It was 1927 when two young friends from California, Tom Blake and Sam Reid, ignored warnings of “no trespassing” to go surf in an area that was, at the time, also known as Rancho Malibu. Accounts of the first wave differed according to which surfer you spoke with. Reid said with excitement that it was the perfect eight foot right. Blake, however, described it with less euphoria. He said that the wave was no more than three feet. There was no discussion about the perfection of the wave. The Californian surfers were putting a spot named Malibu on the wave map. Some years later, it would became revered as the queen of the coast due to its perfection for the time’s current style of surfing.
It is interesting to note how subjectivity has always been present in surfing and its history. Blake was one of the greatest surfers of his time–not only in terms of performance but as well in inventiveness. It is not hard to imagine that his level of surfing made the wave seem easier to him; hence the difference of five feet between Blake and Reid. Surfing can also be measured by emotion, which makes it completely relative.
No one knows for sure the level of performance and the real size of the waves that the ancient Hawaiians caught. In a romantic view, we can imagine them as almost magical beings sliding on huge waves while the Captain Cook’s ships sailed by. Except that with wooden plank boards without fins, developed by ancient techniques, the likelihood of surfers venturing too far into the sea with them is slight. The reproductions of the time make me wonder if they just surfed ripples, or even only the foam.
Even the famous “Beach Boys” of Waikiki, re-inventors of surfing in the modern era, were a bunch of exhibitionists riding small waves. Think about it. They were in Waikiki! And if there are reports of great sessions in waves up to six feet on the outer spot of the beach, I personally have never seen any pictures of Duke Kahanamoku on a wave that exceeded his knee. And again, this doesn’t matter. Size of the wave or how it’s ridden are nothing. The true legacy of these guys was the beach lifestyle.
That’s why we have so much space for stories with a little (or a lot) of exaggeration that further romanticize the history and facts of the surf. For a long time, the story mattered more than the picture. Or the attitude and approach more than the actual size of the wave. Duke, Blake and many others that are considered “fathers” of surfing are not immortalized by striking waves, ten point rides or photos of big barrels. But their actions were as intense as these things.
Another guy who, many years later, would leave his mark on the history of surfing is Greg Noll. His greatest moment, a huge wave surfed in Makaha, is something that is perpetually under review. Nobody knows for sure if the wave actually existed, because no definitive photographic evidence has so far been unearthed. But what was told is always accurate. That guy’s got big balls. Both he and Duke were fantastic surfers of their times. But that does not necessarily mean only high performance. Historical records say the younger brother of Duke, Sammuel, was by far the most skilled surfer of the family. But Duke was much more relevant in an almost embryonic stage of modern surfing as Greg Noll was in the ‘60s and ’70s for big waves.
For the pioneers of the sport, surfing even the smallest wave was something as exciting as a big bomb surfed at Teahupo’o today. Because of this, they continued surfing and pushing the sport. Thanks to them, we continue surfing every day, sometimes motivated to even just stand on the board. Surfing gives satisfaction from a very simple act and with this comes a lot of feelings and tales. That’s why it’s normal to see exaggerations in stories go beyond fantastic about waves and things around surf. If we could measure the level of emotion rather than the size of the wave or the depth of the barrel, perhaps it would be easier to talk about surf.