Big Lessons Taught by a Bird


Like every child, I had heroes that I emulated. When the gang hit the beach, we all called out who we were…I am Shaun Tomson! I am Buttons! The names were attached and then we paddled out and held mock contests with each other.

As time went by, my dreams continued to grow. I really wanted to be the best. I wanted to be a professional surfer. So every day I would paddle out and try to push the limits at my local breaks.

The Westside is a large stretch and each area seemed to have their top guys. But then there was a group on another level and one guy in particular named James Mahelona. James was known on the Westside and beyond as Bird. Bird and his buddies ruled the Westside and it was relayed to me that if Bird looked at a wave and started to move; you were to stop paddling immediately.

So over the course of several years, I had seen the guy with the distinctive birthmark on his forehead and knew it was Bird. I gave him a wide berth and continued on with my day dreams of being Shaun Tomson.

Right before I was to leave to Florida, a real big swell was forecast to hit the north and west shores. As luck would have it, it was coming on a weekend so my parents agreed to drive me further out west toward Waianae. When I reached the beach, I watched the sets roll in and decided it was my time. So did a lot of other surfers – all lined up along the shore. Timing sets, stretching, all preparing for the chance to step it up and go big.

I rode a lot of waves that day. I felt great in fact. I caught one and did turn after turn until I reached the inside and began to paddle back out.

Then the horizon began to jump and white caps began to appear.

Oh crap! I bolted towards the channel and began to stroke as hard as I could. Out the back, the sets gained definition. One guy caught an early wave and ate it. Dumb I thought because I learned that you should never catch the first wave of the set. I kept on padding.

Surfers were scratching. Two guys slide over the top of the feathering monster…then 3 more.

Then one wave caught my eye. It was not the biggest and it was not the last one. The wave had a wide section to it and was pushing back into itself. The wave grew thicker and thicker and guys were desperately paddling for their lives. My heart began to race because this one could even push into the channel.

Then I saw one guy flip around and he began to stroke hard. I could not believe it!

The surfer caught the wave and dropped down the dark face. He set his rail and then just calmly stood there as the section threw out. He pumped a few times and raced towards me and what stood between us and that was a thick slab of ocean.

Things can go from good to bad in an instant when you are surfing and I quickly saw that things were going to bad for this surfer. I watched the thick lip curl over and I looked back to the surfer who I could clearly see now…Bird Mahelona.

Bird gave one more powerful pump as he raced towards me and I could see his face. He had the look like he was on his longboard riding at 2 foot Makaha. I scratched over the face and kept paddling as the wave detonated behind me.

I came in that day feeling great but I also hit the shore and knew one thing. I was one of the pack that was paddling away from the slab and Bird was the best because he was the only one who paddled the other way. If I was going to do anything in surfing, I had to turn around and paddle for the ones that everyone else was avoiding as well.

To this day that one wave made me realize many things:

  1. Be calm.  When things were looking bleak, Bird trusted that he had the right tools to get him through. He could have panicked and bailed out and possibly went over with the lip. Instead he kept up his commitment.

2. Be Committed. Bird was a committed guy. He trained to surf big waves. He did not rest on his laurels and seek the easiest waves. He knew that to be the top guy he would have to take some chances here and there. He was rewarded for it.

3. Your going to lose. The story could have ended that Bird made the end section and had the ride of the day. On this set, it was not the case. He went down in a dramatic fashion. So he dusted himself off and hit the reset button and carried on with his day.

When you charge hard in Hawaii, you could end up in the wipeout section of a video or you could get in The Wave of the Winter. Your other choice is to do a lot of paddling over the shoulders. You will be safe and with a lot of company. All gawking at someone else getting the ride of their life.



About 1stpeaksteve

Welcome to The Side Wedge! The Side Wedge is a product of the journey through life of Steve Zima. Former professional surfer, a writer, surf coach, and hospitality manager. This is a collection of travel tips, motivation, and stories from my past. Finally, I offer surf coaching through The Side Wedge. Please feel free to contact me with questions if you want to improve your performance today! Thanks for reading!
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6 Responses to Big Lessons Taught by a Bird

  1. This is so true, you’ve got to keep on your own path and not let others get you down, how did you feel about Bird? Was it aggravating he was so dare devilish or inspiring?

    • 1stpeaksteve says:

      Well, Bird really proved that there are lots of people out there that seem to want things, a change in their life, or maybe to do something big but when presented with an opportunity; they keep on paddling when risk is involved. I had big dreams but later I realized that unless I put my faith in myself and my abilities then I was going to be like everyone else that day. The interesting thing…Mr. Mahelona is now a pastor and he still surfs. So he stepped out of one role and went for something else.

      Have a great weekend Charlotte!

      • It’s not easy to be different from everyone else even when you just are, you’ve not only got to fight others negativity, you have to channel your own creativity. I’m glad you kept the faith in yourself, I hope you always can. I’d love to know why Bird changed his passion. 😊. Busy revising for French exam, ironing 😣 and a full day rehearsing tomorrow, I like to be busy, can’t stand it when I’ve no target.

      • 1stpeaksteve says:

        That is very true. I have to commend you for sticking to what you enjoy as well. And thanks for replying to my posts on my site! I know you have a full plate…and ironing to boot!

  2. It’s amazing how many life lessons there are to be learned from surfing! Thank you for sharing! I felt like I was there which is good because I am way to chicken to paddle out into those kind of conditions myself! Great post.

    • 1stpeaksteve says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! Growing up surfing some heavy waves was both inspiring and provided me with enough fuel to do a lot of other things. If you can survive in such conditions then days at other breaks seem a bit more manageable.

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