Bradshaw Goes From Houston to Surfing Glory

Two major events occurred during 1969. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and in Hawaii, Greg Noll rode “30-plus” Makaha. Most surfers reckon it was a toss-up. The giant surf during the winter of 1969 was the benchmark for big-wave riding, and Noll is credited with catching the biggest wave of the epic swell. It […]

Two major events occurred during 1969. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and in Hawaii, Greg Noll rode “30-plus” Makaha. Most surfers reckon it was a toss-up.

The giant surf during the winter of 1969 was the benchmark for big-wave riding, and Noll is credited with catching the biggest wave of the epic swell. It was a quantum leap beyond “25-plus” at Waimea Bay.

These are “island scale” measurements; a combination of surfing lore and macho cool insists on cutting wave size in half. That’s just the way it is!

A three-foot Hawaiian wave is, in truth, head-high on a six-foot surfer. Using that yardstick, it is conceded by all who matter that Noll spun his 11-foot yellow gun around and paddled into a lumbering wave with a 60-foot-plus face.

In truth, Noll only reached the trough before being obliterated in an avalanche of whitewater. He almost drowned. But he made a statement on the largest wave ever attempted.

“Da Bull’s” big drop joined Armstrong’s small step in defining the outer limits of man’s achievement. During the past three decades, various paddle-in and tow-in efforts have challenged Nolls feat, but the gray mists above 30 feet are difficult to judge.

An act of God is hard to calibrate. Huge waves have been ridden on rare occasions, but none cleanly eclipsed that long-ago Makaha monster.

Until now.

On January 28 on the North Shore of Oahu, Ken Bradshaw of Sunset Beach used a tow-in assist to ride a wave estimated at “40-plus.” Go ahead and call it…an 80, maybe 90-foot face.

The 45-year-old Bradshaw made the surreal wave, pulling out unscathed as the whitewater backed off in a deep channel two miles off the beach.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the ride is that it began in Houston.

Bradshaw was born in Houston and learned to surf during the summer of 1965 at Surfside Beach, Freeport. He attended Johnston Junior High and Westbury High before moving to Sunset Beach in 1972.

During the past 25 years, the Texan turned Hawaiian has been acknowledged as one of the premier big-wave surfers. Now, he is numero uno, the rider of the largest wave in the world.

What Bradshaw accomplished out…there was beyond comprehension. He caught the biggest wave ever ridden on the North Shore. You’d think that claim would trigger a furious debate, full of cynicism and outrage, but this time the vote seemed to be unanimous.

“The big wave was only one of many I got that day,” Bradshaw said in a recent telephone interview. “I knew it was huge but I didn’t realize how big until I saw some video that night. It was 10 times overhead and there was still plenty of water below the board.

“I signaled to go for the wave and my tow-in partner, Dan Moore, pulled me into position. When I let go, the drop took at least five or six seconds. I made a big bottom turn and the wave went absolutely vertical looking up, it was the most phenomenal thing I have ever seen.

“I climbed back up the face and made a cutback, then dropped back down and out onto the shoulder. Moore was right there to pick me up.”

No photographer was able to get a shot of the benchmark ride, but the wave was witnessed by other tow-in surfers plus numerous onlookers from various video vantages on the beach.

The one wave clearly was the largest, but Bradshaw and the others rode several waves in the 35-foot class.

“It was the most incredible session I’ve ever had,” he said. “The conditions were ideal�sunny, with moderate trade winds. I caught the big one about noon; we came in, then went back out and I nailed at least three others in the 35-foot range.”

“In that one day I rode the four largest waves of my life. I guess it was just my day.”

“Ken’s Day” occurred at a phantom reef known as Outside Log Cabins. The outside reef seldom breaks, and only on the biggest swells. It might show once every few winters.

“I’ve been watching ‘Logs’ for years,” said Bradshaw. “It broke in ’74, ’76, ’79, ’83, and twice in ’86. Back then, before tow-in surfing had evolved, it was basically unsurfable.

