Surf legends series: Meet Myrtle Beach’s Kelly Rhode

CenterMentor, surfer, inspiration, father figure, champion. Myrtle Beach surfer Kelly Rhode is celebrating 50 years of the Aloha Spirit. His legacy stretches from the beaches of the Grand Strand to the sands of the Hawaiian Islands.

The child of an Air Force father, a military transfer would place him in Honolulu in 1964 at the age of 14, a freshman in high school. “When I first started surfing, all we had were longboards, longboards and no leashes,” said Rhode. “Those boards weighed about 30 pounds, and at the time, we were mostly riding pop-out boards,” (mass produced boards that were laminated, not hand shaped). “They were kind of un-cool, but they were great to learn to surf on.

“I started out surfing at a place called Barbers Point, which is now called White Plains Beach and it was a real mellow break, but the waves didn’t get any bigger than 4-5 feet. It was on a military base, so we didn’t have to be concerned with a lot of localism there.  As I got a little better, I would journey out and surf places like Kaiser Bowl, and Waikiki and Diamond Head. When I was 16, I ventured out to the bigger waves at Sunset Beach, Chuns reef, and out to Makaha and surfed there a little bit. But, Makaha was kind of a dangerous place with the localism, so I kind of hung out on the shoulders, minding my own business and always going by myself, so that I didn’t draw any attention.”

Those days of hanging out on the shoulder of the wave and avoiding conflict wouldn’t last long. Rhode would soon find himself battling nearly the entire community, while standing on the beach, naked.

The Encyclopedia of Surfing describes Makaha Beach as a “history-rich surf break located on the arid west side of Oahu, 30 miles northwest of Honolulu; often described as the birthplace of big-wave surfing; Makaha’s close-knit surf community is often praised for upholding Hawaiian traditions. The economically depressed area is also noted for its violence and crime, and outsiders are generally made to feel unwelcome (localism). “You want to come to Makaha?” local surfer Melvin Puu told Surfing in 1991, addressing the magazine’s readership, “Don’t.” Rusty Keaulana, Makaha local and three-time longboard world champion, for a time sported a bumper sticker on his car that read “Welcome to Makaha—Now Go Home!”yokohama smaller image

Brian Keaulana, son of Buffalo Keaulana, is a well known surfer and legendary waterman. He was raised on the shore of Makaha, and is one of the most respected surfers in the world, “We came from royalty. People look at Hawaii and forget that Hawaii was overtaken. We love America and consider ourselves to be American, but we don’t forget about the past, that’s where the bitterness comes from.”

Being white and paddling out at Makaha often meant trouble in late 60’s, and Rhode saw his fair share.

“Probably more than 10 times I had serious incidents, just because I was white,” said Rhode from his home in Myrtle Beach. “Probably, the most memorable one was when I was a young guy around 20 years old. I went to surf Makaha with two Hawaiian guys. As soon as I paddled out into the water, the locals started to yell at me and splash water at me. So, I came in to the beach and sat in my friend’s truck.

“About a half hour later, my two friends came in and said, ‘How come you got out of the water? We’ve never seen you back down from anything, we’ll back you up if you want to go out there and handle it.’

“So, I paddled back out and I punched out this well known surfer guy who was rated number two in Hawaii-  I won’t mention his name. He was the guy who was splashing water and shooting his surfboard at me every time I took off on a wave. So, I punched him out in the water and I got mobbed immediately. They ripped off my bathing suit in the water, and I had to swim into the shore underwater. Every time I came up for air I would get punched by four or five guys. By the time I got to the beach, of course I was naked, and there were about 14-15 locals waiting for me. They wouldn’t let me get to the car. They made me wait for the guy that I punched out, so that he could come in. And, meanwhile I had to fight about 12-15 guys at the same time, getting thrashed.

“When the guy came in, it looked like I was beat up enough for him to finish the job. But when they let me up off the ground, I took him out. It happened three more times. I kept getting up off the ground and taking the guy out. And, I finally fought my way back to the truck and put on a pair of jeans so I wasn’t naked anymore.

“I had been fighting for 15 minutes naked on the beach. So, I put on the pair of jeans and continued to keep fighting and my friends couldn’t jump in and help me because it was way too dangerous. We were afraid that I might get killed. I told my friends to back off and call the cops, but don’t jump in.

