Remember When: The Return of Rich Lambert

BY Gretchen Nash

This summer 47-year-old Rich Lambert champion outrigger canoeist and local surf legend returned to Wrightsville Beach after 27 years to catch up with old friends and to reunite with his Wilmington family. While he was here Tropical Storm Gabrielle welcomed Lambert with a weekend of waves. Although a little rusty he was content to be back in the same ocean that created a lifelong enthusiasm for surfing and ocean life. He believes it instilled a lifestyle of health and fitness camaraderie and competitiveness traits that led him to dedicate eight years of his life to win a race that originated in the Hawaiian islands. The race was celebrated worldwide but it was the journey not the destination that made it memorable.

Those Were the Days

The sound of bare feet slapping across the wooden floor and the slam of the screen door as a freckle-faced teenager scans the watery horizon from his home on Oceanic Street — these are the sounds and images of a boy growing up on Wrightsville Beach in the 1970s. As the sun started its daily ascent young Rich Lambert slipped his surfboard under the rush of water to start his day the same way every day — in the ocean.

Usually he’d greet his Aunt Jackie and grandmother heading out for their early fishing ritual. Lambert’s mother died when he was 5 years old and after spending a few years in Maine with his father he begged to return to the beach at age 15.

“It was a drastic change because I’m an ocean guy and I’ve always been an ocean guy ” Lambert says of his relocation to Maine. “I told my father ‘Either send me back out there or I’m running away.’ Well he sent me back and I started surfing. I got back to the ocean life . . . I just loved it and still do.”

His mother’s family continued to raise him in the ways of a beach family — fishing surfing swimming and respecting the ocean. “They’d be fishing and I’d be surfing every morning ” says Lambert. “We’d all get up together and head out. And then I’d come home to fried fish every afternoon.”

Dane Waggett Lambert’s younger cousin remembered his fishing matriarchs fondly. “There was always a platter of fried fish whether it was cold or hot some corn fritters and salmon patties and some Pabst Blue Ribbon or Dr. Pepper … They were legends in their own time.”

“Those were the days ” agrees Lambert who once roamed the streets with surfing friends Nick Saffo and David Nelson. Mrs. Cross the former proprietor of Roberts Market and all-around den mother of Wrightsville Beach was still smiling behind the counter beach homes were still old beach cottages people opened their windows to catch the breeze Airlie Gardens was ideal for climbing trees and Pembroke Jones’ land (now Landfall) says Lambert was his stomping ground for catching snakes.

When Lambert arrived in Wrightsville this summer he immediately headed for his boyhood home on Oceanic Street surprised to find it still standing. He had heard the stories of old cottages being demolished. “I figured it would be gone. It’s cool to see things ” he says from Jerry Allen’s on Lumina Avenue. “This place has changed but it’s still the same.”

The Master Plan

In 1980 20-year-old Lambert left Wrightsville Beach and joined the Marine Corps to begin what he described as his “master plan.” “My father was a Marine and I just wanted to do something with my life basically. I was always a fitness freak. I was always working to be in shape running and all that. But I had a master plan when I joined ” he says of his 12-year career in the military. “I knew there was a base in Hawaii and I knew that if I did my first four years where they send you wherever they want to send you when you re-enlist you can choose your duty station. I knew that from the start. From the day I joined I said ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ So I re-enlisted and I got Hawaii and I went there. And as a surfer you naturally want to go to Hawaii right?”

The plan worked. He moved to Kailua on the windward side of Oahu surfed the North Shore and continued to live every surfer’s dream. One afternoon he stood on the beach during regatta season to watch 40-foot-long Hawaiian outrigger canoes sprint racing. “I was curious. I was watching it. To me it looked kind of boring ” he admits but the next day he showed up on the beach at 5 a.m. The team from Lanikai Canoe Club put him in a canoe and handed him a paddle. “That was all she wrote ” he said. “The rest is history.”

Working Together — Winning the Race

The most prestigious and difficult race in outrigger canoeing is the Molokai Hoe race. The 41-mile world-class race is a grueling test of strength and determination across open ocean in canoes 40 feet long and weighing 400 pounds. Extreme fitness skill and team spirit are essential to the competition. A powerful six-man team takes synchronized strokes with wooden paddles which are considered works of art and usually preferred over carbon fiber paddles for strength and durability. Three teams Waikiki Surf Club Hawaiian Surf Club and Kukui o Lanikaula of Molokai competed in the first race in 1952. Today crews from Tahiti Japan Singapore California Australia and other countries compete for this Super Bowl of canoe racing.

In 1986 only in his second year of paddling Lambert made the senior crew of the Lanikai Canoe Club. He was back in basic training not with the Marine Corps but with men of iron who embodied the Hawaiian art of canoe paddling. “You form this total camaraderie with these guys because you’re in a boat with them every single day ” said Lambert. “We trained our butts off we ran our butts off we lifted weights we climbed ropes. You name it we did it. We swam. And it was all about trying to win that one race the Molokai race.”

Lambert was a newcomer to the club the only Marine and he was a haole (a Hawaiian term for a caucasian foreigner). But instead of isolation Lambert was embraced by the Aloha spirit the Hawaiian law and way of life that practices having good feelings toward others. “The funny thing about it is that the people over there are exactly like the people from here ” says Lambert. “They’re all ocean-loving people and so I seemed to fit right in. It was easy real easy. I even told those guys the friends I was making over there ‘Man you guys are just like the guys from Wrightsville Beach. I feel right at home.’ It was total comfort.”

On weekends he and the crew trained about five hours a day. On weekdays they put in two or three hours a day. They traveled the world — Australia Fiji Western Samoa California — racing and setting records. “Nobody could touch us for four years ” he says. “Except for the Molokai. We’d win everything; we’d go to Molokai and get second. We were like ‘What are we doing wrong?’”

Finally in 1995 primed and pumped for the biggest win of their lives Lambert and his fellow teammates from the Lanikai Canoe Club of Oahu set the record with a time of 4:53:03 to beat the Tahitian crew that had been unstoppable for the previous two years. 

“About half an hour into the race we passed the Tahitians slowly we kept gaining and gaining and gaining ” recounts Lambert from the edge of his bar stool. “We could hardly see them in the end. We beat them by eight minutes. I was crying in the escort boat because it was just so emotional.”

Lambert and crew went on to win the Molokai Hoe race again the next year. In 2001 Lambert hung up his paddle and decided to let someone else conquer the world. After living in Hawaii for more than 20 years he moved to Maine to reunite with his father’s family.

Lately he’s been dreaming of the ocean of surfing and how his 12-year-old daughter would thrive in his hometown beach and ocean where it all started for him. His visit to Wrightsville Beach has opened his eyes to new possibilities. “I’m going back to Maine with a new mindset ” said Lambert before his next surf session. “I’ll probably be back down here one way or another. It may not be immediately but it will be eventually.”