Rick Kane was a haole kook from Arizona, but even he knew that a surfer ain’t a surfer until he’s done the North Shore thing. Kane, the floppy-haired lead in the ’87 flop North Shore, won $500 by outgroveling some other kooks in a desert wave tank. He immediately used that money to fly to Oahu so he could hang out with pros, get his ass handed to him by the waves and the locals, fall for a lovely local chick, and surf his way into the main event of the Pipe Classic.
The following winter, I set out to follow in Kane’s fictional footsteps. I also earned my passage to Hawaii via a surf contest, in fact a series of contests known as the 17th Street/Billabong Summer Surf Series. By claiming the men’s division, I won airfare and entry into the non-fictional Billabong Pro. I’d visited the North Shore for a week with my family a few years earlier, but nothing had been expected of me. Now, I owed it to every guy I’d beaten in the series to get out there and charge. So, from the moment I boarded my flight in Norfolk, I felt like I was gonna puke.
I was met at Honolulu airport by my friend from VB, Harry “Greek” Fentress, a Gumby-esque veteran of the North Shore who’d arranged our lodging for two months in an A-frame alongside Foodland, the area’s lone grocery store. Greek knew all the spots, and he had a funny way of making friends. Nearly every session, he’d get into a heated argument over a wave and very nearly come to blows with another surfer. I’d look the other way as if to say, That guy’s not with me, but when I looked back the two were shaking hands and exchanging shakas. Once I realized that the lineup was distracted by these skirmishes, I took the opportunity to sneak a few waves. I guess with friends like me, Greek needed to find new ones.
We walked or hitchhiked everywhere and surfed forty-three times each day. By the end of the first week I felt like I’d ridden every inch of the Seven Mile Miracle. But that evening, Greek shocked me by saying, “Waimea’s starting to break, grab your big board.” Clearly I hadn’t surfed everywhere, just everywhere that wasn’t considered the most notorious big wave in the world.
To be honest, Waimea wasn’t close to breaking, but the swell was rising and Waimea’s often overlooked inside section known as “Pinballs” was overhead, empty, and unbelievably fun. The ominous spectre of the place washed away, and Greek and I took turns as the sun dipped towards Kaena Point. Then, out of nowhere, Waimea stirred.
Greek had just ridden a wave, so I was farther out. In the fading light, I saw what looked to me like the entire Pacific congregating in one giant mass. I paddled for my life, the whole time thinking maybe I should have just gone to Arizona to visit Rick Kane.
By the time the wave reached me, I realized I was in the perfect spot. Greek’s Inspector Gadget arms had narrowed the gap, but he was screaming at me to take the wave. Without thinking, I spun, paddled…and froze. In front of me, the bottom of the wave was a boiling cauldron of rocks that looked for all the world that they would become my final resting place. I pulled back, and Greek swung and took it, adding insult to my injured ego. My “better safe than dead” approach belonged in a wave tank, certainly not on the North Shore.
Fast forward a few weeks. The rest of our gang had arrived, and my comfort level had risen after around my thousandth session. One afternoon, on a dying but still semi-legit swell, I borrowed a 9′ single-fin gun and stroked out to Waimea. The waves were much bigger than the one I’d avoided, but knowing the surf was fading eased my fears. Along with my roomie Charles Kirkley, OMG Wes Laine, and a dozen other dudes, I rode the biggest waves of my life. I didn’t bust down any doors, but I didn’t scurry into a corner either.
When the Billabong Pro rolled around at Sunset Beach, I was as ready as I’d ever be. I showed up at dawn to check my heat, but by name was nowhere to be found. I scanned the alternate list, and there I was, at the bottom, the 23rd alternate for the trials. I waited around for most of the day, but short of a salmonella-laced batch of pastries from Ted’s Bakery, there was no way 23 competitors would miss their heats.
Maybe it was a good thing I wasn’t in the event. In riding the biggest waves of my life, I’d found they were big enough. No spark was lit that day at Waimea that made me hunger for more. Those biggest waves of my life remain the biggest waves of my life. I’d return to Hawaii many times, but I’d never again push my limits in terms of size.
My Rick Kane moment was not to be. That stuff only happens to guys from Arizona. It’s a bummer, too, because I had the ultimate setting for the closing scene. Our whole house drove into Honolulu on New Year’s Eve for a free Devo concert at the Hard Rock Cafe. Can’t you see it, the flower-potted New Wavers belting out, “I-can’t-get-me-no…satis-faction” while my friends and I bounce around in the crowd? Cue the closing credits.