A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By Malcolm Gault-Williams
This Chapter Updated: 15 October 2006
King of The Bay
Pat Curren, Waimea, Late 1950's. Courtesy of SURFER magazine.
Aloha! And welcome to this chapter of LEGENDARY SURFERS.
Pat Curren is one of the unique individualists of surfing. His contributions, especially in the shaping of the modern big wave gun and perpetuation of a free surfing lifestyle, are ones that should never be lost.
"I think the best
period for surfing was the '50s"
"Back then, you
didn't need deep fins. All you needed was a lot of rail... and a
lot of guts."
"From the fall of 1957 through the spring of 1962 -- the first five seasons of Waimea Bay's [post World War II] history -- nobody rode the Bay bigger, better or with more calculated precision than Pat Curren," wrote surf journalist Bruce Jenkins, adding, "He also shaped the finest big-wave guns of his time."
"Pat was the master,"
acknowledged Peter Cole, "the king of Waimea. To this day, I've never
seen anybody get bigger, cleaner waves or ride them so well."
The La Jolla Crew
"I grew up bodysurfing and belly boarding in Mission Beach," Patrick King Curren told Steve Yarbrough in a conversation held at Tamarindo Bay, Costa Rica, in 1992. As for stand-up surfing, "Nobody taught me," Curren said. "Does anybody teach anybody? It's kind of like learning how to ride a bike. Somebody gives you a push, then watches you crash into a pole."
Pat Curren's surfing roots were in La Jolla, where he began stand-up surfing in 1950, at the age of 18. "In World War II guys started with balsa-redwood boards," recalled Curren. "In the early '50s I moved to La Jolla and got really serious about it. At Wind 'n Sea Buzzy Bent, Towny Cromwell, Buddy Hall and the Eckstrom brothers were riding 10-11 foot planks. Buzzy was one of the first to ride the Quigg chip, a fiberglass and balsa surfboard nine feet long, 22 to 23 inches wide, turned-down rails, trying to get rocker with a pretty flat bottom."
"To be a La Jolla surfer in the '50s," wrote surf journalist Bruce Jenkins, "meant you never held back: in your drinking, your partying or especially your surfing, where the test of skill was a double-overhead day at Windansea. Nobody savored that life, or typified it more, than Patrick King Curren.
"Everyone... in California knew there was something different about the La Jolla guys: Curren, Mike Diffenderfer, Wayne Land, Al Nelson, the Eckstrom brothers, Ricky Naish, Buzzy Bent, Tiny Brain Thomas, Billy Graham, Butch Van Artsdalen."
"The most rebellious group of people I ever met," attested Fred Van Dyke. "I'm sure some of them came from rich families, but they rejected that kind of life, ridiculed it. If a guy made some money, he'd go out and buy everybody food and drink, and the next day he'd be scrounging for a cup of coffee. They were like wild animals."
"With the Mexican border beckoning," continued Jenkins, "groups of them would go on blind-drunk Tijuana rages for days, waking up on some roadside without a clue where they were. Pranks and daredevil stunts were the very essence of their lives."
Importantly, Curren began shaping. "I worked with Al Nelson and Dave Cheney, building boards for people we knew," Curren recalled. "This was before stickers. We used a rubber stamp, 'Nelson Surfboards.' The guys that put no money down on their boards got theirs first. If they paid in advance they had to wait. That was pretty standard in the industry.
"We were shaping
balsa boards. We could buy 1,000 board feet of balsa from
Veneer for about $350. They would deliver it to the Windansea
parking lot. We'd look for a shop or shape on the beach if we couldn't
find one. Finally we moved into a garage, but Cheney stayed back
on the beach. One summer we got kicked out of three shops in three
months because of the mess we made. Later I tried to start up some
legitimate shops a couple of times, but they never really did much."
To the North Shore in 1955
When the first films and photos of Hawaiian big surf hit the Mainland, nearly all of the La Jolla crew hit the North Shore. To Peter Cole's recollection, they did well because Windansea was an open-ocean type wave, also. Curren says, "I was more of an attitude."
Pat Curren was a little older than most of the coast haoles that came over in the great waves of the 1950s. His lifestyle honed by La Jolla surf culture (heavy Mexico/tequila emphasis), Curren set the tone for the establishment of North Shore surf culture.
"He molded it into a state-of-the-art lifestyle," Greg Noll recalled. "He had this terrible old '36 Plymouth, probably the shittiest car of all time, and the cops gave him a bunch of crap about having the front windshield knocked out. Pat always had this way about him, getting from Point A to B in the shortest distance, without getting real complicated. So he just jerked out one of the side windows and wedged it onto the driver's side, and he got away with that for a couple months. That was his idea of a windshield."
