Tomoko- Okazaki
Athletes

The Most Adventurous Woman On The Planet

TRACY KRAFT Another month, another timezone. Tomo pacing herself in the British Virgin Islands.

CELEBRATING 10 YEARS OF STANDUP JOURNALING

Issue: Standup Journal Spring 2010


Tomoko Okazaki

The Most Adventurous 43-year-old woman on the planet! -By Kim Ball

Tomoko Okazaki Kite Surfing

Photo by Ben Thouard

Her father gave her the name Tomoko, “friendly child,” but her parents would soon both learn that however you say “crazy, adventurous child” in Japanese was more fitting.

Tomoko will be eating seagull soup and whale blubber during a kite fest in Alaska; a month later she’s paddling her standup board on a seven-mile, downwind run along Maui’s north shore, then heading east to surf and kiteboard overhead waves on a remote Baja peninsula point break.

She is not the girl you would bring home to meet mom and dad… unless your name is Paul Bunyan. She’s slept under the stars more times than an eagle scout.

Godzilla may have wreaked havoc on Tokyo, but this diminutive Japanese woman has ripped apart rolling waves of water and powder fields of snow around the world.

Her first boyfriend will always be a board

Tomoko Okazaki Standup Paddling

Photo by Tracy Kraft

She was once a windsurfer. She dumped her sailboards in favor of kiting, but fondly remembers windsurfing because it introduced her to the excitement of her now three mainstay action sports. Whether standup paddlesurfing, kiting or snowboarding, Tomoko makes it clear that her action sports vehicles come before relationships.

She is not the girl you would bring home to meet mom and dad… unless your name is Paul Bunyan. She’s slept under the stars more times than an eagle scout.

She grew up in Kamakura, Japan, a beach town about 30 miles from Tokyo and 800 years older than any town in the United States. About 30 years ago, a group of Southern Californians came to town for a windsurfing contest, and the things they could do on an oversized, plastic-like surfboard with a piece of Dacron cloth in their hands got Tomoko more excited than a sumo wrestler at a Ruth Chris Steakhouse.

“When I was 12 or 13, Mike Waltze, Kelby Anno, and Matt Schweitzer came for a contest, and stayed near our house,” Tomoko recalled. “One of the guys gave me a ride on his windsurf board.”

Tomoko Okazaki's House

Photo by Ben Thouard

That was like giving a taste of honey to a grizzly bear. She couldn’t wait to get her own board. “When I was 16, I finally saved up enough money to buy a used Windsurfer board.” What she couldn’t afford was a decent wetsuit for the freezing wintertime waters. “I only had a 3mm, no sleeve wetsuit. After windsurfing, I would run back to the house and jump in the bathtub. Mom would be pissed off because sand would get in the tub.”

Mom probably wasn’t too happy either when she decided to travel to Maui to pursue her favorite passion at age 19. She was encouraged to check out the Valley Isle by Hidemi Furuya, a professional windsurfer. “Furuya told me, ‘I heard you were a freak, you spend all day at the beach.

Just move to Maui and you’ll get better right away.’ So I did!”

She was still attending college in Japan, but she would take long breaks. Her parents, Makoto and Mitsuko, didn’t know the breaks would be ‘surf’ breaks like Ho’okipa and Kanaha on Maui’s north shore.

“When I came to Maui I lived with three 40-year-old Japanese guys,” Tomoko said. “They made me cook and clean and do laundry. I thought, ‘This is not fair!’ It’s funny now… but wasn’t then. They were traditional Japanese men.”

There was nothing traditional about how Tomoko took to the windy waters of Maui. Just like in her home waters of Kamakura, Tomoko would spend all day at the beach.

“I had to catch up with all the great windsurfing girls. I found out I was not as talented, so I needed three times more practice. I was never really athletic, never did any sports, I was more of a bookworm.”

