Condition Black is the official Hawaiian Civil Defense alert that declares the ocean off limits to everyone. When conditions are black, the ocean is in full roar and tourists and watermen stand side by side in slack-jawed respect.
On Wednesday, January 28, the Pacific Ocean put on a once in a lifetime show, and the North Shore was giant and perfect, as a swell that some were calling 40-feet arrived under flawless Hawaiian conditions: trade winds, blue skies, the works.
But it was a little too much of a good thing and paddle-in surfing was out of the question. Waimea Bay was a cauldron of froth from closeout sets. The one guy, who paddled out, Jason Majors, defied police, got a standing ovation from 2,000 spectators, and took two closeout sets on the head. The only wave riding that happened on the North Shore that day took place a mile out to sea as seven gasoline powered duos played crack the whip at Outside Log Cabins.
The same swell moved into California two days later, delivering some of the biggest surf in 15 years. Spots that get big were giant, and spots that never break were firing. Maverick’s was a surreal, virtually unrideable media circus. Rincon was so big that only a handful of guys could get out. Lunada Bay was so good even the locals were smiling. Black’s was a beautiful beast. And Northern Baja was a shocking array of mysto cloud breaks and dredging points.
Here, then, are 14 pages of photos and tales from a single, phenomenal swell. They stood on hillsides and rooftops, on top of their cars, anywhere they might get a better look at the most mind-blowing surf session ever witnessed on the North Shore. “I saw history today,” said Peter Mel, and like a lot of other great surfers, he saw it from the beach. January 28 was the day tow-in-surfing reached a new level and shattered the barriers of skepticism.
Over on Maui, it was business as usual. Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama and the rest of the crew had all-time Jaws to themselves, the biggest day they’ve ever had. But this was the day the North Shore caught up. A day Ken Bradshaw will never forget�and a day Brock Little will never stop cursing.
Early that morning, the Quiksilver/Eddie Aikau big-wave contest had been postponed after three hours of excruciating anxiety. This was a swell with 35-foot sets, the biggest to hit Hawaii in at least 12 years, and Waimea Bay was a vision of death. The invitee list read like a tribute to living legends, but none of them even hit the water. “There’s only one place to surf today,” said Bradshaw, and for a half-dozen tow-in crews, that was the call; Outside Log Cabins, a place that doesn’t begin to break until the waves reach a Hawaiian-style 25-feet.
What Bradshaw accomplished out there, under a gorgeous blue sky with offshore winds, was beyond comprehension. At the age of 45, 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.
“I saw it with my own eyes,” said Lt. Pat Kelly, a North Shore lifeguard since 1979 and a 25-year resident. “I was up on the substation roof at Ke Waena, and this was definitely the biggest wave I’ve seen ridden. We were calling it 30 to 35-feet. Bradshaw was just a little dot on this massive wall. It wasn’t like a Waimea wave, with a bit of a wall and then into the channel. This thing was feathering for like 75 yards ahead of him. Unbelievable.”
Bill Ballard, maker of the surf videos Triple C and Side B, was among the few who captured Bradshaw’s wave on tape. Shot from an ideal vantage point on Ke Iki Road, the sequence is absolutely surreal as Bradshaw comes off the bottom, the wave looks at least l0 times overhead. He times his turn perfectly, power-drives up into the hook, pulls a cutback, then glides out the back of a softening shoulder. Thanks to the expert timing of 41-year-old Dan Moore, Bradshaw’s tow-in partner and one of the true underground heroes of outer-reef lore, there was no wasted motion. Bradshaw grabbed the towrope and was steaming back to the lineup at the instant he pulled out.
That’s how they’ve always done it at Jaws�using flawless team�work to rip giant waves�but nobody was making comparisons to Hamilton’s surfing or the biggest waves ridden on Maui. This was a North Shore thing. Historic Waimea performances by the likes of Pat Curren, Peter Cole, Jose Angel, Eddie Aikau, Mike Miller, Derrick Doerner and Little were suddenly in a separate category, as was Greg Noll’s epic farewell to surfing at 30-plus Makaha in 1969.
“This is Just the most impressive thing I’ve ever witnessed,” said Cole, one of the North Shore’s most confirmed traditionalists. “These waves are so much larger than what we rode, and they make it look so easy�fade, turn, carve. This tow-In-surfing has made regular surfing look like a Model T.”
