Any man who has been flattened by one of them knows there is great power in the waves that roll in from the ocean sea. There have been a number of sensible attempts to harness this power—all of them failures. The waves remain useless and wild. No one can prevent them or provide them. They simply come, and therein lies their beauty.
Though they refuse the harness, the waves can be ridden. Probably the Polynesians were the first to do so, for there is mention of the sport of surfing in their old hand-me-down songs. In any case, the discoverer, Captain Cook, saw Hawaiians surfing two centuries ago, at a time most other peoples were reluctant to take a bath. In the century after Cook the islands were plagued by a variety of intent visitors who, in the rude manner of the human race, felt obliged to redo the place and become the keepers of their Hawaiian brothers. The sport of surfing was judged a sin, and it came very near death. But as the sport languished it got into the blood of some of the visitors. Since the turn of this century there has been no stopping it.
There are today at least 150,000 surfers the world around—a rough estimate that includes a good number who are stranded too far inland to do much riding at all. There are active and inactive surfers; there are poor surfers and good ones, and dead ones, but there is no such thing as an ex-surfer. The various tugs and rhythms of the sea become a vital part of many creatures in it. Certain crabs of the Adriatic, if displaced to the western coast of Italy, will try to return home across the Apennines. The Adriatic is in them and, in some equally strange way, surfing gets in the human system and never quits it. The surfer may move to some dismal land like western Kansas and for 10 years have no connection with the surf except the faint sound of it available in the lacquered conch shell on his mantel. Still he is a surfer, and if he ever gets to the shore again he will try to catch the poorest semblance of a catchable wave.
However large a wave he rides, and however perfectly he learns to ride the giant waves, the surfer is never sated. The personification of this strange affliction is 25-year-old Richard Wyman Grigg, an established master of surfing. Grigg is of ordinary size, about 165 pounds, built along the lines of a modern swimmer or gymnast. In a manner peculiar to surfers, he carries his head erect and his face tilted slightly upward, as if constantly looking for the first sign of a wave against the sky. He began surfing as he grew up in Santa Monica, Calif. And surfing has left a few marks on him—a small scar on his chin and another several inches long just under his ribs, through which his spleen was removed after the plunging nose of a surfboard ruptured it. Grigg's present life, with its various preoccupations, would be simpler without surfing: he is working on his master's thesis at the University of Hawaii and supporting his wife at the same time. But Grigg finds it hard to give the sport up, and this sometimes bothers him. "I still like surfing," he says thoughtfully at times, "but I don't know whether I like to surf anymore." Like it or not, he still surfs. Living where he now does in Honolulu, tourist capital of Polynesia, makes it difficult for him to quit.
February 18, 1963
Almost every winter day, on the gentle Canoe Surf line at Waikiki on Oahu, about 20 novices learn to ride waves within an hour. One of those who succeeded typically on a balmy day this winter was Miss Audrey Davis, age 20, of Portland, Ore. As a clean wave rose two feet high behind Miss Davis, her instructor, Tony Valentin, simply gave her board a push. When he saw Miss Davis' head and her behind disappear over the crest, Valentin barked, "Stand up!" Miss Davis did so and rode the wave 200 yards until it died away near the steep shore.
In winter the Canoe Surf is made of easy walls of water—utter boredom for the master of the art but challenging enough for a beginner like Miss Davis, for the traffic on the Canoe Surf line is quite heavy these days. On the first wave that Miss Davis caught the whole world of surfing rode with her. To the right and left of her there were other beginners teetering toward disaster. On the same wave there were canoes full of fat, white tourists, expert riders out simply for exercise, and here and there along the polished scarp of the wave a few zigging, zagging "hot doggers," devotees of fancy board riding.