“But, I knew it would be the ultimate tow-in spot. Other tow-in spots like Jaws on Maui, and Mavericks in Northern California, have a shallow shelf that reaches out; when the surf gets over 30 feet, these places just overload.”

The North Shore has a series of reefs falling into deeper water and the outside reefs a mile or two off the beach will not close out even on the biggest swell.

“For ‘Logs’ to even show, the swell has to be huge. Just going out, you expect to ride bigger than ever before. ‘Logs’ starts to show at about 25 feet but really doesn’t break until 30, about the time that Waimea Bay closes out. It gets hollow at 35 and really goes off at 40. How much bigger? Who knows?”

Bradshaw is confident his board can handle a Size XXXXL upgrade. Surprisingly, not much has been made in the surfing media about the equipment used on the benchmark day.

Bradshaw, of Bradshaw Hawaii Surfboards, built the 7-10, 17-inch wide, 2-inch thick tow-in boards specifically for Log Cabins.

“It’s longer than the 7-4s and 7-6s most tow-in surfers are using, but I figured ‘Logs’ would be a new realm. The board worked really well; I believe I could have ridden at 5 or 10 feet bigger with no problem.”

Some traditionalists probably insist that an asterisk should be placed by Bradshaw’s big-wave mark. Using the assist of a personal watercraft (such as a Jet Ski) to intercept the incoming swell detracts from the pure one-on-one drama of a paddle-in take off.

The issue might be academic. “There is no way you can paddle into and successfully ride a 40-foot wave,” said the only man in the world with the first hand experience.

“For one thing, the playing field is huge like Sunset Beach expanded. Outside Log Cabins is almost impossible to line up; we tried paddling out back in the ’80s and caught a few smaller waves but almost always were out of position when a big set came through.”

“But, even if you were sitting in exactly the right spot, you cannot get moving fast enough from a dead stop to pick up the swell and make the drop ahead of the whitewater coming down. It’s too thick, too fast, too much water to overcome. Even if you made the drop, the whitewater hitting the flat is moving faster than the board can move, and it’ll bury you,”

Is that what happened when Noll got annihilated at Makaha?

“I believe that is exactly what happened. He did everything right and just got swallowed at the bottom. Beyond 35 feet, it can’t be done without a tow-in.”

The tow-in surfer uses the speed of the watercraft to get into position and to catch the peak of the fast moving swell before it jacks to break.

Once the rider is flying down the face, he drops the line and surfs the wave. He is at once alone, riding the thin line between glorious success and hideous failure that always has marked big-wave surfing.

The undeniable trump is the ability to make the drop and the initial turn before the Pacific Ocean falls out of the Sky. The tow-in capability expands the horizon of Surfing beyond the “cloud break” sets on the outside reefs.

The next giant swell, whenever it hits, may see Bradshaw’s mark broken. Or, maybe it won’t. A lot of things must go exactly right, and only a few big-wave watermen truly are qualified to attempt the outer realm.

It was fitting that Bradshaw was in position on “Big Wednesday” when the horizon started to tilt beyond conceptual limits on the outside reef. He has devoted his life to riding big waves.

“Even in the beginning, back in Texas, the bigger days were the ones that turned me on,” Bradshaw said in a prophetic 1984 interview. “When the surf would get five or six feet, we would walk out the Surfside Jetty and jump off the rocks.”

“The drop, the bottom turn, the pressure�that’s what I was always looking for. That feeling was developed in Texas but I had to move on to bigger things.”

The entire surfing world will agree he found them.

By: Joe Doggett Houston Chronicle 1998

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1 Response » to “Bradshaw Goes From Houston to Surfing Glory”

  1. Just writing to say that I read an article in a magazine about Ken and really liked it. I liked that he is real and stays true to who he is and what he loves. the occean is a beutiful phenomena and worthy of respect. Amazing journey and very cool story.

    Kia kaha kia u kia manawanui ken ( Be strong and be blessed) Written in the Maori language.

    Sorryi fogot to say that this article is good to. 🙂


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