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On Falling, Part I

How wipeouts have helped shape the evolution of surfing. A five part series.

In 1964, Robert August, Mike Hynson, and Bruce Brown landed in Tahiti to film for The Endless Summer. By that late date, the island's Polynesian surfing tradition had been extinct for nearly 200 years. Feverish British missionaries, skating in on the heels of Captain Cook's 1769 arrival, put an end to surfing and dancing and heathen nakedness. The transformation was so complete that, in the narration to the film, Brown made much of the fact that modern Tahitians didn't believe there to be any real waves on the island at all. The truth is that these strange visitors from California didn't understand the wave potential of the distant reef passes they spotted from the air. But according to the story Brown crafted in '64, Hynson and August set out to prove naysayers wrong about near-shore waves. They immediately encountered success at breaks they dubbed "El Stumpo," "Ins'n'Outs," and "The Other Spot." In hindsight, the surfing exhibition August and Hynson put on for Tahitian swimmers and beach-goers wasn't so much the revelation Brown esteemed it to be. The breakthrough came from a performance failure, when Hynson fell down on the job.

Sitting and watching on the beach that day was a 14-year-old Tahitian kid named Henry Lucas. Already, the worldly chap had endured a couple years of boarding school in Santa Ana, California, where he'd caught a notion of "greasers," "hotrods," and this modern surfing thing. So when Hynson fell off his longboard and it coasted to shore, Henry quickly grabbed hold of it, paddled out, and tried his own luck. After a few attempts, Henry gave the board back to Hynson, made fast friends with the crew of the now iconic movie, and showed the trio around his home island. Not long after their departure, so jazzed on the short session he experienced on Hynson's board, Henry convinced the owner of the general store--his father--that surfboards would be a great addition to the tins of corned beef and bags of flour. Mr. Lucas ordered 20 longboards from California. These boards became the nucleus of the Tahitian Surf Club.

We fold, buckle, eat it, blow it, pearl, and slam. And worse, there are the things that happen to us. We get pitched, pounded, clobbered, axed, hammered, rag-dolled, beaten, guillotined, bludgeoned, broken, and finished.

The association's geographic isolation sparked a search for information and technique that would be more characteristic of an ancient exploration society than a grommets' club. They taught themselves how to shape with hand planers, organized fact-finding missions to Hawaii, traveled to competitions in France, and invited anyone with a knowledge of surfing to Tahiti. Along with French Polynesia's first modern shaper, 15-year-old Patrick Juventin, Henry pioneered not only local reef passes, but the very idea of surfing a reef pass at all. A pivotal moment came one weekend when they discovered Ta'apuna, a shallow left predecessor to Teahupoo. "I will always remember that day," said Patrick in his thick, French accent, "We were five boys. We think, 'Wow, incredible, and we surf Ta'apuna every week after that.'"

"It was hairy for us at first," admitted Henry, "but then we liked it."

Even in French Polynesia, few surfers understand their debt to the Tahitian Surfing Club, but each of the island chain's several thousand surfers can trace a lineage back to Henry Lucas and the slight misstep that sent Mike Hynson tumbling from grace. Arsene Harehoe, a club protégé, became the first Tahitian surfer to travel widely. In 1977, he'd win the "best tube" award at Pipeline's Smirnoff event. Harehoe taught local kids to surf and influenced others, such as Thierry Vernaudon, who pioneered "The End of the Road" in 1985, and Manoa Drollet and Raimana Van Bastolaer--the Tahitian surfers who brought Teahupoo to the world.

So it was that on August 27, 2011, when the Billabong Pro was canceled due to the unprecedented swell and Nathan Fletcher dropped into the XXL Ride of the Year at Teahupoo that a direct line from Hynson's misstep in '64 and the horror show that met Fletcher at the end of the road was made--one great fall to the next. It is the voluminous underbelly to the history of surfing success; it is the history of falling.

We fall more than we plane. When dropping in, we literally fall from the sky. We then climb and fall, climb and fall, until we either kick out, or fall down. We fall with gravity as much as we ride the wave's energy, and in most instances, gravity makes the biggest splash. If we take the history of surfing in our hands and turn it upside down, we can see that falling is as strong a structural element as success. Without the antithesis, without the mishap, slip, tumble, or fall, there is no surfing. But that doesn't mean that we are not totally active in, and committed to, the process. There are the things we do. We dig a rail. We go over the falls. We fold, buckle, eat it, blow it, pearl, and slam. And worse, there are the things that happen to us. We get pitched, pounded, clobbered, axed, hammered, rag-dolled, beaten, guillotined, bludgeoned, broken, and finished.

In the wake of his August 2011 Teahupoo wipeout, Fletcher told ESPN's Jake Howard, "I came up, grabbed my head, and couldn't believe it was on my shoulders."

There is pain and humiliation and loss. There is senseless folly.

TUESDAY | Part II: Mick Campbell and Danny Wills
WEDNESDAY | Part III: Greg Noll
THURSDAY | PART IV: Mike Parsons
FRIDAY | PART V: Shane Dorian