“Finally, things calmed down enough for me to go up to the showers, and wash off all the blood. While I was showering, the guys that I was fighting with, their sisters and aunties were coming up taking punches at me while I was showering. So, I was actually fighting nearly everyone on the beach, and only because I was a white guy. And that’s a typical scenario at Makaha Beach.”Kelly With Sunny

2000 World Tour Surfing Champion and six time winner of the Triple Crown of Surfing, Sunny Garcia grew up on the beaches of Makaha. Speaking from the North Shore, while preparing for his heat in the Volcom Pipe Pro contest, he talked about the area. “Being white here in Hawaii, you either cut tail and run, or you fought. As nice as Kelly was, he’s able to take care of himself. He’s one badass Marine. The one thing he always taught me as a kid, he’s very proud of being a Marine, and that you don’t mess with Marines.”

Garcia came from a broken family, “My dad left when I was super young. I was poor, and my mom always worked. Kelly would just go out of his way to come down to the West Side to take me surfing, feed me, and do the things that fathers would do. I wouldn’t be half the man I am without Kelly Rhode.”

It was Rhode’s passion for surfing that eventually led to his acceptance into the Makaha community. “He was a big kid that loved to surf, and share that with everyone,” said Garcia. “He might be a little crazier in his younger days, but he was a super nice guy that could take care of himself in any situation. You couldn’t find anyone to say anything bad about him.”

Legendary surfer and board shaper Ben Aipa beams with joy when talking about Rhode. Speaking from his shaping room in Honolulu, “Kelly was the only white guy that was Hawaiian. He blended in with the Hawaiians, without trying to make his presence known. I really liked him as a really good friend. He had a personality that guys liked. Especially Buffalo (Keaulana), he really liked Kelly as a friend. Buffalo is like the mayor of Makaha and he really liked Kelly. Kelly set his own tone by being himself.

“He could be my haole brother. I don’t have any brothers, but for all the years I’ve been doing this, I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone that I thought I would like to have as a brother, but Kelly is like my brother. This guy could be my brother, because of how he is. He was always helping kids and helping people,” said Aipa.

John Shimooka, who spent more than a decade as a professional surfer on the World Tour, credits Rhode for sharing the diversity of waves with him. “Kelly Rhode, he’s been a massive part of our journey. This man that wanted to go surfing, helped so many in our ‘ohana (community or family). He helped so many by just giving them a lift to the surf. For me, Kelly was someone that helped develop my surfing career by way of support. It’s that way in Hawaii, everyone wants to catch a ride to go surfing. I was young and I wanted to go surfing, as did Sunny, and Kelly would give us a lift to the different breaks. Our love for surfing brought us together.

“Kelly took us away from the norm. We all wanted to surf Pipeline, and we would, and he would also take us to other breaks, but at the end of the day we ended up at Barbers Point. That’s how we were able to become so diverse. When we went on the World Tour, we’d have to surf sloppy little waves at places like Huntington Beach, and Sunny and I were able to do well because Kelly made sure to take us to all these different places that weren’t always great.

“Kelly was a massive part of building that foundation for us. I never got to thank him, but maybe this is one way to say thank you for helping me to be successful in the early days of my career.”

Even a generous spirit sometimes finds it rough on the fiercely protected island of Oahu and Rhode would spend a year in turmoil that would eventually force his hand.

“I was there for three or four years when two brothers, Mike and Jim Lolly, stole one of my surfboards that I made,” said Rhode. “I was so broke that I made my own boards. They cost about $35 to make back then.

“I found out a few months later that they were the ones that stole my board. They were world famous surfers at the time and they made surfboards too. So, I’m thinking to myself, why are these guys stealing my board?  I caught them at Chuns reef, and I basically told them that I was going to be here next week at the same time, and you guys are either going to give me a brand new surfboard, or you’re going to give me $35 so that I can make my own board. And, if you don’t do it, every time I see you guys, I’m going to punch you out.

“They didn’t show. So, I punched them out at Waikiki. I found them at another place called Threes, I punched them out there. Caught them another time at a Salt Lake housing division, and punched them out there. In between the times I punched them out, once or twice they both had machetes, and were chasing me down the street with the machetes.

“It probably would have been smart to get the police involved the first time, but I wasn’t that smart. It escalated so bad that after about a year, I went to see the police chief.  He basically told me that I had better leave the Hawaiian Islands for a few years. These guys are screwing up, we know who they are, but you’re going to be the first guy that we come to if anything happens to them.  So, I moved to Myrtle Beach, SC.  I had never been here before. My Mom and Dad retired here and I asked if I could come live here for awhile and go to Coastal Carolina College. This was in 1975.”

