There is an island in Pacific Ocean. It is the Mecca for surfers from around the world. In the days before professional surfing transformed this place, it was peopled by young surfers from all over the world. Many lived on a shoestring, putting up with the privations this caused in order to surf the most incredible waves on the face of the earth.
We will not say there aren’t good waves elsewhere, because there are. The difference is that there are so many high quality surf breaks in such a small place. In an eight mile stretch; a drive of just 20 minutes, are the most famous surf spots on earth. Even non-surfers know the names of the Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach and Wiamea Bay, just three of the many.
In the 1960’s and ’70’s the houses that dotted this coastline were occupied by a disparate band of surfer pirate types. Boys, men and girls from California, Texas and Florida; Peru and Brazil, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, all lived together in rental houses along Ke-Nui Road, just off the Kamehameha Highway that circles the island. Ke Nui isn’t really a street, its a little dirt road paralleling the highway, providing entrance to the properties fronting it so they don’t have to enter directly onto the main road. Hawaiian names and phrases are difficult to the translate directly to english but the two words can be explained as Ke, the, and Nui, large or big, Ke-Nui. It is an appropriate name as the little lane fronts some of the biggest rideable surf on earth.
If you drive up the highway from Haleiwa town, (house of the Frigate bird) towards Sunset Beach, passing Wiamea Bay and Pupukea road, look for the turnoff by John Steele and “Fat Pauls” house, take that onto Ke-Nui and go past Ehukai Beach Park and just beyond it, just on your left, is the setting for this little story.
It was a simple two bedroom, one bath home built in the late fifties. Like many Hawaiian homes of the era it was built for comfort not speed. The climate is mild on the north shore of Oahu and much of the living is outdoors. A big deck facing the ocean, a large grassy area on the street side. No garage and no fences, just a hedge of Oleander that defined property boundaries but allowed easy passage in the spirit of Aloha.
You could literally walk down the street, knocking on doors, asking if there was any room to rent and you could find them. During the peak surf season, houses might have more than a dozen people living in them with only the leaseholder actually having a job. People slept on couches, on the floor and in bunk beds on the sleeping porches. A little girl I knew lived in a closet. Most contributed in some way. You might own a car for transportation, or, supply food for all to eat. Some houses had banks of refrigerators owned by different people or groups. One house I knew had padlocks on their refrigerators, for the spirit of RF prevailed. Stolen food, eaten, left no evidenciary trail.
Most of the itinerant surfers had limited budgets. Money saved from a job on the mainland or perhaps unemployment insurance. Carefully parceled out you could live for months without working. Occasionally someone might have no money and grifted around, eating for free. Those that have the least are the most generous to others that have less. Some work the hotels as gardeners or maids, girls waited table, some kids worked construction and the most successful at this might make a permanent life there.
Our hero lived on unemployment, arranged with a co-operative mainland boss who would lay him off for a few months in the winter so he could journey to Hawaii. He moved into this particular house in the fall, anxious to help himself to the amazing winter waves.
The Wide World of Sports would lead you to believe that the huge waves are an almost daily occurrence. They are not. Weeks may pass between swells that produce big, rideable surf. Winters have passed in which almost no surf of that size has appeared. Conditions can change in just minutes. Wind changes velocity and direction, a new swell pushes onshore and waves can grow dramatically in size. Big wave surfers must be prepared. Depending on your experience you might not want to try big surf right out of the gate. Perhaps spend a few weeks, months or even a season or two before you try the really dangerous stuff. Up to you.
Mike arrived in midwinter. For those that don’t know him, we can say that he is not lacking in bravado. Looking like a fire plug, broad shoulders, strong legs and a forward leaning personality, he can fill a room or house with bluster and testosterone. In all the years I’ve known him I’ve never seen him show fear or trepidation. Confidence just oozes from him.
