Buzzy Trent, King of Beasts

Buzzy Trent. Photo: Don James
Buzzy Trent. Photo: John Severson
Makaha, mid-'50s
Walter Hoffman, Makaha, mid-'50s
Buzzy Trent (right), Makaha, mid-'50s

George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Woody Brown, and a few other Waikiki surfers were all riding finned boards at Makaha by the end of 1951 and stroking with confidence into fifteen-foot-plus waves. The new equipment was fast and stable, and miles ahead of the hot curl in terms of bite and stability. If the boards weren’t all that maneuverable, it didn’t really matter. A high, tight, cleaving line to deliver you from the Point through to the Bowl on the heaviest wave of the day—that’s what mattered.

The big-wave push was further boosted when a small and equally committed gang of Californian surfers turned up at Makaha. It was a nice, quiet, easy scene. Apart from the occasional boozed-up weekend scuffle, everybody got along well. Makaha was too remote and provided too much surf for there to be any territorial problems, and shared moments of big-wave terror and accomplishment offered plenty of bonding opportunities.

The mainlanders were led by Walter Hoffman and Buzzy Trent, both young Malibu regulars in the early postwar years. Hoffman was a big, strong, over-fed nineteen-year-old who got along well with everybody. He’d met and befriended George Downing in 1949 at Malibu, and later that year sailed to Waikiki for a three-month summer visit. He returned the following year, and in 1951 extended his trip into the winter season to begin surfing Makaha regularly. Hoffman had an 8mm movie camera, and he mailed a few rolls of Makaha footage back home to his older brother Phillip (“Flippy” to friends and family) and Trent, both of whom watched and re-watched the grainy color film until the projector bulb finally blew out. Walter, Flippy and Buzzy all flew to Hawaii the next winter, in 1952, along with a revolving crew of another half dozen Californians. They camped on the beach at Makaha for days at a time, in army surplus tents and lean-tos made from canvas tarps and scavenged wood; they ate triple-decker peanut butter sandwiches and went through a few hundred cans of Van de Camps pork and beans.

Walter Hoffman took a lot of photos that year, and nearly every shot embodies the frontier surfing ideal: empty waves, coconut palm-frond hats, boards scattered along the beach. A group shot has nine surfers in a line, everybody tanned and smiling and barefoot, arms draped over each other’s shoulders. Makaha was glorious—sometimes. It was also  consecutive days of flat-surf boredom, violent bouts of diarrhea, staph infections, and an assortment of tropical-borne skin conditions. “We all got sick,” Flippy Hoffman remembered. “We all had boils. Carbuncles. It looks pretty in the pictures, and it was. But a lot of the time it was awful.”

Living conditions were much improved the following year when the Hoffman’s rented a pitched-roof wooden shack a few hundred yards off the beach, at the foot of Makaha Valley. More Southern California surfers showed up, including surfboard designer Bob Simmons, in his first and only visit to Hawaii. (Simmons drowned less than eighteen months later while surfing Windansea in San Diego.) Walter Hoffman and Trent had by that time distinguished themselves as the company’s two most gung-ho surfers. If they were both well off the mark set by Downing in terms of skill and wave knowledge, they matched him for raw courage. Hoffman, in big surf at Makaha, was as cheerful as he was fearless, paddling out like it was a mess-around summer afternoon at Queen’s or Malibu. Trent’s focus, on the other hand, had shifted from intense to monomaniacal.

Trent made a lot other surfers nervous. He was a chatterbox, and liked attention, and on a lazy afternoon among friends he’d hold court for hours, telling jokes and stories, pulling faces, and making big sweeping gestures with his arms. Everybody laughed—but Trent was a little off somehow, as if all settings had been turned up to “10” and left there. Trent had cinderblock arms and shoulders, a tiny danseur waist below a row of corrugated abs, and a smash-nosed face set low on a huge, blunt head. Raw ass-kicking masculinity came off him in waves. He was a fighter and a bully in high school, as well as an all-state fullback who could run a ten-second 100-yard dash. Trent’s birth father taught Buzzy that “suffering makes you like steel” and with a note of approval, Trent later said his father was a “mean son of a bitch” who would turn loose the family dogs on any Depression-era drifter who made the mistake of stopping by the family house to ask for food. Trent’s stepfather, meanwhile, passed on a deep and abiding love for German military history and Teutonic glory in general.

During his Malibu apprenticeship in the forties, Trent came under the tutelage of Bob Simmons. They sometimes drove out to ride the winter heavies at a break near Santa Barbara called Ventura Overhead, and Simmons told the younger surfer, “You ride anything, got that? You’re a big chicken if you don’t take off on these waves!” Trent nodded and did as instructed. He was a tight, clenched surfer. He couldn’t swim very well, but he’d been diving for years, and he could hold his breath underwater for three minutes—wipeouts didn't bother him. Plus every bad wipeout, he believed, made him harder and tougher.

Trent arrived in Hawaii in late 1952 and never left. While big surf meant a lot to all the visiting Californians of the time, and three or four others would also move to Hawaii permanently, nobody took it on the way Trent did. He lifted weights, skipped rope, shadowboxed, and took long thigh-burning runs through the sand at a time when training was nearly unheard of among surfers. He minutely examined other surfer’s big-wave equipment and had new boards built that were even longer and racier. Trent also formulated a heroic, death-or-glory view of big-wave riding—an attitude that would be passed on virtually unchanged to the next few generations of big-wave surfers.

This last bit was a remarkable one-man achievement. George Downing, Wally Froiseth, John Kelly, and a few others had built specialized equipment and pointedly gone out to ride oversized waves. But none of them saw the need to redefine themselves as surfers. They invented big-wave surfing, and let the accomplishment speak for itself. It was up to Trent to invent the big-wave surfer. For reasons that can only be guessed at—a natural showman’s instinct, a bully’s insecurity, a genuine belief that conquest was the transcendent human experience—Trent viewed the sport almost exclusively in terms of battle and combat. The wicked 12-foot Makaha board he got from Joe Quigg, complete with a black dagger painted on the deck, was his “Sabre Jet.” Big-wave boards in general, Trent declared, were "guns." He idolized World War I German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, and told friends that while paddling into the lineup during a huge swell he imagined himself as the Red Baron banking through a hive of Allied planes above the French countryside.

Here in the big waves, and only here, Trent believed, did surfing rise above the level of sport and recreation and offer the surfer a chance to drape himself in glory, honor, and valor. “We’re warriors,” Trent once told a big-wave comrade, summing up their time together in heavy surf. “We didn’t have to kiss anybody’s ass. We came, we saw, we conquered. We’re Caesars!”

Buzzy Trent made people nervous. He had cinderblock arms and shoulders, a tiny danseur waist below a row of corrugated abs, and a smash-nosed face set low on a huge, blunt head. Raw ass-kicking masculinity came off him in waves.