Having a ‘swell’ time in Okinawa
By Gardner Robinson
Okinawa is best known for the miles of beautiful beaches and as a world-class scuba diving destination. With all that beautiful coastline and colorful reefs, it shouldn't come as a surprise there are also some great waves to ride.
New Hampshire does not spring to mind as a place that produces many professional surfers. Yet Danny Melhado was born in the state’s northeastern woods. When he was 10, he moved south to sunny Florida where he first learned about waves and surfing. He started competing when he was 12, and by high school he was living in California and surfing every day.
“I happened to be competing in the same district as Kelly Slater (the current 10-time world champion),” he says. “So I got to see a great level of surfing through the boys, juniors and men’s divisions.”
Danny went on to compete internationally at ASP events and travel to surf spots all over the world; he also spent three years on the JPSA tour here in Japan. He stopped competing professionally three years ago.
He first came to Japan though, when he was 17 at the invitation of one of his sponsors, M Fiberglass, importer of Pro Shapes surfboards. The owner, Takeo Mitsui, brought Danny back to Japan year after year and has played a big role in his life ever since.
Although Danny spent a few years living in Hawaii, as well as in Sendai, Japan, today he runs Happy Surfing Okinawa, a small surf school and guesthouse he opened on Jan. 1, 2011, or “1-1-11” as he points out.
“We wanted to make a place where surfers could come and learn to surf and share their surfing lifestyle experiences. We also import and sell some of the best surfboards and paddle boards on the island,” he adds.
How he ended up in Okinawa is a story in itself. Years ago while living in Florida, he was surprised to meet a Japanese guy surfing there, being so far from Japan. Danny had already been to Japan few times, so he invited him to his house for a BBQ. They had a great time, but his new Japanese buddy had to leave the next day. They didn’t see each other again for nearly 15 years.
Danny was at a JPSA contest in Shikoku when his friend Kin-san, a photographer, told him Keiichi was on his way to see him compete. “Keiichi?” Danny said. “Yeah, you took care of him a while back in Florida,” Kin replied.
Sure enough, his old friend, Keiichi Kimura, showed up. Only then did Danny discover he was the 7th generation boss of Yamari Shirasu, a well known shirasu (a type of baby sardine or anchovy popular in Japan) company. The two spent a few days surfing together in Shikoku when Keiichi asked, “You wanna go to Okinawa?”
“I replied, ‘sure,’ and we ended up there for a month surfing and chasing typhoon swells. I fell in love with the islands right away,” Danny recalls.
Shortly after he was introduced to Toyokazu Miyagi, or “Kazubō” as he is known, the head of the Okinawa Surf Rider Association, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Those guys all welcomed me and my family to the island with open arms,” he says. “It’s crazy how a small thing so many years ago changed my life and brought me to this wonderful island.”
Happy Surfing Okinawa customers are a mixed bag. Some come to learn to surf or try stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) for the first time; others are looking for a guide to take them to good local spots or get some pointers.
“Some people come to cruise and ride some easy, fun longboard-type waves, while others come to chase those perfect, shallow, hollow crystal tubes for which Okinawa is famous,” Danny says.
He won’t tell us where the best breaks are (and we wouldn’t print them if he did), as part of the fun of surfing is searching for waves. Conditions change, so he suggests studying swells, wind and tides and then decide where you want to go. The most popular spots can be found quite easily as maps are available and, although they do get crowded with tourists during holidays or on weekends, there are always some uncrowded waves if you look around.
His guesthouse is located in Yomitan, an area famous for pottery, so if you need a break, you can stroll through pottery villages and natural hillside kilns. Fresh fish is sold every day near the harbor, and there’s a veggie market, plenty of restaurants and the second largest aquarium in the world is nearby. You can also do some hiking, snorkeling, search for desolate beaches, BBQ and they even built a brick oven to cook wood-fired pizzas after a day surfing or paddle boarding.
Serious surfers will want to come in summer or early fall when typhoons bring big swells. It takes timing, but from June to October, storms can roll in back-to-back for weeks. Winter is cooler, but the waves are more consistent as north winds bring a steady stream of waves toward Okinawa.
“Really, any time of year you can score great surf here,” Danny beams, “but you do need timing to get those amazing days.”
The main hazard surfing in Okinawa is the reef. The tides are big, and the reef is exposed and dry at low tide at most spots. You can surf nearly all the time at medium and high tides, but it’s best to go with someone who knows the area if it’s your first time there. You want to know abut the reef, channels and currents as well as entry and exit points.
For independent surfing travelers, it’s also nice to have a local guide who can give you some local knowledge and support. Experienced surfers may want a base to stay tuned to swells, winds and tides in between expeditions. Intrepid travelers can find some great waves in surrounding islands as well, but you need to do your homework.
“Use common sense, and you’ll be OK, but you need to be careful, especially in the most remote secret spots,” Danny warns. “Okinawa offers some of the safest waves as well as some of the most dangerous. Be honest with yourself and your ability with the risks you take.”
Advice for beginners?
“Don’t just jump in because you see people out there; get informed before you dive in… or come see us. We’ll take you to places that fit your level and give you some tips, so you’ll be sure to have a good time surfing in Okinawa.”
Happy Surfing Okinawa
Address: Toya, Yomitan, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa 904-0305