Magisterial regularfoot surfer from Honolulu, Hawaii, often thought of as the first "complete" big-wave rider; winner of the Makaha International in 1954, 1961, and 1965; longtime competition director of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau event at Waimea Bay.
Downing was born (1930) and raised in Honolulu, the son of a marine machinist, and began surfing Waikiki at age nine. In the latter years of World War II, as a young teenager, Downing lived with Wally Froiseth, one of the sport's original big-wave riders and a co-creator of the racy hot curl surfboard. Froiseth taught Downing how to make boards, and introduced him to the big surf at Makaha, on the west side of Oahu; along with fellow Honolulu surfer Russ Takaki, they became the first to ride Laniakea on the North Shore, in 1946, as well as Maui's Honolua Bay, in 1947. The following year the three men sailed to Southern California and spent two months surfing up and down the coast, a rarity at the time, as virtually all cross-Pacific surf travel involved California surfers visiting Hawaii. While in the Los Angeles area, Downing met with surfer/board designer Bob Simmons and learned how to fiberglass surfboards.
The wiry, dark-haired Downing made a study of surfing, analyzing weather maps to better understand swell formation, snorkeling over reefs on waveless days to learn how their topography affected the surf, calculating wave intervals, observing wind patterns and ocean currents, and absorbing all there was to know about surfboard theory and construction.
In 1950, Downing produced the first in a new generation of big-wave surfboards. The hot curl had been finless, made primarily from redwood, and finished with varnish; "Rocket," Downing's new 10-footer, was narrow-tailed like the hot curls, but built with balsa, fiberglass, and resin; it also had a removable fin—the first of its kind. On this new board, Downing was able to ride bigger waves than anybody before him, and by the mid-'50s he and Froiseth, along with Woody Brown and Californian-born surfers Walter Hoffman and Buzzy Trent, had cracked the 20-foot barrier at Makaha. Downing, Trent, and Froiseth were the standout riders on a glassy Makaha afternoon on January 13, 1958, when the waves were roaring in at 30 foot.
Waimea Bay on the North Shore was regarded by then as the new capital of big-wave surfing; because Downing preferred the long walls of Makaha to the short but explosive drops at Waimea—where the cameras were—his profile in the sport was lower than it might have been. But insiders recognized him as a master. Downing's line across the wave was precise, even conservative, but he invariably rode the biggest and best waves of the day, and rarely wiped out. He also invented a cannonball dismount off the back of his board that allowed him to sink beneath the whitewater explosion. Downing was the last of the great upright surfers, dropping to a modified crouch when necessary, but preferring to ride in a straight-backed, low-shoulder, palms-down stance. He was the stylistic link between the pose-and-go Waikiki surfers of the prewar era and the kinetic high-performance riders of the '60s.
Downing's encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, meanwhile, was looked upon with awe. He was referred to by the world's most knowledgeable surfers as "the teacher"; '60s big-wave rider Ricky Grigg called him "the guru." Downing mentored dozens of top Hawaiian surfers over the decades, including Joey Cabell, Reno Abellira, and Michael Ho. He worked as a Waikiki beachboy from the early '40s to the late '70s, giving surf lessons, coaching outrigger canoe teams, and running a beach concession stand.
Generous and giving for the most part, Downing also proved to be congenitally private—he hadn't been profiled or interviewed at length in the surf media until 2011's documentary The Still Point—and occasionally aloof and argumentative. A note on the final page of Australian Nat Young's 1983 History of Surfing notes that "George Downing has been omitted [from this book] at his request, although he has played a significant part in the sport."
Downing won his first Makaha International in 1954, but didn't really hit stride as a competitor until the '60s—a remarkable feat given that he was consistently matched against riders 10 or 15 years his junior. Aside from his run at Makaha (winning again in 1961 and 1965; placing second in 1966 and fourth in 1968), Downing finished seventh in the 1965 World Championships, second in the 1967 Duke, and third in the 1968 Peru International. At 40, he competed one last time in Peru, finishing fourth. He coached the Hawaiian team to victory in the 1968 World Surfing Championships. (He had also set a number of paddling records—from 100 yards to one mile—that as of 2003 were still standing.)
Downing was named as contest director for the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau contest in 1985, and it's his decision each year as to whether or not the Waimea surf is big and well-formed enough for competition.
Downing appeared in a small number of surf movies from the '50s and '60s, including Surf (1958), Cat on a Hot Foam Board (1959), Cavalcade of Surf (1962), and Gun Ho! (1963). He was also featured on Duke Kahanamoku's World of Surfing, a 1968 CBS special. He was the top Hawaiian vote-getter in the 1966 International Surfing Magazine Hall of Fame Awards; in 1998 he was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame, and in 2011 he joined the Surfer's Hall of Fame.
Downing opened the Wavecrest Hawaii surf shop in 1979 and Downing Hawaii in 1989.