“What Made Me Was El Niño”

Brock Little talks his big-wave origins and his Waimea legacy

[Ed. Note: Today marks one year since big-wave legend Brock Little passed away from advanced liver cancer at age 48. This interview, where he discussed the ’83 El Niño season that formed him and his inseparable relationship with Waimea Bay, was originally published on February 8th, 2016, just a week and three days before his passing.]

Brock Little may be battling cancer, but reports of El Niño-fueled swells bombing around the Northern Hemisphere are still music to his ears. He earned his big-wave wings during the El Niño of ’83, when the North Shore was battered by swell all winter long. We spoke to him last week about today’s big-wave landscape, and his hopes for his legacy.

You were born in Northern California. How’d you come to be a North Shore big-wave guy?

My parents were both teachers, and we moved to Hawaii when I was four years old so they could teach there. My dad taught at Punahou High School, which is where Barack Obama went. He was actually probably teaching when Barack went through.

I’ve heard a story over the years about you being dropped in the ocean as a baby, but you came up smiling—that true?

Yeah…that story, I don’t know how true it is, but the story goes I was about three and in San Francisco with my parents and somehow ended up either being dropped or washed up in the freezing cold water. Apparently when my parents came to get me I was laughing instead of crying, but who knows. I sure can’t remember it. Maybe my parents made it up to explain a few things.

Fast-forward a few years, then. How’d the big waves come into play?

Funnily enough, it was an El Niño year, in 1983. My group of friends were just skinny little rug rats and no one wanted to take us out to Waimea. Everyday I’d come home from school, and the surf would be 15 to 20 feet, just like it is today, and I’d be just freakin’, wanting to surf it so bad. Finally, I just went, You know what? Fuck it. I rode my bike down and paddled out. Just like that.

Just like that?

Yeah, just like that. I still remember the board. It was a 7’8’’ single-fin about four inches thick. It didn’t even have a leash plug. Waimea wasn’t gigantic or anything, but I grabbed a couple on the shoulder then I made my way a little deeper, and got a few more. A light went off then for sure, but it wasn’t a light like, This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. It was more, I can do this.

Was there much peer pressure to get into big-waves from the crew you were running with?

More than anything, what made me was El Niño. I could surf Waimea every day and just get used to it. It’s funny you ask, because I was just thinking about this. The biggest thing that’ll come out of this El Niño is that it’s going to breed some sort of super crazy big-wave freak, because they’ll get all this practice in one season. Guys are going from Waimea to Jaws to Mavericks and back again. All that practice is going to result in something incredible.

You’re keeping an eye on the big-wave world?

Oh, for sure. I mean, I’m here in the hospital a bit, but yeah, I’m digging it.

What sort of influence did Waimea legends like Ken Bradshaw, Ace Cool, Mark Foo and Roger Erickson have on your career?

They were larger than life to me. I was just a little kid and they were already men. But, shit, I have no problem saying I could actually surf better than those guys, though it’s weird. Take Roger, in particular. Foo and Bradshaw could surf better than him, but Roger would just go, I mean, he had balls. He just turned and went. On anything. But the gnarliest guy out of all that bunch was Darrick Doerner, for sure. He was on the next level. He had balls of steel. I don’t want that guy to be forgotten, ever.

Did they pass on any hints and tips on how to surf Waimea?

No, they didn’t really factor me into the equation. Darrick and Roger could’ve cared less about me. Foo probably saw me as a threat, I suppose, because he was trying to qualify. But on the whole, they would just laugh at me. But you know, eventually, it was just like family out there, because it was a different time. No real cameras or anything — just doing it for the love of the wave, which turns into a love for each other, because you’re sitting out there with a group of guys in the middle of Waimea Bay.

Photo: Denjiro
Little is an exemplar for the idea that big-wave surfing doesn’t depend solely on the intangible, vague measurements of courage or meditation – It’s also a blast to land the biggest wave of your life. Photo: Denjiro

What do you make of the crowds out there now?

Well, there’s still that line in the sand. Anyone can surf it until it hits 20 feet. The other day when Nathan and John John [Florence] were out there, only 10 guys even made it out. Kelly Slater and Ross Williams couldn’t even get out. You hear so much about how Waimea is irrelevant these days, but that last swell showed everyone what’s up with that wave. Once it gets over 20 feet like it did this week, when someone like Kelly frickin’ Slater couldn’t even get out there, that’s what I’m talking about. You wait until it’s over 20 feet, then let’s see you paddle out and look over the ledge. Easy my ass.

Don’t know if you’ve seen the photo, but Luke Shepardson just got a bomb that looked a lot like your famous Eddie wave. What do you recall about riding waves like that?

The feeling of being light-footed. Sitting inside the bowl feeling cozy. Just seeing those things comin’ from miles away and thinking and psyching, just like, Okay baby, here we go. The feeling of being fearless and happy. But Waimea takes it out of you eventually. I had a couple near-drownings, and a few times I had to swim around the Bay and the effort just took it out of me.

What do you make of your Waimea heyday?

I just feel like I was one of the best guys in a certain period of time, and I have no problem saying that. But there have been better guys before and after me. If my little note I leave says He was the best guy to surf the Bay for a couple years in the late eighties and early nineties, well, I’ll take that. I’m f–king stoked.

Every heavy hitter, from Slater to Shane Dorian to Ross Williams, gives you props.

Oh yeah, I mean, that’s great and I love it. They may have picked up some of my attitude, but they already had it in their hearts. You can’t teach big-wave surfing to somebody who doesn’t want it. They all wanted it and I’m just lucky enough that they include me in the conversation as their influence.

[To read the surf world’s reaction to Little’s passing one year ago, click here.]