Save Our Surf

Save our Surf
Image by John Kelly.

A legacy of waves, friends, and resistance in the Aloha State.

In an island community, access to the ocean and the streams defines power. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Save Our Surf (the SOS as its members called it) and its primary organizer, John M. Kelly Jr., organized against the overdevelopment of Hawai‘i’s shorelines. Over a generation later, residents and visitors to Hawai‘i have a bit more paradise because of this band of surfing kids and their charismatic leader.

Everyone is local eco-literate now, passing around insider lingo like water table and Environmental Impact Statement, shoptalking about the ahupua‘a and debating the mandatory video for visitors to Hanauma Bay. Local ecology is on the cover of everything about Hawai‘i and inescapable on local television. 

You’d need to go back a full generation to find a Honolulu mayor or state governor that didn’t say environmental preservation was a significant priority. But it wasn’t always school stream clean-ups, blue-green algae farms, and outlawed plastic shopping bags on Maui.

For decades, Dillingham Company, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the young territory developed and altered the landscape of Hawai‘i against the backdrop of tragic cultural loss. The immense changes Honolulu underwent throughout the 20th century rivals that of any Asian tiger metropolis in recent history; the dredging of land and sea, the pouring of concrete over the land, a superhighway.

By the early ‘70s, even the slacker local kids born of the baby boom, who ditched school to surf, saw a whole way of life threatened by the unmitigated approach of business and military interests.

Wednesday Night Revolution

Ed Greevy, now 70 years old, has documented “the movement” in Hawai‘i with his camera since the late ‘60s. “I got written to by Doug Frisk in 1970. Doug was the editor for Surfing Magazine. They were getting interested in environmental work as places were being effected all over, places like Dana Point and Malibu.

He asked me, ‘ever heard of the SOS? Could you check it out for us and take pictures?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about, but the next day I was at a camera store in Waikīkī that isn’t there anymore, and I saw a poster, this handmade thing, telling me about the next SOS meeting at Black Point.”

What Ed Greevy saw at that Wednesday weekly meeting of the SOS was young surfers in revolt, led by John Kelly in his living room. Save Our Surf was planning the first major protest at the newly minted Hawai‘i State Capitol in downtown Honolulu. They were attempting to lobby the legislature for an investment in the city’s first water treatment facility and against the dumping of sand in Waikīkī beach for development, a move that could have effectively destroyed some of the most famous and beloved surf breaks in the world.

“They were planning this big event at the capitol,” Greevy recalls. “It was in 2 or 3 months, all these kids in the living room. There was maybe 20 of them, plus the girls running around the house. One of the kids was a treasurer, he stands up and says, ‘OK we spent $8 for this, $12 for that, and we got a little under $10 now.’ I thought, ‘this is crazy, they want to do this big thing with all these people and they got less than 10 bucks.”

“Every surfer knew every other surfer. And, not only every other surfer, they knew every other surfboard. They knew exactly who owned the board.”

Wally Forsieth

Hot Curl and The Atom Bomb

John Kelly, by that point, a father in his 50s, had already seen enough in his life to know that the SOS could win these battles. Kelly grew up at Black Point, when that part of the island was the lonely fringe of Honolulu’s city lights.

He was the only child of famous artist parents John Melville Kelly Sr. and Katherine Harland, creators of some of the first global images of an idyllic Hawai‘i – art that maintains its beauty and masterful technical merit to this day in the upper floors of the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Hawai‘i State Art Museum. As a surfing kid, his first board was, by modern standards, a ridiculously heavy redwood plank shaped by David Kahanamoku, one of Duke’s brothers.

Fellow surfing pioneer Wally Forsieth charged the biggest swells of the 1930s with Kelly.

“Every surfer knew every other surfer. And, not only every other surfer, they knew every other surfboard. They knew exactly who owned the board. There were boards with initials and names and all kinds of crazy stuff, and everybody had their own design.”

