World Longboard Champion and Waikīkī Local Kai Sallas on Riding Waves Around O’ahu

The best breaks, gear and stays from a pro who knows this island best

Kai Sallas surfing at Diamond Head

By Keri Bridgwater

From the cross step to nose rides, style is everything when it comes to the art of longboarding. Watch world champion Kai Sallas’ nimble foot toward the front of his board to hang ten while surfing classic breaks around O’ahu — whether head-high Chun’s Reef or mellow rollers at Diamond Head — and his moves are a study of grace and power. 

Often referred to as the birthplace of modern surfing, Waikīkī is where Hawaiian royalty, including Queen Liliʻuokalani, rode waves and where Olympian and legendary waterman Duke Kahanamoku taught people to surf. It’s a special place that means everything to Sallas. A longstanding fixture in the Hawaiian longboarding scene and international pro circuit, he grew up just blocks from the beach at Waikīkī and has surfed the famous shoreline for thirty years.

Waikiki Beach with Leahi (Diamond Head) in the background
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Hawaii’s World-Famous Waikīkī Beach

“Dad was a beachboy and would take people surfing or for canoe rides at Waikīkī, and I’d walk from my house to swim and surf there. It’s a more suitable wave for a longboard, and so I learned on these big heavy rental boards,” he says. “Waikīkī is a bay; inside that, you have two breaks: Canoes and Queens. Queens is more advanced but inside of that is Baby Queens, where the kids learn. There are outer reef breaks you can get away from the crowds too. Growing up, I usually stayed in Waikīkī or paddled down to Ala Moana.” 

Today, you’ll still catch him anywhere on the south shore, “which leans toward longboarding with smaller and slower waves,” Diamond Head “when the wind is right,” and Pops (aka Populars).

A professional longboard surfer for over 20 years, Sallas won the 2018 ISA World Championship Series and placed third and second on the World Surf League (WSL) Longboard World Tour in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Next month, he’ll compete in the 2022 WSL Longboard Championships in Malibu. Despite ranking in the world’s top five for a decade, the Waikīkī native knew it would be tough to make a living from contests and used the prize money to open his namesake Pro Surf School in 2009. After the pandemic hit and demand for lessons dried up, he channeled a passion for shaping boards into the KSLCO: Kai Sallas Longboard Company

“During my career, I was fortunate to ride for one of the greatest shapers, Donald Takayama, and his label Hawaiian Pro Designs. Walking through his factory in Oceanside, California, and seeing the longboards being made and standing in the racks there, I just always knew I wanted to do that for myself someday,” he says. “I learned a lot talking to Don about the magic that goes into shaping, what makes a board do the things you want it to do on a wave and in a competition. So now I’m applying the knowledge he shared in my own way and to my designs.”

Kai Sallas x Kai Sallas Longboard Co
Kai Sallas

Kai Sallas Longboard Company 

Located inside the Kaimana Beach Hotel, Sallas’ store showcases his collection of boards made using Thunderbolt Technology that engineers advanced epoxy materials making them lighter, perform better and last longer. Each model is available in three lengths and named after the break that inspires its design. The Waikiki Queens is influenced by O’ahu local and pro surfer Kelis Kaleopaa, while the Mango Jam is for anyone looking to “go fast and make sharp turns.”

“The Mango is a more sporty, maneuverable ride for various waves. I used to surf Pipeline, which could be double or triple overhead barrels. When I started, that was the Hawaiian style of longboarding, and for many years I’d drive up to the North Shore and surf Pipeline or Sunset on my 9-foot performance longboard. Nowadays, it’s a bit more relaxed, and I’m more of a single fin nose rider.” Made with a “slow-rolling Waikiki-style wave” in mind, Sallas’ single fin set up is all about “smooth rides and everything a traditional longboard should be.”

Kaimana Beach Hotel
Kaimana Beach Hotel

Kaimana Beach Hotel

Established in 1963 but reopened after a major remodel last February, the Kaimana (which means diamond in Hawaiian) sits beneath Oahu’s iconic Diamond Head crater and is the only boutique hotel on the sand in Waikīkī. Sallas likens this soulful side of town to its Fifties and Sixties heyday — think ukuleles, hula dancers and vintage Kodachrome 16mm style movies. 

“I wanted to get away from the crowds, and Kaimana is on the quieter side of Waikīkī. The school is downstairs, and I do all the lessons out front where we can SUP and surf and get nice 50–100-yard-long rides on a beginner break right off Kaimana Beach.” For anyone keen to get in the water but intimidated by crowded lineups, Sallas says the reality of surfing is that it’s a hard sport to learn, but etiquette goes a long way. To illustrate, he uses road rage as an example. 

“No one drives without a license, but with surfing, there’s no test to take before paddling out.” Cutting someone off in the water is like getting cut off on the freeway. Waves generally break in one area, and crowds will form but throw inexperienced people in the mix, and it’s easy to get hurt. His advice? “Take lessons from someone certified then, don’t go anywhere too big. Watch while you learn and know when to stay out of the way.”

Having surfed all over the world, Sallas concludes it’s a combination of things that makes O’ahu special. “The water and scenery are beautiful, and the temperature is perfect. Having a lot of breaks close together is cool, too, but you’re always dealing with mother nature. Being an island means there’s a chance to catch whatever swell directions come in that day: big waves on the north in wintertime and smaller waves on the south during summer; Hawai’i has it all,” he says.  

Afternoon shadows on Leahi
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Three More Surfing Experiences Across Waikīkī 

Design a Custom Longboard with Kai Sallas

A spendy but special one-of-a-kind package (from $6,999) offered by Kaimana Beach Hotel includes five nights in one of their suites and chance to work with Kai designing and shaping a board. Guests can select the model and the color and have it signed by the World Longboard Champion himself. Once finished and ready to ride, a private surf lesson with Kai, plus the cost of shipping the new board to an address back home on the mainland, is also included.

Paddle Out With The Waikīkī Beachboys

Waikīkī’s original generation of beachboys first appeared when the Moana Hotel (now the Moana Surfrider) was completed around 1901 and offered surf lessons and canoe rides to early island visitors. Highly knowledgeable about the ocean, the Hawaiian watermen soon became local legends. Today, standout beachboy concessions helping to keep the tradition alive with surf lessons, canoe rides, and lifeguard services are also two of the longest-running. Aloha Beach Services was founded in 1959 by Harry Robello, the last of the original Waikīkīi Beachboys, while Star Beach Boys has 40 years of creating perfect Hawaii beach days under its belt.

Check into The Twin Fin

Located on Kūhiō Beach and inspired by a surfboard from the ’70s, décor at The Twin Fin will lean “surfer meets mid-century,” while perks include custom Twin Fin surf ponchos and a Surfline Premium membership discount. Slated to open in November, the hotel partnered with wave forecasters Surfline to stream real-time conditions in the lobby and across the property. Waikiki Beach Candy activity credits can be used for surfboard and SUP rentals, while DJs, live music, stargazing and vinyl nights will serve as the main draw around the pool deck most evenings.