The Ultimate Arena




Words and Photos by David Pu’u


Stars glided serenely through the treetops, as the raiding party padded in near silence through the soft, warm stillness of a moonless tropical night.  A singleness of purpose, and steely resolve, did little to quell the nervousness and edgy anticipation each of the warriors held dear, at the core of their heavily muscled bodies. Sweat glistened upon mahogany toned skin as the steady cadence of the attack began to show itself. Each man knowing full well, the portent of what would transpire in another couple miles passage through the darkness.

The two tribes had been squabbling for years. War would break out that night as what was to be a preemptive strike against Kamehameha, drew first blood, and as their chief had explained, show the enemy chief that might was on their side. Scouts had reported Kamehameha and the bulk of his men were to be gone, doing the tribes work on Maui, while the Big Island village was left to the women and children to occupy and run.

The glistening shadows swiftly fell upon the sleeping village. Orders were clear. The few young men on watch were dispatched with a soft whoosh of hot breath expelled through gaping crevasses in their throats. Looks of surprise and shock faded to dull stares. Each was dropped silently where they had sat, as their mana ebbed, flowing out of their now lifeless bodies.

The women were pulled from sleep, rounded up and herded to the edge of the village. The steady blows of ax and shuddering of coconut palms did nothing to allay their terror, as one by one, the trees fell. And in turn, the warriors accosted the women, taking them roughly, and without mercy or compassion. Those that acquiesced, suffered in silence, or sobbed quietly. Those that resisted were clubbed, and again, the blood of the tribe flowed into the soil. For hours, into the first light of dawn, the pillaging of Kamehameha’s village dragged on, till at last the coconut grove was decimated, reduced to carcal remains, looking like fallen giants in the faint peach toned light.

Women in tow, the warriors began to retrace their steps. As day began to supercede surreal night, and the ebbing twilight painted afresh the bloodied troop, the island was strangely silent. It was as if the land held it’s breath in disapproval at the night’s carnage. Plodding across a lava field, the earth began to tremble. A dull roaring seemed to resonate from below their feet, and in an instant, the once firm lava began to slip, and slide underfoot. The land itself began to shake. Cool morning air turned bitter, hot, and acrid.

What happened next was swift, so merciful, yet completely terrible, as the accelerating volcanic eruption caught and turned to vapor what only minutes before, had been hardened, seasoned warriors. Some of the women, though stunned, were able to retreat, others fell.  The soft sigh of pain and anguish, was hidden beneath the cacophony of the volcano. A  breath lost forever, in surrender to their fate.

A sad, dreadful feeling, greeted Kamehameha and his men, as they paddled ashore around midday. The smoke from the eruption was spotted from mid channel, as they plowed swiftly through a building sea. Nothing would prepare them for the sorrow that lay past the edge of the lush beach as their canoes, once more, brought them home.

By days end, sorrow had metamorphosed into rage, and rage began to settle into resolve. Kamehameha sent a messenger to his rival chief, demanding he turn himself over to the village, or see his own tribe suffer at the outraged warrior’s hands. At a loss, and without most of his warriors, the chief made the journey to the South shore of Hawaii. In sight of Kamehameha’s land he knelt, drew his knife and severed his manhood, tossing it aside, in a last act of defiance. He would never impart his mana to Kamehameha. Resolutely he plodded into the presence of his rival, and in short order perished at the knife of his enemies. It was at this point, that Kamehameha settled into a path that would cause him to dominate the bulk of the islands, with a strength and rage that would propel him and his descendants into control of every island but Kauai. But it was also at this point that the Hawaiian people separated from each other, and war became a way of life.

Hana Hou

As the jet made its final approach, I was wrapped up in reverie about what I would find here on Maui. Bobby Friedman and Archie Kalepa, Maui’s head lifeguard, had both called repeatedly the past several days with updates on the swell and the impending event. I never seemed to make it past the airport in the past. Oddly, from my first trip over, in the early sixties to present, Maui had remained just out of my reach. My father, who was born on O’ahu, had told me that the family was thought to have originated on Maui. One of my ancestors being Chief Kalani O Puu, said to have been one of the warriors that trained Kamehameha. Arch had told me that a lot of Puu’s lived out Hana way. I wondered how it would feel. Walking the same land, swimming the same seas, as my distant relatives and ancestors. And then there was the surf.  Lots of storms lay up in the North Pacific storm track, which appeared quite pregnant with potential for big time swell production.

