Aloha and welcome to the LEGENDARY SURFERS chapter on surfing as it was in 1955.
Disclaimer: I've tried my best to pin-point surfing events and stories that took place in 1955, but realize there may be some inconsistencies in the chronology.
“And I still, to this day, subconsciously spot pop bottles lying alongside the road anywhere I drive, the training of my younger years. Now I don’t have to pick them up any more. But someone is.”
-- Phil Edwards 1
“Greg once passed me in a race going so fast that I felt like I was going the other direction. He just streaked by me. It was ridiculous. I was ahead at that point, and the next thing I knew, he was fifty yards ahead of me. Came out of nowhere. I don’t know what he was doing, but he was doing it fast.”
-- Ricky Grigg 2
“So as soon as we got out of the water, we’d run right over by the fire to get warm. When the fire burned down some, we’d wrap potatoes in tin foil and toss them in the coals. By the time we remembered to pull them out, they were usually charred black, but we’d crack them open anyway and eat them with salt. After surfing all day, those potatoes were a feast.”
-- Mike Doyle 3
“Doc Ball himself sent me a signed copy of California Surfriders. I received that book in 1956, and it’s still one of the most precious things I own. Even today, every black-and-white photo in that book is as beautiful to me as the first time I saw it.”
-- Mike Doyle 4
“Those were carefree, happy times. It was like living a whole era to ourselves. Sea, air and landscape in a dreamy passing of days spent riding waves and reflecting upon the goodness of life at this stage, living with just the basics. For me the poetry of days has never equaled that time. The early years in the Islands had drama and dimension and certainly were adventurous. But 1955 was sheer poetry -- halcyon days, looking at them now from a tranquil distance.”
-- Greg Noll talking about the winter spent surfing Rincon 5
“We stole pineapples from the fields to make an alcoholic beverage called Swipe which knocked you out; speared fish, and shared a lot of ‘Primo‘ beer along with great guitar music. I’ll never forget watching Swipe being made and my friend Buffalo spitting into it, saying that made it ferment more quickly.
“There were three or four wooden framed shacks covered with tarps. It kept the rain out, but not the mosquitos. Our time passed as intended, having fun.”
-- Fred Van Dyke on life on the North Shore 6
“We were pioneering a new area,” explained Van Dyke. “Aside from making pacts to retrieve one another’s board, we never knew whether we would get back to shore. After a wipeout we did not know which action would get us to the beach fastest. Most often we chose the comfort of the rip and waited until someone paddled a board out.”
-- Fred Van Dyke 7
“From then on, Greg never go in water diving unless I go first. Now we both look at each other, say, ‘Anybooooody?’ One who goes in first has to find out if anybody stay home.”
-- Buffalo Keaulana 8
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States began in 1955 when black people in Montgomery, Alabama, boycotted segregated city bus lines. In less serious matters, Rock ‘n Roll music burst on the American scene with Bill Haley and the Comets‘ “Rock Around the Clock.” Less explosive music of the year included: “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Davy Crockett,” and “Sixteen Tons.” Graham Greene‘s The Quiet American was published and so was Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.9
For surfing, it was a time when the North Shore of O`ahu was being pioneered. Back on the Mainland, the golden age of Malibu was emerging and Rincon began to be actively pursued. Many of the surfers of those days remember the time with extreme nostalgia.
According to Phil Edwards, about the time he first started shaping boards, Hobie Alter began doing the same.
“Along a parallel course,” wrote Edwards, “Hobie Alter had begun building balsa boards in his garage and selling them. From the start, Hobie had a sort of magic touch. More and more surfers were swinging over to the Hobie boards. He finally got to the point -- at $65 per board -- where he could open up a shop at Dana Point.”10
“First thing I did was move in. We made surfboards by day, Hobie and I, and by night I would throw an unfinished board across two sawhorses, lie down and pull a blanket over me, and sleep. Balsa boards are really not all that bad for sleeping on; after a few nights of this, you get so you can roll over; sleep on your side, stomach or back without falling off. If nothing else, it gives you a certain feel for surfboards; you know their every nuance of bend and shape. You haven’t lived until you have slept on one...
“All this taught me several things: (1) how to shape surfboards better, (2) how to scare away burglars -- the sight of a guy rising off a surfboard with blanket draped around him was a little like a corpse rising off a slab, and it scared the hell out of them every time, and (3) it is better if you put each leg of the sawhorse into a bucket of water to keep scorpions and other bugs from climbing up and eating you at night.
“With a Spartan routine like this I made money. When I was fifteen-and-one-half years old I had a 1940 Ford. Pretty dandy, considering the fact that I couldn’t even drive the thing (uhh, legally) for another six months. And I still, to this day, subconsciously spot pop bottles lying alongside the road anywhere I drive, the training of my younger years. Now I don’t have to pick them up any more. But someone is.”11
“In 1955,” Sonny Vardeman recalled, “when we graduated from high school, we were finally old enough to be lifeguards, and several of us took the test together. Greg had lied about his age a couple of years before and got in ahead of us. This was during the Korean conflict, and the government was drafting heavily out of our senior class. Greg joined the Coast Guard Reserves. Meanwhile, I took my first trip to the Islands that October, with Steve Voorhees, Bing Copeland, Mike Bright and Rick Stoner. To avoid the draft, Voorhees and I joined the navy at Pearl Harbor. Copeland and Stoner went into active duty in the Coast Guard.
