Any man who has been flattened by one of them knows there is great power in the waves that roll in from the ocean sea. There have been a number of sensible attempts to harness this power—all of them failures. The waves remain useless and wild. No one can prevent them or provide them. They simply come, and therein lies their beauty.
Though they refuse the harness, the waves can be ridden. Probably the Polynesians were the first to do so, for there is mention of the sport of surfing in their old hand-me-down songs. In any case, the discoverer, Captain Cook, saw Hawaiians surfing two centuries ago, at a time most other peoples were reluctant to take a bath. In the century after Cook the islands were plagued by a variety of intent visitors who, in the rude manner of the human race, felt obliged to redo the place and become the keepers of their Hawaiian brothers. The sport of surfing was judged a sin, and it came very near death. But as the sport languished it got into the blood of some of the visitors. Since the turn of this century there has been no stopping it.
There are today at least 150,000 surfers the world around—a rough estimate that includes a good number who are stranded too far inland to do much riding at all. There are active and inactive surfers; there are poor surfers and good ones, and dead ones, but there is no such thing as an ex-surfer. The various tugs and rhythms of the sea become a vital part of many creatures in it. Certain crabs of the Adriatic, if displaced to the western coast of Italy, will try to return home across the Apennines. The Adriatic is in them and, in some equally strange way, surfing gets in the human system and never quits it. The surfer may move to some dismal land like western Kansas and for 10 years have no connection with the surf except the faint sound of it available in the lacquered conch shell on his mantel. Still he is a surfer, and if he ever gets to the shore again he will try to catch the poorest semblance of a catchable wave.
However large a wave he rides, and however perfectly he learns to ride the giant waves, the surfer is never sated. The personification of this strange affliction is 25-year-old Richard Wyman Grigg, an established master of surfing. Grigg is of ordinary size, about 165 pounds, built along the lines of a modern swimmer or gymnast. In a manner peculiar to surfers, he carries his head erect and his face tilted slightly upward, as if constantly looking for the first sign of a wave against the sky. He began surfing as he grew up in Santa Monica, Calif. And surfing has left a few marks on him—a small scar on his chin and another several inches long just under his ribs, through which his spleen was removed after the plunging nose of a surfboard ruptured it. Grigg's present life, with its various preoccupations, would be simpler without surfing: he is working on his master's thesis at the University of Hawaii and supporting his wife at the same time. But Grigg finds it hard to give the sport up, and this sometimes bothers him. "I still like surfing," he says thoughtfully at times, "but I don't know whether I like to surf anymore." Like it or not, he still surfs. Living where he now does in Honolulu, tourist capital of Polynesia, makes it difficult for him to quit.
Almost every winter day, on the gentle Canoe Surf line at Waikiki on Oahu, about 20 novices learn to ride waves within an hour. One of those who succeeded typically on a balmy day this winter was Miss Audrey Davis, age 20, of Portland, Ore. As a clean wave rose two feet high behind Miss Davis, her instructor, Tony Valentin, simply gave her board a push. When he saw Miss Davis' head and her behind disappear over the crest, Valentin barked, "Stand up!" Miss Davis did so and rode the wave 200 yards until it died away near the steep shore.
In winter the Canoe Surf is made of easy walls of water—utter boredom for the master of the art but challenging enough for a beginner like Miss Davis, for the traffic on the Canoe Surf line is quite heavy these days. On the first wave that Miss Davis caught the whole world of surfing rode with her. To the right and left of her there were other beginners teetering toward disaster. On the same wave there were canoes full of fat, white tourists, expert riders out simply for exercise, and here and there along the polished scarp of the wave a few zigging, zagging "hot doggers," devotees of fancy board riding.
The hot dogger is an acceptable member of surfing society, but he sometimes loses himself in his own zeal. In heavy traffic he is a menace. On the second wave that Miss Davis caught a hot dogger some distance down the line ran amuck and was straightway given the business. An instructor riding just to the right of the hot dogger suddenly checked his own forward progress by lifting the nose of his board and swinging it hard left—"kicking off the wave," it is called, an acceptable maneuver. But on this kickoff the instructor quickly swung his board like a broadsword across the hot dogger's shins, dropping him into the soup. It looked like an accident, but the hot dogger got the message and traffic moved smoothly thereafter.
Even if she never rides enough to get the surf in her blood, Miss Davis can tell her grandchildren that she once shared the waves of Waikiki with two elderly riders who were active 50 years ago during the revival of the sport. One of these two old revivalists, 72-year-old Duke Kahanamoku, was riding waves in a small canoe. As Miss Davis paddled to shore, the other oldtimer, 62-year-old Ah Kin Yee, emerged from the water in the company of an octopus. Passing up the waves in favor of snorkel ing that day, Mr. Yee had speared the octopus in a hole just to the right of the Canoe Surf. The dying octopus had wrapped itself in rage around Mr. Yee—several tentacles around his right arm, several more around his neck and a few across his shoulders, so that, as they came out of the water, it was not altogether clear who had caught whom.
On the preceding day Mr. Yee had been riding waves and looking downright clownish, although actually he is an assured, graceful rider. He was wearing skin-diving flippers, a poor kind of footwear for use on a surfboard, where nimble feet count for a lot. Twice Mr. Yee got one flipper caught under the other foot and almost took a header. It looked as if he were trying to crowd two different sports into one afternoon, but not so. He was teaching Mr. and Mrs. Charles Trundle of Los Altos, Calif. to ride, and what with the two beginners and their boards, and his own board and the surge of the sea, Mr. Yee needed all the extra power he could get; hence the flippers.
Until two years ago, Mr. Yee was a federal alcohol tax man. The Feds wanted him to move to Portland, Ore. Mr. Yee has seen the Oregon coast, its waves and its weather and did not want to go where he would always be cold in the water and usually wet on land. So he quit, retiring on 62% of base pay. The water of Waikiki is in his blood and is worth, he thinks, a 38% cut.