On Falling

Photos by Masters, Brown, Aeder, Joli

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.

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.

In 1998, Australians Mick Campbell and Danny Wills each held a lead over Kelly Slater in the title race heading into Pipeline. This scenario was widely seen as sweet comeuppance to U.S. domination at the hands of the "Momentum Generation." A number of young Aussies had even coalesced and trained around an antagonistic moniker, "LMB," or Lick My Balls--an epithet squarely pointed at the one they called "Jimmy Slade."

And the united front worked--to an extent. Wills had won back-to-back contests in Japan and led the title race mid-year. But Campbell's sure-footed consistency throughout the season pulled him slightly ahead before the Hawaiian leg. If Campbell secured better than a 17th finish at Pipe--past the second round--he would win the title. Barring that outcome, Wills need only crack the quarterfinals. Slater required both men to lose early and to finish third himself to win the title. They were met with long Backdoor tubes and shorter, wider Pipe lefts. In his second-round heat, Campbell botched the drop on not one, but two critical waves--either of which would have handed him the title. Wills, on the other hand, looked solid, having defeated local boy Pancho Sullivan, garnering a 10 and advancing to the fourth round. There he met another local, Momentum Generation stalwart Ross Williams. Wills led early, but then Williams scored two impressive Backdoor barrels. Still, in the final minutes of the heat, Wills required only a middling 6-something to win the title. Then a gorgeous Pipe bomb came in. Wills dropped in backside with ease, carved into a classic bottom turn--the photos of him at this stage show the epitome of form--and then, inexplicably, he just fell.

Slater bettered Rob Machado in the quarters and subsequently won his sixth ASP World Championship. In the American media, Slater's win was never in doubt. But to the Aussies and the rest of the field, that glory within grasp now clanged around in their hearts like nails in an empty tin can. In terms of his career, Slater didn't do anything out of the ordinary that day. But Campbell and Wills certainly did.

Greg Noll admitted he wasn't a great performer like Phil Edwards, but then again, he weighed 230 pounds. "When you surf bigger waves, you're blowing through the chop, paddlin' like shit, keepin' the spray out of your eyes, and driving to the bottom. It's not as finely tuned," Noll said. "And that was a huge advantage on that day we surfed the outside, outside Pipeline. It was breakin' so far out. If you've ever stood there and looked out at the blue water where the reefs end, it was breakin' just inside that. It was way outside."

The swell was so big that the shorebreak itself presented some serious problems. Noll and his buddy, Mike Stang, studied it for a long time. Getting out looked impossible. It was during this time when Severson snapped the shot of Noll in his black-and-white striped trunks, holding his elephant gun before the massive ocean walls like some legend come to life. To Noll, the photo was just a picture of "me looking at the shorebreak and trying to figure out how to get past it."

At the outset, Noll and Stang paddled for an hour "just trying to get off the beach." Once they found a path through whitewater closeouts across Second Reef, the pair discovered that the really big waves came much less often. Clouds darkened the sky but swaths of sunlight broke through every once in a while. Noll and Stang spent the next hour trying to line up among shifting sets. A "white elephant," Noll called it. Finding themselves dangerously close to the impact zone, they scraped for the shoulder. "It was a really awesome break, it was beautiful," Noll remembered. "Long, beautiful mountains of water." A towering set wave then eased up enough to allow Noll to paddle into it. Once on his feet, to Noll's terror, the wall of the wave grew and grew as he slid faster and faster in an all-out speed-run for some kind of exit.             On the inside, the heaviest section.  Noll felt his board begin to lift, gain altitude, and catch air - before he completely "ate shit."  The brutal swim to shore took another hour.  Making it in was a stroke of luck.

Earlier that season, Phil Edwards watched Noll take another serious beating at Pipeline. Noll came up laughing; he said he liked it. Edwards was disgusted. "You know, you're a bull-headed son of a bitch," Edwards said. That comment was overheard, and the moniker "The Bull" stuck. "It was Phil that bestowed that anchor around my neck," Noll complained. The nickname that most assumed to capture Noll's hard-charging nature was actually based on Noll's predilection for falling. In this regard, even the photo Severson shot of Noll set before his task--the image Noll later bought and continues to sell with his signature for $20 a pop--is a document in the great story of falling: of attempt and failure and attempt and success.

In 1921, on his first attempt at surfing, the sport's most celebrated inventor, Tom Blake, wiped out so badly, he wouldn't try to surf again for another three years.

He had already met Duke Kahanamoku by this time, and was inspired to take up the ocean lifestyle. He swam competitively and lifeguarded in Los Angeles, but still, he didn't begin surfing seriously again until he moved to Oahu in 1924. Kahanamoku's brothers introduced the Midwesterner to Waikiki's surf scene and Blake soon mastered the planks of the era. Over the next 10 years he'd make his most important contributions: hollow boards, a camera's water housing, etc. In 1935, needled by the issue of "sliding ass"--the tendency of Hawaiian planks to slip out tail first causing its rider to go down--Blake secured a small boat rudder to the underside of his board. It was the first use of a surfboard fin, a piece of equipment born of falling.

