Amundsen Portrait | Pete Cabrinha

Hawaii’s unique sporting culture has become inseparable from its very identity as a place. Watersports have helped define the islands, and their people, for centuries – resulting in a relationship with the ocean that is steeped in respect and harmony. In the last few decades, Pete Cabrinha – Maui local, artist, waterman, and world champion – has been instrumental in pushing Hawaiian sporting culture to the fore, through his creativity and relentless passion for play.


Would love to hear a bit about your upbringing in Hawaii generally. More specifically, do you remember your early days of surfing as a child and the feeling it gave you?

I grew up near the beach in Hawaii. I started surfing at the age of six and from that point I never looked back. Surfing was/is everything and it started my lifelong love affair with the ocean. My house was the place where all of my friends would leave their surfboards and we would surf just about every waking moment. There are so many life lessons embedded into surfing’s culture that it quickly becomes the liquid counterpart to the concept of “street smarts”. Respect, social integration, commitment to the health of the ocean and planet are all baked into surfing’s culture.

We talk a lot about the importance to “Play Well” (in the spirit of a child), how have you managed to maintain a playful energy throughout your life and what is the importance of that to you?

Maintaining a playful spirit comes easier if you are naturally curious, which I have always been. By seeking the fun in difficult situations (like learning new things) you stay engaged much longer. You will always find something fresh or new about the things you are pursuing. And this mindset removes some of the walls or barriers that we tend to put up around us. I could speak for hours about bucking the idea of being a “kook” in favor of just doing something that might not succeed but might be fun to attempt anyway


What was Maui and its surf culture like during the early days (’70s/’80s) with you and the ‘Strapped Crew’? How did the ‘tow-in’ method come to be?

Maui is a special place in the way that its North facing coast was considered a windy wasteland surf wise, until the 80’s. Windsurfer’s were the first to recognize that all of this wind made it a paradise and Ho’okipa became the best spot in the world at the time. Having surfers and windsurfers in the line-up together caused some tension in the beginning, but over time things worked themselves out. This multi-sport lineup set up a unique mentality in terms of surfing’s ability to innovate itself and stretch its boundaries. Maui quickly became ground zero for innovation in surfing and many new sports like tow surfing, kite surfing, wing surfing, foil boarding, and stand-up paddle boarding all developed right here on these shores.

I was fortunate to be embedded with a small group of friends (the ‘Strapped Crew’) who, like myself, were all interested in bending the rules of surfing in a meaningful way. Our method of experimentation was always fun, sometimes outrageous and absurd, but it would produce spin offs that allowed us to ride waves in a number of ways depending on the conditions of the moment.

How did you get into windsurfing and what drove you to become a world champion in ’85?

My foray into windsurfing was by chance. I was a surf obsessed kid and windsurfing was not on any surfer’s radar at the time. My friend let me try his windsurfer which was a 60-pound 12-foot board with an equally heavy rig and sail. But, it was different enough to grab me probably because I live on the windy side of the island. The small group of guys and girls who were doing it all lived near me and I quickly realized that some of these people were already at the very top of the sport. I jumped in with them and got caught up in all aspects of the sport as an athlete and in design and development. As a teenager, just headed into my twenties, windsurfing immediately had me and I was in for all of it. My teammate and sparring partner at the time was Robby Naish, so a world title was always the goal. In 1985 that goal became a reality.


Most sports have a “culture of play” that is distinct, yet similar to one another in many ways. Now that you’re spending more time in the mountains, do you see a “universality of play” between coastal/surf culture and mountain/ski culture?

Next to skateboarding, snowboarding and skiing are surfing’s land-based cousins. While the location, medium, and specifics may be different the mindset and culture of mountain sports has a huge overlap with surfing. The art of ‘riding’ is universal. First off, if you do any of these sports you immediately develop a keen appreciation for the environment that transcends the sport itself. You feel the need to protect it at all costs. For many, surfing and winter sports are freeform play and the less rules you put on yourself while doing it, the better.

What does it mean to be a ‘Waterman’ in Hawaii, and what does having an outdoor life mean to you?

The term ‘Waterman’ is generally used to describe a person who has a mastery of the ocean. It often means that this person is skilled in many aspects, including surfing, sailing, paddling, diving, etc. So, it gets thrown around quite a bit in Hawaii because so many people fit that description. But the title of ‘Waterman’ is something that needs to be given to a person by their peers. It’s kind of an unwritten acknowledgement of respect for how they’ve conducted themselves in the ocean. It’s a huge honor when someone refers to another as a ‘Waterman’ but on the flip side… it’s kind of bad form to call yourself a waterman or to give yourself that title.

In Norway, we have the philosophy of Friluftsliv, do you identify with this? If so, how does it manifest in your life?

I love the concept of Friluftsliv. I think that many countries have their own version of this philosophy but certain cultures like Norway really know how to embrace it fully. Living on an island here in the middle of the Pacific, you tend to live out loud. We are either in the ocean or in the mountains and the transition between the two is seamless.

How does your relationship with the outdoors influence your art? What gives you inspiration?

My art journey has been a slow burning but somehow a white hot flame for many years. It’s always been a part of my life, but it’s played kind of a supporting role to many of my other pursuits. Today art is nearly front and center. But the best thing about it is that my art has always been a way for me to distill my island/surfing life into a visual language. It allows me to document an entire experience that has been unfolding over decades in a way that attempts to let viewers feel a bit of what I’ve felt throughout this journey. Inspiration comes easy for me. I pay attention to everything and I’m constantly ‘collecting’ info and material. Hawaii and the tropics are the biggest contributors to my work, but because I travel quite a bit, I’m also interested in how the differences in our cultures end up being what ultimately draws us together.


Obviously, water sports have influenced many elements of your life, but what other sporting passions do you have outside of the water?

Curiosity is my wingman. I’m always interested in new things which is not saying that I get bored easily. Fortunately, I don’t get bored easily which means that I have a lot of interests always competing for my time. I wouldn’t have it any other way and my interests have found a way to exist in my life like a well fitted puzzle. Take my water pursuits for example. Every sport has its optimum conditions, so I let the conditions dictate what I’ll do that day. The same goes for music, photography, art or dirt biking. There always seems to be the right set of conditions that favor one or more of these, so I do what’s best for the given moment.

What is your favorite coastal town (not in Hawaii) and favorite mountain town in the world?

It’s difficult to put any place at the top of my list. But I just did a really fun trip to Biarritz France. It’s a cool little city that feels like a large village that sits directly on the sea. The surf surrounding Biarritz can be incredible and the Basque culture and vibe is really interesting. The Pyrenees mountains are right next door, so you get the best of all worlds. I’m also a huge fan of the South Pacific. It feels like an older Hawaii in terms of culture and geography. Sumatra (the Mentawai Islands) is another place that is high on my list because it’s remote and untouched in some areas. My family has been spending a lot of time in Stowe, Vermont lately and we’ve been really loving it there. The mountains have a certain allure that can’t be denied.

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