Forsieth and Kelly’s own 1937 design was the “Hot Curl,” which was essentially a redwood board he took an axe to at the tail for a trim V, then kept modifying in order to make it down the steep face of his home break at Brown’s and Black Point.

Courage was a hallmark of Kelly’s long life. He was one of the first to charge the point at Makaha, finding the waves after spearfishing off the Wai‘anae coast. As a serviceman of the greatest generation, he eventually found himself stationed aboard a ship off the coast of Kaho‘olawe. There the navy was beginning a decades-long bombardment of the island with ordnance, using a sacred Hawaiian site quite literally as target practice. As a skilled freediver, he retrieved unexploded torpedoes with nothing more than a rope and goggles, a task most of the hard-hat naval divers refused. Although he told the Chicago Daily News War Service that “any islander could have done it,” this and other acts earned him a Navy and Marine Corps medal of honor.

Kelly’s real passion was getting people together and directing young energy and talent. After a post-war move to New York to attend Juilliard with his wife Marion, Kelly came back home to be the choral director at Palama Settlement.

According to Ed Greevy, it was Marion that politicized the man: “He was crazy about her. She was doing work with the ILWU (the historic International Longshoreman’s Union), where she was Jack Hall’s secretary there for a while. I think she said, ‘if you’re gonna keep hangin around, then you’d better read these books.’”

Those politics, along with a character that longtime friend George Downing explains “you couldn’t buy” lost him his job. As a politicized intellectual, Kelly became interested in The Bomb and nuclear disarmament, and in 1959 was set to be a delegate to the Fifth World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Hiroshima. His bosses threatened to fire him if he went. He chose to go.

Save Our Surf

For Kelly, after charging double overhead sets at Makaha on a board he made himself and lassoing bombs from the sea floor, paddling against the current of overdevelopment surely seemed possible. He and fellow big-wave surfer George Downing (now 79 years old, he is the executive director of “The Eddie,” and the sole decider of when it goes), created Save Our Surf in 1961 when they discovered that a planned unnecessary jetty by the Army Corps of Engineers in Nānākuli would destroy a surf site. They won. The army relocated the jetty.

It was almost a decade later, in 1970, that the SOS made history. A moment came where locals met the tipping point, the detritus of city life on an island began to metastasize, creeping up mountains and down streams, cutting off the view of the ocean from the mountain in a vertical sprawl of concrete and stucco. It was an era when students realized they could no longer check the waves from Kelly’s alma mater Roosevelt High School; over the rising city you could no longer see the south swells wrapping towards Ala Moana. The beachboys in Waikīkī noticed the dramatic shadows of newly-constructed high rise hotels, cooling and darkening the sand.

Some professors spoke of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, some students rediscovered Walden. After being denied the ability to print leaflets at commercial printshops due to political content, Kelly, the son of artists, installed his own press in the basement of his home at Black Point explaining, “the only free press is the one you own.” In the tradition of ideological revolution, those fliers spoke truth to power and found distribution amongst the converted.

In 1970, there was still much to be done: Honolulu City and County had no water treatment facility; there were plans to dump tons of sand on Waikīkī to kill the break while making the hotels more lucrative; there was no shoreline setback law; native Hawaiians and farmers were being pushed off the land; there were very real plans by Dillingham Company to dredge much of the east side of O‘ahu and Diamond Head; and bombs continued to explode on Kaho‘olawe. In those SOS fliers, four words stood out, in the drawn script of surf culture: “Unite to Save Hawai‘i” – in the hand drawn script of surf culture.

Until that moment, the local environmentalist movement was disparate and disorganized. That same year the Nixon administration enacted the Environmental Protection Agency on the faraway Mainland, and although the movement was coalescing on the continent, Hawai‘i was in the midst of unprecedented and heedless development. Now, with a paper call-to-arms, the movement achieved real communal consciousness, a sense of youth, morality and necessity. But it was not a blind revelation; the cranes and bulldozers had been employing locals and operating for years.

