Fred Van Dyke, who died this week at age 86, will rightly be remembered as a pioneering big-wave surfer. I’ll remember him for that as well, but more so for the way he set out to become a more evolved version of himself—a decades-long process that, among other things, saw him make a deliberate break from big-wave surfing.
Spending time with Fred for a 2004 Surfer’s Journal article was a highlight of my career as a writer. He was wise and confident, but also questioning and vulnerable. Fred rode the emotions during our conversations, gave himself to them as only a truly self-aware person can; eye-rolled and laughed at the swinging-dick big-wave matador he once was, and at all his ridiculous (and happily vanquished) machismo; wiped tears off his cheeks telling me about his long-departed sister; smiled in wonder at how much he still loved to just swim in the ocean. Van Dyke started off as a bodysurfer, and was immensely satisfied at how, 60-something-years later, he’d circled back to that form. Swimming through waves, treading water, riding a few back in—this was every bit as amazing to Fred at 75 it had been when he was a shivering middle school kid singeing his trunks next to a beach fire at San Francisco. He shed big-wave riding like an old skin. But he stayed in the water like the geezers from Cocoon.
Van Dyke wasn’t against telling a few big-wave yarns, and I was all ears when he did. In the ’50s and ’60s Fred was often up to his eyeballs in gnarliness, and over a bottle of wine or two he’d bring those stories to life in way that’d pull oxygen from your lungs just listening. But most of what shaped Van Dyke into surfing’s great fount of humanity took place in the decades after he was a big-wave pinup. He went questing for love, and found it. That was the main thing. After all those thrashings at Sunset and Waimea, he basically turned around and slowly walked back to who he was at the core—a gentle, loving soul. He also began tapping away at bullshit—in himself, surfing, politics, religion, anything and everything—and became a one-man anti-bullshit wrecking ball. Fred was addicted to truth-telling, even when, or especially when, the truth was some version of “Geez, I have no idea.” But he was working on it.
I will warm myself with memories of Fred until my own checkout time, and try to always keep moving, as Fred did, toward love.