Diving under a huge wave at Makaha. Photo by Paul Nicklen

A dream: I am standing on a rocky jetty staring out at the ocean as the sun starts to slide below the water. A large storm is approaching but it is warm and a gentle breeze caresses my body. The waves are huge and rolling in with tremendous power between the two breakwaters jutting out into the sea. The waves are gray and ominous and I feel a sense of dread sweeping over me as I realize that I must swim out to sea. For some reason I must get through these waves. My friends are standing around me, wordless but supportive. I dive in and begin swimming through the strong surge. As the first wave approaches I easily dive down below it and surface on the other side. Swimming stronger I approach the next wave. This one is bigger and again I dive below. After several more waves I see a huge one building on the horizon. I swim quickly towards it, take a deep breath, and dive as deep as I can to get below the wave’s massive power. Under it, in the twilight gray sea, I see dark powerful foam surging down towards me… Shell Beach, California, 1981

I’ve had that dream many times — over and over — and I always wake up shaking. It is a primal fear and one many surfers share. Surfing is an adventure every day but nothing compares to a stair step ocean. As swells build from an incoming storm the arriving swell can build quickly. The nightmare is getting caught out in the ocean as the waves build quickly in size, breaking further and further offshore on deep reefs, pulling you out to sea to the incoming spawn of the storm. Very few things in surfing compare to the helplessness you feel when a large wave breaks on or in front of you. Hopefully you have time and can dive below the maelstrom; if not, your board is brutally ripped from your hands and you are thrown into a washing machine of epic proportions. As you are tossed around like a rag doll time passes underwater and you try to relax and wait it out. If you are unlucky you will be bounced off the reef, or worse, wedged in a crevice on the bottom, further adding to your adventure. Eventually, however, the lack of air forces you to the surface — if you know which direction that is — and you flail around with the hope of heading in the right direction. Most make it back to the surface before another wave comes crashing down, some don’t.

When I was a young surfer I read about the ordeal of Woody Brown and 17-year old Dickie Cross; that of being caught in a stair step swell on the north shore of Oahu in the early days of surfing. It was a gripping tale and one that I never forgot for its nightmare scenario. It is at the core of our fears, of helplessness and struggle in the face of a power greater than ourselves over which we have no control. It is a story of incredible courage and the raw power of the ocean and how insignificant as humans we all are with respect to the might of the sea. I repost this story here from Legends of Surfing to remind us to remain humble and always respect the power of the ocean.

Outer reefs break on the north shore of Oahu.

The Death of Dickie Cross, 12/22/43

This is an account of the death of big wave hawaiian pioneer Dickie Cross, when Woody Brown and Dickie Cross paddled out at big Sunset in 1943, as told by survivor Woody Brown  (see credits below).

17-year old Dickie Cross (right) in 1943. Photo: HOS

On December 22, 1943, Woody and a young friend named Dickie Cross paddled out at Sunset on a rising swell. Up to this time, Sunset had rarely been ridden and it was only Woody’s third or fourth time surfing the North Shore. “My friend and I,” Woody related to me, “we thought, ‘Oh well, it’s winter time.’ There’s no surf in Waikiki at all, see. So, we got bored. You know how surfers get. ‘Oh, let’s go over there and try over there.’ That’s how we got over there and got caught, because the waves were 20 feet.

“Well, that wasn’t too bad, because there was a channel going out, see. The only thing is, when I looked from the shore, I could see the water dancing in the channel, eh? I thought, ‘Uh, oh. Boy, there must be a strong current there, cuz the waves are piling in the bay from both sides,’ causing this narrow channel going out. Then, it opened up. So, we thought, ‘Gee, well let’s just go sit in the channel a little ways from the beach and see how strong the current is. If it’s not too strong, we can paddle back in, then: no worry, eh?’

“So, we did that. We went out. We sat in the channel and it wasn’t too bad. We could paddle in any time. ‘So, OK.’ There were 20 foot waves breaking on each side. We went out to catch these waves and slide toward the channel. The only trouble was, the surf was on the way up. We didn’t know that. It was the biggest surf they’d had in years and years, see, and it was on the way up. Twenty feet was the smallest it was gonna get, but we didn’t know! I mean, it looked good!”

“So, we got caught out there! It kept getting bigger and bigger and, finally, we were sitting in this deep hole where the surf was breaking on two sides and coming into the channel. The channel opened up into this big deep area where we were and the surf would break on two sides and we were trying to catch ’em.

“Then, all of a sudden, way outside in the blue water, a half mile out from where we were — and we were out a half mile from shore — way out in the blue water this tremendous wave came all the way down the coast, from one end to the other. It feathered and broke out there! We thought, ‘Oh boy, so long, pal. This is the end.’ But, we were sitting in this deep hole and so we watched these things come in. The white water was rolling, oh, what — 20 feet of white water, eh? Rolling in and just before it got to us, it hit this deep hole and the white water just backed-up. The huge swell came through, but didn’t break. Oh, boy! Scared the hell out of us! Well, there was a set of about 5 or 6 waves like that. So, after the set went by, we said, ‘Hey, let’s get the hell inside. What are we doing out here? This is no place to be! Let’s get in!’”

