Rocket to Makaha

George Downing (left) and Wally Froieseth, late '40s
George Downing, Makaha. Photo: Don James
Oceanographer William Bascom
George Downing, left, mid-'50s. Photo: Walter Hofman

There were still a few challenging surf spots waiting to be discovered along the sparkling four-mile necklace of reefs between Diamond Head and Honolulu Harbor, and this allowed Waikiki to remain a force in contemporary surfing (unlike California’s San Onofre) during the 1950s. But the real Waikiki, the soft-lit beachfront of song and story—Queen’s Surf and Canoes and the rest of the interlocked breaks in front of the Moana and the Royal Hawaiian; crossroads for Duke Kahanamoku and Jack London and David Niven and the Prince of Wales and Rabbit Kekai—was already fading into surfing’s historic past. And as that happened, a dehumidified West Side outpost named Makaha, Waikiki’s polar opposite in terms of glamour and comfort, became a focal point for progressive surfing.

In the early 1950s, a handful of Honolulu surfers decided to tackle big-wave riding as a kind of Manhattan Project. John Kelly and the other original hot curlers had first ridden Makaha in 1937, and over the next fifteen years ambitious Hawaiians had continued making occasional day-trip visits to test themselves in incrementally bigger waves. They hadn’t made much progress, though, and the Makaha trip was always a risk. With their still-finless boards, it didn’t do anyone much good to leave the tiny winter surf at Waikiki only to arrive at Makaha and find the point loaded up with unrideable eighteen-footers. You wanted big, but not that big.

Surfers from both Hawaii and the mainland would contribute to the new charge on Makaha, but George Downing, a slender Waikiki regularfooter and the youngest and most tightly-wound of the group, went at it harder than anybody. Downing was just 20 in 1950, but as the protégé and nephew by marriage to early hot curl pioneer Wally Froiseth, he already had years of Makaha experience. His surfing was more graceful than flashy, and he had a reputation as an excellent sailor and canoeist, as well as a deadly paddleboard racer. Like Bob Simmons, Downing focused on all things related to surfing with a scholar’s obsession: on calm days he snorkeled over reefs to better understand how they affected incoming swells, he studied weather charts to better decipher swell creation, and he invented a way of corkscrewing his body into the water during a wipeout to minimize the punishment. Downing took as much joy in riding waves as anybody. But he regarded the vast amount of surf-based knowledge left to be unearthed as both a challenge and a responsibility—almost a burden. Downing didn’t take many days off.

In the early 1950s, the details of wave formation were still largely a mystery—not just to surfers but to science itself. A New York-born oceanographic engineer and underwater diamond prospector named Willard Bascom, however, was then conducting research that would help explain things to both groups. It was understood by this time that storm winds create waves, and bigger storms make bigger waves. (Although even this primary bit of wave science was new to a lot of people. “Wind has nothing to do with big surf,” Tom Blake wrote in his 1935 book Hawaiian Surfriders; large waves originated instead, Blake continued, from “the jars, the shaking, the vibration from inside of the earth.”)

How big the surf will be, and of what quality, Bascom learned, depends on a complicated set of variables: the speed, duration, and fetch of the wind as it blows over the ocean surface and transfers energy from air to water; how far the resultant wave-loaded “swell” travels between storm and shoreline; any combining or crosshatching, during that journey, with secondary or tertiary swells; and the angle of approach as the swell moves ashore. An unbroken ocean wave moves through the water as a mostly-submerged gyre of energy—sort of like an invisible rolling pin. It slowly decays as it travels, but compensates in part by riding lower in the water, which preserves energy. Bigger waves, furthermore, cluster together in “sets,” thus conserving energy in the same way as bicyclists drafting off one another during a road race. Two to five waves per set is average, but ten-wave sets aren’t unheard of. Frequency varies, but on average a set will pulse through the lineup about every seven or eight minutes. All of this would later be explained in detail in Bascom’s flat-toned but essential 1964 book Waves and Beaches: the Dynamics of the Ocean Surface.

