Flashback to January 2002—North Shore, Oahu. Sunday morning. A late-rising winter sun spills over the lush Pupukea highlands revealing a vast blue Pacific prairie, white-fringed and roiling with gigantic Old World sea monsters. A strong Aleutian swell has filled in overnight, producing clean outer-reef waves with easily parsed beginnings and ends. By 10 a.m. several tow teams are methodically patrolling the horizon, disappearing for long intervals between the crests.
Pancho Sullivan and his longtime friend and tow-partner Myles Padaca are pulling into barn-sized behemoths at Revelations, their favorite tow-in spot. The pair trades Myles' Jet Ski back and forth, experimenting with improbable jet-assisted aerials.
Racing the ski at an oblique angle across a jacking swell, Pancho whips Myles into a fast down-the-line right measuring perhaps 20 feet from trough to crest. After a couple small check-turns Myles sets an edge and begins pumping down the wave's face.
Seeing the wave begin to close out, Myles abruptly launches himself off the huge pitching lip, lofting skywards in a spectacular move, but one that stalls Myles abruptly at the apogee. Forward momentum gone, he plummets straight down like a hanged man, board firmly attached to his feet.
Myles lands flatfooted on the back of the cresting wave stretched taut as a drum, its surface tension so great it's like slamming onto cement. Myles' left tibia and fibula, weakened from a previous injury, snap like dry saplings midway between his knee and ankle.
After Pancho quickly swings the ski downcurrent and scoops Myles onto the rescue sled, on the agonizingly slow ride to shore Myles howls in pained anguish that his professional surfing career, his sole means of income at age 31, is history. This, only weeks after had won the Triple Crown. Pancho keeps calmly consoling him, telling him it's OK, that he's seen worse happen and surfers had come back. Do come back. Pancho assures Myles they would get the best doctor possible and they would have him back in the water as soon as possible. Just keep praying for it.
Pancho clears his throat and shakes his head at the memory…
Outside, feathery ironwood trees rustle like crinoline while a lone magpie, another tenacious Australian transplant, chuckles dolefully in the midday doldrums.
"Daddy, I make big poo-poo!" From the downstairs bedroom 21-month-old Kirra U'ilani Sullivan yells up in proud glee, claiming it. I can hear muffled giggles from Haunani, Pancho's wife, while Pancho Sullivan, 32-year-old North Shore hero, Search veteran, and currently the oldest Top 45 rookie in WCT history, grins wryly and struggles to regain the moment. "My daughter," he explains by way of an eye roll.
As a hurried footnote, Pancho winds up his answer to "defining moment?" by telling me that Myles eventually made a full recovery via reconstructive surgery, strength training and the occasional rehab surf session with Pancho. By November that same year Myles was able to paddle out and defend his Triple Crown title, albeit unsuccessfully, against Andy Irons. Pancho and Myles still tow in at Revelations on a regular basis…albeit with a bit more caution.
"Basically that was a huge wake-up call for both of us," concludes Pancho, leaning forward on a rattan divan, "that this whole thing could be over just like that."
In 28 years spent growing up on Oahu's beaches Pancho has seen how fragile careers and lives can be in surfing. He's seen the whole menu of traumatic surfing injuries up close, himself suffering more than 150 stitches from various reef beatings and fin gorings. And a handful of times he's paddled out and linked hands in memory of drowned surfers, some of them close friends like Todd Chesser.
This week, in fact, in the interlude between chasing a Triple Crown Championship and securing a WCT berth for 2006, he's helping with memorial arrangements of yet another young man, Malik Joyeux, seemingly immortal, who died while challenging the fickle, unforgiving waves of the Seven-Mile Miracle.
Haunani comes upstairs and asks if I would like another glass of water. Her blond hair and fine Anglicized features belie that Haunani is more than one-quarter native Hawaiian, born and raised on Oahu. Her mother, U'ilani Goldsberry, also known as "Auntie U'i," is an acclaimed Hawaiian folklorist and a classically trained hula dancer. When U'ilani performed at Haunani and Pancho's wedding at Waimea Park, Pancho's one-time mentor Karen Gallagher recalled it as a "chicken-skin moment." Haunani's name, if I heard correctly, means "the crisp quality of morning."
Pancho and Haunani's house, an airy three-story green and white cottage, is perched over a steep ravine and garlanded by thick highland forest. Looking through the branches out the round side windows gives the impression of living in some elfin tree castle. "The bummer of living here is the mosquitoes," he observes with his trademark voice, a compelling whispery rasp that's the result of 19 throat surgeries to remove recurring vocal cord polyps. "But you should hear the birds in the morning."
