Matt Warshaw’s newest HOS chapter opens just as the North Shore swapped distinction with Makaha as surfing’s big-wave colosseum. A group of California transplants, including Pat Curren, Greg Noll, Ricky Grigg, and Fred Van Dyke, brought fresh cool and bravado to surfing giant waves. Give the chapter a read here, but give Warshaw’s recent EOS blog entry a read, too, and peer inside the mind of Jose Angel, the Californian perhaps least understood among his peers but described by Noll as “the gutsiest surfer there ever was.” Warshaw explains:
Gentle and easy-going on land, a favorite teacher at Haleiwa Elementary School, [Angel] shifted into a different gear when the surf got huge. Intensity was what mattered to Angel. Riding a huge wave to the end was great and all, but Angel wanted to get closer yet to the power source. Right after takeoff, with a Tourette's-like compulsion and suddenness, he might jump up from the tail of his board, tuck into a backward summersault, and skip down the face as the curl pitched overhead and exploded into the trough. "Or he'd take an unbelievably hairy drop," Grigg recalled, "make the hard part of the wave, and then step off his board and let the thing destroy him."
In the shadow of big-wave surfing’s first fatality in 1943, when Dickie Cross drowned at Waimea Bay, those mainland chargers were tasked to think long and hard about the existential roots of their personal obsessions with riding giant surf, ranging from the romance of death to the masochistic thrill-seeking of Angel. We asked Warshaw for his thoughts on Angel, the period’s moral fidelity to big waves, and why that attitude is still present today.
In his Surfer's Journal piece on big-wave fatalities, Brad Melekian quotes Woody Brown, who was surfing with Dickie Cross that day in 1943, as loving to get as close to death as he possible could, and then dodging it. You’re interviewed in that same piece, and you raise an objection that points out a misnomer in our culture: “Surfers, when you think about it, have always had a lot invested in the idea that what they were doing was deadly," you say. "In reality, it's not that deadly at all.” So why are we still obsessed to pair death with big waves?
If everyone thinks riding big waves is deadly, then we're like bullfighters and astronauts and cliff-divers—those glamorous gnarly types. If it's not so deadly, we're more like, I don't know, hikers or something. It's obviously so much cooler if we're dancing with death out there. But watch that Jose Angel clip, and really, intentionally or not, he's just laughing at the whole idea of big waves being dangerous. Rock climbers do not have the option of backflipping off the ledge for kicks, the way Jose does at Waimea.
How big were the incoming California surfers in promoting that reaper-dodger mindset? Was it mostly a California attitude?
It’s a California thing. George Downing rode huge Makaha, and loved it, but didn't go on and on about how death-defying it was. Buzzy Trent started all that. Buzzy saw the potential for theatrics. He started up with the bullfighting comparisons, and the war metaphors. He used the word "gun," when everybody else just said "big surfboard." Hawaiians mostly followed George's lead. Kealoha Kaio, Tommy Lee, surfers like that, were way less inclined to make a production about riding big waves. Buzzy Trent loved it, and Buzzy leads to Greg Noll, then to Ken Bradshaw, then to Jeff Clark — all those surfers who make riding big waves sound like the Apollo program. Mainlanders were all over the death-or-glory angle.
There's a difference between chasing death closely and avoiding death narrowly. One's active, the other is cautious, careful. Watching old footage, Jose Angel looked like one of the only guys who chased death down.
Yeah, I know. Or I don't know. I mean. It looks that way, right? Like he's just jumping into the volcano, again and again. But maybe Jose just knew better than anybody that if you're really fit, and if you really understand the situation, hold your breath, let it happen, it isn't as dangerous as it looks. I've been wondering this all week: did Jose have a death wish, or was he trolling all the other big-wave guys? Both, maybe? I really don't know.
Did Angel continue big-wave surfing into his late 30s? Or was free-diving his supplement to provide the challenge and thrill he needed?
He kept surfing. He had a a big thick yellow board, and he'd sit on Second Reef Pipe and wait and wait, pick his wave, and just roar into First Reef, super deep, going 100 miles per hour, everybody scrambling to get out of his way. Did that all during the late '60s and early '70s. In 1974, he got bent while diving, which messed up one of his legs, and I don't know if he had to stop surfing, but for sure he was no longer invincible. That's when he really started pushing the diving, like going way into the red zone. His daughter once said he was maybe depressed about getting older, and about not being as mobile, because of his leg.
How long did Grigg, Cole, Van Dyke, and the rest of those California surfers push their surfing in big waves before they stopped? Did they cite their own cautionary tales?
Noll dropped out first, not long after his big Makaha wave in 1969. Grigg and Cole kept going for years and years. Cole went the longest. Jose died in 1976, diving. None of them stopped riding big surf because they were scared off. Noll said he wasn't going to top his Makaha wave, and decided to go fishing instead. Grigg and Cole kept going until the crowds, or age, or health, forced them to stop. Cole said that, in order to really go the distance, there came a time when you had to accept that, each year, you were going to be a bigger kook then you were the year before. He also said that you had to have other things going on in your life, to balance things out. If you focus on surfing the way you did in your teens and 20s, you're going to burn out. I think that's what happened to Noll, in fact. Cole and Grigg, for sure, were the happiest older surfers.
For more, visit the History Of Surfing website here.
[Above: Jose Angel. Photo: Edwards]