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A Graying Surfer's Love Affair

In the '60s, he was a golden boy riding the waves. Since those days, Rick Grigg has discovered new worlds--and himself--without ever giving up the sea.

August 17, 2000|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONOLULU — So where does he go, this big-wave pioneer, when his hair thins out and his scalp turns pink in the hot sun; this demigod of Waimea and the Pipeline, when the salt air pits the brass of his surfing trophies; this golden North Shore lad of 35 winters ago, now that youngsters forget his name and jeer him when he paddles out?

Where? Well, remember, his mother told him you can only ride the waves so far.

He is introduced as Rick, which registers nothing. He climbs into a pug-faced, spherical one-person research submarine resting on its shipboard launch pad. Sweat drips off his nose and fogs his eyeglasses as he fingers switches according to the cockpit checklist. Finally, technicians bolt the hatch, and a crane swings the capsule over the stern. Man and machine splash into the sea and disappear into the deep channel off Maui. Only then someone remarks that Rick, the PhD with a wattle throat, used to be Ricky.

If you were young and lived on the West Coast back during the birth of the surf culture, the name Ricky Grigg goes off like a grenade in the memory. Ricky Grigg, first on the outer break at Hawaii's Pipeline, his arms shooting skyward like a dancer's. Ricky Grigg, the gladiator with his scythe-like bottom turns at Waimea Bay as 30 feet of water, cratered and wind-blown, gathers ominously over his head. Ricky Grigg at Oahu's Sunset Beach, tucked down and shooting out of a closing wave like a cannonball.

Then, Feb. 1, 1967, with Sunset breaking 18 feet and hollow, Grigg, the smiling 29-year-old in the Aloha shirt, accepts a handshake and a tribute from surfing's eminence, Duke Kahanamoku. Ten breathtaking rides that day won Grigg first place at the Duke Invitational. No prize money back then. Big waves were ridden for glory alone, and Ricky Grigg's glory that day was to be champion of all.

"Ricky," The Duke said, "you really understand the ocean."

Where does the graying surfer go? Rick Grigg, 63, traveled barely a mile. From the moody surface to the tranquillity deep below.

That's the distance of a life absorbed in the sea.

Discovered That Hawaii Is Drowning

Richard W. Grigg discovered that Hawaii is drowning. The Earth is eating its own.

Just off the Big Island of Hawaii, a hot spot in the planet's crust leaks molten rock. As the great Pacific lithospheric plate moves across this deep-sea volcanic vent at a rate of 4 inches a year, lumps of belching lava grow into mountains and rise up from the sea floor. Eventually, they break the surface and become islands. A new one is being created right now. It's 12,500 feet tall and has been named Loihi. But the summit is still 3,000 feet down and will not emerge from the water for perhaps 50,000 years, give or take.

And the other end of the Hawaiian chain? The islands are subsiding back into the water, their reefs dead, their summits crumbling away. In time, they vanish, driven back down into the molten core of the Earth as the Pacific plate grinds underneath the continent of Asia.

Grigg mounted a five-year expedition in the 1970s to study the 4,000-mile chain. Using ships and airplanes and submersibles and teams of researchers, he helped piece together our understanding of this colossal conveyor belt that produces and then destroys the mountains of the mid-Pacific; he listened to his mother.

"The ocean is the medium of my life. Has been since I was born," he says.

It is a place to play and study, an urge and a passion, mind and matter. He speaks not from a single frame of reference, but usually two. He wanted to surf; Mom wanted him in college. "Duality" is a word he frequently uses.

In the morning, he sits at his laboratory desk and clicks his computer for the surf report; in the afternoon he dances over the waves off Diamond Head on his windsurfer and ruminates about his research dives to 3,000 feet, where beds of precious corals grow like gemstones. At his house overlooking the sea on the outskirts of Honolulu, his Duke Invitational trophy is displayed near a dried tree of gold coral--a species he discovered. In his lab, he counts the annual rings in slabs of reef corals to decipher the life history of the islands. At home, 14 surfboards hang from patio rafters, his own life history.

"Surfing started me on an endless pursuit of knowledge about the sea. It builds on itself. The more you know, the more questions you can ask."

Surfers call the elders among themselves watermen. There is no higher tribute. On the campus of the University of Hawaii, Richard Grigg has the title, professor of oceanography. For the waterman, there is nothing so exalted.

Became a Popularizer of the Sea

When Jacques Cousteau faded from the public eye in the 1980s, the sea was left without a popularizer.

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