"Pat Curren was a classic character," Nat Young wrote, "as well as an amazing surfer." Young added that as far as his living arrangements were concerned, at one point, "He camped on a vacant lot near Pipeline so he could go surfing whenever he wanted to."
The North Shore was
mostly just farmland back in those days, "and you basically had a bunch
of local people growing food, raising pigs and chickens," recalled Noll.
"When Pat and I went on patrol, there wasn't a chicken or a duck that was
safe. I can still see us running down the beach at Pupukea with a
big fat chicken in each hand, calves burning in the soft sand with a couple
of pit bulls on our ass. We'd barbeque 'em up later and have a hell
of a dinner. Pat was also a pretty decent fisherman and a great diver.
So between the ocean, the chickens and the ducks, he got along pretty good."
Although he had done some work with Dale Velzy on the Mainland, Pat considers Hawai&pi0;i is where he first got into shaping.
"I started shaping boards in 1956-57," Curren said of his board making days in Hawai&pi0;i. "I was walking down the beach at Waikiki and a guy at a rental board place asked me who had made the board I was carrying. I said I did. He asked me to make 20 rental boards. So I rented a shop in Haleiwa and got into it."
Buzzy Trent is the guy who first came up with the term "Elephant Guns" to describe the boards they developed for riding the North Shore in the mid-to-late 1950s. "You don't go hunting elephant with a BB gun," said Trent. "If you're going to hunt big waves, take a big gun." This term continues to present day, in its abbreviated form of "Gun." Mike Doyle remembered a variation on this theme when he first visited the North Shore in 1959:
"When you go hunting rhinos," Doyle recalls Buzzy saying, "you take a big gun. Well, Curren's the guy who makes the rhino guns."
Doyle discovered that, "what really set Curren apart, and won him the admiration of the others, was that he made the most beautiful, streamlined surfboards any of us had ever seen. Each one of his boards was a cross between a work of art and a weapon, like some beautifully crafted spear. Curren had learned how to attach slabs of wood to the nose and tail of a board to get more rocker, or curve. And his boards went like rockets. In those days, speed was everything. Riding big waves wasn't about style or looking pretty or making graceful cutbacks or any of that. It was about going for the biggest wave and hoping you didn't get killed. Curren's boards were designed to go straight down the line, hard and fast. They gave you a chance at survival."
"Pat was putting rocker in his boards, which really set him apart," Fred Van Dyke agreed. "If you needed a board in a day or two, he'd have it right there on your lawn, and he did all this with some really crude tools. If challenged, this guy could shape a redwood board with a draw knife."
Curren's "real genius," wrote Mike Doyle, "was in that one strip of Masonite that recorded the rail curve of his rhino guns. Curren developed that template through years of big-wave riding, countless wipeouts, who knows how many scars and bruises, endless hours at a drafting table, plus an enormous amount of natural talent."
"A lot of people don't realize that Pat and Diffenderfer were shaping way ahead of Dick Brewer," Peter Cole reminded. "Pat was the first guy to produce the ultimate gun. Joe Quigg and Bob Sheppard were making nice boards for all-around surfing, but Pat made the stiletto, specifically for Waimea, where you go from Point A to Point B on the biggest wave that comes through."
"No question about it," Ricky Grigg attested. "He was the best shaper. Number one. He had a real concept of the elephant gun. First guy to shape it, first guy to ride it. He was so respected, he had a cult following... He was a guru."
"He didn't want to
be, though," Peter Cole added. "That was the amazing thing.
He did not want to be a leader. I think guys just gravitated to him."
The Curren Mystique
Pat Curren became legendary on the North Shore of the late 1950s -- more or less against his will.
"From the way people talked about Pat Curren," wrote Mike Doyle who made his first visit to the North Shore in the Fall of 1959, "I imagined him to be the greatest surfer in the world, a magnificent physical specimen, with an electrifying personality. But when Curren finally arrived and we met him at the airport, I was disappointed. He was gaunt and pale, with a pointed chin, sunken cheeks and worried eyes. He had a military haircut, was real quiet and moody. On the drive back to the North Shore, he didn't say one word."
His friends say Pat Curren could easily go a full day without speaking. Yet, he had a sense of humor that could not be denied. "He had that sly little grin," Bruce Brown said, "and almost everything he did had a taste of humor. He's the kind of guy who would pour lighter fluid into his mouth, light a match and go, 'Hey, watch this' and poof! Big explosion. Then he'd give you that funny little grin and walk away. He'd be glassing surfboards in his kitchen, figuring you might sit there and watch for a while, and next thing you know, you're stuck to the floor. One time he showed up in Hawaii with nothing but a 10-pound sack of flour for making tortillas. That was his luggage."
"They lived out of
cars and panel trucks," Bruce Jenkins reminded, giving further description
of North Shore surfer life in the mid-1950s. They "slept on the beach
when all else failed, and occasionally got to rent an actual building.
