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5/18/17

Two weeks ago I gushed forth on how Riding Giants tweaked my whole understanding about how to present surf history. Dress it up, I said. Make it dance and sparkle—history need not be as dull and lifeless as a Mike Pence tailgate party.

On the other hand, a little sparkle goes a long way. Dance with the truth, not away from it. I talked about how I love, in Giants, when director Stacy Peralta, for our brief but intense viewing pleasure, re-creates that famous Makaha-on-the-front-page newspaper bit. When we see the paper hitting the porch, it’s a re-creation, filmed in 2004, not 1953. It is an invention. Okay, a lie. But a very small lie, the whitest of white lies, and it does nothing to harm our understanding of the moment—just the opposite, it brings a long-dead and otherwise unviewable moment back to life.

You must add these flavors sparingly, though, like vermouth in a Dorothy Parker martini. (“I like to have a martini / Two at the very most / After three I’m under the table / After four I’m under my host.”) Don’t overdo it. If you bend the facts too far, bump the exaggeration too high, start making stuff up . . . who am I kidding, no one’s going to notice. Me, and six or eight other prigs.

But here’s the thing. A lot of times, the story is more engaging, more compelling, when it’s not juiced at all. Bringing us, once again, to that fated November morning in 1957, when Waimea was (pick your descriptive, they’ve all been used) tamed, cracked, conquered, busted.

Liquid Stage: the Lure of Surfing is a mostly-excellent if humorless PBS-aired documentary from 1996. Here’s their treatment of the Waimea episode.

Same day, same event, as told in Riding Giants.

Zero shots from the Liquid Stage clip were actually filmed that first day at Waimea. Two or three of the Giants shots were, but with one exception all the juicy stuff was filmed years later. In both cases, what you see onscreen works great; you very much get a sense (even with the bizarrely soporific background music in Stage) of just how hard it must have been to pull the boards off the racks and paddle out for the first time. But the story is better when you know that ringleader Greg Noll was a skinny teenager (below left photo, circa 1955), and not a beefy adult with a hairline tiptoeing off the forehead (below right, from Riding Giants). A kid led the charge at Waimea, not a grown-up. Does that not make the whole thing all the more fantastic? 

And let’s not forget that Harry Schurch, the most forgotten man in all of surf history, rode the place earlier that morning before any of these guys even showed up. But no photos, no pix, so oh well. (That’s the docu-directors talking, not me. Yay, Harry Schurch!)

Finally, and then I’ll shut up and we can all get back prepping our lounge rooms for the Cavs-Warriors rematch, I also think the story is better when you get a look at the kind of waves those guys actually rode that day. Not the three-man horror show you see at 00:22 in Liquid Stage. Not the cool and very technical Noll air-drop at 3:10 in Giants. No, think medium-sized Steamer Lane. Here’s one of the first waves caught that day. That’s Noll on the shoulder, Pat Curren on the far right.Another one: Munoz on the inside.
I’m not ripping on the surfers. Far from it. Like Noll says, they paddled out that morning with their balls in their stomachs, and every reason to believe their feet would never touch sand again—that the current would deliver them to the shipping lanes, or that sharks would brunch on their haole shanks, or that the wave itself was too powerful to survive let alone ride. These less-than-thrilling photos above are portraits of red-lining courage and bravery. Fifteen minutes earlier Waimea was impossible. Now all of a sudden it wasn’t. As Randy Rarick says at the end of the Giants clips, the thinking shifted to, “Okay, how far do we take it?” And it shifted right away. Noll and his pals didn’t fall back to Haleiwa, talk it over, toast their adventure. They kept surfing. For my money, the only shot that matters in all this, that one tells you the most, that has all the required big-screen drama, and the added bonus of being completely truthful, comes at 3:04 in Giants. That’s Munoz on the left, Mike Stange on the right, that first day, but a couple hours later. “How far do we take it?” To this annihilating point, and further, which is incredible. Munoz and Stage both paddled out and tried again. Terrified in the morning. Invincible by lunch. What a day.

  • Dave Woody Wood

    Thank you Matt Warshaw for simply stating the truth/facts about how Waimea was first riden. My uncle Harry Schurch was also just a stoked young surfer following his dream of riding the big Hawaiian surf. Like Chuck Yeager said “I was in the right place at the right time”. Harry was and did and now it’s history. Never hardly mentioned in surf periodicals or books. I did talk with Mickey Munoz about it and he concurred that Harry rode the first wave or waves. With time the story gets better, the waves bigger, the day darker and the mysticism better.
    Matt again thank you I truly enjoy reading all your books and articles. Thanks for digging deeper into this.

    • Matt Warshaw

      When Munoz and Stange do their high school Hamlet in the lineup . . . the best.

  • Samuel Ortegón Pepke

    Rumble says it all.

    • Matt Warshaw

      isn’t that just a masterstroke?

      • Samuel Ortegón Pepke

        Totally!

  • Aviva Rosenthal

    There’s this great Noll quote, also I think from Giants: ‘We didn’t have flotation devices. We didn’t have leashes. We didn’t have helicopters waiting to scoop you out. If you fucked up, you were on your own.’

    And the inarguable truth and poignancy of this statement returns me after a few days of ethical wrestling to my previous position: it was awesome, what they all did. In a perfect world, there’d be no need to jockey for first place, but we don’t live in that world now, and surfers certainly didn’t then. It was a brutal battle for survival on land as well as sea, and you know what? Had they all died, no one would have even mourned them for long. Their obsession was pretty but pointless, and they brought it on themselves.

    • Matt Warshaw

      also worth pointing out that, while we now think of this as a huge moment, apparently it didn’t even merit a line or paragraph or anything in the Honolulu papers. Sounds like a hundred people or whatever pulled over on Kam Highway to watch, then got back in their cars and went about their day. Not taking a thing away from what the surfers did. But interesting how big and small it was at the same time.

      • Aviva Rosenthal

        Hawaiians are the masters of meh.