Spirit of Aloha | Features | July/August 2005

By: Stuart H. Coleman

Brian Keaulana and the Rise of Ocean Safety





Looking into the eyes of Brian Keaulana is like seeing the soul of Mākaha. We are sitting on the lānai of a friend’s house, overlooking the dark mountains, endless blue waters and crescent-shaped beach of Wai‘anae. Small waves are rolling in like distant memories, and Brian is telling me of his past and why this place is unique. “Mākaha is the heart of Hawai‘i, because everybody from around the world comes here when they really want to find the true essence of what Hawai‘i is. It really comes down to here, right on this beach, from these people, the waters, the ocean and the mountains.”

Born and raised on this dry patch of land between the ocean and the Wai‘anae ridge on O‘ahu’s west side, Brian is intimately linked to its history, culture and “royal family.” His father is Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana, known as King of Mākaha, and he grew up surfing and diving with Rell Sunn, who became its queen. Brian was also good friends with Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, whose gentle Hawaiian voice helped put his hometown on the world map, first with the group called the Mākaha Sons of Ni‘ihau and then later on his own.

Although the west side has a reputation for fierce localism, Brian says the place is often misunderstood. “People on the Wai‘anae Coast are really extreme people. If you come with respect and treat people well, they treat you extremely well. But if you treat them badly, they’re going to treat you real badly. They are emotionally extreme people over here.” His family and friends have helped soften Wai‘anae’s image as a treasure of Hawaiian culture and wisdom. As a surfer, lifeguard and Hollywood stuntman, Brian has traveled around the world and met all kinds of people, but his heart belongs to Mākaha.

Mākaha literally means “fierce” in Hawaiian, but it also refers to the opening of a fishpond, or a gateway. “If you climb up on this mountain over here and you look down, you see this huge channel,” Brian says. “This is one of the few places that has a huge channel where the waves hardly close out. It’s like a gateway to the ocean.” The whole community revolves around the beach and the sea. As one of the most knowledgeable watermen in the world, Brian was raised in the waves. He credits much of his education in ocean dynamics to his father.

A pure Hawaiian, Brian’s father, Buffalo, grew up in Nānākuli before many of the streets had names. Though they were poor, his mother and grandmother used to feed the engineers and construction workers who were building the roads, and they eventually named one of the streets Keaulana Avenue in honor of the family. Because money was scarce, Buffalo turned to the sea for food and entertainment. He practically lived in the ocean, and became a talented fisherman and bodysurfer at Mākaha. When Buffalo decided to take up surfing, he ripped up wooden ties from the railroad tracks, glued them together and shaped his own surfboard with a machete.

Buffalo became a Waikīkī beachboy in the 1950s. He quickly earned a nickname. With his shaggy, reddish-brown hair and large head, he was christened Buffalo, and the name stuck. He also met his wife, Leimomi, in Waikīkī, after he literally ran into her while they were surfing. She was a local beauty and a Waikīkī beachgirl. He was interested in my mom and wanted to meet her,” Brian says, “but he was also shy, so he never knew how to approach her. So, as he was surfing, he ran over her and said, ‘Oh, sorry, my name’s Buffalo—can I make it up to you and take you out?’ They eventually married and settled down to raise a family. Buffalo became the first park-keeper and unofficial lifeguard, and the couple lived in the two-story bathhouse at Mākaha

Starting in the late ’40s and ’50s, surfing pioneers such as John Kelly, Wally Froiseth and George Downing had discovered the pristine waves of Mākaha. Soon, Buffalo learned that his back yard had become the center of the surfing world. Living on the beach in Quonset huts, California surf nomads, including Greg Noll and Buzzy Trent, befriended Buffalo. They gave him their old boards and marveled at his expertise in the ocean. Watching him bodysurf one day, Noll said, “He looked so natural streaking across the waves. He was like a seal. I actually expected him to swim out to sea when he was done.”

