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Hangin' Ten With the King of Casual : WHEN YOU SURF WITH HAWAII'S LEGENDARY GEORGE DOWNING, YOU GET WET AND A WHOLE LOT MORE

September 26, 1993|Steve Chapple | Steve Chapple is a winter resident of Kona, Hawaii. His latest book, "Kayaking the Full Moon: A Journey Down the Yellowstone River to the Soul of Montana," was published by Harper Collins in August

Two years ago I was doing a magazine piece about the surf culture of Hawaii's North Shore. A model named Cindy Crawford had already had her picture taken with the local boys in a Woody van, and somebody had to explain to New York what a wave was. The last surfer I talked with was the most famous of them all, and by far the oldest: George Downing. Downing, then 60, had won every major surf contest in his day. He had been world champion two times. In fact, it was a photograph taken in the late '40s of Downing (with Buzzy Trent and Woody Brown) cascading down a 20-foot roller in his--insane! controlled! casual!--style that brought California surfers, agog, to the islands long before there ever were big-ticket surf contests. And Downing's roots went back even further. He was a fourth-generation white Hawaiian who had been tutored by the legendary watermen: Steamboat Mokuahi, Brownie Barnes and Duke Kahanamoku himself, Olympic star of wave and screen, the man who introduced surfing to California and Australia in the early years of the century.

Standing in Downing's custom surfboard shop and Get Wet! fashion factory in downtown Honolulu, I expected him to be the Clint Eastwood of watermen. For days, Point Break kids young enough to be Downing's grandchildren had been waxing my ears with stories of awesome wipeouts beneath mountains of foam, flaunting their near-death experiences. I asked Downing, who looks more like an anthropology professor than a surf legend, if he had ever himself come close to drowning .

"Oh," said Downing, rolling his hands, "I just know what I can't do, and I don't do it."

That put everybody else into perspective.

"Surfing's simple," he said. "It's a matter of balance."

I wanted to ask him if he was kidding, but he stared me down with a smile--half beach-innocent, half street-tough.

"Come back to Honolulu some time," he added. "I'll teach you how to surf."

*

WAIKIKI, SPRING 1993, HIGH NOON. IT IS HOT. JAPANESE GIRLS IN BIKINIS flounce into tourist outriggers. New York guys are dumbstruck--by warm water. There are 10,000 wet or sweating people, all within a few sea-kayak strokes of each other. Downing and I walk to the surf. Behind us is the 10-foot municipal statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the patron saint of Waikiki.

Downing's buddies, the last of the original professional beachboys of Honolulu, look me over from behind their blackout sunglasses. They have names like Captain Bob and J. R. They also have potbellies below their still-considerable biceps. They are cordial and menacing at the same time. They grant me respect because I am with Downing. But Downing, since I saw him last, has become a reluctant celebrity.

"I don't want to be on the cover of some magazine. My life is not important. I will talk to you first in the context of saving Waikiki. Then maybe we can surf some."

I nod--I just want to experience an afternoon of simple self-indulgence. I've never been on a surfboard in my life, and learning to surf with Downing promises to be like driving onto the Indianapolis Speedway with Emerson Fittipaldi in the passenger seat, or taking a screen test with Paul Newman coaching lines. But Downing wants to save the oceans.

What he is worried about--outraged by, actually--are five acres of artificial reefs that have been installed in Mamala Bay, about a mile off Waikiki Beach, by a company called Atlantis Submarines. The reefs are composed of an abandoned Navy ship, several airplanes and a steel structure of staggered platforms. This engaging flotsam--baited initially with dry dog food--serves to attract colorful reef fish that can be viewed by tourists who pay nearly $80 each for a submerged drive-by. Though Waikiki enjoys several dozen high-rise hotels ("concrete trees," Downing calls them) and millions of tourists, its waters are not so good at producing coral, and coral is what usually attracts reef fish.

The problem, as Downing sees it, is that where reef fish go, their predators are sure to follow. And those fish, in turn, may lure sharks, some harmless enough, but others not so harmless, such as tiger sharks. Within the last two years, there have been two confirmed tiger shark-bite fatalities--a swimmer near Olowalu, Maui, and a bodyboarder off Oahu's Keaau Beach Park--and another presumed killed when a bodyboarder disappeared off the North Shore. In response, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources organized the Shark Task Force to capture and kill large tiger sharks and keep track of their numbers. Nobody has yet seen a tiger off Waikiki, and no bathers or surfers have been bitten there, but much of Oahu is nervous, especially Downing and the venerable local environmental organization Save Our Surf.

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