Earlier, Pancho had given me a brief tour of the property. The house is secluded at the end of a long dirt driveway on three wooded acres, mostly vertical. In the house he pointed out that by orienting the windows on an east-west axis to the ravine he was able to tweak the feng shui to allow maximum sunlight and good chi to run through the house. All this New Age geomancy likely comes through childhood imprinting, as Pancho was born within earshot of breaking waves in an actual bamboo treehouse on a Kauai commune.
He bought his house, basically a dilapidated roach-ridden artist's shack with no electricity or running water, for a relative steal in 1998 at the bottom of the Hawaiian housing slump. He made the down payment with the residuals earned from a long-running Sprite commercial. "Before buying this property I hadn't even financed a car," he laughs. "I sold my car for building materials and did a lot of the grunt work myself."
Pancho squatted rough in the shack for six months before deciding to tear it down and start over. With sweat equity and a lot of good-buddy contractor karma he was able to build his dream house, designed by cutting pictures from various house and garden magazines and making the preliminary drawings for the architect.
Over the next seven years Pancho has wrestled, pruned, coaxed and cajoled the once-wild jungle of unruly, often noxious foliage into a quite civilized garden that's heavy on edible landscaping. Pancho's chief passion, when he's not surfing, is gardening. The only presents he asks for these days are plants, hopefully ones that provide some sort of food or color. The house is enveloped in a green cocoon of ti leaves, banana palms, papaya trees, orchid vines, guavas, ferns and acacias, with every manner of symbiotic insect buzzing and fluttering around.
"I have connections with some of the plants that go back to the day I bought the land," he says. "The avocado tree that I started from a seed is now 12 feet tall and when it fruits it's going to feel really rewarding to see that that I helped cultivate something that is going to give fruit to somebody, possibly even my grandchildren. Coming from a broken home, roots are super-important to me. I don't profess to be Hawaiian because I don't have any indigenous Hawaiian blood in me, but I do feel like I'm connected to this land and the water that surrounds it and the people that live here. There's a bond that forms over time."
Pancho's ruddy, etched face reflects this. Over the years his fair towheaded Irish-French ancestry has retreated, replaced by a sea-weathered mid-Pacific persona that seems to draw the island's rich red soil straight up from his calloused luau feet.
So I wonder, looking around, who's going to take care of all this—Pancho's carefully nurtured Middle Earth a'ina—while he chases a world championship for nine months?
Earlier this month Pancho surprised the pundits by bookending a generally lackluster 2005 WQS campaign with an authoritative win over Mick Fanning at the Triple Crown OP Pro Haleiwa contest. That boost suddenly propelled him to Number 12 on the WQS leader board and handed him a coveted wildcard seed in the Pipeline Masters. Barring a complete breakdown in the O'Neill World Cup, the next and last WQS event of the season, Pancho was going to be a WCT rookie, at 32. Yesterday Pancho brawled through stormy nightmare 10-foot Sunset to win his Round Three heat over Luke Stedman, Ian Walsh and C.J. Hobgood. That clinched it. Welcome to The Show.
This afternoon Pancho indulges a well-earned bask. His credit cards are maxed out but he's slotted in the WCT at Number 34 for the moment. And he's the current Triple Crown points-leader by a narrow margin. Should he win the Sunset contest he will be the undisputed Triple Crown champ. Otherwise he will need to make a semifinal or win at Pipeline.
The North Shore village is ecstatic. In best Rocky fashion—on the eve of two long-time Hawaiian WCT vets, Sunny Garcia and Kalani Robb, retiring—the North Shore's favorite-son underdog is suddenly given a long-overdue shot at the title. Everybody, it seems, loves Pancho. After his Haleiwa win the telephone poles along Kam Highway were festooned with homemade plywood signs: "Congrats Pancho!" and "Pancho 1st!!!" and "Whaaaaaat??!!"
"For the entire week Pancho's win was the talk in line at Foodland and Kammie's," says Pancho's longtime friend and shaper Jeff Bushman. "The amazing thing with Pancho is that he's still that same kid we all knew. He didn't have a real easy go of it as a kid but he was always really pleasant and real thankful. Out of all the pros I've ever built boards for, he's probably been the one who wants the least and performs the most."
What many find remarkable is that Pancho's debut Triple Crown event win comes, according to simple actuarial math, just on the sunny side of middle-age. This year, three WCT veterans, each four years Pancho's junior, voluntarily retired off the Tour.
He's had a great 10-year run as Rip Curl's archetypal soul pro and resident North Shore power broker. What then, would possess a man with a dream job, a wife, child, and a mortgage, to go slog it out in parking-lot venues on the WQS for a season against kids 10 years younger and hungrier than him on the remote chance of earning a Top 45 berth at year's end? Mid-life crisis? Personal growth? Vindication?
Possibly. For years Pancho railed against the ASP for tossing up such a substandard minor-league circuit while at the same time severely limiting the number of Hawaiian wildcard entrants come Triple Crown time. He once stated that quality wave events were the only true separation between tap dancing and good surfing. "Personally," Pancho once groused, "I feel the current system will never push the sport to a reputable level."
