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Surf 'N Turf

4/15/2009

"It's simple," says Kala Alexander between pulls from a cold Corona. He rocks back in a beach chair and gestures at the stretch of aquamarine Pacific splayed out before him, the most renowned 40-or-so yards of Oahu's renowned North Shorethe surf break known as Banzai Pipeline. "You can die out there," he says. "For real."

From the grass and sand yard behind one of the princely homes overlooking Pipeline-this one rented by Quiksilver for the winter surf season-Alexander, 36, keeps tabs on a group of surfers he calls "the boys" but who are better known by their self-assigned moniker, the Wolfpak. On this February afternoon, the last day of the Monster Energy Pro comp, they number around 25 and range in age from 15 to 30. Some of them-Danny Fuller, Dustin Barca, Brian Pacheco, Pancho Sullivan (who will win the contest)-are among the sport's emerging stars. All are Hawaiian, most from Kauai.

The boys float up off the beach and around the house wearing shades, surf trunks and slippers (Hawaiian for flip-flops), one eye on the waves and another on the parade of bikinis meandering past. Most sport gangster-style ink, tattoos celebrating fallen friends, beloved moms and Hawaii itself, more often than not Kauai. Most spend the winter here on Oahu, living in homes rented by sponsors such as Quiksilver, Volcom and O'Neill, with most of their expenses paid-anything to make it easy for them to be photographed riding the waves. Pro riders are paid extra by sponsors when their photos appear in magazines, and the right photo in the right mag can launch an unknown surfer's career.

Hip-hop-Biggie and Tupac, Ja Rule and DMX-throbs from stereo speakers, turned down only when one of the guys picks up a ukulele and begins strumming island folk songs, to which a few of the boys add a surprisingly sweet chorus of Hawaiian lyrics. As the contest heats continue and the day progresses, those eliminated root for friends still in contention. A bong is moved off the bamboo coffee table to make room for poker and dice. A bottle of Crown Royal is passed, chased with Red Bull. It's not even 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. Or is it Saturday? No one seems to know for sure.

"This is us," says Alexander, who built his surf rep charging at Hanalei Bay in Kauai. "Just a bunch of Hawaiian boys who love to rip it up in the water, hang out, be mellow." He pauses, smiles. "I mean, do we look like thugs? Like violent guys?"

He doesn't wait for an answer.

"That's not what we're about. We're about this … " He gestures around him. "About respecting our home, about keeping things safe in the water." Another pause, but now no smile. "Because, like I said, out there it's more dangerous than it looks."

There are those who say Alexander and his Wolfpak are more dangerous than they look, and these are not guys who look especially … not dangerous. Alexander, whose expressive face can shift from smile to scowl in a heartbeat, exudes a hair-trigger intensity that demands prudence in anyone dealing with him. He is a man, after all, who spent most of the '90s in Halawa State Prison for assault. As one North Shore surfer put it, "If you look up 'Guy Not to Mess With' in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of Kala."

Articulate and commanding, Alexander has a wiry, chiseled frame that's covered in tattoos and seems perpetually set on ready-to-pounce mode. He and another Kauai native, 35-year-old Kai Garcia, a former pro surfer and world jujitsu champion, are the de facto leaders of the Wolfpak. Garcia's rep for general Terminator-like badassness has earned him the nickname Kai-borg.

The Wolfpak is so named, Alexander says, "because we run in a pack, working together. When you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us." They count many of the sport's emerging stars among their ranks, as well as two reigning gods, Andy and Bruce Irons. But it's not surfing, or at least not just surfing, for which they are known. Rather, it's a swaggering brand of intimidation that some in the surf world see as old-fashioned localism and others call (anonymously) outright thuggery.

Either way, the reputation of the Wolfpak looms ever larger over Hawaii's most hallowed breaks, notably Pipeline. The Wolfpak controls the lineup at this legendary break, in effect determining which surfers get waves and which don't. But while there is considerable debate about how this is accomplished-fear being central to the equation-most surfers agree that Pipeline requires some form of regulation.

During winter months, when the waves are biggest, Pipeline is likely the most crowded break in the world, and the most dangerous. In ideal conditions, the waves roll off a shallow coral reef (see page 104) to form perfect barrels. And because these barrels break close to shore, they somehow seem less intimidating, enticing many surfers who aren't prepared for reality. As a result, on a good day, as many as 80 surfers will paddle into a lineup that can be safely surfed by maybe 20. The combination of huge waves, shallow reef and an aggressive and jammed lineup creates a surfing environment that can be treacherous.