In 1954, the first Mākaha International Surf Contest was set up, and the annual event became the unofficial world championship of surfing. The contest was later shown on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, giving many Mainland Americans their first taste of surfing and Hawaiian culture, Mākaha-style. Buffalo placed in the finals for several years and finally won the event in 1960 in his own back yard. The next year, Brian was born. He was followed by four siblings, Jodie, Lehua, Rusty and Jimmy. They were all water babies, raised to love the ocean, yet keenly aware of its underlying dangers.

While Buffalo worked as the park-keeper for Mākaha, Brian remembers riding on the back of his dad’s horse, picking up trash and watching over the people in the water. Inevitably, some tourist would get in trouble and Buffalo would go out to save him or her. “He would clean the park and then, throughout the day, people would get ripped out into the ocean [by the fierce currents],” Brian remembers. “He was actually spending more time saving people than cleaning the park.” In honor of his many rescues, Mayor Neal Blaisdell named Buffalo the first head lifeguard at Mākaha in 1969, a position he held until 1995.

During his small-kid days, Brian remembers paipo-boarding with Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, who was a neighbor and classmate at school. “He had this big paipo board, like this 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood that he had made, and we all played in the waves. That was before he got really big.” As Israel’s music career took off, he gained more weight, struggled with drug use and rarely went into the ocean. Years later, Brian and another friend took Bruddah Iz sailing on the Mo‘olele, a replica of an ancient Hawaiian voyaging canoe similar to the Hokule‘a. Buffalo had sailed on Hokule‘a’s first voyage to Tahiti in 1976, a journey that, for Brian and many people, symbolized the height of the Hawaiian Renaissance. Likewise, sailing with Israel on a traditional voyaging canoe like their ancestors had done more than eight centuries before was a proud moment for Brian and Iz. “It was one of the few times that he got outside in the ocean and sailed with us guys.”

Growing up in the waves of Mākaha, Brian remembers surfing and diving with Rell Sunn, whom he considered the ultimate waterwoman. “Rell was like my older sister,” he says, “and the first one to take me to the North Shore to surf.” She was an early advocate of women’s professional surfing and was ranked in the top 10 for years. An incredible stylist, she seemed to blend the flow of surfing with the grace of dancing hula. Under the guidance of Buffalo, she became the first female lifeguard in Hawai‘i and helped save many people from the waves and currents in Mākaha.

Brian says Rell was one of the best free divers on the west side and in the state. Even after developing breast cancer, she continued diving with her boyfriend, Dave Parmenter, and was still able to go deeper and stay down longer than most men. One day while diving, Dave told Rell that he had seen a heart-shaped rock in a deep cave 40 to 50 feet below. Could she get it, he asked. “So she took one breath, dove down and grabbed the rock,” Brian says. “When she looked down, the rock was engraved with, “Will you marry me?’” By the time she reached the surface, Rell was crying. “Yes,” she said, breathlessly. The couple later tried to have a small, quiet ceremony in canoes out on the water, but Brian says that the news flashed across the coconut wireless. “By the time she reached the shore, it was on the radio and on the TV that she was getting married at Mākaha Beach.”

Like Buffalo, Rell and Iz became local heroes for people in Mākaha and throughout Hawai‘i. Brian remembers them performing together at the Mākaha Concerts in Mākua Valley. “Rell used to dance hula and Israel would play music with the Mākaha Sons.” Brian, his father and many of the beachboys would also dance hula to the traditional Hawaiian music.

Along with these warm memories, Brian also recalls how drugs and crime began taking over parts of the west side. “My whole life, there were always drugs around, there were always thievery and violence. I could’ve ended up like a lot of my friends: some of them are in jail, some of them died and some of them lost their minds because of drugs. As kids, you take chances, not realizing that you have a choice. I think the next generation needs to understand good and bad choices.”

