“Riding waves is an art, not a sport.” God help us. You could float a battalion of zeppelins with the hot air generated by surfers waxing poetic about “the art.” Open any surf magazine from 1970, and the surfing-as-art fatuousness actually wafts off the pages in small clouds.
Then again, David Nuuhiwa.
We all enjoy a little postprandial cigar-and-brandy chat about who, in surf history, looked the best simply standing atop a board, but it’s always going to come down to David Nuuhiwa, Gerry Lopez, and Tom Curren. Probably in that order. Smoothness doesn't come in a higher grade. Nuuhiwa's bones positively flexed when he surfed. His joints were dusted in graphite. Paw pads on his feet. Who knows where it came from. David's father was a double-secret 12th-degree martial art black-belt ninja, and David himself spent a few years during his youth in a Hawaiian valley somewhere being raised by panthers. At 17, he was already so smooth in the water he could spin mistakes into gold—in the clip above, halfway through the first wave, he loses balance and goes up on one foot then comes down with some kind of Bolshoi Ballet hand juju that makes the whole thing seem planned. All that, plus fashion chops to match Mike Hynson, and a face that belonged on album covers.
For six or seven years, beginning in 1965, American surfers were zombified in their obsession with David Nuuhiwa. The surf media, first and foremost. SURFER’s 1967 God-bless-the-USA “High Performers” articles were balanced almost entirely on Nuuhiwa’s slender teenaged shoulders. Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman bought enough Nuuhiwa-earmarked film stock in the mid- and late-’60s to goose Kodachrome's NYSE price. America’s finest surfers meanwhile battled to see who built the most lavish temple of praise to Nuuhiwa’s skills. Corky Carroll’s entry, in part: “The whole beach was screaming and tears were coming out of their eyes when David was surfing.”
Over the past few days I've reignited my own boyhood obsession with Nuuhiwa, and what stands out this time around is how well his surfing holds up without any contextual support. This isn't as common as you might think. Nat Young, for example, was the most progressive surfer of 1966, and took that year's world title in San Diego without breaking a sweat. But to fully appreciate Young's surfing, you need to have some idea of where the sport was at that moment in terms of performance, board design, and even transpacific Aussie-American surfing politics. The shortboard revolution. Noseriding versus "involvement." The New Era. Young gathered all these things and more in his huge Avatar-sized hands, from the technical to the doctrinal, crushed everything down to something the size of a soccer ball, and drop-kicked the sport into its future. It was masterful. But his actual surfing? If you're, I don't know, Nicki Minaj or Kim II-sung or this week's recruits in the Richard Schmidt Surf School—anybody without a solid working knowledge of surf history—you watch a Nat Young 1966 highlight reel and you're looking at a handsome guy wrestling a nine-foot board.
David Nuuhiwa is different. You don't have to explain or contextualize his surfing any more than you have to explain or contextualize the Brooklyn Bridge or the flip side of "Revolver." It is beautiful by any standard, any measure.
Those who didn't care for Nuuhiwa, and there was no shortage, were as obsessed with him as the rest of us. Aussie surf journalist John Witzig took shots at Nuuhiwa in his hair-tearing 1967 masterpiece "We're Tops Now." Five years later, during the 1972 World Championships, also in San Diego, Nuuhiwa's contest board was stolen, broken in half, graffitied, stabbed with a knife and strung up gangland style from the Ocean Beach pier.
Two days ago I came across a strange 1969 photo in SURFER and wondered for a moment if the magazine at that point had jumped sides and was taking a not-so-subtle dig at Nuuhiwa. The full-page shot shows him mercilessly burning a less-talented surfer, and the caption reads "Nuuhiwa showing positive aggression." To my ears, that reads like irony. But no. Just the opposite, I’m guessing. SURFER ran the shot because David looks so feline and graceful that the poor guy getting burned simply didn't register. (That's the photo, below.)
Turns out that Nuuhiwa was one of the premier wave-snakes of his generation. Which, weirdly, may weigh in favor of the surfer-as-artist claim. Here's a line from a New York Times op-ed piece that ran a couple years ago. "The creation of truly great art requires a degree of concentration, commitment, dedication, and preoccupation—of selfishness, in a word—that sets that artist apart and makes him not an outlaw, exactly, but a law unto himself." And later in the same article: "He was in the grip of art, and the cruel thing about art—of great art, anyway—is that it requires its practitioners to be wrapped up in themselves in a way that's a little inhuman." The Times piece name-checks Hemingway, Wagner, Degas, Picasso, Eliot, Mailer and Dickens, among art world heavyweights.
I'm not saying we put Nuuhiwa in with that gang straight away. But I'd at least nominate him for consideration.