Peʻahi Big Wave Contest Founder Retires, Reflects on Maui’s Surfing Pioneers: Maui Now

Rodney Lash Nui Kilborn founded the first major wave towing competition in Peʻahi over two decades ago. It was a serious but informal gathering where volunteers and big wave surfers came to his house in Maui for pizza. Photo by Gary Kubota

An Interview with the People of Maui: Rodney Lash Nui Kilborn

Rodney Lash Nui Kilborn was a firefighter on Maui and had sponsored a number of amateur surfing events as a volunteer organizer on Valley Island, when he led a number of other boatmen to help launch the first annual Pe’ahi Surfing Contest in the mid-1990s, raising awareness of waves over 30 feet in Pe’ahi and towed surfing as a featured event.

The event eventually brought together surfers from different countries and a millionaire co-sponsor from Brazil in 2001-2002. The millionaire sponsor didn’t stay long but the event has become a popular attraction for residents and visitors alike for over two decades. The event was televised in 30 countries.

Kilborn recently retired from organizing. He continues to serve as a volunteer advisor and is at the forefront of building an appreciation for and maintaining Hawaiian place names for surf sites, including Pe’ahi, which is sometimes referred to as “Jaws”. , ushering in chilling imagery like in the movie Jaws about a killer shark.

Maui Now writer Gary Kubota interviewed Kilborn.

KUBOTA: Why is it important to promote Hawaiian place names such as Peʻahi for the surf contest?

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KILBORN: Pe’ahi. It is important to respect Hawaiian culture or any culture in the world. Our ancestors name the place because they had a spiritual connection to the area and had a connection to Peʻahi, its ocean fan swirling with breezes, thundering sounds that is music to the soul. When Peʻahi calms down, she brings you back to her peaceful energy. Hawaiian place names carry with them meaning and often a deeper understanding of the area. It allows everyone to appreciate the intricacies and levels of Hawaiian culture. In the Hawaiian dictionary, Peʻahi means to wave or beckon. On a calm day from a cliff you can see the bones of the reef stretching along the coast like an open hand welcoming the waves of the ocean. As a sailor, it is important to know the location of reefs and currents and learn to go as close to nature as possible in order to survive. In Hawaiian culture, the shark is an aumakua, guardian god and friend of certain families. We do not consider the shark as an enemy.

KUBOTA: You mentioned that your father was from Maui? Tell me a bit about your family, please.

KILBORN: My father Harold James Kaleianuenue Kilborn was Hawaiian and grew up in Honokōwai in West Maui. He then moved to O’ahu. My mother was Vivian DeSoto. I had wonderful parents. Our family with three brothers and three sisters grew up in Oʻahu. We never had much money, but we were happy. My dad was a sailor growing up and told us stories about diving for coins thrown by visitors on ships at the Honolulu docks, hanging out in Waikīkī and riding his Harley-Davidson. We were always in the ocean or rivers catching frogs to sell at Pearl City Tavern or just swimming.

KUBOTA: I guess surfing was quite different back then?

KILBORN: Yes. When I was 12, maybe 13, I used to borrow my dad’s 10-foot balsa board. It was too heavy. The board had a layer of resin on it and weighed so much that I and two other kids had to carry it to the beach. We were going to a place at ʻEwa Beach on Oʻahu called “Hau Bush”. When I was 16 I had a regular 9’6″ foam surfboard, a Harbor or a Bing. I used to hang out with the guys from Pearl City – the Wicklund Brothers and Craig Sugihara who went on to found Town & Country Surf. We were surfing at a place called “Big Rights” in Ala Moana. Boards became much shorter in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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Later, I started surfing bigger waves on the North Shore. But it was always a challenge because there were too many surfers, more than 12 in a line-up. There were too many people. I bought a VW motorhome and moved to Kauaʻi to work as a firefighter. I started surfing bigger waves west of Kauaʻi near Barking Sands. My wife Cathy and I have decided that we would like to live in Maui where we had ʻohana.

KUBOTA: What type of equipment and support is needed to organize a Pe’ahi event?

KILBORN: We usually have 14 jet skis for different reasons, including nine backup jet skis. A helicopter is used to film and save at some point. We also have medical boats with two doctors and two emergency medical technicians. Most surfers wear inflatable vests or wetsuits.

KUBOTA: What are the conditions of participation?

Rodney Kilborn helps out during the Peʻahi Challenge by towing big wave surfer Yuri Soledad from the UK.

