As the boil of the wave thunders down on him, the Hawaiian in the picture opposite hunches his shoulders against the skimming water. As this wave rolls into Waikiki at high noon, the same sort of thunder may be cresting off a hundred tawny beaches that scallop the east Australian coast, 5,000 miles to the southwest; though it is still early morning in Australia, some riders are already out to get a few "bloody beautiful glides" before going to work. At this same moment 6,000 miles to the east, off Peru, a similar wave catches fire in the dying sun. A Peruvian prone on his balsa board strokes hard and lifts one foot cautiously, then rises and rockets away, cutting a smoking trail down the hard shimmering wall of water. Under the oceanside cliffs of southern California, a few hardies who cannot wait for summer shiver approvingly as big surf makes up off San Onofre and Dana Point.
The local winds, the beach contours and shoals off Hawaii, Australia, Peru and California may vary considerably, but these four areas are great for wave riding largely because of one similarity. Each fronts on unbroken expanses of the Pacific, and the best waves for riding on any sort of beach are generally those generated in remote offshore depths. It is often possible, in fact, that the good riding waves striking Australia, Peru, California and Hawaii in one week come from a single storm that was spawned, lived out its rage and died a thousand miles from shore.
Oceanographers today have a fair knowledge of waves. It is known, for example, that to stir up 50-foot waves, a wind must blow about 55 miles an hour for about two days over a 750-mile fetch of water (the storm that blew one wave to a record 112-foot height howled all over the Pacific for a week). It is also known that though the heights of waves diminish when the winds slacken, the speed of the waves and their length from crest to crest continue to increase even in dead calm. A wave in open sea often travels 75 miles an hour. As it moves faster and grows longer and flatter, a whole series of waves may seemingly be lost beneath the cross chop from new winds, but the waves are still there.
Rolling into shoal water a thousand or more miles away, they again grow shorter and steeper. Finally and suddenly, on some shore, these lost waves rise up 10 to 30 feet or so, and come crashing in like a stampeding rank of white horses.
The sport of wave riding, like the good waves on which it depends, comes from the open ocean. The first known wave riders were the primitive Polynesians who were at ease both on and in the water long before civilized Europeans were smart enough to take a bath. In old Hawaii, wave riding was the sport of kings and commoners. A king's ride was often preceded by prayers and the commoner's ride by heavy betting of wives and other chattels. It was because of this gambling that the early New England missionaries in Hawaii stamped wave riding, along with the hula and grass skirts, as an evil that must go. The sport indeed almost died out. Its revival around 1900 is credited to several people, among them a U.S. mainlander named Alex Ford, who, though a Chicagoan and a newspaperman, was not steeped in gambling sin. Another revivalist was an Irish-American named George Freeth, who later pioneered the sport in California and was sometimes seen swimming around in the company of a small seal. About the same time, a South Sea Islander named Tommy Tanna was teaching Aussies how to hang onto their booming waves.
The sport has spread to good surf areas around the world, but Waikiki Beach remains the mecca for riders for more than historical reasons. Waikiki is a relatively short beach, but in 12 square miles of water there, waves of varied types and heights roll in from a half dozen surf lines. Any tourist with the poise of Humpty Dumpty can get in an outrigger canoe with a veteran Hawaiian and ride fringing crests four to eight feet high in the Canoe Surf line. The average beginner learns to ride a board in four-foot waves of the Malihini Surf in a few hours (ski buffs often catch on in half an hour). Then after several months' practice a novice may have the knack of angling down a wave to gain speed and to keep clear of the plunging boil he will encounter in the fast, curling 10-foot waves of the Queen's Surf. On the best days, a quarter mile beyond Queen's Surf, 20-foot waves spill over in the Castle Surf and the First Break line. Out in the First Break, a Humpty Dumpty may take very many great falls and never learn to ride these big, wild white horses.