In a truly inspired moment, Curren created a surfer's palace that came
to be known as Meade Hall."
"It was mostly Pat and the La Jolla guys -- maybe 10 guys altogether," said Fred Van Dyke. "It was a three-bedroom, fully furnished place for $65 a month across from Ke Iki Road. Pat went in there like always, checked it out, didn't say anything. Then he lined up everybody for a meeting and the plan unfolded. Two days later, they had completely gutted the place. Just tore the insides out of it. With the leftover lumber they built surfboard racks along the side and a giant eating table down the middle. Pat got the Meade Hall idea from the old King Arthur books. That was the meeting place for all valiant gladiators."
"Ala King Arthur," Van Dyke wrote, "the Knights of the Round Table and the meeting place known as 'Meade Hall,' Curren proceeded to convert [the] place in like fashion. He took on a number of roommates, mostly surfers from La Jolla, California, like Mike Diffenderfer, Al Nelson, Wayne Land and others. They razed all the inside separating walls, except the bathroom. With the lumber, they constructed surfboard racks from ceiling to floor, and built a huge rabble with connected benches on both sides. It stretched the length of the one big room.
"When it was finished, Pat stood back. 'I think this will do; I'm going surfing.' With that, he strolled into the backyard, picked up a machete, and hacked a couple of branches from a Hale Koa tree. He tied these to the top of his battered car and secured his board to the new rack. Pat disappeared in a cloud of fumes, headed toward Sunset."
Ricky Grigg said Curren would sit at the head of the table, often wearing a mock Viking helmet, "and he'd pound on the table, going, 'Ahh! Eat! We hungry! Gotta surf big waves tomorrow! Take wife and pull her by hair into room!' Just totally joking around. I mean, the most Pat would ever say in a day was about eight words, and I just said all eight of 'em."
Curren was also a professional diver who had worked for the oil companies on offshore oil platforms back in California. On the North Shore, he continued diving in the form of free diving. While Meade Hall was in existence, on one particular dive, he got bit by a moray eel. Bruce Brown tells the following story of when he went over to Meade Hall that day:
"'Pat,'" Brown addressed Curren, "'I heard you got bit out there.'
"'Yeah, well, what happened?'
"'I guess I scared him.'
"'Is it bad?'
"All the while," said Brown, "Pat's holding his hand in his pocket. I asked if I could see it, and he begrudgingly pulls it out, just a piece of hamburger, covered with old tobacco and pocket lint, unbelievably bad. Diffenderfer and those guys tried to get him to a doctor, but Pat just sat and rocked in a chair for a couple of days. Finally he just fell out of the chair with blood poisoning. We had to drag him to the hospital."
Later on, Meade Hall would see its demise.
"There's no way to
express the look on the owner's face when he came the next month to collect
the rent," wrote Van Dyke. "Needless to say, Meade Hall was short
When It Was Flat
Fred Van Dyke recalled the flat days: "Guys like Tommy Zahn, Buzzy Trent and I did a lot of training at Ala Moana [on the other side of Oahu, near Waikiki and in the Honolulu sphere of influence] -- running, paddling, swimming, the whole thing. Tommy Zahn was a real fanatic. Curren didn't really care about training. So we're all down there one day and Pat's sort of standing around, smoking a cigarette with a beer in his hand. He says to Tommy, 'Race you the length of the Ala Moana channel.' Well, Tommy just starts laughing. 'You gotta be kidding,' he says. 'I'll be kicking in your face.'" Meaning, he's going to be well infront of Curren, for sure. "But everybody gathers around for this, knowing what Pat's capable of. Well, Curren just kills him. Leaves him in the dust. I thought Tommy was gonna commit suicide."
"When the surf was flat," recalled Mickey Muñoz, a bunch of us would hike up to Waimea Falls and dive off into the water. The normal jump is about 35, 40 feet, but if you go around the falls and up, there's a ledge people claimed was about 80 feet. Just getting up there was kind of dangerous, but Del Cannon and I climbed up and sat there, trying to psyche ourselves into diving. So we're there about 45 minutes, hemming and hawing, finding all sorts of excuses not to go, when Pat Curren comes climbing up. This was around 1957, and I barely knew the guy. He takes kind of a nervous look over the edge and says, 'You guys are nuts. I would never do that.' And he kind of backs off the ledge and goes down below, where the rest of the guys are taking the regular dive. So Del and I go back to our psyche job, and about 15 minutes later, Pat comes back up. Without saying a word, he crawls right between us and jumps. Everybody was just in shock. Couldn't believe what we had seen. That told me a lot about Pat: really a ballsy person, but understated. I just went, 'This guy's my hero.'"
