When Noland Keaulana was growing up, he was always seen following his legendary grandfather, Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana, on the beach. Each morning, they would set out for a morning session, and he would assist his “Papa” unloading boards and helping in any way possible. As he grew, he assisted in the lifesaving duties at the Makaha competitions, whether it was helping out his grandpa at the Buffalo Big Board Surfing Classic, the Quiksilver Makahiki, or his uncle at the Braddah Mel’s Surfing Canoe Surfing Competition. From an early age, he patrolled the beach, emulating the great teachers that he had in his grandpa and uncle, former lifeguard and personal water craft (PWC) lifesaving pioneer, Brian Keaulana. Noland’s siblings include his twin sister, Nohelani Martin, and brothers Brandon Martin, and Keone Keaulana.
The lifelong surfer, whose all time favorite surfer is Buffalo Keaulana, is one of the quietest watermen around. He appears introverted, almost shy, but has many accolades from surfing giant Makaha, crossing the Kaiwi Channel (Molokai Channel between Oahu and Molokai) on a Stand Up Paddleboard, and expertise in OC-1, four man surfing canoe, six man canoe, longboard, bodyboard, body surfing shortboard, and even “Burger King teay surfing,” he remarked with a smile.
He is so accomplished that he has sponsorship, including Maui Jim Sunglasses, Sun Bum Sunscreen, Real B Voice, and Art in Surf.
Noland and his wife Christina raise their two sons Koanui (5) and Makana Kai (3) on the island of O’ahu. Each of their family members are active in the ocean, as well as in basketball, swimming and even hula.
“I’m busy working a lot, so my wife has them in all these activities. My wife actually taught the boys to swim and boogie board. One of the challenges of being a lifeguard is working weekends, all holidays and breaks, and getting home after dark. They’re really well rounded kids with tons of energy, so I’m grateful she can keep up with them!
When I take my boys surfing, I am worried about them getting hurt by kooks, so I just ride the face so they have fun. If it were just me, or tandem surfing with my wife, I’d try to hit the lip or do something more radical. I don’t train like some of those guys who are all into the Hawaii Kai runs and eat power bars. I enjoy tossing my sons into shore breaks on their boogie boards and surfing on my soft top. I’m not really a showboater when I’m with them.
I did junior guards when I was about twelve. My friend, Kaimana Beauford and I did a rescue at Makaha when we were just in high school, and we got recognized by the American Red Cross as ‘True Blue Heroes.’” He explained, “A lady got knocked out by her surfboard, and we brought her in on the canoe. My brothers and I have been on skis since we were young, too. I trust my brothers out on the skis in big surf or in a nuts rescue. We know each other’s abilities, as well as what we can handle. Trust is so important in the job.”
His quiet demeanor, genuine humility, and fierce discipline were gained by observing the very best watermen in the world, and growing up in, and among, the best waves in the world. Being raised in one of the toughest surfing grounds around, where “aloha” is encouraged, and “respect is key”, Makaha is where his ohana (family) raised him.
The young Keaulana even started riding the ceremonial first wave in his papa’s contest when his papa felt he was ready to represent the ohana. “I felt honored to surf the opening wave. I’ve done it before in Japan where we hold the same contest in different cities, and I’ve done it at Makaha in the past. Every time I do it, I feel proud to represent Papa’s legacy. Uncle Leighton chants as you paddle out and everyone is stoked for the fun to begin. I feel like I’m performing for royalty. My papa, he’s like a king. Some people sing or dance to entertain kings and queens. I surf for my papa.”
In the recent Buffalo Big Board Surfing Classic, the Keaulana grandchildren surfed the first waves together. “Going out with my generation of Keaulanas was special. That’s what has always made my papa happiest to see our family as a team together. My brothers and I have kids now, and we’re busy with raising families, and everyone has responsibilities, so we don’t spend all day just messing around anymore. The Buffalo’s contest is a weekend when we’re like kids again, in our childhood playground. We have tons of extended family members from the outer islands, other countries, and even just the other side of our island. Buffalo’s is all about doing things family style, sharing tents, food, stories, boards, waves, paddles, and whatever. There’s some healthy competition, but mostly you’re up against guys you grew up with from small kid time, so it’s all just good fun…like, “I’m gonna smoke you!” then the next second, “Can you watch my kid, I’m in the next heat?” or when they win instead of you, “I like borrow your bully board!”
Noland is currently a Mobile Responder on the North Shore of Oahu, but has guarded on the west side, in town, and on the east side, as well. He has experienced his share of heavy situations, but when asked how he works through them, Keaulana responded, “I’m just thinking about the person and getting them out. I don’t get tired because the adrenaline is pumping, and I just use what I know about the ocean to get the person in safely. Grateful or not, it’s my job. Sometimes they come back and thank us, but I don’t expect it. There was one time that a four year old boy was already blue. He was underneath some floaties that he and his cousins were playing with. The family was panicking, swearing, and just in shock at the whole situation. I had to zone out all the screaming and focus on doing CPR on this little kid. I was thinking about my own son, Koa, who was a little younger than this child, at the time. I felt everything go quiet and calm, and I was just connecting with the boy. Fortunately, he came back and actually even stood up and was able to talk. I don’t really unwind from stuff like that. I’m usually good with dead bodies, or crazy situations. I just don’t get emotional about it and do my job. My wife trips because she’ll ask how work was, and I’ll tell her some crazy stuff and then just ask, “OK, what’s for dinner now?”
He describes his admiration for his Uncle Brian, “He has the biggest heart and is so passionate about the water. He’s humble and has a lot of aloha for everyone. When I’m lifeguarding and have small struggles, I always think about Uncle Brian, and what he would do, which is basically do it the safest way. He and my grandpa taught me that the ocean is a living thing that you have to respect and fear. You can’t get cocky and think you can beat it or outsmart it. I’ve worked all the beaches around the island, and I learned from them, that you have to swim and dive when there aren’t any waves, so you know every rock, the dips in the reef, the tides, etc. Then, when situations go down, you’ll know it like the back of your hand. My grandpa and Uncle Brian have done rescues in ‘mental’ conditions, but they knew the water because they went diving over there, or understood how the wave was going to break, and got people out safely. I try to learn all the beaches really well, so I’m prepared when I need to be.”
Along with his lifesaving duties, Keaulana has also followed his uncle and grandpa into the “movie business.” Some of the recent productions that he’s worked on include Soul Surfer, Battleship, and The Descendants. “I got to meet some famous people…I guess they’re famous. Mostly, we just focus on keeping them safe.” He continued, “Dennis Quaid wanted to learn to surf when we did Soul Surfer so that he could get into character. I took him out at Makaha on an eight foot day! That was hilarious. I also met George Clooney during the filming of The Descendants. My wife was pregnant back then and thought he was hot. I thought, that old haole guy, what?
I am an active participant in Na Kama Kai Ocean Safety and Conservation Awareness, North Shore Lifeguard Association, and the Hope Chapel Nanakuli. I’d like to get more involved with my friend Kahi Pacarro’s foundation, Sustainable Coastlines. I really want to keep the ocean safe and clean for my kids’ generation.”