The popular amenity was torched by an arsonist in 2021 and dismantled by the city.

A beloved community amenity — the public surfboard racks that had been a home-away-from-home for local surfers for decades — seemed located in the safest place on Oahu, between the Pacific Ocean and busy Kalakaua Avenue, snug by the side of the Waikiki police station.

But it was all gone within hours at the hands of a homeless man who picked up a lighter on the street and set it ablaze. Now 18 months later, the seasoned surfers who relied on the city owned racks to store their boards are frustrated and the city has yet to come up with a replacement plan.

About 300 people have signed a petition asking for the surf racks to be restored.

Linda Kea is a long-time surfer at Kuhio Beach
Linda Kea, who has surfed at Kuhio Beach for more than 30 years, is one of a group that is trying to bring back the surf racks. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2023)

The surf board rack operated as a concession by the city on land it owns. Its believed to have been there for more than 60 years.

It was located at Kuhio Beach, the place where the Hawaii surf legend was born — where High Chief Kahekili of Maui plied the waves after he conquered Oahu, where Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole and his brothers reveled on their traditional wooden boards and where Duke Kahanamoku shared the sport with the world.

Last month, a 48-year-old man, Glenn A. Helton, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for starting the fire Oct. 17, 2021, which ignited the 575 surfboards stored there. Helton was captured on video picking up a lighter, using it to catch fire to a piece of paper, and inserted the flaming object into a row of the surf rack, according to KHON TV.

Surfboards are highly flammable, said Jim Ferdinand, a surfer actively trying to replace the installation.

The storage area had been previously set on fire by an unknown arsonist in February 2020, with 525 surfboards destroyed, but the racks were repaired and reinstalled.

This time, however, city officials have decided that it is not feasible to do it again.

The new wing of the Moana Surfrider Hotel was also scorched by the recent fire. A Moana Surfrider spokeswoman did not return a call for comment.

Waikiki community activist Tim Garry told the council in January that he had spoken to city administrators and been told that the hotel suffered $1 million in damages because of the fire and that hotel managers were “pretty adamant” that the city should not replace the surf racks.

Garry pleaded with city officials to find a replacement location.

“Our community needs a place, particularly for kupuna and the disabled to keep our surfboards and access the ocean,” he told them.

Smoke from the fire that destroyed a Waikiki surf storage area and boards in October 2021. (Hawaii News Now)

Replacement Will Be Costly

In January, the City Council passed a resolution in support of reestablishing the surf lockers.

Jerry Pupillo, director of the city’s Department of Enterprise Services, told the council that the department is looking for an alternate location, possibly to operate in partnership with a private vendor.

“We want to seek solutions,” he said.

Council member Augie Tulba, who chairs the committee on parks, enterprise services, culture and the arts, has met with the displaced surfers. He asked Pupillo if the mayor would put the replacement cost of the surf racks in the then-upcoming draft city budget.

Pupillo indicated that he believed that some funding would be found, but when the mayor’s new proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 was released earlier this month, it did not provide for it. The only funding was $100,000 placed in the budget last year by Council Chair Tommy Waters, who told Civil Beat he set aside the funds “in response to the vandalism and destruction of the Waikiki Surf Racks.”

Both Tulba and Waters said in emailed statements that they supported efforts to restore the racks and that they both hoped a new location could be found. Waters said the city will be issuing a “request for information” to the community to decide how best to go forward.

At Helton’s sentencing, the court placed the cost of the damage at $414,000, which the court required as restitution, so it is likely that rebuilding new racks will be expensive.

That has left older surfers hanging and waiting.

Surfer Tommy Copp
Tommy Copp, 76, who has been surfing at Waikiki for almost 70 years, said the missing lockers make it hard to get out to the water. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat 2023)

A Gathering Place

Tommy Copp, 76, began surfing at Kuhio Beach when he was 7 or 8 years old, and has kept a surfboard there for decades. Coming to the beach there was not just a hobby for him, but “a way of life,” in what he called a “gathering place” for people who shared a common love of surfing. The disappearance of the surf racks has had a bad effect on him, he said.

“It’s my spiritual, emotional, psychological well-being,” he said. “It’s a loss of a sense of place.”

Linda Kea, another long-time surfer who also stored her boards there, said that older people needed the surf racks there because boards are too heavy to carry from distant parking lots over by the Honolulu Zoo or Kapiolani Park.

“It’s exhausting,” said Kea, who has been surfing the Queens and Canoes surf spots for more than 30 years.

She said that when the rented racks were there, people could unlock their boards and walk 200 feet to the shore and paddle out on their own.

Kea said she and others have questioned why the city decided to tear the surf racks down entirely, and why they couldn’t protect them when they were located adjacent to the police station.

“They ripped the racks out and put them in a metal shredder,” she said.

In an interview, Pupillo said the fire was too hot and the racks were too badly damaged to salvage.

Nathan Serota, a spokesman for the city Department of Parks and Recreation, said it will cost the city $184,400 to repair the pavers that were damaged by the arson. That work will take place within the month, he said.

A firefighter on scene at a fire in Waikiki that destroyed a surf rack and hundreds of boards in October, 2021. (Hawaii News Now)

Copp said he was shocked when he realized the city intended to dispose of the racks instead of replacing them.

“They notified us on a Friday and they were doing it on a Monday,” Copp said.

“There was no conversation about any other solutions, period,” Kea said.

The city concession charged $300 a year for Honolulu residents, according to Kea and Copp, or $40 a month for non-residents. A nearby private surfboard rack operator, located between the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort and the Cheesecake Factory restaurant, by contrast, charges $460 a year, according to the company website.

Kea said it doesn’t seem fair that local surfers were doubly victimized — first by the arsonist and then by city officials who have been slow come up with an alternative. She said the situation reflects the continuing breakdown of law enforcement in Honolulu and Waikiki’s deterioration.

“Before, there weren’t so many homeless and now there are so few police officers, and that is what has contributed to this,” she said, gesturing to the construction tarp that covers the site that once held the surf rack, shaking her head sadly.

That view is shared by Ferdinand.

“The whole community is changing. They don’t care about anything and they live by their own rules,” he said.

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