Up to this point, Rhode knew that he enjoyed surfing, and loved to be in the water.  But, “I was kind of like a soul surfer, and had no idea I could compete,” said Rhode.LRQUEN

“Coastal Carolina had a surfing team at the time, and I was on that team with Wade Smith and Mark McDandel.  The reason I joined was because I didn’t know where to surf, and I didn’t have transportation. We entered the American Surfing Association, East Coast Surfing Championships. I had a surfboard that I made that people used to make fun of me about, but with that piece of junk surfboard that I made, I came in second place behind Wade Smith. As soon as I got out of the water, I started having sponsors come up to me asking me to ride on their team and giving me free surfboards. That started my competition. A year later, I joined the Marine Corps and ended up back on the Hawaiian Islands, and that’s when my competition really escalated.”

While in Hawaii serving in the Corps, Rhodes would enter the Hawaiian All Service Surf Contest, a contest that was open to all military surfers. He would win that title five times. The winners from the East Coast, Hawaii, and West Coast would gather at Camp Pendleton in California and compete to crown the National Champion. Rhode would compete in the National event 10 times, five times representing the Hawaiian Champion and five times as the East Coast Champion. He would win the contest outright five of those times, being named the National All Service Overall Surfing Champion in 1979, ’80, ’81, ‘87 and ‘89.

Back in Hawaii, Rhode was able to once again surf his favorite break in the world, Makaha Beach. He would also finally begin receiving the respect that he had earned on the beach, and in the water.

“Kelly was one of the very few white people that were accepted on the west side of Oahu, he was accepted and loved by the Keaulana family. To break into that ‘ohana, or community, was no easy feat. Being passionate about surfing, he was very persistent. His love for surfing is what the people of Makaha saw and Kelly wasn’t going to back down from that,” said Shimooka.

“I kept coming back all these years, minding my own business,” said Rhode. “They left me alone, because they knew I could fight. They just ignored me. Years later, they asked me to be Vice President of the Makaha Surf Team, and I couldn’t believe it.

“I had to go to a place in Makaha at 8:30 at night to get voted in. It had to be unanimous. As soon as I opened the door and walked into the place, I was with a guy named Brian Keaulana, who is a world famous Hawaiian surfer, he is Buffalo Keaulana’s son. So, just walking in with him brought a lot of legitimacy.

“He told me to step outside and they voted me in. It was a unanimous vote. And even the guy I fought on the beach was in the group. He and I later became best friends. So, that’s how I got on the Makaha Surf Team.

“In my opinion, that’s the best surfing team ever in the history of surfing.  We had four world champions at the time, Rell Sunn, Rusty Keaulana, Buffalo Keaulana, Sunny Garcia, and myself.  Just getting on the team was unbelievable for me.”

“It’s different now,” said Brian Keaulana. “Back then, going to a contest was a big deal. There were only about 4 contests per year on the island. So, when you went, you represented yourself and your team. Now, there is a contest every weekend. But, back then the team was important.

“Makaha really took care of the kids who were great surfers, but they needed leadership. Kelly, being a Marine, showed them structure. He supported the kids and provided the outsiders view. He would come over and counsel the kids on things like school and how important it was,” said Keaulana.

The haole was finally accepted into the Makaha community, as a brother. “Hawaii is accepting,” Keaulana continued. “The acceptance, it’s not about where you are from and what color you are. It’s more about showing the respect for the families and environment. A lot of people come here to take. When Kelly came, it was not to take, it was his honesty in giving back to the community. Kelly has really established himself as one of the family from this side. He adopted, or mentored so many of the kids. Kids are the foundation here.”

Rhode’s love for the ocean and Hawaiian culture wouldn’t go unnoticed, and a beach encounter in 1980 would connect him with an opportunity and friendship that would last a lifetime.kraip

“One time I was surfing on the North Shore and Ben Aipa was judging a contest,” said Rhode. “When I came out of the water he told me ‘Hey haole boy, you surf good. You like surf on my team?’ I looked all around, and there was nobody around me, so I said ‘Are you talking to me?’ He (Aipa) goes, ‘Yeah’. I said, ‘Aren’t I kinda the wrong color to be surfing for you, the best shaper in the world, the famous Hawaiian.’ He said, ‘No, I’ve been watching you for quite awhile. You are white on the outside, but you are Hawaiian on the inside.’ I was his team rider for 10 years after that.”

