Surfing has long been a quasi-religious cult for wave worshipers from Gilgo to Malibu, and the Holy Land is the north shore of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands (page 36). There, early in December each year, the disciples gather to worship at temples with names like Makaha, Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline, where, hopefully, they will ride the biggest and most intimidating waves in the world. When the surf is up on Oahu's north shore, the swells run in 20- and 25-foot heavies. Only the genuinely expert can paddle out through the exploding spray and not end up like a jellyfish, and only the anointed can get locked in on a curl and ride 1,000 tons of water home.
The compelling mystique that binds these surfers to the island for 49 weeks, just to be able to ride the big waves for three, is fascinating, and to portray it—the waiting and watching, as well as the action—we sent Art Director Dick Gangel and Photographer Neil Leifer to Hawaii. It seemed a pleasant assignment for them—one that at worst would present a few technical problems. We had not counted on the perverse dedication of the true surfer, nor the unpredictability of the sea. Beyond technical knowledge and artistic imagination, Gangel and Leifer had to call on all their reserves of charm and persuasion, plus outsize portions of patience.
One problem was convincing the surfers that working with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on the story was worth sacrificing one of the few precious days when the surf was running big. "We discovered," said Leifer, "that one guy had spurned $500 for half a day's work on a television film just because it would have interfered with his surfing." But finally a handful of the island's best—among them Charlie Galento, Felipe Pomar (world champion in 1965) and Fred Hemmings Jr. and George Downing (first and second, respectively, in the international championships in 1966)—were prevailed upon to do their surfing when and where we could photograph them.
Cameras were located everywhere. One, enclosed in a special plastic shell, was secured to the nose of a surfboard. Others were situated high on bluffs jutting out over the beach or were anchored in the water somewhere between the coral heads and the kelp or dangled from helicopters swooping and circling overhead.
Everything was set. The surfers had their boards at the ready, the cameras were rigged and the helicopters were on standby. The only thing left to wait for was the big, big surf—and wait was what everybody did. Every morning before 6 the phone would ring and a surfer would say it looked promising at Sunset or that the Pipeline was acting up. Everybody would race for the beach, but when they got there the promising big ones had subsided into gentle five-foot ripples. "I've seen bigger surf in a Scotch and soda," muttered Gangel. Patience became the watchword and, happily, patience was rewarded. In 28 days the surf came up—really came up—only once, but when it did, 20-foot behemoths came crashing ashore at Waimea Bay. The results are back there in the magazine for you to enjoy.
Only thing is, if you happen to run into Gangel or Leifer, don't kid them about soft assignments in Hawaii. You're apt to be wiped out.