When Hans Loewen died after a skateboarding accident, his fellow surfers knew how they’d say goodbye: with a paddle out.
The oceanfront gathering is a practice designed to let surfers send one of their own off on the final wave.
Surfers solemnly took to the ocean recently near Surf City Pier to honor their fallen friend. Loewen, 20, of Hampstead, recently had been accepted to the Naval Academy and was on leave when he was injured. Before hitting the water, hundreds of friends and relatives gathered on the sand for a few words before the ceremony.
“This was our favorite place to be,” said his sister, Zatha Loewen, as she addressed the crowded beach. “I can’t tell you how many times we came out here and paddled out together, right here at this pier. I’ll always treasure this place in my heart. Hans would have loved to see everyone’s faces today. You’ve made a huge difference in his life.”
Zatha, with a string of yellow flowers in her hair, was joined by almost 70 surfers as she paddled past the breaking waves. The surfers straddled their boards and formed a floating circle in accordance with Hawaiian tradition. People splashed the water with their hands and took turns saying their final goodbyes. Loose carnation flowers then were thrown into the center of the circle.
“It’s a community thing to let the family know how much he meant to us,” said Gary Cadenaugh with the Christian Surfers organization. “It shows how much Hans meant to these people. Unfortunately, we’ve had a little more practice with this than we’d like over the last few years.”
Cadenaugh’s thoughts were echoed by George Howard who runs nearby On Shore Surf Shop.
“Everything is going well today and the family seems to be letting go of some of their grief,” Howard said. “We’ve just seen way too many tragic deaths here in our community over the last few years.”
Cadenaugh and Howard were referring to Kurt Murray, 21, who died just more than three years ago in big surf churned by Hurricane Igor and experienced waterman, Larry Kinkade, 53, who died last month after an excavator rolled and pinned him in a pond at a construction sight near the town’s outskirts.
Both Murray and Kinkade’s deaths prompted community paddle outs at Surf City Pier.
Also present Saturday was Hans Loewen’s mother, Jennifer Loewen, who stood at the water’s edge to watch the ceremony. She was moved to tears as her son was honored by friends and acquaintances.
“Hans loved this place. He was a warrior and he took risks,” Jennifer said. “He knew there were consequences for those, but sometimes you just want to have fun. He knew he might break a bone or get a scrape, but it did not scare him. You still have to move on. I don’t want kids to stop having fun.”
After the ceremony, the steady onshore sea breeze kicked up some chop and a few of the surfers caught rides toward shore. As the rest of the surfers also advanced to the beach, flowers were left swirling in their wakes.