“After a service break of a couple of years, some of us came back and went to college. Greg continued with the lifeguards and making surfboards out of his garage. Greg was a pretty curious guy. He’d learned a lot from watching Velzy and Bob Simmons. He was constantly on Velzy’s tail, watching his every move. This is how he learned about shaping balsa-wood boards.
“Greg built me a couple of balsa boards. There was such a demand for surfboards then that you’d have to look someone up and beg them to build one. Materials were hard to get, even if you knew where to get them. The labor and skill involved in building a board wasn’t easy.
“Bing Copeland, Rick Stoner, Mike Bright and I started messing with surfboards, too, in my folks’ big, two-car garage in Hermosa Beach. Bing and Rick shaped while Mike and I glassed. It was a bad scene. We had sawhorses lined up and down the alley, and my dad was getting mad as hell. He finally kicked us out, saying, ‘You guys are running a commercial enterprise down here. If you’re going to be in business, find yourselves a shop.’ This is how Bing’s and Rick’s shop on the Strand evolved. They became partners.
“By that time, Greg had outgrown his garage operations and had gone up on Coast Highway in Manhattan Beach and opened a shop in 1956, after he and Beverly had gotten married. They were in Manhattan Beach for a brief time, then they set up shop in Hermosa, on Pier Avenue and Coast Highway.
“I started a fiberglassing shop with Mike Bright, called Surf Fiberglass. We specialized in fiberglassing and did work for several surfboard makers, including Greg, Dewey Weber and Hap Jacobs. As their businesses expanded, they eventually started doing their own glassing. In the sixties, I jumped in with my own surfboard shop in Huntington Beach. Throughout the sixties, Huntington Beach was hot. The sixties were surfing’s boom days.
“Part of the reason for the boom was that surfing had caught on on the East Coast. Hobie and Dewey did promotional tours on the East Coast and came back with hundreds of orders for surfboards. During that time, each of their shops was turning out hundreds of boards a week.
“Then it began to slow down. After shipping thousands of boards to their Eastern accounts, the East Coast shops got a little careless with their accounts. Some of them started making their own boards. In the later part of the sixties, East Coast business turned sour. At the same time, the Vietnam War was escalating and all the young men went off to war. There was a general downturn in the surf business. A lot of the board manufacturers on the West Coast were severely hurt. Jacobs and Bing sold out. Greg hung on for a while and eventually dissolved in the early seventies. By that time, I also had closed up shop and gone back to lifeguarding full time.”12
Catalina-to-Manhattan Beach Paddleboard Race
“I was around seventeen when I won the Catalina race,” recalled big wave surfer Ricky Grigg. “They took a picture of the first six finishers with the trophies all lined up in front of us. It was George Downing, Tommy Zahn, Charlie Reimers, Bog Hogan, Greg Noll and me, all standing there together, and there was one muscular guy who was flexing. Guess who. The rest of us were so tired, we were just hanging there. Greg would just gag me. He was always hamming it up.
“Greg once passed me in a race going so fast that I felt like I was going the other direction. He just streaked by me. It was ridiculous. I was ahead at that point, and the next thing I knew, he was fifty yards ahead of me. Came out of nowhere. I don’t know what he was doing, but he was doing it fast.”13
Lifeguards & Paddlers
“A lot of early surfers like myself started out lifeguarding and paddleboard racing,” wrote Greg Noll. “I entered my first paddling race when I was thirteen, along with Bing Copeland, Bev Morgan and the Meistrell brothers. We all won our class.
“I was eighteen when I entered the first Catalina to Manhattan Beach Rough Water Paddleboard Race in 1955. The race started in Catalina. Each paddler was followed by a boat for the entire thirty-two-mile distance. They hand you food and drink on a pole while you’re out in the water on your paddleboard, so that you don’t have any contact with the boat. My boat got screwed up -- the captain didn’t think any of us would make it anyway -- and we ended up off-course. We recalculated the distance. As it turned out, I paddled 52 miles that day. Lost nine pounds, but came in second.
“Ricky Grigg beat me. His boat had a directional finder that bombed him right in...
“When we started going to Hawaii for the winter surf, lifeguarding gave us the means. We’d work through the rest of the year and save as much money as we could to live on in Hawaii. As lifeguards we were dedicated to two things: making rescues and having fun. When it was time to work, rescues were taken very seriously. The rest of the time we screwed around. You can’t get away with that anymore. Today you’re supposed to be serious all the time...”14
Meanwhile, gremmie Mike Doyle was starting to branch out away from his home break:
“I had a good neighbor... Herb Dewey,” recalled Doyle. “He was married, about thirty, with his first kid. Herb had picked up surfing in the army, over in Hawaii, at Waikiki. He had a big paddle board, and he used to take it down to Corona Jetty on the weekends. I told Herb there were surfers at Manhattan Pier, which was news to him... Herb got all stoked at the thought of having a surfing buddy, so when I bought my new surfboard, he bought a new board, too. Herb took me under his wing, and we went surfing together almost every weekend.
