From Stab issue 73:Mason Ho plays it, his surfing, his life, in the most original and most delightful manner imaginable. Let’s ride in his truck, let’s roll in his cave and let’s hear stories of wrestling with girls, wrestling with giants and wrestling with legends…
Story by Tetsuhiko Endo
Mason Ho and I are sitting in a large Naupaka bush in front of the Target house on Sunset beach. “This was our cave, brah,” he says, lost in the memory. In front of us, a little wedge of shorebreak called, appropriately, “Shores”, rushes over a slab of reef, ignored by even the smallest children who are paddling out to Val’s reef, some 10 metres farther out. “We used to invade the yards in front of these houses when we were kids, ditch the skateboards in the bushes and fully set up camp and surf Shores all day. The people staying in the houses would come out and ask us what we were doing and we’d say, ‘Aren’t we adorable?’ No joke, brah, eight out of 10 times it would work and they’d just let us stay. Our first choice was always (artist) Chris Lassen’s house next door. He didn’t live there full-time so we used to go over and jump in the hot tub and shower off with his shampoo and everything. Then one year he got a security camera and found out what we were doing. He got so mad!” This is a trademark Mase story: opportunity + mischief = exasperated adult and little Mason scampering off the down the beach cackling. Twenty five years on this earth have given him a nearly endless supply of these tales: Mason getting into kiddie gang rumbles, Mason antagonising Coco until she beat him up, Mason chasing after girls from an age that defies belief, Mason asking Andy Irons if he preferred blow jobs or sex, Mason wrestling on the beach with Kelly Slater. He can go all day. Which is fine by me. It’s taken two-and-a-half weeks of daily calls and texts get to this little naupaka cave and I ain’t leaving til I’ve plumbed the depths. The original idea was to do a day in the life with the entire Ho Family: Mason, his sister Coco, and their father Michael. Coco was away visiting her boyfriend. Michael, famously media shy, was uncomfortable with the idea and politely opted out. That left Mason, sort of. For the better part of a month he answers all of my interview entreaties with the kind of breezy fatalism that Hawaiians seem to enjoy bating mainlanders with… “Of course I can do an interview!” “When?” “After the next swell.” This is the North Shore in December and I begin to wonder if “after the next swell” is a euphemism for “never.” But to his credit, as soon as the Pacific goes flat, Mason is pulling up to my rental in his ‘06 Tundra. We have agreed to do a “ride-along,” a media trick to make an interview seem like it’s not forced and uncomfortable, which it is. Mason will drive me to some of his favourite places on the North Shore and pretend as if we are buddies. I will write it all down on a notepad. At best, this journalistic sleight-of-hand puts the interview subject at ease. At worst, you are stuck on a platonic date with a person who doesn’t know what to say and you both regret your life choices. Given Mason’s reputation as a sybarite, I’m half expecting (hoping) to end up in a strip club doing drugs in some creative way. To my surprise we end up in his old beach fort.
Mason is the male scion of one of surfing’s greatest living bloodlines. His grandfather, Chico, was a Waikiki beach boy and celebrated fisherman. His father, Michael, was one of Hawaii’s first professional surfers and is still one its greatest and most respected. His uncle, Derek, was a world champion. His younger sister Coco is the sixth-ranked female surfer in the world. If Michael is the king of the North shore, Derek is the Duke and Coco is the princess, Mason is the clown prince. Over the last six years or so he has developed a strong following in the surf world based on his puckish personality and off-kilter blend of old school power and new-school aerial antics. He is not the best surfer to pepper the web with clips but he’s easily one of the most compelling. Mason lives in the house he grew up in, in the Backyards neighbourhood on the North Shore. He shares a wall with Coco. Michael decorated his room for him with Jimi Hendrix posters, a disco ball and black lights. In the afternoons he and his father have begun convening in the backyard to water the grass and tend to squash, tomato and chilli plants. Mason is built like his father, small and compact with a certain latent power especially through the hips and legs, that summons to mind wrestlers and circus tumblers. He has quick, kind eyes and a mouth that is perpetually sneaking into a grin. On his finger is a ring in the shape of an octopus that Michael gave him, along with various others, who were present at a brawl in Bali a few years ago. He is, for once, vague on the details but bursts into laughter as he recalls Michael getting barrelled at Desert Point with a grotesquely swollen hand. Mason is the most polite brawler and hedonist I have ever met. He greets nearly everyone he passes on the North Shore by name and shakes their hands. If the person is older than him, they are an “uncle” or an “auntie.” Mason has many uncles. A few, like Uncle D (Derek Ho) are actually related to him. Some are neighbours. But many, like Uncle Dino (Andino) and Uncle Gavin (Beschen), are world-class surfers. Getting back to the car through the Target compound takes twice as long as it would with almost anyone else. Being grateful, especially to others, is a preoccupation instilled in Mason by his parents. “My dad didn’t have much. He was actually homeless half the time and didn’t know it,” he says. “His dad would tell him they were going camping at Makaha for six months, after that they’d find a place to live for a while, then they would go ‘camping’ at Sandy beach for another year. My dad just thought that was what you did when you went camping.”
