Article and Photos by Rebekah Ng.
After catching an all-too-brief glimpse of Kai Kea surfing on Ko’olina Beach, I managed to entice the famously elusive surfer into an exclusive interview. A couple days later, and with a little determination on my part since I had absent-mindedly forgotten to set up a time and place at our first meeting, I caught up with Hawaii’s waterside wonder in a small beach bar on a glorious, if sweltering, morning.
As I get us a table on the sand and set up my equipment, the giant of a man grabs the two of us a beer and some nachos for the two of us to share. He’s wearing a simple, but colorful, swimsuit and an open Hawaiian shirt that shows off his well-honed muscles, still glistening from the ocean. He puts on a pair of aviator sunglasses, smiles effortlessly and gestures for me to begin.
N: So, Kai, the Annual Quicksilver Surf Championships are due to take place next week. You’re the defending champion and it’s on your home turf. Are you going to come home with the trophy again?
K: Well, y’know, here’s hoping.
N: Anyone you’re afraid of out there?
K: I’m wouldn’t say afraid, but there’s always good competition out there. Santiago’s good. So’s Fraire. So’s Sbraga… and Jones. I’m just gonna go out there, do my best and see what the waves bring me. I’m sure the other guys’ll do the same. It’s gonna be fun.
N: So, I, I mean our readers, would love to get to know you a little better.
K: What do you wanna know?
N: Oh, wow. Where to start? Um… You’re a local boy, right? How was your childhood?
K: Not quite local. I grew up on Moloka’i. My da was a fisherman there; used to spend most of my days on his boat and on the water, y’know? He taught me how to surf, but I passed him up pretty quick.
N: Where is your father now?
K: He passed a couple years ago. He was out on his boat when that solar flare hit. He didn’t make it home.
N: I’m so sorry.
K: It’s alrigh’. Y’know, he lived a good life and died doing what he loved. Not a bad way to go, all things saying.
N: Is that how you want to go? On the water? Surfing?
K: Honestly, I’d rather not go at all. I ain’t done here yet.
N: So, I can’t help by notice your tattoos. I see you have a Japanese kami gate there, but your family is all native Hawaiian.
K: Well, not quite all. My ma’s Japanese. This gate’s evening things out, y’know? I got the Polynesian sleeve on my left for my da, and the gate for my ma on the right. Balance and all.
N: Are you close with your mother?
K: I suppose. Her job keeps her pretty busy, but she visits when she can. We’re cool.
N: Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to fast forward a bit. People don’t seem to realize you’re really very smart. You graduated from university right here on Oah’u. Why did you choose to go to college when your surfing career had already taken off?
K: Ah, well, um… I just wanted to know stuff, I guess. That doesn’t sound right…. I just wanted to know how the body worked. I wanted to be able to stay fit longer and stay surfing longer by knowing how my body works and what it needs.
N: I don’t mean to offend you, but I have to ask. Is it true, that in college, you were roommates with the terrorist Rory Rollins?
K: Ah, man… Yeah, yeah. For one semester. Look, I’ll tell you what I told everyone else who asked. He seemed cool, we used to hit the gym together and such; I had no clue back then that he would become the man that he did. Maybe that’s a lapse of judgment on my part, I dunno, but I haven’ seen him in five years and I hope I never see him again. Simple as that. He ain’t something I’m proud of. Can we move on?
N: Of course. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.
K: You didn’t. I ain’t mad. You’re doing you, that’s all anyone can ask of anyone. I just wish people would let me be me, y’know? I ain’t Rollins. One poorly chosen former friend doesn’t define me.
N: Before we go, there are a couple of local rumors I’d like to address.
K: OK. Sure.
N: You’ve been seen spending a lot of time at the Matsuda Local Clinic here and one of the doctors there has been seen sporting a rather… intimate… tattoo of you. Is there a romance blossoming there?
K: Haha, no. She’s just a big fan that asked for a weird gift and it weren’t any skin off my back. That whole clinic’s cool. They looked after my ma the last time she was in town and I’m cool with one of the other docs too. I’ve donated some equipment and, if anyone wants to do something decent, they could really use a new AC unit. They’re cool folks, doing decent work. I’ll keep helping out if they’ll have me.
N: Who wouldn’t have you? Finally, there’s been rumors of you taking on a local boy as an apprentice. Are you teaching people how to surf now? Can I get a private lesson?
K: Nah, nah, I ain’t teaching people. At least, not properly or by appointment or anything. But, he’s a good kid, who was on the beach when I was and I don’t mind sharing some pointers. As for your lesson, sure… why not? I think there’s a couple more good waves out there today. You got a swimsuit?
N: Uh, no….
N: But, I can make it work.
K: Huh. OK. Uh… sure. Let’s do it.
My interviewee gets up, his muscles rippling as he downs the rest of his beer and goes to grab his board. He smiles again – a gestures that lights his face with an impressive warmth. As I prepare myself for an impromptu lesson with a titan of the surf, this reporter reassures the great state of Hawai’i that despite a laidback attitude and an imperfect past, Kai Kea is a gentle giant who will make his home state immensely proud in the upcoming competition and in many more to come.
Rebekah Ng, reporting for the Honolulu Star