Teaching Hang Ten

This pro surfer takes tourists from turf to surf

By: Anne Z. Cooke

And that wasn’t the only surprise. Hans Hedemann stocky, five foot eleven and relentlessly energetic turned out to be 44, about 20 years older than his brochure photo. The man is a legend in Hawaii: a surfer’s guru and a professional with a wall full of awards. A second generation islander, Hedemann began surfing when he was 7 years old. By the time he was 18, he was ranked among the world’s top 10 surfers. The next year he went pro, competing on surfing’s World Tour for the next 17 years.

“Then what?” I asked.

“Most top surfers move to California and start businesses making boards or clothes,” he said. “But I wanted to stay in Hawaii.”

Over the years, Hedemann developed an approach that separates surfing’s basic moves into steps that are simple to practice and easy to remember. His instructors teach the same concepts with minor variations.

“To begin with, you need the right location,” he explained as we parked near Malaekahana. “You’re not going to learn tennis in a parking lot, and you won’t learn to surf at the wrong beach.”

Look for a beach with long regular waves, three to six feet high, he said, which will allow beginners time to get the feel of the board and to make mistakes and recover. Equally important, however, is the board.

“I like an 11- or 12-foot soft-top board,” Hedemann said. “They’re easier on your knees and ankles and lighter to carry. They’re more stable. They’re more fun, too, because they catch the wave earlier and ride longer.”

As for a short board, Hedemann said there’s no need unless you’re a hot-dogger riding the big 20- and 30-footers, where a seven- or eight-foot board is more maneuverable.

Before we got our feet wet, Hedemann had us set our boards on the sand and demonstrated the moves. First, you lie in the lower center of the board, grip the sides and rise up on your elbows. Next, push up with straight arms and look ahead to duck oncoming waves. Then in one smooth move, pull your legs up into a kneeling position. Last, stand up, move your feet apart, bend your knees in a crouch and hold out both arms for balance. The trick is remembering the steps once in the water.

“And look forward,” Hedemann said. “Never look down.”

The toughest part was catching a wave. For that, we had Hedemann and his cohort Toonz, who towed us out into deep water (paddling is harder than it looks), turned us around, pushed us into waves and followed us back to shore. Let me tell you, in two hours you can get a lot of practice.

We all took to the water differently. Six-year-old Dillon, who surfed tandem with an instructor, wouldn’t quit: Wave after wave he climbed to his feet for a short ride, plunged into the water, came up spluttering and ready for more. While 42-year-old Paul forgot to bend his knees, he still managed to stay up the longest.

For me, just being there, watching the ocean roll to the shore, jumping in the waves and feeling the warm Hawaiian sun was half the fun. But only half: I’m looking forward to surfing again next time.


Hans Hedemann Surf School offers lessons at major beaches around Oahu. The company employs 40 instructors during high season. One-hour lessons cost $50 per person; two hours are $75. To surf with Hedemann, reservations are required; a two-hour lesson will run clients $400. Lessons include surfing lore and maybe a stop for a plate lunch (everyone goes Dutch).