Our Waikīkī: Meet the Hawai‘i Beachboys Keeping the Tradition Alive
The Waikīkī beachboys are a holdover from a bygone era, when this legendary band of Hawaiian watermen ruled the beach as Waikīkī rose to become Hawai‘i’s premier resort destination.
It’s just after 8 a.m. and finding a secluded space to relax on Kūhiō Beach is already impossible. Bikini-clad tourists, some nursing sunburns from the day before, lounge on beach chairs beneath the shade of umbrellas, flipping through magazines or posing for selfies with their smartphones. Kids floating in inflatable pineapples and bright-pink flamingos play in the calm water close to shore. Two fishermen sporting backpacks and lightweight rods toss their lines into a school of ‘iao (Hawaiian silverside). Lifeguards are opening up their towers and a group of Japanese tourists in matching dresses pose for photos with head tilts and peace signs.
Amid all this are the Waikīkī beachboys, a holdover from a bygone era, when this legendary band of Hawaiian watermen ruled the beach as Waikīkī rose to become Hawai‘i’s premier resort destination. You’ll see them fixing dings in surfboards, giving surfing demonstrations on the beach and talking tourists into signing up for canoe rides.
Josh Silva rakes the sand in front of Aloha Beach Services, the stand where he’s worked for more than 15 years. Now 35, he doesn’t consider this a job. It’s a way of life.
“What’s not to like?” he asks rhetorically, looking out toward the ocean, his office. “I’d like to do this as long as I physically can. It’s too much fun.”
— Josh Silva
Hidden in the shadow of the Moana Surfrider, this stand has been here since 1963, when Harry Robello, one of the original beachboys, opened it after spending his entire childhood on the beach, learning from Waikīkī Beach legends. In 1983, his oldest son, Didi, took over the stand, running it much the same way his dad did. The workers need to be certified as surf instructors and canoe captains, wear uniforms, keep the stand clean, stay away from drugs and be respectful.
“The best part of my job is watching these guys grow up and become men and beachboys,” says Robello, now 53, whose two sons both work at the stand. “My guys are good. It makes me proud to see how much they’ve learned. I teach them everything I know because I want them to be as good as the guys I learned from.”
The original beachboys emerged around the turn of the century, when Waikīkī’s first beachfront hotel, the Moana, was built in 1901. They were eager to share their surfing skills and knowledge of the ocean with wealthy tourists, who would reward them with gifts, dinners and envelopes of cash.
By 1911, two surfing clubs—the Outrigger and Hui Nalu—had set up beachfront clubhouses in Waikīkī, each with a staff of beachboys offering surfing lessons, canoe rides and lifeguard services. Five years later, Hui Nalu’s captain, Edward “Dude” Miller, struck a deal with the Moana to provide the hotel with its own concession on Waikīkī Beach. Called the Moana Bathhouse Gang, these clean-cut beachboys wore uniforms, and weren’t allowed to drink, gamble or flirt with female visitors.
Today, the beaches in Waikīkī, from the Hilton Hawaiian Village to the Kapahulu Groin, are dotted with beach concessions, three of which are managed by the city’s Department of Enterprise Services. These stands offer surfing lessons and canoe rides by certified instructors, who could be considered present-day beachboys.
But many would argue the old-school beachboy culture is dying along with the old-timers.
“The beachboys were more fun, more respectable, a lot more classy,” Robello says. “They dressed well. You didn’t have guys with no more teeth or long hair or tattoos.”
Waikīkī itself is a different place, too. Millions of people from around the world vacation here every year. More people shop than canoe surf. They’re looking for deals or authentic experiences, something to share on Instagram. There are more surfing schools luring visitors away from the crowded beaches of Waikīkī to surf breaks in ‘Ewa Beach and Hale‘iwa. There are more concession stands along the beaches now, fueling price wars and competition among beachboys. And the internet, with social media and review sites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor, has created savvier visitors who prefer to plan their trips prior to arriving, leaving beachboys, who have traditionally relied on more spontaneous business, to watch would-be customers go elsewhere.
“There are so many surf schools now, the beachboys don’t see a quarter of the lessons we used to have,” Robello says. “Before, this was the only place you could be a beachboy, the only place you could teach lessons. If you wanted to be a beachboy, you had to be mentored by somebody, you had to work at a stand, you had to be a garut (Pidgin for peon) for so many years. Nowadays, anybody can start a surf school.”
Fritz Belmoro, who grew up in Kalihi and Waikīkī in the early ’90s, remembers helping the workers at Star Beachboys, a concession stand on Kūhiō Beach as a kid to make a quick five bucks. He would use that money to rent a surfboard—back then it cost $8 to rent a board for an hour—and paddle out to Canoes.
Today, the 35-year-old father of two girls works as a full-time surf instructor and canoe captain at Aloha Beach Services. He’s been on this beach for more than 20 years and working at this stand for more than 15. He may not be one of the old guard but, like Silva, he’s put in his time.
“I’m stoked to share with the world what I love to do,” says Belmoro, who also works as a machine operator for the House print shop at the state Capitol during the legislative session. “I don’t consider this a job. This is freedom.”
But call either of them beachboys, and they start to get uncomfortable.
“My friends says I’m a beachboy and that makes me feel good,” Belmoro says. “But I still don’t consider myself one.”
“Yeah,” adds Silva, shaking his head. “I don’t know. I’d like to say that we are, but it’s not like how it used to be. They were a different breed of people. They had a lot more charisma. They were the ones the tourists heard about and came looking for. They had a lot of class.”
Olympian Duke Kahanamoku, a lifelong ambassador of aloha credited with introducing surfing to the world, is the embodiment and gold standard of a Waikīkī beachboy even though he never worked as one.
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