Buttons Kaluhiokalani Surf School
That old adage of those who can’t…teach – couldn’t be more wrong in the realm of professional surfers – especially on Oahu – it’s more like those who did…do. When it comes to choosing a surf school, run by a former legend, let’s just say there is buffet in the islands of Hawaii. I learned of Button Kaluhiokalani’s (one of said legends) surf school watching the documentary, Lost and Found, which highlighted the sport’s glory days via filmmaker Doug Walker who tracked down 30,000 black and white negatives discarded from Surfer Magazine he happened upon in a flea market. Kaluhiokalani, caught the eye of my 11-year old who watched the film with me, “he seems nice –and he has a surf school,” she said knowing we were heading to the North Shore. She doesn’t remember the episode of Dog the Bounty Hunterwhen – in front of the world –via reality television –Buttons dramatically started his road to recovery –and sober living. I did, and liked him better for it. Especially the reaction he shared with Surfing Magazine back in 2007.
“I’m going to look at this as a positive,” says Buttons. “I’ve got friends helping me. I’m staying focused, keeping the sobriety that I’ve had since the time I got caught. I’m moving on, but it’s gnarly, brah. National TV — super gnarly. What can I say? What happened, happened.”
Who is Buttons? Born in Honolulu, four years after Hawaii became a state, Kaluhiokalani took to surfing at an early age, and by the 70s was known for his effusive energy, revolutionary moves, being the first filmed doing a 360 and his hair. His fabulous, curly hair is also the source of his nickname, given to him by his grandmother –she thought Montgomery Ernest Thomas Kaluhiokalani, should be called “Buttons” because his curly hair looked like buttons.
Booking was Easy! Hence justifying paying for surf lesson through his school, when my husband, Pete, and his buddy could teach the kids was easy, Pete doesn’t know the water and we’d have to rent boards anyway. The other family agreed. Signing up on the website was easy, and a quick call- his wife, Hiriata answers the phone- to confirm timing and various details including we would forgo Buttons as the teacher and opt for a less expensive pair of instructors and there would be board rentals available for the two dads.
A month later our two-bright-white-jeep crew pulled into parking lot at Jameson’s by the Sea restaurant. Buttons surprised us, by showing up in trunks, tats, a six-pack (he’s in incredible shape) and a big smile. “This way!” he gestured. Natalie squealed, “It’s him!”
What to Expect. His compound is located at the Puaena Point Beach Park, a quick drive up the road from our meeting point and because he’s Buttons, we got prime parking spots. And because he is Buttons, he has a place on the beach where a lily-white, haole like myself can safely leave her stuff and sit in the shade. “People know you’re with Button’s, it’s cool,” explained Matt, his friend who carried boards to the beach. “He just calls when he needs a little help – like today, one of his guys didn’t show up, so he asked if I can help him carry boards.” Luckily for us, the other guy didn’t show up because, this meant my kids got be taught by and hang out with main guy. While his regular crew costs $65 per person for a group (three or more) lesson, to get Buttons in the water with you – expect to pay $100 or more per person. What do you get for one hundred dollars? From my observation deck (rocky point overlooking the surf break), you get decades of experience in these waters. He knew exactly where waves would break –and how to navigate three slightly nervous kids through the white wash and crowd. You also get someone who emulates Aloha – he doesn’t have to prove himself, he’s done it and for a brief moment you get to share in his spotlight. You get the special “I’m with Button’s” status – people move out of your way. He had another instructor there, Rosie, who was just as capable as her boss-easily maneuvering the kids into and out of the waves. Another part of the crew is Willi Edwards, a photographer who shoots the big shots in the big swells, as well as Button’s clients. Once I realized he was there with the group in the water, I stopped trying to stretch the zoom capacity of my iPhone, and enjoyed the show. Another bonus of Willi is the kids are so busy fist pumping for the camera (or giving the double shaka) they aren’t thinking about what could go wrong –hence they get on with the business of surfing. Edwards charges $30 for a post–lesson CD. It’s optional and we bought it.
Returning to the BSS compound, there was another group lesson getting fitted for boards, sun shirts, Hiriata busily getting signatures, his daughter Nawaiomalukea aka Navi, fast asleep in the shade, Nuutea, his son jumping on his dad begging for another ride in the surf. He graciously talked with our group about people known in common and the best surf spots for learning. Two men approach our picnic table with noticeable respect, “Uncle, can you sign this for our bruddah Timo.” Buttons unravels a large Pipeline Masters poster, and gets down to business.
Buttons Surf School offers group, private, and semi private lessons for surfing and stand up paddling, for all skill levels from beginners to experts looking for advice on riding the big waves.