The Swell of ’83

Return of the "Big, Damn, Terrorizing Swell"

The Swell of 1983 was the John Bonham flaming gong-blast that finally woke up our slumbering interest in big waves. It wasn’t one swell, actually, but a whole zombie battalion of swells, lurching out of an El Niño-juiced North Pacific, one after the other, week after week, without letup—my knees were knocking from early February to mid-March.

SURFER writer Leonard Brady, reporting from the North Shore, watched Ken Bradshaw and Roger Erickson and a half-dozen other mostly underground big-wave ascetics gorge themselves at Waimea Bay. Brady loved what he saw. Loved it like a kid who gets to climb onto the firetruck, ring the bell, and sit on the captain’s shoulders afterwards. He was smitten. Leonard wrote back-to-back SURFER features on big-wave surfing, and told his readers that the men who did it could only be compared to “experimental rocket pilots,” or “the last men standing at the Alamo, guns blazing,” ready to “surf or die.” A bit purple? God yes. Deep purple. Purpler than Prince. And we lapped it up. By 1984, thanks in part to Brady’s P.R. work, big-wave surfing was back on its pedestal, bolted down, polished, and lit up by klieg lights.

Leonard was one of the guys I thought of when I posted the Swell of 1983 page this week. Greg Noll was the other.

Noll knew the resurrection was coming 14 years before it happened. In ’69, he rode his last big wave, his biggest big wave, at Makaha. The shortboard revolutionaries were at that point setting fire to everything around them that didn’t pass their never-quite-defined litmus test of grooviness, including big wave surfing and, by association, Greg Noll and all his non-pot-smoking leatherneck big-wave friends. On the other hand, Jesus Christ, that Makaha swell was really big, and Noll charged like a Viking, and it was all over the newspapers and TV. It wasn’t groovy, but you couldn’t just totally ignore it. So a few days after the swell, an unnamed Surfing mag reporter—I’m guessing microbiotic-thin arms, a wispy beard, and some kind of leather-bound pendant dangling from his neck—interviewed Noll, and established his progressive bonafides by prefacing a question to Noll thusly: “Many people just don’t give a damn about big-wave riding, and don’t even consider it a valid test of contemporary, ‘now’ surfing. Comment?”

Noll’s hairy fingers surely twitched, and began to reach for the reporter’s exposed throat. But with effort he mastered himself, and gave an amazingly prescient answer.

“There was a time when I lived for small waves, ripping up and down the coast of California, just really stoked in that direction—performance surfing. I know the feel of progressive surfing; of getting in the pocket, into that tight area and coming out, just really being part of the wave. Big waves are just a different trip completely. In big waves you’ve really got to know the situation, like a skipper who drives a boat in and out of a harbor where it’s rocky and he’s got to know every inch of the place. You’re compiling knowledge over a period of years and years.

Every big-wave rider at one time or another was stoked over small waves and the performance thing. Then at some point the emphasis just begins to shift. So yeah, today, you find a lot of guys saying, “Who gives a damn about big surf?” But at some time in the future, if they stick around long enough, if they really dig surfing enough to keep at it, these guys may end up digging the thing that they now criticize. It’ll be the final challenge. You go through enough phases in surfing, and what’s left there at the end is a big, damn terrorizing wave.”