There were no monsters lying in wait beneath the surf at Pohoiki on Saturday morning — only fear to be conquered, followed by the unadulterated joy that comes with catching and simultaneously turning yourself over to a wave, letting the ocean take you wherever it will.
As 16-year-old aspiring pro surfer Jimmy Ulualoha “Ulu Boy” Napeahi made his way toward the shoreline, he had a crowd of well-wishers, friends and family rooting him on, giving him the strength he needed to return to the environment he calls his “second home.”
At this same spot on Aug. 17, Napeahi lay on the rocks clinging to consciousness as friends bound his legs with a surfboard leash, trying to cut the flow of blood after he was bitten by a tiger shark. Multiple bite wounds to his lower body required more than 180 stitches, and Napeahi has been struggling to heal and strengthen his muscles so that he could get back to doing what he loves.
As a pair of drummers provided an insistent, rousing beat and the crowd followed his every move in near silence, Napeahi composed himself at the water’s edge, splashing his face with water and cradling his head in his hands. The young man’s mother, Claire Napeahi, gave him a resassuring touch on the shoulder as he looked down into the water. Then he struck out into the ocean at his favorite surf spot — Dead Trees — with about a dozen friends paddling by his side, all in search of the perfect wave.
Fifteen minutes later, Napeahi was slipping along the edge of a frothy blue curl, and then twisting his body with both power and agility, popping up and over the peak — a ride that lasted only a few seconds, but one that signaled a lifetime of surfing to come. The moment his telltale green board became visible atop the wave and it was clear that Ulu Boy’s long furlough had ended, the crowd erupted into applause and cheers.
Meanwhile, Claire Napeahi sat at the water’s edge with her daughters, smiling and crying at the same time.
“It’s hard for me to watch,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I’m so proud of him. So proud of him. Now we can move forward in our life, and he can follow his dream, which has been his dream since he was 4.”
The boy’s mother said there was never any doubt that her son would return to the water. The only question had been “How long?” before he could continue his pursuit of a professional career in competitive surfing.
“He’s been working hard to get strength back in his muscles. He has a competition Oct. 29 to Nov. 10, the ASP HIC Sunset Men’s Pro, and ever since his wounds healed, we’ve been working to get him ready,” she said.
While it was clear Napeahi had been doing plenty of work leading up to Saturday, to the crowd it appeared as if any idea of work had completely left his thoughts for the time being. His wide smile could be seen from the shore at times, as he and his friends took turns catching wave after wave.
“The ocean was calling him to come,” Claire said, before pumping her fist and shouting, “Yeah! Ulu Boy!”
Friends who attended the celebration at Pohoiki said they were inspired by Napeahi’s courage in returning to the water at the same spot where he almost lost his life. It was an important moment not just for the boy, but for the entire surfing community at Pohoiki, said 16-year-old classmate Pono Hirakami.
“It’s a really big thing, what he’s doing here today,” he said. “I have so much respect for him, to surf as good as he did after so long. … A lot of people didn’t want to go back in the water after what happened. But I think seeing him going back out, it will change that.”
Wendell Figueroa agreed. He was one of the onlookers present when Napeahi was attacked by the shark on Aug. 17, and he felt that Saturday’s party would have a healing effect on both the 16-year-old surfer and everyone else who surfs at Dead Trees.
“We think it’s real good for him to get back in the water at the spot where it happened. It takes a lot of guts,” Figueroa said. “And it looks like he’s doing fine. He’s back!”
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.