Unbounded Courage: the First Surfers to Ride Waimea Bay

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Greg Noll, one of the first surfers to ride Waimea Bay, studying Pipeline before paddling out, 1964. Photo by John Severson.

When I was young I read about the first surfers to ride Waimea Bay in 1957. Everyone at that time were too afraid to surf Waimea, and for good reason. Surfer Dickie Cross had died there in 1943 after padding down the coast from Sunset beach on a fast-building step-ladder swell. From the beach Waimea appeared too big, too fast, too steep and just generally too treacherous to ride. Add to that a gnarly shorebreak, raging rip current, sharky waters, and the presence of a church on the point and a Hawaiian heiau in the valley and it all added up to a scary, forbidden place. The lore was that surfers had been watching it for years, building up the courage to go out. That is until Greg Noll pushed his friend Mike Strange to paddle out in 1957. Although other surfers followed them into the lineup it is generally agreed that Greg Noll had convinced them to paddle out and thus led the charge to conquer Waimea Bay.

It is a gripping story and one that I have never forgot for the courage it must have taken to be the first to paddle out, to risk the fear of the unknown. And as for most surfers, to face their ultimate fear. I repost this story here from Legends of Surfing to remind us to of the courage of those pioneers and to remain humble and always respect the power of the ocean.

Waimea Bay, November 5, 1957

In Greg Noll’s Da Bull, Life Over the Edge, Noll recalled the first time Waimea Bay was “successfully” ridden by surfers following the Hot Curlers. It was November 5, 1957. Not overly concerned with history, the predominantly-Californian group of “Coast haoles” riding the North Shore at that time largely dismissed or forgot about Dickie Cross, Woody Brown, Wally Froiseth, Fran Heath and the rest of the Hot Curl surfers riding the spot since the late 1930s. To the Californians, they considered themselves the first to ride Waimea and the North Shore.

“Downing and Trent had helped establish Makaha as the No. 1 big-wave or any-size-wave spot in the Islands,” Greg Noll concedes in his autobiography. “Up to this time, the winter of 1957, no one had ever ridden Waimea.”

“We used to check Sunset when it was huge,” agreed Fred Van Dyke, “watch the closeout sets, and then head to Makaha. The surf was always smaller there, but it was fun.”

“For three years I had driven by the place,” continued Noll, talking about Waimea, “on my way to surf Sunset Beach. I would stop the car to look at Waimea Bay. If there were waves, I’d hop up and down, trying to convince the other guys, and myself, that Waimea was the thing to do. All the time, I was trying to build up my own confidence.

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Waimea Bay. Photo by Sean Davey. Http://SeanDavey.com

“At that time the North Shore was largely unexplored territory. We were kids who had heard nothing but taboo-related stories about Waimea. There was a house that all the locals believed was haunted. There were sacred Hawaiian ruins up in Waimea Canyon. And of course, the mystique of Dickie Cross dying there. We’d drive by and see these big, beautiful grinders… but the taboos were still too strong.”

“The forbiddenness of the place is what made Waimea Bay so compelling. I wanted to try it but didn’t have the balls to go out by myself. So I kept promoting the idea of breaking the Bay. Buzzy Trent, my main opponent, started calling me the Pied Piper of Waimea. He said, ‘Follow Greg Noll and he’ll lead you off the edge of the world. You’ll all drown like rats if you listen to the Pied Piper of Waimea Bay.’

“One day in November, we stopped at Waimea just to take a look. I finally jerked my board off the top of the car and did it.”

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Greg Noll in the archetypal charger’s pose, pushing over the ledge, readying for impact. Waimea, 1964. Photo: Keck.

“I was following Noll, Stange, Curren, Al Nelson, Mike Diffenderfer — a still famous classic shaper — and Mickey Muñoz — another great and current shaper,” wrote Fred Van Dyke. “We always checked it because it looked so glassy and clean, but then [usually] drove on to Makaha. That day we stopped and got out of our cars. ‘Neat break, but a board racker,’ said Nelson.

“Muñoz mumbled, ‘It didn’t look too big anyway.’

“‘Too peaky, no wall,’ said Curren. Noll was jumping up and down. His wife, Bev, was trying to calm him.

“‘I’m going to paddle out and just look at it,” said Greg. Noll was always the stoker, the initiator, and Stange usually followed suit.

“‘Yeah,’ said Stange. ‘Got any wax?'”

“Mike went with me,” continued Noll. “We were the first in the water. I was the first to catch a wave. I had paddled for one outside and missed it, so I took off on a small inside wave. By then the other guys had come in too. Pat Curren and I rode the next big wave together. And that was it. It was simple. The ocean didn’t swallow us up, and the world didn’t stop turning. That was how Waimea got busted. By me, Mike Stange, Mickey Munoz, Pat Curren, Bing Copeland, Del Cannon and Bob Bermell.”

According to Van Dyke, “They all hit the water and Munoz was first to paddle by the deep spot where the point swings in on top of you and it looks like a mountain ready to break, and then it heads back to the point because of the deep spot. Munoz practically fainted when he saw the size of that first wave up close. What had appeared as a small peak from half a mile away now loomed as a gigantic 20 plus wall. Munoz went off first on a 20 footer and dug a rail half way down.

“Greg screamed. ‘Jeez, it looks like a mountain.’ Curren ended upside down on a late takeoff. Stange and Noll got the wave of the day, Stange taking a cannonball spin out from inside of Greg, coming up 100 yards inside of where he wiped out.”

“Within minutes,” wrote Greg Noll, “word spread into Haleiwa that Waimea Bay was being ridden. We looked across the point and saw cars and people lining up along the road watching the crazy haoles riding Waimea Bay. There must have been a hundred people — a big crowd for that time.”

