History Of Surfing: Surfing’s Beat Generation

"There was no desire to shatter the square society...only to elude it"

We’re still in mid-’50s Makaha for the newest History Of Surfing chapter, where news of Buzzy Trent’s big-wave frat house had finally reached Honolulu, and a 25-year-old Star Bulletin reporter named Sarah Park drove west to write about the commune in an article titled “Band of Californians Here to Ride 20-Foot Makaha Surf,” which hit the newsstands on January 7th, 1954. Below is a portion of Park’s feature:

If you asked the average Islander to point out Makaha, you’d probably run into a lot of inaccurate pointing. You are supposed to say Makaha, Waianae, Oahu to help people get themselves on the right side of the Island. But a small band of Californians have found Makaha without any trouble. They are content to go without the usual luxuries of modern day living, just so they can surf there.

Three Californians arrived about 10 days ago to join a hardy band of some 15 ascetics living in a shack about two blocks from the surf. The new arrivals have taken a cottage across the street—for $10 a month each—and have scattered swim fins, spears, and surfboards around their new house—without kitchen—the kitchen being a Coleman stove.

Makaha, which annually offers great surf that on a “good Makaha day” tower about 20 feet, is where the International Surfing Championships will be held on two Sundays, January 17 and 24. Australia has notified championship officials it cannot send representatives to this first meet. Peru has not replied as yet.

When you walk into the older of the two establishments that house the Makaha surfers from California, you have to be careful where you walk or sit. Spears are fine for getting fish or turtle dinner—but it is awkward to sit on them.

Overhead, surfboards hang by rope so they can be let down with ease, while swim fins hang on chairs scattered in-between seven beds, bunks and cots. A long bench and table serve for meals, card and checker games. In a Hawaiian interior motif, a lauhala mat covers part of the floor.

According to Buzzy Trent, one of the occupants of the shack, there’s no problem to the men living together. “We have a garden, we spear our fish—yesterday Junior Knox got us a 65-pound turtle—and we have salads [and] stews. It’s a community thing.

“We are over here strictly to surf,” he says, and “corny as it may sound, the surf over here is terrific. It’s the best.”

Park’s feature ran around the same time, about a year, after an influential New York Times Magazine piece gave the intellectual skinny on The Beat Generation, the literary and cultural movement – made famous by writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs – that rejected post-WWII American life in favor of freedom through sensual enlightenment. The timing would be minor were it not for an emerging public comparison between The Beats’ philosophy and that of hardcore surfers, a bohemian caricature that persists today. Warshaw explains:

“…Buzzy Trent and his friends for sure would have resisted any comparison between themselves and the landlocked nonconformists of [The New York Times Magazine] article. But there were unmistakable and probably not accidental similarities between mid-fifties surfers and the Beats. Both groups were in part reacting to the self-satisfied, slightly anxious, prosperous, and consumer-oriented middle class that was developing in postwar America. When Holmes [writer of the NYTM article] wrote of the Beats that “there is no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society . . . only to elude it,” he might have been describing the little surfer commune at Makaha. Holmes reference to the Beat Generation’s “lust for freedom, and the ability to live at a pace that kills,” perfectly fit the image of Buzzy Trent wheeling his huge gun around and boring into a twenty-foot Point Surf screamer.

There were other similarities. Hardcore surfers and Beats were both found in equally tiny numbers relative to their influence—or as fifties poet Gregory Corso said dismissively, “Three friends does not make a generation,” alluding to the holy Beat trinity of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Travel was essential to both groups: the Beats migrating from New York to San Francisco, while surfers journeyed from California to Oahu and back again. More than anything, they shared a disregard for American materialism. Kerouac’s mission statement that “Everything belongs to me because I am poor” wasn’t an exhortation to steal—although Miki Dora might have taken it that way—but an invitation to set stock by experience and sensation, not money and goods.

Read the full chapter here!

We reached out to Warshaw and asked him about which comparisons between the two groups were true, which weren’t, and whether he buys in to the clichéd Surfer-Beatnik tie.

What did the Beats say about surfing? Anything?

“I saw the best grems of my generation destroyed by Vals, starving, hysterical sunburned, dragging themselves through the lineup at dawn, looking for an empty wave.”

Something like that. I’m paraphrasing.

Did any of the California surfers try to redirect the attention from Makaha back to Downing and the rest of the locals?

No, I don’t think so. But at the time, I don’t think it was an issue. The Californians and the locals were mostly just hanging out, surfing, drinking, fighting now and then, but mostly getting along. But 10 or 20 years later, when the big-wave surfing origin stories start being told, yeah, there was way too much emphasis on the visitors. Even with the movie Riding Giants, you could come away thinking that Greg Noll was the original big-wave surfer. A lot of that comes down to the California guys, because they were on vacation and were hot to take photos—just like any other group of tourists. So most of the early archival photos and film is of Buzzy Trent and Walter Hoffman and all those guys. Buzzy always said that Downing was king.

Why did it take three full seasons for news of Trent’s Makaha commune to reach Honolulu – and still sound revelatory? It’s surprising that surf correspondence within the islands could still sound like a National Geographic documentary.

The timeline might be a little off there. I think Walter Hoffman went over first, in the late ‘40s, came home, went back, and first surfed Makaha in ’51. So that’s when he sent the film reels back to Flippy and Buzzy. One year, they stayed in tents on the beach at Makaha, basically just homeless, eating peanut butter sandwiches. The next year, they went in on a shack. Then I guess the year after that, Sarah Park from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin drove out and did the article on the visiting surfers. Wow, maybe it was three years before the news got around to the rest of the island. I’m always astounded and delighted at how slowly things moved before the internet, before cable, before cell phones.

You see this tendency today to force the ethos of The Beat Period – this enlightened, intellectually-inquisitive plane of freedom and experience – into surfing. Even typecasting stigmas down to the board you ride.

I’m not totally invested or sold on the surfer-Beat connection. For sure, both were about escaping, and not doing what was expected. But surfers, as always, are just chasing waves and dodging work. Make of that what you will. Apart from making the decision to surf, it was pretty mindless. Gone surfing, see you when I see you. Whereas the Beats, I think, were very much engaged with, wrestling with, defining the two cultures—the one they were making up, and the one they were rejecting. The Beats had a connection to literature, to art, to gay culture, to New York. As a way of life, give me surfing every time. But as a movement, in terms of doing something interesting and groundbreaking, the Beats were the real deal. Surfers were just good-looking layabouts.

You referenced ‘50s poet Gregory Corso’s line that “Three friends does not make a generation,” speaking of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Would you say the same about Trent and his Makaha crew?

I think Trent and those guys were just doing a Makaha version of what was already going on at Malibu and a few other beaches. Just not buying into postwar terms and conditions. Doing it the way you want to do it, not the way your parents or teachers tell you to do it. On the other hand, yes, you could say that Buzzy and his pals went further, literally, in that they travelled halfway across the Pacific in pursuit of their thrill, whereas the Malibu guys just drove up the coast a few miles from Santa Monica. Going to Hawaii was more Beat-like than going to First Point.

For more, visit the History of Surfing website here.

Featured Image: Pat Curren [Left] and Al Nelson, North Shore, 1957