"Pat was really known
for his diving," said Greg Noll. "He'd free-dive 60, 70 feet and
wrestle huge turtles back to the surface, so guys loved to go out there
with him. Neal Tobin told me he went on a diving trip with Curren,
and Pat's totally quiet. Three days go by, and the guy's said maybe
two words. Tobin finally grabbed him by the neck and screamed, 'I
can't take this any longer! For God's sake, say something!'"
The King of The Bay
"There was fierce competition," wrote Noll, "on a friendly basis, of course, among the big-wave riders: Peter Cole, Pat Curren, Mike Stange, Jose Angel, Ricky Grigg, Buzzy Trent, George Downing and myself. This was the nucleus of guys during my time who really enjoyed riding big waves. Each guy had his own personality and his own deal."
Curren's deal was being the taciturn "King of The Bay," as he would later be called. He claimed Waimea Bay as his spot, in conditions and size that only the courageous could tackle. He was a loner, quietly going about his interests, rarely mentioned as a popular surfer, going virtually unnoticed in non-descript surf, and then suddenly appearing on the biggest monsters Waimea Bay could conjur up. Not only did he ride them, but he made them.
"Pat was the original," credits Greg Noll. "He was in a class of his own back then, the first guy to ride Waimea well and really examine the place. He was with us that day in '57 when it was surfed for the first time, and we all went on our ass. From that point on, he concentrated on making the right boards for Waimea, being patient, sitting outside, and really tackling those big waves. And he rode the hell out of 'em... And I'll tell you, to be honest, I tried to emulate Curren's better qualities as the years went by."
Fred Van Dyke remembered feeling a sense of uneasiness when he saw Curren on big days. "I enjoyed surfing with him, but I didn't use him as a lineup. Wherever Pat was sitting, I didn't want to be. Because he'd be over on the other side of the peak, and Pat was probably the only guy who could make it from that position. He and Peter Cole used to push each other so far over, there was no place to go but left," laughed Van Dyke. "he knew that lineup like nobody else. Even better than Greg."
Some said he made a science of Waimea, that he was the ultimate craftsman and the first to really study the place. Curren, himself, downplays all this. "I don't remember being that serious."
Nevertheless, all those who rode with him in those days remember Pat Curren as a quiet, brooding presence in the water, sitting by himself, waiting sometimes hours, if necessary, for the day's biggest wave. "But that's the essence of his reputation," reminds Peter Cole. "To me, quantity means nothing at Waimea. If you get the biggest wave out there, you've won the day. And Pat had that over all of us. He never advertised it, either. Never had a media following. The rest of us were running around, you know, 'Did you get that picture?' while he'd just sitting way outside, and all of a sudden the set of the day comes, and he's on the damn thing. Used to drive me insane. My first couple of winters out there, Pat gave me an inferiority complex."
"In the early days," remembered Bruce Brown, "when Waimea was first being ridden, guys were real leery of the place. They felt a little better if Curren was around. One day it was just huge, and Pat was due in from the Mainland that afternoon, so everybody's going, 'We'll be on it. Pat's coming in. Wait until he gets here.' So Curren pulls up and they're all ready, waiting for the signal to just charge out there. Pat takes a look and says, 'Shit. Sure looks big when you haven't seen it for a while.' Walked off and left everybody standing there."
"I guess I had more luck at Waimea than the other places," admitted Curren. "Actually, I had no idea what I was getting into. I'm such a shitty athlete, I had problems in small waves."
"It was the right
time," Curren declared. "People talk about the crude equipment we
had. It wasn't that bad. And there were no crowds. I
was young then. Best time of my life."
Waimea Bay, November 5, 1957
In Greg Noll's DA BULL, Life Over the Edge, Noll recalled the first time Waimea Bay was "successfully" ridden by surfers following the Hot Curlers of the 1930s and '40s. It was November 5, 1957.
"Downing and Trent had helped establish Makaha as the No. 1 big-wave or any-size-wave spot in the Islands," Noll wrote. "Up to this time, the winter of 1957, no one had ever ridden Waimea." This was not entirely correct. Waimea had been surfed by the Hot Curl surfers in the late 1930s and beginning 40's, but after Dickie Cross' drowning there in 1943, the spot was considered voodoo and rarely -- if ever -- surfed.
"For three years I had driven by the place," continued Noll, talking about Waimea, "on my way to surf Sunset Beach. I would stop the car to look at Waimea Bay. If there were waves, I'd hop up and down, trying to convince the other guys, and myself, that Waimea was the thing to do. All the time, I was trying to build up my own confidence.
"At that time the North Shore was largely unexplored territory. We were kids who had heard nothing but taboo-related stories about Waimea. There was a house that all the locals believed was haunted. There were sacred Hawaiian ruins up in Waimea Canyon. And of course, the mystique of Dickie Cross dying there. We'd drive by and see these big, beautiful grinders... but the taboos were still too strong."
