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Russ Takaki (1919-2011)

In the mid-to-late 1940s, Russ Takaki became the first Asian American big wave rider. Of course, in those days it wasn’t looked at like that. Russ was just one of the half dozen Hot Curl surfers who were challenging the waves all over O‘ahu; nothing more, nothing less.

(Russ Takaki, Rabitt Kekai, Wally Froiseth; Makaha, 1949)

Yet, Russ was not the first Asian American surfer or even first Japanese American surfer – not by a long shot. Back in the pre-World War II era, there was a Waikiki Beach Boy named Akamine. “A Japanese guy,” Hot Curl surfer Wally Froiseth told me, “one of the few Japanese guys at that time – probably the only one who surfed... He used to spin the solid board around, you know; 360. No skeg, flat bottom. It was easy to do, but, we [young kids] couldn’t do it.”[1]

Then, there was Don Uchimura, on Maui. “I remember Don Uchimura was the first surfer here,” in 1941, Woody Brown told me. “When I came over I met him and we went... out in those big Kahului harbor waves,” before the harbor was dredged and the break lost its kick. Woody and Don were the first ones to surf Maui’s Paukukalo, which got up to 10-12 feet.”[2] But this kind of range was under what Woody and Russ would ride later on in the 1940s at Makaha.

Russ Takaki was born on the Big Island of Hawaii on June 24, 1919. “I was actually born and raised in da sugar cane fields of Kohala, Hawaii,” Russ told me with a laugh that demonstrated his nisei pride.[3] Although he and his parents were full blooded Japanese, there was not much contact with their relatives in Japan. Spreading the family further out, when Russ turned 15, his family sent him to the Mid-Pacific Institute, on O‘ahu, to go to school. After that, he went on to the University at Manoa.”[4]

His second year at school on O‘ahu is when he got into surfing. He was 18 and living in the Ka-imu-ki area of Honolulu, between Kahala and Waikiki.

“I surfed some, before I went into the army,” he told me of the period just “befo’ da second world wahr,” “but not much, you know, [while] in school.”[5] The boards he rode in those days were made out of California redwood. There was no rocker, no sophisticated plan shape, and the tails were wide.

“We called them redwood planks,” Russ recalled. “Long. Must have been about 10-to-11 feet long and pretty heavy boa’d; must have been about 24 inches wide; 70-80 pounds.”[6]

The same year Russ started to surf was the year the Hot Curl surfboard was born: 1937, a, but he didn’t really get going until after World War II, when he returned from the army in 1946, and met up with Wally and the rest of the guys. “He [Wally] lived in a house dat his mother owned in Waikiki,” Russ explained. “I happened to rent an apa’tment, you know, nea’by. We used to shape our own boa’ds, after the wahr. Wally was the guy who was good in shaping.”[7]

It didn’t take Russ long to adapt to the Hot Curl designs formulated before war hit the Pacific Theatre. I asked him when he made the switch from a redwood plank to a Hot Curl.

“Right after the wahr, when Wally sta’ted shaping boa’ds. He already shaped Hot Curl boa’ds, you know.” Russ paused. “It’s amazing – as I look back, now – how those Hot Curl boa’ds could hold the wave of those big ones.”[8]

I asked Russ who he remembered most in those days surfing after the war. He was quick to note the arrival of Woody Brown on the scene at the beginning of the war. Woody added hydrodynamic modifications to the Hot Curl design to make them better. Also on the scene was a much younger George Downing, just starting to come into his own.

“Woody Brown, Geo’ge Downing, some of those long-time beach boys like – oh, they’ah all gone, now, though, you know – like Turkey Love was one of ‘em... Chick Daniels, of course, the Kahanamoku’s...”[9]

For Russ Takaki, the years 1948-49 at Makaha were the most memorable ones. He would continue to surf the place until the early 1980s.[10]

I asked Russ if he was in that early migration from Makaha to the North Shore:
“Yeah,” Russ responsded like, of course, but that wasn’t his focus. “Mostly Makaha. We used to like Makaha the best.”

When did you guys head over to the North Shore?

“Well, off and on, in the ‘50s, we used to go North Shore, too. Ah – Sunset, Hale‘iwa, Laniakea, but – I didn’t go that often to that side. Aroun’ dat time I sta’ted my family, you know, with t’ree kids. [And then,] I didn’t surf dat much [after that].”[11]

Through the 1950s and the waves of assaults on the North Shore by Coast haoles, the Hot Curl surfers continued to ride waves at Makaha and, occasionally, the North Shore. When they weren’t surfing, they were doing other competitive water sports and logging time in the water doing those things that helped put food on the table.

“We used to dive for turtles off Waikiki way back when it was legal to hunt for turtles,” Russ recalled. “I had a 4-man canoe and we used ta use dat, you know, to go out, anchor and go fishing. Lotsa times we went for turtles. Then we would go for squid, too, sometimes.