The hot dogger is an acceptable member of surfing society, but he sometimes loses himself in his own zeal. In heavy traffic he is a menace. On the second wave that Miss Davis caught a hot dogger some distance down the line ran amuck and was straightway given the business. An instructor riding just to the right of the hot dogger suddenly checked his own forward progress by lifting the nose of his board and swinging it hard left—"kicking off the wave," it is called, an acceptable maneuver. But on this kickoff the instructor quickly swung his board like a broadsword across the hot dogger's shins, dropping him into the soup. It looked like an accident, but the hot dogger got the message and traffic moved smoothly thereafter.
Even if she never rides enough to get the surf in her blood, Miss Davis can tell her grandchildren that she once shared the waves of Waikiki with two elderly riders who were active 50 years ago during the revival of the sport. One of these two old revivalists, 72-year-old Duke Kahanamoku, was riding waves in a small canoe. As Miss Davis paddled to shore, the other oldtimer, 62-year-old Ah Kin Yee, emerged from the water in the company of an octopus. Passing up the waves in favor of snorkel ing that day, Mr. Yee had speared the octopus in a hole just to the right of the Canoe Surf. The dying octopus had wrapped itself in rage around Mr. Yee—several tentacles around his right arm, several more around his neck and a few across his shoulders, so that, as they came out of the water, it was not altogether clear who had caught whom.
On the preceding day Mr. Yee had been riding waves and looking downright clownish, although actually he is an assured, graceful rider. He was wearing skin-diving flippers, a poor kind of footwear for use on a surfboard, where nimble feet count for a lot. Twice Mr. Yee got one flipper caught under the other foot and almost took a header. It looked as if he were trying to crowd two different sports into one afternoon, but not so. He was teaching Mr. and Mrs. Charles Trundle of Los Altos, Calif. to ride, and what with the two beginners and their boards, and his own board and the surge of the sea, Mr. Yee needed all the extra power he could get; hence the flippers.
Until two years ago, Mr. Yee was a federal alcohol tax man. The Feds wanted him to move to Portland, Ore. Mr. Yee has seen the Oregon coast, its waves and its weather and did not want to go where he would always be cold in the water and usually wet on land. So he quit, retiring on 62% of base pay. The water of Waikiki is in his blood and is worth, he thinks, a 38% cut.
The morning of the day that Mr. Yee tangled with the octopus, half a mile from shore, six surfers sat waiting for waves in the Poplar break line. There were one Hawaiian, a Californian, an Australian and two New Jersey surfers—pilgrims finally in Mecca. The sixth rider was 57-year-old Dr. Gladys Osborne, Duke B.S. '28, Vanderbilt M.D. '32, now temporarily retired on Oahu. Gladys Osborne took up surfing at age 55, served a good apprenticeship in the Canoe Surf and the faster-breaking Queen's Surf and now occasionally paddles to Poplar, where there is less traffic and usually more challenge. Poplar was breaking good that day, but there was a cross swell. The peaks of the waves were shifty. As one nine-foot wave came, the rest of the surfers in the lineup were caught too far to the right. Doc Osborne took off on what, at her last glance, appeared to be the right shoulder of the wave. The peak of the wave, meanwhile, had shifted still more. As she got to her feet on top of the wave. Doc Osborne was not on the right shoulder but slightly to the left of the peak. She reacted perfectly. She dropped straight down the wave, turned right toward the peak as it teetered on the verge of breaking. Sliding sideways along the steep wall of water, Doc Osborne made it safely across just before the peak toppled over in foaming disorder. As the curling wave fumed behind her, she kept sliding sideways, staying free of the curl. Then she swung the nose of her board back to the left and rode the white water on toward shore.
Dr. Gladys Osborne is not an expert surfer, and the nine-foot wave she rode that day was indeed small compared to the ponderous, thundering 25-foot combers that the experts have come to live with. But with some luck she had ridden, not just a random portion of a wave, but the quick and slippery heart of it, the fastest, hardest part of it. She took the best ride the wave had to offer, which is the aim of every master of the art.