“I’d love to say something heroic,” Noll admitted in Surfers, The Movie, “I’d love to say we made history. But basically it was a bunch of guys parked around the Bay there, and somebody grabbed a board and went surfing, and it looked so good the rest of us guys said, ‘Hey, we got to get in on this.'”

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Surfer heading out to ride big waves. From the film Surfers, The Movie.

The guy who first grabbed his board on November 5, 1957 was certainly Noll. The “rest of the guys” are Mike Stange, Harry Church, Bing Copeland, Pat Curren, and Mickey Muñoz, according to Surfers, The Movie.

According to Stange, Noll and Curren teamed up to ride the first Waimea wave they’d ever seen ridden. Others say it was Church.

“To this day,” continued Noll, “when I go into Haleiwa, I stop at a little gas station that sits just before the bridge. There’s an old man there who sold us gas when we were kids. He laughs whenever he sees me because we used to buy his drain oil to put in the old junk cars that we drove. The engines were gone, anyway. All we wanted was to get three or four months’ use out of them. Now when he sees me coming he says, ‘Greg Noll, I remember the first time when you ride Waimea, you crazy damn haole you.’

“The irony of it all was, it wasn’t a very big day by Waimea standards. Just nice-shaped waves. I spun out on one wave and wrenched my shoulder. It’s still screwed up from that first day at Waimea. We were using ridiculous equipment, boards that we had brought over from the Mainland. Definitely not made for big waves. We had a long ways to go in big-wave riding and big-wave-board design.

“When we first surfed Waimea, we weren’t conscious of making history, other than on the level of that particular time. For me the excitement came from competing with the other guys and from riding as big a wave as I was capable of riding.

“Buzzy was right. I was the Pied Piper. I spent three years trying to drum up courage among all of us to surf Waimea Bay. The irony was, at the end of the first day, when we were all sitting together rehashing our rides, everybody wondered, ‘Why the hell have we been sitting on the beach for the past three years?’ It wasn’t a huge break that day. Waimea was just trying to be itself. Later we were introduced to the real Waimea.

“To be Waimea, the waves have to break fifteen to eighteen feet before they start triggering on the reefs. To be good, solid Waimea, it has to be the type of break that rolls around the point, with a good, strong, twenty-foot-or-bigger swell. A lot of big-wave riders disagree on a lot of things, but I don’t think any of them would disagree about this: to be good Waimea, it has to have more than size. It has to have a certain look and feel. A little bit of wind coming out of the valley, pushing the waves back, holding them up a bit.”

Fred Van Dyke remembers the waves that day being much bigger and went on to write about surfing Waimea Bay back in the late 1950s:

“Even though I love ‘The Bay,’ I admit, deep down, the best part of surfing Waimea on a huge day — one over twenty feet, which is not very often — is when you are walking up the beach, thinking back over the waves, the wipeouts, the rip that takes you toward the huge boulders and threatens to smash you upon those boulders if you don’t make shore before the other side of the rock the kids dive from in summer. Yes, for me, walking up that beach, safe for another day — alive — is the payoff.

“Many years ago, when Sunset Beach closed out, we packed up our boards and headed for Makaha. I remember that we would drive by Waimea Bay, stop, and look at the wave breaking off the point. The consensus, since nobody had surfed ‘The Bay,’ was that it wasn’t big enough, and who would want to surf such a narrow peak? Besides, it looked as though it broke exactly on the rocks, a definite board racker.

“Greg Noll was the first to paddle out. Whenever a place was tried for the first time, Greg usually stoked us to go out. On this particular October day in 1957, ‘The Bay’ was challenged for the first time by a group of Californians. Al Nelson, Pat Curren, Mike Diffenderfer, Mike Stange, Mickey Munoz and later, after school, by me.

“‘The Bay’ won, but a new surf spot was opened for exploration. The takeoff was nearly impossible, jacking up ten feet after you dropped in, and the wipeout in deep water so thick that you were held down long periods and pushed along for a hundred yards in thick soup.

“One thing we found out on that first day — it being over twenty feet — was that when you lost your board most of the time it popped out in the rip and drifted right back to you. We also found that our boards were totally inadequate. A new design had to be created to handle ‘The Bay.'”

“After that first day in ’57,” Greg Noll concluded, “Waimea Bay joined Sunset Beach, Noll’s Reef and Laniakea as accepted North Shore surf spots. Pipeline, at that time, was still a ways down the road. All the great spots that are still the great spots today were established within our first four years in the Islands. After that, surfers surfed and named every ripple along the North Shore.”

And that was how the thirteen year old tabu associated with surfing at Waimea was broken in mild (by Waimea standards) 12-to-15 foot surf. But, as Noll declared many years later, “There were some hairy days to come.”

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Brook Little surfing Waimea on a large day. Photo: Scott Winer.

“For many years Waimea was surfed only on those few days of the year when everywhere else on the North Shore was closed out,” Fred Van Dyke wrote, bringing the story of The Bay up to present day. “Now, the cord [leash] makes it possible to surf it from hot dog size all the way up the scale. This creates a false impression, by some, that they have ridden ‘The Bay.’

“… [big wave rider] Ken Bradshaw put it succinctly. A young kid came into Karen Gallagher’s surf shop across from Kammie’s market and bragged to Bradshaw and others that he’d just ridden Waimea.

“Bradshaw looked at him and said, ‘Waimea hasn’t broken in four years.'”


Special thanks to Legendary Surfers.com for this story.

The story of Greg Noll surfing Waimea Bay in 1957.

References:

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