Two of the greatest surfers ever, Dane Kealoha and Buttons Kaluhiokalani, captured at OTW by Dan Merkel.

Obituary: Hawaiian surf god Dane Kealoha dead at sixty-four, “History will remember Kealoha in part for the wrong reasons”

Or not the wrong reasons, exactly, but for reasons that were long ago bent to fit a certain narrative about Dane. 

Dane Kealoha of Hawaii has died at age 64, after a long fight with cancer that nobody outside of family and friends knew anything about. 

Social media jumped the gun, as usual. 

Last weekend, before I’d even replied to the first of many texts from many people alerting me that Dane had passed, I got an email from daughter Kelai Kealoha saying that “Dad is very sick” but not gone. 

Dane hung in there for another three days. 

Death rumors, I suppose, are not high on the list of pollutants flooding the information landscape, but Dane’s case stood out, to me anyway, because apart from the surfing itself he never much wanted to grab and hold our attention in the first place.

Dane has been on my mind all week. Mostly from marveling, again, as I have been for 45-plus years, at his satin-finished tuberiding performances at Backdoor and Off the Wall—or any other hollow wave, large or small, warm or cold, left or right. 

That should be his legacy. I hope it is.

But I think history will remember Kealoha in part for the wrong reasons. 

Or not the wrong reasons, exactly, but for reasons that were long ago bent to fit a certain narrative about Dane.

Let’s talk about the missed world title. He was runner-up to Mark Richards in 1980, but that one wasn’t really even close. MR put a huge distance between himself and the field that year and ran away with it. 

In 1979, when Dane finished #4—that was the year. Old-timers, harken back with me. This was the first, and maybe still best, down-to-the-wire pro tour showdown. In his third season as a pro (he’d finished #20 as a rookie and #9 the following year), Dane headed into the final event of the season, the World Cup, in what was basically a three-way tie for first, along with Cheyne Horan and Wayne Bartholomew. MR was a distinct 4th, but Richards himself knew his chances were pretty much nil. In big raw surf at Haleiwa, against Puerto Rico’s Edwin Santos, an underdog if there ever was one, Dane paddled out for his opening heat and absolutely blew a huge homefield advantage, waited too long between waves, let Santos run the inside, and basically kicked the title away on poor tactics. Bartholomew and Horan did much the same, and Richards came from way back to win his first world title.

(A second heartbreak, from a week earlier at the ’79 Pipeline Masters: with five minutes left in the finals, Dane, having ridden all of his allotted 10 waves, proned to shore with a solid lead. From the beach he then watched as Larry Blair, with just a minute left, speared the best wave of the event, rode it perfectly, and took the win.)

Everybody thinks Dane was denied a world title in 1983, and we’ll get into that below—1979, though, was the real missed opportunity.

SURFER Magazine said in 1980 that, title or no title, “Dane Kealoha is doing the most advanced surfing of anybody in the world.” That was Dane up there balanced at the tippy-top of power surfer pyramid. He was built like, and moved like, Houston Oiler fullback Earl Campbell—whose eight-year pro career tracked with Kealoha’s almost to the year. But it’s a big mistake, I think, to call Dane a power surfer and leave it at that. 

Somebody online last week said Kealoha was the ultimate in “raw power,” when in fact everything about the way he surfed, power element included, was the opposite of raw—Dane and Tom Curren were (and remain, for me anyway) our two most refined surfers. 

With Johnny-Boy Gomes, Dane’s protege, power itself was the object, a shock mechanism, a flying mace, and it was thrilling to watch Gomes set off one flagrant, detonating turn after another.

Dane, by contrast, could go all afternoon without any kind of Gomes-like demonstration of force. The power was simply there, always, foundational and evenly distributed, takeoff to kickout, a low-pitched elemental thrum.

Dane knew what he had, owned it and at times obviously enjoyed it, but seemed to understand that the power was elevated for being kept in reserve.

Built on top of that root-level strength was Dane Kealoha’s actual and mostly-unmentioned superpower, which was flow and patience and finesse. 

There is a shot of Kealoha in the video I just posted doing 500 down-the-line pump turns on a small peeler at Burleigh Heads, so the man could get busy when he wanted to. But move ahead to 3:15, that big wave at Honolua Bay, and watch how still and composed he is. To my eyes, Dane is exactly as powerful as the wave itself; they match each other; Kealoha’s force, like that of a big gorgeous Honolua bowl, is mostly below the surface, quiet and smoothed out, up to and included Dane’s gliding exit as the wave flattens out. His front arm alone makes me want to finally learn and understand ballet or modern dance or something, because everything I hold dear in terms of surfing style is somehow contained in Dane’s fingers, arm, and shoulder.