During the week that Audrey Davis, Mr. Yee and Gladys Osborne were riding waves the established master of the art, Richard Grigg, was too busy to see any action. He suffered through two calculus exams, worked on a prospectus for a book on surfing, prepared and delivered a lecture on the ecology of ordinary madreporion corals, taped a television show on the extraordinary order of black corals and worked on his master's thesis. The subject of his thesis is a species of black coral, Antipathes grandis. Zoologists know little about any of the black corals, although some of them are commonly used as decorative material and as semiprecious jewelry. While he is doing research on black coral, Grigg supports himself and his wife Sandra by diving for it. Unlike ordinary, so-called white corals, which grow upward (so Grigg can bash his head on them while surfing), black corals shun light. They thrive in the twilight at 150 feet and on down into abyssal darkness.
In the waves he rides, in the work for his thesis and the way he makes his living—on all three counts—Richard Grigg is walking a fairly narrow line. In the past four years 20 of his black-coral-diving colleagues have suffered the bends. Six are still crippled, among them Grigg's former diving partner, Harold Hall. As Grigg has observed wryly, it is the continuing bad news about the divers that has made black coral sell so well.
Grigg spent much of his recent busy week in the university library absorbed in the complicated subminiature world of coral polyps, phototropic planulae, symbiotic zooxanthcllae and various calcareous and keratinous matters. Even when he lunched with another surfer at midweek, his mind was still full of polyps. But for one moment, as the two surfers walked back from lunch along a balcony, the surf came to Grigg. There was no water in sight, no hint of it except the sibilance of a sprinkler somewhere on the lawn below. But a faint wind was moving the palm fronds. "Kona wind," Grigg said. "Maybe a weather change and some ground swells." The moment passed and he returned to the polyps.
The following day was equally busy for him, but he defected three times. Checking water conditions for an anticipated dive to recover coral specimens, he stopped twice along the southeast coast of Oahu to watch riders on surf lines that he himself would never bother with. And perhaps stirred by this, he phoned the weather bureau. Kilauea Lighthouse, 95 miles away on the island of Kauai, was recording five-foot ground swells at 10-second intervals—five-footers are not promising, but the weather bureau also told him that a ship some 300 miles farther out reported 12-foot swells moving over the deep from the northwest. The next day, Friday, Kilauea Light reported six-foot swells, 12 seconds apart. Something was stirring at sea. Grigg made plans to dive for black coral Saturday morning, then drive to Sunset Beach, where the surf might be up by afternoon.
The big winter waves that Grigg rides at Sunset Beach, at Waimea Bay and Makaha and elsewhere on the northwest and west coasts of Oahu are spawned in festering, gusty low-pressure areas that beset the wide fetch of the North Pacific. As the first promising reports of swells are broadcast on the radio, all surfers such as Grigg begin to stir. The inquiries at the weather bureau treble, and the telephone at Mr. Dok Klausmeyer's house near Makaha Beach begins to ring.
Dok Klausmeyer no longer rides big waves, but he is a beloved patron of the art, whose zeal has earned him the distinction of being the only surfer ever incorporated into an algebraic formula. As the waves grow so does Klausmeyer's enthusiasm, extravagantly, and to cope with it surfers have evolved the formula
In this formula, the actual height of the wave in feet (A) is obtained by taking Klausmeyer's estimate of it (K) and dividing by two and adding one foot. Thus, if Klausmeyer says the waves are 20 feet, they are about 11.
In fairness to Klausmeyer, it must be noted that modern surfers such as Grigg are very conservative appraisers. They lean well backward to avoid a semblance of bravado. When a fellow surfer rides a 20-foot wave, Grigg calls it 18 feet. When he rides a 20-footer himself, he calls it 16. And further, the surfers only consider the steep part of the wave that affects their ride, not the gradual slope preceding it. Thus a wave that is 25 feet to Grigg is, by more correct oceanographic measure, closer to 30. Beyond a certain point the exact height becomes academic, for after Grigg has taken the drop from the top of any wave 20 feet or more there are several tons of water hanging over him, and any part of his body or board that is struck squarely as the wave comes over suffers a force of about half a ton per square foot.
