Hawaii is home to a variety of action and extreme sports. Big wave surfing is chief among them, certainly. But there is another sport here that involves riding mountains in the literal sense. Downhill skateboarding is enjoyed by a small but committed group of individuals, none of whom seem possessed of the self-preservation instinct.
Hurtling at speeds up to 35 miles per hour down treacherous, snaking mountain roads, riders contend not only with heart-pounding velocities and the inexorable pull of gravity but with the very real possibility of being hit by a motor vehicle travelling at similar speeds.
Downhill skateboarding traces its beginnings back decades, when it was the eccentric pursuit of skateboarders outside the mainstream. Since then it has grown considerably, gaining worldwide popularity and spawning the International Gravity Sports Association, the sport’s sanctioning body, which holds downhill skateboarding and street luge (where the rider is flat on their back) competitions around the world.
Hawaii’s downhill skateboarding community is more grassroots than all of that, but no less serious. Each of Hawaii’s islands are essentially individual mountains, volcanoes born of the same hotspot at the bottom of the ocean. There are hundreds of mountain roads throughout the state that offer ideal conditions for downhill skateboarding. All it takes to enjoy the sport is a dry, smooth road surface and a skateboard. Obviously, a certain degree of fearlessness is also required.
Different types of skateboards are used by riders, with some opting for longboards up to 46”, designed specifically for downhill skating with softer wheels for traction and a wider wheel base for stability. Others ride conventional street boards with harder wheels and slide to control speed. More serious downhill riders wear helmets, thick gloves, knee and elbow pads, and sturdy shoes to protect against road rash and head injuries. A former downhill enthusiast myself, I lost a fair amount of skin on a variety of Oahu hills before retiring after a brain rattling concussion sustained in a fall at 25 miles per hour.
The group Wheel Turner Hawaii holds an annual Hawaii Winter Outlaw Series, with races on each island. Before each event, a crew does a preliminary sweep of the road surface, removing gravel and other impediments to smooth skating. Contestants start from a “push box” at the start of the “run” and compete with like-minded speed junkies. A pace car often follows the riders, to assist the injured and get them out of the way of traffic. (It should be said that law enforcement generally frowns on large groups of skateboarders putting themselves and others at risk by careening through blind curves and screaming straits at breakneck speeds.)
While the downhill skateboarding community in Hawaii remains happily “underground,” awareness has increased and some riders enjoy the support of sponsorship from local skate shops, which provide equipment and safety gear. GoPro footage of the Downhill Skaters of Hawaii skating on Oahu has garnered over 350,000 views on YouTube. Clearly, downhill skateboarding in Hawaii is more than the unusual pursuit of a few deranged eccentrics. It’s speeding toward the mainstream.