It was a 10-12 foot day at Sunset. Early morning, still clean and glassy, before the trade winds kick in, one day in winter. It was a predominantly western swell, with a little bit of north in there too. The peak was jumping about the way it always did at Sunset, but the strong offshore breeze was pinning the waves back, holding them off, and keeping the walls well-formed and steep. Cloudless skies too, bathing the faces of the surfers in a quasi-transcendental radiance, like haloes around the heads of saints. And – perhaps because it was still early – only a handful of guys were out, no more than a dozen maximum. The muster included Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo and a handful of ASP pros in training for the next contest. The couple of surfing magazine photographers who had already installed themselves on the beach and screwed on their long-range lenses, the size of bazookas, were calling it perfect: ‘the perfect day’. But they exaggerated for a living. For true perfection you would have to double the size and reduce the numbers to one and even then you could still dream of better. But all in all this was about as good as it gets. There were plenty of high-class waves to go around and not too many takers. In Hawaii everything tends to be underestimated – size, highs, lows – but, if there were such a thing as a surfing barometer, it would surely have to be set to ‘fair’ or even ‘sunny’.
I used to rent a room in Banzai Betty’s house at Backyards. There was a huge picture window that looked right out on Sunset Point a couple of hundred yards away. I marvelled, as I prepared breakfast, at how pristine, how enticing it looked, framed by the fronds of palm trees and hazy Kaena Point ten miles distant. I used to think: this is as close as I’ll ever come to heaven. I had an obscure but powerful sense of grace descending on the world. Hawaii seemed to me like an oasis of purity and truth in an otherwise corrupt and screwed-up world. But that morning, some time in the mid-eighties, paradise was about to be lost, yet again, the way it always is.Every so often a bigger set would come thundering through. That was one of the things you had to be ready for at this unpredictable break. You couldn’t afford to take your eye off the ball, otherwise the ball would come right up and smash you in the face. Around the time most people would be kissing their partners goodbye and getting in the car to go to work, the pack sat up on their boards and stared hard at the horizon. Sensing as much as seeing an abnormally large troop of waves approaching, they flattened themselves into the paddling posture and started moving into position, at first tentatively then, as the waves got closer, and the lead wave was looming up and feathering at the crest, with increasing urgency. Soon most of this small group were digging in and scrambling for the horizon.
They were aiming quite definitely to get out of the way of this set. Wave selection is one of the crucial components of the art of surfing. This one virtually de-selected itself. Starting to rear up and totter about so far out, it looked too big to handle, a risky proposition for this early in the morning. Why bust your board and blow the entire day (and – who knew? – sustain injury) just for the sake of one outsize wave? This was not a percentage wave. Too much of a gamble. Better to play safe.
One man paddled confidently, almost complacently, in the opposite direction, away from the pack. They were heading out so he was heading more in or at least sideways, manoeuvring and correcting and checking on the wave and then correcting again, to place himself in the optimal spot for take-off. For every wave, he knew, there is really only one window. And he wanted to be on it when it opened up. As far as he was concerned, the bigger the better. There was no such thing as too big, not at Sunset anyway. The idea of playing safe never occurred to him. There was no such thing as gambling, this was not chancy, not a long-shot, no, this was all down to knowledge, experience, skill, and timing. He mentally laughed at all the guys – ASP guys! – going the wrong way. But this was how it was meant to be. He had put in the time and almost superhuman effort into conquering and mastering and dominating this break. He had bought a house only a few hundred yards away. He had an intimate understanding of all its moods and vagaries.
He had it all mapped out in his mind, so clearly that he could see the way things would happen long before they happened. He knew for a fact that he would make this wave and make it his and ride it powerfully and indestructibly until he had used up all the energy, drained it of life and killed it, and it collapsed exhausted, useless and impotent back into the sea whence it came. This he foresaw with all the clarity of his prophetic gaze but also with all the indisputable inductive logic born of the many similar waves he had already bested and overcome in just this way. Passing through him he could sense the future and the past all rapidly converging on this present moment, the moment in which he would leap to his feet and get a stranglehold around this massive foaming beast and wrestle it into submission. The thing stood no chance, none, it was doomed, a foregone conclusion, it only looked like it could mow down and obliterate anyone who dared to stand in its path. For, the man knew, everything in his vast and encyclopaedic experience told him, that he would prevail. Nothing – no thing – could touch him out here. This was his domain, his manor. Here he was invulnerable, omniscient, infallible.
No wonder then, that bright December morning, with no cloud on the horizon, that he paddled so commandingly, authoritatively, serenely, with an air of calm conviction, with no shred of doubt in his mind, no fibre of weakness in his body. The masses humbly eclipsed themselves before him. Muscular, with long brown hair and big but strictly barbered beard, Ken Bradshaw could pass for Moses (or Charlton Heston playing Moses). From the perspective of the photographers on the beach, from my window at Backyards, he looked as if he could part the waters, not just ride them. At Sunset, he ruled.
Bradshaw had the wave. There was no question about that. He was on it. He was lined up. He was in position. He had paid his dues, he had earned this wave, he deserved it. He was locked on to target, he was implacable, there was no calling him back. Just then another man came racing out of the pack. He appeared massively junior to Bradshaw. He was not just younger, he was smaller, slighter, lighter, slim, a bantamweight to Bradshaw’s heavyweight slugger. And he was Asiatic, no hint of the Biblical, more Tao, beardless, almost hairless apart from the mop of unruly black hair on his head. More of a Bruce Lee in shorts: sinewy, tight, hard, with a surprisingly, disproportionately penetrating punch. Maybe, in retrospect, Bradshaw had been just a little too commanding, a little too authoritative, and he had slowed down accordingly. In motion he was as majestic as a large battleship, an aircraft carrier, but he was bulky too and slightly lumbering. He couldn’t be outgunned but it was possible to sneak under his radar. Mark Foo whipped past him, streaked by – ‘snaked’ by, Bradshaw would say – stealing up on his inside, the last place Bradshaw could ever have expected to find anyone, and took up pole position. It was with a kind of astonishment that Ken Bradshaw briefly contemplated the sight of someone in front of him, jumping the queue, muscling in, usurping the throne. The water plumped up voluptuously under both men and jacked them up towards the sky like an open-air elevator.