“One day in the summer, Herb and I stopped at the Velzy and Jacobs shop in Venice. We had been up and down the South Bay looking for surf... Velzy listened to us complain, then said, ‘These are all winter breaks along here, fellas. You gotta go up to Malibu. That’s a great ride in the summer. I just heard it’s breaking six feet right now.’
“We thought Velzy was putting us on, but Herb and I drove up to Malibu anyway, and sure enough, Velzy was right: Malibu was breaking set after set of long, ruler-perfect waves. That was when I first realized that it wasn’t enough just to know how to surf. You also had to understand the seasons, the weather, the swell direction, and the wind pattern. Surfing was more than just kicks in the water. In order to be any good at this, you had to understand how your home planet works.
“After that, Herb and I started surfing at Malibu every weekend... We would stop first in Culver City, at the old rail yard, and load up the back of Herb’s ‘52 woody with railroad ties. As soon as we hit the beach, we’d start a big smoky bonfire that stank of creosote. There weren’t many wetsuits in those days -- sometimes when the wind was blowing hard, we’d wear a little wool sweater out in the water, but that was all we had. So as soon as we got out of the water, we’d run right over by the fire to get warm. When the fire burned down some, we’d wrap potatoes in tin foil and toss them in the coals. By the time we remembered to pull them out, they were usually charred black, but we’d crack them open anyway and eat them with salt. After surfing all day, those potatoes were a feast.”15
“All through those... high school years,” continued Doyle in Morning Glass, specifically 1953-54, “I had a recurring dream of waking up in the morning and seeing the ocean out my window. I craved being near the water, and all I ever thought about was escaping to the one place where I thought I could be free and happy.
“I tried to find as much literature as I could find about the ocean and surfing. There were no surf magazines in those days, but in the school library, in a copy of National Geographic, I found a photo of Waikiki, probably taken from an airplane or helicopter, showing a couple of surfers riding long, clean rollers. The water was so clear, you could see the coral bottom. The only beaches I had ever seen were the South Bay beaches, with sandy bottoms and murky water. But Waikiki looked so beautiful, it didn’t seem to me like a place that could really exist. I kept trying to find the flaw in the photo, like it was some kind of trick. Every day for weeks, I went to the library to stare at that photo. I was in love with it, and I finally decided I just had to have it. So one day after school, I went to the library, found the copy of National Geographic, slipped it between two of my textbooks, and walked out with it. At home I hid it under my bed, and every day for two years, I would take it out and stare at that photo of Waikiki, planning for the day I would escape.”16
These were years before surf media of any kind. The few exceptions were Tom Blake’s book, published in 1935, and the pictorial glossy of Doc Ball’s, published in 1946.
“One of the older surfers down at Manhattan Pier told me about a book called California Surfriders by Doc Ball. It focused on surfing in the 1930s and ‘40s, in San Onofre, La Jolla, and Santa Cruz -- all places I’d never been before. I looked for the book at the school library and a couple of local libraries, without any luck. Then I told my mother about the book, and after a few phone calls, she learned that the Los Angeles County Library had a copy of it. She drove me to downtown Los Angeles so we could check it out.
“I took Doc Ball’s book home and studied each picture for an hour at a time, scrutinizing each grain in the black-and-white photos, the way the water flowed over the board, the way the wave was breaking -- every detail -- until I could feel what it was like trimming across a wall of water. I studied each of the surfers’ styles, their hand movements, the way their feet were placed on the boards, and I came to understand that each surfer in that era -- Hoppy Swarts, LeRoy Grannis, Pete Peterson -- had his own individual style.
“I saw that the surfers in the book had a wonderful camaraderie that I didn’t have in my own life. They were healthy and joyful, and they enjoyed being with each other. I could see a community spirit there that I wanted to be a part of.
“But more than anything else, I saw from Doc Ball’s book that surfing is as much an art as it is a sport. Before I had developed any elements of my own style, I came to appreciate that surfing at its highest level isn’t supposed to be a macho struggle to defeat the wave, it’s a form of dancing, with the wave as your partner, almost like ballet.
“I was heartbroken when that book finally had to go back to the library, already days overdue. But my wonderful mother, seeing how enthralled I was with the book, somehow managed to find out that Doc Ball was running the Life’s Highway Ranch for Boys, in Fort Seward, California. She wrote him a letter telling him how much her son loved his book, and a few weeks later, Doc Ball himself sent me a signed copy of California Surfriders. I received that book in 1956, and it’s still one of the most precious things I own. Even today, every black-and-white photo in that book is as beautiful to me as the first time I saw it.”17
Rincon, Winter 1955-56
“In 1955,” recalled Mike Stange, “after working another season on the beach but being laid off around October, Greg, Billy Meng, Jim Fisher and I decided to spend a winter in the Santa Barbara area, near Rincon. We rented a house in Carpinteria and had a great winter of surfing. Bobby Patterson and Mickey Munoz visited frequently, and during the week, the six of us shared day after day of perfectly shaped six-to-eight-foot waves.
