I am coming out of Sunday Joint hibernation today but wish I wasn’t. Maui is still burning, and cinder-blackened scenes coming out of there, Lahaina especially, are heartbreaking, overwhelming, tragic. Nearly 100 people are reported dead from the fires as of this moment, and the toll will almost certainly go higher, which means this little corner of earthly paradise—an area that most people, myself included, thought all but fire-proof—is now home to the deadliest US fire in over a century.
The full scope of the Maui disaster will not be known for weeks. The culture warriors are already on it—climate change, government response or lack thereof, etc.—and it all just feels overwhelming, even way up here in Seattle, even after all the other shocking recent episodes of natural and man-made calamity.
You may know that Lahaina was, briefly (1820–1845), the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and that the town over the decades somehow managed to retain much of its slow-rolling wooden-sided grace and charm. Less known is that Lahaina occupies a small but golden place in surf history. In the mid-1960s, as crowds began pressing in on the North Shore of Oahu, Maui became the “new” ultimate surf destination—mostly thanks to Honolua Bay, and the already-fabled if rarely surfed bullet-fast wave at Maalaea, but also because the island overall seemed to be everything that Oahu was supposed to be but wasn’t. From History of Surfing:
Surfers loved Honolua not just because the wave is long and hollow and finely tapered, but because the setting is a Tolkien version of surfing paradise: densely canopied hills and valleys, red-dirt roads, dramatic cliffs, and translucent jade-green water. Adventurous surfers were now island-hopping from Oahu to Maui to take advantage of the uncrowded perfect waves, cheap rent, and primo pot.
In 1967, when shaper-guru Dick Brewer decamped from Bing Surfboards and corporate boardmaking in general, he went straight to Maui and founded Lahaina Surf Designs (LSD, wink, wink), and a few months later was noodling around the shaping bay with Gerry Lopez and Reno Abellira when Bob McTavish and the vee-bottom-toting Australians rolled up with their deep-vee-bottom Plastic Machines. Boards were unsheathed and gripped and eyeballed. Ideas were exchanged. And at that moment the new short surfboard went from Aussie phenomenon to Brewer-led surf-world revolution.
Two years later, Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman were in Lahaina filming for their latest as-yet-untitled film. Here’s what they came up with. That’s David Nuuhiwa, Nat Young, and Mark Martinson smiling and riding those gorgeous sparkly no-risk, high-performance, fun-for-everyone lefts at Lahaina Breakwater, and the footage is so bright and uplifting that MacGillivray-Freeman had no choice but to use it as the finale of Waves of Change, their best film.
Putting too fine a point on it here, but pretty much all you see in the opening of that clip—trees and buildings and basically all of Front Street; everything but the surfers and the ocean itself—went up in flames last week.
Donate to the ActBlue Maui Just Recovery Fund to help feed and house fire-displaced Maui residents, and to rebuild Lahaina.
Ethan Ewing of North Stradbroke Island, Queensland, #2 on the WCT ratings—#1 if you put a premium on flow and form and finesse—broke his L3 and L4 vertebrae at Teahupoo last week during a practice session for the second-to-last event of the 2023 season. If you follow the tour, you know that Ewing provided the one truly feel-good moment in what has by and large been a clown-driven trainwreck of a season by winning the Rip Curl Bells contest last April, almost 40 years to the day after his mother, Helen Lambert, also won at Bells, defeating future world champs Pam Burridge and Wendy Botha on the way. Helen died when Ethan was six. “I’ve been thinking about her since I went on Tour,” Ewing said after the win, noting that Helen, despite being among the best Aussie surfers of the era, decided against a career in the sport because the womens’ prize money and sponsorship opportunities in 1983 were so dismal. At a pro contest in Sydney, the same year she won Bells, Lambert received a paltry $50 check—not enough to cover travel expenses from Queensland.
Ewing’s injury is evidently not paralyzing or permanent but his future as a title-contending pro surfer is very much up in the air. Beachgrit—not my first choice for investigative reportage, either, but nobody else seems to be looking further into it, least of all the WSL who didn’t so much as mention Ewing’s injury for days—says Ewing may have to wait up to three months for surgery which in turn may require six months out of the water. Hard not to think about Critta Byrne’s career-ending broken back; not apples to apples (Byrne’s initial injury occurred years before his pro career began and went undiagnosed), but the best-case scenario puts Ewing on a long, slow, fraught road. Incredibly, if all goes well, Ewing, having recently qualified for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, could find himself surfing for a medal next year . . . Teahupoo.
Finally, songwriter and Band cofounder Robbie Robertson died last week at age 80. On some level, I guess in terms of nothing more than who I’d want to have a beer with, Robertson was my third- or fourth-favorite Band member, behind Rick Danko and Levon Helm and maybe Richard Manuel. But Robertson of course was the group’s engine, the center, not just as a songwriter for the ages but as the person you could not take your eyes off of—his deep gravel-voiced charisma was very nearly equal to his musical talent. God alone knows how many times I paddled out with the Robertson-written “Look Out Cleveland” banging through my head. Funny story there, at some point in the 1980s, “Look Out Cleveland” got siloed in my mind next to Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks,” and I began thinking of Robertson’s song as also being a salute to that city’s arena-shaking party-hearty ethos or somesuch. It is most definitely not, as I just reminded myself, looking over the lyrics, which name-checks thunder, chain lightning, storms, and clouds of warning. “Look out Cleveland” is a straight-up rock-and-roll ode to disaster and a fitting track for this really awful week.
Thanks for reading, everybody, and see you soon.
[Grid, clockwise from top left: Nat Young in Waves of Change; Lahaina burning; Ethan Ewing on International Women’s Day 2023, wearing competition vest with his mother’s name; Dick Brewer and Gerry Lopez shaping at Brewer’s LSD factory in Lahaina, photo by Dave Darling; Helen Lambert surfing in Queensland; Robbie Robertson. Lahaina in ruins. Reno Abellira and Dick Brewer in Lahaina, 1969. Screen-grabs of David Nuuhiwa and Nat Young from Waves of Change. Ethan Ewing after winning 2023 Bells contest. 1983 Bells winner Helen Lambert, center, with runner-up Jodie Cooper and Joe Engel. “Maui No Ka Oe” strip by Rick Griffin, 1972.]