCTOBER / NOVEMBER 2020

Of the mainland haoles that typically get credit for being the first to ride the North Shore of O’ahu, Rabbit had this to say…. “We’d been there before those guys. I hate it when the media say they were the first. Da Bull (Greg Noll), Peter Cole, Fred Van Dyke—they said they were the first to ride Waimea Bay. I said, ‘Hey, we were here before you guys, but the pictures were taken that publicize you guys. You were the first to be photographed, but not the first to ride Waimea!’ “We sat down one day and had a big argument. They said they were the first, but they came down in ‘56-‘58. I asked them, ‘Did you ever hear of a guy named Dickie Cross?’ They said, ‘Yeah, he died at Waimea.’ I said, ‘That’s right. In the ‘40s. Think about it.’ “Two guys that went out that day were Woody Brown and Dickie Cross. A guy named Stew Sakamoto and myself, we missed our ride going down with them that morning and came about a half hour later. That evening we heard the news.” Insisting the story that the North Shore wasn’t ridden until the 1950’s by California surfers, Rabbit pointed out that in the 40’s, surf safari’s were taking locals all over the islands.

I would say the true Pioneers of Hawaiian Surfing would be George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Henry Lum and Woody Brown. —Rabbit Kekai

“George Downing and everybody had a surfing safari,” Rabbit said. “They started at Diamond Head and went right around the whole island—every surf spot you can think of. That was back in the ‘40s.” Rabbit goes on to say that they were surfing the Banzai Pipline well before Mike Doyle and Phil Edwards broke it open at the beginning of the 1960s, and even before Bob Simmons and Flippy Hoffman were bodysurfing it in 1951, when they lived at Kahuku. “We were surfing the Pipeline way before that,” Rabbit said. “Not bodysurfing, but board surfing. We had a family home down on the Paumalu (Sunset Beach). We used to stay out there, in the big army barracks. In the back there was a kitchen and outside there was a bath house. It was a big property out there. During the weekends the family went out there, so during the weekdays, Richard Kau,

Squirrley, all us guys, we would buy bread, pork and beans, sausage—whatever we could afford and we’d stay in our place and surf all the spots down there. We used to surf everyday out in front of where we lived. They call that Velzyland now. That’s Paumalu, that whole district by Sunset. The kids talk about V-land and I tell them we used to surf there. It’s a left, not a right.” Rabbit gives credit to the old guys for being the first to open up Makaha and the North Shore. “Nobody used to go out there,” he said. “Then the town guys started to go. I would say the true pioneers of Hawaiian surfing would be George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Henry Lum and Woody Brown.” George Downing had this to interject about the tendency of mainland haoles to take credit where credit is not due. “I think we have OCEANMAG.SURF

been deprived of the opportunity to see the Hawaiian race in its fulfillment, to where we also could get involved in it. It’s only through certain things that we did, that we even got a glimpse of what the haoles had going. One example would be the Hawaiian ideas on the canoes. Every time we’d get to a place where we’d think our ingenuity had given us some kind of unique knowledge, we would find that they had already been there before us. They knew exactly, and we were just trailing, hanging on the tail of something that had already been developed.” “If you had to assign a label to Rabbit Kekai to classify him,” C.R. Stecyk wrote of a seemingly impossible task, “it would have to be The Father of Modern Hot-Dogging.” Guys like Kivlin, Quigg, Edwards, Dora, Takayama and Cabell all regard Rabbit as a primary influence.