"The forbiddenness of the place is what made Waimea Bay so compelling. I wanted to try it but didn't have the balls to go out by myself. So I kept promoting the idea of breaking the Bay. Buzzy Trent, my main opponent, started calling me the Pied Piper of Waimea. He said, 'Follow Greg Noll and he'll lead you off the edge of the world. You'll all drown like rats if you listen to the Pied Piper of Waimea Bay.'
"One day in November, we stopped at Waimea just to take a look. I finally jerked my board off the top of the car and did it."
"I was following Noll, Stange, Curren, Al Nelson, Mike Diffenderfer -- a still famous classic shaper -- and Mickey Muñoz -- another great and current shaper," wrote Fred Van Dyke. "We always checked it because it looked so glassy and clean, but then [usually] drove on to Makaha. That day we stopped and got out of our cars. 'Neat break, but a board racker,' said Nelson.
"Muñoz mumbled, 'It didn't look too big anyway.'
"'Too peaky, no wall,' said Curren. Noll was jumping up and down. His wife, Bev, was trying to calm him.
"'I'm going to paddle out and just look at it," said Greg. Noll was always the stoker, the initiator, and Stange usually followed suit.
"'Yeah,' said Stange. 'Got any wax?'"
"Mike went with me," continued Noll. "We were the first in the water. I was the first to catch a wave. I had paddled for one outside and missed it, so I took off on a small inside wave. By then the other guys had come in too. Pat Curren and I rode the next big wave together. And that was it. It was simple. The ocean didn't swallow us up, and the world didn't stop turning. That was how Waimea got busted. By me, Mike Stange, Mickey Munoz, Pat Curren, Bing Copeland, Del Cannon and Bob Bermell."
According to Van Dyke, "They all hit the water and Munoz was first to paddle by the deep spot where the point swings in on top of you and it looks like a mountain ready to break, and then it heads back to the point because of the deep spot. Munoz practically fainted when he saw the size of that first wave up close. What had appeared as a small peak from half a mile away now loomed as a gigantic 20 plus wall. Munoz went off first on a 20 footer and dug a rail half way down.
"Greg screamed. 'Jeez, it looks like a mountain.' Curren ended upside down on a late takeoff. Stange and Noll got the wave of the day, Stange taking a cannonball spin out from inside of Greg, coming up 100 yards inside of where he wiped out."
To Curren's recollection, no one really made a wave successfully that session. "We thought it was maybe 12 feet. We got a big surprise when we got out there. I don't think anybody made a wave."
"Within minutes," wrote Greg Noll, "word spread into Haleiwa that Waimea Bay was being ridden. We looked across the point and saw cars and people lining up along the road watching the crazy haoles riding Waimea Bay. There must have been a hundred people -- a big crowd for that time."
"I'd love to say something heroic," Noll admitted in Surfers, The Movie, "I'd love to say we made history. But basically it was a bunch of guys parked around the Bay there, and somebody grabbed a board and went surfing, and it looked so good the rest of us guys said, 'Hey, we got to get in on this.'"
The guy who first grabbed his board this November 5, 1957 was Noll. The "rest of the guys" were Mike Stange, Harry Church, Bing Copeland, Pat Curren, and Mickey Muñoz, according to Surfers, The Movie.
According to Stange, Noll and Curren teamed up to ride the first Waimea wave they'd ever seen ridden. Others say it was Church.
"The irony of it all was," Greg Noll remembered, "it wasn't a very big day by Waimea standards. Just nice-shaped waves. I spun out on one wave and wrenched my shoulder. It's still screwed up from that first day at Waimea. We were using ridiculous equipment, boards that we had brought over from the Mainland. Definitely not made for big waves. We had a long ways to go in big-wave riding and big-wave-board design."
"When we first surfed Waimea," Noll continued, "we weren't conscious of making history, other than on the level of that particular time. For me the excitement came from competing with the other guys and from riding as big a wave as I was capable of riding... The irony was, at the end of the first day, when we were all sitting together rehashing our rides, everybody wondered, 'Why the hell have we been sitting on the beach for the past three years?' It wasn't a huge break that day. Waimea was just trying to be itself. Later we were introduced to the real Waimea.
"To be Waimea, the waves have to break fifteen to eighteen feet before they start triggering on the reefs. To be good, solid Waimea, it has to be the type of break that rolls around the point, with a good, strong, twenty-foot-or-bigger swell. A lot of big-wave riders disagree on a lot of things, but I don't think any of them would disagree about this: to be good Waimea, it has to have more than size. It has to have a certain look and feel. A little bit of wind coming out of the valley, pushing the waves back, holding them up a bit."
