The Viking King of Mead Hall

Pat Curren. Photo: Ron Church
Jose Angel, Waimea. Photo: Pat Edwards
Sunset Beach. Photo: Lou Perez
Rick Grigg
North Shore surf check, early '60s

Dickie Cross’ death at Waimea Bay in 1943 remained the sport’s darkest, most disturbing cautionary tale. George Downing, Wally Froiseth, and a few other Hawaiian surfers drove out to the North Shore occasionally over the next ten years, but for the most part it went unridden.

It was the Californians who turned the North Shore into a surfing obsession, beginning in 1953 when Flippy Hoffman and Bob Simmons, having spent three months in close quarters with their fellow mainlanders at Makaha, loaded up Hoffman’s Model A and rented a tiny white clapboard house on the tip of Sunset Point for ten dollars a month. During the day they surfed and fished. In the evenings they played chess, checkers, and ping-pong. Short trips were made up and down the coast to ride other breaks, but mostly they surfed directly in front of their house, at Sunset Beach, which even then was known island-wide as the North Shore’s most consistent wave. Their boards didn’t work very well. Neither man had switched over to the narrower big-wave models being made by Downing and Joe Quigg, and both spent a lot of their surf swimming after a lost board.

Hoffman would remember it as all great adventure, filled with hot rides and thumping wipeouts. But he also said the experience was often boring and repetitive. “We’d eat rice, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then surf. Then some guys would drive out from Makaha or Town, and we’d all surf. They’d leave, Simmons and I would surf again, then sit around and argue. Lots of that. We’d argue over chess, we’d argue about if some wave from that afternoon was twelve feet or twenty feet. Every day, that was pretty much it.”

Greg Noll rode Sunset Beach for the first time in late 1954 as a visiting 17-year-old Southern California high school student and boardmaker, and over the next ten years,  as the North Shore was steadily explored and mapped, he became the sport’s new big-wave icon. There would be no mistaking Noll for any other North Shore surfer: in his prime he was six-foot-two and 225 pounds, and wore black-and-white striped “jailhouse” jams. The surf media nicknamed him “the Bull,” partly for his congenital stubbornness and partly for the hunkered-down bovine power squat he used while charging the big ones.

Noll was friendly and funny by nature, but belligerent while drunk, which was often, and he brawled his way through his late teens and twenties. In later years, Noll recalled his fights in the same easy-going and affectionate bar-room voice he used for telling big-wave tales. At a house party once, he planted himself in front of fellow boardmaker and big-wave rider Dick Brewer, who’d been saying nasty things about Noll’s line of boards. “I asked Brewer to step outside,” Noll wrote in his autobiography, “but he wouldn’t go, so I popped him right where he stood. That’s all I did, just backhanded Brewer. But it happened to break his nose."

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Ultimately, a dozen-or-so California pioneers saw to it that the North Shore replaced Makaha as surfing’s big-wave capital. Each year they returned in slightly bigger numbers, and a slightly raised level of confidence. Informality was the rule. With few exceptions, California surfers on the North Shore didn’t come off as determined sportsmen, like bullfighters or mountaineers, grimly pursuing their dangerous dance with fate; they acted like frat boys on spring break. They stood on the cliff edge at Waimea Falls and double-dared each other to jump sixty feet to the lake below. When it rained, they hiked into the backcountry and went mud-sliding down pig trails. After a few beers, somebody might walk out to the porch and fireball a mouthful of lighter fluid onto a lit match. They went shirtless, stole chickens, played poker, and broke wind with the kind of volume and frequency that only comes from twice-daily servings of canned beans. John Severson bought a rusted ’41 Chevy sedan for $19.95, painted it from bumper to bumper in swirls, scrolls, and curlicues (tires included), hand-lettered “Sunset Special” across the passenger doors, then drove the car for months before selling it for $15.

One of the new mainlanders was a lanky sad-eyed boardmaker from La Jolla named Pat Curren. For his second visit to the North Shore, Curren rented a three-bedroom beachfront house at Sunset for himself and nine other San Diego-area surfers, removed all the furniture, demolished the non-load-bearing walls in the front of the house, installed horizontal floor-to-ceiling surfboard racks along one side, and built a long trestle down the middle of the room. Curren had a passing interest in Norse legend—he called the new digs Mead Hall. Normally the quietest and most reserved of the California surfers, Curren was so inspired by the renovation that he’d preside at mealtime wearing a thrift-shop Viking helmet, pound his fist on the tabletop, raise one foaming beaker of mead after the other, and exhort his friends to do the same in a broken Old English-surfer dialect.

