Fin Cuts

I mentioned in my last blog entry that in between some massive amounts of travel in October and November, I squeezed in a trip to Kaua'i. I caught the last south swell of the season, too, in a spot that is considerably more difficult and scary to surf than the comfy old Waikīkī rollers I am used to on O'ahu. The first day I paddled out, looked at how shallow the surf break was, how "pitchy" the wave was, the double overhead faces and paddled right back in. Some days, you just can't do it.


People seldom get really hurt surfing, but that doesn't mean that most surfers haven't left blood on the reef from time to time. The favorite topic of discussion among members of the surf tribe next to "biggest and longest waves I have caught" is showing off battle scars, if they are in G-rated locations. Most of my friends have some dings in their boards and more than a few in their skin. In fact, you sort of expect to leave some blood on the reef as a rite of passage.


It isn't always underwater obstacles that cause damage, either, like landing on the reef if you wipeout, or on a nice vana (sea urchin).  My one more-than-just-a-bandaid surfing injury was my own fault. I was just learning to surf, and I walked my board into the water at La Jolla Shores, a SoCal beginner spot. A decent sized wave swept in, flipped my board and pushed it into me. I thought nothing about it until I got out of the water an hour later, peeled off my wetsuit, noticed there was a neat-edged hole in it, after which I noticed there was a neat-edged hole in me. The fins on my own surfboard had sliced through 3 mm of neoprene and into my hip. The cold water had numbed it just enough that I hadn't felt anything until I got out and started to thaw.


I took myself to the Pacific Beach "Doc-in-the-Box," where a moonlighting Navy MD took about 6 stitches in my hip and told me to stay out of the water for a week. (Who was he kidding? There was a swell running, so I put Neosporin and duct tape over the wound and went surfing again the next morning.) My suit took about 6 stiches, too, and some tape over the back, courtesy of Mitch's Surf Shop. Both of us were good as new.


That wasn't the first or last fin cut I received, to the point where I decided that as much as I loved (and still love) my favorite board's knife-y rails and knife-y fins, I could rip with less danger if I filed the fins down. A few years ago, I finally got a piece of sandpaper and literally filed the sharpness off all the fins on my favorite board, the one that cut me so many times. I still have a great board but have fewer shiny scars on my hands and feet: all the carving on the wave, less carving of me. I've got five boards and every one of them with knife-y fins eventually got the sandpaper treatment. 


If you surf, it isn't just self-inflicted wounds you worry about; it's wounding other people. One of the challenges in surfing sometimes is getting through the waves on the way out to the lineup. The inviolate rule is that you cannot "ditch your board" when an incoming set sweeps in and you are trying to paddle through it. The board you let go -- even if there is a leash attached -- becomes a fast-moving projectile that can hit someone paddling out behind you.  Personally, I keep a death grip on my board and never ditch it.  It's a point of honor for me.


The most gruesome surf injury I ever saw was one where the point of person A's short board went through person B's cheek. It was more than 6 stitches to make person B good as new, and it could have been avoided for the plastic equivalent of an extra large latte with 2 shots. (There's a five dollar piece of plastic you can buy at surf shops called a nose guard: you slip it over the sharp point of the "nose" of your board, to avoid injury to you or someone else.)


As with surfing, most of us, if we live long enough, carry a few scars from self-inflicted or self-contributory wounds -- or someone else's sharp points. If they are big enough and you get cut often enough, you tend to think about what you can do to avoid future pain. (I would have said "mitigate risk" except that's not what I meant. I want to avoid another scar on my feet, hands, or other body parts, particularly ones from my own board.)


I filed my fins down to avoid hurting myself again, but also to avoid hurting others. Many of us have experienced fin cuts in our professional lives. Sometimes it is in what we do, but more often, since we are a communications-oriented world, it's in what we say. Verbal fin cuts can sometimes hurt you or your cause because the edginess of what you say is just too sharp.


There's an additional incentive to "file your fins down" in the Internet age, and that is the unforgiveness of the Internet as a repository. All you have to do now-a-days, is say one dumb -- er, slightly less than spot-on thing -- or slightly (and unnecessarily) hurtful thing, and it lives forever. You might have gotten past it, but believe me, only God has a longer memory of sins than the Internet does. It's as if you ditch your board, and it continues to sweep through the lineup to cut and slash the unwary.


