Writing the Surf
A poet surfer pays tribute to Hawaii’s sport
Ask writer Michael McPherson a question, no matter how simple, and you’ll get a story. The answer to “How old are you?” begins, “Did you know I owe my life to the Hilo tsunami of 1946?” His father, who had been stationed in Japan, was discharged home to Hilo to help with the relief effort; McPherson was born 10 months later. It’s appropriate that he credits his existence to a giant wave, because he has been riding them ever since. Now he’s writing them, too.
His latest book, All Those Summers: Memories of Surfing’s Golden Age, is a coffee-table tribute to surfing, to youth and to a bygone era. McPherson is quick to emphasize that the book was a group effort. It was published by McPherson’s Punahou classmate, George Engebretson, of Watermark Publishing. Black-and-white and early color photographs from Tim McCullough and David Darling are populated with surfing legends—Duke Kahanamoku, Buddyboy, Gerry Lopez, Jock Sutherland, Queen Bee—many of whom are friends. But All Those Summers is not a blast from the past; these elegiac images rub shoulders with edgy, saturated frames from Zak Noyle, a 2004 Punahou graduate and one of surf photography’s rising stars.
Interspersed throughout are McPherson’s surf writings, laid out imaginatively. The poems ripple across the page like a shoreline (“The Coastal Zone”), or bell out as if in full sail (“A Gift of Wind”).
True to the book’s title, many of the pieces are evocations of the period in surfing before the North Shore became what it is today. “It wasn’t called the North Shore then,” says McPherson. “It was just the country,’ as in, I’m going out to the country.’ We were out there as kids, having these adventures, in what has become center stage for some of the biggest spectacles in sport. I don’t think we knew how special those waves were; it was just what was there.”
McPherson didn’t spend all his time on the water—his other passion was the written word. Of Hawaiian and Irish descent, he has advocated for local literature since its ’70s renaissance. As a scholarship student at the University of Hawaii, he was an editor at Hawaii Review, and also served as editor-in-chief of the 1980s literary journal Hapa, which aimed to expand the definition of the word “local” at a time when, he says, he was sometimes cast as an outsider, because of his name and his Irish blood.
Though his conversation is peppered with references to the aristocracy of British letters—Kipling, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce—he insists, “Although I’ve studied the masters, I’ve always been loyal to here, to Hawaii. If we don’t have the confidence in ourselves, to write it ourselves, judge it ourselves and not wait for New York to approve of us, then we might as well not be doing it!”
At 58, McPherson still unwinds from his day job as a criminal defense lawyer on a 10-foot longboard, surfing the Breakwall, near Kawaihae, on the Kohala Coast. “I still ride the old way, the way I grew up doing, ’cause that’s all I want to do anymore. For me it’s exercise, and I enjoy a good wave.” He grins. “I still have my moments out there.”
All Those Summers: Memories of Surfing’s Golden Age, by Michael McPherson
Photography by Zak Noyle, David Darling and Tim McCullough
Published by Watermark Publishing, a sister company to Honolulu Magazine. $25.95