KILBORN: The Pe’ahi Big Wave Member Board invites elite surfers to the event, and yes, we have a lot of surfers who want to join the event, but when the waves are Hawaiian from over 20 feet, there are very few that can handle it. Most big wave surfers train hard all year round. With no ocean turbulence they can hold their breath for five minutes or less, but with a big wipeout on one wave the average is 12 seconds and with two waves it’s 30 seconds. The time it takes to hold your breath in extreme conditions doesn’t sound like much, but it is.

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KUBOTA: What are the challenges of big wave surfing in Pe’ahi?

KILBORN: That’s a great question. We have established an interest in the Peʻahi competition and the sponsors. But we still need cooperation from states and countries, including public safety in the ocean around the event, as well as safe access to highways. When you have waves of 15 feet and more, you still need jet skis to tow surfers.

KUBOTA: There seems to be a lot more interest in surfing in terms of promotions and money for surfers, than surfing in the 1960s? At the time, surfing was not an Olympic sport and did not attract as many sponsors?

KILBORN: It’s great now for surfers who engage in the sport they love and can earn a living. The downside to these extreme sports of big wave surfing is the risk. Every heavy wipeout is like a car accident. The injuries are setting in, and it’s a short career, and we’re grateful for everyone’s kōkua to make it safer.

KUBOTA: Is it true that you arranged for the Peʻahi contest never to compete with the big wave Eddie Aikau on Oʻahu?

KILBORN: Yes, it is out of respect for the memory of Eddie Aikau and his family that we are giving the organizers the first option to run their contest. For us, the conditions in Peʻahi must also be good for safety reasons.

KUBOTA: How?

KILBORN: Besides the size of the breaker, the wind conditions must be good. The winds can’t be too west – the surf isn’t great then – or too north, missing Peʻahi.

KUBOTA: How did you get involved in the organization of surfing competitions?

KILBORN: I started helping Imua Family Services, also known as Imua Rehab, with amateur competitions in the 1980s. It was a way of giving back to the community. The benefit was watching the smiles, watching the kids having fun. I would call professional organizers like International Professional Surfing Director Randy Rarick and surfer Gerry Lopez for advice.

We entered the Hawaiʻi Surfing Association through its Oʻahu organizer, Reed Inouye. His organization was on Oʻahu and ours was on Maui. We were the first on Maui to hold statewide contests in the late 1980s. We had a scoring system. So out of all the divisions and contests we had, the top six from each Maui division would be invited to go to Oʻahu for the state championship. Whatever money we made from the contest, we used to fund housing for the children of Maui.

Nelson Togioka from Kauaʻi started the contest on Kauaʻi, then the Big Island also came. This was before students had competitions in high school. That’s how it started. I did this for 19 years. Today you have world class surfers coming out of Maui. It’s still ongoing. Organizers John and Donna Willard do it and do a great job. I taught them how to do it.

KUBOTA: In a previous conversation, you mentioned that people started surfing in Peʻahi in the 1990s?

Buzzy Kerbox used a Zodiac for towed surfing in the 1990s to catch big waves in Peʻahi. The top photo shows it being towed by a Zodiac at Backyards on Oʻahu. The bottom photo shows Kerbox catching a wave in Peʻahi. Photos courtesy of Buzzy Kerbox.

KILBORN: I don’t know exactly when, maybe the 1980s? This is an area where a few guys have paddled to surf no more than 12 feet. Peʻahi begins to completely break over 15 feet. From what I’ve seen, windsurfers started surfing huge Hawaiian waves over 15 feet in the late 1980s.

Some professional windsurfers like Pete Cabrina and Laird Hamilton would take the surf to Peʻahi. Buzzy Kerbox who was a pioneer started being towed by a Zodiac on some big days.

KUBOTA: Who helped you organize the first Pe’ahi surfing competition?

KILBORN: We did it for love in 1996. They were all volunteers. No one, including myself, was paid. There were big name surfers who also came from Oʻahu. There were no major sponsors. The winners received a free pizza. We went up to my house and I bought pizzas for everyone. A few years later, I took on a Brazilian sponsor who paid $168,000 in prize money. A year later, state officials decided not to give me the exclusive permit after the Brazilian tried to obtain a permit. Instead, the state alternated the weeks of operation during the season between us. The waves were so small that season that we never had a contest.

KUBOTA: What did you think of the way the state handled the situation?

Rodney Kilborn with his wife Catherine.

KILBORN: I felt like I had been singled out by the state. My supporters, including the Triple Crown Of Surfing, have pointed out that this type of big wave competition requires expertise to keep competitors safe, similar to Eddie Aikau’s big wave competition. Eventually the state realized they had the wrong approach and I was able to renew the Peʻahi contest. I could not have continued to do this kind of work without the support of my family, especially my wife Catherine.

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