Point Surf '58

Makaha, 1953. Photo: Scoop Tsuzuki
Makaha contest director Fred Van Dyke (left). Photo: Church
Makaha International, late '50s. Photo: Clarence Maki
Makaha International, 1959. Photo: Bob Pasqua
George Downing, Makaha, 1958. Photo: Walter Hoffman

Every 1950s surf movie ended with a punishing big-wave finale. There were other compulsory features: beachbreak whipturns and cutbacks, hokey comedy bits, travel sequences to Mexico with tequila-pickled tourista surfers in sombreros, beater cars with boards stacked on the roof bumping along a dirt track toward the ocean. But in the end, the point was to send everyone home thrilled and maybe a little scared, and the foolproof way to do that was to wrap things up with a few minutes of the heavy stuff from Hawaii. Moviemakers had plenty of footage to choose from. New big-wave breaks were being pioneered, and more surfers than ever—motivated in part by the cameras on the beach; “Kodak courage,” as it was called—were willing to jump into the deep end.

For most of the decade, Makaha only consolidated its position as surfing’s premier big-wave break. In late 1953, just as the encampment of mainland Makaha surfers was being introduced to the world, Makaha itself had an official commencement of sorts, thanks to a photograph taken by part-time beachboy Thomas “Scoop” Tsuzuki. In the photo three surfers are trimming hard, almost in formation, on a clean and sparkling fifteen-foot wave—Woody Brown on the left, George Downing in the center, and Buzzy Trent slightly behind and above Downing—long knifing contrails running off the back of each rider’s board and slanting up to the curl. Tsuzuki’s shot made the front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on November 27. AP sent it out over the wire, and by week’s end it had been published in over a dozen mainland papers, from the Long Beach Independent to the Reno Evening Gazette to the Sheboygan Press.

Surf photos had been published in magazines and newspapers across the nation for years, but the waves shown were rarely larger than six feet. Tsuzuki’s shot was different. Shocking, in fact. Nonsurfers marveled at the daredevilry of it all, while every mainland surfer with an ounce of big-wave ambition looked at the photo and experienced the same rush of fear and attraction. The wave was huge by surfing standards of the time. Yet it somehow didn’t register as terrifying—the smoothness was too inviting, and all three riders were blowing down the line in such an easy and controlled style. Some number of California surfers who’d never before visited Hawaii opened their paper, got an eyeful, and made plans on the spot to go over themselves and try their luck at Makaha. How many actually went is unclear. In years to come, the surf press—looking to give the sport’s big-wave creation story a bit of added sweep and grandeur—would report that the Tsuzuki image triggered an “exodus” or “migration” from the Mainland to Hawaii. The actual number was probably less than twenty.

Makaha's position as surfing's big-wave capital was further established in early 1954, just a few weeks after Tsuzuki's photo appeared, when the Waikiki Surf Club, in partnership with the Honolulu Lions Club, hosted the Makaha International Surfing Championships. Boardriding was the main attraction, but tandem surfing, bodysurfing, paddleboard races, and a run-swim relay were also on the schedule. About 75 competitors signed up—nobody was rude enough to mention that the only “international” entrants were from Southern California—and enough spectators turned out on contest day that police had to direct traffic along Makaha’s normally deserted two-lane beachfront road.

The event was scheduled in early January, right in the middle of the winter surf season. Unfortunately, the sun broke on contest day to a waveless ocean. Some of the competitions were held, but the riding events were all cancelled. Bad surf—even no surf at all—was of course a lurking possibility for any contest with a nonflexible event date. Undaunted, the Waikiki Surf Club returned the next year, just as well organized and fully sponsored; with a modest head-high swell running, the whole slate of events went off without a hitch. For the next fifteen years, the Makaha International ran without interruption, and until 1964 it was regarded as the unofficial world titles.

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Big-wave riding advanced to a new and terrifying place during a two-day run at Makaha, on January 13 and 14, 1958. The weather was hot and windless as  Makaha shuddered from the output of a gigantic North Pacific storm, which meteorologists later estimated covered nearly a million square miles.

