By December 1985, I was semi-retired, and competing in selected events in Hawaii and Australia. I was still spending the majority of the Winter season in Hawaii and one event I chose to compete in was the the Billabong Pro.
It had begun in 8′-10′ surf at Sunset and then we endured a couple of ‘lay days’ as the swell dropped. On the last of the lay days the surf at Sunset was only 3′ in the morning, but there were rumours of a huge swell expected to come up that afternoon. It was hard to believe looking at such a tame surf at Sunset Point, but it is one of the amazing things about the North Shore that conditions can change so radically and so quickly.
By around 2pm it had come up to 6′-8′ and there were some good sets in the bay at Sunset. Most of the competitors in the event were out enjoying the conditions. By 4pm it was 15’+ and starting to border on being out of control. By dark it was out of control. It is one of the rare times I have been in the water in Hawaii where the swell has increased so dramatically…every set seemed to be getting fractionally bigger and there was a building energy and force to the moving water.
A few of the guys in the water were commenting that it felt like a Waimea swell. Waimea Bay only breaks properly when the surf is 20’+ and at this size, all the other well known breaks, like Pipe and Sunset, are unrideable and closed out. For Waimea, the boards ridden are usually 9’+.
At this point in Pro surfing history, there had not been an event held at Waimea since the 1970’s due to the fact that it was considered a survival type wave with a massive take off and drop, with no wall / open face for performance after the take off. Sunset, Pipeline and Haleiwa were the most popular contest locations, and required a board in the 7′ – 8′ range depending on the wave size at the time.
Randy Rarick and Gordon Merchant from Billabong, were watching the surf at Sunset that afternoon. Discussion turned to holding the Event at Waimea the next day. While the Hawaiian pros had the right equipment, none of the traveling visitors had suitable boards. The visitors all started to panic to beg, borrow or steal a suitable 9’+ board.
Just before dark, I went to visit my friend Pat Rawson, who is a respected, elite North shore shaper….to see if he knew someone I could borrow a board from. Pat said he knew lots of people, but no-one would want to lend one, due to the fact that it is a specialist piece of equipment, that could easily be broken, and was difficult to replace. But surprisingly, Pat offered to shape me a board after he finished dinner that evening!!! I recall saying ” Thanks but that’s not going to help me, because I can’t ride a shaped blank” Pat told me he could get it finished by dawn the next day!!!So his glasser Mike stayed up into the early hours of the morning glassing it, and Richie Collins, who was an ASP surfer, who could shape glass and sand, offered to sand it in the pre-dawn hours!!!
I had trouble sleeping in anticipation of what was coming the next day. I was up at dark the next morning. We were staying on the beach at Sunset. I could hear the pounding of the surf and see the whitewater to the horizon in the moonlight, which made me confident that the event would be on. I collected the board, still incredulous as to how they had managed to get it done in time!!! The glassing process usually takes 2 days factoring in drying times.
I drove to Waimea just as it was getting light and it was as good as I have ever seen it…20′ AND PERFECTLY OFFSHORE!!! I was in the first heat, so I waxed the board straight away and paddled out for a quick warm-up, and to get a feel for the board and the line-up, as I hadn’t surfed Waimea for a few years. From memory, I caught 3 waves, paddled in to put on my contest singlet, and paddled straight back out, not knowing I was about to experience one of the craziest and scariest heats of my life!!!
It started as a dream heat. I had no other experienced Waimea surfers in my heat …I don’t think my fellow competitors had ever surfed the Bay before. I was catching wave after wave with no-one hassling…we had a 10 wave limit and a 40 minute heat. In those days we were allowed to have a caddy in the water, with a spare board in case you needed a change or to replace a broken board. Luke Egan was my caddy for the day and he was sitting with the other caddies in total safety in the channel opposite the take off point. Waimea generally has a very defined take-off point and channel…you could sit in the channel and not get your hair wet. From the water, when a set comes at the Bay, the horizon goes noticeably dark. About half way through the heat, I was paddling back out through the channel after a wave when a set came. This set was looking darker and more menacing than anything that had come through all day. About this point, I saw the caddies, (remembering they had been sitting in total safety) start stroking furiously for the horizon!!! I started to get really scared…it was likely to be a close-out set. I have always been fearless in Hawaii but had an underlining fear of being caught inside a huge close-out set …it needs a 30′ wave to close out and I was honestly questioning whether I had the stamina and fitness to survive taking one or more waves on the head!!!
