Big Boarding with Buffalo

The 30th Buffalo’s Big Board Classic was as much a celebration of surfing as it was of the founder

Friday - March 17, 2006
By Lisa Asato
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Mel Puu and Sam George
Mel Puu and Sam George

No wonder the Keaulana boys are such good water-men.

“All my kids was made on Makaha Beach, but they were born in Kaiser hospital,” says Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana, a 71-year-old son of the sea, and the father of Buffalo’s Big Board Surfing Classic at Makaha Beach.

“And when we finish with Kaiser hospital, I bring ‘em home and make ‘em swim every day. I live so close to the ocean so I believe they have to know how to take care of themselves while they’re in the water.”

In the water is where the Keaulana clan - six children and 10 grandchildren - thrive. When the couple had their first child, Brian, in 1961, the doctor asked Buffalo’s wife Momi why she kept checking behind the baby’s ears.

“I’m looking for gills,” she told him.

HopTong Smith
Mell Puu
Nani Kealoha and Kamu Auwae
From top, HopTong Smith,
Mell Puu, BuffaloKeaulana,
and Nani Kealoha and Kamu
Auwae on a bully board

Fast forward 44 years to last Sunday, the final day of Buffalo’s annual surfing classic, which was celebrating its 30th anniversary with a banquet later that day. Buffalo, a Surfing Hall of Fame inductee, stands on the beach posing for pictures with admirers.

Momi sits under a white tent selling $50 banquet tickets. And Brian, sans gills, rides a wave into shore as his tandem partner Kathy Terada stands on his shoulders in the crowd-pleasing queen stance.

“Yee-ha! Great wave,” the emcee says over the public address system. “Big hand for the guy that’s probably worked the hardest out there. I don’t know where he’s getting the energy to even lift Kathy.”

“Pure adrenaline!” Momi says. Adrenaline is right.

Over the years, the contest has grown from a pure longboarding form to offering 14 competitive divisions and attracting 200 competitors from around the world. And despite their huge draw in the early years of the contest, the music, entertainment and royal court are no longer part of the scene.

“We also had the Speedo contest and bikini contest which was a lot of fun,” Momi recalls. “We had guys walk away and come back with “this big thing in the front of them - they used socks.”

With the focus on surfing and the additions of paipo board, canoe surfing, tandem surfing, paddle surfing and more, a venue was taking shape to perpetuate Hawaiian culture.

“There’s more unique ways to ride in this contest than in any other,” says Gary Kewley, MidWeek surf columnist and Surf News Network guru. “And it’s just super creative, super fun, more relaxed. I mean, some of the competitors take it really seriously, but overall it’s about the aloha and the camaraderie - the Wild West having their usual good time, living this beautiful lifestyle.”

Buffalo, a retired lifeguard with the City and County of Honolulu and former live-in park keeper at Makaha Beach, says: “There’s a lot of young boys who can’t afford surfboards, so my surfing thing is not really to give trophies but to try to get surfboards or paddles or canoes for those boys so we can keep on surfing like this every year. And I think this surf meet is going to be forever because when I’m gone, I know my son (Brian) is going to take over. And he has all these great ideas, and we love to think of good ideas.”

Winners on Sunday received longboards, lightweight graphite paddles, koa paddles and ipu styled by Samuel Kama of Waimea on the Big Island. The ipu were a throwback to the first contest, in 1976, when Buffalo returned from the maiden voyage of the Hokulea with gourd seeds from Tahiti. They were planted in Charlie Carroll’s back yard and “when they were full grown, (Carroll) helped make ‘em everything,” Momi says. “And now he’s one of the original boys who helped us, and 30 years later he’s still here.”

Duane DeSoto and Briana Holguin score in tandem surfing
Duane DeSoto and Briana
Holguin score in tandem

Loyalty runs deep around the Keaulanas.

“I got to meet them when I started surfing here back when I was in high school,” says Craig Inouye, who’s among the contest’s original organizers. “I befriended a lot of the beach boys here, Buffalo’s hui. Got to meet them and just enjoy the way that they played hard ... and just the sense of aloha, feeling the warmth, the love of the family. Momi Keaulana has kept the family together for so long, and I think she’s the mother of the world because she has so many children, hanai, through the beach.”

Bunky Bakutis, a former news-paperman and friend of Buffalo’s for 35 years, says of the man: “He’s my captain. He’s like a father figure. He’s a practical person who keeps challenging you to be (your) best, to rethink your plans so you get it right, and that’s a wonderful thing to have.

“And he has a kind of natural innate wisdom that not too many people have. You don’t learn it ... (It’s) about everything in life, from family to the mountain to the ocean. You want to build a fire? He’s your guy. You want to poke a fish? He’s the guy.”

Indeed, Bakutis says, “As soon as his spear touches the water, you better get the fire going.”

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