By Aukai Ng

There have been many young Hawai’i surfers rising to the limelight and all of them are proud to represent the Hawaiian islands. One such young wahine surfer, fifteen year old Vaihiti Mahana Inso is very proud of her ancestral home. Vaihiti was born and raised on the island of Oahu and grew up surfing on the South Shore. “My first early memory of surfing would have to be at Queens. I probably was always on the board when I was younger, like just a couple months old. But I think the first memory of surfing would have to be at the China Urimura contest at Queens. Both my parents entered it and for some odd reason I just grabbed the board and just paddled out to Baby Queens and just stood up out there. And ever since then I was really into surfing and I wanted all the cool cool gadgets and the cool surfboard and the cool swimsuits. Yeah, it was just the first time I really picked up a board and really wanted to do it.”
A bit later the fun left and right double-ups at Kaisers is where she regularly honed her skills from “hana battah” days. Her father Rocky had surfed at this famous spot for over 50 years.“I grew up just surfing on the inside and then eventually worked my way to the outside. My dad never believed in pushing me into waves, so I always learned to either get pounded or just catch my own waves but it’s always fun.”

Photo Aukai Ng

That was just the beginning for Vaihiti. From there, Inso would venture from Kaiser to the more powerful waves at Kewalo Basin and that became her daily training ground. Then the young wahine would eventually aspire to test her skills on the North Shore at more performance spots like Rocky Point and Haleiwa. As strength and skill improved the young Hawaiian’s relationship with the ocean and surfing held much deeper meaning to Vaihiti. As a strong young competitor Vahiti’s skills got noticed and while sponsorships and notoriety came into view, along with equipment, gadgets and goodies what really drove her spirit and was close to her heart above all else was representing Hawai’i. “Surfing is more than just a sport to me. It’s our cultural practice and really when I surf I never think about money or sponsors or all the fame. I just really find the reconnection of our ancestors with the ocean and just trying to learn more about our culture and just the ocean in general.” Her connection to the ocean draws back all the way to her ancestors. The ancient Hawaiian always found the water to be not just a place for fun and enjoyment but a place of healing and a sanctuary. To Vaihiti, surfing can be relatable to all different areas of Hawaiian culture.

“I definitely think surfing is an artform. This is one of the only sports that has to do with mother nature. It’s not really in your hands. You don’t have a playbook or a play by play, it’s just determined by nature and to me it’s your connection you have with the ocean that will determine what happens. If I’m so outta sync or not in the present moment with the ocean, then the best wave will probably pass me. You really just need to be in sync with yourself in the ocean and to be honest, you can be the best surfer in the world but if you’re not connected to the ocean, there’s no sense of artform on it. And I think the cool thing about surfing I like to think about is Hula. In Merrie Monarch (Hula Competition) you have both Auana and Kahiko. Kahiko is very powerful, very fierce and Auana is very graceful and filled with poise. And so to me that’s the art form I take inspiration from and it is just the combination of both, surfing and hula. If you’re great at both, you know you’re gonna be Miss Aloha Hula. And so that to me is like the art form I find in both our culture practices.
Vaihiti’s approach to a wave is something she takes seriously. While her relationship with the ocean helps determine how she should perform, on any given day she can apply the power and the flow or grace into her art-like both disciplines of hula all in one on her surfboard..

“It’s funny because every time I see a good wave or even before I go out, I try to visualize what I want to do. I see a wave come and I think like, ‘Oh I want to do this move for some odd reason’ and I never do it. It’s just whatever the wave (demands), I’m gonna try my best to read what the wave wants me to do. So it’s almost like we’re not in control, we’re trying to read the wave the best we can. I feel like the ocean, the waves, it’s all of our canvas. I feel like not one surfer surfs the exact same, which I think is really cool. And so that individuality is like our own different artform. We can express ourselves.”

Surfer’s don’t have the exact same style, but all endure the learning curve of wipeouts and closeouts as well as the challenge of overcoming bigger surf. Vaihiti had always dreamt of making competitive surfing her full time career but in order to do that she had to find the best high performance and heavy waves to push her skill level.

“When surfing on the North Shore, I feel like I have a lot of first experiences of feeling like I’m gonna die! Being from here you just go out and do it. But I feel the first scary moment was when I was surfing at Chuns and it was like three feet and all of a sudden these 10-15 foot sets came. They were probably like 6-8 feet but as a kid they look big. And all I remember was, ‘Oh, I was gonna die, pretty much.’ So I think that was my first experience. I made it in safe, but I just remember those building swells on the North Shore and realizing ‘oh, it can get this big.”