Seeing Mākaha being torn apart, Brian’s father decided to do something to unite the community. So, in 1977, he inaugurated the first Buffalo Big Board Surfing Classic, an annual festival that runs during the first two weekends of March. “What he did was tell all the beachboys, ‘Look, we’re going to have one golden weekend, and everybody who comes to this contest and festival needs to be treated like kings and queens.’” Brian says that his father was a real savior for many young people. “Dad really laid the law down. I think that was a turning point for a lot of the guys, because it was such a perfect weekend.” Inspired by his example, Sunn started the Menehune Contest in Mākaha for young kids. Both contests are still popular community events today, and each year they attract many local competitors and large crowds of spectators.

Following in his father’s wake, Brian became a community leader and lifeguard after high school. The waves and rip currents in Mākaha can be deadly at times, so the local guards have to be vigilant. Brian says, “The rescues before jet skis were real dramatic, life and death kind of stuff.” Once, as a rookie lifeguard, he had to make one of the most dramatic rescue attempts of his life. The waves were huge, and he and the other guards had been pulling people out of the shorebreak all morning.

Then, way in the distance, he saw a tourist paddling on a rental surfboard toward the big outside sets. He grabbed his red rescue board and went after him. Just then, he saw the guy get obliterated by a monstrous wave. Looking around, Brian managed to locate the tourist. He propped him on the front of his board and started paddling outside. Behind him, he could see a huge wave set rising up. It didn’t look good. Brian turned toward the shore and told the man, “Look, our chance of survival depends on how hard you can hang on.” They went flying over the falls of the enormous wave, bouncing in front of a roaring wall of water. Miraculously, they somehow stayed together on the board. Brian barely managed to steer them to a small patch of beach sandwiched between jagged rocks. “The guy went down, grabbed my legs and started praying.” When Brian learned that the man had never surfed before, he asked him why he had paddled out into such huge waves. “He had just come off the plane, and he said, ‘The surf looked billowy.’ I didn’t know what ‘billowy’ was at all, but I put it in the report.” Later, when he discovered that the word means “soft, pillowlike, or cloudlike,” he was stunned by the man’s surf naivete. “It’s amazing. It was life-threatening.”

In his desire to become “the world’s greatest waterman and teacher of ocean survival,” Brian began taking all kinds of ocean-safety and military risk-management courses. He also began doing stunt work for Hollywood movies such as Waterworld, Point Break and North Shore. Combining his work with the lifeguard service, the military and the movies, Brian was able to blend his own cultural knowledge as a Hawaiian with modern technological advances to improve ocean safety dramatically. In fact, he was the first to conceive of using jet skis, or personal watercrafts (PWCs), and wave sleds to rescue people, especially in big waves.

Although officials and bureaucrats opposed the idea at first, he and fellow lifeguards Terry Ahue, Melvin Pu‘u and Dennis Gouveia bought their own jet skis and made many dramatic res#cues that proved their effectiveness. In the process, they revolutionized ocean safety. Now PWCs are standard equipment in Hawai‘i and around the world. Brian and his posse have since traveled across the globe, teaching other guards how to use jet skis in their rescues. For his success in combining modern technology and training with traditional Hawaiian culture and ocean wisdom, Brian was made a lifeguard captain. He was later awarded the U.S. Lifesaving Association’s Medal of Honor and the Eddie Aikau Waterman Award.

Brian also teaches tow-in safety courses, and he was part of the original gang that pioneered the use of jet skis to tow big-wave riders into the humongous waves at Jaws, a deep-water break off of Maui. He and his brother Rusty, the three-time world longboarding champion, have also been consistent competitors in the Quicksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Contest, and their motto is “Eddie Would Go.” But on the morning of Jan. 7, 2002, Brian and other big-wave riders were forced to decide whether to go to “The Eddie” on O‘ahu or fly to Maui for the first annual Tow-in World Cup, which was being held on the same day. Did they want to paddle into the big surf at Waimea Bay or be towed into massive waves at Jaws? A classic choice between man vs. machine, tradition vs. technology. While some surfers chose to compete in the Tow-in World Cup, Brian and most of the other invitees decided to stay for the Eddie contest. The prevailing feeling at Waimea Bay was that “Eddie Wouldn’t Tow.”