Fred Van Dyke remembers the waves that day being much bigger and went on to write about surfing Waimea Bay back in the late 1950s:
"Even though I love 'The Bay,' I admit, deep down, the best part of surfing Waimea on a huge day -- one over twenty feet, which is not very often -- is when you are walking up the beach, thinking back over the waves, the wipeouts, the rip that takes you toward the huge boulders and threatens to smash you upon those boulders if you don't make shore before the other side of the rock the kids dive from in summer. Yes, for me, walking up that beach, safe for another day -- alive -- is the payoff.
"Many years ago, when Sunset Beach closed out, we packed up our boards and headed for Makaha. I remember that we would drive by Waimea Bay, stop, and look at the wave breaking off the point. The consensus, since nobody had surfed 'The Bay,' was that it wasn't big enough, and who would want to surf such a narrow peak? Besides, it looked as though it broke exactly on the rocks, a definite board racker.
"Greg Noll was the first to paddle out. Whenever a place was tried for the first time, Greg usually stoked us to go out. On this particular October day in 1957, 'The Bay' was challenged for the first time by a group of Californians. Al Nelson, Pat Curren, Mike Diffenderfer, Mike Stange, Mickey Munoz and later, after school, by me.
"'The Bay' won, but a new surf spot was opened for exploration. The takeoff was nearly impossible, jacking up ten feet after you dropped in, and the wipeout in deep water so thick that you were held down long periods and pushed along for a hundred yards in thick soup.
"One thing we found out on that first day -- it being over twenty feet -- was that when you lost your board most of the time it popped out in the rip and drifted right back to you. We also found that our boards were totally inadequate. A new design had to be created to handle 'The Bay.'"
"After that first day in '57," Greg Noll concluded, "Waimea Bay joined Sunset Beach, Noll's Reef and Laniakea as accepted North Shore surf spots. Pipeline, at that time, was still a ways down the road. All the great spots that are still the great spots today were established within our first four years in the Islands. After that, surfers surfed and named every ripple along the North Shore."
And that was how
the thirteen year old tabu associated with surfing at Waimea was broken
in mild (by Waimea standards) 12-to-15 foot surf. But, as Noll declared
many years later, "There were some hairy days to come."
Waimea, January 10, 1958
What many would recall as the biggest day of the year at Waimea, January 10, 1958 was similar to the biggest day of the year before, just two months prior, when Waimea "was broken open" by the likes of Greg Noll, Mike Stange, Mickey Muñoz and Pat Curren. Three years later, Peter Cole told this story:
"The morning started with the surf just barely big enough to ride, and then by later afternoon, waves 25 feet and higher were hitting, with more water in them and more size than I have seen since I've surfed.
"The surfers that day included Pat Curren, Mike Diffenderfer, Jack Webb, Byron Keough and Paul Gebauer, plus two who tried the biggest stuff for one of the first times -- Fred Van Dyke from Santa Cruz (now a Hawaii school teacher) and L.J. Richards of Oceanside, as fine a surfer as you'll find anywhere."
"This was the big day," continued Cole, "and everyone could sense it, and the air was filled with excitement. The lines were more definite than at any time during the year and Makaha was reporting its only point surf of the year.
"The surf was inconsistent, with only one or two waves per set, but each was at least 10 feet in size. Diffenderfer took off on the first big one and dropped straight to the bottom.
"Then Gebauer, who rode more waves than anyone that day because of an almost inhuman aggressiveness, took off way inside on a 20-foot-plus wave and Van Dyke on his outside rode extremely high and made the wave as Paul 'souped out' at the bottom.
"Curren was the next rider, planing the monster perfectly, making it after doing everything right. Webb took off on the same wave closer to the point than anyone I've ever seen and took a terrible wipe-out immediately after reaching the bottom of the wave. Pat came back screaming of the size."
"The next big one," Peter Cole went on, "supposedly the wave of the day and of the year, was one in which I took off on the inside, Pat on my side and Byron on Pat's outside. The wave seemed large, but Waimea never seems as large to the rider as it does to the spectators on film.
"On the wave, Byron's edge caught and he fell over both Pat and me. The last I remember was seeing Pat ahead of me on the way out of a gigantic curl, while I was completely inside of the curl knowing that I didn't have a chance.
"Amazingly, Pat made the wave for probably the best ride ever attained at Waimea Bay. The wave in pictures measures 25-28 feet and has become a much-talked-about wave. Byron's board came out with a crack down the middle. I was not aware of the power of the soup, as I got air right after the impact of the soup which saved me from having a bad wipe-out."
Waimea Bay is a small bay surrounded by low rocky cliffs. It opens up into a wide valley with a waterfall in the rear. The waves in the Bay are almost flat for about 90% of the year. But, when the surf comes up in the wintertime, the build-up at Waimea is both rapid and sizable. A "wave which is only 8 to 10 feet when it hits the reef may rise to 25 feet in a few seconds," wrote Desmond Muirhead in his book Surfing In Hawaii, published in 1962. "The surf also comes up very fast, and when it does, the shore break is enormous. Occasionally a big wave will 'close out' the bay, and surfers caught in the crush will be lucky to escape with their lives."