“Wally was very allergic to squid, until – interestingly – until he was about age 50. And he would breakout in rash even when he would spear it, you know. After age 50, all of a sudden, somehow, the allergy disappeared and now he can even eat squid. Amazing, eh? Unusual.”[12]

“For a while, Wally made racing paddle boards,” Russ continued. “We used to have – every Christmas. Even now, they still run it – every Christmas day we had a surfboard paddling race from Moana Hotel out to a bouy maybe half-a-mile, three quarters of a mile out, then around the Diamond Head bouy and back to Moana Beach.

“I know Wally made [a] couple of real good racing surfboards. He was a champion paddler in his day, too, you know. I think that was mostly before the wahr. After the wahr, it was Geo’ge Downing, now, that was da [paddling] champ.”[13]

I asked Russ what was the best board he’d ever had? The one he liked the most?

“Oh, I don’t know. I kinda t’ink that it was around 11 feet long. It had a balsa strip down the middle, about 21 inches [wide] and redwood sides, you know. Wally shaped it. It was a Hot Curl board. I really liked that. I had it for years.”[14]

When did he have that board?

“I t’ink, maybe, from around 1948, when Wally made it. That board was super light for that time. It was only ‘bout 50 pounds. That’s supah light fo’ dat time. Most boa’ds were 80-90 pounds or 70 at least.

“I know it was right around 50 [pounds] because when we were ready to come home, after sailing the yacht to California, we were able to get three surfboa’ds as baggage and the limit was 54 pounds. Because mine was under 54 – Wally’s and Downing’s [too]. Wally’s was a little heavier [than mine] – they allowed us to bring our boa’ds back as baggage.”[15]

In 1951, when he met and married his wife, Russ started shifting his focus from surfing to his own budding family.

“She kinda – at that time – hung around the beach,” Russ said of his wife. “She was from Indiana; passed away, now, quite a while ago.”

I asked if, while he was bringing his family up, was he able to pass-on surfing to his kids?

“Yeah. All my three daughters surfed for a while.”

I asked Russ how long after starting his family did he continue to surf?

“Oh, I think I laid off 5, 6, 7, 8 years. Something like dat. And then went back surfing mostly Makaha with Wally and some of da udduh guys.”

Russ spent most all his adult work life working in Honolulu with juvenile delinquents and adult criminals – “what we called ‘Adult Parole,’” he told me. He got into this field after the World War. By the time of our interview in 1997, he had already been retired for 25 years, having ended his work in 1972.[16]

“Wally has had various jobs, you know,” Russ continued talking about how they made their living when they weren’t surfing, “but the last 25 years or so, he was with the Navy fire department, you know, for the island of O‘ahu and when he retired, he was a fire chief. He’s a very intelligent fella, you know.

“... he went out to Castle with that board [an all-koa Hot Curl we’d been talking about earlier in the interview]. You know, that weighs a hundred and – what – 75 pounds? Whatever. He’s a guy full of ideas. Try anything. Good craftsman.

“He made his own koa racing canoe. That was finished about two years ago, now. He had a log from way back given to him by a friend in Kona and then about 2-2 1/2 years ago, he worked on it, worked on it and it’s a beautiful t’ing. It’s used for the racing, now.”[17]

“We used ta go spearfishing quite a bit, at one time,” Russ continued, talking about his friends Blue Makua, George Downing and Noah Kalama as well as Wally in the late 1960s, early 1970s. “We got chased in by a shark, once (laughs). Pretty scary.

“Just past Sandy Beach. It’s all cleared up, now. When we used ta go fishing, there, there was lots of big kiawe trees. We’d park on the highway and walk through the kiawe trees and go spearfishing. One time – there were four or five of us – and that shark really chased us in. We had a line of fish and he just kept making passes at us. We were taking turns holding the line and the fish, you know. It [the shark episode began when it] was my turn [to hold the fish line] and when one fella came up, he say: ‘Who’s got da line?’

“I say: ‘I have. I’m coming.’ I thought he had a fish.

“He said: ‘No, no. Mano.’ Mano means shark in Hawaiian.

“I said: ‘Oh, wow!’

“Da shark kept making passes, one way, [then] the other way. Finally, I gave it [the line] to – you heard’a Blue Makua? Well, he passed away, last year. Anyway, Blue tells me: ‘You scared?’

“‘Oh, yeah! Here, you hold the line.’

He held it! And we worked our way in and, you know, it got to be OK. [But, it was] pretty scary.”[18]

I asked Russ what other memorable moments he remembered best and he immediately mentioned the day President Kennedy was assasinated, November 22, 1963:

“John Kelly and I were driving toward the North Shore when – ah – President Kennedy was assassinated. It just happened that he and I were, you know, going surfing. It just happened that very morning was when the President was assasinated.” The two heard the news of it over radio and it had a wierd effect on them.

“We just riding along and, oh, we just didn’t feel like surfing,” Russ said. “It was just such a tragedy. But, ah, we went out, as I recall. We went out [at Sunset Beach], anyway.”[19]

I asked him about moments in surfing that really stood out?