The “bookworm” took to wave sailing like a teenage girl to a Jonas Brothers concert. Tomoko couldn’t get enough.

She started to enter contests, climbing to #2 overall in the 1991 Professional Windsurfing Association wave rankings.

The contest scene didn’t prove to be very fulfilling for the girl from Kamakura. “Even from the beginning, I knew the contests weren’t the real judge of who was good out there.

I realized the World Cup was like chasing numbers. I would rather spend my money on traveling and life experiences.” So naturally a windsurfing girl who charges waves in a bikini would love to experience Alaska. “I went there to visit a friend in 1992 and went to Valdez to follow the extreme snowboarding contest.”

“I didn’t know any better. It was totally a wild west frontier style. I found similarities between the snowboarders in Alaska and big wave riders. There were hardly any girls then.” Once again Tomoko gets hooked on a new sport

“I used my windsurfing sponsorship money to go snowboarding. The first couple of winters, I just visited Jackson Hole. I finally said, screw it, and bought a pass and stayed.”

The “stay” lasted for seven consecutive winters. “I would fly back to Maui when there was good wind and waves.

None of my sponsors (Hot Sails, Bill Foote sailboards, Fit Systems wetsuits, DaKine) gave me a hard time. They were all really supportive. Nobody really paid me enough to tell me what to do, anyway.”

Then in 1999 a new sport arrived with gale force on Maui.

“I was so bored with the flat Maui summers that I decided to get into kiteboarding.”

Tomoko found kiteboarding had its up and downs. “I scared myself so much. We would start from Ho’okipa, and if you made it (seven miles) to Kanaha in one piece, it was a big success. I ripped my kite almost every day. I would end up hitchhiking.”

“The biggest air I had ever done windsurfing was nothing compared to the air I had by mistake on my second day of kiting—I let my bar go and was hit in the head by it. My kite flew into a tree. My head swelled up so big. I had so many ‘kitemares’ early on as we were all learning and progressing this new sport. I was really scared, so I took two years off.”

“My theory is ‘boys can wait, but waves won’t wait.’ But I found out that boys won’t wait, either.”

After two non-kiting years Tomoko decided to give it the old Kamakura try. “I thought ‘I’ve spent so much money, I can’t really quit.’ I showed up (to Kite Beach) with old gear. People were saying, ‘What is she thinking?’ So I got new gear.”

With the newer—safer—kites and boards, Tomoko got hooked for good. “I eventually started riding in stronger winds and waves. Kiting is so much easier than windsurfing when riding bigger waves. It’s easier to plane in light wind.”

Tomoko meets standup paddling

DARRELL WONG: Home on Maui where she gets plenty of water time between travels and running the Maui Rainbow Retreat, what you might call a waterwoman’s empowerment resort styled after Tomo’s quests.

Tomoko’s introduction to standup paddling four years ago was similar to her scary kite experience. “Laird (Hamilton) had the first glass board he’d gotten from Gerry (Lopez). It was huge and heavy. Laird could carry it, but none of the boys could carry it. One of the boys took it to Launiupoko (on Maui’s south shore). It was flat that day and I had no problem. I thought, ‘This is easy!’”

Another wave hit and the board went straight into my face and broke my nose.”

“The second time, the waves were overhead on the south shore. I was getting worked and worked in the surf, hanging on to the leash because I didn’t want anyone to get hit by my board. Another wave hit and the board went straight into my face and broke my nose.”

She then went back to square one: “I tried to learn the basics. I stuck to the flat-water and learned to ride teeny, tiny, mushy waves.”

And of course, just like her introduction to other board sports, she couldn’t get enough. “I bought an 11-foot Jimmy Lewis that was too big, then I ordered a custom 9’6” Jimmy Lewis. That board was great, a lot more manageable. It was heavier than a production board so the rail would dig in. That summer I got really hooked. I hung out at Thousand Peaks all day, getting as much as I could.”