By his teens Michael was already an international surf star. He married his high school sweetheart, whom he met in the lineup at Ala Moana Bowls, and tried to give his kids some of the stability he had lacked. Mason remembers him as the disciplinarian, the one telling him and his sister to stay off the highway and not to come home after dark. “He never hit us,” Mason says. “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten a flick and one of them was for coming home after dark when I was young. Another was just recently when I took my wax off on his new grass. Five times in my life I’ve gotten flicked and one of them was for that!” He bursts into laughter as we get into the truck.
“Dad actually made us afraid of the ocean,” says Mason. “We would watch him surf and Coco would cry before every one.” And now? Mason is a consistent finalist at Pipe events including a third to Kelly Slater at this year’s Volcom Pipe Pro. Photo by Brian Bielmann
It’s not a small vehicle by normal standards but it is humble by North Shore standards, which is to say you don’t have to climb up the wheel in order to get in the cab. The seats are tilted way back and imbued with the scent of salt spray and marijuana. There is not a grain of sand anywhere and there are little shells mixed in with the change in the cup holder. “I found my first sunrise shell at Rocky Point the other day,” Mason says, proudly showing me a beautiful specimen of the rare scallop shells that can only be found in Hawaii and can retail for thousands of dollars. Michael is also a shell collector, though a slightly more imposing one. A mix of awe and fear of him kept Mason (mostly) in line as he grew up. In Mason’s stories Michael is an ever present, but often distant character who he relates to as much through the “gnarliest stories” told by the uncles as through their actual interactions. “Dad actually made us afraid of the ocean,” Mason says as we head east down the Kamehameha highway, really just a two-lane road, to Velzyland. “He’d come home from surfing with all these crazy stories about big waves and these gnarly scars. I remember one time specifically when I came home from skating and my dad got back from V-Land with a huge fin cut down his side and I was like ‘Woah, I’m glad I’m not doing that!’ Later I went through a phase when I would really worry about him when he went surfing. We would watch him surf his heats and Coco would cry before every one. My heart was always in my stomach.”