Bobby was waiting for me at curbside outside the baggage claim, apologizing profusely to security in an effort to avoid eviction. We literally threw all my gear into the back of Victor Lopez’ battered Ford ranger and raced out of the airport.

He was giddy with excitement. “Pier One, flawless conditions, fifteen feet plus! Jaws this morning, I rode a barrel! It’s insane! Everyone is waiting! We have to hurry!”

Half an hour later, I was perched precariously on the back of Archie’s ski, with Bobby at the controls. “Arch has been training me on this thing” he tossed over his shoulder, words being snatched at by the howling Kona wind, as we proceeded out of the Kahului harbor entrance. Outside, it appeared large surf was breaking all over the place. We threaded our way through it, to a peak that was literally awash in a sea of rainbows, thrown into the sky by the offshore wind. Numbly I watched as I saw a ski towing a surfer into what appeared to be a fifteen foot example of what a perfect wave should look like. Grabbing a camera out of my waterproof case, which I had hurriedly roped to the ski, I swung on the surfer, in time to catch him flying across an azure carpet that one only ever sees in dreams. It was Archie. For the next two hours, I watched Victor Lopez, Archie, then Bobby, and alternately Jairus Cannon put on an amazing display of tow surfing in pristine fifteen to maybe twenty foot surf. The sunset was surreal, with a twilight tinted by peach colored afterglow, illuminating the ocean surface, and the Western sky over the Iao Valley.

Later, back in the harbor parking lot, in the semi darkness, as I waited for the skis to be rinsed, and packed my gear back into Victor’s truck I stopped. I felt numb. Looking out to sea, I took a slow deep breath and listened quietly. Nothing. Nothing inside. Every time I go back to O’ahu it is as if the island rises up to greet me, welcoming me home. No such feeling was evident to me here, my feet firmly planted on the soil my ancestors trod. Hmm, interesting, I thought. I am merely a visitor here.

I was put up at the home of James Mac Dowell. I was graciously given the guest suite, in the palatial home of the relatively famous sailor. James’ yacht, the Grand Illusion, had won the TransPac and quite a few other notable races several times, under his command. His home was just up the valley from Peahi, in Haiku.

The succeeding days saw me get my bearings The surf continued to pulse. A variety of adventures including tow canoeing in fairly decent sized surf, took up most of my time.  Everywhere I went, I kept hearing about how “lucky” I was to see so many breaks at their best. “It is never this good”, became a common refrain. It began to dawn on me that maybe the island was welcoming me after all.

I  began to meet and reconnect with many old friends and acquaintances. Solid surfers and great watermen, all. It was an odd feeling seeing some of the people I had traveled the world with as a surfer in my youth, now aged, and set to charge what many hoped would be the biggest surf ever ridden, in a contest dubbed the “World Tow In Championship. “I reconnected with Cheyne Horan, met his tow partner,  sailboarder, Robbie Seeger. Bumped into Jeff Clark, met his new tow partner Chuck Patterson, the list just went on.  The tone for all of us was warm and at the same time a bit awkward, as nobody with the possible exception of Archie, and most likely Laird Hamilton, really knew what to expect.

I met contest promoter and organizer Rodney Kilborn, hung at the man’s home, which was being used as contest headquarters, and the pit area for many of the skis that would be used in the event. My filming partner and friend Greg Huglin, was already there, having flown in a day earlier than I, hired by the event operators to help shoot motion picture footage for the production company Estudios Mega had formed. The Brazilian backers of the event wanted to produce a television show that would document what they hoped would be a unique occurrence. Surfers riding the biggest waves in the world, many having never even seen Jaws firsthand. Archie was hired to make sure no one died in the process. A tall order. Years of planning and effort by Rodney, and many others were all on the line.