"That's where we step in," Alexander says. "We make sure there's order, that people aren't taking off on top of each other. On a wave like Pipe, doing something stupid isn't just not having surfing etiquette. It's attempted murder. Getting dropped in on at Pipe is like someone pointing a gun at your head. And you know, if you point a gun at one of us, well, there are gonna be consequences."

What would happen if someone dropped in on Alexander?

"I wouldn't say much," he says. "Maybe I'd paddle up to you, tell you to go in, or take off your leash. But later I'd find you, or a few of the other guys would, and you'd be taught a lesson."

A painful lesson. In one incident, a surfer was beaten by the Wolfpak after he refused to get out of the water during a contest at Pipeline (a video of the thrashing made its way to the Internet). In fact, tales of people running afoul of the Wolfpak abound, although on-the-record testimony is harder to come by. Conventional wisdom holds that there is little to be gained, and much to be lost, by talking about such details. "If you spend any time in Hawaii," says a pro surfer from California, "especially if you surf, you don't want to do or say something that will piss those guys off. Because they will come at you. And it's not just Pipeline. They have friends, cousins, whatever, on all the islands. When they walk into the bar, I head to the other side."

Says another pro: "The Wolfpak? I don't want to get into all that, but it's too bad. It's not very aloha, is it?"

Not everyone is as reticent to speak. Mike Wilcox, a 12-year-old bodyboarder sitting with friends in a parking lot next to Pipeline, offers an opinion shared by many locals. "The Wolfpak'll show you what's up. All these people from California come here and think they're bad. The Wolfpak steps up to them, which is good. People here should get respect and not have to deal with kooks."

And the cops? Officially, says a patrolman on the beach beat, "anyone who breaks the law is dealt with accordingly." Unofficially, says one Oahu surfer, "the cops understand, as long as no one gets it too bad. They're from here too."

Localism-surfers making sure their home break's waves go to, well, them-exists on some level at every beach and has since at least the 1960s, when the sport became popular and films like Endless Summer triggered the desire to sample waves far from home. Hawaii, home of the mantra "Haole go home," has always featured a staunch strain of locals-only mentality.

"Everywhere in the world has locals," Alexander says, his eyes still fixed on the water. "I don't care if it's Kauai or Brooklyn. And I believe wherever you go, locals have the right of way. That's how it should be, and how it used to be here."

What Alexander and Garcia saw when they first moved to the North Shore five years ago was a lineup that had deteriorated after locals like Marvin Foster and Johnny Boy Gomes, who regulated the break in the '80s and '90s, became less active. "People would come in with slices in their legs and broken bones, almost dying on the reef," says Dustin Barca, one of the Wolfpak's most promising surfers. He picks up the dice he's been rolling and shakes his head. "And it was guys not from here who were the problem. Kala and Kai looked around and said that's not how things work on Kauai."

Known as Hawaii's garden island, Kauai is lush with vegetation nourished by frequent rain. It still has large tracts of undeveloped land and retains an untamed, almost Jurassic feel (as it happens, Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton lives here). The smallest of the major Hawaiian Islands, Kauai has only 56,000 residents, most of whom live in close-knit communities that cling to traditional Hawaiian ways and sensibilities.

As a surfing destination, Kauai was until recently in the shadow of Oahu's North Shore, in no small part by the design of its residents. "Growing up," Alexander says, "you were told not to talk about spots to outsiders, and bringing a photographer around was forbidden. The idea was to keep Kauai our secret."

The secret is now out, thanks more than anything to the island's most famous native sons: Andy Irons, the reigning, three-time ASP world champion, and his younger brother Bruce, one of the most dynamic free surfers in the world. Their success has focused a spotlight on Kauai and opened the floodgates for other talented surfers from the island. Like Alexander and the Irons brothers, many are from Hanalei, a postcard of a town on the shores of a sandy bay.

Yet on Kauai, as in the rest of Hawaii, the reality of life includes a harsher side. "You can be real comfortable here on vacation, or if you're a celebrity who buys a house," says Barca, a Kauai native whose single mom worked three jobs when he was a kid. "But most of us didn't grow up too comfortable. Our parents were local Hawaiians or hippies who came here to get away." Barca's parents were both. "It made us tough, I guess, hungry. But not everyone makes it. Guys get into drugs. Ice can especially mess you up."

Use of ice, or crystal meth, has exploded on the Hawaiian Islands in recent years. Some say the state wrestles with the worst ice problem in the U.S. It has exacted a heavy toll on poor communities with large populations of native Hawaiians. For years, indigenous islanders have been among the lowestranked U.S. citizens in most socioeconomic categories, a fact that seems starker considering Hawaii was a relatively prosperous sovereign nation until 1893, when U.S. plantation owners and missionaries, backed by Marines, staged a coup. Hawaii is the only U.S. territorial acquisition for which Congress has apologized.

