“George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Woody Brown, and a few other Waikiki surfers,” writes Matt Warshaw in the newest History Of Surfing chapter, “were all riding finned boards at Makaha by the end of 1951 and stroking with confidence into fifteen-foot-plus waves.” The chase for giant surf at Makaha had, until the early ’50s, been primarily a native Hawaiian affair. The mainlander surge for big-wave surfing arrived in the form of two transplant Malibu locals in the early postwar years. One of them was Walter Hoffman. The other, Charles “Buzzy” Trent, was a square-faced juggernaut who took to big waves, and to much of his life, like a general would storm Normandy. Warshaw explains:
Trent made a lot other surfers nervous. He was a chatterbox, and liked attention, and on a lazy afternoon among friends he'd hold court for hours, telling jokes and stories, pulling faces, and making big sweeping gestures with his arms. Everybody laughed—but Trent was a little off somehow, as if all settings had been turned up to "10" and left there. Trent had cinderblock arms and shoulders, a tiny danseur waist below a row of corrugated abs, and a smash-nosed face set low on a huge, blunt head. Raw ass-kicking masculinity came off him in waves. He was a fighter and a bully in high school, as well as an all-state fullback who could run a ten-second 100-yard dash. Trent's birth father taught Buzzy that "suffering makes you like steel" and with a note of approval, Trent later said his father was a "mean son of a bitch" who would turn loose the family dogs on any Depression-era drifter who made the mistake of stopping by the family house to ask for food. Trent's stepfather, meanwhile, passed on a deep and abiding love for German military history and Teutonic glory in general.
Read the full chapter here!
We asked Warshaw about the man who practically invented the big-wave surfer, and about the Braveheart intensity he brought to Makaha.
Which surfers rank up there with Trent as possessing his degree of pure physical skill?
As a wave-rider, Buzzy was point and go, that's it. Surfed like a guided missile. A guided missile with huge biceps. All Buzzy wanted to do was ride giant waves. Anything else, surf-wise, was just practice. So in terms of what we would think of big-wave surf talent today, the way we think of Shane Dorian or Billy Kemper, Buzzy was at the very bottom. Just cause he didn't give a shit. Didn't turn, didn't try and style out. But as an athlete, he was off the charts. Huge, fast, quick, smart, fearless. Had 10-second speed in the 100 yard dash. If Buzzy hadn't wrecked his knee early on, he'd have been a pro football player.
As the scene at Makaha developed, did a distinct style of native big-wave riding vs. mainlander big-wave riding emerge?
I don't think there were any style differences you could put down to geography. George Downing was the best, Buzzy himself always said so. Downing was slender and kind of slippery in the water, graceful in the way he moved and surfed. Trent was a load of bricks falling off a building. But that's down to DNA, not where they were from.
How responsible were guys like Walter Hoffman for sending home through photos a frontier surfing ideal that, factoring in the carbuncles and violent diarrhea, was only half true?
Walter’s little movie reels got maybe three or four surfers over to Hawaii, but they were pretty influential guys. Flippy Hoffman, Buzzy – others looked up to those guys. The bigger deal was a year or two later, when a photo of Makaha went over the wire and was published in newspapers across the country. The photo shows a really nice 12-footer, three guys trimming across the face—including Buzzy and George—and another half-dozen surfers in California saw that shot and lost their shit and flew over. And it all just built from there. If you surfed, you had to go to Hawaii and ride the big ones.
You write, “George Downing, Wally Froiseth, John Kelly, and a few others had built specialized equipment and pointedly gone out to ride oversized waves. But none of them saw the need to redefine themselves as surfers. They invented big-wave surfing; that was enough. Trent invented the big-wave surfer."
Downing and the rest—they loved big waves, but it was’t a deal separate from the rest of surfing. Makaha was connected in their minds to Queens or Malibu or anywhere else. For Buzzy, big surf was his whole mission. And because he loved war history and bullfighting, and because he only listened to Wagner, and because he read War and Peace before going to sleep, he turned his big-wave mission into theater, into drama. Big Makaha wasn't surfing. It was life and death and empire and glory. He lived inside his own Wagner opera. And he had so much fun doing it.
Trent's comparison of big-wave surfing to warfare — How have you seen that analogy change throughout history? Last year's El Niño seemed to have a small This Is War vibe, but only inasmuch as the fraternity of war, like a Band Of Brothers feeling.
It has changed, for sure. Brock Little broke the code by saying riding big surf was just really, really fun. And that's the sense you get from a lot of the best big-wave surfers now. Matt Meola, for one. Laird was the last guy to really bite Buzzy Trent's style—that super-gnarly, General Patton, kill-or-be-killed approach.
You wrote a piece on Buzzy a few years ago that referenced the story told by his daughter about how Trent suddenly walked away from big-wave surfing at the age of 45. Said he saw the 'green light flashing,' that it was time to move on. Announced he was going to ride his last wave one day, and did. In your mind, did his abrupt departure discredit anything that he said about courage and bravery?
No. I think it was coolest thing Trent ever did. I always admire a clean exit, and his was the cleanest. He'd accomplished all that he set out to do in surfing. He moved on. Not only that, he couldn't be bothered to play the "legends" game. Just checked out, thank you very much. I flew to Hawaii in 1995 to interview Buzzy for Surfer's Journal. He stood me up; apologized, but decided at the last minute he wanted to go for a walk by himself that day. So he went out for a walk, and I got a four-day vacation on the Journal's dime. Win-win.
For more, visit the History of Surfing website here.
[Title Photo: Uncredited]