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The People You Meet… Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii

By Daniel Resnik on September 24, 2014 in Other

Photo: Daniel Resnik

Photo: Daniel Resnik

Hawaii is renowned for its big surf, pristine beaches and perfect weather, and it was on Waikiki Beach that I got a lesson in succeeding against the odds, as well as learning how to surf.

Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach is popular with tourists for its sparkling, gentle waves and melting sunsets, and framing the vista is the jaw-dropping panorama of Diamond Head in the background. Completing the picture on Hawaii’s most famous beachfront are the surrounding boardwalks and a multitude of high-rise apartments, hotels, shops and restaurants.

Walking towards the beach for the first time, I noticed cameras flashing and tourists buzzing around a large bronzed statue depicting Hawaiian surf legend Duke Kahanamoku. The Duke first surfed Waikiki beach in 1908 (approx.) and is known adoringly throughout the surfing world as the father of modern day surfboard riding. Little did the Duke know that one day Waikiki would be the mecca for tourists around the world to learn to surf.

Just behind Duke’s statue on the beach, you’ll find the ‘Hawaiian Oceans Waikiki’, an area where you can hire surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, traditional outrigger canoes and a wide variety of beach paraphernalia, and where you can also get surfing lessons from professional instructors.

Based at ‘Hawaiian Oceans Waikiki’ is one of Honolulu’s most colourful characters, 65 year-old grandmother Karen Shmidt, who is Waikiki’s only full-time female licensed surfboard riding instructor (there are other women instructors but none operate full-time). I was introduced to Karen by a mutual friend and it was over lunch with her that I had the chance to find out about the life of this extraordinary woman.

Karen was born in Chicago to a very strict middle-class family. When she was a teenager, they moved to California’s Huntington Beach and it was not long before this wild and active young girl rebelled against her conservative family. This was the 1960s – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Free love was the norm and surfing and commune living were beginning to flourish. Karen quickly adopted her new lifestyle and, as she says, “ I tuned in and dropped out.”

Karen immediately fell in love with the ocean and, after leaving school, got a job as a crewman on a 50-foot yacht. Her love of adventure soon saw her heading to Colombia, where she again found work crewing on a boat on the Buenaventura coast. In the early 1970s there were a lot of Americans living in Colombia, and it was here that she met her future husband, who also happened to be the captain of the boat she worked on.

While in Colombia, Karen travelled the country extensively and eventually got married, had her first child and started up a yacht chartering business with her new husband, taking tourists to Panama and the many surrounding outer islands.

During this time, their mutual love for partying caused their lives to spin out of control, so eventually they packed up and headed back to California, where they attempted to settle down. 

They only lasted in California for one year and, with their young child in tow, were soon on the road again. This time they headed to Mexico, where they once again started up a chartering business out of Club Med and trafficked illegal substances to California to make extra cash.

During this time, their second child was born. They partied continuously, and made and spent lots of money, but their lifestyle again got out of hand. Karen’s husband was becoming very abusive, which led to a marriage breakdown, so she packed up, headed back to California and filed for divorce.

Karen stayed in California till the mid 1980s, before making the decision to move to Waikiki for a more serene lifestyle.

Landing in Waikiki with little money and no friends, Karen soon befriended the local beach boys due to her love of the ocean, and instead of getting her life together as planned, she started partying excessively again.

It was in 1986 on Waikiki Beach that she met Hawaiian local beach boy legend Bobby Ah Choy. She first noticed him out in the surf taking photos from a stand-up paddleboard, long before stand-up paddling became popular.

After years of “being sick and tired of being sick and tired”, Karen turned her life around and commenced a relationship with Bobby Ah Choy. Surfing from this time on would become a major part of her life.

Ten years ago, under Bobby’s guidance, Karen became a fully licensed surf instructor, which proved difficult to achieve as she was a ‘Haole’ (a non local). But with her determination and perseverance she achieved this goal and today she is the only full-time, fully licensed female surfing instructor on Waikiki Beach.

Many years of challenges and tribulations have made Karen the most inspirational person I have ever had the privilege and pleasure of meeting. So whenever you are at Waikiki Beach and want to learn how to surf, don’t hesitate to introduce yourself to her.

The Travel Café Bondi
02 9130 1345

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‘Hawaiian Oceans Waikiki’