As John Kelly later wrote, “Hawai’i was in the post-statehood grip of rapid change when Save Our Surf struggles began in the early 1960s. Freeways were beginning to rip up old communities. Waikīkī was turning into a concrete jungle. Familiar landmarks were disappearing. Surfing friends were being drafted for a far-off war and coming home bitter, if alive.” The tipping point had arrived.

The Slam

When Ed Greevy went to his first meeting to photograph surf environmentalism at Black Point, kids had already been taking the bus to Kelly’s house or the Kaimuki library for Wednesday night SOS meetings for months. Kids who were unable to vote were learning about water treatment facilities, preparing fact sheets, and counting the ratio of people on the beach compared to those in the water in order to convey to power the economic and cultural necessity of surfing.

In describing his politicization, local labor lawyer Wayson Chow explains: “I was a teenager and I wanted to surf, but rich homeowners at Wailupe Peninsula blocked easy access to the beach. I was pissed off and I went to a meeting of Save Our Surf.” His story is echoed by countless teenagers that were handed a bit of analysis, and returned the deed tenfold when they kept riding that wave.

What can party fliers and a crowd of kids do?  Can they crack the walls of politics, stop a bomb, unleash the hope of a more verdant community? Or is real change just a weekend delusion, ephemeral drunk talk amidst the party and the bullshit, for sale, like whack honu tattoos and swap meet leis?  A’ole, no. It actually went down like that for a generation in Hawai’i- those persistent questions of culture’s influence on structure takes an elegiac tone here, the thought that culture can actually move us is altered by the landscape like an indigenous species threatened by non-native invaders and forgetfulness.

By that point, the scope of events in Honolulu suggested structural changes on a scale unseen since the 1890s.

When asked what that first demonstration felt like, Ed Greevy explains, “It was huge. Nobody had ever seen anything like that. The capitol was only, what, a few years old, and there had never been a big demonstration there. SOS got from what I can remember almost three thousand people, mostly kids. Session wasn’t in yet, and I guess everybody upstairs got freaked out and locked their doors. The kids wanted their signatures on this beach widening and treatment facility stuff.

“Mike Moriarty was the emcee. When he heard they couldn’t get anybody to listen to them, he was on the mic, he said, ‘on the count of 3, we need to make as much noise, jump up and down so they hear us. 1, 2, 3!!!’ So for a few minutes it was pretty intense, all kinds of hooting and hollering. Security, I think the sheriffs came up and said, ‘Hey you gotta stop, the folks downstairs in the basement think the walls are gonna crack.'”

What it felt like was a massive winter set breaking inside Waimea Bay, the boys in the tower taking notice, the sand shifting as chests tighten; the love slam.

Wave of Change

In those first organized protests in the early ’70s, the SOS went forth from modest beginnings to major environmental successes: they defeated a plan for three high rise hotels directly on the reef at Ala Moana; created a 140-acre park plan for a working-class neighborhood on Sand Island where shippers wanted to build an industrial facility; prodded the legislature to pass a law barring development along a 40-foot shoreline strip; scuttled those plans to widen the beach at Waikīkī; and won appropriations for a statewide inventory of existing surfing sites, many of them endangered.

In 1971, Stuart Udall, President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, wrote a description of the group that was printed in the Honolulu Advertiser: “Kelly’s young brigadiers gather facts, prepare broadside handbills, edit crisis newspapers and tangle with leading establishment planners and businessmen in public hearings.

SOS, with its relatively narrow focus on a single resource, disproves the contention (heard often these days) that the environmental movement suffers from too many overlapping organizations. Diversity, we believe, strengthens the cause. In any event, SOS is a force to contend with in Hawai‘i – and our forecast is that many more Hawai‘i land speculators and shortsighted public officials will be ‘wiped out’ by the young surfers if they continue their old ways.”

The SOS would have later effects on the Hawaiian Renaissance, including the battles to save Waiahole/Waikane, and the development of an ethnic studies department at the University of Hawai‘i. In working with other groups during the Hawaiian Renaissance, such as the active Life of the Land, the SOS extended its reach beyond the reef breaks.