No good surfer is obsessed by the bigness of waves. As Peter Cole, a constant surfing companion of Grigg's, puts it, the "quality of the ride" is the object. But it is true that, unless local winds have mucked them up, the big waves usually have more quality. In the same way that an apprentice surfer like Dr. Gladys Osborne sometimes happens to take off on a wave perfectly, Grigg purposely lines up for every big wave so that when it sweeps upon him he is just to one side of the highest part. Then, as he takes his drop, he deliberately turns and slides sideways toward the highest part of the wave, making it across the sheer wall just as the peak comes over. Then he continues sliding sideways about 30 miles an hour, chased by the plunging curl. If he should slide away too fast, he will turn back up the slope and come down again, allowing the curl to close the gap. He elects to be pursued and nearly caught. There is risk in this—"playing it close to the horns," it is called. But here again it is not the risk but the quality of the ride on the steep, fast wall just ahead of the curl that interests Grigg. He dreams of big, clean waves, curling forever, chasing him on and on.
It is generally presumed that the requirements of a surfer are competence as a swimmer and skill with a board. But something more is needed in big waves. To preserve himself, the surfer must know the sea and never trust it. The bigger the waves, the less a surfer can count on his own strength to control the situation. He must rely on his ability to read the waves as they come marching in, and line himself up accordingly. In 25-foot waves the alignment becomes a razor's edge. If he lines up a trifle too far out, the surfer cannot catch the wave. If he is caught too far in, he is taken over the falls—a helpless mite trapped in a large rolling wall of water.
There is always the likelihood that big waves will get bigger. And when they do, rather than breaking in sections so the surfer can ride them or paddle in or out to avoid them, they will come over on a broad front beyond him, one after another, then several at a time, until the whole sea is white. This, in the surfer's book, is a "closeout," and it is to be avoided. Over any decent bottom, when seas are moderate, broken water spells safety, for there the strength of the waves is diminishing. But in big surf often the white water will rebound higher than the original wave, the turmoil lasting long, tearing the surfer from his board, pummeling each against the other and both against the bottom. Under closeout conditions, the interval between waves is about 20 seconds, so that after being tossed about for 10 or 15 seconds inside the turbulent wake of a broken wave, the surfer has little time to get air before the next wave is upon him. Sometimes there is no chance at all between waves, for the surface can become such an insubstantial mixture of air and water that it will not support a struggling man.
Shortly after World War II, when the barbed wire was rolled back from Hawaiian beaches, surfers Woody Brown and Dick Cross were caught by big waves off Sunset Beach. They managed to hurry outside the break line, three-quarters of a mile offshore, but the door closed behind them. Rather than gamble through the white water, they elected to paddle three miles down to Waimea Bay, a sharp crescent of sand flanked by rocky heads. By the time they reached the steeper shoaling bottom of Waimea, it was closing out. A mile at sea big waves stood up. As Woody Brown paddled outward, Dick Cross, a hundred yards nearer shore, waved to him. Whether this was a sign of assurance or despair, Brown does not know. A soldier in the hills above Waimea saw Cross try to clear the top of the first 40-foot wave, and saw him briefly again as he was carried over the falls. His body was never found. Woody Brown got to shore, but does not recall the whole journey. He regained consciousness lying on the sand. Somewhere in the violence he had lost his board and his bathing trunks.
Rarely in any year do the waves allow a complete accounting of those they take. The bodies and boards sometimes return to shore and sometimes are carried out in riptides, so it cannot always be known just what did happen. Did the man drown? Or was he struck by his board, or by someone else's, or did he strike the bottom? Or was he simply carried off in the rip?