Another hard-line observer, Randy Rarick, didn’t see Bradshaw’s wave, “but the claim is totally plausible. Just add it up; the tow-in guys are riding bigger waves than anyone ever dreamed of. This was the biggest swell of the tow-in era. And Ken got the biggest one. Bradshaw is the most dedicated and proficient of all the tow-in-surfers on the North Shore. So it makes sense that he’d be the one.” “And that big wake you saw behind Ken’s board?” said Bernie Baker. “That was from his balls draggin’.”
When I spoke with Bradshaw that night, he had no real sense of his accomplishment. “I just know I caught a really big wave, and I was trying to get out of it’s way,” he said. But as the days went on, he began hearing the comments. “Then I started thinking about it. I thought I’d gotten the waves of my life in 1995, when I rode Outside Backyards with Derrick and Laird (the day the Aikau contest was called off at the midway point). Well, that place was buried on Wednesday. Sections were falling for a quarter-mile; you couldn’t even find it. That’s when I realized how big it really was. The biggest I’ve seen since February of 1986.”
This was the ultimate Big Wednesday, and many others shared the glory. Noah Johnson got barreled�and came out�on a legitimate 25-footer. Cheyne Horan, Ross Clarke-Jones, Aaron Lambert, Shawn Briley, the Willis brothers and Troy Alotis, a North Shore electrician and outer-reef veteran, were all out there in full assault. Alec Cooke and Ron Barron were towing into outside Puaena Point, a spot off the Haleiwa Harbor that at times was closing out all the way over to Avalanche.
But where was Brock? Rewind the tape a little, back to the early-morning hours at Waimea.
“You know, I’d go out there,” Brock said as he surveyed the insane cauldron of heaving shorebreak and closeout sets. “But there’s only two ways you’d surf Waimea on a day like this on a dare, or for a contest. Otherwise, no way.”
In the wake of the tow-in-surfing phenomenon and the consider�able publicity over the K2 Challenge, the Aikau/Quiksilver people wanted a “go.” They wanted it badly. The atmosphere became a bit more festive as the sun got warmer, the texture improved and the cheery sounds of Willie K filled the sound system, but still, nobody wanted Waimea. Not Briley, not Richard Schmidt, not even Bradshaw. There were horrifying scenes; a 35-foot wave late, breaking far to the north, peeling across, then closing out hideously in the normal takeoff area. Two Jet Skis�one manned solo by (photographer) Hank, the other by Kenny Rust and Larry Haynes�barely scratched over a monster in the middle of the bay. Longtime Sunset master Ric Haas stunned the gathering by running across the grass and down to the corner, board in hand, but he just sat there, waiting for a window that never came. Redwings Whitford, a committed body-surfer since the mid ’70s in Hawaii, made a gutsy but futile attempt that saw him unable to penetrate the shore break. “Once I got toward the middle, I had to let it wash me in, ” he said. “If you get over there (the left corner, in front of the rocks), you will die.”
And then the bay was empty again. By 11a.m., contest director George Downing knew there was no chance. “Calling this thing off is the best thing that could have happened,” said Bodo Van Der Leeden, captain of the North Shore lifeguards. “Tomorrow’s another day. I’d rather have them all alive.”
“I honestly think we would have lost someone out there today,” said Rick Grigg, one of the great Waimea riders of the ’60s. “Maybe more than one.”
Once the Eddie got canceled, Brock headed for Haleiwa Harbor�the only remotely safe place to attempt a launch�with ocean safety mainstays Brian Keaulana, Terry Ahue and Mel Pu’u. Incredibly, they were not allowed access. They didn’t put up a fight, either. Keaulana stands for safety above all else, and if the State Harbors Division say no, then it’s time for some other spot.
Everyone at Outside Logs had launched from Phantoms, near Back-Yards. Stock’s crew could have headed back up there, but the wave-watching traffic was absurd�more than an hours crawl to make the five miles from Haleiwa to Waimea. “I’m so pissed right now,” Brock said at the time. He picked up a stick and slammed a nearby trash can with it. “I can’t get in the water! These days never happen. It’s here now, and I can’t f—ing surf!”
Keaulana was leaning heavily toward Makaha, where a dynamite session was going off with Titus Kinimaka, Schmidt, Jay Moriarity, Grigg, Rarick, Keoni Watson, Rusty Keaulana and many others in Gorgeous 12 to 15-foot point surf. Brock’s crew wound up driving to the Westside for a go at Kaena Point. But they stopped at a spot outside Makua Cave�a precious gem spinning off perfect rights at 15 to 18 feet.
