Big-wave riding was, is and probably always will be something else. So were, are and probably always will be its practitioners, who drive unswervingly, and desperately, across giant walls of water. "You got to be a jerk, kind of," says Walter Hoffman. "I saw one picture of Walt surfing," says Fred Van Dyke, a celebrated big-wave rider who teaches math at Oahu's Punahou School, "and I was stoked. Walter's really messed up more guys." Van Dyke spent four years in psychoanalysis as a result of his hang-up on big-wave riding. "I was really jazzed," he says. "I told my analyst, 'I want to be helped, but please don't take away my surfing.'
"Guys ride big waves for ego support, to compensate for something that's lacking in their lives. They're not making it, they can't get involved like the so-called normal person. They have an underlying feeling that they're not doing anything with meaning. Man needs an outlet that's ego-gratifying. Surfing gives you a feeling of accomplishment. But the feeling's gone in four seconds, and then you have to start all over again.
"Surfing should be fun. It's not fun. It's absolute terror. Big-wave riders are scared people. They have to go out there to prove that they're not afraid, to prove their masculinity. Surfing's not masculine; there's nothing left after you've done it. Most big-wave riders are latent homosexuals.
"Once I broke my board in half at Waimea. I was so pumped; I knew I had hit the ultimate. There were all these cameramen on shore, and I knew they got the picture. Then I realized what a complete farce it was. I still surf, because I'm a victim of my culture. I can't transcend it."
Walter Hoffman thinks that big-wave riding is approaching the "ridiculous" stage. "It's getting so now they're going into stuff where some guys will drown," he says. "You can't ride a wave after it gets to be 28 feet—tops 30. But there's a guy sitting right now in the Islands with a special board and a helicopter standing by who's determined he's going to be the first to ride Kaena Point, which is inaccessible and where the surf is 50 feet. You can't catch waves over 30 feet. You can't paddle fast enough to get them."
Nowadays big-wave riders marooned in southern California have become superstroked on motorcycling, and most of them own bikes, which they ride in the hills. Friday nights they all go to the motorcycle races at Ascot Park in Gardena to watch, with awe and passion, their hero, Sammy Tanner, who weighs 115 pounds in his leathers and is called The Flying Flea.
"Hobie wanted to give him a board," Walter said at Ascot the other night, "but the guy can't swim. Sammy Tanner has never made a right turn in his life. I've never seen him go down. He probably doesn't even get jazzed when he's crossed up on the corner at 60 miles per hour. It's unbelievable. He's unreal! He's unreal!"
Walter ran into his brother Philip, known as Flip, who used to be an abalone diver and is now secretary-treasurer of Hoffman California Fabrics. "My brother's gone down 100 feet," Walter said. "He used to live alone for weeks in a box on an 18-foot boat. He was his own tender. He's had the bends so many times he had to quit. My brother would race motorcycles if he could."
"I've ridden the biggest wave that's ridable," Flip said. "Sammy Tanner has more guts."
"My brother's fearless," Walter said. "That's why he digs this."