Kekai, Albert "Rabbit"


Energetic regularfooter from Waikiki, Hawaii; often recalled as the best high-performance surfer of the 1930s and '40s; winner of the Makaha International in 1955; a senior surfing icon in the '90s and '00s. "Rabbit is the living link," as Longboard magazine put it in 1998, "to surfing's entire modern history."

Kekai was born (1920) and raised in Waikiki, began surfing at age five, and was later given informal instruction by pioneering surfer and gold medal swimmer Duke Kahanamoku. Kekai earned the nickname "Rabbit" as one the island's fastest runners, and he's said to have run a 10-second 100 yard dash in high school.

According to Kekai, the invention of high-performance surfing—turning up and down the wave face instead of just holding an angle—came about in the mid-'30s, as he and his friends began dodging the rocks at a Waikiki surf break called Publics. Kekai was one of Waikiki's best canoe steersmen as a teenager, and sometimes competed in canoe races against the aging but still formidable Kahanamoku. He was also a Waikiki beachboy—a beachfront concession-stand worker who gave surf and canoe lessons to tourists, lounged on the sand, played the ukulele, traded stories, romanced the endless stream of vacationing women, and frequently engaged in small-time hustles and scams. A black-and-white photograph from the late '40s shows Kekai riding a small wave alongside actor David Niven, his student for the day. He also gave surf lessons or canoe rides to Red Skelton, Dorothy Lamour, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Sandy Koufax, and Gary Cooper.

Meanwhile, Kekai's active wave-riding style had a big influence on the coming generation of surfers, including Californians Matt Kivlin, Joe Quigg, and Phil Edwards and Hawaii's Conrad Canha and Donald Takayama. "He was light-years ahead of anybody," Kivlin once said, recalling the first time he saw Kekai surf in 1947, also noting that the forthcoming "Malibu" style of riding was based on Kekai's high-performance technique. Kekai is sometimes also credited as the surfer who invented noseriding. Never shy about his own accomplishments, Kekai told Liquid Salt magazine in 2010 that he was "the best around." An early motivation for his style, Kekai went on to say, was to distinguish himself from "the 'society-type' surfer—the guys who just stand there. I used to whip my board up the wave and come back down. Everybody copied me; I was so far ahead. I used to do spinners and guys would say 'What the hell you doing?' They never did see anything like that."

Back in the water after serving in the Army during World War II, Kekai's surfing continued to improve, first on the newly streamlined hot curl boards, which had become popular in the late '30s, and then on the California-designed Malibu boards of the early '50s. Kekai won the 1956 Makaha International contest (Jamma Kekai, his brother, won the following year), and was runner-up in 1961. He also won the tandem division with Heidi Stevens in 1958.

Kekai carried on as a beachboy, but also worked in construction and as a longshoreman. From the early '70s onward, he was hired each winter as a beachside official for the annual pro surfing contests held on the North Shore of Oahu. Meanwhile, year after year, he was the most active surfer of his age, winning his division in the United States Surfing Championships in 1973, 1980, 1984, and 1988. In the legends division of the 2000 U.S. Championships, surfing against men nearly 15 years his junior, the 79-year-old Hawaiian placed fourth.

Kekai was featured in two PBS-aired surfing documentaries, Liquid Stage: The Lure of Surfing (1995) and Surfing for Life (1999), both of which show him in his 70s riding waves with vigor and style. Kekai's enthusiasm for the sport, along with handsome lion-in-winter bearing, also attracted notice outside the nonsurfing world. He was profiled at length in the Los Angeles Times in 1999, and in a full-page ad for Springmaid Bed and Bath that appeared in the New York Times Sunday magazine in 2000, Kekai is posed at the edge of the water, wrapped in a sea-green sheet, next to a tag line reading, "I dream of the next wave."

Kekai was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991, the Huntington Beach Surfing Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Surfers' Hall of Fame, also in Huntington, in 2012. He was featured on Biographies, a 2001 cable TV documentary series produced by Opper Films. The Rabbit Kekai Longboard Classic was held from 1996 to 2011, first in Costa Rica, then Waikiki. The Rabbit Kekai Foundation Keiki Surf Contest, for kids 12 and under, was held in Waikiki from 2003 to 2012.

Kekai died in 2016, at the age of 95.