As a pioneer of the tow-in movement, Brian knows how dangerous it can be. “The diffference with tow-in surfing is that it’s not about surfing—it’s about surviving.” Like Eddie, the first lifeguard on the North Shore, he knows you always have to be ready for the worst-case scenario. “You train for the worst, you hope for the best and you expect the unexpected.” Though he enjoys the thrill of tow-in surfing and riding the world’s biggest waves, Brian’s loyalties lie with the Eddie contest. “For me, the whole competition and the money are secondary. It’s really important to represent who Eddie was and what he did.” Brian and Rusty competed once again in the Eddie contest that was held at Waimea Bay on Dec. 15, 2003. “Me and my brother, we’re real competitive with each other. There’s always that feeling of ‘Okay, let’s charge, do good and don’t get hurt.’ It’s that brotherly rivalry, as well as that love.”

When Brian became a lifeguard captain on the west side, he had to contend with the fact that he was now his father’s boss. “It was hard being his boss and his son at the same time.” But as one generation must pass the torch to another, Buffalo retired a few years later. Likewise, Brian began training younger guards to take over his work so he could focus on his increasing involvement in the film industry as a stunt coordinator. He eventually left the lifeguard service to start his own ocean safety and stunt coordination business and was recently invited to join the prestigious group Stunts Unlimited. After his first gig with the TV movie War and Remembrance, Brian has gone on to work on big-budget films, including Pearl Harbor, Blue Crush and Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie Memoirs of a Geisha, along with TV shows such as North Shore and Hawai‘i. At last year’s Hawai‘i International Film Festival, he and his partners were given the 2004 State Film in Hawai‘i Award. “In my mind, Brian is a modern-day Duke Kahānamoku,” says film commissioner Donne Dawson. “He has quickly become an ambassador for Hawai‘i and our film industry.”

In his various roles as professional surfer, lifeguard, risk manager and stuntman, Brian has traveled far from Mākaha to countries around the world. “Even when I was a small kid, all I thought about was traveling, getting away from here,” he says, looking down at the Wai‘anae Coast. But in all of his travels, he was haunted by memories of home. “People come and go, but they always come back.”

At the memorial service for Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole in 1995, Brian helped with the water patrol as Iz’s family sailed with his ashes out to Mākua Beach on the Hokule‘a. Flooded with memories of sailing with Israel years before on the Mo‘olele, Brian said goodbye to his old friend. As they scattered his ashes into the ocean, thousands of friends and fans gathered on the beach in honor of Mākaha’s most famous son. Truckers lined up along the road blew their horns, which in the distance sounded like the blowing of the traditional or conch shell.

Three years later, Brian helped with the memorial service for Rell Sunn. Once, while surfing together, she had asked him to place her ashes at her favorite surf spot, the boil at Mākaha. But on the day of the service, the waves were big, and he had trouble finding the exact area. As he steered the canoe with her daughter and husband through the waves, “... All of a sudden, the boil just erupted right there in front of us,” Brian says. “It was like she was playing games with us, hide and go seek. When Dave and Jan poured her ashes out, it was like this big bloom—she got her wish.”

With the passing of cultural icons Iz and Rell, Hawai‘i lost two of her favorite children, but their memories survive in the hearts of the people. Although Wai‘anae still wrestles with poverty, drugs and crime, this dry strip of land between the mountains and the ocean has a rich cultural heritage. Asked what Mākaha’s greatest treasure is, Brian says, “The people who hold our knowledge. That’s one of the things I want to give to the next generation. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, yellow, green or whatever color, if you come here with one Hawaiian heart and learn the Hawaiian way, then you become Hawaiian.”                                                                                                                                             

Stuart H. Coleman is the author of Eddie Would Go. He currently teaches leadership courses at the East-West Center and is working on his next book

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