"It's not like we're assholes," says Alexander, explaining why many Kauai natives appear to be so aggrieved. "But a hundred years ago, a man pointed a gun at our queen and made her sign over our country. So it's really about respect with us, you know. This is our home. We make our living on those waves."

True enough, because for Alexander and other Hawaiian surfers, getting waves is about more than bragging rights or emotional/historical attachment. It's also about a paycheck. While top surfers like the Irons brothers and Kelly Slater can earn six and even seven figures from contests, sponsorships and advertising, the majority of surfers struggle to make ends meet. Alexander is considered old by the big surf companies, so he is forced to dig up less lucrative sponsorships, such as his current setup with surfwear company Da Hui and Lost Surfboards. But as he says, "I'm a single dad to an 8-year-old daughter. I know that as you get older, it gets harder. Things change. I try to tell this to the younger guys."

Alexander augments his income with sponsored surf photography trips to places like Indonesia and Tahiti. He's also trying to expand the Wolfpak's base, to create opportunities for himself and the crew. He is close to finishing a deal for a line of Wolfpak sunglasses and has begun looking for acting roles after playing, yes, an angry local in the movie Blue Crush. "The director asked me what I'd do if he dropped in on me," Alexander says. "I got in his face, and, well, let's just say I got the part."

Kala and his half-brother, Kamalei, 27, also a Wolfpak surfer, were raised in Hanalei by Virginia Alexander, a blue-eyed blonde from Detroit. Kala's father, a native Hawaiian, left before his son was born. "We were pretty broke," Alexander says. "I got into a lot of trouble, got into drugs. Back then it was coke and pot and not ice, thank God."

Still, he was smart enough at 13 to land a scholarship to the private Kamehameha High School on Oahu, the best in Hawaii. But he was kicked out two years later for smoking pot, and he moved back to Kauai. "I was just poor and bitter," Alexander says. "I met Kai back then. He was way more focused. But I got into a pattern of drugs and fighting, was arrested for fights in the water, taking it too far."

When Alexander was 23, his mother was killed in an accident. "Soon after that, a guy ran over one of my dogs," Alexander says. "I was breeding pit bulls. He was doing like 60 mph through my neighborhood and I chased him, found him and beat him up pretty bad." The assault landed Alexander in prison. He got out in 1998 and soon moved to Oahu, joining Garcia, who was managing the Volcom surf team.

It was at that point that the Wolfpak was born, although how exactly it was started and who exactly is in it are gray zones. Alexander says there are no initiation rites or induction procedures. "Basically, all of the guys from Kauai are Wolfpak," says Garcia. "The Wolfpak isn't geographic. It's how we approach things, the principle of respecting your elders and the ocean, of having the backs of friends. That's what Kauai is about, and what we felt was missing at Pipeline."

Ultimately, the question of just what the Wolfpak really is—benign brotherhood or dangerous gang—may depend on how Hawaiian you are. "I was born here," Alexander says, "but my mother is white. So I'm half haole. The last day of school in Hawaii is 'Kill Haole Day.' If you're even a little haole, you know you're gonna get it. Hawaii is a physical culture, a tribal culture. Always was, always will be."

Maybe so, but spend a little time with the Wolfpak and you come away with the impression that while, yes, some are happy for an excuse to mix it up, others are simply reveling in being part of the North Shore's ruling class—the guys who get the waves, girls, weed and the best house on the beach. Even Alexander gives the impression that he's happy to be seen as a badass without actually relishing the chance to prove it, at least not anymore, and at least not as long as the lineup at Pipeline stays clean.

"I know I've made mistakes," he says. "I know we can't just terrorize people. We can try to keep order, though, and at this point our past activities speak for themselves." He pauses, smiles. "I mean, you wouldn't even be talking to me if you hadn't heard about all the other stuff."

As he talks, the sun sets on Pipeline. There's no one in the water, and the waves have died. Even the action at the house has mellowed. Some guys are headed to Honolulu to see a reggae show, others have crashed, still others prepare to leave Oahu. The winter waves are all but finished, and the house is rented for only one more week. Alexander almost seems serene.

"We want people who come here to know that this is our home," he says. "There are ways things are done here. We can't stop them from coming. And we know they're gonna be like, hey, I spent my grand and I'm gonna have my fun, get my waves."

Another pause, another smile.

"But, well, we're gonna be here too."