Unsung

Mike Todd, Black's Beach. Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

Author’s note: The following blog concerns unheralded and/or lesser-known surfing performances. Please feel free to add your own yarns in the comment section below.

I quizzed a friend the other day about the North Shore.

“What’s the gnarliest thing you saw while you lived there?” I asked.

He didn’t hesitate. My friend relayed a story about a huge day—one of those massive swells that are too big for Sunset and too small for proper Waimea. The kind of day when no one paddles out between V-Land and the Bay.

On the afternoon in question, however, my friend was surprised to see a lone surfer casually walk down from Backyards with a big board under his arm, and then even more surprised to see him paddle out at Sunset Beach.

If you’ve ever seen a giant, semi-closed-out, 15- to 18-foot Northwest swell at Sunset, you know what this means: a horrific maelstrom mind-fuck of a lineup, with random closeouts, gigantic lefts where the rights should be, rip currents moving faster than you can paddle, and the occasional inside triple-up for good measure.

My idea of hell, actually.

So as my friend was telling this story, I was trying to guess who the surfer was. It had to be some sort of North Shore psycho, I speculated, so I was thinking along the lines of a Bradshaw or a Doerner or a Clarke-Jones.

My friend carried on with the story and told me that even more impressive than the guy sacking-up and paddling out was that this guy proceeded to rip the living snot out of huge Sunset… for hours…by himself.

Then he finally coughed up the guy’s name: Tom Curren.

This was definitely unexpected. Not that I have ever doubted Tom’s surfing, it’s just that you don’t really hear stuff like this. You hear plenty of stories of Tom Curren ripping, but not many about Tom and huge waves.

This got me thinking about great performances that go undocumented and often untold. Stories that are, at most, only relayed around campfires. That are tucked away in the water-logged brains of lifelong surfers.

This story also reminded me of a big-wave performance that I had witnessed myself. A significant moment that went mostly underappreciated, on a huge morning at Black’s Beach.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a truly big day at Black’s, but it’s intimidating to say the least: no appreciable channel, an indecipherable lineup, and out-of-nowhere rogue waves to catch you inside. When a really big groundswell hits the underwater canyon at Black’s, it speeds up, dredges out, and super-sizes the swell. Over the last 30 years, I have seen about a dozen of these gigantic days—days with legitimate faces of 20 feet or more. And almost without exception, the best, biggest waves go unridden.

In a selfish kind of way, these unridden waves are frustrating to a photographer like myself. When you see a Hawaiian-sized, 12-foot wave drain from the Road to the Landslide, you just wish someone could catch the beast and get a long, Mack-truck-sized barrel. But then you realize that it would take a highly improbable skill set: a fearless, goofyfooted big-wave surfer with underwater canyon experience and the talent of a professional shortboarder.

Somebody like Mike Todd.

With due respect to all the brave, talented surfers that have tackled giant Black’s, in my opinion no one has come close to what Mike Todd did there in the span of two sessions. On two separate mornings a few years apart, Mike used the expertise he had honed from charging Puerto Escondido and ripping on Tour to decode the Black’s lineup and slay huge canyon waves more consummately than anyone I have seen before…by far.

And on Mikey’s second swipe at big Black’s, it happened: he chased down a huge rogue peak, made the super-late drop, pulled up high, got his big board pumping, stood tall in a huge, dry cavern, and then came flying out. It was easily the biggest, best tube ride I have ever seen at Black’s. Outside of Maverick’s, it was one of the best big-wave barrels ever successfully ridden on the West Coast.

Huge claims aside, what’s interesting to note about Mikey’s wave is that it went mostly unnoticed. This was because in a span of about 30 minutes, Adam Desposito had a dramatic wipeout on a solid 12-footer, Dylan Slater caught what some people cite as the biggest wave ever photographed in Southern California, about a dozen surfers had the worst caught-inside experiences of their lives, and the entire beach became one salty cauldron of white water and mist.

In this flurry of activity and haze, Mike’s accomplishment was kind of lost.

But not on me.

I saw what you did, Mikey.