The Akoni Four Challenge: How Surfing Can Teach Us How To Live

Today is Earth Day, 2020, where we celebrate 50 years of honoring our planet. We should all take a moment do something to recognize the importance of the Earth in our lives. Here is my contribution.


As we strive to survive during the first true global pandemic, we should reflect inward and rejoice in the many gifts we receive from mother Earth that we depend on, especially the sea. Here I focus on the lessons we learn from surfing and how it teaches us to live.

Akoni Four

The Akoni Four is a fictional challenge based on a character written for my science fiction book Songs of Thalassa, which was ultimately deleted. The story is partially based on the life of Mark Foo, as described in Andy Martin’s 2007 book, Stealing the Wave, and Foo’s dedication to living the way of the Tao. Here is Akoni’s Story.

Akoni was of Hawaiian-Chinese descent and an avid surfer. His stern and vocal Chinese father taught him to follow the path of the Tao and he became a firm believer of the Tao Te Ching throughout his life. He believed that water in the ocean is flexible, humble, benefits all things, and transcends all obstacles. Competition was not the way forward but instead he needed to be humble and become one with the all-encompassing ocean. These are the concepts he lived by:

  1. Embrace simplicity, patience, and compassion — the greatest treasures in life
  2. Go with the flow — allow things to take their natural course
  3. Let go — change and death are the only constants in life
  4. Harmony — embrace the yang and ying

As a child, Akoni surfed for fun but as he grew up he sought media attention and realized that big wave surfing was the ultimate way to name recognition. But through deep meditation, and by living the Tao, he was able to transcend common beliefs about surfing and began to feel the energy of waves as it moved through the water, through him, and dissipated on the reef, and he began to seek another path. He realized that riding the biggest wave wasn’t a notch on his belt but a way to experience the ocean’s energy in full force. Like many, he began to think of mother ocean as a creator, a woman, and tube riding became the ultimate way for him to experience the core of the sea.

Akoni believed in the ying and yang; the idea that seemingly opposite forces are complementary and interconnected. For as he rode big waves and pushed the limits to feel the energy of the sea, he experienced delight and suffering. In addition to riding big waves and experiencing the tube, to be complete he had to experience the humbling lessons taught by the ocean; to feel the strength of the reef and be one with ecology of the ocean. Only by having all four of these experiences could he follow the Tao and become one with the ocean.

His quiet Hawaiian mother also taught him an important lesson: the Hawaiian concept of pono and how be in balance with the waves and the ocean. To be pono he needed to avoid elements of Hewa (wrong conduct) that prevented Pono (right conduct) in all aspects of his surfing life. She taught him that he needed to avoid coveting things with longing and desire, as he did with his world title and big wave awards, and avoid the restless yearning for these achievements. For covetousness leads to greed, deceit, and trickery, and must be avoided at all costs. Akoni found her lessons difficult to achieve in the highly-competitive professional surfing arena.


The Challenge

Late in his successful life, as he began to truly understand the teachings of the Tao Te Ching, he set up a Foundation to promote the way of the Tao in surfing through a challenge. The Akoini Four, as it was known, evaluated surfers during a five year interval for their experiences, which were based on two concepts and four categories.

YANG: Focus Outward, Ascend

  1. Biggest Wave: feel the unlimited power of the ocean.

2. Deepest Tube Ride (wave > 10 ft.): join passionately with the raw vortex of a wave.


YING: Focus Inward, Descend

3. Worst Reef Encounter: accept the strength of the reef that breaks the back of the wave.

4. Worst Encounter with Marine Life: be humble when part of the ocean’s ecology.

Anyone judged to have achieved all four at any point within the 5-year period would be given the highly coveted award, which had no cash value but tremendous prestige among the surfing community. Started in 2050, no one even won the award, or even won two of the four categories as judged by Akoni’s Foundation, except for Akoni himself who died while completing all four on a single wave at Raptor Reef.


Encounter with Raptor Reef

Raptor Reef. A secret atoll deep in the heart of Micronesia. It was a perfect wave that broke along a razor-sharp reef on the edge of a small island. Tavarua on steroids. At first, Akoni was awed by the flawless but dangerous break and he surfed cautiously. But after a few days, as a monster swell grew, his ego for fame overcame his caution and he began to take enormous risks, dropping in deeper and deeper behind giant peaks, seeking a longer and deeper tube ride for the cameras.

Tavarua. Photo: Surfertoday.com

As the waves began to break on the outer shoal and funnel onto the reef as massive tubes, Akoni paddled out alone to ride the 80 foot waves. After aggressively riding a few waves, his discovered the limit to his abilities: he dropped in on a giant wave and aimed for the massive tube building up on the almost exposed reef. Deep in the tube, he was hit by the huge lip and pitched full force onto the jagged coral.

Upon impact he broke both his arms as the wave dragged him along the bottom through the shallow reef carpeted with sea urchins, their needle-like spines breaking off in his body. As the wave dissipated, it deposited him on the edge of the channel where the current pinned him against a wall of fire coral. As he floated in agony, his arms useless against the current, his body a pin cushion on fire, sharks attracted by the blood began nipping at his legs. As his team scrambled to help, he realized he had breached the invisible wall the Gods had created to prevent mere mortals from tackling the impossible might of the sea, and this time, unlike his past mistakes, the ocean was teaching him a lesson.

During a tortuous three-hour boat ride back to the main island his excruciating pain gave him a brief moment of clarity as his life force drained from his body. In that moment, he realized that although he had followed his outspoken father’s path of the Tao, he had not listened to his mother’s quiet lessons on pono and he was being punished for his lack of discipline.

Near death, he directed his foundation to include a new overarching element to the challenges based on pono: evaluation for the award would be based on the concept of “action without intention.” Surfers had to achieve each benchmark through naturalness, simplicity, and spontaneity. Not through dominating competition or open bravado. Hence, they could not seek the ying and the yang, it had to come to them naturally through patience and by going with the flow.

As he died, Akoni’s whispered his final wisdom: listen to the quiet words.


Further Reading:

  • Chun, M. N. 2006. Pono The Way of Living (Ka Wana Series). Univ. of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI. 21 pp.
  • I Ching (text), Wilhelm Translation, 1950.
  • Martin, Andy. 2007. Stealing the Wave: The Epic Struggle Between Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo. Bloomsbury Publishing USA , 256 pp.
  • These 4 Teachings of Daoism Will Help You Navigate Life, Goodnet.org, 2018, Accessed April 19, 2020

Past Earth Day posts:

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