Jose Angel was 43 when he died while free diving for black coral, maybe a suicide, maybe not, it’s a mystery gone cold. No goodbye note. No body, for that matter. Jose rolled off the edge of the boat holding a big rock to his chest to speed his descent, went past 300′ and never came up. That was 40-something years ago. Angel is remembered now, if he’s remembered at all, for two things. He’s the blurry goofyfooter on the cover of SURFER issue #1, charging a Sunset Beach drop, looking like a million bucks. And he’s the guy who, more than anyone, and again for reasons unknown, loved a great wipeout as much as a great ride. From deep in the pit on a huge Waimea set wave, Jose would snap to his feet, crouch for a moment as the wave jacked to vertical, then backflip off the tail of his board, right into the maw. “Or he did this thing,” surf buddy and diving partner Ricky Grigg said, “where he’d take an unbelievably hairy drop, make the hard part of the wave, then let the whitewater blast him. He’d kind of stick his chest into it, just to feel the power. Then let it destroy him.” Nobody really understood why. Jose never really offered an explanation. Or maybe he did, kind of. Asked in a 1965 surf magazine interview about the attraction of big waves, Angel said he liked the challenge and the discipline. Also, he added, “there is the possibility of self-destruction, which is always intriguing.”
Angel otherwise gave every appearance of being the sanest, nicest, most responsible man in Hawaii. Adored his wife and kids. Stand-up guy to his friends. Polite, friendly, articulate, easy to talk with, great sense of humor. Became a teacher, then principal, at Haleiwa Elementary. So apparently, and it wasn’t a secret, there was some kind of double-life thing going on. Jose spent ninety-nine-point-something percent of his life happily within the confines of family, neighborhood, work, but would carve some time now and then for a quick do-si-do with nullity. I won’t even pretend to understand it.
But here’s what I actually wanted to say about Jose Angel. Here’s the point of difference that, above all other points, likely death-wish included, that in my mind sets Jose apart from every other big-wave surfer, past and present. He came to the North Shore for love. He didn’t bring his girlfriend to Hawaii, she brought him. Jose met a Tennessee-born tomboy named Mozelle Gootch while at San Francisco State. He was a student, she was a teacher. She surfed. He did too, a little, but not nearly as well as Mozelle. She was five years older, and had a woody wagon, and Jose jumped in, and they drove to Santa Cruz to ride waves and fall in love. Mozelle broke his heart by taking a teaching job in New Zealand, but during a stopover in Honolulu she realized that this was where she wanted to live, and called Jose to tell him. “I’m coming over,” he said, and he did, and they were married before the year was out. For two years, while living in Honolulu, Jose was still Mozelle’s surfing sidekick, which was fine. Then they moved to the North Shore, and Jose discovered the power of big waves, and figured out that he could literally place himself inside that power rather then just dance on the fringe the way every other North Shore surfer did—and he fell in love again. Fifteen or so very good years followed. Leave it there.