For all of his own professional drive, Michael didn’t push surfing on either his son or his daughter, instead encouraging them to pursue whichever activities interested them. So, until the summer of his eighth year, Mason zoomed around the hills on motorbikes. If Michael put surfing into Mason’s blood, it was Keoni “Cheeseburger” Nozaki who put it into his life. Burger is also the son of a man whom the uncles speak about in reverential tones, the celebrated Japanese surfer and cook Nick Nozaki. He was a big kid with a big surfboard who used to paddle out at Shores and terrify Mason and his friends on their bodyboards. “Every time he would take off on a wave we’d be like ‘Watch our for Keoniiii!’” Mason says, raising his hands above his head and doing an Oscar-worthy impression of a child gleefully losing his shit. One afternoon as Mason sat in his room playing video games with one of his puppy-love girlfriends, Burger came a-knocking. “He wanted me to go surfing and I remember thinking for the first time, ‘Do I really want to do that?’ At first I was like ‘I don’t got a board.’ He goes, and I’ll never forget this: ‘Your dad is Michael Ho!’” There is a man-cave in the basement of the Ho house where Michael keeps his best boards and hangs out with the uncles when he wants to escape whatever is going on upstairs. It was to this hallowed room that the eight-and-a-half-year-old Mason took Burger that day. “I took out this blue and green Leroy Gold board that my dad had just got, it was like his best board,” Mason recounts, his smile creeping upwards with every word. “A few nights before I had heard him telling Uncle Dino and Uncle Pottz about it. He said, ‘I’ve got this board on ice.’ So I took it out and told Burger: ‘I’ve got this board on ice!’ He goes, ‘What does that mean?’ I was like ‘I don’t know!’” Michael later told someone, within ear-shot of Mason, that he saw his son walking to the beach dragging the tail of best board down the road that day. He almost stopped him, but thought better of it and surfing quickly became Mason’s life. “At first, I was fully trying to impress my dad,” he says. “He would never push me into waves at Shores but sometimes on small days he would show me this key-hole in the reef at Sunset as narrow as your board that he called the yellow brick road and we’d paddle out to the point. I was so proud, brah. I would have him push me into waves even though I could paddle into them just fine.”
Standing on the beach at V-Land, Mason points out the bushes that were the de-facto hangout for people using meth here in the ‘90s and early 2000s, the same time he made it his training ground. “I’ve never done coke or anything super gnarly,” he says, “But I’ve always seen a lot of the drug thing. I guess I just play dumb to it. When it was all going down here I was just surfing so much I barely even noticed.” “Playing dumb” is an expression Mason uses to refer to things he doesn’t really want to think about. He will play dumb if there is someone on a wave when he wants to drop in. He played dumb when he realised Coco was dating someone but hadn’t told him yet. He still likes to “play dumb” when he thinks about the death of his friend and hero Andy Irons. “I still tell myself that maybe he really did have a weird sinus or a heart thing,” he says. But the more he surfed, the more he had to question certain things, especially about how badly he wanted to impress his father and the uncles. It was, as ever, the stories that affected him most. “When I was about 14 I remember Andy (Irons) telling Uncle Dino about almost dying at Haleiwa. The next day I was on the plane for a surf trip wondering if I really wanted to put myself in that kind of position.” When other kids’ father’s started taking them out on the big days, Michael would don his disciplinarian hat and tell his son he didn’t want him out there.
Mason eventually did paddle out, sometimes with his father, but more often with friends or alone. The first time he pulled into a barrel at Sunset he was so afraid he nearly threw up.
“Now, I do two things to deal with fear,” he says. “Sometimes I just play dumb about the danger but I also have a bunch of tactics that I use to comfort myself. In big waves, the theory is to use a bigger board, a board with a bit more volume, so you can go from running for your life to getting the wave of your life.” He pauses then admits,“That’s actually a good example of advice I got from my dad. He always has a nice little one-liner for how to surf different types of waves.” These days, Rocky Point and Haleiwa are Mason’s go-to surf spots until the November and December crowds release their grip on the Shore. En route to check Rocky point we stop off to take a look at the Ho house. Michael is sitting on the steps. I wave awkwardly, wanting to ask for a peek inside. He smiles and waves back, probably hoping I won’t ask for a peek inside. “You’ve got that other interview this afternoon,” he calls to Mason. “Okay dad, no worries,” Mason calls back. “Does he just hang out on the steps all day?” I ask as we pull away. “I don’t think so.” “What’s he doing then?” “I don’t know, probably taking a break from the garden or something… classic…” Mason chuckles. “My dad is so on it. If he gets a bill that’s a few dollars off he calls them immediately and sorts it out. He’s like that with everything and so is Coco. I wish I was like that.”