I suppose the good thing about Internet Memory is that seriously deranged behavior is not repeatable because everyone dredges up the deranged one's last deranged rant. The downside is that nobody ever gets a chance to learn from his or her mistakes, because everyone else is dragging them out of the metaphorical trash bin onto the Internet desktop. No cut heals if it's picked at, and unfortunately, the tendency of the Internet to be the all-knowing, all-seeing, never-forgiving repository almost guarantees that some fin cuts will never heal. (I am as guilty of this as the next person. I might have a perfectly reasonable exchange with someone, then "remember" (or be made to remember) that that person said I was a Satan-worshipper in his blog and that sets me off again.) There are no do-overs on the Internet and the innate remoteness of people means you can insult, hurt -- yes, "cut" -- without ever having to face the person you are dissing. I think a good rule of responsible behavior is not to say something publicly that you would not say to someone's face. All of us have said things that hurt us, or hurt someone else, and that we wish we could take back.


In an age where one's miscues can be captured, posted and/or forwarded, it's hard to drown the past. Our mistakes or misstatements keep drifting in from time to time, like those sneakers that got washed overboard a container ship a few years ago. You think they are lost in a vast sea of information, but your mistakes keep coming back, sort of like smelly, waterlogged sneakers creeping into our inbox.


In Hawaiian: the word for "sin" and "mistake" is the same: hewa.  Just as the word in Hebrew we translate as "sin" -- chatah -- is really a term that means "to miss the mark." It means, among other things, falling short of the best you can do. I always think the most important part of the Lord's Prayer is "forgive us our (sins, trespasses) as we forgive those who (sin, trespass) against us." This is sometimes translated "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."


The bottom line is that there isn't one of us who hasn't goofed up and needed someone else to say: "I forgive you." Hawaiian has a perfectly lovely word -- "ho'oponopono" -- which is formed from "ho'o," which is causative, and "pono," which means good, right, correct. Reduplication (ponopono) makes it more emphatic. Ho'oponopono means, strongly, "to make things right." In a family ('ohana), if there is conflict, the entire family participates in ho'oponopono, which means that all admit that they have contributed to the conflict and all say they are sorry.  Making things right is more important than affixing blame. I think some of the exchanges in blogs, chat rooms, and "he said/she saids" need a big, fat dose of ho'oponopono. We'd all be better served and there might even be a return of civility.


I talked about blood on the reef, and that is the other danger in surfing: the underwater obstacles you can get impaled upon. Coral is particularly nasty stuff, because as much fun as it is to snorkel over it, coral cuts are notoriously lengthy in healing and usually you get a nice purple scar no matter how small the cut was. The place I surfed on Kaua'i was a very shallow break (where "very shallow" means my feet were touching the reef at low tide), right next to a nice big patch of lava rock that created a boil (a "boil" is a place where you see a ring after the wave has passed through, because there is an underwater obstruction. Boils are generally funky parts of the reef and generally, I avoid them because they make waves unpredictable).


In fact, it was the boil at this break -- "Left Lefts" -- that made the wave break: incoming swells would hit the lava, "pop up" and wrap around the rocks. This particular wave only broke left; if you wanted to go right, there were only rocks and no wave. Nui ka maka 'u (really scary).


If you want to catch the wave at Left Lefts, you need to sit aside the boil, no more than 2 feet from it, and be prepared for a wave to "pitch and throw." It took me the entire week to work up enough nerve to sit by the boil, a week where I either missed waves, or didn't catch the best part of them. Sitting next to the "lava rock graveyard" and gritting it out was the only way. As my best surf buddy, who went to Kaua'i with me said, "You took your surfing to the next level." I was forced to.


The same obstacle that can really, really hurt you, fearfully so, is what makes the wave break. You just need to know where to sit, and be prepared to thread the needle between disaster and delirious joy. The corollary to fin cuts is that it is obstacles that make a wave break, and on some days in some spots, you need to be just that close to the obstacle --  all but on top of it, or there is no wave. Too far over, and you get cut; in the sweet spot, you catch the wave.


