SURFERMAG.COM INTERVIEW: Bernie Baker

Bernie Baker is a busy man. Try to get a word with him in December and he’ll tell you as much, in a very kind way of course. “Let’s meet at noon…and I’ve got about twenty minutes, then it’s off to tear down the scaffolding…,” he’ll tell you as he simultaneously walks backward towards his car and looks at his watch. The endearing thing about Bernie is that that twenty minute allotment will turn into the most fascinating two hours of your North Shore experience. He’s a very generous person.

Bernie Baker’s name has been inked on the SURFER magazine masthead since 1972. He’s been involved with professional surfing in Hawaii since the mid-70s. He’s had his finger on the pulse of North Shore surfing for over 30 years. Obviously, Bernie Baker wears many hats: Surf photographer. Contest Director. Journalist. But perhaps his greatest title is that of ‘super nice guy’, as anyone who knows him will attest. I caught up with Bernie near Rocky Point in December of 2004 to chat about his North Shore experience.–
Scott Bass

SURFERMAG.COM: Tell me about your first trip to Hawaii?

BERNIE BAKER: First trip to Hawaii was 1968, and that was a summer vacation coming out of senior year of high school with three friends of mine, and we spent the summer in the islands. A really good friend of mine who I ended up going to college with, Paul Kobayashi from the Big Island, his mom was the postmaster at that time, they invited us to come over and spend the summer surfing the Big Island. So my first experience in the islands was actually Outer Island, or as it’s called now, Neighbor Island, and it was Kona, and it was for the entire summer that year, and that was also my first part-time job—I worked as a deckhand on a billfishing boat during the International Billfish Tournament over there, which is into its umpteenth year by now, 50th year by now or something.

SURFERMAG.COM: What about your first experience on the North Shore of Oahu—what year was that?

BERNIE BAKER: First winter would have been ’71 here at Rocky Point with Kenny Thatcher and a whole group of guys that were from Southern California; I just spent the whole winter surfing, spent the winter surfing and shooting and getting adapted to what life in Hawaii was about. I think that I probably came out of that winter knowing that I would return as soon as possible to actually put down some roots and live here and maybe either finish college here, which I did in Santa Barbara, but as soon as I got out of school, I was straight back over here immediately.

SURFERMAG.COM: Tell me, between the winter of ’71 and this winter of 2004, what is the biggest change on the North Shore of Oahu?

BERNIE BAKER: You know, the biggest change on the North Shore of Oahu, it’s funny—I remember when Lopez used to call it the Wild Wild West…but, uh, you know, the first decade or so, you could say that the North Shore as a community, or as a suburb for Honolulu, was separate from Honolulu, and over the last 20 years, I would have to say that the North Shore, being really just a suburb to Honolulu, the biggest change is the change of Honolulu. It’s not so much the North Shore has changed, it’s that everything around it has changed; everything around it has progressed, everything around it has grown—the freeway came in all the way to Wahiawa in ’77. So you have a pouring over of population that’s obviously going to change any community, any village, any town, as we are out here, you know, we’re just a suburb to Honolulu and this place has changed radically just because of the population base on the other side of the hill.

SURFERMAG.COM: The mid- to-late-‘70s was really when professional surfing started to get traction, especially over here, what’s the most memorable event from that time.

BERNIE BAKER: You know, Randy Rarick and I got together in ’75 in the parking lot of Surfride Hawaii, and Randy was running the IPS and doing the “World Tour” as it was loosely threaded together back then, and he wanted to do something bigger and better for Hawaii, because this was our home, and he and I sat in the parking lot that afternoon in the late fall and put together a project ultimately called “Pro Class Trials,” and what it was was the trials for the two events that were taking place over here at that time in the winter, and he also had an idea for putting together a larger series of events, which turned out to be the Triple Crown of Surfing, and we started out in the mid-‘70s, and that was again part of IPS, which today we turned into the Triple Crown. The idea grew and grew and grew every year; I remember the first year we had 40 guys in both of the Pro Class Trials, and then we went to 120 in the 3rd year. So what you saw from ’75, ’76 on was it literally doubling in size after ’77, and then as things grew in Australia, with the Coke at Burleigh and the Bells event getting bigger and bigger, you just watched—the whole thing snowballed; it snowballed on the North Shore, and it snowballed around the world.