As Bascom further noted, the longer a swell travels, the greater the distance is between individual waves. This wave-to-wave interval is called “period,” and it is measured, in seconds, as the time it takes for two consecutive wave crests to pass a stationary point. As big-wave surfers soon figured out, period is as important a data point as height in terms of forecasting both wave size and quality. A given swell, at a fixed point in the ocean, filtering through a sensor-loaded oceanographic buoy, is described in binary terms, with wave height as the first number and period as the second. From a surfer’s perspective, for any kind of decent surf, the period usually has to be at least double the wave height: four feet at ten seconds, for example, or six at twelve, or eight at twenty. Because a long-period swell has so much of its energy packed away below the surface, a wave height figure alone is close to useless for evaluating how good the surf will actually be at the beach. A five-foot-at-nine-second swell might produce head-high surf, while a five-at-sixteen swell at the same break could mean waves double-overhead or bigger. Surfers would eventually memorize these binary figures, and the type of waves each set of numbers is likely to produce, like a catechism.

Tracking waves as they make their final charge for shore is a different matter. Science, here, often goes out the window. Refraction, drag, bathymetry, interrupted orbital motion—all the basic descriptors pulled from the oceanographer’s lexicon to describe the forces behind a breaking wave—will draw blank stares from even professional-level surfers. Or especially professional-level surfers, whose nearshore wave knowledge isn’t studied but beaten and caressed into existence, and then tapped without conscious thought. This morning’s new long-period southwest swell laid over a fading local wind swell, for example, means chest-high double-up wedges at the north end of the beach on the outgoing tide. Academic to the wave-observing scientist. The day’s meat to a surfer.

By the '50s, George Downing understood the mechanics of big waves better than any other surfer. He wasn’t unequaled as a big-wave board designer—Joe Quigg, for one, had plenty of arrows left in his quiver—but he was the best combination of shaper and test pilot in the game. Downing was 14 when Froiseth helped him remake an old redwood plank into a sleek hot curl he named “Pepe.” Shaping the board was a slow, labor-intensive project, undertaken in Froiseth’s garage with a drawknife and a hand plane, and as Downing whittled his new craft into existence he collected the shavings in a pair of burlap potato sacks, which he occasionally slept on.

Although Downing moved forward constantly, he did so with great deliberation. While touring the California coast in with Froiseth in 1948, Bob Simmons showed the two Hawaiian surfers how to reinforce a surfboard with resin and fiberglass, but for over a year Downing held off on using the new materials for his own boards. Furthermore, he rejected the new Malibu chip design, with its full profile and half-moon stabilizing fin—Downing believed he could hold just as high a line on a narrow finless hot curl as the Malibu surfers could on their wide-nosed chips. But by 1949, Downing realized he’d taken the hot curl as far as it could go, especially in bigger waves. Downing then made a board he called the Rocket—a 10-foot, 35-pound, balsa-core beauty now regarded as the first great piece of specialized big-wave equipment.

Made for the upcoming 1950-51 winter surf season at Makaha, the Rocket was essentially a hot curl crossed with a Malibu chip. Downing kept the hot curl’s streamlined shape, but flattened out the back hull, knowing that a non-rounded planing surface would run faster through the water. The board was fiberglassed, like the chip boards, and had a strange 10-inch redwood-lined slot routered into the bottom, near the tail. Downing had changed his mind about the fin, and was now convinced that it would be the key stabilizing feature in big surf, but he wanted to try a few different sizes and shapes—this “fin box” would allow him to experiment. Three longitudinal strips of redwood, one of them down the board’s centerline, were set between the balsa planks, and the resin coat had been fine-sanded and polished to a gleam. The Rocket looked fast just laying in the sand.

It took Downing a few weeks (and a few cartwheeling Point Surf wipeouts) to come up with a fin solution, but from then on it was a big-wave surfer-surfboard partnership like no other. Downing rode the Rocket for ten years. “I had so much confidence in this board,” he later said, “that never once, if I got it trimming right, did I feel like I couldn’t make it to the end of the curl line.” In 2010, sixty years after launch, the Rocket still had a place in Downing’s board collection.

George Downing was 14 when he reshaped an old redwood plank into a sleek hot curl he named “Pepe.” Whittling his new craft into existence, Downing collected the shavings in a pair of burlap potato sacks, which he occasionally slept on.