This is why, jumping back to 1983 and the bit of world tour stupidity that ended Kealoha’s competitive career, it makes no difference to me whatsoever that Dane didn’t get a world title. His surfing, like that of Phil Edwards or Wayne Lynch or Dane Reynolds, exists independently and I think well above that of rating points and world titles.

Maybe Kealoha felt that way, too, but maybe not. 

He said, more than once, that pro surfing was mostly just a career, the thing that allowed him to stay in the water. He was intense during competition, sure, but that was likely a scare tactic, a mechanism to keep people at a distance—people he didn’t know, anyway—rather than from any burning desire to win heats. He learned the game but was never especially tactical, or not like Shaun and Rabbit and MR. That said, it’s not hard to imagine Dane wanting to prove people wrong. 

Like Drew Kampion, for instance, who had this brief and insulting and arguably very brave conversation with Kealoha at the end of the 1980 North Shore contest season:

DREW: Well, you got into the final of the Duke and you got into the final at Pipe, too, so you’re doing pretty well.

DANE: Nnnyeeahhh . . . . [laughs]

DREW: But you’re not winning, huh?

DANE: [laughs]

DREW: Does it bum you out not to be winning contests over here?

DANE: Mmmm, I don’t know. I don’t really care if I win or not. I just go out and try. If I don’t, I don’t.

DREW: Maybe that’s why you lose.

The world tour went to war with itself in 1983. Tour founder and Triple Crown owner Fred Hemmings was on one side. Ian Cairns and Op were on the other. Fred was the IPS. Cairns headed up the newly-formed ASP, and without getting too deep in the weeds, Ian won the war, the IPS crashed, but the Triple Crown—Fred’s property—got caught in the middle, and basically it was decided, by Cairnss, that any top-ranked world tour pro who surfed in the 1983 Crown events would forego their all-important seeding for 1984. Most of the tour pros all complied—Dane did not, entered all three Crown contests, won the Pipeline Masters and the Duke, and refused on principle to pay the bitter little ASP-levied fine that would have allowed him to keep his seed for the next year.

And that was pretty much it for Dane’s competitive career.

Kealoha would later say he was zeroing in on the 1983 world title at the time of the Triple Crown blow-up. But in truth he surfed in 11 of 13 tour events, got his full allotment of points that year despite the fiction with Cairns and the ASP, and was #14 in the final ratings. He would have been a longshot contender, at best, in years to come—Tom Curren, Tom Carroll, Martin Potter, and other world tour newcomers were younger and better in the small beachbreak waves that were taking over the tour schedule.

At first, Dane himself seemed just irked by how the world tour had treated him, not devastated or defeated. 

“I’m not afraid of surfing the qualifying trials again,” he told Sam George in early 1984. “I’ll do whatever they want.” He then added, “The sport still has to grow a bit more [but], I think it’s going to be a great circuit.”

Paul Holme’s 2022 Surfer’s Journal profile on Kealoha paints a different and much sadder picture. 

“It really hurt me,” he says of the break with the tour. “I hate talking about it. They tried stopping me in so many ways.”

This is where Kealoha, to my ears, drifts into something related to but removed from what actually happened in 1983. He was a victim of the IPS-ASP fight, yes, but not a target. Dane doesn’t see it that way. 

“They didn’t want me to have the title. They knew I would eventually snap. And they were right.”

You couldn’t tell from his surfing, which remained sharp, fast and powerful, but Kealoha went dark in the late 1980s and ’90s.

“Depression, disappointment, frustration, all that stuff,” he told Holmes. “I was racist. Anybody who wasn’t from Hawaii didn’t belong in the water when I was out. It got violent . . . and that hurt me even more. I’d go home and cry and drown myself with drugs. I was so depressed. It really broke my heart. I went down some pretty horrific roads that I’m still battling with.”

And this, sadly, is where we last saw Dane. 

Holmes notes that Kealoha was living on Maui and “repeatedly managed to pull himself back from the brink.” He found God, and for a period in the 2010s he was living in Honolulu, doing surf-therapy sessions for injured war vets and working with foster kids. The work didn’t last, and he moved to Maui. Reading between the lines, it sounds like Kealoha was estranged from at least part of his family.

“From his window,” Holmes ends his article, “he sees clouds gathering.”

We heard nothing else from Kealoha, publically, until his death notice this week.

I hope over the past year or so Dane and his scattered family found some measure of peace and comfort. I also hope he spent a few idle moments remembering and reconnecting with a younger version of himself—there’s a joyous bit in 1979’s Many Classic Moments with a teenaged Dane day-tripping from Oahu to Maui with fellow sting-riders Buttons and Mark Liddell. 

By that point the surf world at large already knew Kealoha as quiet and glowering and basically unapproachable. But Moments shows another side, an earlier and I think maybe more authentic side, as he grins and surf-raps with his friends during the car ride to Honolua. Dane’s famous glare is nowhere to be seen. 

