Saturday, November 25, 2006



A story from Duke...

That Legendary Ride

Much seems to have been made of that once-in-a-lifetime ride I made from the outer steamer lane off Waikiki, and now is as good a time as any to put the record straight. The incident has been written up before, but might bear repeating. I can remember the details as though it all happened yesterday, for, in retrospect, I have relived the ride many a time. I think my memory plays me no tricks on this one.

Pride was in it with me those days, and I was still striving to build bigger and better boards, ride taller, faster waves, and develop more dexterity from day to day. Also, vanity probably had much to do with my trying to delight the crowds at Waikiki with spectacular rides on the long, glassy, sloping waves.

But the day I caught "The Big One" was a day when I was not thinking in terms of
awing any tourists or karnaainas (old-timers) on Waikiki Beach. It was simply an early morning when mammoth ground swells were rolling in sporadically from the horizon, and I saw that no one was paddling out to try them. Frankly, they were the largest I'd ever seen. The yell of "The surf is up!" was the understatement of the century.

In fact, it was that rare morning when the word was out that the big "Bluebirds" were rolling in; this is the name for gigantic waves that sweep in from the horizon on extraordinary occasions. Sometimes years elapse with no evidence of them. They are spawned far out at sea and are the result of cataclysms of nature-either great atmospheric disturbances or subterranean agitation like underwater earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

True, as waves go, the experts will agree that bigness alone is not what supplies outstandingly good surfing. Sometimes giant waves make for bad surfing in spite of their size. And the reason often is that there is an onshore wind that pushes the top of the waves down and makes them break too fast with lots of white water (foam). It takes an offshore wind to make the waves stand up to their full height. This day we had stiff tradewinds blowing in from the high Koolau Range, and they were making those Bluebirds tower up like the Himalayas. Man, I was pulling my breath from way down at sight of them.

It put me in mind of the winter storm waves that roar in at Kaena Point on the North Shore. Big wave surfers, even then, were doing much speculating on whether
those Kaena waves could be ridden with any degree of safety. The Bluebirds facing me
were easily thirty-plus waves and they looked as though, with the right equipment-plus a lot of luck-they just might be makeable.

The danger lay in the proneout or wipeout. Studying the waves made me wonder if any man's body could withstand the unbelievable force of a thirty- to fifty-foot wall of water when it crashes. And, too, could even a top swimmer like myself manage to battle the currents and explosive water that would necessarily accompany the aftermath of such a wave?

Well, the answer seemed to be simply-don't get wiped out!

From the shore you could see those high glassy ridges building up in the outer Diamond Head region. The Bluebirds were swarming across the bay in a solid line as far northwest as Honolulu Harbor. They were tall, steep and fast. The closer-in ones
crumbled and showed their teeth with a fury that I had never seen before. I wondered if I could even push through the acres of white water to get to the outer area where the buildups were taking place.

But, like the mountain climbers with Mount Everest, you try it "Just because it's there." Somedays a man does not take time to analyze what motivates him. All I knew was that I was suddenly trying to shove through that incoming sea-and having the
fight of my life. I was using my Papa-nui (big board), the sixteen-foot, 114-pound semi-hollow board, and it was like trying to jam a log through the flood of a dam break.

Again and again it was necessary to turn turtle with the big board and hang on tightly underneath-arms and legs wrapped around a thing that bucked like a bronco gone berserk. The shoreward-bound torrents of water ground overhead making all the racket of a string of freight cars roaring over a- trestle. The prone paddling between combers was a demanding thing because the water was wild. It was a case of wrestling the board through blockbusting breakers, and it was a miracle that I ever gained the outlying waters.

Bushed from the long fight to get seaward,I sat my board and watched the long humps of water peaking into ridges that marched like animated foothills. I let a slew of them lift and drop me with their silent, threatening glide. I could hardly believe that such perpendicular walls of water could be built up like that. The troughs between the swells had the depth of elevator shafts, and I wondered again what it would be like to be buried under tons of water when it curled and detonated.
There was something eerie about watching the shimmering backs of the ridges as they passed me and rolled on toward Waikiki.

