Where Stand-up Paddling Started

John ‘Pops’ Ah Choy often wore his HECO hard hat while surfing, and kept ‘stuff’ in it

There are several stories as to the origin of stand-up paddle surfing. But “old-timers” at Waikiki Beach will tell you if it wasn’t for John “Pops” Ah Choy and his sons Bobby and Leroy, there would be no stories.

Pops loved to surf but he wasn’t a beachboy. Bobby and Leroy were the legends on the beach, serving tourists for years. Pops worked for Hawaiian Electric Co. for 37 years as a troubleshooter. Yet it was Dad who planted the seed for what is now the fastest-growing water sport in the world.

“When Dad’s knees started giving him problems, he said, ‘Eh I going use one big canoe paddle to help me catch waves,'” says his youngest son, Mike. “When Leroy saw my dad do this, he thought it would be a good way to get closer to tourists while they surfed. Bobby did the same.”

That was in the 1960s, and soon other Waikiki beach-boys were doing the same. Leroy took it one step further.

“Dad used to tie a lunch pail around his neck and he put coffee in there to drink while he surfed,” laughs Mike. “Leroy thought, ‘I can put a camera around my neck to take pictures of tourists during surf lessons,’ and the rest is history.”

Pops Ah Choy’s legacy was recently celebrated in the inaugural John “Pops” Ah Choy Family Surf Fest, a two-day all-stand-up paddle surf event at Kuhio Beach in Waikiki.

“We wanted to honor him and his contributions,” says Mike. “It was a chance to showcase the sport that’s growing while celebrating his life.”

Mike chuckles when he recalls some of his father’s other trendsetting ways, including using his HECO hard hat while surfing.

“Besides protecting his head while carrying heavy tankers (surfboards), he used to smoke cigarettes in between sets and he would put his cigarettes in a plastic bag with a lighter in the hat,” chuckles Mike. Pops stopped smoking in 1983. “That’s when he switched from cigarettes to Snickers, but still wore his hat!”

Leroy died in 1995 at the age of 49. Bobby died in 2007 at the age of 66. Pops is still going strong at the age of 90. Mike Ah Choy says his dad is in the advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease but is still enjoying life. It’s one reason some of the proceeds of the event went to Alzheimer’s Association Aloha Chapter.

“They do great work, so some of the money we raise will stay here to help support people like my dad,” says Mike.

Besides honoring Pops Ah Choy, event organizers also took time to celebrate the lives of several other ocean legends, including Porter and Johnnie Hollinger, Larry “Aki” Akiyama, Allen “Oku” Okuma, Blue Makua Jr., Didi and Harry Robello, China Uemura, Alfred “Manong” Mendoza, Gilbert Hisatake and Aaron Rutledge.

“We wanted to honor them while they’re still alive,” says Ah Choy. “A lot of times we get together for funerals, this was a chance to celebrate while they’re still with us.”

It was a weekend of surfing, reminiscing and sharing old stories, thanks to a local boy with a bizarre sense of creativity and two sons who took the idea and ran with it.

“Nobody,” Mike says, “thought it would take off like this. Dad and my brothers would be proud.”

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