Aipa remembers it about the same way, “I used to go to military contests, and for being a haole, he was good. So, I just asked him ‘You wanna ride my boards?’ That’s how it came to be.”

“Then Ben started shaping for Town and Country,” said Rhode, “which at the time was the largest corporation in the world for surfing. So, I surfed on the best surfing team in the world, Makaha Surf Team. I surfed for the best shaper, Ben Aipa. And, I rode for Town and Country, the biggest and best in the industry. That was a period from about 1980-1990.”

Still in the Marines, Rhode was re-assigned to Camp Lejeune in eastern North Carolina in 1985.

“When I first moved to Camp Lejeune in 1985, I entered the Bud Pro Series Contest at Topsail, at Paradise Pier.  I entered the pro series and won the whole contest. I had just moved here, and no one knew who I was, but I won it all. I started off on the right foot here, by winning that contest.”

Rhode would cross paths with world famous surf artist and big wave surfer Drew Brophy during this period. Brophy grew up in Myrtle Beach, but traveled often and found the Aloha spirit in Rhode. “The neat thing about Kelly is that Hawaiian spirit. When you think of the surf community, that Aloha that those Hawaiians have, they would give you anything and share anything with you. It’s unique in surfing. Kelly gave that to us,” said Brophy from his studio in San Clemente, California.

“To me, he represents the fun in surfing, the original spirit of surfing, the gathering at the beach and sharing of waves. Anytime you see someone having a good time, you want to be a part of it. Kelly wanted to share the gift of surfing with as many people as he could, and that camaraderie.”

It’s that same sense of stoke, respect, and importance of community that Rhode learned on the west side of Oahu. “Kelly was such a big part of the family,” remembers Shimooka, from those days at Makaha Beach. Speaking from his home in Australia, he continued, “Surfing with buddies is how it works, and he just wanted to go surfing.”

In 1989, Rhode was living the life. He was part of the family, he was a mentor, an inspiration, a Marine, and a surfer. He loved the water, and the community that it provided. But, then…it all stopped.

Kelly Rhode left the Marines in 1989 and took a job in Akron, Ohio working for a trucking company as a systems programmer working on IBM mainframe computers. He didn’t surf, for 20 years.kr6

Rhode was given two weeks’ vacation every year. He took one week with his family and one week, every year, he traveled to Myrtle Beach to serve as the beach commentator for the Native Sons Surf and Spike contest held off and on from 1987-2009.

“He was great on the mic,” said Steve Taylor, owner of Native Sons Screen Print & Embroidery.  “He knows everyone, and knows the lingo, and has a great personality. He brought a lot of flavor and legitimacy to the event. Kelly was as much a part of the Surf and Spike as the event itself.”

During his 20 year hiatus from surfing, Rhode also worked as model, “I was usually the father of the bride, due to my white hair.”

Kelly Rhode retired in 2009 from Roadway Trucking Company. He and his wife Darlene moved back to Myrtle Beach, and the stoke is back. He’s spent the last few years training and surfing as much as possible. He’s also teaching people to surf and ride a stand up paddle board through classes offered by Surf City Surf Shop.

The regular foot surfer is back to spreading Aloha, and mentoring surfers. He founded the 42nd Ave North Surf Club, and the Dunes Club Surf Team. He’s active in the Cherry Grove Pier Surf Club, and recently appeared in and narrated a local surf film, “The darkness of light”, with that club. He’s helping out a bit with the local chapters of the Eastern Surfing Association, and the Atlantic Surfing Federation.

Kelly2True to form, Rhode is once again mentoring local surfers in the area as well. He’s currently focused on developing  Myrtle Beach’s Liz Hicks, 11 year old Bree Labiak, and 17 year old Allie Sarvis.

His plan is to surf in some ESA events this season, in his age group. He chose the ESA because of the option to ride a longboard in his division. He currently rides a 9’6 Team Aipa longboard. “I thought I was going to stop surfing at 62, but as each year goes on, I get better and better and more agile. But, that will eventually change. I figure I’ll go till I’m 70 years old,” said Rhode.

He’s also heading back to the Hawaiian Islands this May to speak at the University of Hawaii in a series called “Talking Stories”. While there, he’s put together a reunion of the Makaha Surf Team.

“I couldn’t think of a better ambassador for the sport of surfing,” said Taylor. “No matter where he is, he’s an ambassador. He doesn’t judge people, whether they are good surfers or not. He just encourages them.”

Mentor, surfer, inspiration, Marine, father figure, champion, ambassador……LEGEND. This is Kelly Rhode.

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