I let a lot of them careen by, wondering in my own heart if I was passing them up because of their unholy height, or whether I was really waiting for the big, right one. A man begins to doubt himself at a time like that. Then I was suddenly wheeling and turning to catch the towering blue ridge bearing toward me. I was prone and stroking hard at the water with my hands.

Strangely, it was more as though the wave had selected me, rather than I had chosen it. It seemed like a very personal and special wave-the kind I had seen in my mind's eye during a night of tangled dreaming. There was no backing out on this one; the two of us had something to settle between us. The rioting breakers between me and shore no longer bugged me. There was just this one ridge and myself-no more. Could I master it? I doubted it, but I was willing to die in the attempt to harness it.

Instinctively I got to my feet when the pitch, slant and speed seemed right. Left foot forward, knees slightly bent, I rode the board down that precipitous slope like a man tobogganing down a glacier. Sliding left along the watery monster's face, I didn't know I was at the beginning of a ride that would become a celebrated and memoried thing. All I knew was that I had come to grips with the tallest, bulkiest, fastest wave I had ever seen. I realized, too, more than ever, that to be trapped under its curling bulk would be the same as letting a factory cave in upon you.

This lethal avalanche of water swept shoreward swiftly and spookily. The board began hissing from the traction as the wave leaned forward with greater and more incredible speed and power. I shifted my weight, cut left at more of an angle and shot into the big Castle Surf which was building and adding to the wave I was on. Spray was spuming up wildly from my rails, and I had never before seen it spout up like that. I rode it for city-long blocks, the wind almost sucking the breath out of me. Diamond Head itself seemed to have come alive and was leaping in at me from the right.

Then I was slamming into Elk's Club Surf, still sliding left, and still fighting for balance, for position, for everything and anything that would keep me upright. The drumming of the water under the board had become a madman's tattoo. Elk's Surf rioted me along, high and steep, until I skidded and slanted through into Public Baths Surf. By then it amounted to three surfs combined into one; big, rumbling and exploding. I was not sure I could make it on this ever-steepening ridge.
A curl broke to my right and almost engulfed me, so I swung even farther left, shuffled back a little on the board to keep from pearling (nose-diving) .

Left it was; left and more left, with the board veeing a jet of water on both sides and making a snarl that told of speed and stress and thrust. The wind was tugging my hair with frantic hands. Then suddenly it looked as if I might, with more luck, make it into the back of Queen's Surf! The build-up had developed into something approximating what I had heard of tidal waves, and I wondered if it would ever flatten out at all. White water was pounding to my right, so I angled farther from it to avoid its wiping me out and burying me in the sudsy depths.

Borrowing on the Cunha Surf for all it was worth-and it was worth several hundred yards-I managed to manipulate the board into the now towering Queen's Surf. One mistake-just one small one-could well spill me into the maelstrom to my right. I teetered for some panic-ridden seconds, caught control again, and made it down on that last forward rush, sliding and bouncing through lunatic water. The breaker gave me all the tossing of a bucking bronco. Still luckily erect, I could see the people standing there on the beach, their hands shading their eyes against the sun, and watching me complete this crazy, unbelievable one-and-three-quarter-mile ride.

I made it into the shallows in one last surging flood. A little dazedly I wound up in hip-deep water, where I stepped off andpushed my board shoreward through the bubbly surf. That improbable ride gave me the sense of being an unlickable guy for the moment. I heisted my board to my hip, locked both arms around it and lugged it up the beach.

Without looking at the people clustered around, I walked on, hearing them murmur fine, exciting things which I wanted to remember in days to come. I told myself this was the ride to end all rides. I grinned my thanks to those who stepped close and slapped me on the shoulders, and I smiled to those who told me this was the greatest. I trudged on and on, knowing this would be a shining memory for me that I could take out in years to come, and relive it in all its full glory. This had been it.

I never caught another wave anything like that one. And now with the birthdays piled up on my back, I know I never shall. But they cannot take that memory away from me. It is a golden one that I treasure, and I'm grateful that God gave it to me.

~Duke Kahanamoku,
"World of Surfing" (1968)