Tomoko is now a regular in the sup surf line-up on the north and south shores of Maui. She is careful to be respectful of the non-sup surfers in the crowded waters. “Sometimes I get annoyed at standup guys catching everything; it’s almost embarrassing. If there are too many people at the peak then I find my own peak inside. A couple of paddlers I really respect let the surfers go first… they wait inside. I want to be like them.”

Dave Kalama and Eddie Cabatu are really, really respectful and stylish. They are never in people’s way and are always watching and aware. If there are too many surfers, they paddle out somewhere else.”

“Some of the surfer guys—it doesn’t matter what you do—if you’re standing, they hate you. Some guys call you off, and say ‘standups, go over there.’”

Standup paddling has been the perfect complement to Tomoko’s water time. “When there are waves and it’s not windy, you can standup at Kanaha or Kuau in the morning, and then when the wind comes up, you can go kiting.”

If it’s windy and flat conditions, Tomoko will go for a downwind run. Her rule: “I’ll make it perfect no matter what the conditions.”

Tomoko has made it perfect in conditions around the world. She’ll rattle off the places she’s kited or windsurfed like a chef reciting the ingredients of her favorite flambé: “Cabo Verde (‘best waves I’ve ever seen’), Chile, Peru, Fiji, Greece, Turkey, England, France, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Okinawa, Marshall Islands, Guam, Australia, Palau, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic…”

Tomoko Okazaki's Quiver

TRACY KRAFT: Tomoko studies the best designs for each of her sports, with the goal of finding the shape that suits her style, not somebody else’s. She’s a demanding perfectionist, as is also her approach to the destinations and conditions she chooses to visit around the world. “She’ll rattle off the places she’s kited or windsurfed like a chef reciting the ingredients of her favorite flambé,” notes writer Kim Ball.

And recently to Necker Island, Virgin Atlantic Airways entrepreneur Richard Branson’s private island in the Caribbean. “I got to kite with Richard for four days. I was with three other kite girls who are my best friends and it was awesome, just Branson and his wife and us and a cool staff. He is a pretty good kiter, really good with risk management. He likes to take chances, but doesn’t panic. He’s probably like that in business all the time. He almost ran into a tree, but he was totally calm about it.”

Tomoko is also passionate about the snowboarding venues she has ridden: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Italy, Austria, Japan, Washington, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Canada, Turkey, New Zealand, Chile, and her favorite, Alaska.

“I worked seven summers at snowboard camps in Oregon. Back then summer was a great time (for snowboarding) because it’s flat for windsurfing.” She has funded her 20-year boarding odyssey by herself, combining income from sponsors, working board camps, and writing freelance. She has written articles for over 50 magazines. Her latest venture was translating Gerry Lopez’s book, “Surf is Where You Find It” into Japanese, noting, “Gerry is one of my biggest mentors, so it was such an honor.”

She’s had more surgeries than most NFL football players.

The 20 years of boarding not only have taken a toll on her pocketbook, but have also taken a toll on her 5’1”, 115-pound board-toned body. She’s had more surgeries than most NFL football players. She’s had multiple operations on her knees, rotator cuff surgery on her right shoulder, and has a herniated disc in her back.

Her love life is another casualty of the board wars. She laughs when she says, “My theory is ‘boys can wait, but waves won’t wait.’ But I found out that boys won’t wait, either. I think it has something to do with my name. They love me as a friend, but maybe not as a girlfriend.” Who wouldn’t want a girlfriend who would trek next to you to the Arctic Circle and eat the local food just to be polite: whale blubber, bear fat, and seagull soup (“the nastiest soup I ever had, tasted like rotten fish”).

Even if it’s not boyfriend friendly, the traveling and adventure are what keeps her tide watch ticking. “I still love to explore. I have lists and lists of places I want to go. Traveling makes me think and learn; it makes me appreciate life and the planet we live on. That’s what keeps me going until the wheels fall off.”

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