Surfing With The Island Girl

A surfing lesson in Santa Cruz with surf instructor Nina Ke'alohi Dodge gets students in touch with the power of the ocean.

by Traci Hukill

March 17, 2014—Hot March Sunday, more summer than spring. Steady waves at Cowells and half the surfers in Santa Cruz trying to catch them. The sun is glinting off the water in sharp little shards and I am forcing my arms, which have somehow filled with concrete, to paddle my surfboard toward a figure in a red rash guard and a ball cap who is waving and calling encouragement. “Come this way!” she hollers. Golden streams of waist-length hair are plastered to her rash guard.

A big guy on an SUP arrows in front of me, his paddle strokes eating up distance like a Cadillac hoovers up highway. “I see that smile!” he booms. “You’re having too much fun!”

“Heh,” I gasp. “It’s great.”

In truth what I am wearing is a grimace. This is hard. The last time I surfed, 12 years ago, it seemed a lot easier. Now my shoulders are on fire and my arms are dead, and I haven’t even paddled into a wave yet.

I just have to get to where I can rest for a minute. I fix my eyes on Nina, grit my teeth and dig in. Finally I’m in her orbit. I sit up on my board; immediately the burning in my shoulders lets up.

“How are you doing? Having fun?” Nina asks by way of welcome, and I surprise myself with the truth. “Yeah. It’s good to be out.”

We’re between sets so I look around. A couple of the other students are bobbing nearby. One has fallen off his soft top board and is clambering back on. One sits perched, looking out toward the horizon for the next wave. He seems to already have the surfing bug. Another student labors behind me. Still another is paddling somewhere off to the left, oblivious to the instructions received a half hour earlier on the beach to watch her and follow her signals.

In a few minutes Nina will retrieve him, paddling probably another half-mile in the process, and when she gets back she will become a human turbocharger, propelling us one by one into the waves so we at least get the chance to feel the thrill of fiberglass planing on water. We’ll try to remember our lesson on the sand and get our balance before leaping to our feet, but there will be much flailing of limbs on the way to standing up.

We are all wearing red rash guards over our wetsuits, marking us as students of Santa Cruz–based guide service Adventure Out. We are college students, engineers, PhD candidates. One hails from Iceland, another from Korea. One postponed a skydiving lesson to come here today. One attends Stanford.

On land we are competent adults with jobs and prospects. In the water, though, we are helpless as baby chicks. For this adventure we need a protector, and Nina Ke‘alohi Dodge—petite, Hawaii-born and tough as nails—is our mother hen, ocean language translator, spirit guide and mermaid bodyguard all rolled into one.

Made in Hawaii

White kids who grow up in the islands don’t have it easy. The Hawaiian word for foreigner—“haole”—lies uneasily between description and slur and applies only to Caucasians. Other non-natives, like Filipinos and Puerto Ricans, land on the lucky side of the local–haole divide. Greatly outnumbered in the locals’ camp are the indigenous Hawaiians themselves.

Nina Dodge is a ninth generation Hawaiian resident, the descendant of a European sailor who stayed. Born to parents who were both raised on the North Shore of Oahu and eventually moved to rural Maui, she grew up steeped in a bohemian mix of alternative culture and island customs. Waldorf school and no TV. Hula lessons starting at 10. Ukulele. Surfing from the age of 5, and well; she was state champion in her high school division two years in a row. And though she tanned to a cocoa brown, her long hair went blond in the sun. Even at family reunions she caught flack from cousins who considered themselves local but called her haole.

“It was such a struggle,” she says, “because I was always the blond girl, always the white girl.”

But something in the hula lessons spoke to her. The Hawaiian name given to her by the kumu, or hula teacher, was Ke‘alohi. It means “bright shining one.” When Nina went to college at the University of Hawaii–Manoa, she studied the Hawaiian language. Later, at the UH–Hilo campus on the Big Island, she completed her master's in Hawaiian language and literature with a thesis about wind and rain imagery in native literature. She wrote it in Hawaiian.

The choice of subject fit her perfectly. Surfers are “mini-meteorologists,” she says, always reading waves and conditions. Studying wind and rain in school only made sense.

Maybe it’s the literary background, or maybe it’s a lifetime of immersion in the dramatic elements of the islands, which can be as frightening as they are lovely, but Nina talks about the ocean with almost severe reverence. “What surfing ultimately is is stepping into this huge source of power,” she says. “When we go into it, it’s recharging our battery. It demands you to be right here, right now. You have to leave land behind you, or you’re gonna get pounded.”

Nina, now 32, has taught surfing since her days at Manoa, almost 15 years ago. In Santa Cruz for three years now, she’s happily sharing the sport of princes.

“I’m here to share the love,” she says. “I’m 25-30 years of wave knowledge that comes with the lesson. I like pushing my students into the wave and catching it with them. It’s all about perfect timing, positioning and maneuvering them through the crowd. I take great pride in my positioning,” she adds.

“I’m a little bit of a bully, too, when it comes to looking out for my students. I guess that’s the mother hen in me.”

Asked who makes the best beginning surfers, she answers without hesitating. “I find that swimmers, horseback riders and dancers have the most natural ability of any green surfer,” she answers. Horseback riders especially. “You need to go with the flow of the horse, but also claim your dominance,” she says. “Same with the ocean. You gotta flow with it if you’re getting pounded, but when you’re paddling out you gotta take control of it. You gotta know where you’re going.

“When you’re able to find a flow with the ocean, it’s extremely empowering. Very empowering.”

Into The Flow

As the tide drops and the swell picks up, Cowell’s turns into a melee. Every wave is a party wave, especially on the inside, where we are. One after another Nina calls the students over and performs her trademark move: holding the tail of the student’s board down and shoving it powerfully into the wave, all from her own board. The tail position prevents the unhappy outcome of pearling, or going over the nose of the board. It’s a move of which she’s justifiably proud. It’s hard to see how she does it.

The first student to stand up seems to hop up pretty easily. Next it’s my turn.

“How you doing, Traci? You ready for action?” Uh-huh. “OK, turn around. Start paddling. Paddle! Paddle hard!”

My noodle arms are going like eggbeaters but I have no strength. That all comes from behind as Nina pushes me into the wave. It feels ridiculously fast for how small I know this wave is. I hop up but I have no balance and fall over immediately. Still—it’s fun! We are now officially having fun! I paddle back out. It’s a little easier, this paddling thing, when you know there’s some candy at the end of it.

Most of us are not naturals at this. Almost everyone in class manages to get upright, if only for a second. I get one pretty good ride in spite of myself, managing to stay on the board and instinctively hopping on it to keep it going when the wave starts to peter out. It’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in many years, and it’s the one thing I keep remembering today. Not the slog to the lineup, not the comic discomfort of the wetsuit. It’s that one little ride on the line between “in control” and “out of control.”

Like Nina said, when you’re able to find a flow with the ocean, it’s extremely empowering.

Adventure Out’s one-day Surfing I clinic is held regularly in Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay and Pacifica. Lessons are three hours and include all gear. $99. Two-day Surfing I clinic is $175. Learn more on the Adventure Out Surfing page.