As Bonga Perkins will attest, the term ‘waterman’ has become overused. But Perkins defines this culture. The former World Champion longboarder works for the Hawaiian Water Patrol and has been in the water his entire life paddling outriggers, surfing and standup paddling before the sport became popular. For the past two years he’s competed in the Sunset Pro, finishing fifth, and had no intent on entering the event this year. But after a last-minute wild card and a crazy Finals heat, Bonga landed himself at the top of the podium for the Standup World Tour‘s first stop of 2012 and one of its most prestigious events. – Shari Coble
SM: Tell us about your transition from longboarding to SUP.
BP: A lot of people get it wrong- it wasn’t actually a transition. I standup paddled before the whole SUP craze. I grew up in Waikiki watching the Ah Choy brothers (beach boys) standup on their tandem boards to take pictures of tourists with their non-waterproof cameras. When I was 12 or 13 I was already longboarding and they’d ask me if I wanted to make some money taking pictures for them. The [tandem] boards weighed more than I did and we used oars as paddles. I’d make $30 in about an hour taking pictures for them and was stoked because that was a lot of money for a kid.
When the SUP craze happened, I was used to surfing 9’ longboards, so I already had the advantage. SUP took shape and I ran with it. I wasn’t being cocky, but I already knew I could do it. I had a head start- I was used to it and it was easy for me.
SM: How does it feel to win the first stop of the 2012 Tour?
BP: I’m absolutely stoked. I didn’t even plan on competing. I was working on Hawaiian Water Patrol; didn’t fill out an entry form, just went to work. Tristan Boxford asked if I wanted to enter as a wild card so I borrowed a paddle and board. Somehow I came away with it. I can’t explain it and didn’t expect it. I just had the ‘let’s do it’ attitude. Everyone who showed up had a couple boards and paddles and they came here [to Oahu] for this event- I could really feel the intensity of everyone else. But for me, I just borrowed a board and paddle and was having fun. I think I showed that in my surfing.
SM: Tell us what happened in the Finals when you lost your paddle.
BP: It’s actually a funny story. Ikaika Kalama’s leash broke and he lost his board and paddle. When he came up he just knew he’d lost it, but I’d lost mine too. So he grabbed mine and didn’t know- he just knew it felt a little funny. When I couldn’t find my paddle, I was just thinking, ‘Okay, great. No paddle, no score.’ I wasted a lot of energy paddling all the way in and was hoping the boys [on skis] saw me because they could assist. They got me a paddle and I was pretty beat already- they were the biggest waves I’d surfed [on standup] since last year and I felt out of shape after the first couple heats. I took a couple waves on the head and ribs, but was thinking, ‘I’ve already made it this far,’ so I tried to have fun and persevered.
SM: So, how’d you end up pulling it out?
BP: I knew I needed one wave in the last minute of the heat. A couple waves came by and I waited because I was just hoping for another. I completely chanced it and caught the last wave [of the set] and thought, maybe I’d have a chance to place in the top. If the heat had 5 more minutes in it, I would’ve maybe not made it, but low and behold…
SM: Do you have plans to continue on the tour?
BP: This win changes everything. If I get some backing to travel I might do a couple more stops, maybe Tahiti, but I don’t like planning. I just have so much fun with SUP- it’s not about the events for me- I like the adventure; fishing, throwing a backpack on and paddling to a spot to camp. The whole Tour is awesome and I just want to keep it fun. I’m not counting myself out, but I have the ‘just do it’ outlook. I’m more ‘show up and blow up.’
SM: How has your background as a waterman helped with SUP?
BP: Paddling outrigger- 1-man and 6-man- and longboarding all carried over. That’s why they call me a waterman. It took me 37 years to do this and I think you need to earn the title just like the way aloha is played out. Archie [Kalepa] and Dave [Kalama] rightfully earned the titles and it’s like a lifetime achievement. Being called a waterman is something that should be earned and reserved for the elders.