The glare, I think, at least back then, was more a mask than anything. A great mask, something Dane was more than comfortable wearing, a device used to keep us away, to stay inside himself, to gain an advantage, take your pick. But here with Buttons and Liddell, Dane looks fully at home, literally and figuratively—powerful but powerful and relaxed, both. People like Dane need a Buttons in their life. They rolled on to Honolua Bay, scored, and let’s leave it there, in the afternoon light, with smiles and set waves for everybody.

(You like this? Matt Warshaw delivers a surf essay every Sunday, PST. All of ’em a pleasure to read. Maybe time to subscribe to Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing, yeah? Three bucks a month.)

Chas Smith (not pictured) on a CI Pro. Photo: Channel Islands
Chas Smith (not pictured) on a CI Pro. Photo: Channel Islands

Surf journalist born again, dispenses with alternative craft tomfoolery and rediscovers pure joy of high performance pointy thruster!

6'0" 19 2 3/8 29.0

And I’m back! After years of wandering through a desert of alternative craft, 4’11 stubby quads and drawn out mid-lengths, asymmetricals and fishies, foam all the way forward and hefty I am back to my heart’s true, to our hearts’ true home, the pointy chippy thruster.

6’0″ 19 2 3/8 29.0

It arrived at my doorstep a few weeks back after the iconic shaper Britt Merrick heard me discussing a soul pang on my weekly chat with David Lee Scales, a desire to return to the high performance shortboard. I’d hopped off that business over a decade ago, now, a Mayhem opening that door to perdition by moving the wide point of the board up thereby allowing for more paddling power, control, resignation to a life of suck. The round squash tail hole in my ticker never went away, though, and I openly pondered a return and not just any return. A return to the ultimate high performance shortboard. The Channel Islands Pro. Lee Scales mocked me. Said he was happy with his user friendly shapes and I was sad.

Was sad until Merrick, a saint, texted “Hey! It’s Britt Merrick… heard you on The Grit saying you wanted to try a CI Pro. Send me your dimensions and I’ll shape you one.”

Tears filled my eyes.

Now, I had absolutely no idea what my dimensions should be, what measurements were even appropriate for a real surfboard as opposed to some bit of mystical oddness, and had to come clean.

I didn’t know.

5’10 something?

He understood that my brain had turned to mush in that desert of alternative craft, did not hold it against me, and a few weeks later 6’0″ 19 2 3/8 29.0 arrived at my door.


It sat on the rack for too many days, poor conditions and travel conspiring against our reunion, but then, yesterday, it all came together. A pulse of clean swell, three free hours. I gingerly applied a BeachGrit tail pad, gently circled some BeachGrit x Sticky Bumps wax, perfumed to the heavens, on her deck and headed to the beach.


The paddle out felt odd, I’ll be honest. I looked at the nose, where all that foam used to be, and thought “How is this thing even floating me?” I looked at the other surfers in the lineup straddling all manner of thick, riding high in the water. When I saddled up I rode very low. Nipples almost dipping beneath the brine.

I looked at the horizon and thought “Was David Lee Scales right?”

Then a wave came, maybe three feet with an open right, and I instinctively spun, stroked and popped to my feet. Surfing muscle memory is a true gift, I suppose, years and years and years of the same motion taking over, eradicating the need for cognition, and there I was surfing a high performance surfboard.

It truly felt like home, fitting right into the pocket, wildly maneuverable. Oh, I didn’t surf it well, neither the board nor the wave, but I surfed it and surfing had never felt better. I kicked out, at the end, sprinted back and caught another, sprinted back and caught another.

Again, I didn’t surf well, neither the board nor the wave, but it was the best feeling I’d had in years. I was in the seat of a Ferrari and maybe I was just going straight, with herky-jerky burst of speed, but I was still in a Ferrari and I would much rather drive a Ferrari poorly than a Toyota Camry expertly. A vista of graspable progression opened up before me. Sharper turns, better turns, bursting fins loose and David Lee Scales was wrong alongside all those who have given up and given in.

Childhood dreams of a run at the World Qualifying Series reignited.

I am a CI Pro and you can too.

The forty-six-year-old science and sports teacher who’d only moved to the coastal town in January was surfing the lefthander with a dozen others in the water, including kids.

Surfer killed by Great White in South Australian attack bravely warned others to go to shore as the shark swam towards him, “We saw the shark thrashing around out the back. (It came) back and got him for a third time”

“It was such a confronting incident. It could have been anyone. The worst part was there was a 13 year old out there and he witnessed everything."

The surfer hit and killed by a Great White shark on a crowded day at Walkers Rocks yesterday has been named as popular Elliston teacher Simon Baccanello, a brave soul who warned others to split as the shark started swimming towards him. 