From the front deck of the house the view is from Sunset Beach on your right to the Banzai Pipeline on your left. There are many surf spots in between, Pupukea, Sandbar, Gas chambers and Rocky Point. Names that are descriptive of their nature, rocky coral and shallow bottoms, two feet of water over hard sand or in the case of gas chambers, a wave ending at a the apply named, protruding “Death Rock” which, if you surf there you must take in the possibility you may not come out at the end. These though, are essentially smaller wave spots, easily ridden with a little experience and practice. It’s the bookends of your view that really count. Sunset Beach, a world renowned very big wave and “The Pipe”, arguably the most famous surf spot on earth. Numbers of surfers have died there and many dozens more seriously injured. I suffered a serious concussion there on a relatively small day that required hospitalization. The veteran surfer carries the scars from coral head slices, the marks made are akin to being dragged across a giant cheese grater. Riding there on a perfect, big day can be the adrenaline injection of a lifetime. Of course, that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?
Never to be taken lightly, Pipe consists of both an inner and an outer reef. If you’ve seen it on TV you’ve most likely seen the inner reef, a perfect, left breaking tube that gets big enough to fit a good sized car in. The surfers who have dominated the place are world famous. They can make it look easy as all great athletes do. They have all taken their lumps though and photos of broken bleeding surfers being helped out of the water are legion.
Outside, or second reef is another story. Basically the same hollow wave shape as the inner reef except its immeasurably larger. A moving behemoth of dark blue ocean that moves in a grand and stately manner toward its ultimate demise. No one who does not surf big waves can have any conception of the fear engendered by the approach of this beautiful blue mountain with the pure white feathered crown of spume blown off the top by the trade winds sliding down the slopes of the Ko’olau Range to the east. Not many surfers brave this.
In the house, the resident surfers had watched the surf building for an entire day. Sitting on the chairs and handrail, insulting each other as young men do to show affection. Frank and Clown Boy, Steven and his wife, Spider Wills, a neighbor and filmmaker; Jim “Cat Daddy” Craig, who was studying marine geology at the University of Hawaii, Stefan Schweitzer, architect and big Norman Ratzlaff, an impossibly tall, red haired teaser. Norman’s stock phrase was “Don’t be afraid,” delivered in a sepulchral voice and applied to anyone showing the least bit of caution about anything that might be going on. Our boy had arrived in this menagerie just two days before and hadn’t yet ridden a single big wave. He had opinions though and was eager to go after the biggest and baddest waves when he got the chance.
In the very early morning, before the dawn, he awoke to an ominous rumbling and a rolling, shaking of the house. He crawled out of his sleeping bag, stumbling over the other forms lying about, carefully going up the stairs from the back porch to the kitchen. Through the kitchen to the living room, carefully avoiding the sleepers, trying to avoid scattered clothes and discarded sandals until he found the screen door. A matter of just a moment led him out onto the night damp deck where the rumbling sound became the distinct crashing of line after line of perfect waves breaking on the coral reef. Black and dimly seen in the dim light of the predawn, maximum, first reef pipeline was attacking the shore. With no morning trade winds blowing, the glass smooth waves marched one after another to their doom, cracking and spitting as tons of water pounded down upon itself in an orgy of destruction. The waves broke and the earth moved.
At first light, sleepy eyed surfers stumbled from their houses, breakfast bowls in hand, surveying the waves. How big was it, would it get bigger, could a good paddler even get out through the rip. The tidal rip was a river of water flowing east inside the breaking waves, seeking a way back out to the ocean. You had to think, am I strong enough, can I hold my breath long enough, do I want to go? At first all thoughts are kept quiet, no one talks while minds are made up, courage is screwed up, or not. Thoughtful courage in which risks are weighted against thrills or testosterone courage where no risk is considered too much to attain the end result; both carefully considered. Decisions can be made on factors other than skill level or experience. Does a dark and ominous lowering sky nuance your decision? A bright and sunny day might make a difference too, a little less trepidation on a warm and bright sunny day.
Norman; “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid,” begins his chant. He’s not going himself so he’s willing to test others. Boys, in particular know this device, most have listened to it since their earliest days. “C’mon man, you go first, I’ll be right behind you,” or “Whatsa matter, you scared?” The only one who spoke against the rising, vocal tide was our man. In truth he didn’t need to be shamed, he was going, it’s what he had come for. The teasing drove him forward even harder.
