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How Hawaii Helped Me Get Over My Fear of the Ocean

How a weekend of stand-up paddleboarding in Maui got associate editor Danielle Walsh back into the water

The kid was about seven years old. With skinny legs planted on the comically large, wobbling surfboard, he enthusiastically paddled through the choppy surf, determined to reach the finish line. It was the 2016 OluKai Hoʻolauleʻa, the Hawaiian-inspired activewear brand’s weekend of both fun and competitive stand-up paddleboard, outrigger races, and celebration of Hawaiian culture, set on the idyllic North Shore of Maui. I stood on shore in disbelief, watching this blond, island-raised boy paddle downwind in the three-mile fun race. This kid was killing it. I, a 27-year-old woman with only one paddleboard lesson under her belt, was terrified to even try.

In Hawaii, locals don’t fear the ocean; they’re raised in the island’s surf, taught how to read the waves and escape from strong currents. They give the ocean their utmost respect, even when they try to defy its awesome power by screaming down the face of a 30-foot wave on a surfboard. Or when they paddle through waves for three miles at age seven.

I grew up in coastal New England, and during summer vacation, my mother would bring my brother, sister, and me to the beach at least three days a week. A true summer beauty, she’d perch in her favorite folding chair, Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee in hand and tanning oil close by, and watch while we putzed around in tide pools and splashed no more than waist-deep in the chilly Atlantic. She never fully went into the water—her 12-year-old brother drowned in a lake in 1962, a trauma she must have internalized because she never learned how to swim.  And while my siblings and I took swimming lessons as kids, none of us craves being in the ocean—we just want to be ocean-adjacent.

My anxieties truly developed during college, when two of my friends on spring break were pulled into a riptide while standing in shallow water tossing a football. They were swept out 80 yards from the shore. One survived after an unidentified man rescued him; one did not. The ocean and I hadn't really spoken since.

That is, until I met Archie Kalepa—aka Uncle Archie—one of Hawaii’s greatest lifeguards and OluKai’s ambassador of Hawaiian culture, a few days before the fun paddle event. A true waterman, Kalepa has a daredevil streak in him: He was the first to paddleboard from Maui to Molokaʻi, which many believed to be impossible. He was also the first to paddleboard down the Colorado River, an endeavor that took him 19 days to complete, and he’s surfed the 20-foot beast of a wave that is Maui’s famous Jaws. If anyone was going to talk me into the ocean, it was going to be Uncle Archie. He agreed to give me my first stand-up paddleboard lesson—in the ocean. 

Kalepa’s first tip? Safety first, no matter what you’re doing. “Your first time in the water should be with someone who can give you one-on-one instructions, fit you with the right equipment, and make sure you have safety instructions,” he says.

Luckily, my lesson was with him, so I was covered; he suggests other first-time paddleboarders in Maui head to Kaanapali for a lesson from one of the surf schools in that area. They’ll make sure that the currents are appropriate for a beginner and that the wind isn’t blowing offshore before starting a lesson. 

In addition to safety, this was the instruction that he emphasized most: Have confidence. “When you have confidence, you minimize the chance of something serious happening because you’re giving it your all. When you’re in the ocean and you hold back, that’s when accidents tend to happen. Commit yourself 100 percent.” Kalepa stressed that every day on the ocean is a challenge—even to experienced watermen and waterwomen—because the ocean is always changing.

He outfitted me with a board and we set off on his favorite run, the windy stretch of surf from Spreckelsville to Kanaha Beach Park in northern Maui. As the waves broke on the beach and lapped at my feet, I felt a connection with the water I hadn’t felt in years—or had maybe never felt at all. Kalepa, looking out into the surf with board in hand, stood next to me. He looked over, said, “You got this, girl," and then let out an excited “Go! Go!” when there was a lull in the waves. Kalepa dashed into the ocean and I followed with my paddle and board, dropped them into the water, got on my belly, and paddled out with my arms. The water felt choppier than it looked, the wind kicking up white spray. “Now, pop up!” Kalepa had showed me how to pop up on the board on the beach: knees bent, feet parallel, chest up. I sprung up, and immediately fell back on the board. I was shaking—and on the verge of a panic attack. “Come on, girl! Get back up! You got it!” I took a deep breath and hauled my body toward the sky. My feet planted, I reached down for my paddle. I didn’t fall. All of a sudden, I heard a shrill “WOOO!” and there was Uncle Archie, grinning ear to ear, and urging me to paddle hard.

He was way ahead of me at that point, but I was glad. I didn’t want Kalepa to see me crying—from relief, from adrenaline, from thinking about my buddy and how he would have wanted me to  conquer my fear. The paddle was a little under two miles. My calves, thighs, and lower back were screaming from the strange strain of thrusting forward on a wobbly board, but I was in pure ecstasy. Underneath my board, I saw a family of sea turtles darting through the blue water. The West Maui Mountains were in perfect view, and I spied a valley that wasn’t visible from land. I caught a wave on the board and delighted in the sudden smooth ride. As we approached the beach park shore, I jumped off my board and Kalepa helped me haul it to his truck. I was buzzing. I wanted more. 

I didn’t end up paddling in the Hoʻolauleʻa’s fun paddle, but I did get into an outrigger canoe to watch other participants—including the kid—glide through the water on their boards. The waves were much bigger than they were during my lesson, but I was excited for the challenge of hauling the slim vessel through the surf and into the calmer, deeper water. I’d never been in an outrigger before, but I was paddling with a pro. Plus, I knew the secret that Hawaiians have always known when it comes to the ocean: Give it your respect and give it your all.

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