The forty-six-year-old science and sports teacher who’d only moved to the coastal town known for its epic waves as well as its dark history of shark attacks, in January was surfing the lefthander with a dozen others in the water, including kids. 

When the White appeared, Baccanello told the terrified kids, “Don’t worry, get yourself to shore”.

Jaiden Millar, a twenty two year old, saw the whole damn thing.

“It was such a confronting incident. It could have been anyone. The worst part was there was a 13-year-old out there and he witnessed everything,” Millar told Adelaide Now. “There was a bloke on the beach tooting his horn and as I turned around I saw everyone paddling in. I saw his board tombstoning, which means he’s underwater and his board’s getting dragged under … trying to fight his way back up to the surface… He was gone. (We) saw the shark just thrashing around out the back. The shark’s obviously let go and come back and got him for a third time”.

No body recovered yet, unlikely, although his board was found. 

“That was picked up pretty quickly,” Streaky Bay SES unit manager Trevlyn Smith told 7NEWS. “It had just one bite in the middle,” he said.

Ken Rosato (RIP) and the WSL's Joe Turpel. Photo: Instagram
Ken Rosato (RIP) and the WSL's Joe Turpel. Photo: Instagram

World Surf League broadcast team reels as New York morning show anchor fired immediately after hot mic catches “off-color” remark!

Troublesome times.

There is absolutely no denying that we live in extremely fraught times. Tensions high. Margin for error non-existent. Stray remarks that were once casually disregarded or ignored are now elevated to the apex of criminality and treated as such. Capital punishment. Oh there are a million and one traps in which to fall, racial, gender, political, religious, tonal, contextual plus any combination, and fall, daily, broadcasters do.

Those who make their living behind a microphone are, of course, in a much riskier position than the general public. Days ago an Oakland A’s on-air commentator uttered a slur and was suspended indefinitely. Hours ago the longtime anchor of New York’s “Eyewitness This Morning,” Ken Rosato, was immediately fired after making an “off-color” remark that was picked up by a hot mic.


Speculation ran wild that he too expressed a slur though that notion was struck down by his representative who released a statement reading, “Being fired for any racial slur is 100 percent inaccurate and untrue. Ken Rosato had a benchmark of 20 years at WABC of supporting all equality.”

Whatever the case, the World Surf League commentary team of Joe Turpel, Ronald Blakey, Kaipo Guerrero, Peter Mel, Rosy Hodge, Strider Wasilewski et. al. must certainly feel even more unstable this morning. Having to fill endless hours of air during professional surfing competitions, like, endless endless, the climate is absolutely ripe for one of them to “misspeak” and be relegated to the margins of Page Six before receiving ruthless execution at the hands of Chief of Sport Jessi Miley-Dyer.

While “hand jams” and “foamball monsters” toe the line of appropriate, the biggest current worry is likely the inability of any one of the crew to describe Brazilian surfers without using the word “passionate.”


Which is to say nothing about the sort of hot mic incident that undid Ken Rosato.

But do you imagine that the World Surf League Santa Monica headquarters has a running compendium of troublesome talk from each that is used in contract negotiations?

If we were to place odds on who would get fired for unacceptable speech, would Guerrero or Wasilewski be the favorite?

Joe Turpel is, honestly, so bland that he could sit in the booth and read from Mein Kampf and only succeed in gently annoying the censors.

It pays to be insipid.

Where did Pottz go again?

Great White shark “thrashed around with surfer for five minutes” before disappearing with body in horror South Australian attack

The attack has echoes of last year’s Great White hit on a swimmer at Sydney’s Malabar beach where rock fishermen watched as the swimmer was mauled and disappeared.

The small surf town of Elliston, six hundred clicks west of Adelaide, is in mourning tonight after a popular local surfer was killed in front of horrified onlookers at around ten am today.

The man, who was forty-six, was surfing Walkers Rocks, an intermediate sorta lefthander on the inside of the bay that’s also the home to Blackfellas, the wildly hollow left slab that is a favourite of Craig Anderson, Chippa Wilson and co and which has featured in innumerable surf movies.

According to reports, after the initial hit, the Great White continued to attack for five minutes before disappearing with the body which is unlikely to be recovered.

The attack has echoes of last year’s Great White hit on a swimmer at Sydney’s Malabar beach, where rock fishermen watched as the swimmer was mauled and disappeared.

“I heard a scream and the shark was just chomping on his body and the body was in half just off the rocks here,” said one witness.

Three years ago in Esperance in Western Australia, along the same migratory route for Great Whites, the well-known local surfer Andrew Sharpe was also killed and disappeared by a fifteen-foot White, his body never recovered.

A witness there said the dorsal fin and tail fin of the White were so big his initial thought was there were two sharks.

“I’ve never seen a dorsal fin that big before, not even in media footage,” he said.