On Coolness, And Not Caring

God bless the one and only Alec "Ace Cool" Cooke

Caption: Photos: Bolster

Alec Cooke, the Evel Knievel of big-wave surf. Photo: Bolster

"Outraging the Code of Cool" was the title of Warren Bolster's great 1992 Surfer's Journal article on Alec Cooke—Warren, on principal, refuses to call him Ace Cool. Bolster and Cooke were partners in two of Cooke's most memorable big-wave adventures. There was the 1984 "Kanea Point Challenge," when Cooke, looking New-Wave regal in a bright orange shorty and a crown of bushy-bushy blond hair, jumped from a helicopter to ride Oahu's most notorious big-wave break. Made a show out of it beforehand, too, printing up, on his own dime, a box full of commemorative "Ace Cool Kaena Point Challenge" T-shirts. He rode a couple out at Kaena, but it wasn't quite big enough to catch the interest of the Guinness Book of World Records people, which frustrated Cooke no end. A year later he again jumped from a chopper to ride an outer reef beyond Pipeline, and this time it was huge, and Warren got the shot, and for the next 15 years you couldn't bump into a Waikiki postcard rack without Ace's "The Biggest Wave" card dropping to your feet.

Cooke was never one of the big-wave cool guys. Darrick Doerner told him, publicly, to "speak less, surf more." With great delight, Ken Bradshaw once described to me how, since Cooke didn't really know the Waimea lineup, he and the other old bulls would paddle too deep, let Alec wiggle his way to the inside, pretend-paddle for the next set, then back off and let Cooke throw himself off the cliff. And what would happen? Every time, Cooke would come up smiling, swim to shore, pull his board off the berm, paddle out and try again. "It's amazing how much punishment a human being can endure," Bolster said of Cooke. "In my 20 years of working in the sport, Alec has survived more than anybody else I can think of, by far."

In an eye-rolling kind of way, Bolster liked Cooke. "Sometimes he's a friendly but clumsy puppy that you have to constantly push off your leg," Warren wrote. "Other times he's as abrasive as a boardwalk barker. With Cooke, what you have to deal with at any given time is always the flip of a coin." But that was the point. Cooke was his own man. Gave not one fuck about surf fashion or etiquette. Bolster asked the right question. "Are we supposed to ignore unique characters, and record only those events that cater to the most people, or the fewest, or the coolest? The sport is so many things to so many people, and if someone's religious view of surfing is offended by Cooke… well, I'm sure he'd be the first to say he's sorry."

I never met Cooke, but in 2001 he filled out a questionnaire for the print version of Encyclopedia of Surfing. He added way more info than I needed, but two days ago, after hearing that Cooke was missing, I went back and looked at his answers. Here's a short version. See if it doesn't leave you smiling.

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Where and when were you born?

Boston, Massachusetts, near Harvard, on February 4, 1956. I was one of the first sperm-donor babies. My father was from Hawaii's original Cooke family, but he had a latent condition known as Huntington's Chorea, which he didn't want to pass to me, thank God. My genetic father was a Harvard Medical School doctor and top athlete, a 6'2" blue-eyed Swede, top of his class. Names weren't included during those early days of genetic experimentation, so I never knew him. You got to find out who the donor was in terms of accomplishments and IQ and things like that. But not the actual person.

Where did you grow up?

Hawaii. South Shore, Oahu, and Kauai.

What did your parents do?

My dad was a student at Harvard when I was born, and later worked for Douglas Aircraft. Mother was a home-maker, student, and volunteer worker.

Where and when did you begin surfing?

My mom was bodysurfing with me in the womb until eight months into her pregnancy! At age 3 I would ride on my father's back when he bodysurfed. In fact, I used to stand up on his back, so I got a really early feel for surfing! At 6, I got my own board and began surfing for real.

How would you describe your surfing career?

I was one of the first extreme surfers. I flew out to ride huge outer reef waves by helicopter, with a mini-oxygen tank and a special 12-foot board. Nobody else was doing that. The Ace Cool Era was in full swing during the '80s. In 1982, the day after Hurricane Iwa hit Hawaii, I surfed Waimea Bay all alone, all day. It was 30-foot, and I caught at least 30 set waves that day. I lost my board at dark and swam in. I got washed straight up the Waimea Rivermouth in the darkness. There was a small group of "the faithful" waiting on the beach with a fire and a blanket and companionship to welcome the new Big Kahuna back to shore. But there's more to the story. I owned a surf shop in Haleiwa at the time — the shop was looted during the storm, the night before. I found out and just lost it! I figured there was nothing left to lose, and paddled out to Waimea that next morning all alone, with blood in my eyes. I remember Richard Schmidt broke three boards just trying to get out. He never made it. Nobody even tried. I was a madman that day, and I pulled it off. A star was born!

How did the Kaena Point Challenge come about?

Not long after that day at Waimea, [surf photographer] Warren Bolster asked if I wanted to try something new and different. This was the huge El Nino winter of 1982-83, and myself, Bradshaw, Charlie Walker, and a few others were surfing 20-foot-plus Waimea day after day for all of February and March. It was phenomenal! So Warren comes up to me looking for something different, and the Kaena Point Challenge began for Ace Cool. Over the next year, we experimented with a small oxygen tank strapped to my back, and a 12-foot board. Another thing — and nobody remembers this, but it's true — we did some early tow-ins in 1984 behind the back of Jeff Johnson's fishing boat. On March 5th, 1984, I did in fact surf Kaena. About 20- or 25-foot. Not big enough to be called a record, but some of the bigger Kaena waves ever surfed. Surfer did an article called "The Kaena Point Challenge," and I was on my way. I began popping up in the magazines quite a bit. I closed my surf shop in 1984, partly to concentrate on big waves and partly because it went broke. I wrote surf articles for the North Shore News, and did radio surf-reports. Ace Cool was on a roll! Then on January 5th, 1985, I did a helicopter drop to Outside Pipeline and caught a legitimate 35-40 foot plus wave! I was on Page One of the Honolulu Advertiser, and a postcard of that wave sold a million copies a year in Hawaii for 15 straight years! We made a film called In Search of the Biggest Wave, and they played it on Fantastico in Brazil for two years straight, every Sunday night. People in Brazil could not get enough of Ace Cool! In the 1990s, I began to tow-in surf with Ron Barron — Himalayas, Avalanche, Phantoms, Puaena Point, Backyards, Outside Logs, and Outside Alligators.

What are you involved with these days?

Doing the final edit of The Nuclear Surf Park, by Ace Cool. It's a sci-fi surf novel, soon to be a major cartoon movie. Also, Ace Cool Comics is just about to hit the stands! Next winter I'm planning to try and beat Mike Parson's wave at Cortes Bank and Bradshaw's wave at Outside Log Cabins. My new goal is to catch an 80-to-100-foot wave. Stay tuned!