Fred Swegles

By Fred Swegles

How did a 1991 graduate of San Clemente High School come to be the premier sensei of surf on the tropical Japanese island of Okinawa?

Search online for “surf instruction Okinawa.” Danny Melhado’s Happy Surfing Okinawa comes up No. 1.

“Most people are surprised you can even surf here,” he said. “It’s relatively unknown for surfing.”

EAST COAST ORIGINS

Melhado grew up in Florida, competing with Kelly Slater in East Coast contests. Slater went on to capture 11 world pro surfing titles. Melhado did well nationally, then moved to California in 1990 to refine his skills and attend his senior year at San Clemente High School. He was on the 1991 state champion SCHS surf team.

He and SCHS teammate Chad Navarro made the national team. Colin McPhillips, then an underclassman, would go on to become three-time world longboard champion.

Danny Melhado, front row, second from right, was part of San Clemente High’s 1991 state champion surf team. Photo: Fred Swegles

Shortboarder Melhado already was, by then, making yearly trips to Japan through sponsorships. Next, he went out on the international pro tour. He fell in love, married a Japanese national, moved to Japan and raised children.

While competing on the Japanese circuit, he built lasting friendships at surf locales around the country.

At one contest, Melhado was advised that an influential industry personality was looking for him, someone he’d met in Florida a decade earlier. Melhado, bilingual, had approached the Japanese man in the water, telling him that Mrs. Melhado was Japanese, inviting him and his wife over for a barbecue.

Reunited in Japan, the long-lost acquaintances hit it off.

Danny Melado snaps a souvenir picture of one of his students in shallow waters near the beach at Yomitan, Okinawa. Photo: Fred Swegles

ON TO OKINAWA

Melhado’s new mentor invited him to fly to Okinawa with him to chase a typhoon swell. They ended up spending a month. Melhado was entranced with the island, its beaches and the islanders.

For a time, he taught at a surf school in Hawaii while his ex-wife and kids lived in Japan. He longed to be closer to his kids, start a business.

Ten years ago, in the Okinawa town of Yomitan, Melhado found a house to rent, easy walking distance to a pleasant beach that produced gentle waves ideal for teaching. He turned the home into a guest house.

CULTURE FOR GUESTS

Melhado doesn’t just teach surfing. Irrepressibly friendly, and eager to share the local culture, he’ll take guests who wish to try Japanese-style dining at his favorite local eateries.
He has become an expert with a water camera. Nightly, he posts pictures on Instagram from the day’s surf sessions.

When surf conditions ramp up, he rides shortboards. Most often, he’s on a longboard, teaching in small waves, catching a few for himself. He warns anyone dreaming of perfect coral reef barrels that Okinawa surf conditions are iffy. World-class? Can be, but you’d have to be lucky and know where to go.

Danny Melhado introduces surf student Johannes Schaff from Germany to local-style dining at a favorite eatery on Okinawa. Photo: Fred Swegles

Melhado knows. He keenly monitors wind, tide and surf conditions and, nearly any day, can find small, longboardable waves somewhere for students, or for fun longboarding. Bigger surf? When it’s there, he’s on it.

“It’s kind of unique what I’ve done,” he said. “I’ve slowly integrated myself to be a local of this area and this island . . . kind of carved a little niche out in a slice of paradise.”

TOURIST EXPLORATIONS

Atop a hill in Yomitan, Zakimi Castle is a restored 600-year-old fortress and museum.

On Okinawa’s scenic south shore, the Peace Museum presents a sobering, unforgettable look back at horrors of World War II. The museum may shock you—then leave you with a new sense of compassion and humanity.

Danny Melhado at historic Zakimi Castle, overlooking the town of Yomitan, Okinawa. Photo: Fred Swegles

Tourists enjoy Okinawa’s beach resorts, its gorgeous aquarium, and its coral reefs for snorkeling, diving, surfing or SUP. Chatan, a town bordered by U.S. military bases, is an oceanfront “American Village,” popular internationally for its shopping, restaurants and surfing.
There’s intense city traffic—and pleasant escapes, driving Okinawa’s verdant rural roads.

I can attest to this. I recently booked a week’s stay at Happy Surfing Okinawa. Be forewarned, the guest house isn’t luxury. It’s basic. It’s an older house. It’s cozy. It’s clean. It’s a shared bathroom. It’s friendly. It’s cheaper than the three-star hotel where I spent my first night on Okinawa.

ADVENTURES

It can be spooky, in a rental car on unfamiliar roads, driving the other side of the road. I had three close calls, looking the wrong way or, briefly, actually driving the wrong way. Happily, I survived each scary gaffe without a scratch.

It was fun, learning history and culture and recalling old times with Danny, first meeting him in Florida, his year at San Clemente High and a 1990 trip to Barbados. I was the photographer for a U.S. competition team that included Danny, Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Pat O’Connell, Taylor Knox and SCHS’ Jason Senn.

In Japan, I was surprised how vividly Danny remembered that trip, right down to a tune we kept hearing there, “Reggae Ambassador,” that will live with me forever.

Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with nearly five decades of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at fswegles@picketfencemedia.com.

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