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Buzzy Trent, Makaha.

Buzzy Trent, Makaha. Photo: Bud Browne Film Archives

Date: Winter, 1937
Place: Makaha, West Shore, Oahu
Moment: John Kelly and Wally Froiseth rediscover Makaha, setting off a big wave surfing revolution.

 You want to come to Makaha? Don’t.” – Melvin Puu, Makaha local

Long before people were throwing themselves into Teahupoo’s backless monsters and waves like Shipsterns were considered surfable, a few brave souls discovered what is now widely considered to be the birthplace of big wave surfing. Makaha, on Oahu’s west shore, doesn’t get all that big all that often – but when it does, something interesting happens. When swell heights hit 15 feet or bigger, they begin to break on Point Surf, a section of reef that sits quietly outside, biding its time for those bigger days, when it forms an incredibly long, powerful wave that ends in a bowl section that is generally unrideable.


While ancient Hawaiians likely rode at Makaha long before surfing began its metamorphosis into the phenomenon we know today, there are two men who wrote the first chapter in big wave surfing’s history book. Wally Froiseth and John Kelly, two friends from Honolulu, paddled out on a big day at the now-iconic spot sometime in the winter of 1937. Riding Kelly’s newly invented hot curl boards, the very first of their kind and the modern big-wave board’s predecessors, Froiseth, Kelly, and a few others dropped into what were at the time, some of the biggest waves ever surfed.

If John Kelly was one of big wave surfing’s founding fathers, then his hot curl design would be the horse he rode on – without his innovative design, the way those early Makaha waves were surfed might not have occurred for decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, in the summer of 1937, Kelly took an ax and a draw knife to a friend’s board. He narrowed the tail section and carved a planning surface into a rounded hull. The intent was to streamline the tail section for more control when the surf got bigger. It worked, and big wave surfing, at least in its current form, was born.

John Kelly and Wally Froiseth were among the first to ride waves at an angle, as opposed to straight down the face. Although there are other, perhaps more well-known surfers that conquered Makaha in those early days – George Downing and Buzzy Trent, for instance – for the most part, they all ran together, and the trail they were on was broken by Kelly and Froiseth.

In the early ‘50s, Trent and Downing became big wave surfing’s golden boys when a photo of them and Woody Brown  surfing together on a 15-foot Makaha monster was published in The San Francisco Chronicle. America flipped, and the exodus to Hawaii as one of big wave surfing’s meccas truly began. Greg Noll arrived in 1954, and the true search for Hawaii’s biggest and best waves began. It was the epicenter for some of the most important moments in big wave surfing. Noll’s wave at Makaha on December 4th, 1969, would enter the realm of myth – perhaps because of the lack of footage of what was said to be the biggest wave ever surfed. As surfing gained popularity, bigger and better waves were discovered all over the globe. But for years, Makaha was the place to be for big wave surfers. Interestingly, it was also the home of the world’s first international surfing contest, and the site for the first-ever televised surfing event, running on ABC’s Wide World of Sports from 1962 to 1965. Despite its history as a front runner in the public view of surfing, Makaha has one of the most defined hierarchies in Hawaii.

Considering the relatively short amount of time that’s passed since that day in 1937, big wave surfing has come a long way. As more and more milestones in wave size were reached and boundaries were pushed further and further, the ceiling on the limits increased. From Jay Moriarty’s fabled iron-cross wipeout to Laird’s millennium wave, big wave surfing is a constantly changing animal – and it’s one that was born on a winter day in Hawaii when two men paddled out at Makaha.


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