“In big waves,” says Mason, “I just play dumb about the danger and use tactics to comfort myself. The theory is to use a bigger board so you can go from running for your life to getting the wave of your life.” Photo by Brian Bielmann
It’s clear as we sit on a bench at Rocky point drinking in the view of passing women, that Mason relishes his reputation as one of the North Shore’s great women chasers, but his Lothario status belies the fact that his mother, Brian, and sister are among his closest companions. He and Coco have been nearly inseparable for most of their lives, especially when their parents divorced eight years ago. “Me and Coco had such a funny relationship as groms,” he says. “We just made each other laugh all the time. When I got to be a teenager, I started trying to dip out of the house without her so I wouldn’t have to look after of her while I was chasing girls and stuff. This one time, I was wrestling this beautiful Polynesian girl on the beach, sort of playfully you know, grabbing her titties and grabbing her ass. She was letting me too, but Coco saw us and thought we were fighting. So Coco, this tiny little girl with long blonde hair, smaller than me, whiter than me, marches straight up and kicks sand in this girl’s face.” Mason has jumped off the bench and is acting out the story now, playing the different parts with different voices and gestures. “This girl is pissed but before she can do anything Coco grabs her by the hair, hauls her to her feet and just starts kicking her right in the pu…right in the crotch. She must have kicked the poor girl 10 times,” he says, as if unable to believe it himself. He mimes holding someone by the hair and kicking them between the legs. “Whoom, Whoom, Whoom…really healthy legs on Coco. Then, when she’s done, she goes, ‘Don’t fucking fuck with my brother.’ Then she just grabs her board and paddles out.”
If his life were just a little different, it’s easy to imagine Mason contentedly spending the rest of his days surfing Rocky Point, looking for shells, and wrestling with girls. But he feels, on some deep, instinctual level, the pull to be someone that the uncles tell stories about, to be, as Burger so succinctly put it on that fateful day some seventeen years ago: Michael Ho’s son. Thus there is endless, homesickness-inducing travel on the WQS in hopes of cracking the WT. There is the rote sharpening of fundamentals, lessening the creativity in his surfing and ironing out, or perhaps homogeonising, what he calls the “kidishness” in his lines. There is anxiety about how to best market himself on social media when he would rather just post funny pictures.
And, course, there is Pipeline. Our last stop is the Rockpiles beach access. After parking we sit in the car and watch a young woman in a microscopic bikini slink across the beach. Mason seems interested in talking to her. I try to goad him into it. He begs off. “If I wasn’t working…” Just beyond the nearly naked woman, barely submerged by the water, is the reef that, on large, west and northwest swells, creates Pipeline. By the standards of mortal men Mason has already ridden enough terrible waves as they self-destruct over this reef to die content. By his family’s standards, Michael is still surfing the wave at 56, it’s a humble start. Unlike many professionals, Mason avoids the vicious circus of Pipe almost entirely before Christmas, not because of the waves themselves, but because he balks at hassling with the crowds. “When you go out you kind of have to be a dick because the theory out there is that you’ve got to go on everything,” he explains. “Personally, I just want to show everyone respect which can be weird in that sort of situation. If I have to be a dick, I will, but I guess I try to be a dick with a smile.”
This philosophy even extends to the odd punch-up “When I was a kid I thought I was pretty smooth and I realised it was funny for a small kid to hit a bigger guy, but if I ever have to sound a guy now, I’ll shake his hand before and buy him a beer afterward.” Coming from a guy who regularly cites Tony Montana as an inspiration, Mason’s little nuggets of philosophy are decidedly un-Scarface. He laughs when I point this out. “I’m not into drugs or dealing or anything, I just love how he (Montana) starts from nothing but has this attitude like he’s going to take over the world. As a kid on the North Shore, when you paddle out you look back at the houses, point to one, and say, ‘I’m going to buy that house someday.’ To me, Tony Montana-ing means lining up with the house that you are eventually going to buy.” I ask him if he could ever move out of his house and into another on the North Shore and he bursts out laughing like I’ve just caught him out. “Fuck, I don’t think I could!” The family recently put the house in his name. Adulthood and the concomitant responsibilities loom. When I ask him what he sees for the future, he hesitates for the first time all day. “I’m sure my future’s real screwed up,” he says, before thinking about how that sounds and correcting himself. “Well, not screwed up, but I feel like I just suck at the real-life stuff, like taxes, and all that. Don’t get me wrong, I get it all done, but I sort of run from it, you know. I just put it off for as long as I can and go surfing.”
A frontside grab swung high above the December North Shore crowds. Mason scintillates so persistently! Photo by Laserwolf