This swell that hit
Waimea was part of a million-square-mile storm that also threw giant surf
Makaha, January 13-14, 1958
During the same swell, when the North Shore closed out:
"... thirty foot plus surf," wrote Fred Van Dyke, "wound its way around Kaena Point for three days. The surf was so large that the regular lineup had moved out another quarter mile, near the drop off into deep water. The bowl had disappeared..."
"There are places in the world today," Van Dyke continued, "that have a wall type surf, such as Rincon, Laniakea, or Malibu. Most wall type surfs have sections, which should not be misinterpreted for a bowl break. Each break has its own separate characteristics. In a sectioning surf like Rincon there is no radical change in the bottom structure. In a bowl surf the bottom conditions get shallow abruptly, causing a horseshoe bend effect in the wave, which in turn causes a throwing out effect in the top portion of the wave. The most respected and difficult bowl break in the world today is Makaha."
During this particularly memorable swell, "The best surfers in the world had tried on those days, and only a very few made waves," wrote Van Dyke. These were: "George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Pat Curren, Buzzy Trent, Kimo Hollinger, John Severson and a few others."
"Point waves become impossible to make after the waves moved into deeper water," recalled Van Dyke. "The whole wall exploded over at one time from point to channel in one giant cataclysmic nightmare.
"Only after John Severson nearly lost his life on a straight up and down thirty-foot takeoff did the surfers finally realize that they had to ride differently."
Fred Van Dyke would also write, in the into to John Severson's 1964 publication Modern Surfing Around The World, that it was January 13th that Severson rode "one of the biggest, if not the biggest wave ever known at Makaha... For the first time was far as the records go, the surf at Makaha closed-out with waves of over thirty feet pounding the reef... A wave estimated as high as a three-story building."
"They discovered that by taking off in front," Van Dyke wrote in his autobiography, "where the bowl was normally, you could make waves. This surf had jazzed those who had failed on the point takeoff to try again, the new Makaha, bowl-less."
When George Downing
and Buzzy Trent talk about that day," Peter Cole, writing in Surfer magazine
would later write of January 13-14, 1958, "their eyes glaze over and they
just look into the sky and shake their heads."
"The best board I've
ever owned," Pat Curren once said, "was made by Freddie Noah, a Hawaiian.
In 1959, I sold it for an airplane ticket. It was a full-on gun,
10-7 redwood-balsa. Fiberglassed, it weighed 35 pounds."
Love in '61
At the end of the '50s/beginning of the '60s, Pat Curren "met the one woman who could steer his energy away from the North Shore," wrote Bruce Jenkins. Jeanine Curren recalled that time:
"I was 16 when I met Pat at a surfing movie," recalled the woman that would become his wife and mother to their three sons. "-- I believe it was the original Big Wednesday -- and he made quite an impression. I pretty much started following him around after that. I was from Coronado, but I started going to Windansea because I knew he'd be there. One day he asked if I'd go tandem surfing with him, and this was a big day, maybe 8 feet. I was pretty coordinated and a good athlete, but that was the biggest surf I'd ever been in. I remember we got on a set wave and he said, 'Here we go -- don't look down.' That was really exciting, the beginning of our romance. I think it really impressed him that I went out there. Two years later, in 1961, we were married."
"Pat had an amazing way of connecting with people," Jeanine continued. "A lot of California guys sort of brawled their way into acceptance in Hawaii, but Pat never had to do that. He had younger friends that looked up to him, but he was close to older guys like Rabbit Kekai and George Downing, too. Pat's friends on the North Shore didn't really get along with his friends in Town, so the day we got married the Country guys came later, very politely, so there wouldn't be trouble. It was amazing. Pat had friends who were locals, not even known for their surfing, people who could come over, bring the whole family, make dinner, clean up, then leave and just say thanks. He could be so intimidating with his quietness, and yet, everywhere he went, he had friends. And in all the years I knew him, I never saw him get into a fight."
Jeanine "has a photograph of their wedding day," mentions surf journalist Sam George, "at Maile Point on the West Side. The surf was pumping that day, and there's Pat standing behind an old woody, big guns sticking out the back of the car and he's leaning up against it, wearing Sammy Lee's tuxedo jacket -- way too big for him -- and smoking a cigar. The look on his face is so classic. It was like a treasure trove to me, just studying this portrait of self-assuredness. He's getting married, the surf's big, and he's leaning up against a board that he made. Jeanine told me that after they got married, they rushed back to the beach because the surf was big. She says, 'I spent my wedding day wondering if my husband was going to come back alive.'"