“So, we tried to paddle in, eh?” Woody made paddling gestures. “As we came in to this channel, it got narrow in there. We’re paddling and paddling and finally we stopped for a minute to rest and my friend says, ‘Woody, you know where we are, don’t’cha?’ I thought about it and, oh, wow, we hadn’t moved one damn foot. All that paddling and we were right where we were before we started paddling. We couldn’t get in.”

“You have to be very careful of these channels. When the waves get big, the rip current just pours out of there, out of the bay. You can’t get in. Anyway, we didn’t know what to do,” Woody admitted. “So, finally, we decided, ‘Well, there was only one thing to do. We gotta wait until that huge set goes by’ — which is only about every 10 minutes — ‘then, we’ll paddle like hell to get outside of ’em and then paddle down the coast and come in at Waimea.’ When we went by Waimea before we went out, it was only 20 feet. The whole bay was open, right? It was just breaking on the point, more or less. So, we feel, well, we’ll come-in over there; big beach break, there.”

“The only trouble was, it didn’t work that way. By the time we got there, it kept getting bigger and bigger. It went up on the Haleiwa restaurant and it wiped out the road at Sunset. It was the biggest surf they’d had in years and we were stuck out there.” I mentioned to Woody that George Downing swears the waves were 40-foot that day, breaking over a shelf in 80 feet of water, and asked him if he thought the estimate was in there.

Surf lineup at Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii. Outer reef called King's breaking
The outer reef breaks. Photo: Mark Johnson.

“Yeah, I think, easy. On the way down, while we were paddling down to Waimea — we got out OK, past the big sets at Sunset, you know. And so we started to paddle down the coast. This guy who was with me, a young kid — he was only around 17 — he was just a gutsy young guy. One of these guys: all guts and nothing up here; just, ‘ummm.’”

“So, we’re paddling down and he keeps workin’ in! I said, ‘Hey!’ Boy, you know, I’m lookin’ as we’re paddling down and I’m saying, ‘Look, the surf is breaking right along a line where we are, ahead of us and behind. We’re right in the line of this break. We better move out more, yet.’”

“‘Nah, nah, nah! That’s alright.’”

“He wouldn’t move out. I could see we were in a boneyard! So, I pulled and said, ‘Well, I’m gonna move out. Come on!’ I went out about a hundred yards further than him and we paddled down like that, side by side.”

“Then what I was afraid might happen did happen. In other words, a set came where we were — a big, tremendous set. Boy, outside of us there was just a step ladder a far as you could see, going uphill. Oh, man! I scratched for all I was worth… You could paddle 10 paddles and you’re still going up the face of the wave. Oh, wow!”

“I got over ’em — I got over all the sets — and I sat down and looked to see where Dickie was, cuz he was inside of me! Boy, I couldn’t see him because the waves were all in the way. And then, the last wave I saw him come over the top and it was so steep, his board and him just flew in the air and came down on the other side. Then he paddled out to me and I said, ‘Dickie, you think you could have lived through that?’”

“He said, ‘Hell no!’”

“So, then I said, ‘How big do you think these waves are out here?’ We agreed we thought they were 60 feet.

The outer reefs off Sunset beach and Waimea Bay. Aerial photo on the rights shows the nearshore reef, LIDAR map on the left shows the bottom contour of the reefs extending over a mile offshore. Note the deep channel near Sunset Beach where Cross and Brown may have been sheltered from the giant surf. The outer edge of the reef is about 60 feet deep, where 50+ ft. waves may have broken that day. The distance from Sunset to Waimea is about 3 miles.

“Well, then we kept going down the coast, see,” Woody said, entirely engrossed in retelling the tale, “and he was with me. As we got close to Waimea, he starts coming in, again, see. I said, ‘Hey! Hey! No!’ Cuz we had agreed we’d go out in the middle of the bay, where it was safe, and sit there and watch the sets go by and see what it looked like. Then we could judge where to get in and what. But, no! He starts cutting in, and I hollered at him, ‘Hey, hey, don’t go in there. Let’s go out in the middle!’”

“‘Nah!’ ”

“He just wouldn’t pay any attention. It seemed like it was his time; just like something was calling him, you know? Because, look at how he was acting, eh? Even though he had almost got caught and admitted he couldn’t have lived through it, and still he was cutting in, again. It was just like it was his time to go. I don’t know.”