Along with Greg Noll, Curren became one of the acknowledged leaders of the North Shore pioneering effort. He had an air of offhand but absolute mechanical competence. Back in California, while most other Mainland big-wave riders were attending college or lifeguarding, Curren worked as a draftsman and a carpenter, and did underwater repairs on the Santa Barbara Channel oil platforms. His high rank on the North Shore had a lot to do with the specialized big-wave boards he made—long, sleek, flawlessly-crafted 12-foot balsa pintails, described by one surfer as “a cross between a work of art and a weapon.” Downing and Quigg invented the finned big-wave surfboard, but Curren improved on the design, with subtle but crucial adjustments to the rocker curve and bottom contours.

Curren was also the slouching near-mute apotheosis of surf-cool: draining an afternoon beer, flicking a cigarette butt to the side, then taking down Malibu golden boy Tommy Zahn in a paddle race; flying to Hawaii one season with no luggage save a ten-pound sack of flour for making tortillas; sailing the three-thousand-mile Great Circle route from Honolulu to Los Angeles on a 64-foot cutter and posing for a photo en route, bearded and watch-capped, a huge Havana cigar jutting from a corner of his mouth, left hand on the wheel, right hand holding a shot glass of crème de menthe.

Cooler than all these things put together, Curren would invariably pick off and ride the biggest, thickest, meanest wave of the day. With Zen-like patience he’d sit on his board, alone, ten yards or so beyond anybody else, and wait an hour, two hours, three hours if necessary, for the grand-slam set wave. The ride itself was stripped down and fluid, as Curren went into a deep crouch, spread his arms like wings, and led with chest and long chin. Tearing across a huge wave face, in circumstances where other riders dropped automatically into a survival stance, Curren looked like an Art Deco hood ornament.

“And he didn’t give a shit if anyone saw it or not,” fellow big-wave rider Peter Cole said. “The rest of us would run around, chasing photographers, ‘Did you get the shot? Huh? Did you?’ While Pat would just grab the wave of the day, walk up the beach, and vanish.”

Other notable California transplants included Cole, Jose Angel, Fred Van Dyke, and Ricky Grigg. (Marge Calhoun and teenage surf champion Linda Benson both rode the North Shore in the 1950s, but the surf scene here during the early years was almost exclusively male.) All four were college educated. All were toughened up as surfers in the biting-cold waters of the San Francisco Bay Area. Each decided, by the end of the 1950s, to move permanently to Hawaii.

The best surfer of the group by far, Grigg simply focused his endless self-confidence into the big-wave arena. Cole wasn’t in Grigg’s league talent-wise, but he’d been a decorated middle-distance swimmer at Stanford, and had the arm span of an NBA center. Pool training had given Cole tremendous lung capacity, and he believed that he could swim, dive, or frog-kick out of any situation—a belief justified by his cheerful presence in the Sunset Beach lineup for fifty-plus years. Van Dyke claimed he rode big waves for a variety of Freudian reasons, all of which boiled down to “not feeling loved.” Greg Noll worked a related psychoanalytic angle, saying, “When I was a little guy I got my ass kicked a lot, and that pretty much explains why I did what I did in big surf.” But where Noll went after the heavy stuff with gusto, Van Dyke did so like a man going to the gallows. “Where does it end?” he’d ask himself. “How many times do I have to prove myself out there?”

Jose Angel was the perhaps the most-loved and least-understood of the early North Shore surfers. Gentle and easy-going on land, a favorite teacher at Haleiwa Elementary School, he shifted into a different gear when the surf got huge. Intensity was what mattered to Angel. Riding a huge wave to the end was great and all, but Angel wanted to get closer yet to the power source. Right after takeoff, with a Tourette’s-like compulsion and suddenness, he might jump up from the tail of his board, tuck into a backward summersault, and skip down the face as the curl pitched overhead and exploded into the trough. “Or he’d take an unbelievably hairy drop,” Grigg recalled, “make the hard part of the wave, and then step off his board and let the thing destroy him.” Angel never talked about the how or why his big-wave pursuit differed from that of his friends. In 1976, at age 41, he died while free-diving for black coral, a probable suicide.

Pat Curren sailed from Honolulu to Los Angeles on a 64-foot cutter, bearded and watch-capped, a huge Havana cigar jutting from a corner of his mouth, left hand on the wheel, right hand holding a shot glass of crème de menthe.