I brought back some nice memories and gifts from Hawai'i but the one that I think is the most valuable is about $5 worth of plastic. About the price of a nose guard, come to think on it, but even more useful. It is a sticker that says "Live Aloha" and I have yet to put it on my car. I just like looking at it every morning, sitting on the corner of my desk. "Live Aloha" is a reminder to avoid fin cuts, by making sure I don't -- if it is possible --hurt others needlessly. It means instead of being snappy with someone because I am having a lousy day, to try humor, or kindness (and what a surprise, the world responds to it). Maybe it means the next time someone says something unkind, I cut the guy a break and think maybe he was having a bad day (but he only gets one "get out of jail free" card -- I am not going soft!). I have found that trying to Live Aloha is hard, but boy, the benefits are immense. Less stress. Less ugliness. Give it to get it. You sit next to the obstacle that can hurt you, and cut you and ding you, which is pretty much the thing we call life, but when you Live Aloha, you don't see the obstacle with its sharpness, all you see -- and feel -- is the wave. Try it. Live Aloha.


E ko mākou Makua i loko o ka lani
E hōano ‘ia kou inoa
E hiki mai kou aupuni
E mālama ‘ia kou makemake ma ka honua nei,
E like me ia i mālama ‘ia ma ka lani lā
E hā‘awi mai iā mākou i kēia lā
i ‘ai mākou no nēia lā
E kala mai ho‘i iā mākou i kā mākou lawehala ‘ana,
me mākou e kala nei i ka po‘e i lawehala i kā mākou
Mai ho‘oku‘u ‘oe iā mākou i ka ho‘owalewale ‘ia mai
E ho‘opakele nō na‘e iā mākou i ka ‘ino
No ka mea, nou ke aupuni
A me ka mana
A me ka ho‘onani ‘ia a mau loa aku


(If you want to know what the above means, you can find (most of) it in Luke 11:2-4)


For More Information


For a really great vocal rendition of the the above, try the Brothers Cazimero Christmas CD at:


More on ho'oponopono:


Mahalo nui loa to Tim Keanini, for giving me wonderful stories about ho'oponopono. Nui ka na'auao kau.



Dear Mary Ann, Another good message. When you get enough of these done you should publish them. I'm in New Orleans to attend a Mardi Gras Ball, my niece is going to be in the court and my sister asked me to come down for the big occasion. Cheers, Drew

Posted by Drew Dodenhoff on January 26, 2007 at 08:18 AM PST #

Aloha Mary Ann, Major kudos for your wonderful "Fin Cuts" blog entry. It really appealed to me because it's an important message that's beautifully written (as a pro tech writer, I feel qualified to say that), and because I just returned last night from my first Kaua'i surfari, which was quite different from numerous previous trips to Oahu and Maui. You said so many things so well...I definitely had to overcome my fear of taking off from within a couple feet of the Left Lefts rock. I also earned some new battle scars at Hanalei Bay, fell even more in love with the islands, and--most importantly--realized that I need to work even harder to suppress my sharp tongue and pen (errr, keyboard) and "live Aloha." Oh, guess I also need to look up Luke 11:2-4. You're a truly gifted writer...please keep these blog entries coming, as I'm looking forward to reading every one of them. Mahalo, Debi

Posted by Debi lane on March 07, 2007 at 06:19 PM PST #

That was an excellent read, You really seem to know a lot about surfing. Did you grow up around the Hawaiian surf culture, or have you just studied it as an adult? I just got into surfing about a year ago so as a relative beginner I still have a bunch of questions I was hoping you or someone else reading this could answer for me. In general, what is the best kind of board to use from a sheer performance standpoint? Wood, Composite or Epoxy? I am expecting there to be a difference in price, but is there also a differnece in terms of upkeep? Is one type of board easier to maintain and care for than the others? Any ideas on the average lifespan of a board made from each material (taking regular wear and tear into account)? I've heard good and bad things about Epoxy, and that's the choice I was leaning towards, but I'm still unsure whether or not the good outweights the bad enough to justify the extra spending. Any insight that could provided would be greatly appreciated. Particularly something of a guide or article that outlines the pros and cons of each kind of board. Here is an example of the kind of article ('m talking about, except this one is more of a novice's guide to surfing in general. If possible, I'd like to find something similar to this that's geared more towards discussing the differences in the various types of boards themselves. Anyone have anything like that on hand? Thanks in advance for any help.

Posted by Sammy on May 16, 2007 at 03:23 PM PDT #

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