HONOLULU -- It's been almost 20 years since Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Farrelly has seen something this beautiful. He looked out at the swells as they rose and broke against the shores of Sandy Beach Park, the waves reaching more than 10 feet in height. The crashing sound of the surf echoed across the beach and drowned out the sound of the spectators who had gathered to watch. He smiled and said aloud, "Today is a good day to surf."
The surfing that Farrelly, noncommissioned-officer-in-charge of plans, 8th Special Troops Battalion, 8th Theater Sustainment Command, was talking about is not what comes to mind when someone mentions surfing and Hawaii in the same sentence. Because, when Farrelly goes surfing, he doesn't need a board.
Farrelly is a body surfer, or a kaha nalu, as they say in the Hawaiian language, and was competing in the 2012 Sandy Beach Kaha Nalu Championships, a competition that has existed for more than 35 years.
During body surfing, the swimmer goes out for position and, watching for his opportunity, strikes out with his hands and feet to obtain headway as the approaching comber with its breaking crest catches him. Then, with rapid swimming, he pushes himself onward with swift momentum with his body submerged in the foam and only the head and shoulders only being seen. Experts could ride on the top of the surf, as if riding with a board.
This day, Farrelly is tackling the surf at Sandy Beach Park, one of Hawaii's premier beaches for bodysurfing with a consistent and tantalizing beach break. Experienced body surfers who surf these waves make it look so easy and harmless that many tourists feel compelled to try as well, but this location is for experienced surfers only. The announcers for the competition said it best: "It's neck-breaking and life-taking. When in doubt, don't go out. Stay high and stay dry."
More than 120 male and female competitors were divided into age categories and then 6-person heats. The top two from each heat moved onto the next round. "We do this because we love to body surf," said Steve Kapela, one of the founding members of Hawaii State Body Surfing Association, the event's sponsor. "Many people don't realize how in tune with the water you get. It's just you and the water out there, no boards or equipment. Anyone can do it. You just need a pair of fins and shorts, and shorts are optional!" And, no one seems to love the sport more than Farrelly, who has been practicing since before he could remember and competing since he was 7.
"I grew up on the west side of the island and my dad used to take us to the beach a lot," he remembered. "I just kind of just grew into the sport of body surfing." Farrelly hasn't always had the ocean out his back door. During his time with the Army, he has spent time in Kansas, Missouri, Germany and other landlocked bases, none of which are particularly known for their surfing.
"The only time I would get near the ocean is when I would visit home," he said. "So when I came home I would spend most of my time at the beach, because I knew I would have to leave for the mainland. All they had there were rivers." But now, after 20 years of being away, he is back and hoping to get his name back into the body surfing scene.
"The award is good, but that's not why I'm competing," he said. "I've been gone for so long that no one knows who I am anymore." By the end of the two-day competition, he turned a few heads with his fifth place finish. But getting his name back to where he left it will take longer than just a competition, he said. He plans on entering more contests and continuing to practice, but living in Hawaii makes it easy to do so because there's rarely a bad day.
"The sun is always shining here," he said, with smile. "The beach is always there and it's always free."