 An additional complication for everyone existed. Aside from hoping to win the swell and weather lottery that would cause Jaws to gape, the Quiksilver event at Wiamea, featured some of the same surfers. Both events require similar conditions. An agreement existed that was designed in an attempt to keep both events from firing at the same time. The Quiksilver would have priority. On the swell I had flown in on, the Quiksilver was tentatively called on, then off. A process I had watched countless times over the years.  Jaws had fired loudly, but the timing was off. Being so close to Christmas, and with a film crew just barely in place, it was just too precarious. The Tow In Championship relinquished it’s day to run, in perfect conditions, expecting and hoping that the Quiksilver would run. That gem of a day was polished off by the Strapped Crew, surfing for the cameras of Don King and Sonny Miller for a James Bond film. The experience had to be nerve wracking for the organizers of both events, on what would later prove to be an exceptionally lean, big wave year.

Pineapples and Guavas

I have been a surfer all my life. In surfing, it is pretty much all about you and the ocean. The sport is based on tenets of ancient Hawaiian culture, where a person grew up in the sea. Tow surfing is a different beast. In big wave tow surfing, pioneered by Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, and the rest of a small, elite group of watermen, also known as the “Strapped Crew” you need a crowd, literally. This is how it works, in a nutshell.

Take a jetski and two guys; add a tow line and a surfboard shaped object that is more water-ski than surfboard. Multiply that equation by two, at least, so that you have a minimum of two skis and four guys. One crew tows, the second is ‘safety’ or rescue as it were, if something goes wrong. The conditions are extreme enough and the process of riding a wave like Jaws tricky enough, that you must have a safety in order to not hang your life out on the line. In surfing it is all about personal fitness, and actual surfing skill. Not in tow surfing. There are parallels between the two sports, make no mistake about that, but the point is, the two are more like brothers, than being one and the same person.

It is interesting to note, that the top ten or so sailboarders in the world all tow surf, and do it exceptionally well, Guys like Sierra Emory, Robbie Seeger, Mike Waltze, are dynamic at the end of the rope. Put many of the top ten on a surfboard, and they would have a hard time getting out of a heat in four foot surf against most competent amateur surfers. It is a simple fact.

Then there is the technique involved in tow. It is entirely unique from surfing. In big wave surfing, the point of stress and fear is normally associated with sitting “in the saddle”, that narrow stretch of takeoff zone where you must sit, watch for, select and paddle for a beast of a wave. In tow in, the point of stress occurs at the bottom of the wave, after you have taken the fall line. It is at this point, you generally wonder if you and your partner have done all the right things for you to make the wave. Remember, in big wave tow surfing, the reason people first towed, was because the wave could not be paddled into. And there lies the essential difference. A quantum leap in size potential, speed, and a new realm, more akin to the race track, than the azure fields glided over in the Sport of Kings.


The district of Peahi is located on the North shore of Maui.  The surf spot known as Jaws is located off its shores. Jaws was pioneered by legendary athlete and sailboarder Mike Waltze. As the story goes, Mike hiked his gear down the steep overgrown cliffside at this remote spot, located far out at the end of the pineapple fields. He then paddled his gear out, rigged his sailboard, rode the place at size, then sailed miles back up coast to Hookipa, where he went ashore. Mike did it alone. The scale of the feat, looking back on it today, is almost incomprehensible, given the extreme variables of location, size, extremity of surf, and distance.

Later, the tow teams of Buzzy Kerbox and Laird Hamilton, Rush Randel, Dave Kalama and several others would pioneer tow in surfing at Jaws. Over the ensuing years they became “The Strapped Crew”, and were largely, the primary ones to frequent the place. Word got out.  Tow Surfing began to grow as a sport. I remember being in Jeff Clark’s shop in 1995, we had been out at Mavericks earlier that day, and had taken a run around looking at some potential tow spots in Jeff’s inflatable. Jeff was holding a four fin phazer bottom tow board. The next season I found myself in the Oahu North Shore glass shop of Jack Reeves, looking at tow in boards shaped by Dick Brewer. They were extremely different from anything one would be able to conventionally surf, and designed with Jaws in mind.

Aloha Aina

A big swell was on the way! There it was, plain as day, on a fax from surf forecaster, Sean Collins. Based on this report and its projected arrival and a brief 17 second swell reading on Hawaii weather buoy number one, which lays about a day away, as the swell rolls from Jaws, the Tow In Championships were called on for the next day. As a safety, Rodney and crew decided that the cutoff point would be at 6AM,  twelve hours from when we stood reading Sean’s forecast. The final decision would be made pre dawn, from the cliff at Peahi.

