- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
One golden afternoon last week an 18-year-old student from South Africa and a 23-year-old expatriate Californian held a three-second, $1,500 business conference on the breaking crest of a windspumed, 12-foot wave off Oahu's north shore. The South African, Gavin Rudolph, was a few feet east of Billy Hamilton and closer to the curl and hence had the right-of-way under surfing rules. Yet the wave was of such dimension that Hamilton hesitated to surrender it, nor was he obligated to do so if he felt he could keep out of Rudolph's way. "I said, 'Please, please, Billy, give me this wave,' " Rudolph remembered later. "And Billy did. It won for me." Hamilton recalled the exchange a little differently. "When we both got up there, I said, 'Gavin, do you really want this wave?' and Gavin said [here Hamilton mimicked Rudolph's precise English], 'Yes, Billy, I am going to take this wave. This is my wave. So I kicked out, and even when I did it I was saying to myself: 'I just gave him first money.' "
And so he had. Young Rudolph, who, except for Dr. Rick Grigg, the balding oceanographer, was the only really short-haired surfer in a field of 42 professionals, rode the great wave back and forth, across the shoulder and back into the curl, out again and back again, at times almost seeming to work it, in the manner of a matador with an intractable bull. And as the wave subsided, Chief Judge George Cassady exclaimed, "I've just awarded a surfer 20 points for the second time in my life." That perfect performance, coupled with his heat and semifinal showings, won Rudolph the $2,500 first prize in the third Smirnoff World Pro-Am Surfing Championship at Sunset Beach. Billy Hamilton, who got into the tournament as an alternate, finished second and got $1,100.
All day long the pros had battled through seven six-man heats, two seven-man semis and, finally, the eight-man final in a surf that built up from eight to 12 feet. The sets were so close together that a wave often broke over the one ahead of it, and an offshore wind that gusted to 25 mph sometimes blew the surfers right off the crests. There were many wipeouts, and most of the competitors had reason to recall Rick Grigg's warning: "Occasionally you may be down 10 to 15 seconds in a wipeout. The limit can't be more than 20 seconds. Anything over that and...aloha!"
Despite the big surf, no one was injured or even half-drowned, and when the meet ended many of the entrants went back out for pleasure trips. All of them would have argued with the old California vintner who once grumbled about vodka: "If you can't see it and you can't taste it and you can't smell it, what good is it?" The wave riders' riposte: "You can always surf on it!"
It seems unlikely that any competition in any sport for a purse of $6,000—the richest in surfing history—ever was conducted under less commercial conditions. People who think the Hambletonian at Du Quoin is bucolic should try Sunset. Imagine a world championship event in which neither the time nor the place are decided until the morning of the first day, and in which the only consideration is the test offered the competitors. Anyone stumbling on Sunset in the course of the tournament might well have thought at first glance that the Smirnoff was a Far Far West convention of the Woodstock Nation.
Sunset Beach lies nearly 50 miles north of Honolulu, just beyond the equally celebrated Banzai Pipeline. It is not a park—there is only a gleaming expanse of sand, a scruffy ridge that parallels it to mark the high-tide line, a sandy gully separating the ridge from the bumpy two-lane highway, and beyond the highway a scattering of cottages and the first bluffs of the Koolau Mountains. Sunset has no parking or seating facilities, no toilets and no souvenir shops.
The lack of amenities in no way dismayed an estimated 8,000 surfers and surfer families, hippies and hippie families, and long-haired local families who surged in and out of Sunset throughout the day, basking on the sand or clustering on the roofs of dilapidated automobiles. Admission was absolutely free—Heublein, Inc., Smirnoff's parent, sends money but does not collect it.
The uniform of the day was skin. In the crisp early morning most spectators wore T shirts (no North Shore colonist would be caught dead in an aloha shirt), but as the beach warmed the shirts came off, disclosing an array of bikinis calculated to leave any girl watcher as breathless as a shot of...yeah, the sponsor.
An extraordinary aura of peace lay over the scene. The surfers, hippies, locals, were all whistle clean, their long, sun-bleached hair blowing attractively in the wind, and they kept the beach immaculate. No horns were blown. No fights broke out. The only grass detectable by eye or nose was the green carpet on the Koolau bluffs. Nobody got drunk. Although there was no luncheon break, about noon a small band of hippies rolled two psychedelically emblazoned lunch wagons onto the sand near the highway and proffered homemade candy, wheat germ and carrot sandwiches. The name on the second wagon was a bit unsettling—"The Last Supper Diner."
In many ways the Smirnoff resembled an old-fashioned family picnic—almost, but not quite, in the Garden of Eden. Two families were particularly in evidence: the Aikaus and the Blears. The Aikaus, of whom there seemed to be dozens, all somehow perched on the roof and hood of an ancient Ford Falcon just behind the judging area to cheer on the two Aikau sons, Eddie and Clyde, both of whom reached the final. Lord James Blears was even more visible. Blears, a magisterial Englishman and ex-wrestler, now promotes the weekly wrestling shows at Honolulu's civic auditorium. He was the Smirnoff commentator, and a good one. His son Jim, a goofy-footer (surferese for southpaw) who hates Sunset because he must go to the right, facing the curl of the wave, nonetheless finished fifth in one semi, just missing the finals. Jim's pretty 20-year-old sister Laura had been posted as first alternate for the professional championship, the only woman ever so honored, but she slipped away to compete in the women's amateur instead. "I'd like to try it—I think," Laura said, "but there are better surfers here hoping to get in, and I don't think it would help Women's Lib or me if I were the one to keep them out."