If you want to surf big waves today, truly giant, terrifying waves, you’re going to want to sort out a few things first. Right at the top of the list—drumming up several metric tons of courage. Just below that would be a nice selection of the bombproof big-wave equipment that’s been developed over decades of trial and error: specialized surfboards, inflatable survival vests, perhaps a personal watercraft that can zip around a churning wave field picking up stragglers. You’d want accurate, reliable meteorological data about massive swell-producing weather systems too. Ideally, you’d have access to years of videos and photos of the huge waves you’re planning to surf so you could build confidence with a little study session of what to expect when the scary big day comes. A complex and technical thing, riding big waves in the 21st Century.
George Downing, one of the most respected and cherished figures of surfing’s 1950s Golden Age of big-wave discovery, had none of that—save an unlimited well of bravado.
Downing left behind few pithy quotes. He once requested he be left out of a surf history book altogether.
Downing carved his own big-wave surfboards from redwood as a teen, dove beneath the surf on small days to learn the topography of wave-forming reefs, and relied on his experience as a sailor to divine ocean conditions. Downing helped draw the blueprint of what it means to be a “waterman”—a surfer skilled in nearly all aspects of ocean travel, knowledge, and sheer competence.
Born in Honolulu in 1930, Downing learned to ride waves in the gentle surf at Waikiki at age nine. In 1942 Downing’s aunt Pearl married Wally Froiseth, one of surfing’s first big-wave heroes, and not long after, Froiseth became a father figure to Downing, taking the budding big-wave surfer into his own home. In the mid-1940s Downing and Froiseth began hopscotching around the Hawaiian islands together on sailboats, embarking on pioneering surf missions. This is what you did back then as a carefree Hawaiian surfer. Sailed around between islands, living cheaply and easily. Along the way, Downing and Froiseth became the first to surf some of today’s most revered breaks, like Maui’s Honolua Bay and Laniakea on Oahu’s North Shore.
At the time, the two rode “hot curl” surfboards, a finless redwood plank with a narrow tail designed by Froiseth. These boards were relatively advanced for the time, but Downing’s ability was already beginning to push the boards up against their limits in large surf. On a sailing trip with Froiseth to Southern California in 1948 Downing met board builder savant Bob Simmons who impressed upon Downing the benefits of new surfboard materials like balsa wood, fiberglass, and resin. All of which were hopelessly futuristic at the time.
The ideas stuck and two years later Downing built a narrow, 10-foot balsa and redwood board, sealed with fiberglass and resin, he called “Rocket.” It’s typically thought of as the first board designed specifically for big waves. His real breakthrough was stabilizing Rocket with a removable fin set in a slot on the bottom of the board—the first of its kind. Downing designed Rocket for big point surf at Makaha, a right-breaking wave on Oahu’s arid West Side capable of generating massive wintertime surf. Makaha was more isolated and less camera-friendly than the North Shore’s infamous and more intense big-wave break Waimea, but Downing favored Makaha spot for its longer, more elegantly-sculpted surf. Rocket allowed him to go faster, in more critical sections of a big wave at Makaha than the hot curl ever had. It was a revelation.
Downing approached board building the same way he did every other facet of his surf and ocean life, with care and calculation. In the 1950s, swell generation and wave formation were still poorly understood. For the most part, you just showed up at the beach and hoped. Reliable surf forecasting was still decades away. Downing made a careful study of ocean conditions—winds, currents, swell size and the interval between waves to better understand why waves broke the way they did. Relying on his wave knowledge and his newly designed Rocket, Downing was one of the first surfers to ride waves approaching 30 feet in the late 1950s.
Through the 1960s, Downing became a standout big-wave competitor, known for his wave selection and dependability, rarely making mistakes and almost never wiping out. Three times he won the Makaha Invitational, one of early big-wave surfing’s most prestigious events. He did all of this in a humble, quiet fashion, rarely conversing with the media, happily teaching surf and canoe lessons and operating a food stand on the beach at Waikiki well into his 40s. While a generation of bombastic surf legends like Greg Noll were attacking the North Shore of Oahu’s fierce breaks through the 1950s and 1960s, Downing preferred his beloved Makaha, far from the spectacle, quietly perfecting his elegant, simple approach to colossal waves.
In his later years, Downing owned surf shops and mentored his sons Keone and George, themselves well-respected big-wave surfers. In part because of his ocean knowledge, but also because of his revered status in the big-wave community, Quiksilver in 1985 tapped Downing to direct the Eddie Aikau Invitational surf contest, the most celebrated surf contest in the world. Downing would decide each year whether the waves were big and worthy enough to run the event.
Downing left behind few pithy quotes. He once requested he be left out of a surf history book altogether. He taught himself what he needed to know about the ocean to live the waterman’s life the best he could. He built the equipment he needed to surf big waves, inventing what didn’t exist when necessary. The 1950s were a pioneering decade in surf history, especially big-wave surfing, as surfers risked their lives making it up as they went along, figuring out through sometimes terrifying trial and error what sorts of waves were rideable and what weren’t. Downing was something of a ringleader in this era, a master looked to by successive generations of big-wave surfers.
Matt Warshaw, author of the Encyclopedia of Surfing, sums Downing up best. “[Downing was] Wise, helpful, generous; a guy who’d seen it all, done it all, knew all the secrets, could get things done. There isn’t a replacement for George Downing.”
Downing passed away in 2018, at age 87, peacefully, in his sleep.