“Those were carefree, happy times. It was like living a whole era to ourselves. Sea, air and landscape in a dreamy passing of days spent riding waves and reflecting upon the goodness of life at this stage, living with just the basics. For me the poetry of days has never equaled that time. The early years in the Islands had drama and dimension and certainly were adventurous. But 1955 was sheer poetry -- halcyon days, looking at them now from a tranquil distance.”18
“Rincon, 1955,” recalled Greg Noll. “Midnight raids on the squash fields. The house so full of produce you couldn’t walk through it. Glassing a board on the antique table of an old English guy named Floyd -- somebody got shit-faced and shot up the house. Fisher and his hearse with the chicken on the roof. All these images come back to me in a blur when I think about our winter in Rincon.
“... Billy Meng... really had the gift of gab, came across like a real hayseed. He called everything ‘she’ or ‘her.’ Everybody who ever knew him loved him. Especially the ladies. He was a real hit with the ladies.
“While we were in Rincon, we’d drive around in Billy’s beat-up rusted-out old car. He’d never make a full stop at a stop sign. He didn’t want to wear out the brakes, so he’d shift down to second gear, coast up to the stop sign and roll on through. And he never drove the damn thing over twenty-five.
“Except for one time, and we got pulled over by a cop. The cop comes up to the window and asks for Meng’s license and registration. Of course, all Meng had on him was a pair of shorts and sandals. He never carried anything else on him, not even identification.
“Even though we’d rented a house together, Meng practically lived out of his car. It was full of junk, under the seat, on the floor, in the glove box. He told the cop in his country-boy accent, “I know she’s in here someplace,” and started rummaging around. Meng pulls a pair of pants out from under the seat and hands them to Mike. He reaches back into the back seat and comes up with a snorkel and mask and hands those to me. By this time he’s edged his way out of the car so he can grub around in the junk on the floor.
“Meanwhile, Mike and I could see that the cop was getting a little amused. He’s standing there, patiently, while Meng keeps pulling all this crap out of the car and piling it on top of me and Mike. ‘I know she’s here somewheres,’ he’d say, and rummage around some more.
“He finds his army discharge papers and reads those to the cop. No go. So Meng crawls back into the car again, pulling out more piles of junk. ‘Gosh, she’s got to be here.’ After several minutes of this routine, even the cop is holding a pile of Meng’s stuff. The cop finally calls a halt.
“‘I tell you what you’d better do,’ he says. ‘You’d better get back in HER and start HER up and you’d better get HER the hell out of here before I start writing HER up. Because I won’t stop writing for a week!’
“He didn’t have to tell us twice. We were out of there in a flash. We looked back at the cop. He had pushed his hat back on his head and was laughing as he watched us drive away.”19
Phil Edwards on the North Shore
“In 1955 the North Shore was semi-pristine,” wrote Fred Van Dyke, who had moved there from Santa Cruz. “Try to imagine having the North Shore practically to yourself. It wasn’t always scary stuff. There were hot, offshore winds, five to ten foot surf days at Haleiwa where only Henry Preece, a local surfer, Buffalo Keaulani, Pat Curren, two or three locals and I rode wave after alone...
“At that time, many local families lived right on the beach at Haleiwa, now known as the Surf Center; then called ‘Alii Beach‘ (for the noble class of the Hawaiian monarchy). It was a definitely slowed down and relaxing place to camp and surf.
“We stole pineapples from the fields to make an alcoholic beverage called Swipe which knocked you out; speared fish, and shared a lot of ‘Primo‘ beer along with great guitar music. I’ll never forget watching Swipe being made and my friend Buffalo spitting into it, saying that made it ferment more quickly.
“There were three or four wooden framed shacks covered with tarps. It kept the rain out, but not the mosquitos. Our time passed as intended, having fun.”20
In this environment of a still-quiet North Shore, 15-year-old Phil Edwards made his first trip to Hawaii in 1955, focusing on both Makaha and the North Shore.21
“‘Three weeks,’ said my mother, who knew my every mood and could read the glint in my eyes from a block away. ‘If you’re not back in three weeks, I come and get you.’ And she meant it.
“I took the plane,” Edwards recalled. “None of that routine with the nut-brown, doe-eyed girls waiting there at the airport, gently swaying their bronzed hips to steel guitars and hanging orchid leis around everyone’s neck.
“‘How do you find Makaha?’ I asked.
“They know a loser when they see one. I sure as hell did not look like a Shriner. No lei. One of them jerked a thumb.
“‘Other side of the island,’ she said.”22
“In the Islands,” wrote Chris Aherns in Good Things Love Water, Edwards “happened upon a surfer headed for Makaha, and begged a ride from the man whom he recognized as Pat Curren. The man didn’t recognize the kid, but agreed to take him along with him. As they drove, Curren was silent, never initiating conversation, and speaking only to answer Phil’s many questions with a simple yes or no.”23
Curren dropped Edwards off at Makaha, where the he surfed with some of the locals in small waves that grew to head high. Late in the day, “a beaten up ‘36 Ford rolled up with a large stocky man at the wheel, and a passenger hanging half way outside of the car window.