At five the next morning, I met Keoki Brown, who stood ready at the Kahului docks with his Force 21, gassed up and ready, along with the rest of the event support boats. At 6am my phone rang. It was Archie, telling me the event was off, there was no swell. I rang Greg Huglin, who was headed out for the cliffs with the film crew.”No joy in mudville today pal!” I told him. It had been raining, and no one looked forward to the morass the road through the fields to Jaws became each rain. We agreed to meet at Maliko Gulch, the launching point for the skis when you were headed for Jaws.

Thirty minutes later, in the pre dawn halflight, a monochromatic scene played itself out in surreal fashion at Maliko. A group of men, dressed in tapa, led by Kahu, Kelihi Taua, had commenced a traditional Hawaiian animistic religious ceremony. Kelihi had been flitting in and about the Peahi site for days, making offerings, praying, applying well placed chants to the four directions of the compass. No one knew this but Rodney, and a few of the other Hawaiians. On the beach were most of the greatest watermen and surfers in the sport. As the ceremony commenced Kelihi stopped and asked everyone what it was they wanted to happen. A consensus as quickly reached by all. ‘Really big surf, safety for all the competitors, etc..’ Kelihi prayed. The ceremony serenely proceeded, as day began to break. “You will have exactly what you ask for”,  Kelihi said softly. “All will come back safe. Now share breath.” With that instruction, he demonstrated the technique where each man embraced another, touched foreheads, breathed out, then in, sharing essence, or ‘ha,’ the breath of life. It was quite amazing to watch, as Titus Kinimaka took Orange County surfer Brad Gerlach in the aloha embrace. No blending of Christian theology and Hawaiian belief in this circle. It was pure animistic communication, based on Hawaiian tradition. Everyone was there, as the Quiksilver was not on call for that day. I knew it might be the only time the entire world’s best, may ever be together, standing as brothers. In the circle I noticed Brian Keaulana, hands clasped, with Archie Kalepa. The portent of the two amazing ‘chiefs’ of each tribe there together, was very significant. I knew things could quite possibly change from here on out.

Later that day, I frustratedly made my way back to Kahului, and rented a computer at Kinkos. Damn, when you want anything done, just do it yourself. Jeff Clark was on it too. We both came to the same conclusion. No real chance of swell for over a week. Our crew of Jaws devotees scattered to the four corners, retreating to wait for a swell all hoped would come. Except Kelihi. He knew. I know the difference between faith and  hope. Hope is when you want something to occur. Faith is when you know for sure it will happen. Kelihi had that understanding. In the course of the memorial ceremony, he had stopped to ask everyone what exactly they wanted to happen, he knew what they had asked for would appear.

A few days later, as I sat staring at the North Pacific weather model and had taken a long look at the satellite overview, I saw the set up. Two low pressure systems had formed in the upper eastern Pacific and were forecast to juxtapose. This position would form a long fetch, similar to the one that had caused the Big Wednesday swell, years earlier. I spoke with Jeff Clark about it. He concurred that it could happen. Four days out. Four days where anything could happen.  As we spoke, the wind was blowing, over a span of about 1600 miles of open ocean, and it was aimed at Jaws. A day later, I noticed that the angle of the fetch was changing. It looked as if the brunt of the swell would pass several hundred miles to the North of us. The swell would be a glancing blow. But what a great swell maker sat on the computer screen there in front of me! Now, if enough of the swell energy managed to nick the reef at Jaws, we would really see something. I could not help but wonder if somehow the ceremony had turned this beast of a storm at a tangent to Peahi. It was spectacular, but a direct hit would most likely be catastrophic.

A surfboard caught in the lip of a huge wave at Jaws, Maui

The telltale notes of the 757’s mammoth engines blasted out untold amounts of thrust, as the maniacal bellow reached a crescendo, and underscored my position at the gate. What awaited me on Maui? Slowly, into focus, my consciousness shifted gears. The sweet scent of plumeria, and the dark vista that fell away to Peahi, below my room at James’ house, welcomed me out of a fitful sleep. Just a dream. It was two in the morning. Rain pattered on the roof, as a persistent wind batted the squall outside around. Sitting up, I heard it, what sounded like the explosion of jet blast, over and over again, rising in tone and timbre, making its way up the valley. Jaws was awake. I had never heard a wave make that kind of noise before.

