Phil Jarratt’s profile of Dane Kealoha ran in the January 1979 issue of SURFER Magazine. This version has been slightly edited.
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“I want to try and do everything. As much turning and as many radical maneuvers as I can do—you know, just overpower the wave.”
Dane Kealoha speaking. He of the Charles Atlas physique and Larry Bertlemann school of rip and tear. The dark kid with the muscles on his muscles. The one that surfs like a wing-walker on speed.
Not altogether surprisingly, Dane Kealoha was a football player before he became a surfer. He must have been a nightmare on the field. But that was a long time ago. It wasn’t serious football; Pop Warner stuff. At age 12, already bulging out of his tee-shirts, young Dane started wandering down to Ala Moana to watch his older brother Mike, and others of the South Shore hot brigade, rip the bowl apart. It didn’t take him long to trade his cleats in and enter the real world. About this time there were some other young gremmies frequenting the bowl—Michael Ho, Larry Bertlemann, Buzzy Kerbox, Bobby Owens—just young kids.
Within a year or two they were the Moana Mafia, flipping out the gallery with a new brand of surfing aerobatics. Dane Kealoha was a part of it, maybe one step behind the leaders. Over the past two years, though, he’s more than made up the distance, and Dane is now poised to be Hawaii’s next Big One.
Kealoha is not one to be overly moved by impending fame and glory. He’s been around long enough to know that cover shots don’t pay the rent and that minor placings barely buy the beer. Still, he’s made his commitment to pro surfing. He’s on the world tour even though he’s not too sure where it’s going. “Right now, it’s like I’m getting married; I think I’ll be all right, you know what I mean? I think surfing doesn’t really show any possibility as a long-term career. In time I think it will, but right now I just want to do it. I want to win, I want to have an income, but I think it will take time. I’m just gonna try and push, and not look back. Just go floorboard all the way.”
Going floorboard all the way is nothing new for Kealoha. When he first started to make his mark in surfing, he was, according to older, more established pros, a bit of a hothead. Perhaps it was a legacy from his football days, or perhaps just something he picked up in the battle zone at Ala Moana or Haleiwa. Either way, it soon became known that Dane Kealoha didn’t take any jive from anyone. He was big and strong, and he got his share of waves. In 10th grade he started to do okay in club contests, then he started to win with monotonous regularity. His club, Coast Line, helped him out with the fare to South Africa to surf for Hawaii in the world amateur contest. It was his first trip away from home. He got off the plane in Johannesburg and needed to use the bathroom. In South Africa, they have bathrooms for whites and bathrooms for blacks. Even for a full-blood Hawaiian, Kealoha has dark skin. He’d read a bit about this racist trip in South Africa, so he studied the signs thoroughly before shrugging his shoulders and walking into the white man’s crapper. It was crowded and people started quietly flipping out. Fortunately, Dane had on a sweatshirt with Hawaii written on the back, so he gestured wildly at it and hoped people would understand. Later, in a restaurant, a waiter was disinclined to serve him. Hothead Dane managed to keep his cool, but from that point on he knew the score. It was a weird introduction to the jet-set surfing life.
Dane came back home and graduated from high school, going through the usual crisis of career choice that hot young surfers face; whether ’tis nobler to go for it as a surfer or play it safe and get a job. His parents were eager for him to go to work but no appealing job jumped up and landed in his lap, so Dane kinda thought he’d surf it out for a while and see what happened along.
What happened was, Craig Sugihara from Town and Country Surfboards, a guy who hadn’t been slow in recognizing the potential in Dane, came around. Sugihara helped out with equipment and cash and basically staked Dane for a crack at the pro circuit. His faith was soon rewarded. Dane put in two good winters on the North Shore, impressing the gallery with his aerials and tube riding at Off The Wall, and consolidating at Sunset. By winter ’77 he was acknowledged as hot. A 3rd in the Duke—behind Eddie Aikau and Bobby Owens, but ahead of Mark Richards and Wayne Bartholomew, among others—confirmed it.
Dane Kealoha was off and running.
He went to Japan, ripped off ten grand in two contests, became an overnight sensation, and suddenly was the name on everyone’s lips. It’s not quite fair to say it had been easy; but, as surfing stardom goes, it hadn’t been that hard a road either. In Japan, Dane was interviewed by a TV reporter, who asked “Do you have a training program?’’ Dane’s reply: “Yeah, I surf six hours a day.”
Kealoha is the full-on surf nazi for sure, but he wasn’t telling the whole story. He also has a mental training program that consists of solidly amping himself to win for several days prior to the contest. “I can’t just surf, eat, sleep, surf,” he says. “I really think about it all the time. I don’t go out at night for a week before a contest. I stay away from the other guys, and I pump myself up. On the morning of the contest, I have a good breakfast and then I go to the beach and sit by myself and eat energy bars.”
The figure of a muscle-bound dark man sitting alone under a tree eating bars must be a considerable psychological weapon in and of itself, but Kealoha’s presence in the water is even more daunting. He paddles like a threshing machine, and he takes a lot of waves. He’s fiercely competitive even in fun sessions. He says: “I go out on a regular day and I don’t get really heavy on the crowd. You know, say somebody drops in on me; I just kinda power my way in back of him, but I want to show the guy that I’m right there and maybe next time he’ll think twice before he takes off on me. I don’t want anybody to get hurt or anything like that, but I want to make my point.”