“Makaha was a tightly knit community in those days where everyone knew each other. The sight of any haole, especially a young boy with a surfboard and a suitcase, was so unusual that the men had to pull over to check it out... Phil recognized that it was his old friend, Walter Hoffman. The other man, who was built like a wild animal, was named Buzzy. Trent. The boy had heard the lifeguards from home say that he was one of the best big-wave riders in Hawaii, a man who had pioneered big surf at Makaha and on the North Shore.
“Once he realized the boy’s homeless situation, Hoffman picked up the suitcase and threw it into the car. Trent helped the kid put the board into the trunk. On the way home, Trent spoke excitedly about a new swell that was about to hit the island. Then, without warning, Hoffman pulled over to the side of the road and asked the kid to sit in the driver’s seat. ‘Do you know how to drive?’ he asked.
“‘No,’ said Phil.
“‘Well, it’s easy,’ said Hoffman, as he illustrated the use of the clutch, gears and brakes... after a few near misses with palm trees and houses, he knew enough to become a surfer’s chauffeur. He was directed down old dirt roads and up dead-end streets, and then up a winding road, and up over an overgrown path until they arrived at an abandoned army installation, an old semicylindrical metal shelter...
“The land near the shelter was completely wild and overgrown. Nailed up near the door were the dried fins of big fish that had been speared and eaten by the men, and cooked over the much-used rock pit near the door. Inside, the place was sparse but roomy. Walter introduced the kid to another man, Leslie Williams.
“That night after a dinner of fish which Buzzy had speared, rice, and sweet pineapples stolen from the fields, the kid lay on an old army cot thinking, ‘In one day I went from having nothing, to having a great place to stay with some great guys.’ He went to sleep smiling.
“The next morning he awoke early with a warm wind that came through the mountains, and whistled through the gaps in the tin roof... The crew were soon up too, and Buzzy spoke in a staccato voice, wringing his hands and saying, ‘Maybe Sunset today. Maybe Sunset today.’“24
“In 1955,” recalled Fred Van Dyke in his book Thirty Years Riding The World’s Biggest Waves, “there were no helicopter rescues or lifeguards. There were no computerized surf reports. There were hardly more than ten guys surfing the entire North Shore, and most often you couldn’t find anyone to surf with you.
“When we first went out at Sunset, some of the local people called the police and fire department. The firemen yelled at us through loud speakers and ran waving us down to the shorebreak. They floundered; their heavy boots filled with water. They were not trained for rescue as [they are] today. We found ourselves rescuing them.
“The local people warned us with tears in their eyes: ‘Don’t go out, you’ll drown -- sharks will eat you!’“25 In the long ago days, the northern end of Sunset Beach was called Paumalu,26 and it was a well-known surfing area well before European contact. Duke Kahanamoku knew of “its perfectly formed underwater reef, a spawner of big steep waves. There the great swells sweep in from fathoms of blue water, then make a fast, wild break when they slide over the shallow area. Nine-to-twelve-foot heights allow surfers to ride their boards a full quarter-mile.”27
“Sunset Beach... offers a tremendous challenge for those who attempt it,” wrote Ricky Grigg and Ron Church in their book Surfer in Hawaii. “A fast-shifting and deceptive peak makes it a very difficult right slide to line up. Sliding to the left, though sometimes possible, will carry a surfer over a very shallow reef where extremely turbulent water is found. Frequently, cleanup sets make swimmers out of surfers. The inside wall at Sunset sucks out over a fairly shallow reef and thus breaks with fracturing power on the sharp coral bottom. One of the strongest riptides in the Hawaiian Islands churns just inside the break, running parallel to the beach a short distance and then turning and heading out to sea through a deep channel. Many boards and several surfers have taken their last ride in this rip.”28
When Phil Edwards made his first trip to O’ahu, he surfed Sunset the second day he was on the island and he rode in good company. Chris Aherns told the story, beginning with the ride to Sunset:
“The men in the car discussed their equipment, and found general agreement that Curren made some of the best big-wave guns in the islands. ‘Yeah, I love his boards,’ said Trent, ‘but he’s so damned quiet that I never know what he’s thinking. You know how he is, sitting outside at Sunset without saying a word and then, when you think he’s nearly asleep, he’ll catch the biggest wave of the day.’ There was admiration in Trent’s voice as he spoke of Curren.
“Coming out of miles of pineapple fields, Phil saw the North Shore for the first time -- a powder-blue sky dotted by white clouds, and surf breaking for as far as he could see. It looked small to him, and he was surprised by the reaction of the other surfers. ‘Floor it,’ said Walter before Phil hit the gas.
“‘Let’s go, let’s go,’ said Buzzy nearly frantically. The kid drove down the thin highway, past small tin-roofed homes and well-kept fields, some of which were being cultivated by men using nothing but a plow pulled by an ox. They drove past miles of empty surf, perfect waves fanned by offshore winds formed symmetrical, blue triangles... They continued to drive without seeing another surfer anywhere until Phil was told to pull over onto the shoulder. Here they faced a long, wide beach.