I started to paddle harder than I have ever paddled in my life… praying that it wouldn’t break in the channel, but deep-down knowing that it was going to. Surprisingly, when I was confronted with the first 30′ wave about to break in front of me, I wasn’t actually scared anymore!!! I figured if I was going to drown being scared wasn’t going to help!! That first wave held me down for what felt like a week underwater. I struggled to the surface, gasping for breath, and got a second one on the head. I had actually tied 2 leg ropes together…a 12′ and a 6′ …the jury was still out in those days as to whether legropes were a good idea or not in big surf. The tug on my leg from the legropes was unbelievable…it felt like my leg was going to be ripped off…and I was getting towed along underwater as the wave pulled my board. Luckily the legrope didn’t break and I managed to reel the board back in and paddle over the third wave.
Fellow competitor Ross Clarke- Jones had made it over the close-out set with the caddies, but the other competitors had been washed in to the shorebreak and managed to scramble on to the beach. One surfer crawled up the beach and collapsed. Rob Bain had to be rescued in the shorebreak by a jetski.
After surviving the closeout set, which I figured was the worst thing that could possibly happen to me, I felt invincible….there was only Ross and I left in the line-up for the remainder of the heat, and we traded wave for wave. Ross was way ‘undergunned’ on a 7’10” Sunset board, but he proved this day, that catching a big wave is not about the size of the board but about the size of your heart!!! I sometimes think it was the beginning of his passion for big waves. He has gone on to create a career out of chasing and riding the biggest waves on the planet.
I surfed a second heat that day, which was a quarter final, and one of the most radical heats i have ever surfed in, as I had two of the greatest North Shore big wave riders in it…Derek Ho and Hans Hederman. Derek and Hans were two of the best strategists and hasslers in pro surfing at the time. We jostled for take-off position on 20′ waves like it was a 3′ shorebreak . In that heat, I caught the best wave I have ever caught on the North Shore, for which I scored a perfect 10 from all judges, for a massive drop, on a wave that contest director and astute judge Randy Rarick, estimated at a genuine 25′. I remember Hawaiian shaper Ben Aipa, who was caddying in that heat, screaming at me in excitement as I paddled back out.
It is part of surfing history, that the event was finished at Sunset the next day, with me taking first place. Without Pat, Mike and Richie’s efforts none of this could have happened. The board Pat shaped me worked unbelievably. It had so much holding power and the rocker fitted the Waimea wave perfectly. I think it helped me make waves that I shouldn’t have made!!! It was a thruster 8′ 6″ long, 19″ wide, and 3″ thick with a small swallow tail. The funny thing was, when I spoke to Pat a few days after the event, he was actually surprised the board had worked so well for me. He felt that when I ordered it, it was way too short…he said to me a Waimea board is usually 9’+…but he figured I had no idea what I was doing, and didn’t really want to contradict me.
Looking back, that day was one of the highlights of my surfing career. Athletes speak of being in the zone when they compete and that’s what it felt like for me that day..I felt I could do no wrong. Pat’s board felt like it was part of me. It was particularly satisfying because I had been semi-retired since ’82 and believed I was past the days of winning events. Like surfers these days seem to have events they call their own, I felt like I owned the Billabong Pro and went on to repeat my win the following year ’86 in big Sunset. It was an unforgettable way to finish my career.
Pat Rawson travels and shapes all over the world. If you ever come across one of his shortboards, or a gun, I would seriously recommend you buy it. You won’t regret it.