Ambassadors of Aloha
The beach boys of yesteryear may be gone but their legendary Aloha Spirit lives on
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Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary surfer and three-time Olympic gold medalist, has been called “the ultimate beach boy,” though many believe this is a complete mischaracterization that diminishes his true significance. Duke was, and remains, in a category all his own.
Much has been written about the golden days of Waikiki tourism, but little is said of beach boys on other islands. Kauai, in the 1950s and 60s, through the 1970s, remained a quiet backwaters, far removed from the glitz and glamour found in Waikiki, but the Garden Island did have watermen who, if not expressly beach boys in name, carried out their own style of beach boy-like hospitality.
Ken “Bones” Johnston, a life-long surfer, retired tourism administrator, and surfboard maker who today lives in Hilo, remembers those days. Bones grew up surfing Waikiki in the 1940s and 50s. In the early 60s, Bones was offered ownership of the Inter-island beach concession at the new Kauai Surf Hotel at Kalapaki Beach on Kauai. Together with surf buddy Mickey Lake, Bones became co-owner of the small business located near the site of today’s Kauai Marriott Resort & Beach Club. Both men were from Oahu and used to regularly commute to Kauai.
Bones and Mickey had “real” jobs, but both were surfers at heart, though neither claim to be a beach boy. Bones says that even in those days, due to the high cost of surfboards, he and Mickey manufactured their own boards and outrigger canoes, often building them in their garages until late at night.
“When you think of beach boys, you think of the happy-go-lucky guys who kept their board in the roots of an old banyan tree and never worried because no one would mess with it. Very few of them are around any more because opportunity doesn’t present itself,” says Bones.
After a few years Mickey left his day job on Oahu and moved to Kauai to run the beach service full-time. He remembers the Kauai Surf hotel in the mid-1960s as one of the “classiest” Inter-island hotels, before mass tourism, when the clientèle was primarily high-end.
In those days, each morning Inter-island beach service used to set out large umbrellas, chairs and straw beach mats before guests started trickling down to water’s edge. “Everything was laid out on the beach and we’d even rake the sand,” Mickey recalls. “It was all set up early in the morning and guests could take their pick.”
Guests could rent surfboards, boogie boards, small sailboats, bikes, mopeds and enjoy catamaran rides in Kalapaki Bay. Mickey recalls the service also took guests out for sunset sails and picnic trips up the Hule‘ia River. By 1967, both Bones and Mickey had moved on to other businesses and though the beach service continued, today nothing remains to indicate how things were during the Kauai Surf days. A lone kou tree near the beach marks the spot where the beach shack once stood.
If Kauai in the 1960s and 70s ever did have a true beach boy, someone who embodied the skill and spirit of Waikiki beach boys, perhaps best remembered is Percy “Leleo” Kinimaka.
Mickey Lake recalls Percy: “He came from that era of beach boys, though he was slightly younger. He was a royal Hawaiian—he looked Hawaiian and was nice looking. He had that Aloha Spirit in the truest sense and was an excellent waterman.”
Percy passed away in 1984, but his oldest son Kaupena shares his story today. “My dad, who was from Oahu, used to hang out at Waikiki making pāpale (head covering) coconut frond hats for lunch money. He learned to surf from Duke (Kahanamoku). My father’s oldest brother Dutchie Kinimaka was the operations manager at the Kauai Surf which was looking for someone to help run the beach service and so my father came over (to Kauai) in 1961 or 62 when he was about 27-years-old.”
Kaupena describes how his father gave surf, snorkel, SCUBA and canoe paddling lessons. Beyond that, he had a beautiful falsetto voice and could entertain performing Hawaiian songs and his guitar. Percy is also remembered for his lifesaving skills. As a water safety instructor, Percy taught CPR and SCUBA safety long before either was widely offered. Perhaps Percy’s most famous life saved was that of Frank Sinatra who nearly drowned in a riptide at Wailua Beach in 1964.
One lesson Kaupena remembers hearing from his father was how, with the decline of pineapple and sugar cane, island visitors were essentially the “new agriculture.” This was not meant in a disparaging way at all, rather, that like important crops, tourists needed to be protected and positive experiences needed to be “fertilized with aloha” so that visitors would encourage others to come to Hawaii and they themselves would return.
If someone caused trouble for a tourist, Percy was quick to step in and help, extending his caring spirit to anyone—it didn't matter if they were local, from a neighbor island or the other side of the world. “I'm six-foot-five and my dad was six-two,” says Kaupena, “but he was a bigger man than me. When he walked into a room, he lit the place up.”
Today on Kauai, most hotels have some sort of beach service—a place that rents gear, offers lessons or can give advice to would-be surfers, but the notion of encountering a beach boy today is the stuff of legends.
Talk to old-timers, the dwindling number of people who recall those days, and they'll all tell you things were simpler then. People had less of everything—less gear, less money, no car, no phone; yet, they had something that can’t be bought for all the money in the world. They had a freedom, and the unrestrained sense of fun that came with it, typified by beach boys, that today lives on only in the hearts of those who were there, and in the stories they share.