For those who don’t surf, surf polo might seem as absurd as football on skateboards. For those who are well-acquainted with foam-and-fiberglass planks, however, it becomes a strategic exercise in creative applications of surf knowledge. “The board is the great equalizer,” says Goto: The surfers have trouble catching and throwing the ball (particularly with only one hand) while the water polo players have a hard time maneuvering and balancing on the board.
“If you’re just a water polo player, you’re not going to do very well. It’s definitely a hybrid sport,” says Team Paumalu co-captain Aukai Ferguson. Raised on O‘ahu’s North Shore, Ferguson grew up surfing and picked up water polo in college. Then he founded the Paumalu Water Polo Club. With some of the North Shore’s most experienced surfers on its roster, Paumalu (the Hawaiian name for Sunset Beach) has won the OceanFest surf polo tournament three times. Ferguson believes that after water polo experience, surfing skills are critical. “You need to know how to turn those boards around and balance,” he says. “You have to be able to go from prone to sitting to standing and not lose control of the board.”
Anthony Vela, captain of the LA County Lifeguards—the only other team to have won the OceanFest tournament—considers paddling speed to be a principal advantage. “It helps if you can at least play good defense. Paddling speed cuts off the counterattacks,” he explains. Vela trains junior lifeguards and coaches water polo at Chadwick High School in Palos Verdes, while fellow team leader and former US national water polo team member Larry Felix coaches at North Hollywood’s Harvard Westlake (which has churned out a number of Olympic players). Throw in master paddleboarder Tim Gere, a past winner of paddleboarding’s two most demanding long-distance races, and you can see why the LA County Lifeguards are serious contenders.
Still, Paumalu is hard to top. From 1999 to 2001, Ferguson served as a development coach for the US Olympic-bound national team. His Paumalu teammates, Doug Cole, Craig Watson, Scott Harvey and CJ Smith, are USA Water Polo All-Americans. Team Paumalu was runner-up in the 2006 USA Water Polo Men’s National Championships. Both teams’ high caliber of talent feeds their rivalry. “We’re friends before and after. But it does get heated!” Ferguson chuckles, admitting that it’s helpful to play the tournament in Waikiki rather than in colder West Coast waters.
“Everyone wants to take down the Californians,” laughs LA’s Vela, who says the California team is honored to be part of Duke’s birthday celebration. “We can’t really come out lazy because we’re going to be pounced on. We try to get early goals because it’s pretty hard to come back.”
And it’s not just all Paumalu and LA. Not to be overlooked, many of the other teams in the tournament include veteran lifeguards, national-level water polo players and Hawai‘i’s top watermen. Their collective water prowess, not to mention the comic wipeouts, make surf polo a wildly entertaining spectator sport. And since the sport is relatively nascent, who knows what new tactics they’ll try?
Leave it to the Keaulana brothers, the famed Makaha surfers who embody the spirit of Duke Kahanamoku, to come up with clever surf polo techniques. Former lifeguard captain Brian Keaulana describes a technique that unfolded during a game between the Honolulu lifeguards’ surf polo team and the University of Hawai‘i women’s water polo team:
“First I would paddle up to the goal net and go broadside. My brother [Rusty] would paddle up and T-bone me with his board. Now the board get all this stability, right? So I go, boom, boom, and lock ’em down, holding the boards like this,” he continues, demonstrating with his arms. “Then Rusty stands up, he runs with the ball and BA-BAH! No mercy!
“The whole time the women are going, ‘Come on, challenge us to a real game,’” he recalls with a grin. Water polo without boards? “We were like, ‘No way. You’ll drown us guys!’” HH
The fifth annual surf polo tournament will take place at the Diamond Head Basin, Waikiki Beach, as part of Duke’s OceanFest, which runs from Aug. 18 to 26.