"Living with Pat on the North Shore was," Jeanine continued, "well, a test of your flexibility. You'd have guys coming over wanting to drink six cases of beer. The 'kitchen' was really just a place to shape and patch surfboards, and the butter tasted like resin. People were always looking for a deal or a place to stay, and Pat was always, 'Come on in.' After that last winter, 1961-62, I think Pat was ready for a change. A new era was coming in, with a lot of hype, and once Hawaii started to change, it was no longer his first love."
In a dramatic turn
of events, just as the Currens' family life began, Pat gave up Hawai&pi0;i
for good. "Knowing Pat," Fred Van Dyke said, "he just said the hell
with it. He had done what he wanted, he was the No. 1 Waimea rider,
and he had nothing else to prove."
Back on the Mainland, 1962-79
Leaving the Islands in 1962, Pat Curren was in his early 30's and the physical prime of his life.
"I pretty much gave up surfing by 1962," Curren said. "The Islands were too crowded."
"Well, it was gettin' crowded," he explained to another interviewer over 30 years later, "and I was getting ready to do something else. I'd done everything I wanted to do there."
Patrick King Curren moved back to California, to the Santa Barbara area this time, where he and Jeanine would give birth to three sons. The first boy, Tom, would go on to win amateur championships in the late 1970s and become a world champion professional surfer in the 1980s. As for Pat, himself, he did give up surfing for quite a long time, only taking it back up on a regular basis, in Costa Rica, in 1980.
"It's funny, I saw him in Hawaii," recalled Van Dyke, pinning the year as around 1976. "I was driving down to Laniakea and Waimea was pretty big, maybe 18 feet plus, and when I drove up to the lookout spot, I saw Pat Curren standing there. I knew he hadn't been out there for years, and he was just reliving the whole scene. He looked so pensive, engrossed, you could almost see the memories come through his head. I didn't even disturb him. It was a really impressive and touching sight."
Some point between 1977 and 1980, surf writer Sam George treasures "a day at El Capitan when I saw Pat loading up his old gray pickup, and he had this board that looked like a replica of his old Waimea guns. I'm looking at the fin, and it seemed so inadequate -- almost like a keel fin, not very high, with a real long base. So I summoned my courage and said, 'Pat' -- I dared to call him that; Mr. Curren seemed stupid -- 'you know, you didn't have a lot of fin on those boards.' And he sat there for a second, and all of a sudden he stopped tying his trucker's knot, because of course he wouldn't use surf racks. I'm thinking, 'Oh, God, I said a real stupid thing.' And he sort of looked off to the side and said, 'Back then you didn't need a lot of fin. All you needed was a lot of rail and a lot of guts."
The story of his family breakup at the end of the 1970s, the rise of his son Tom Curren in the later '70s and through the '80s, and his eventual return to surfing remain to be told in a future chapter to this chronicle of LEGENDARY SURFERS.
Costa Rica to Baja
Today, Pat Curren lives down on the end of the Baja Peninsula, has found love again with Surfin' Mary, but is still the loner and individualist of his own making. He "fills his life in simple ways," wrote Bruce Jenkins, who visited him in the desert in 1994. Curren surfs, shapes and does a little carpentry work for surfers and non-surfers, alike, who have come down to the tip of Baja to build their dream homes.
"You know what's so bitchen," said Greg Noll, "is that he's doing the same shit that he found enjoyable back then. He's away from the takers, the people who want to grab onto your surfing shirttails and make a fast buck. He has kept his life simple, focusing on the things that count. If people think that's not being successful in life, I have to disagree."
"Part of his pure quality," Ricky Grigg said, "was his inability to compromise with society, which was why he came to Hawaii in the first place. The fact that he's in Mexico, in that setting, is completely consistent with that attitude."
"I always saw him as sort of a Hemingway character," Fred Van Dyke offered, "living on strictly his own terms. He'll never wear shoes, so to speak, and I envy that sort of freedom. I taught school for 34 years, and over that time I probably surfed less than Pat in the five or six years he spent in Hawaii. He just said the hell with everything else. And that's a big reason why he was so great."
"I'm not sure anyone really knew Pat," Fred Van Dyke concluded. "I don't think anyone ever penetrated his depth. And that was sort of his charm. He was quiet, strong and silent, sort of a John Wayne type. He had an incredible effect on women; they'd be so impressed and nervous, they could hardly speak to him. They'd just fall apart. The image I'll always have is from Waimea one day in 25-foot surf. We're all standing around, waxing our boards, and there's Pat with a cigarette and a beer. He walks down to the shore, flips the beer over his head, kicks the cigarette into the ocean, paddles out and catches the wave of the day. He really was that way."
The first King of Waimea Bay puts it this way: "We keep gettin' pushed into these little corners. The last time I surfed Malibu had to be 1952. Couldn't believe how crowded it was. Never went back. La Jolla got all f--ed up, then Hawaii, then Costa Rica. I'm runnin' out of places. Then again, I'm runnin' out of time."
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