“The kid looked out and watched a clean wave of about four foot break fairly close to shore. He thought, ‘This looks like home; I like this.’ Walter [Hoffman] and Leslie [Williams] got out of the car and grabbed their boards. Buzzy gave a loud hoot, and stood next to the kid, and said with serious joy, ‘Look at that, man, look at it!’ Phil followed Buzzy’s eyes far away past the medium-sized surf of the shorebreak he was watching, to a place on the edge of a massive rip, where a huge peak toppled in slow motion.
“Seeing that Walter and Leslie were already on their way out, Buzzy grabbed his board and ran to catch them, outdistancing them as he committed himself to the river of a rip, and then paddling over to the big peak.... Phil grabbed his board, and fearing to look toward the sea, he paddled out with his head down... The kid paddled hard for the outside where the others were sitting, looking like dots...
“Phil sat in the pack with the others and looked around for the mushy peak he had seen from shore. A wave approached quickly and Phil spun around and knee-paddled for it, just as he had always done in California. The strong offshore wind blew him back over the top and out of the wave as drops of warm water pelted his skin. Walter looked with concern at Phil and told him not to knee-paddle into the waves saying that if he did, he would never make the drop. Phil dropped from his knees and laid flat onto his board and scanned the horizon for sets.
“Not even Buzzy seemed calm now. They all huddled, waiting quietly for a long time until the next wave approached, a beautiful peak, a gift to the kid who began to stroke in early from a prone position... Eventually they all made shore and sat together on the sand for a while, verbally replaying their rides.
“Buzzy spoke for them all saying, ‘Hey, did you see Phil out there today?’ Hoffman smiled proudly. Buzzy gave the kid a warm slap on the shoulder.
“... After lunch they decided to check out the surf at Haleiwa. The waves looked clean and fun, similar to ones Phil had ridden in Dana Point. This was his chance to show the others what he could do. He paddled out quickly without fully assessing the conditions, and with the intention of showing off... Unlike Sunset, the worst was not over after the drop, however, and he looked out to see the wall stretching down and away from him. The wave found sufficient depth to break, and broke hard, causing the kid and his board to fly in separate directions.
“After being held down in the darkness, Phil came up gasping and pushing back the thick foam. Another wave was upon him now, and he dove down deep, back into darkness. He came up and faced a third wave, and a fourth, and found that he was being pulled out to sea and down the beach.”29
“I was so far offshore you wouldn’t believe it,” recalled Edwards. “Not that this is particularly bad. Under the right conditions, a little deep-ocean swimming never hurt anybody. But the rip was pulling me farther out and I was making the grim mistake of all first-timers: I was fighting it like crazy and I was exhausted.
“Finally, I lay with my face sticking out of the water, looking up. I could hear the sound of paddling. Dip, dip, dip. I rolled my eyes over to one side and saw that someone had come out on a board to get me.”30
“On the beach,” continued Aherns, “the men watched as the boy tried to swim against the powerful rip. They knew that it was hopeless and so they asked one of their Hawaiian friends to go out and rescue him. Phil felt a little smaller as he drove back to Makaha...”31 He even wrote about it in a child’s primer-style:
This is a riptide. See it rip.
Rip, rip, rip.
See the surfers out in it.
See them being pulled along.
Pull, pull, pull.
See the funny man try to swim against it.
See how he can’t do it.
Son of a bitch.32
“I had been walking along the beach with a gang of friends,” Edwards recalled of another Sunset Beach riptide incident. “--we were stoked by Sunset Beach and wondering, idly, where our next meal was coming from. And we came upon this little Hawaiian girl. I mean little: She was, say, a four-year-old, wearing big, dark eyes and a wisp of colored calico, and the sun shone on her like bronze. She was playing in the shorebreak, in water that occasionally boiled up around her knees. So we stopped and watched her for a minute.
“Suddenly, without warning, she jumped about this high and scampered into the beach and motioned us to come along.
“Swoosh! Along came a slashing wave, carrying with it the riptide. It would have been, had we been standing in it, about waist high. But... Had we been standing in it, the rip would have snatched us up, tumbled us along to the outgoing river and sucked us out to sea. And this kid hadn’t even been looking over her shoulder.
“What she had done was to develop -- at this tender age -- a native Hawaiian sense of timing. She knew instinctively the riptide was there; and she also knew that an occasional big one will creep up and kidnap you.”33
Laniakea, November 1955
Fred Van Dyke had come over from Santa Cruz, California, and was one the big wave surfers who helped open up the North Shore. A notable time in his recollections was November 1955:
“Buzzy Trent, who often surfed alone at Sunset, organized an all-out attack on the North Shore in 1955. Pat Curren, Buzzy, my brother Peter, George Downing, Wally Froiseth and I drove up to an untouched surf spot in November of ‘55. The day was glassy, and no one was out. Cylinders tubing at 20-foot plus for 200 yards lined the point. We didn’t know if we could get out.
“Buzzy said he had dived in the area the previous summer... finally everyone waxed his board.
