Xtreme Factor: A Kanaka Boy’s Paradise in the Water

By Rhonda R. Harper
Updated: May 15, 2008

This is Dave Perez ripping it up at Velzyland.

This is Dave Perez ripping it up at Velzyland.

CALIFORNIA — Paradise often described as an enchanted garden, cloud nine, and a state of happiness or heaven itself. Hawaii or more particularly, Oahu viewed through some eyes is heaven on Earth. On my journey to Hawaii, I imagined gathering as much knowledge as I could about this tropic water wonderland.

My 25-year memories somehow seemed clouded by the passing of time. The one thing I did remember is the waves. Hawaii has some of the most celebrated waves in the world. After a brief stay in Manoa and settling into Kaneohe Bay, I quickly started journaling the island, the people, traditions and most importantly, the water sports.

After all, why else would a surfer girl from California set up camp?

Whenever someone tells me, I need to interview this person or that person. I usually give the same retort, “What did he/she do? Why is that important?” They then begin to tell me why they think their friend is a great person.

Then out of nowhere came along Dave Perez. Dave was a friend of a friend true enough, only Dave had a very colorful past. I had heard rumors that he had surfed with some of the most well known surfers in the world, including the legendary African-American surfer Buttons Kaluhiokalani.

I decided I had better contact this person immediately.

Nervously, I called Dave a couple of days before our scheduled meeting. As soon as he started to speak, I felt at ease. His Hawaiian pidgin accent made me right at home.

I could hear my classmates’ voices whose faces I can barely remember now. It was starting to come back to me. We agreed to meet at Zippy’s Restaurant. Zippy’s is a Hawaiian diner similar to Denny’s with local cuisine.

This is Dave Perez & Michelle Watkins riding tandem at a competition at Makaha.

This is Dave Perez & Michelle Watkins riding tandem at a competition at Makaha.

Being new to Oahu, I usually take the wrong direction trying to figure out the Pali Highway from the Likelike Highway, the H-1 from the H-3 and this day was no different. The one thing about this island, is no matter how lost you get, you are never too lost.

I emerged right in front of Pearlridge Mall, parked my car in the front stall. This is day was looking up. I entered Zippy’s and my cell phone rang. It was Dave he was going to be late. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was not late.

I settled into a booth in the back of the restaurant. I ordered my new usual Won Tonmen, ramen noodles with won tons and vegetables. I sat with my back to the booth. My mind’s eye had envisioned Dave to be a short stocky guy, fair skin with tanning marks from his sunglasses he wore, slippers and a “beer is free but only on me” t-shirt.

My Won Tonmen arrived at the same time Dave entered the building. I noticed a tall man dialing a cell phone and looking around as if he was waiting for someone. I motioned to him.

As he turns full view, I saw why the girls had mentioned Dave Perez. Dave was about six feet tall, a dark island tan skin and athletically built. Dave immediately presented himself officially and began to tell the tale of growing up in Oahu, Hawaii.

Dave grew up in a Honolulu community known as Kalihi. He started his surfing career when he was just six years old at Graveyards in Waikiki. His older brothers had influenced him to surf. His first board of recollection was a paipo board made by hand from plywood. He and his friends would cut the board into a tombstone shape. Just for fun, they would burn their names or designs in the board.

One thing that I noticed immediately, when Dave spoke of his childhood, the little boy appeared in his eyes. He laughed when telling the story of walking from Kalihi to Ala Moana with his friends to surf. He remembered that one night he and his friends walked to Ala Moana after curfew.

The boys were all school age at the time, were prevented from continuing their journey by the police. The police officer sent them all back home. Shortly after the police left, they would run for the beach hiding when they thought the police were coming. Dave says” We used to sleep in the new boats at the harbor sometimes.”

His face turns mischievous when talking about walking to Sand Island from Kalihi and coming upon wild dog packs and junk cars. He looked proud to have had 50 cents in his pocket to buy a bunch of Bananas from Dole for lunch.


The "Hawaiian Rippa" Dave Perez charging Kewalo Basin in 1981.

He was excited to tell me about the Randy Rarick, Bilbo Baggins surfboard he owned, then back to a teenager when he talks about his friends “Plastic Fantastic” or “Blue Cheer” surfboards. He then looks off in the distance. His face grew distant as he reflects on the surf shops that closed on the island. He starts to name them one by one, Rich Park, Bing, Hobie, Surfline, and SB Hawaii.

The inevitable question eventually asked by me, “Did you ever compete professionally?” I almost felt embarrassed. He answers very proudly, “Yes, I did.”

His sponsor was Lighting Bolt Surfboards in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s. He competed both locally and in California at the Malibu Classic in 1981.His surfing travels have lead him to many far away places in Fiji and Micronesia. “What happens after that,” I asked.

He smiles and says,”I became a daddy.”

To end all rumors he gave me a list of some of his early surfing friends, which include Larry Bertleman, Michael Ho, the late Mark Foo and Tony Downings. He met Big Billy Pierce; he called him “hands” because of his hand size compared to his own.

Rhonda: “What is the biggest wave you have ever ridden?”

Dave: “Is that face?”

Rhonda: “No! Hawaiian style”

Dave: “20 – 30 ft and that is with me paddling in, not towing.”

Rhonda: “What is your favorite wave?”

Dave: “Makaha.”

Rhonda: “Last question. Is it true that you surfed with Buttons?”

Dave: “Yeah, I surfed with Buttons.”

His sister enters the restaurant as we are about to finish. She sits next to us in a booth. She chides her brother being interviewed, “Awww, surfer boy.” She says. She leans over and begins again, “Did you tell them about the sailing trip?” she grins sheepishly.

Dave on fire at his favorite surf spot Makaha.

Dave on fire at his favorite surf spot Makaha.

The same boyish smile comes over his face as he begins to tell me a story about a sailing trip he had taken with his girlfriend (the friend of a friend) and another friend. The catamaran they were on capsized while out to sea and he found himself in a desperate situation. He either had to help his friend right the boat or stay by his now frightened girlfriend side.

He watched as his friend tried to right the boat. The friend capsized twice more before eventually running out of energy. He held his girlfriend and started to swim toward the shore until another seaman came to the rescue.

He rode back with his girlfriend and made sure she was safe then went back for his friend and the boat. “She said she was never going with me sailing again.” He said. The sister then says proudly,” I trust him with my life in the water.”