But now it is Saturday morning, and Grigg is diving for black coral and—as the reports from far at sea had promised—the surf is building at Sunset Beach. A novice surfer, foolishly venturing where he does not belong, enters the rip at Sunset and is rescued a mile at sea. By the time Grigg drives the 30 miles from his home to the northwest coast, the waves at Sunset Beach are messy, afflicted by a perverse wind. The few rides that Grigg gets are desperate scrambles, disorderly ventures that do not bring him in contact with the towering heart of the waves. "You come all this way," Grigg says ruefully afterward, "and half the time it isn't worth it."
The next day, Sunday, the wind abates but still spoils Sunset Beach and Waimea. Makaha, lying to the west, somewhat in the lee, is fairly good—occasional 15-foot waves breaking off the point. There are 80 surfers in the water where 10 years ago there were rarely more than 30. Most of the surfers out this day have ability equal to the waves, but in the heavy traffic few of them ever get the chance to make the most of any ride. Grigg goes out for an hour, then gives up on it. "I still like surfing," he says in despair, "but you have to beat your way through everything."
He returns home to study calculus. Monday and Tuesday he is back in the library and laboratory with the coral polyps, their planulae and their zooxanthellae. Tuesday evening Kilauea Light reports 16-foot swells, 20 seconds apart. Wednesday morning the word spreads: Sunset Beach is breaking 20 to 25 feet high, surface conditions are good. When his classes are done, Grigg and his wife drive to the northwest shore. By the time they arrive, Sunset is closed out. The waves at Waimea are big. One wave more than 25 feet high breaks across the whole bay, threatening closeout. But the stinking wind is up again, and Waimea's waves are mountains of thundering mush. "It really isn't worth it to come all this way," Grigg repeats.
He considers the prospect that Makaha should be quite good because of the wind and swell directions and, discussing it with other surfers, becomes sufficiently convinced of the possibility. He takes the shortcut to Makaha, 26 miles by way of a neglected dirt road around Kaena Point. Off the rocky north flank of Kaena, 30-foot waves assault the shoals. As Ricky and Sandra Grigg travel five miles an hour over the rotty, pot-holed road, there is nothing else to look at except waves, but as each new series thunders in Grigg is compelled to shout, "Sandra, you've got to look at those waves!"
Three miles out of Makaha his car stalls in a washout and must be pushed. When he reaches Makaha the wind has freshened and apparently shifted. The waves are fair-sized, but the slopes are chopped up. Against the sun they look like piles of shining rocks. "It isn't worth it to come all this way," Grigg says. At Maili, four miles south of Makaha, the waves are clean but barely eight feet high. "All this way. A whole afternoon chasing them," Grigg says bitterly, as he takes the south road home.
But 10 miles farther along, just north of Ewa, he notices the stands of sugar cane and in the distance smoke hanging in the air. The wind is dropping fast, as it often does in late afternoon. Grigg turns off the road to home and drives again through the pineapple fields on Oahu's broad saddle, 20 miles back to Waimea. He reaches the south headland at 4:30. The waves are there. Big, clean and curling.
The waves are 25 feet high. There are 10 surfers out, but each is after the ultimate ride and does not take off on a wave unless it is near perfect for him, so that there are never more than three trying any wave. Grigg takes off on 15 waves and is caught by only three. On all three he manages to hang onto his board until the white water will let him go. As he takes off on each successful ride, he drops out of the bronze light of the low sun straight down into the shadow of the great wave and is chased in roaring darkness along its slick wall until finally, 150 yards beyond, he comes back into the light on the round shoulder of water.
He does not quit until the sun is down. As he dries himself with a towel in the dark beside the road, he persuades Sandra that, though toothbrushless, they should stay overnight with friends.
Early the next morning he rides well-formed 12-foot waves at Sunset Beach, then drives back to work. By noon the weather advisory for ships at sea confirms stable conditions in the North Pacific. Kilauea Light reports three-foot swells, eight seconds apart. The telephone at Dok Klausmeyer's house stops ringing. The palm fronds on the university campus float on still air. The arguments of the deep have been smoothed over. The surf dies away at Sunset Beach and lies dormant in the surfer. Grigg walks into the quiet shade of the library, sits down and opens a book.