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Hamoa Beach near Maui Hana Highway, mistaken for surfer Kelly Slater

Driving the Maui Hana Highway in a Mustang, Get Mistaken for GOAT Surfer Kelly Slater

Many years ago, after completing a marine biology project with humpback whales in Maui, Hawaii, I drove a Ford Mustang Convertible on the beautiful Hana Highway. While on my journey, I had a hilarious encounter with locals that mistook me for GOAT professional surfer Kelly Slater.

If you ever get the chance to visit the beautiful island of Maui, Hawaii, I highly recommend you take a drive on the spectacular Hana Highway, also known as the Road to Hana. I’ve been fortunate enough to take the Hana Highway drive on two different occasions, and it made a lasting impression. The first time was when I was still in college in 1998. I rented a Ford Mustang Convertible, and on the drive, I got mistaken for GOAT professional surfer Kelly Slater.

Take the Road to Hana after swimming with humpback whales

Curvy coast by Maui Hana Highway, drive Ford Mustang Convertible, surfing like Kelly Slater
Hana Highway, Maui, Hawaii | Paul Mounce/Corbis via Getty Images

Long before I was a writer, I was a marine biologist. In Maui, I worked on a research project with the Pacific Whale Foundation, studying humpback whales. Like the Road to Hana, viewing humpback whales is something that you should put on your bucket list. Humpback whales are famous for two things: their acrobatic breaches and their haunting songs.

For the research project, we recorded the songs of the humpback whales with a hydrophone — or an underwater microphone. We also photographed the tail flukes of the humpback whales. Like fingerprints of humans, each humpback whale has a unique tail fluke that marine biology researchers use to identify individual whales. 

The most amazing part of the research project was when I swam in the water while a nearby humpback whale sang a song. The vibrations of the sound waves from the song were so powerful that I could feel them vibrate throughout my body. It was an incredible experience.

Hit the Hana Highway with a Ford Mustang Convertible

Beautiful natural scenary on the Maui Hana Highway
Hana Highway, Maui, Hawaii | Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After completing the humpback whale research project, I wanted to do something special. So I rented a Ford Mustang Convertible and drove it on the Hana Highway, which is legendary for its beautiful natural scenery, gorgeous beaches, twisting roads, and many one-lane bridges. The Road to Hana is also a great escape from the more touristy parts of Maui.

Blue 1998 Ford Mustang Convertble driving on a coastal highway
1998 Ford Mustang Convertible | Ford

I had mixed feelings about the Ford Mustang Convertible. On the one hand, it was a fun car to drive, and the openness of the convertible design was great for enjoying views of the scenery on the Hana Highway. However, as any Hawaii local can tell you, a shiny new car makes you stick out like a sore thumb. Most locals prefer to drive older cars that can take a beating, while a new car is an easy identifier that you’re likely a tourist.

‘Hey, dude! It’s Kelly Slater driving a Ford Mustang!’

Hamoa Beach near Maui Hana Highway, mistaken for surfer Kelly Slater
Hamoa Beach near Hana Highway, Maui, Hawaii | Andre Seale/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

My serene journey on the Road to Hana took an interesting turn as I approached Hamoa Beach. Some locals riding skateboards spotted me driving the Mustang Convertible and frantically pointed at me and waved their arms. One of them yelled, ‘Hey dude! It’s Kelly Slater driving a Ford Mustang!”

If you’re not familiar with professional surfing, Kelly Slater is the greatest surfer of all time (GOAT). He is like the Michael Jordan of professional surfing. Back in 1998, Kelly Slater was at the peak of his international fame. He already won five surfing world titles (out of 11 overall) and appeared in television shows such as Baywatch.

If you placed Kelly Slater and me side-by-side in present times, no one would confuse us as the same person. Kelly Slater with his now shaved head and me with my bushy hair. However, looking at photos of myself and Kelly Slater in 1998, we had a similar hairstyle, face, and physique, so it’s easy to see how people might mistake me for him.

“Hey Kelly Slater, How about you catch some gnarly waves!”

After the skateboarders spotted me, they sped up with the skateboards and grabbed the back of the Ford Mustang Convertible for a ride, like Marty McFly with his skateboard in Back to the Future. They hitched a ride with the Mustang Convertible on the Hana Highway all the way to beautiful Hamoa Beach.

The skateboarders excitedly gave me high fives, did the Hawaii shaka sign — the pinky and thumb salute, yelling “Yo Kelly Slater! Kelly Slater! You came to our beach! That’s so cool!” Soon, a crowd of around 20 locals gathered around me, who also mistook me for Kelly Slater.

At this point, I wasn’t sure what I should do. Do I tell the Maui locals that I’m not really Kelly Slater, or do I go along with it? I didn’t want to disappoint them and ruin their excitement, so I chose the latter. So we hung out, partied, had a good time, all while the locals thought that they were enjoying a beautiful day at the beach with GOAT surfer Kelly Slater.

As the sun started to set and the sky turned a beautiful multicolor hue, one of the skateboarders said to me, “Hey Kelly Slater, how about you catch some gnarly waves!” While I love surfing and enjoy catching a “gnarly” wave, I’m only a tiny grain of sand compared to the ocean of surfing talent of Kelly Slater. With this in mind, I was hesitant to surf and ruin the ruse.

Surfing miracle on the Road to Hana

Surfer near Maui Road to Hana, where I was mistaken for Kelly Slater
Surfer near the Road to Hana, Maui, Hawaii | Francis Dean/Corbis via Getty Images

However, the locals kept prodding me, “Come on, Kelly, show us what you’ve got!” I relented, grabbed a surfboard that a local gave to me, and headed to the ocean. I was very nervous because I would surely disappoint everyone. 

I paddled out and waited for the perfect wave to come. Miraculously, it did. The wave rose high toward the sky. I then stood up on the surfboard and took a magic carpet ride across the ocean. Soon the wave crested into a beautiful barrel, or a tube, the curl of the wave. Somehow, the spirit of Kelly Slater took over me, and I surfed better than I had ever done before — or since. I surfed through the tube and then acrobatically soared up and down the break — and then gilded back to shore.

Maui sunset on the Road to Hana with a Ford Mustang Convertible after surfing
Maui sunset near the Road to Hana, Maui, Hawaii | Michael Orso/Getty Images

The Maui locals wildly cheered and mobbed me on the beach. “Yo, Kelly Slater, that was epic!” I figured that it wouldn’t get any better than this, and I didn’t want to press my luck, so I told the locals that “It’s time for me to go.”

As I left, I gave the locals a warm smile, a shaka salute, and said, “Mahalo, my friends.” I hopped in the Ford Mustang Convertible and drove off into the sunset on the Hana Highway.


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