“Bud Browne... climbed to the top of a water tower... and set up his camera... no waves under 15 feet all day.”34 It was this first known surf session at this spot that resulted in Laniakea getting its name as a surf locale. Bud Browne had seen the name “Laniakea” on a sign on a house close by.35
“We were exhausted when we drove back to Honolulu,” continued Van Dyke. “Two days later Bud Browne got his films back and we screamed and yelled at wave after wave, 15-20 foot walls 200 yards long rolled by on film. In those days we could measure pretty accurately the size of waves by looking through a view finder, and using pieces of paper to measure our stance. Then you multiplied the stance by the number of times you could put it against the wave.”36
“We were pioneering a new area,” explained Van Dyke. “Aside from making pacts to retrieve one another’s board, we never knew whether we would get back to shore. After a wipeout we did not know which action would get us to the beach fastest. Most often we chose the comfort of the rip and waited until someone paddled a board out.”37
“Alonzo Wiemers and Buzzy Trent took me to the North Shore on a day in 1955 when all of the outside reefs were breaking -- exploding. Thousands of tons of white water crashed and blew up with the force of the bottom reefs, and tradewinds scanned the broken wave faces...
“We drove to Sunset to find it completely closed out. No decision needed there except to turn around and drive to Makaha.
“Laniakea was breaking a mile out in the ocean, so we passed on to Haleiwa. Stopping there, we went into a little coffee shop -- Jerry’s -- fronting the sea. From the window we saw the outside break at Haleiwa. It was a snowy mountain avalanching, cascading forward; tons of soup filling the horizon. If it looked huge from three quarters of a mile away, what would it be like up close?
“We finished our coffee and headed back to the car. Buzzy took one more look and said, ‘Let’s just paddle out and look at it, before we go to Makaha.’
“I looked at Alonzo. He had a pained look on his face.
“Buzzy asked again. Alonzo looked at the avalanching break. The view on his neck reddened. ‘Yeah, sure. We’ll just go out and give it a little check. What do you think, Fred?’
“‘Uh, sure, sounds good to me.’ It looked big, but from shore, just like any other break -- except for its huge size.
“We drove to the Alii Beach, where we could wax up and paddle out through a small channel on the edge of the boat harbor. Pat Curren was sitting on the beach, his board tucked under his arm.
“‘How does it look?’ Buzzy asked.
“‘Good to me,’ answered Pat. Buzzy and Pat picked up their boards and headed to the shorebreak.
Alonzo looked at me and said, ‘Well, you wanted to ride big waves.’
“‘Yes,’ I answered, feeling my throat and tongue dry, my heart racing.
“‘Yes, let’s hit it.’
“We paddled and paddled. I changed from knee paddling five times before I could really see the size of the outside reef break. It was an entirely different dimension.
“Lining up, I backed off on the first wave. Buzzy and Pat caught it and disappeared. The set ended, a lull filling in the silence. I looked over at Alonzo drifting toward Kaena Point.
“Relaxing for a moment out there was my first mistake. Number two, not turning around fast enough. I looked seaward and saw, like a heard of galloping horses, a set of waves racing across the horizon, their manes waving wildly in the wind.
“They crossed the outside harbor channel and climbed skyward. They were moving mountains, and I was sitting directly in front of their forward momentum. I paddled frantically outside, barely making it over the first one, only to be confronted by a second even larger wave. It sucked out, vacuuming ever higher. I paddled, and as I slid backward down the face, I hit the bottom of that force, peal tailblock first, and slid off, all thirty feet plus cascading down upon me, and my board placed less than a foot away from my head.
“The initial impact drove me deeply into darkness. I told myself to relax, but whitewater wrenched at my arms and legs. I waited for the wave to abate -- let me go as other waves did, but not this one.
“When I had waited long past the time to fight for the surface and air, the soup dispersed into churning blackness. There even was a moment of seemingly suspended time.
“I felt as if this might be it. What a fool to lose life this way! In the utter darkness I stroked my last struggle for the surface, and bumped my head full force into lava. The soup had driven me into a cave. I was trapped.
“I threw up water and surrendered. It wasn’t so bad after all. I had chosen to go out; it was my fault.
“That was all! And then, just before dizziness prevailed completely, I saw sunlight down by my feet. I was upside down, had lost all equilibrium, and had swum down instead of up, bumping into the bottom.
“Surfacing, I got a breath before the next wave broke upon me and repeated the same driving spin cycle. This time I was pushed in toward shore and surfaced to face a near-mile swim through breaking waves, rips, cross currents and shallow reefs. Twenty-feet high soup carried me over an exposed reef still half a mile out in the ocean, but I made it to the beach. Dragging myself out of the water, I felt much the same sickness as that day when I nearly drowned in the surf off San Francisco.
“Flippy still tries to get me to go outside Haleiwa, to ‘Avalanche‘ on big days, when the North Shore regular spots are all closed out. I always say ‘No, no way!’
“His usual reply, ‘God, Van Dyke, Avalanche is an old man’s dream for riding a truly big wave. It’s a cinch. It’s got the drop and it was made for guys like you and me.’
“I think to myself, ‘Not this old man, Flippy.’“38
“One day,” Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana recalled, “I go scuba diving with Greg and my Chinese friend Norman Mau. On the way out, we’re talkin’ up some shark stories. We come by Yokohama Bay and anchor about half a mile out in about seventy to eighty feet of water. We there to pick up lobsters.
“We gear up, with Greg on port side and me on starboard. At count of three, both of us supposed to let go of the boat and jump in the water. We reach the count of three. Greg let go of the boat. But I stay there, still checkin’ everything.