“Anyway, he cut in… as we went up. When we got to the point, there were 20 foot waves breaking there all the time and then these big sets would come every 10 minutes. So, he was going in and I would see him go up over these swells and come back out off the top. The next one would come and he’d disappear and then I’d see him come up over the top and it looked like he was trying to catch ’em. Yeah, that was the only thing I could think of.”

“Finally, one wave he came up over the top, he’d lost his board. ‘Oh, boy,’ I thought, ‘Oh, gee, two of us on my little cut-down board!’ — I’d cut it down — and I was exhausted. ‘Two guys on one board? What chance do we got, now?’ But, I told him, ‘Come out, come out!’ It sounded like he said, ‘I can’t, Woody, I’m too tired.’ That’s what it sounded like. But then, he started swimming out towards me, so I started paddling in to catch him to pick him up on my board.”

“Well, you know, at a time like that, in that kind of big waves… you’re watching outside all the time, right? Your eye’s out there, cuz you never feel safe. So, I’m paddling in and one eye’s out there and one eye’s on him to pick him up. All of a sudden, his eyes see the darn mountains coming way outside in the blue water, just piling one on top of another, way out there. I turned around and started paddling outside for all I’m worth because I figured if I lose that board, too, then what chance do we got? Two guys swimming, eh?”

2022-05-26 07.22.26

“My only chance is to save the only board we got. So, I turn around and I’m paddling out and I’m paddling towards the first one coming in and it keeps coming in, getting bigger and steeper and higher and getting a little white on the top. Well, I saw that I just wasn’t gonna make it — you know — it was just cresting already. And so, just as it came to me, I threw my board and just dove down and headed for the bottom. That’s your only chance in a big wave is to get down in the deep water.”

“I could go 30 feet in those days and I got way, way down in that blue, blue water and, boy, I could feel myself being lifted up and drawn back again. I could see the white water boiling down under me and behind me. I’m 30 feet down and the white water’s still boiling 30 feet down! You couldn’t live through that. I was just lucky I was just out beyond it just enough.”

“I got up to the surface. The next one was coming and I swam like hell toward it. Luckily, they broke in the same place and I dove down and got under it; a whole set, about five of ’em. Then, when they went by, I started looking for Dickie, cuz he’s been inside of me. Oh, boy. I hollered and called and looked, swam around, and there was no more Dickie anywhere. It’s getting dark, now, too! The sun’s just about setting.”

“So, I’m swimming and I think, ‘Well, I’m gonna die, anyway, so I might just as well try to swim in, because, what the hell, I’m dead, anyway, if I’m gonna float around out here.’” Woody removed his trunks to reduce drag and then briefly worried about sharks. “Oh, how ridiculous,” he told me. It was questionable whether he was going to live at all, so why worry about sharks?

“There were no surfers on the North Shore in those days. Nobody knew we were out there and there were no boats. I thought, ‘Hell, I’m dead, anyhow. I’ll do what we said. I’ll swim out to the middle of the bay and I’ll wait and watch the big sets go by and after a big set goes by, then I just try swimming and hope to God I can get in far enough that when another big set comes in I’ll be where it isn’t so big and strong.’”

“And that’s what I did. I was just lucky when the first one came. I’m watching it come, bigger and higher and higher and it broke way outside, maybe 4-5 hundred yards outside of me. I said, ‘Well, maybe I got a chance.’ So, I dove as deep as I could go, again, and I just took the beating; a terrible beating… And when I couldn’t stand anymore — black spots are coming in front of my eyes — I just started heading for wherever it looked lightish color. You know, you didn’t know what was up or down. Wherever it looked kind of a light color, it might look like down, but ‘that’s where I’m headed for.’ And I got my head up!”

“So, I figured, ‘Man, if I lived through this one, I got a chance!’ Cuz each one, I’m getting washed in, eh? So, each time I dove a little less deep and I saw it was washing me in.”

I told him I assumed he was facing out, diving into the wave each time.

“Yeah, you’re watching ’em come. Oh, yeah, sure,” he replied. “So that at the last minute, you dive down before it gets to ya.”

“So, they washed me up on the beach. I was so weak, I couldn’t stand up. I crawled out on my hands and knees and these army guys came running down. The first thing I said to them was, ‘Where’s the other guy?’ They said, ‘Oh, we never saw him after he got wrapped up in that first big wave.’ That was their words. ‘Wrapped up in that first big wave.’ I figured from that, this guy [Dickie] had so much guts, he tried to bodysurf the wave. Because, otherwise he would have dove down. Why didn’t he dive down under it? If he got ‘wrapped up’ meant that he was up in the curl, right? How else would you express it? So, I figured he tried to bodysurf in.”

Special thanks to Legendary Surfers.com for this interview

9 responses to “Caught Inside: Surfing Nightmares and the Legend of Dickie Cross”

    • Thanks Nancy. His courage is legendary in the surf community and his tragic story will live on. The early surfing pioneers faced a scary unknown and paved the way for the rest of us. Taker care, Brian

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