Photo: Van Swae

As told to Kimball Taylor in 2010

THERE ARE A LOT OF TREASURES a man has in his life—his wife and kids and so forth—but every once in a while, like George Downing and his big-wave surfing, a man finds himself at the beginning of something that goes on to become sophisticated, formalized, conventional, and even legendary. But George has the treasure of knowing he was there when it was so small and primordial.

GREAT ENTERPRISES ALL BEGIN with one guy saying to himself, “Oh, I could do that.”

I KNEW I WOULD NEVER BE A GREAT MAN because I would never be able to conquer the big waves as my friends George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Keoni Kelly, and Woody Brown had. I knew I would never be a great person in that sense—but I knew I wanted to be as good a man as I could be, as a husband and father. My dynasty is my family.

WHATEVER SURFERS ARE GETTING RIGHT, they’re getting it from their time in the water. Whatever they’re getting wrong, happens out of the water. The landward side of the beach, for all time, has been the more dangerous place, more dangerous than the water; that’s where the fights and grievances are.

I HAVE A THEORY: the better surfer you are, the fewer people there are in the water.

AT THE BEGINNING OF SURFING, there was no “just surfing.” Nobody just bought a board and went down and surfed. A surfer built surfboards and raced paddle boards and abalone dived—any of the great surfers were also great watermen and they had all kinds of activities they were good at. A surfer was a guy to whom the ocean was sacred.

DURING WORLD WAR II, when the U.S. Army wanted to land troops in North Africa and Sicily, they knew that they first needed to understand and predict the kinds of waves they would encounter. So they went to a surfer at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. So in a sense, a surfer was grandly important to the history of America.

ONE THING ALL SURFERS HAVE IN COMMON IS, if they’re in love with surfing, then they’re in love with the sea, and if they’re in love with the sea, then they’re in love with God. That’s what makes surfing so magical.

I WROTE A BOOK called How to Choose a Mistress. Nobody’s ever read it. I couldn’t publish it now, because tny wife would kill me. The book is about f—king, it’s not about love or sex; it’s about f—king. Because when you f—k up the f—king, everything deteriorates.

I AM VERY, VERY MOVED BY BEING A JEW, and by what happened in Hitler’s Germany. To me, as a jew, to have this going on and not do anything, would be like you, as a surfer, paddling out and watching somebody drowning and not give them any aid.

HEALTH IS MORE THAN THE MERE ABSENCE OF DISEASE. Health is the presence of a superior state of wellbeing—a vigor, a vitality that has to be worked for, day after day.

RECENTLY, I PADDLED OUT AT WAIKIKI. I can’t see anymore, so I catch waves by listening to the waves crash, the people laughing and having fun, and by feeling the ocean moving beneath me.

WE ARE ALL SMALLER THAN THE SEA and bigger than ourselves when we ride the waves.