The photo is breathtaking. A man with limbs outstretched, toes clinging for purchase on a surfboard knifing away, arms akimbo and windmilling for balance as if trying to grasp the air itself, rushes down the face of a wave bigger than any human being has any right to surf. The color is a washed-out blue-grey, lending a moody grunge-era vibe to the dramatic struggle for thrill, for life, for immortality itself. The wave was a widowmaker, roaring into pristine Waimea Bay, on the North Shore of Oahu, during the 1990 Eddie Aikau memorial surf contest. The surfer is Brock Little. He didn’t make it to the bottom of the wave. Shortly after getting to his feet, the wave, 30-feet? 40-feet tall? flicked him into oblivion and Little was left fighting for his life in the roiling whitewater. When he surfaced, alive and probably laughing, it was into a whole new era of big-wave riding, one in which death-dealing waves suddenly seemed survivable.
That shot is, or was, hung somewhere prominent in every surf shop on Earth shortly after it was turned into a poster and included as a centerfold in pretty every surf magazine published at the time. Later in the contest Little followed that wave by pulling into the tube of another behemoth, something that simply wasn’t done in big waves at the time. He was surfing huge waves as though they were the playful, punchy waves at every surfer’s local beach. Little technically finished second in that contest, but had he hung up his big-wave riding spurs after the final heat’s horn sounded, he would still have been remembered for advancing the sport into a whole new era despite his loss. Almost no surfers today know who won that contest—but everybody knows Little’s performance.
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Nobody at the time was surprised by it, either. Four years earlier, at age 19, he’d come in fourth in the Eddie Aikau event, surfing into finals against grizzled big-wave heroes twice his age. While riding big waves is often the domain of surfers with a bit of salt both at the temples and in temperament, Little was already a big-wave force as a teenager, but one who approached the whole thing with an exuberance that had been sorely lacking in the self-righteous, man-against-the-sea club of big-wave surfers that dominated the North Shore scene.
Little was born in Napa, California, in 1967 and moved with his family to Hawaii at age three. His father grew and sold plumeria, the lei flower. His mother was an academic who taught at community college. By seven he was surfing regularly. By 13, he was placing well in national surf contests. But Little’s true destiny was not competing in brightly colored jerseys. He was drawn to searching out the biggest, meanest waves he could find, wherever they were on the planet, then riding them with a kind of loose-limbed abandon. Along the way, he charmed the pants off a surf community that immediately held him up as the ideal big-wave rider. Cool, calm, suicidally brave. He was an easy-to-like big-wave hero.
Little was smart about how he approached surf stardom. He knew he wasn’t cut out for high-performance contests. A gifted big-wave surfer, his small-wave game had stylistic flaws; strange hand placements, an awkward head-flick during critical carving turns. So, Little maximized his gifts. He became a traveling photo pro, paid not for placing well in contests, but for having his photo taken while surfing in exotic or terrifying and often exotically terrifying waves and having them splashed across magazines. Today, this is common. In the mid-90s, it was a revelation.
“People ask me what I do for a living, and I do nothing,” he told Interview magazine in 1991. “I pick up a check in the mail and go surfing. And when the waves aren’t good in Hawaii, somebody pays me to surf somewhere else.” Surfers read that line, stood up, and cheered wildly. Here was a man who got it.
He chased adrenaline and kicks where he could find them. He drank too much. He loved cars and drove too fast. He got in a lot of fights as a youngster. For many years, when he wasn’t collecting checks to go surfing, he was a Hollywood stuntman. Little worked on more than 30 films in his stunt career, including installments of the Transformers franchise, Oceans 11, Tropic Thunder, Live Free or Die Hard, and the 2014 iteration of Godzilla.
He had plenty of close calls in big surf too. In 1994, Little was surfing Mavericks, the fierce big-wave break in Northern California, with Hawaiian legend Mark Foo. Late in the morning, Foo took off on a medium-sized wave and wiped out mid-face. Little was on the wave behind Foo, also fell, and was pushed into a dangerous stretch of boulders. Little made it ashore, Foo drowned.
It wasn’t all about danger and close calls for Little though. He also had a gift for writing about surfing, penning dozens of articles for surf magazines in the 90s. He approached surfing and life with a great deal of humor and appreciation. Little was a man who understood he lived a unique life, lived it entirely on his own terms, and took great joy in that.
In 2015, Little was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer. He accepted the news and told an interviewer shortly after, “If I live two more days or 20 more years, I’m good. I’ve had an amazing run.”
He passed away in 2016 at age 48.
Dying didn’t seem possible for a man who had survived surfing the world’s biggest waves for so long. He left behind a changed big-wave culture. Where overly serious granite-faced men once dominated, younger surfers with different ideas about performance on big waves began to make inroads. Little was a mentor to a young crew of pro surfers in Hawaii who were merging what had been two separate disciplines for decades—hot-dogging and heavywater surfing.
“Brock Little was larger than life to me,” wrote Kelly Slater just after Little passed. “The world I know will never be the same.”
Top photo: Tom Servais