Helicopter at Jaws, Maui

Turning of a Page

 It was four thirty AM. A sleepy Rodney Kilborn greeted me out in the garage at his contest headquarters home. Inviting me inside, he offered me coffee, and our day began. Inside of half an hour a bunch of us were seated around Rodney’s kitchen table. Archie sat across from me, and we were ‘talking story” as one by one, people awoke and came out of the woodwork. Leaning sleepily against the doorway was Eddie Rothman, there to watch his 17 year old son Makua, surf.  Everybody was slowly getting their bearings.

Archie was animatedly engaged in a story about a trip he had made to the Big Island aboard the Hokulaeia, the replica of the ancient Hawaiian sailing vessel. We had been talking about Hawaiian chiefs, and how the Hawaiian people had been split apart for so many years. The two of us sat, opposite each other, sort of glued together, lost in the story. In vivid detail, Arch described the landing in a bay on Hawaii. People had been called to a gathering from all the islands. A Kahu was presiding over a ceremony designed to bring healing to the different tribes. A new unity. Cameras were banned, security was tight. Arch described how the Kahu had given a rock that had been blessed, to Hawaiian waterman Tiger Espere. The Kahu told him to swim the rock out, and place it in the reef offshore warning him that he would be surrounded by sharks. The rock contained the aloha of all the people gathered in that place. The sharks would encircle Tiger, then disperse to the four corners of the compass, taking the spirit with them.

“I saw it! It happened. Exactly what the Kahu said! Tiger sharks surrounded him, in a circle. He swam the rock down to the bottom, and placed it where he was supposed to. And then they were gone!” Arch looked across the table at me, we both felt it at once: “Ooh, I get chicken skin”.

An hour later, with Keoki at the wheel of his Force 21, we headed out of the Kahului harbor, the moon shone off and on through dark clouds, scudding by on a building Kona wind. Light rain had been falling, and appeared to be dissipating. The hull of the boat began to slap, as the confluence from a huge swell poured towards us, and Keoki looked for the eye of the needle, to thread our way out to open ocean. With an eye on the depth finder, we sought deep water, and made our way towards Maliko Gulch, which lay miles down coast. The ride was rough, as we beat our way into the Kona chop, hammering into the wind, swell pushing at our port side as we all hung on as best we could. Occasionally huge sets would come up on us. One such set had us all hooting, as we watched it wave, and pitch forward, as if to gain momentum in its journey into the brightening dawn. Looking down at the depth finder, we were in over 100 feet of water, and the set had still managed to stand up a bit. Our hearts were in our throats about what we would see at Jaws.

At Maliko we waited for instructions and sat watch, radioing Archie on the beach, when we would spot an incoming set. One big set had twelve waves in it, the biggest one being number four. Keoki calmly warned the crew launching from the impact zone. The amount of energy headed into the dark cliffs of Peahi was beyond belief. An hour and a half later, with everyone safely out to sea, we made our way to Jaws.  I was tired and just managing to hold onto the roll I had eaten for breakfast, as some  tossed  their cookies over the side. We positioned ourselves in the channel at Jaws.

Under dark clouds, we checked the depth finder. Seventy five feet, in the channel. That should do it. Seventy five feet of water under the hull, meant 75 feet of wave would be needed to take us out. I had checked in advance. Only once, had anyone been driven in before by a set too big for the Jaws channel. The swell buoy readings had been identical to today. But the Kahu had said it. We would get what we had asked for. Safety for all was in the forecast.

I climbed up on to the top of the cabin and clung to it with a foot hooked under a grab rail. The boat pitched wildly as side waves, generated from the force of the wave at Jaws, batted us around, causing us to drag anchor and have to reset a few times. I brought one camera up with me. One hand for it, one hand for me. Film in a pocket of my cargo shorts, I was not going to come down for anything. All of us sensed history would be made that day. Looking through the lens at a howling beast of a wave as it made that preternatural screaming sound, I remember trying to comprehend the sight, and thinking that this must be where bad people go, when they die. Yet the salt spray from that same wave was a heady perfume for all of us, as it pelted down, seconds later.