Vaihiti gives an interesting take on surfing bigger waves and dealing with fear.

“Honestly, I feel like the best way I’ve overcome fear when surfing bigger waves was just going out with friends and just knowing that you’re gonna get pounded altogether but like just surviving. When you have someone you know right there, then you’re less likely to think you’re gonna die. Growing up surfing Kewalos, we had our little friend group and we’d all ditch our boards and just get pounded together for no reason. It’s just more fun getting pounded with your friends and just praying to God before I go out (laughs).”

And indeed Vai still finds a way to have fun and makes the best out of surfing these infamous breaks on the North Shore.

“My go-to, I love Surfing Rockies, but everyone tells me I have to get out of there and go surf some real waves (laughs) so I’ve been surfing more at Haleiwa. I feel like I always have such a hard time over there, but I also have some of the best sessions at the same time. It is just a weird relationship, but to me that’s like one of the most powerful waves. Like that wave just brings you right in the place you don’t wanna be. We have a lot of contests there, so it’s just good to learn about it and perform better. I also really like Lani’s (Laniakea). That’s a really fun wave and if it’s good Ehukai sandbar is fun too.”

Vaihiti surfing style, strength and repertoire are special. Even pre-teen Inso surfed with a maturity unseen by her peers and known for doing very well at contests. This young surfer is always performing well showcasing beautiful flow through hard and fast maneuvers. This typically gets her through the early round heats to make the finals at many of the amatuer events. Her introduction to competition scene is an interesting one.

“My first memory of a surf contest would have to be the Duke’s OceanFest. I remember asking my mom to sign me up and I was super excited. So she signed me up and then a couple nights before I was so scared, like freaking out, but really excited because it was my first real contest. Those (other) girls were already competing a lot and I just started surfing for only like four months. So I just remember going down there to Queens and practicing everyday. So on the day of the contest, I weirdly made it to the finals after like four rounds. And it’s funny, I didn’t know that they call you up from last to first on the awards podium. So then they called me up first and I thought I had won and I was freaking out about it, but then I realized I ended up getting sixth, (blushing). I just remember the whole vibe about having the whole family and friends down there and just like all the games and excitement. So I think it was a good starting point (dealing) with being nervous and then doing good and then having fun.”

“I feel like my first (big) accomplishment and situation I had to overcome started in the US Championships at Lowers Trestles, California back in 2018. In the first round I got comboed, I lost, I didn’t even do a single turn, I just was slipping off my board. At that point I wanted to work super hard for the next year and my main goal was to win the US Championships in 2019. For the following year, I won every single HSA event and I was super excited to go back to California to compete. I remember before the event I was so nervous but I was surfing every morning prior. Everybody would come up to me and be like, ‘Oh my God, you’re only 12 years old, you surf so well.’ So I think hearing that gave me a little bit of a confidence boost. And then my first heat at US Champs, I had like a near perfect 10 and then like another eight or nine. And so I just was doing really well through the event and I was just having fun. But I would visualize myself winning every single night and just felt so confident. So in that final heat, I was doing really well, I was comboing everyone. But then my really good friend Oaka Wong got out of the combo situation and moved up to first. At that moment I was just happy for either one of us to win, but then in my head I was like, ‘oh my god, I actually really want this,’ This was like the biggest deal in my life haha. So I just prayed a little prayer to God for an opportunity, then with only 2 minutes left and a wave came. I just needed like a 5 and I surfed it the best I could. I made it back to the sand but we didn’t know who won yet. Then all of a sudden they announced that I got a 6 point ride and I made it up to first and won. I was so happy, everyone was cheering and then I got chaired up and it was just so fun.”

Her story was a great example of how our toughest falls can turn into our biggest triumphs. Vaihiti went on to win another US Championship in 202, an NSSA regional title and even more titles in HSA. Competing in the ISA Surfing Games in Puerto Rico, Wai helped take home a gold medal for team Hawai’i. Vaihit certainly has a very bright future. Her determination is her drive to perform well and reach any goal she sets her mind to. Her confidence has really increased and any wave she encounters, she surfs it to its full potential. In Hawaiian, Vaihiti Mahana translates to sun rising over the water and she has truly lived up to her name. Vaihiti’s bright and kind-hearted personality is something that brings positivity and inspiration to everyone she encounters. When out in the ocean surfing, Little Miss Sunshine shines her light into everyone’s day. Vaihiti is proud to represent Hawai’i, but it’s certain that Hawai’i is proud of her as well.

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