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“Rabbit Kekai”


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Hui Nalu’s Canoe Club

Makaha Surfing Contest, November 29, 1960

from left, George Downing, Rabbit Kekai, Conrad Canha, Janna Keanu, Peter Cole and Wally Foriseth

Kekai’s surfing contest record is unparalleled and includes the Makaha and Peruvian International titles. “I love the competition,’ Rabbit said, “and I still compete today. I love surfing in the Makaha contest and getting guys the caliber of Eddie Aikau, Phil Edwards, Jeff Hakman and Felipe Pomar in my heat. “One day it was huge at the Makaha event. I remember paddling out and passing the bowl and the sets are coming in. Like about five or six waves. I just barely squeezed through one, paddling for dear life out of the impact zone and the next was bigger yet, and just about to peel over. I turned and paddled as fast as I could and caught it and dove straight down, just like a plane doing a nine-G dive to pick up speed, as fast as I could, through that whole big section. I made it out right into the channel. Eddie Aikau was there. “Eddie looked at me and said, ‘No way, Rabbit, you’re crazy!’ And I said, ‘Life or death, Eddie. To get outta there it was either that way or get nailed. I just pulled it out.’ That’s always stuck in my mind, that day with Eddie at Makaha. “Eddie Aikau was special. To me Waimea Bay was Eddie…and Jose Angel. Those two gusy are tops in my book.” OCEANMAG.SURF

Today, looking out across the famous beach where he made his name, Rabbit reflects on the degradation of what it once meant to be a beach boy at Waikiki. “Today, you have everybody and his uncle down here trying to be beach boys, but they don’t really know how to teach surfing. They just go out and shove their students into a wave. They get up, fall down, that’s all. And forget about safety. I’m from the old school. I give them X-1 to X-10—all the good lessons— and I teach them safety in the water.” In light of Rabbit’s busy schedule participating in surfing events and commercials the world over, he’s not the active Waikiki beach boy he once was. “I do a lot of traveling,” he said. “I go to Costa Rica, Mexico, California, France, Spain, South America. All the places.” As Rabbit approached his ninth decade in life, I asked him to divulge the secret to his longevity..... “Keep a good sense of humor, surf everyday, and eat rabbit food!” *




Eddie Aikau looked at me and said, “No way, Rabbit, you’re crazy!” And I said, “Life or death, Eddie. To get outta there it was either that way or get nailed!” —Rabbit Kekai on going deep and making it at Makaha

Rabbit Kekai, Makaha Bowl 1961 Don James Photo


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Naturally, we concede to the Finny Wiles

Muy Pobre, Guaymas OCEANMAG.SURF

Fish Camp, Guaymas



Muy Pobre, Guaymas



e are, to be sure, a queer lot when it comes to vacationing. I ask you, and you can well ask me, what is relaxing about ascending 10,000 feet to a nice comfortable camping existence in search of the little trout that wasn’t there? Not to mention sprawling over rocks in constant peril of spraining an ankle, wading hip deep in torrential streams, and fighting though brush and gnats to the spot where that big trout lived—last year. Is it conceivable that anyone would select the middle of summer to vacation, of all places, in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico?

It all ties together; trout haunt the mountain streams, and marlin and sailfish prefer the warm ocean currents of the South. If fishing is another way to spell vacation, naturally we concede to the finny wiles. Believe it or not, in a perfectly sane moment, the Kircher’s, Irwin’s, Charles Fletcher’s and Thompson’s decided there were some swordfish needing attention, along about June, in the beautiful Bay of Guaymas. If those marlin thought differently, I guess that was their business, so we will say no more about them. Sailfish, on the other hand, we can discuss in-

telligently, having had one to examine, admire and photograph. He was Zaida’s fish. The half-hour shifts tending the line were getting a little boring. The Mexican sun beat with relentless persistence on the swivel chairs in the cockpit. For a fact, it was far more pleasant sprawling under the awning on top of the cabin. Those not asleep were idly scanning the indigo ocean for fins. Zaida, so she told us afterward, was aimlessly looking around thinking how it would be to be looking for periscopes instead of fish. The bait bobbing along in our wake

Tres Pescadoritos OCTOBER / NOVEMBER 2020

We are, to be sure, a queer lot when it comes to vacationing. had long since ceased to interest her. Jeanette, the timekeeper, actually had her mouth open to say the next shift was on, when it happened. “Strike, Strike!”—and there, hooked securely was a gorgeous sailfish, cleaving the water in mad jumps—sword flashing and glistening, peacock-hued dorsal fin spread like a huge fan. I tell you there was excitement on the good ship Totuava. Zaida, with advice pelting on her exhausted back, cameras clicking, amid cheers landed her fish. That evening we sailed into port with a red flag from the mast announcing to all interested, ‘We Have a Sailfish’.