“Greg go down about two feet, then he go under the boat to see if I also underwater. He come up on the boat railing and see me. I look him straight in the eye and say, ‘Anybody stay home?’ meaning, ‘Any sharks?’
“From then on, Greg never go in water diving unless I go first. Now we both look at each other, say, ‘Anybooooody?’ One who goes in first has to find out if anybody stay home.”39
The Bronze Bull
“There was one rescue that only a few people know about,” revealed Laura Noll, Greg’s second wife.
“Greg was out at Makaha and noticed that a young boy, about ten, was in trouble. Greg quickly paddled over to the boy and took him to shore on his board. A few months later, a woman and her son arrived at the factory in Hermosa Beach with a package for Greg. They went into his office. The boy handed Greg the package and said, ‘Thanks for saving me that day. I would have drowned if you hadn’t helped me.’
“Inside the box was a small bronze bull.”40
1 Edwards, 1967, pp. 58-59. Edwards documents this as 1955. See page 61.
2 Noll, 1989, pp. 62-63. Ricky Grigg quoted.
3 Doyle, Mike. Morning Glass, The Adventures of Legendary Waterman Mike Doyle, ©1993 by Mike Doyle and Steve Sorensen. Manzanita Press, PO Box 720, Three Rivers, CA 93271, pp. 21-22.
4 Doyle, 1993, pp. 26-27. See Gault-Williams, “Doc Ball, Father of Surf Photography.”
5 Noll, 1989, p. 66. Billy Meng’s last name was misspelled as “Ming” for many years.
6 Van Dyke, Fred. Thirty Years Riding The World’s Biggest Waves, ©1989 by Joseph Grassadonia, Ocean Sports International Publishing Group, Inc., 204 Poo-Poo Place, Kailua, HI 96734, p. 30.
7 Van Dyke, 1989, pp. 29-30.
8 Noll, 1989, p. 59. Buffalo Keaulana.
9 Grun, 1991, pp. 538-539.
10 Edwards, Phil. You Should Have Been Here An Hour Ago: The Stoked Side of Surfing; or, How to Hang Ten Through Life and Stay Happy, ©1967 by Phil Edwards with Bob Ottum. Harper & Row, New York, NY, p. 58.
11 Edwards, 1967, pp. 58-59. Edwards documents this as 1955. See page 61.
12 Noll, Greg. DA BULL: Life Over the Edge, ©1989 by Greg Noll and Andrea Gabbard. North Atlantic Books, 2800 Woolsey Street, Berkeley, CA 94705, pp. 34-35. Sonny Vardeman quoted.
13 Noll, 1989, pp. 62-63. Ricky Grigg quoted.
14 Noll, 1989, pp. 62-66.
15 Doyle, Mike. Morning Glass, The Adventures of Legendary Waterman Mike Doyle, ©1993 by Mike Doyle and Steve Sorensen. Manzanita Press, PO Box 720, Three Rivers, CA 93271, pp. 21-22.
16 Doyle, 1993, pp. 25.
17 Doyle, 1993, pp. 26-27. See Gault-Williams, “Doc Ball, Father of Surf Photography.”
18 Noll, 1989, p. 66. Billy Meng’s last name was misspelled as “Ming” for many years.
19 Noll, 1989, p. 63-67.
20 Van Dyke, Fred. Thirty Years Riding The World’s Biggest Waves, ©1989 by Joseph Grassadonia, Ocean Sports International Publishing Group, Inc., 204 Poo-Poo Place, Kailua, HI 96734, p. 30.
21 See Edwards, 1967, p. 61.
22 Edwards, 1967, p. 62.
23 Ahrens, Chris. Good Things Love Water, A Collection of Surf Stories, ©1994, Chubasco Publishing Company, PO Box 697, Cardiff By The Sea, CA 92007. “A Belated Apology,” p. 5. Ahrens has Edwards first trip to O’ahu in 1952, but Edwards wrote that it was 1955. See Edwards, 1967, p. 61. This may have taken place in 1957, as Curren, I don’t think, was on O`ahu until then.
24 Ahrens, 1994, pp. 6-9.
25 Van Dyke, 1989, p. 29.
26 Kahanamoku, Duke P. (1890-1968). World of Surfing, ©1968 by Duke Kahanamoku and Joe Brennan. Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY, p. 59. See also Gault-Williams, “Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards & Culture.”
27 Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 59.
28 Grigg, Ricky and Church, Ron. Surfer in Hawaii, quoted in Edwards, pp. 69-70.
29 Aherns, 1994, pp. 9-14.
30 Edwards, 1967, p. 74. Edwards recalled this incident as occurring at Sunset.
31 Aherns, 1994, p. 14.
32 Edwards, 1967, p. 78.
33 Edwards, 1967, p. 85.
34 Van Dyke, 1989, p. 27.
35 Van Dyke, 1989, p. 27.
36 Van Dyke, 1989, p. 27.
37 Van Dyke, 1989, pp. 29-30.
38 Van Dyke, 1989, pp. 93-96.
39 Noll, 1989, p. 59. Buffalo Keaulana.
40 Noll, 1989, p. 65.