“You don’t see conditions like that on the South Shore, because there’s always so much water moving around over there,” said Mark Cunningham, who life guarded the beach at Pipeline for some 20 years. “This was absolute glass. Not a single whitecap. Just deep Westside blue and calm, incredibly beautiful. And Brock just killed it.”
But Brock wasn’t satisfied. Not even close. Several days later, he said he was still “heartbroken” over missing the Outside Logs session. “Normally if I miss a big day, it means nothing to me,” he said. “But I feel like I’m back in high school, when something happens and you just can’t get over it. I haven’t seen the videos. I don’t even want to hear about ’em. I’m just really bitter. I’m gonna be bitter for a long time.”
The action at Jaws, meanwhile, was so masterfully done it hardly seemed like news. But it was never the less historic. “When I saw Laird and Dave Kalama wearing flotation vests, I knew it was huge,” said Buzzy Kerbox. “I was there for the big Thanksgiving swell two years ago, but this was by far the biggest I’ve seen. Even Hallko (the launching spot) was closing out. I saw two guys preparing to go out when a big set just sucked them back full-blast up the river, and their ski got wrapped around a tree.”
The ones who reached Peahi were the very best; Hamilton, Kalama, Mike Waltze, Rush Randle, Pete Cabrinha, Mark Angulo, Kerbox and Victor Lopez. “There’s been a lot of talk from people threatening to come over,” said Kalama. “Funny how on the biggest days, it’s still the same people.”
How big was it? “You can’t even say at that size,” said Kalama. “After 25 feet it’s all just ridiculous anyway. Biggest I’ve even ridden out there, that’s for sure. And everybody made it out alive.”
It wasn’t the greatest session for Laird, who made one return trip to switch boards and then had one of his fins knocked off. “He kept surfing with two fins,” Kerbox marveled. “As if it wasn’t challenging enough with good equipment.”
Hamilton said it was a better day for everyone else; “Mike Waltze was on fire. Angulo ripped, Rush got some bombs. Our whole crew was really goin’ off. It made me feel good that they took some initiative and ran with it�as talented as they are, I’m not surprised. That wasn’t just a monster swell. It was also a very mean, aggressive one. It was hard to fully see it. That swell was hidden behind a mask of terror.”
The day did not pass without crisis. At Outside Log Cabins, the Willis brothers got mowed and had their ski washed to shore. Clarke-Jones and Ray tried to outrun a wave in the flats and found it impossible, at least with their equipment. “The wave just collected us and we both got smashed,” said Clarke-Jones. “I saw Tony take the next one on the head, 25 to 30 feet of whitewater.”
They wound up floating down toward Alligators with a damaged ski, and they got in through Haleiwa Harbor only with the generous help of Briley and Standt, who towed them in. With the harbor a constant threat to close out, and all four men screaming at the top of their lungs, Briley led a full-bore charge that got Ray, Clarke-Jones and their ski safely to shore.
Tributes to the swell just kept coming. Steve Thompson, state manager of Oahu’s small harbors, said “it was the biggest anyone could remember in 30 years.” Ocean Safety officials reported swells reaching 40-feet at Kaena Point. Johnson said that at times in his tow-in session, “it seemed like twice as big as anything I’d seen before.”
The most interesting perspective, however, came from Bill Sickler. Every serious surfer on the North Shore knows of this late-40s carpenter who spent more than 20 years riding every big swell at Waimea, Sunset and Pipeline (for most surfers one of those is plenty). Disgusted by publicity and photo shoots, he has remained in the underground, taking a detached viewpoint of the tow-in craze. But Sickler watched Wednesday’s action with Cole and Charlie Walker from his home on the hillside, and he was astounded.
“There’s no doubt in my mind it was the biggest surf that anyone’s ridden,” he said. “Not only that, they were surfing it better than people surf 10-foot Sunset. That’s what really blew my mind. I don’t know if it will happen again very soon. I hope it does, because they’re onto the next level. All of ’em. Everybody out there was just phenomenal. These guys started following each other down into the pit of these waves, and within an hour there was this full circulation of guys just shredding 35-foot waves.”
For everyone involved, it was a day of high-fives and glances of intense admiration. Moore said he and Bradshaw must have shaken hands five times. “I said, Congratulations, Ken. Hands-down, you’re my hero. You’re 45 years old and you’ve still got it going on.”
For Bradshaw, it was beyond K2. He’d take that Wednesday over the $50,000, guaranteed, if he had the choice. When he looked at Moore, he simply said this, “You know what, Dan? We won.”
By: Bruce Jenkins SURFER MAGAZINE, JUNE ’98, VOL. 39, NO. 6