“There was another time John Kelly and I had gone to Sunset. It was kind of a blown-out day. The wind was too strong. It was huge, huge, ext’a huge. Actually, nobody had gone out [that day] because da conditions weren’t that good and the waves were too big.

“But, Kelly – you know – being the kind of guy [he was] – he influenced me. ‘Oh, let’s go anyway and get at least one ride.’ So, I went out wit’ him. Oh, we got clobbered. We nevah got a single ride.”

Russ paused, not wanting to make a big thing about it, but I knew it was a stark moment for him. “I really thought I was gonna drown,” he admitted. “But, ah, fortunately, I made it to shore, you know. That was as close as I [ever] came to going under.” Russ paused again, and then added as if to explain it: “Some people are crazy, Malcolm.”[20]

A little later, I asked what was the average big surf he’d surf back when he was active?

“We used to call it aroun’ 15 feet. But, you know, the way we judged the height of waves [then was] entirely different from da way the judgement is made, today. We used ta go by da face of the wave, looking at the wave, you know [from the beach], not from the back [from the ocean]. So, you know, when we say 15 feet, maybe people nowadays might call it 10, eh? Some’ting like dat.”[21]

Toward the end of our time together, I asked Russ who had influenced him the most?

“I think Wally and Geo’ge Downing,” he responded right away. “Downing is probably 10-12 years younger than I am. But, ah, by the time he was, you know, late teenager – 18-20 – he was one’a da best.

“Wally built me a board with a slot [like George Downing’s]. You know, I would take the skeg off. When I was ready to go out, I’d put the skeg in with a thin sheet of paper, you know, to hold it in place. It worked well. That was, I guess, late ‘50s, early ‘60s, I think. Yeah.”[22]

So, you were riding Hot Curls up until the late 1950s?

“By dat time – late ‘50s – didn’t we have foam boa’ds? In fact, Wally made a mold and blew his own blanks; not that many, just for his friends and his own use.”[23]

Who do you stay in contact with?

“Wally. I see Downing every once in a while. Most of the guys I don’t really see. Peter Cole – you heard’a him? ... Anyway, I run into him once in a great while... I don’t know if he still surfs. If he does, he must go North Shore. Probably.

“I haven’t seen Fred Van Dyke for a while...”[24]

Even at age 78, Russ regularly took trips off the Islands. Shortly before I interviewed him in 1997, he’d been to the West Coast, Canada and Japan. When I mentioned to him that one of my past girlfriends had been Japanese and excommunicated by her family for moving to the United States, Russ offered this candid opinion:

“You know, from my observation – well, we’ve travelled to Japan 3, 4 times now, you know, on tour trips. But, as a group, Japanese people are very racially prejudiced. I can say that because, you know, I’m Japanese. But, I look at them differently from the way I look at myself. I’m, you know, born and raised here,” he ended with a laugh.[25]

A particular favorite of his was Las Vegas, where he and members of his family vacation “a couple of times a year,” he told me with another laugh.

And, is the first Asian American big wave rider still surfing?

“Yeah,” Russ responded without hesitation. “Mostly Waikiki, now. I don’t want ta tackle da big stuff – North Shore – anymore. Too old for dat.

“I go out early in the morning; right at daybreak. Then, you know, there’s only 4-5, half dozen of us. So, it’s nice. I surf mebbee hour an a half. Dat’s enough.”[26]

Russ passed on in 2011 at the age of 92.

Postscript: Wally had a few words to say about Russ, at the memorial to Russ, in 2011:

[1] Gault-Williams. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996. Akamine was probably who Woody refered to as a Korean kid.
[2] Gault-Williams. Interview with Woody Brown, November 22, 1994.
[3] Gault-Williams. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997. “Nisei is a Japanese term meaning second generation living in lands outside of Japan.
[4] Gault-Williams. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[5] Gault-Williams. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[6] Gault-Williams. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[7] Gault-Williams. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[8] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[9] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[10] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[11] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[12] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[13] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997. Also specified in Russ’ notations on the draft of the interview, July 1997.
[14] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[15] Gault-Williams. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997. Russ was certain the trip was in 1949. The board must have been at least from that same year, if not earlier.
[16] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[17] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[18] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[19] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[20] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[21] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[22] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[23] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[24] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[25] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.
[26] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Russ Takaki, March 16, 1997.

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LS 1 and 2 Out-of-Print

Unfortunately, the first two volumes of the LEGENDARY SURFERS series are out-of-print. Volume 1, covering 2500 BC to 1910 AD, was originally published in 2005 as a paperback. Volume 2, covering the life of Tom Blake and the surf world of the 1910s and '20s was published in 2007, also as a paperback.

I have plans, this year, to re-release these two volumes, as eBooks, at a vastly reduced price from the original paperbacks. Please have patience while I make the transition. Both will most likely include new material along with the old.

LEGENDARY SURFERS, Volume 3, published in 2012, covers the 1930s, is in print, and likely to stay that way for a good while. It is available at: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/legendarysurfers

-- Aloha,

Malcolm Gault-Williams

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