A day earlier, Oahu's West Side had been flat. Buzzy Trent went to sleep in his Makaha Valley home that night after drinking two or three Primos, then snapped awake just past midnight to the thundering noise of incoming surf. He walked outside and spent two hours watching huge moonlit waves roll through before going back to sleep.

Paddling out not long after daybreak, Trent was thrilled and a little spooked to find the deep-water channel adjacent to the break, normally a calm zone on even the biggest days, slowly rolling and shifting, while twenty-footers looped over in the Bowl section. Paddling further outside, he saw George Downing already sitting at the far end of the takeoff area, waiting. A few more surfers would paddle out as the day progressed and ride with varying degrees of fortune and mishap. Not long after catching a screamer from the top of the point all the way through, filmmaker John Severson blacked out underwater during a wipeout and nearly died. But Trent and Downing, already known as the era’s ranking big-wave masters, owned the day.

Of the two, the Hawaiian was the more accomplished surfer. But Trent was more compelling. At the beginning of a ride, after snapping up into a wrestler’s squat, he’d launch his board like a missile on the highest possible line across the wave face and hold position until he either coasted into the channel or was eaten alive by whitewater. There was more technique involved than met the eye, but Trent’s style looked like surfing’s version of power-lifting. Downing, strong but wiry, had a lower angle of attack and was able to make small, fluid adjustments as he raced forward. Unlike Trent, he wouldn’t sacrifice himself to a lost cause; once the ride starting falling, Downing would quietly step off the back of his board, like a butler backing out of a room, tuck into a ball as he plunged beneath the surface, and avoid—usually—the worst of the explosion that followed.

Makaha during that mid-January swell was perfection on a never-seen-before grand scale. Trent, grabbing the only point of reference he had, described it as looking like a “giant Malibu.” Even so, the waves were generally so fast as to be unrideable. Most of Trent’s rides came spectacularly undone at some point, but he got at least a half-dozen keepers from the top of the Point, through the Bowl, and into deep water, each one a catapulting three-hundred-yard race where maximum board speed was an exact match for the chasing speed of the wave.

Wave size climbed steadily on January 13th, leveling off mid-afternoon somewhere around 30- or 35-feet and still smooth as cream. At about 3 pm, Trent repositioned himself near the channel to watch a series of waves funnel slowly down the coast from distant Keana Point. Each wave would inflate as it hit the top of the Makaha lineup, just before the curl arced out and down to create a huge, black, pinwheeling tube, the size and diameter of which remained unchanged from the top of the Point through to the Bowl. Trent watched, hypnotized. Then folded his hand. He later claimed his whole existence led to this moment, and the realization that the waves before him were in fact too big and fast to ride, he said, was “terrible . . . just terrible.” Humbled, he turned and caught a smaller wave to the beach.

Downing’s run ended the next morning, after he paddled at speed over four progressively bigger waves then got caught out by the fifth. He pushed his board away and swam for the bottom, felt his sinuses rupture from the pressure change as the wave roared overhead, and broke the surface a few moments later with blood pooling in the back of his throat.

The 1958 Makaha swell was big-wave surfing’s most dramatic event to date, but it passed by largely undocumented. John Severson shot a roll of film over the two days, but the quality was poor. A few rides were used in Surf, his first movie (the only copy of which was either stolen or lost), and a few 16mm frame grab prints were made. But none of the images really showed off the surf’s true height and amplitude. In decades to come, Trent, Downing, Severson, and a few others, without fail or hesitation, would all say that Makaha during that two-day swell had served up the finest big waves in the sport’s history.

Makaha remained the anchor of West Side surfing, and huge Point Surf would always be an incomparable surf-world challenge. But by 1958 it was in fact already losing its place at the fore of big-wave surfing to Oahu’s North Shore—surfing’s own Mecca, and hostile as it was beautiful.

Downing paddled at speed over four progressively bigger waves then got caught out by the fifth. He pushed his board away and swam for the bottom, felt his sinuses rupture from the pressure change as the wave moved overhead, and broke the surface a few moments later with blood pooling in the back of his throat.