That same day a truly gigantic whale put on a performance not more than 50 yards from us, and a turtle the size of a wash-tub practically rammed us as it sunned itself on the surface of the water. These though were anti-climax, for we had a sailfish! One starts a trip into Mexico with the avowed intention of drinking only chlorinated water. Resolutions falter and disappear entirely after about 30 miles of driving through the arid Sonora Desert. As one gets hotter and hotter, and drier and drier, water is water, and emulating Columbus, you take a chance. As it

turned out, it wasn’t much of a chance, for we all stayed healthy—or practically so! Water was of less concern to us than gasoline. In Hermasillo, 180 miles south of the border, we had the disconcerting experience of finding a shortage of that necessary commodity. The city is one of the largest in Mexico, and yet the petrol dispensers all over the city were empty. We were in a predicament, for we had 90 miles through entirely uninhabited desert yet to go. Through the aid of our interpreter, Bob Thompson, we ferreted out a man agreeable enough to sell us gas in five-gallon tins.

It was hardly more than kerosene, and to our ethyl-bred cars, scarcely palatable fare—but it worked, after a fashion. Hermasillo is a political hotbed. Coming into town we were halted by an armed delegation of soldados backed by a goodly handful of villainous-looking riff-raff. They expected some of the opposition party to stampede the city that night and were guarding the only highway. In spite of their vigilance, the opposition arrived somehow, for later that night we came upon an ominously quiet mob milling about Comacho headquarters.

Congenial companions providing necessary humor and merriment

There was shooting that night—two dead and three injured. OCEANMAG.SURF

I tell you, there was excitement on the good ship Totuava.

Singing Strings Train Station, Empalme

The hardships and inconveniences are as nothing— the Salsa Piquante of Life—part of the fun.

Orango Cactus Stop

We decided that the streets were no place for Americanos after a couple of natives, emboldened by too much tequila, demanded to know whom we supported—Comacho or Almazon. There was shooting that night—two dead and three injured. We heard the shots after we were comparatively safe in our rather awful hotel beds. The road to Guaymas is not good—not bad. On this Sonora Desert thrives the Orango Cactus, found few other the places in the world. When finally, we had our first glimpse OCTOBER / NOVEMBER 2020

of the dancing emerald water of the bay, it seemed a veritable Sangrai-la. To idly cruise the Gulf all day, occasionally putting in to quiet bays to catch some of the smaller fish peculiar only to these waters— with congenial companions who provide the necessary humor and merriment—these things one remembers. The hardships and inconveniences are as nothing—the salsa piquante of life, part of the fun. This article courtesy Randy Dible www.RandyDibleSurfPhotography.Com

DICK BREWER, 83, has shaped 50,000 surfboards—and says he’s just getting started.

photo: Michael Mijares


n the elite group of surfboard shapers who call Hawaii home, Dick Brewer presides as the undisputed grandmaster. His hands have designed more boards for more world champions than those of anyone else alive, inspiring surfers to charge the biggest, heaviest rideable waves around. All told, 50,000 surfboards have been designed

by this shaping guru, earning him and his eponymous brand of surfboards worldwide recognition. At 83, Brewer still spends the first few hours of his mornings in the shaping room, where he crafts custom boards that feature a logo of his name encircled by a lei. With 60 years of shaping experience and a quenchless thirst for experimentation, Brewer says he feels like his career is just getting started.


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Ocean Magazine  

October - November 2019 Edition

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October - November 2019 Edition