Every part of surfing is timing. I don’t mean just the riding either, Paddling to the correct spot, timing the take-off, staying in the right spot, which in Hawaii generally means constant paddling because contrary to what the tourist from Idaho sees from shore, massive amounts of water are in constant motion. In fact, the sea is alive, it moves in all dimensions. Just as the atmosphere moves in the form of wind, does the sea move by current.
Paddling like mad, you thrust your arms shoulder deep in the roiling water of the rip current, sliding sideways faster than you can propel yourself outward, aiming for the small area where it was just possible to get out past the heavy breaking waves of the inside section. By a miracle of effort and shear luck our hero punched through the top of a breaking wave and made it to the outside. Clearing the inside breaking waves, it was an easy paddle to the second reef wave that only broke on very big days. The water that far from shore being much deeper, The initial wave tended to be a little less critical on the take-off. Bigger but slower than the inside wave, the outside is easier to catch but once caught, it becomes ever more critical, faster; in effect, cranking up the volume pass the ten mark in very short order. Imagine coming to the top of the roller coaster where the drop begins slowly and accelerates so fast that it takes your breath away and you’ve got it.
The surfers problem though, was that as the massive energy surge that created the waves moved closer to shore where the water is much shallower both the velocity of, and the power increased exponentially which meant that you must be far enough down the face with your surfboard flying at maximum velocity or the wave would simply rise up faster than you could go. The result is to be pulled to the very top of the breaking wave and then be pitched outward and downward with the crest. You are, for about two seconds that seems, like an eternity, as weightless as an astronaut. The space man is fortunate in the sense that he isn’t about to have hundreds of tons of angry ocean fall on his head and try and drive your soft little body headlong onto the absolutely unforgiving coral reef just a few short feet under water. Pipeline can, and will kill. Every surfer that tries his luck there knows this.
As you fall, the mind is hyperactive, Thoughts moving at the speed of light flash through the brain which knows that any outcome other than the inevitable is hopeless. Relax and enjoy, the old saying goes.
All of this takes place in silence. All of the whirling spinning motion takes place without the ear being conscious of sound. It’s one of the quirks of surfing, its nearly always quiet out there, the booming and crashing the bystander hears barely registers to the man of the moment. We’ve all had that dream of falling silently through infinite space, not able to take a breath, the dream seeming never to end.
The crowd on the front deck watched all this with, at first amusement and then not a little horror as he free fell, was crushed and disappeared for long moments, that to the surfer held down by all that immense weight seems to last forever. Finally a small dot appeared in the churning spinning white foam that was all that was left of the spent wave. Time seemed to drag as Mike slowly swam himself to the shore and crawled on all fours onto the steep sand shingle of the beach. He paused for a long time, head down, still on his hands and knees, sagging slightly and gasping for a clean breath of air, then he slowly rose, stumbled to his surfboard and slowly walked up the beach towards home.
Then a strange metamorphosis occurred. As the butterfly slowly emerges from its chrysalis so did Mike emerge from his beating. By the time he got to use he was talking a mile a minute, his right eye in the twitch we all knew to be a sign of hyperactive excitement. “Did you guys see that?” “Oh man, what a wave” In just a moment he went from being dead Mike to “Iron Mike,” someone who could survive giant waves and laugh about it.
“Iron Mike.” As the days passed the experience went from black and white to technicolor. From near death to pure life, the biggest wave, the best ride, and the longest hold down. “Why, those coral head were covered with razor blades boys, cut me like glass, pounded me like hammers, held me down for 5 minutes at least.”
In a world of young single men where the art of BS, the “Jive ” is sublime, this story was over the top. Funny at first, then the inevitable “Not again,” Reality become fantasy become yesterdays news. We’ve all surfed in those conditions, we knew the risk and the experience. Embellished and polished, the story got better but at the same time more fantastic until it entered the realm of “Jiveness.”
“Iron Mike, Iron Mike, Iron Jive,” Perfect. It was done. Forty some years later whenever the story is told, he is still the “Iron Jive.” And you know what, we love him for it.