Kelly continued to fight overdevelopment throughout his life, until his later years were clouded by Alzheimer’s and his passing at the age of 88 in 2007. He maintained his love of the ocean, his lanky frame seen gliding into the water off the slippery rocks at Kaiko’s at an age many never reach.

The man behind the fliers in moments and in retrospect can be seen as an almost unbelievable character, and in truth, Kelly remains sui generis. The earned respect for courage, the application of political theory, and the concentration of the SOS kids focused the broader public’s attention on the truth and morality of environmentalism in ways that no movement had done before. The loose yet powerful organizational structure and a refusal to back down bolstered other groups at the outset of the Hawaiian Renaissance, and is both unique and fitting within Hawai‘i’s history of resistance.

The Next Set

The O‘ahu chapter of Surfrider Foundation, one of many active environmental groups in Hawai‘i, holds the John Kelly Environmental Achievement Awards annually. Besides lobbying and organizing in the modern era, the organization promotes environmentalism by giving awards in three categories: Lifetime Achievement, O‘ahu-Based Company and Professional Surfer.

The first ceremony’s Kelly award was given to its eponymous namesake in 2003. Stuart Coleman, Surfrider Foundation Hawai‘i’s director explains, “he was the first of his kind, he’s the father of local environmentalism, especially for surfers. But the world is different now, and we need to work with and encourage local businesses that are making a difference in the environment.” Past award recipients include lifestyle company Patagonia, surf superstars Rob Machado, Kelly Slater, Rochelle Ballard, and most recently, the Malloy brothers.

Many battles have been fought since those SOS days. Coleman explains: “The recent fight to hold off developers at Kaka‘ako (regarding a developer’s plan to fast-track an environmental impact statement process), we brought in hundreds of people in red shirts to let the city council know we wouldn’t let it happen. That was a play right out of John’s book.”

The history of resistance by the SOS has largely been forgotten, the specifics pulled by the current of a lost era of activism. The record of the movement was recently in danger of being lost forever towards the twilight of Kelly’s life.

In an effort to save these essential cultural artifacts, the University of Hawai‘i, the Kelly family and friends digitally scanned the full archive of SOS posters and writings. Ironically, documents once so threatening to state developers are now at our fingertips at a UH Mānoa website. The images from the movement are the stunning design of a generation, the protest of youth as captured in a flier with no year, often the only proof that thousands of people appeared at one place and time to exact change. Ed Greevy, John Kelly, Barry Nakamura, and countless SOS kids took pictures of their time, often to be used as evidence of the environmental degradation that was intentionally hidden from sight by developers, the army, and the state.

Now removed by time and technology from their original intention, they take on the powerful and haunting beauty of art, something more tangible than the postcard pastels we’ve been sold: kids playing in the street because there’s no park, cars rusting into the ocean with a surfer catching a head-high right in the background, tragic bulldozers, kids talking to each other about change in a living room after school.

The modern parallels taken with camera-phones, of West Side homeless encampments and schools closed on Fridays, make you wonder who will revive those Wednesday night meetings. That the SOS actually won so many battles, that an infinity of waves have crashed on shores that were never dredged, that it was kids that really did it, is the SOS legacy. More so it is a call to arms.

The honors bestowed in Kelly’s name say little about the way Save Our Surf has taken its place in history — almost forgotten for a new generation of environmentalists. Problem is, they don’t name buildings for those who advocated no building be built, no forever bronze memorials for the peacemaker-dissidents. Designers of rifles – the Thompsons and Kalishnakovs of the world – see their names used as shorthand in the histories of era. Designers of surfboards, however, fade with the tide.

Although John Kelly wrote at length of his experience organizing Save Our Surf, it’s unlikely he’d be dissatisfied with the absence of a physical remnant of the struggle, another unnecessary scar upon the shoreline he loved and protected.

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