Photo: James
Photo: James

History of Surfing: An Exorcism At Waimea

The day the Big, Bad Bay was conquered by children

Matt Warshaw’s newest History Of Surfing chapter goes to The Bay. Throughout the ’50s, Waimea Bay had a cursed reputation among the North Shore of Oahu’s emerging big-wave riders. The geography was imposing: two lava rock points connected by a curve of beach, surrounded by an elevated view from Kam Highway. The mid-bay riptide could easily suck paddlers into 20-foot-plus surf, as it did, and fatally, to Dickie Cross in 1943. Waimea was a shark breeding ground, locals said. And then there was the ride: a steep, sudden takeoff that was nowhere near as gradual as Makaha’s Point Surf.

Popular history says it was 20-year-old Greg Noll who, on a late November morning in 1957, redefined Waimea as a rideable break when he and a group of friends braved the first true session at The Bay. Warshaw describes the scene that fall morning:

…Noll and his friend Mike Stange had just left Sunset Beach, which was too big to ride, and were driving to Makaha. Noll, as always, pulled over to look at Waimea. Another two Makaha-bound cars stopped as well, and the group of surfers, pacing and chattering as they watched the point across the bay, included Pat Curren, Fred Van Dyke, and a chipper young Santa Monica high school senior named Mickey Munoz. The swell wasn't especially well-groomed, and the wind had already put a light chop on the ocean surface. All three cars were parked on the west side of the bay, opposite the break itself, which made it hard to gauge wave height, but it looked about 15 feet—nowhere near full capacity for Waimea; more like good-sized Sunset. Everyone's voice was loud and adrenalized. Noll and Curren offered to paddle out, while the others hedged, bounced on their toes as they watched another set, shook their heads, and made the case for Makaha. Curren drove off to get his board, which he'd left near Sunset. Noll convinced Stange to be his second, pointing out that they could paddle out and watch from deep water, then decide if it was rideable. Twenty minutes later they were both sitting on their boards in the channel, wondering what to do next. Ten minutes after that, another six or eight surfers had also paddled out.

Although, as you’ll read from Warshaw’s HOS entry (you can read it here), the details of big-wave surfing’s debut melodrama were probably different than what Noll claimed. We asked Warshaw about the story behind Waimea’s grand entrance.

First, can we talk about Micky Munoz surfing scary Waimea Bay at, like, 17?

Seventeen! And maybe the smallest kid in his class, too—don't let the beard fool you. I want to say total Napoleon complex, except Mickey is the sweetest man in surfing, and pretty sure he was just as nice as a teenager.

And then there was Harry Schurch, the lifeguard who probably rode the first wave.

Yeah, everybody still thinks it was Greg Noll who rode the first wave, but it looks like that isn't the case. Harry paddled out that morning alone, before any of the other guys, Noll and the rest, even arrived. So it was sort of a tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it. Or see it. Or tell the story. And so poor Harry Schurch has been getting screwed for so long on the Waimea deal. The forgotten man. Except for Munoz—Mickey always said Harry was the guy, I think. But even then, we all spelled his name wrong, "Harry Church," and wrote that he was "among" the first. Noll, of course, always said Noll rode the first wave, and the Bull swung a big dick in the surf industry, and everybody went along with his story. Then George Downing finally came forward a couple years ago and said it was Schurch. Downing is God when it comes to big-wave surfing in the '50s. Downing's word is law. But to be fair, Noll had been the guy who really wanted to get out there and ride Waimea, not just that first day, but for maybe two years prior. Nobody else was interested.

What was Schurch’s story? How did he arrive on the North Shore, and what was his surf life like post-first wave at Waimea?

I know almost nothing about Schurch, except he was a Seal Beach lifeguard, and I think he was married to Robert August's sister. Still alive, I believe. Super humble. Downing quoted him as saying something about how the whole first-at-Waimea thing never much bothered him. "On the scale of human events,” he said, “I understood the significance of what I'd done. Not that much!" Harry Schurch is the anti-Greg Noll.

For Munoz, how did the theatrics and performance value from the North Shore affect his small-wave riding back home? Were "El Telephono" and "Quasimoto" products of Waimea swagger?

Ha, I never thought about it like that. That makes a lot of sense. Munoz was among the first guys to actually back out of the whole big-wave deal. He never really liked it. But he did say that riding Waimea that day changed his life forever. It gave him confidence, it encouraged him to do things he might not have otherwise done. But yes, I can definitely see Mickey taking all that Waimea juice and pouring it into all those crazy small-wave moves.

It's weird that George Downing was later appointed event director of The Eddie, even though his name isn’t associated with Waimea like Noll’s is. What was Downing's attitude toward Waimea Bay? How did he view the pumped limelight there?

Downing never liked Waimea, and it's easy to understand why. He cut his teeth at Makaha, which is such a better wave. The problem with Makaha is that it hits 20-foot, like, once every three years. Living in Hawaii, George had the luxury of being able to wait for it. Noll and the rest of the California guys didn't. They were young and impatient and full of piss, and looking to stamp their names on a new break. Waimea was it.

For more, visit the History Of Surfing website here. Missed a HOS chapter? Click here.

[Above: Mickey Munoz and Mike Stange, Waimea Bay, 1957. Photo: James]