However, over the years the ASP called Pancho's bluff by creating what they like to tout as "12 paid vacations" to A-grade breaks such as Tavarua and Teahupoo. Conversely, as his professional career reaches its apex, Pancho finds a serious world-title quest still within range, given the longevity of current 30-plus champions such as Mark Occhilupo and Kelly Slater.
"It was time for something different," says Pancho. "And the WCT is pretty much of a dream tour these days. To surf Tahiti or J-Bay or any of those places with one other guy in the water was very appealing to me. I feel like it was time to really give it a good go before letting the peak of my surfing ability come and go without ever having given it a shot."
For the last decade Sullivan has made his rep and his living as heavyweight Hawaiian free-surfer. He is paid not for competitive results, but for looking absolutely authoritative and artfully placed on countless magazine spreads (in his trademark red floral trunks) and Rip Curl point-of-purchase ads. He's a potent package: a media-savvy photogenic surfer with a genuine sense of tousled GQ style that makes him a surf photographer's default.
Pancho's signature move is the layback snap, an archaic but nonetheless effective showstopper akin to a top matador going for a flamboyant kill over the horns. His other is a stoic nose-tackle backside stance, adopted straight from Dane Kealoha's playbook, employed to deadly effect at Pipeline.
At 6-foot and nearly 200 pounds, Pancho attacks big waves like a varsity high-school wrestler; dropping in with a low, arms-out grapple, searching for that first critical hold on which to leverage that big frame. Then he proceeds to vaporize the lip with a single broadsword sweep that leaves steam hanging in the air.
Personality-wise he's probably one of the most accessible of the North Shore pros, close to the late Ronnie Burns—an amiable, somewhat bland North Shore demigod with impeccable credentials at Sunset and Pipeline. On land he indulges a weakness for Ben and Jerry's ice cream that produces more of an unapologetic keg than a six-pack around his midsection. Before eye surgery a couple years ago Pancho was one of the few pros to be caught out wearing glasses. Pancho's rumpled professorial persona recalled Indiana Jones or another notoriously nearsighted Sunset legend, Peter Cole.
However, as a contest surfer he is seasoned, savvy and deceptively light on his feet. When placed man to man at his hometown breaks of Sunset or Pipeline, few—including Slater and Andy Irons—can match him.
Pancho's competitive tally sheet has seen a remarkable late-bloomer's rush in the last few years. Starting in 2000 he won the XCEL Pro at Sunset and then repeated the same feat three years later. In 2004 he made the Semis of the Pipeline Masters and a month later won the Backdoor Shootout and a $40,000 purse against a heavily stacked final that included Shane Dorian, Kalani Robb and Andy Irons. And this February he led off his 17-event WQS trek with a First Place at the Monster Energy Pro at Pipeline.
"I think without a doubt he'll be rookie of the year and hack the Top 16, if not the Top 10 next year," predicts Myles Padaca. "He's got the power, he's got the technique, he's got the moves. There's really no weakness in his surfing except maybe in smaller waves and beach breaks and stuff. But still, in that, he can really throw his dancing shoes on and let it shine for a big guy. Guys [on the Tour] are fearing him."
You ask most North Shore locals how they view Pancho these days and their answer invariably comes firmly affixed to a personal, almost possessive, sense of pride. A recurring theme echoed among the people who watched Pancho grow up is that he was raised by the North Shore. Or raised himself thanks to a few welcoming refrigerator doors.
Pancho speaks fondly of his "hanai family," a diverse clan stretching from the East Side to the North Shore, which took him in, fed and clothed him, gave him surfboards and rides to the beach. Hanai is a uniquely Hawaiian concept of the village family—that an orphaned or abandoned child will never lack for a home or a meal.
Karen Gallagher, a North Shore mainstay, is one of Pancho's hanai aunties. Gallagher had been running the Sunset Beach Surf Shop for a few years when she was approached by shaper Pat Rawson in 1985 to consider sponsoring a promising 12-year-old who couldn't afford boards.
"I was expecting to see some little Mexican kid but this little blond haole boy comes walking in'" recalls Gallagher, who acted as unofficial den mother for scores of North Shore surf kids over the years she owned her diminutive but influential shop located next to Kammie's. "He was taking care of himself and doing it the hard way. I didn't know if he could surf but I immediately liked him and wanted to help him out. Jeff Bushman was just getting started on the North Shore so I hooked the two of them up."
Pancho, however, was no stranger to communal living. His mother, Joanne Sullivan, had Pancho out of wedlock at age 18 while a member of the Taylor Camp commune on Kauai. Pancho's father Derik, then 21, opted out of fatherhood. At the suggestion of a fellow commune member, Joanne named her newborn after the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Pancho listed his first memories as playing in the tidepools fronting Taylor Camp.