Dane has a theory about Hawaiians being more mellow in the water. “The locals, we talk and we have a good time, but like the Australians, the South Africans, and the Brazilians, they’re kinda quiet but they want all the waves. We respect them when we surf in their home grounds, and we just want them to do the same when they come here; but if they want to play this cat and dog game, we’re willing to do the same thing.”
For a guy who hasn’t been at the top too long, Dane has had his share of clashes with other pros. He recalls sessions at Off The Wall when Shaun has pushed him almost to the limit. “This past year I didn’t say anything, but inside I kinda felt like ‘Wow man, when I get my chance . . . .” On Maui that season there were further bad vibes between Dane and Shaun, but diplomacy prevailed.
Less level-headed have been his relations with Ian Cairns. During the World Cup, Kanga pressed Dane and got a torrent of verbal abuse for his trouble. Dane takes up the story: “I walked along the beach afterwards and I was thinking about the whole professional thing and how you’re supposed to act. I went up to Ian and I said, ‘Hey, look, you know we’re professional surfers and we should act professional. I don’t want to be putting anything on you, and I hope you don’t want to be putting anything on me.’ We ended up shaking hands. Later, PT came up to me and said he really respected me as a professional for what I’d said to Ian. That stoked me out because it made me feel like there really wasn’t a rivalry. Like, rivalry in competition, that’s normal, that’s how sports should be, but it shouldn’t get personal.”
Being a pro is something Dane has thought about a lot lately, as he sorts out whether there is a career in surfing for him. He thinks about sponsorships, about judging systems and tactics in the water. He hasn’t tailored his surfing to suit the men who sit in the tower—he’ll always take a chance on a tube rather than play it safe—but he has become something of a surfing strategist. He watches every move the other guy makes, noting what he has to do to top him. He chooses waves carefully, because it is his firm belief that there is little else between the top 20 surfers in the world. “It takes the right waves to win,” he says. “Everybody you surf against has the ability to rip the waves apart, but the better the wave, the more you can do.” Still, he rates Bertleman, Ho, Bartholomew, Tomson and Horan as the toughest competition around.
Dane favors the man-on-man single-elimination format, like the one used for the Stubbies contest. “You either make it or break it,” he says. “You have that one chance to move, and if there’s only two of you in the water, the judges can see every wave. You get treated fairly.”
As an emerging pro, Dane has landed on his feet, as it were, with his association with Town and Country. While many young pros battle to pay fares, Dane has a sponsorship he describes as “almost the ultimate.” The absolute ultimate, he says, would be a corporation like, for example, Coca-Cola. “When you come out of the surf, you’re really thirsty, really dehydrated. Like, I’m in a contest and there’s a lot of people and I’ve just come out of a heavy heat and I’m pretty exhausted. I see a can of Coke, you know, and I’m gonna start drinking it, and people are gonna look at me and see I’m drinking Coke, and they’ll get the urge to drink something—like Coke, a refreshing drink for any sportsman, right?” Like many of the younger pros, Dane has a lot of work to do on his patter, but he’s got the right idea.
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As previously mentioned, Dane Kealoha is a product of the Bertlemann school of rip and tear, the low-center-of-gravity, up and down, round and round variety. But Dane has put his own stamp on the style. Up until recently, like Bertlemann, he was stuck on the sting design, short and wide for upside-down stability. Lately he’s moved on to rounded pins. He favorite board today is 6′ by 20″ by 3.5″ thick, and he’ll use it in any surf up to eight feet. As the waves get bigger, his boards get narrower. He says, the transition from sting to pin: “The stings were really squiggly. I started thinking that for what I wanted to do, to use a lot of power, I needed a loose but positive board, so I looked at the roundpins. The ones I use are flat on the bottom with a little vee in the tail, and a nine-inch fin. Long fin box with the fin up six, maybe eight inches.”
Dane figures that pulling cutbacks in the tube is the next challenge. “Like say you’re driving across the wall and you see the section hollowing out, and you drop down and turn up into the lip as it’s throwing out. You kinda place your tail up the wave and push against the lip, go almost upside-down in the most critical part of the wave.” The most radical surfing he’s ever seen was a 360-degree turn in an amateur contest he was judging at Chuns Reef. That’s how Dane sees performance surfing—somebody, anybody, attempting the impossible and pulling it off. He likes the tube, but there’s a certain nobility in just going for something completely ridiculous and somehow making it. The theory behind his round pins is a combination of this desire to pull off the impossible, and an equally strong desire to excel in all facets of surfing. Even in bigger waves, he rides with his fin pushed way up front in the box, ready to break free and loop the loop should the opportunity present itself. It’s a sliding, on-the-brink style of surfing. Says Dane: “If you push your turn really hard, there are times when that slip just at the right moment will put you in the right place, slow you down just enough.”
Some observers have commented that Kealoha, Bertlemann and others are in fact reversing the norm and adapting skateboard techniques to surfing, instead of the other way around. The notion is not lost on Dane; in fact, his next move will be based on the airborne-out-of-the-pool trick. Says Dane: “I think that will be the next thing in surfing, trying to do aerials off the wave and come back into it.” And what of the validity of the 360-degree turn? “A lot of people are close to it now. In the future it will be considered just another radical maneuver.”
Dane Kealoha comes straight to the point when asked about his ambitions in surfing. “I want to be the best. Like, I’ll say to guys like Reno Abellira, ‘Hey man, don’t slow down, because if you do, I’ll pass you. I just want to be better than you.’ I feel I have the ability, not to be big-headed about it, but I think I have the ability to win contests. It just takes courage.”
[Photos: Bernie Baker, Craig Fineman]