In the course of that Monday, January 7th, 2002, some of the biggest waves ever seen were ridden by a crew that was largely virgin. Many had never ridden the place before.


I cannot adequately describe the magnitude of what I saw occur, as I shot every wave that I could, that long day.

Imagine being the first person to ride the place. Now imagine what it must have felt like for the first fifteen of the thirty surfers out there, to ride some of the biggest waves in history, not knowing the place. Or the ski drivers, who would launch their partners into potential oblivion.  The implication of that act was just incredible. Before this day, the place had primarily been ridden by  the Strapped Crew. But the knowledge and skills they had accumulated, made it possible for the elite crew of novices to absolutely charge what most watermen would only see as a place best left for ghosts to ride.

As Archie would later put it, there were 30 superheroes out there that day. I remember seeing him take the first big wipeout of the contest. Victor had been driving. They were on their way out the back when a bomb reared, and Sierra elected not to go. Victor whipped Archie into the bomb from a shore to sea angle, an aggressive tactic that multiplies the initial speed and g force generated. It creates a calculated risk that the rider can get his board to hold an edge as he swings around on his initial carve and heads back towards the channel. All of this occurring on an ominous gray canvas of cascading forty foot, heaving, and storm generated, beast. Arch later told me he could feel his board letting go, and punched out the back, taking a severe beating from the wave and another on the head, in the worst part of the impact zone. The rescue system he had designed worked like a smoothly oiled, old Swiss clock, as one of the four waiting skis plucked him from the mouth of the third beast. This was to be the ice breaker. That wipeout. It all worked, you could live through it! With aggression one normally sees in four foot contest surf, everyone just attacked the place.


The moments that stick out in my mind are these: Mike Parson, skittering at the edge of control, into the eye of one of the biggest waves ever. His first wave at Jaws. Arch and I watching in fascination coupled strangely with horror, as the wave collapsed. Arch holds the radio, at the ready. Mike threading the chaos, emerging unscathed.   Carlos Burle, pulling in on a snuff tube that actually had the appearance of a giant set of jaws set to gnash him and remove his head from squared off shoulders. Only to burst out the back of the wave, and take two more on the head, and charge back outside minutes later, on the attack.  Just remarkable, the skill and tenacity being displayed. The teen team, of Makua Rothman, and Ryan Rawson, in defiance of the established conventions in surfing, we have all grown up with, drew a new line in the sand. They absolutely charged Jaws, and rode waves that in the sport of surfing, would make the best of us run crying for the safety of a heli rescue basket. The combined age of these two, did not equal the age of the average person riding Jaws that day. The sight of them towing back into the saddle at full throttle, looking for a wave feverishly, that would eliminate far more experienced surfers, and just dominate it, was again, hard for my 46 year old, traditional surf psyche to comprehend.


With the energy, noise, and  power, dissipating cataclysmically, a scant fifty yards away as the swell peaked, the atmosphere was hard to describe adequately, such was the amount of focus on this small portion of Pacific Island reef. It was a defining moment in surfing. But bigger than that, the event at Jaws outlined what was possible.  The event wound up, in all it’s drama; to be what I had once heard surfer-writer, Matt George ascribe mistakenly to something less noble as,”The ultimate arena of the human spirit.”

Paaawhock! The sound the club made, as a bright orange ball sailed out of sight. It was twilight, and I watched as Makua and Ryan calmly attempted to knock golf balls out of the park in Rodney’s huge yard. Just two kids, calmly wrapping up their day. A bunch of the contest crew was already headed into Paia to celebrate. Funny, the swell had dropped right out after the event. How fortunate I had been to have been a witness to the magic of this island. I bet Kelihi was smiling.

David Pu’u is an internationally recognized photographer and cinematographer with broad experience ranging from editorial publication, to television and feature film production. Currently David is lead creative and CEO of Neocreative Inc, which develops and licenses IP related to Photography, Literature and Film. He is Co Founder of OceanLovers Collective Inc.  He holds a Certification as a Rescue Boat Operator and First Responder via K38 Maritime and AWA, and is trained in risk assessment and mitigation in marine environments. 

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One Response to The Ultimate Arena

  1. Citizen Reporter May 15, 2018 at 12:08 am

    Awesome story and pics- thanks, David!


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