An Exorcism at Waimea

Noll and Munoz, first day at Waimea
Waimea Bay. Photo: Warren Bolster
Munoz (left) and Stange, first day at Waimea. Photo: Don James

Pat Curren was the insider’s pick as the consummate North Shore big-wave surfer, but Greg Noll wanted to carry the banner, and nobody got in his way. Not only was Noll the biggest, loudest surfer on the block, he was also more focused than anybody on turning the sport into a vocation; by 1957 he was producing surf movies and running Greg Noll Surfboards, and he’d soon be publishing a surf magazine. Meanwhile, Noll was obsessed with riding huge waves—and nearly as obsessed with the idea of getting recognized for doing it. When Noll unstrapped his board from the top of his car to lead a small and mostly reluctant company of surfers into the lineup at Waimea Bay on the morning of November 7, 1957, he made sure the cameras were rolling.

Waimea was still considered off-limits to surfers. Even when the ocean was flat and local kids ran and splashed naked along the bay’s sandy waveless edge, it was full of quiet menace. The bay itself, for one thing, was the North Shore’s most pronounced geographic feature—deep and broad, with two jutting black lava rock points connected by a sandy crescent of beach, which in turn backed into a river-bottomed valley. Driving Kam Highway as it followed a mile-long bell-shaped route down one arm of the bay, toward the mouth of Waimea Valley, and back up the other arm, the imaginative surfer had two full minutes to fearfully contemplate the rocky eastern point. Less than a hundred yards off the tip of that point, a wave occasionally developed on a nearshore reef with the kind of shape and form that even a non-surfer would recognize as compelling—except that it was bigger, thicker, steeper, and more violent than any known surf break in the world.

Nothing about the Waimea surf has changed over the decades. Smaller waves pass over the reef with no effect at all, while ten-footers foam along the rocky points on either side of the bay, producing a walloping shorebreak that quickly hisses up the steep-canted sand berm. Ten or 15 times a year the surf is big enough to catch and fold over on the reef. On maybe three of those occasions—when the swell is both massive and orderly, and the wind is light—Waimea comes into full shuddering glory. Thirty-foot, give or take, is Waimea’s maximum size. Above that, it closes out. Using conventional equipment, a surfer will hit terminal velocity on a twenty-five-footer—give or take. For three or four generations of surfers, starting in the 1950s, the borderline between rideable and unrideable waves was drawn most clearly on a big day at Waimea.

Simple vertical height has never been Waimea’s full measure, and that was particularly true for those early big-wave riders who cut their teeth at Makaha. Where a big Point Surf ride began with a rolling start before funneling into the explosive Bowl section, the Waimea wave banked off a steep-faced underwater ridge so that the crest lunged up and out, then fell into the trough to detonate like a small atomic device. Everything here was front-loaded. The Makaha surfer got to ease his way into the hard part of the wave, while a ride at Waimea began with surfing’s version of the swinging trap door. Make the drop, and more often than not the good part of the ride was over, as the wave quickly tapered down into deep water.

It wasn't just the lurching takeoff that kept North Shore surfers on the Kam Highway shoulder, watching, not riding, through the mid-fifties. There was Dickie Cross’ death here in 1943, as well as a riptide that pulled visibly seaward through the middle of the bay when the surf hit twenty feet, which looked too fast and strong to paddle against. The bay was rumored to be a shark breeding ground. Overlooking the break was an austere bell tower beloning to the Saints Peter and Paul Mission, which added a bit of spiritual severity, as did a heiau temple located near the mouth of Waimea Valley, with its ancient lava-stone alter where animals and humans had been ritually sacrificed to Ku, or Lono, or Pele, or whichever of the fearsome assemblage of Hawaiian gods needed to be appeased. “The forbiddeness of the place made it that much more compelling,” Greg Noll later said. “For years we’d drive by Waimea on the way to Sunset or Haleiwa, and sometimes I’d pull over to watch these big, beautiful grinders. I’d hop up and down trying to convince the other guys, and myself, that Waimea was the thing to do. But the taboos were just too strong.”

On that November late morning in 1957, Noll and his friend Mike Stange had just left Sunset Beach, which was too big to ride, and were driving to Makaha. Noll, as always, pulled over to look at Waimea. Another two Makaha-bound cars stopped as well, and the group of surfers, pacing and chattering as they watched the point across the bay, included Pat Curren, Fred Van Dyke, and a chipper young Santa Monica high school senior named Mickey Munoz. The swell wasn’t especially well-groomed, and the wind had already put a light chop on the ocean surface. All three cars were parked on the west side of the bay, opposite the break itself, which made it hard to gauge wave height, but it looked about 15 feet—nowhere near full capacity for Waimea; more like good-sized Sunset. Everyone’s voice was loud and adrenalized. Noll and Curren offered to paddle out, while the others hedged, bounced on their toes as they watched another set, shook their heads, and made the case for Makaha. Curren drove off to get his board, which he’d left near Sunset. Noll convinced Stange to be his second, pointing out that they could paddle out and watch from deep water, then decide if it was rideable. Twenty minutes later they were both sitting on their boards in the channel, wondering what to do next. Ten minutes after that, another six or eight surfers had also paddled out.