In 2011, Mike Parsons was screaming down the face of the biggest wave he'd ever ridden out at Todos Santos. Having been whipped into the wave by a jet ski, he assumed the steep descent would only increase his speed, and counting on that excess speed, Parsons put himself in a critical position. Then, he said, the board's fins "cavitated."

"It feels like someone is throwing the emergency brake," Parsons said. That loss of speed caused Parsons to go down. The impact pushed his knee through his board, destroying ligaments in the process. This cavitation thing--Wikipedia defines it as the "implosion of cavities in a liquid," ie. pockets of air around the fins--had happened to him before, at Cortes Bank and elsewhere. "It only seems to happen on the very biggest waves," Parsons said. But that final wipeout at Todos Santos inspired Parsons to do something about it. He experimented with size shape and placement of his fins, he switched to a quad setup. For Parsons, it was a design plateau that has led to the next phase in his big-wave career.

In Feb. 14, 2010, the day after the Mavericks surf contest was held in record size, Shane Dorian paddled out from Pillar Point and took the beating of his life. In perfect position for a particularly freakishly big set, Dorian spun from the pack and stroked into an estimated 40 feet of wave face. It was something he'd been doing with élan for two days--at one point he even completed one of the most legitimate barrel rides ever witnessed at Mavericks. But, mid-face, a ridge developed right in Dorian's path.

The ridge threw Dorian off-balance, he tried to correct, but then went down. Video shows Dorian ragdoll at the base of the wave before disappearing and then being thrown out the top of a four-story tower of foam before the wave sucked his tiny body over the falls. Spectators in the channel wouldn't see sign of Dorian for nearly a minute--as another equally big wave roared through the lineup, holding him down and pushing him through the initial stages of blackout.

"I was under water and kept trying to swim up," Dorian recalls. "But the wave kept pinning me down. I didn't have a chance to make any headway against the power of the wave. Just when it began to release me, the next wave was already on my head. So I never got a breath before the second wave hit and took me straight down to the reef.

"And I think that's how the majority of people who have died surfing big waves drown.  When you get held under for two waves, your chances of survival are really, really low."

Before that weekend, Dorian had never been to Half Moon Bay, but the Sunday session offered a brutal crash course in its topography. "At Mavericks," he says, "it's easier to get held under for two waves because of the bottom contour. There are these deep, underwater trenches that create this waterfall affect. Water flows over the ledges and pushes you to the bottom and doesn't let you up. Although two-wave hold-downs happen at other places, it happens a lot more at Mavericks."

Peter Mel has said that surfers brimming with courage can take a hold-down like that, and afterward, "They just never come back. It's that spooky." For his part, Dorian said, "I was rattled, to put it lightly. I knew if I wanted to continue to surf big waves on that level I needed to do something to make myself safer. I just felt like it was too dangerous."

Dorian spent the next several months working with wetsuit designer Hub Hubbard to create a vest with a pouch on the back that inflated like a car's air bag. Serendipity struck a week after receiving his prototypes; a plus-sized swell lit up the charts and the best big-wave surfers in the world headed straight for Cortes Bank.

"There were waves that were unbelievably huge that day," Dorian says. With no landmass to line up with, Cortes is a tricky wave to paddle. No one wants to take a fall there, but when Dorian did, it may have been the most important event of the day. Underwater, he pulled the cord on his vest and he went up like a shot. "The next wave was 30 feet of whitewater," he said. "If you can imagine, with this thing inflated, you literally can't dive under at all. I just turned and held on for the ride. But when I pulled that cord for the first time, I realized that this changes everything for me. I was back to the surface, and back to air, a whole lot sooner." Rather than assure control, Dorian's air vest meets at the intersection of falling and of injury.

Here are wipeouts that are famous because they are dramatically documented: Jay Moriarty's "Iron Cross" cover shot and New York Times image, for example, or Flea Virostko's 20-foot fall from the peak at Waimea. And there are those wipeouts famous for their tragic consequences: Dickie Cross, Bob Simmons, Mark Foo, Sion Milosky.

We rarely, however, talk about the everyday falls that lead us to progression, invention, and inspiration. In 2006, for example, Mike Losness landed an aerial flip in Bali that defined not only his section in a Taylor Steele film, but his career. This came on the leading edge of a wave of rodeo flips and reverses. Losness said he tried the maneuver 50 times before he got the feeling of the flip, and another 50 before he landed it. "Funny thing is how spread out all the falls were over time, because not every session had the right waves or sections to try that maneuver, so it was probably 100-plus falls over many months of trying," he said. None of those falls were particularly talked about or remembered, but the cumulative total led to progressing the sport. From sliding ass to cavitating, from pearling to free-falling--the most significant wipeouts are, of course, our own. But Mike Hynson's simple fall-down inspired a modern surf culture in the South Pacific that led to exploring reef passes and outer islands. Shane Dorian's tumble, up and over the falls, and along the bottom of Maverick's topography, led to an invention that might change the survivability of such falls. From Greg Noll at Pipeline to the kid down at your average beachie throwing a reverse right now, the bungled attempt is a step toward success.

Inspiration, invention, progression--the joy of gliding across the face of a wave is fully dependent on the opposite--on coming unglued, on failure, on falling.