Photo: Walter Hoffman
Photo: Walter Hoffman

History Of Surfing: Rocket To Makaha

George Downing and the birthplace of big-wave surfing

We’re going to Oahu’s West Side for the newest History Of Surfing chapter, where Matt Warshaw takes us to Makaha, a departure from the charm and theme-park comfort of Waikiki tourism in the ’50s. The break’s fiercely exclusive nature was met by a fiercely committed mindset among Makaha’s locals to test the limits of big-wave surfing, and no one was more committed than George Downing, the son of a marine machinist, known as ‘The Teacher’ from his studentship in the water. Here’s Warshaw on Downing:

Surfers from both Hawaii and the mainland would contribute to the new charge on Makaha, but George Downing, a slender Waikiki regularfooter and the youngest and most tightly-wound of the group, went at it harder than anybody. Downing was just 20 in 1950, but as the protégé and nephew by marriage to early hot curl pioneer Wally Froiseth, he already had years of Makaha experience. His surfing was more graceful than flashy, and he had a reputation as an excellent sailor and canoeist, as well as a deadly paddleboard racer. Like Bob Simmons, Downing focused on all things related to surfing with a scholar's obsession: on calm days he snorkeled over reefs to better understand how they affected incoming swells, he studied weather charts to better decipher swell creation [Bonus! Who was the man who more clearly explained the ocean to surfers than anyone? It’s only a debate if he’s not the subject of Warshaw’s newest blog post, so click here to curb your suspense), and he invented a way of corkscrewing his body into the water during a wipeout to minimize the punishment. Downing took as much joy in riding waves as anybody. But he regarded the vast amount of surf-based knowledge left to be unearthed as both a challenge and a responsibility—almost a burden. Downing didn't take many days off.

Give the chapter a thorough read by clicking here.

We asked Warshaw about Downing, his contributions to big-wave surfing, and why his quiet legacy is only out of personal choice.

'50s Makaha was no gift shop for the plush Waikiki visitor.

Makaha and the whole Westside was kind of the badlands of Oahu. Then and now. Tucked away, mostly poor, very local. Tourists went out there now and then, on buses or whatnot. The coast is really, really dramatic with cliffs, extra-blue water. Just beautiful. But as a rule, you come down from your Royal Hawaiian suite and ask the concierge where to go on a day trip, he's gonna point you anywhere but the Westside.

Has there ever been a deeper pensive mentorship in surfing than Froiseth and Downing?

Downing's always been a really private, kind of mysterious guy. Wicked smart, very funny, generous. But has a kind of dangerous vibe about him. You don't ask questions about his private life, not cause there's anything to hide, just cause he doesn't like to go there, and you respect that. But at some point, I think when George was maybe 10 or 11, he went and lived with Froiseth, and Wally more or less became his father. They surfed together, made boards in the garage together, sailed to California together. Wally was like that, too—smart, generous, but played it close to the vest. You gave Wally his space, just like you gave George his space.

To what degree of Downing's scholarly hyperfocus was personal, and how much was because being spoon-fed that information, like we are now, didn't exist yet?

Both, I think. Personal, in that Downing needed a project, or a whole connected series of projects, to keep his mind occupied. Surfing for him, it was this huge interdisciplinary project. Soak up all there was to know in a half-dozen different areas, then push forward in each area. So there’s the surfing part of it, which is pretty much where the rest of us stop. You just surf, a lot. But George basically figured out how to ride the biggest waves, and not just how to make a huge wave, but how to fall off and not get hurt. He made what might be called the first big-wave surfboards. He studied weather and swells, dove down and looked at the reefs. He just knew more than anybody else about surfing in Hawaii, and about big-wave surfing in particular. And yes, like you say, very little of it was spoon-fed to him, because the knowledge in many cases didn't yet exist. For a long time, in the '50s and '60s and beyond, the font of big-wave knowledge was Downing himself.

Where does Downing's fin box rank in the pantheon of surfboard advancements?

The fin box was less important then the way he blended a bunch of other developments: the hot curl board, some of Joe Quigg's curves, things he picked up from Simmons. Al Merrick did the same thing, years later. Take all the best aspects of what other people were doing and synthesize the best possible equipment.

How do you think Downing's legacy would read today if he had an entrepreneurial bent to him, or if he wasn't so private?

He was close friends with the Hoffman brothers, and probably could have made a killing if he'd gone into the rag trade with those guys. Walter and Flippy sure did. But nah, George was always going to be who he was. He's one of those people who knew very early on what he wanted, and it was just a matter of moving steadfastly in that direction. He wasn't money-adverse at all. His surf shop did well. It still does well. But no, I don't think that was ever the point. Downing did as much as humanly possible in surfing, raised a family, branched out a bit into local politics, and I think at this stage of the game—George would be around 86 now, maybe 87—he's very much satisfied with the life he’s led, and the contributions he made. My guess is, if George isn't sitting on a big pile of money, it's no bother to him whatsoever.

How do you think Makaha's legacy would read today if Downing wanted to train the cameras on him? Would Waimea Bay still be the capital of big-wave surfing?

Makaha doesn't get big often enough, and unless it's huge, it's just this big soft fun warbled thing. Longboards, funboards, bodyboards, anything goes. If you want it big and gnarly—what we all expect from Hawaii—the focus had to go to the North Shore. More surf, bigger surf, more breaks. But every 10 or 12 years, it'll get big enough for Point Surf Makaha to turn on, and when it does get 20-foot-plus, it'll make Waimea look like the oversized shoredump it is. I can't remember the last time Point Surf was huge and firing, it's so rare. But when it happens, it is stunning.

For more, visit the History of Surfing website here.

[Title Photo: George Downing, Buzzy Trent (Right). Photo: Walter Hoffman]