The mid-bay current was noticeable, but nowhere near strong enough to pull them out of position, which was a relief. Noll paddled twenty yards toward the point, edging into the lineup. The others followed. Not long after that, a mid-sized three-wave set rolled through, with takers for each, and before the last wave fizzled onto the beach, Waimea was officially on the map as a rideable surf break.

Who rode the first wave that day? According to Noll, it was Noll, by himself, and in decades to come he would get the credit. Stange, however, said Curren and Noll rode the first wave together. Munoz always said the first wave was caught by Harry Schurch, a quiet Long Beach lifeguard, but nobody seemed to be listening. Then in 2008, writing for The Surfer's Journal, George Downing backed Munoz' version, and added some detail. Schurch had apparently paddled at Waimea earlier that morning before Noll or any of the other surfers had shown up, and ridden it alone. No photos, no movies—and this lack of record seemed to erase the achievement altogether. (Schurch himself was only mildly annoyed that he was never credited. "Sure, it sometimes bothered me that there would be talk about the first day [at Waimea] and I was never mentioned," he told Downing. "[But] on the scale of human events . . . I understood the significance of what I had done. Not really that much!”

The Waimea debut was as crude as it was brave. For reasons that aren’t clear, all those who paddled out that day were under-equipped—some even riding their California hotdog models. Here was a wave that plainly called for the kind of long, narrow, specialized big-wave board that experienced riders like Downing and Buzzy Trent had been using for years. On their smaller "chip" boards, the Waimea gang that afternoon turned in a series of cartwheeling wipeouts, interrupted now and then by a stiff-limbed ride to the channel. But proper big-wave form, at this stage, didn’t really matter. Understanding that a wipeout was survivable, and that you weren’t going get pulled to sea in a riptide, or eaten by a shark—these were the day’s real achievements. The Waimea voodoo wasn’t entirely gone. But now it too was manageable.

 *  *  * 

The surfers learned something else that day. Mike Stange noticed it from the lineup before he'd even caught a wave. “The road around Waimea was lined with cars and people,” he later wrote. “Everybody likes the prospect of disaster, and this venture had all the earmarks of one.” More than a hundred people clustered around the bay—probably four times more than had ever gathered on the North Shore at one time to watch surfing—to see how Noll, Curren, Stange, and the rest would fare against Waimea. By dumb luck, the big-wave riders had hit on surfing’s one failsafe draw to the public at large. Mike Stange was being flip, but not that flip, by saying everyone on hand that morning was hoping for a disaster. In fact, the crowd yelled and cheered each successful ride. But they gasped and clutched their heads and stood rooted to the spot during the wipeouts, as just-vacated 30-pound boards danced above the crest like plastic spoons, and as surfers pitched through the air with splayed arms and legs and vanished beneath huge drifts of whitewater. The event played like a minor-key symphony of everyone’s oceanic fear of riptides, sharks, rock-smashing waves, and drowning. Once on the scene, it was impossible to turn away.

Surf-watching itself was not new. George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku had long ago proven that surfing demonstrations could hold the public’s rapt attention, and summer beachgoers might spend the better part of an afternoon idly watching the frenetic hotdogging at Malibu or Queens. Spectators crammed the beach at Makaha each year for the International Championships, but the big stuff there broke off in the middle distance and was largely obscured by nearshore waves. Waimea was different. It brought tension and proximity to the viewing experience. The dirt shoulder on Kam Highway was curved and raised on both sides of the bay, with excellent sightlines to the break, suggesting nothing so much as theater balconies; the inclined and readily accessible lava-rock point thrusting out toward the break was like expensive floor seating. Waimea Bay gave big-wave surfing its first and best arena. It was surfing, but with an added jigger of bullfighting.

Later that afternoon, after Noll and Curren and everybody else had left, Mickey Munoz and Mike Stange were out alone at Waimea when a rainstorm moved in. Stange, a high school drama geek, turned his bearded face to the wind and began shouting passages from Hamlet. Munoz answered with his own half-remembered Shakespeare quotes. It was an adrenaline release and a salute to the day’s events. But as the two surfers shook their fists at the heavens and plunged imaginary daggers into their chests, their actions implied that big-wave riding would from now on be equal parts drama and melodrama. The audience was watching. Play it up.

Edit section
That first day, Mike Stange and Mickey Munoz turned their bearded faces to the wind and began shouting passages from Hamlet. They shook their fists at the heavens and plunged imaginary daggers into their chests, and their actions implied that big-wave riding would from now on be equal parts drama and melodrama. The audience was watching. Play it up.