Learners Not Permitted: A Groundswell of Angry Locals has Engendered a new Maui County law

Buzzy Kerbox doesn't get chased out of the water easily. A big-wave rider and early tow-in surfing pioneer, the Maui resident can handle heavy water. But a groundswell of angry locals, tired of overcrowded surf spots, has engendered a new Maui County law.
Surfer Illustration: Larry Jones

Illustration: Larry Jones

County officials claim the law is designed to protect visitors and the public from surf schools operating without the proper insurance or permits. That was translating into additional costs for Maui County and, perhaps more significantly, growing anger among Maui locals fed up with a literal blue crush. “Because of what was happening, people were getting hurt. Visitors were getting into unsafe situations and ripped off by renegades. The surf schools were not policing themselves. Something had to be done,” says John Buck, deputy director of the Maui County Department of Parks and Recreation.


Best intentions aside, the ordinance is a troubling example of what some inside the visitor industry are calling in whispered tones “the New Localism.” On O’ahu, Coconut Grove residents have started a campaign to ban commercial surf schools from Tonngs, a popular surf spot on the far eastern end of Waikïkï. On the Big Island, Hawai’i County officials warned surf schools to steer clear of Kahalu’u Beach Park after complaints piled up about overcrowded waves and parking lot. Officials say they are studying how to address the rising popularity of surf schools in Maui and around the state. They also say they hope to strike a balance between local and visitor needs. Buck says the Maui Council will likely revisit the surfing ban in the future.


That could be too late, as the new law has already offended visitors. “It is pretty audacious to ask tourists to come to Maui and shell out top dollar for hotels like The Four Seasons and then tell us we are not allowed to be taught to surf on the public beaches with the best teaching waves. Imagine if instructors were banned from teaching snow skiing lessons to enthusiasts and their kids on the mountains of Aspen or Vail,” says Alex McLeod, a television show host and frequent Hawai’i visitor. McLeod learned to surf with Kerbox. After he closed, she voted with her wallet. On her most recent trip to Hawai’i in November 2004, she went to O’ahu instead of Maui. Why? “Because of this outrageous ban at the beach parks. We are beginners and we need those teaching waves.”


The law bans surfing lessons at eight popular beach parks on the Valley Isle, reducing the number of venues available to surf schools from four to two. According to Kerbox, it eliminated the two best ones and left the two worst.


That finally sent Kerbox out of the lineup. He closed his popular surfing school when the law took effect in July 2004 and entered the growing ranks of unemployed surfing instructors on Maui, rather than teach on inferior waves. “We knew the system wasn’t perfect. There were a lot of schools operating. But it’s shocking to me they would just shut it down,” says Kerbox.