Matt Warshaw's look at the 1974 Smirnoff, and the fallout in years to come, ran in the December 2005 issue of the Surfer's Journal.
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Being a surf historian isn't so bad. I whip through Ben Marcus' surfing crossword puzzles standing on my head, get perfect scores on surf trivia quizzes, and page through the latest surf books and mags like a Wimbledon umpire, coiled and ready to bark out a superior-voiced correction. "Nat wasn't 19 when he won the '66 world title, he was 18!" "It's Bertlemann, not Bertleman, come on!"
Small pleasures. But pleasures nonetheless.
Surf history as a workaday career choice means a lot of organizing, archiving, filing, and copying—the input nerd, with plow and backhoe, toiling in the data fields. But once you've created that loamy acreage of information, it's nice to plunge your hands in and root around for truths and facts—or at least be able to say this thing is closer to fact and truth than that thing—and if it's fussy and self-serving to claim the sport is honored by people who make these distinctions, well I'll just have to live with that. Facts matter. It's satisfying to get the names and dates right. Even the storytellers know that. The good ones, at least.
And history, anyway, isn't always fixed and solid. It moves. Not often, and usually not by much, but enough to keep things interesting. So you have the simple but savory for-the-record correction, like those three Hawaiian brothers, not George Freeth, being the first to surf in California; or that snarling left tube in the opening shot on Hawaii Five-O finally being identified as Rockpile.
Then you have the big flashy surf-history set piece, as recognizable to us as Woodstock or the Lindbergh flight, which come around semi-regularly for another turn in the spotlight, except with each new viewing they look a little different. Maybe the story itself changes a bit—new photos, new facts, new quotes. Or the person telling the story has a not-so-hidden agenda. Even the environment in which the story is newly told affects how it looks and sounds.
Layers, in other words. Context. Maybe even subcontext. The kinds of things that make a surf historian's eyes go heavy-lidded with vocational pleasure. So it was a good day when I sat down with the recent "45 Years of Legend and Lore" issue of SURFER and found an article on the 1974 Smirnoff Pro-Am—a rich and wedgy chunk of a surf contest double-dipped in the salty blue fondue of surf history.
A brief Smirnoff recap.
Waimea Bay, Thanksgiving morning 1974, massive northwest swell, light offshore winds. Prelim heats had been held a week earlier, at Sunset Beach. Eighteen competitors still in the contest; three semi-main heats and a six-man final left to run. At 10:40 in the morning, as surfers in the first heat were lacing up their nylon Smirnoff Pro-Am jerseys, an unholy 40-foot closeout set swept through the bay, and the event was postponed. An hour passed. Some huge waves, but no more closeouts. Time for a decision: send the first heat out or shut it down for the day. Event director Fred Hemmings—1968 world champ and proudly buttoned-down Surf Establishment hardass—badly wanted to put it in gear but kept quiet as he walked over to the group of still-doubtful contestants, strategizing on the way, then announcing to the surfers that he'd paddle out and ride one first, to prove it could be done, at which point the pros were more or less shamed into proceeding.
The competition was spectacular, and that afternoon Reno Abellira edged Jeff Hakman by a half-point to win the final.
Reportage is often called the "history's first draft" and Abellira himself did a fantastic job with the contest write-up for SURFER. "It Leaves You Breathless," the famous Smirnoff slogan put to use as article title, has a leisurely prelude filled with vintage mid-'70s North Shore period detail (string bikinis, puka shell collectors, Dick Brewer guns priced at an outrageously high $300), then shifts gears as Abellira, along with friend and co-competitor Jimmy Lucas, arrives at the Waimea staging area on contest morning. "Hemmings is pacing back and forth along the dewy grass behind the lifeguard tower," Abellira writes, "[and] we amble up to say good morning. No one says much as all eyes are fixed on the waves. It's big all right, big and mean." Abellira and Lucas watch a few sets. Then, "I tap Jimmyís shoulder, and we split back to my place for a granola fix, and to pull our boards out from under the house."
The article then moves stage by stage closer to the action—beach, channel, lineup, set wave—then finally goes inside one of those huge Waimea beasts, as Abellira bobbles a takeoff, suffers a two-wave hold-down, claws back to the surface and gets a mouthful of sea-foam for his trouble.
"Breathless" checks in at about 4,000 words—long for the era—and Abellira did his best to bring the same meticulous and exacting standard to his writing that he did to his trademark S-turn fade. But I think there's more at play here (subcontext! yes!) than simple attention to craft. In the mid-1970s, with no WCT rating points at stake, or any serious prize money, position among the top surfers had a lot to do with style and panache. Abellira swooped to a big win at Waimea in the Smirnoff, which on the coolness spectrometer put him just this side of Lopez. What better way to consolidate than with a nice long, suave article in surfingís best-known magazine? Abellira is no Red Smith, but he knows how to set a lead character apart from the crowd. It's the other guys pinned to the beachpark that morning at Waimea, tight-faced and waiting for the next closeout set. Reno? Cruising home for a granola fix, leaving nothing behind but a faint whiff of Eau de Style.
Pioneering big-wave soulman Kimo Hollinger came to bury the Smirnoff, not praise it, and he did so just six months after the event took place. In his SURFER-published essay, "An Alternative Viewpoint," Hollinger says the idea of holding an event at Waimea—complete with bullhorns, helicopters, judging stands, plastic bunting, and old-school macks like Jose Angel ordered from the lineup—was offensive to the point of blasphemy. Same for the rest of the North Shore pro contests. "A surfer trains his whole life to ride these waves," Hollinger wrote. "It is all he asks of life. Who the hell is Smirnoff or Hang Ten or the Duke or anyone else to tell him he can't?"
Here we see a momentum-gathering bit of history being neatly jujitsued and flipped on its head. The Smirnoff wasn't a grand surfing milestone, in Hollinger's view, but a travesty; competition wasn't a surfing ally, but an enemy. Kimo wasn't the first to make the point, but his voice was by far the most elegant. Would the contests go away? Not a chance. Would Hollinger-like surfers continue to have an influence on surfing? Not much, but some. Jim Banks, Dave Rastovich—even Laird Hamilton if you stretch it out a bit—not to mention the silent majority of surfers around the world who have simply chosen to ignore competition altogether.
Smirnoff finalist James Jones had nothing so lofty in mind as the corruption of surfing's soul when he wrote about the contest in 1985. He just wanted the world to know, in no uncertain terms, where he stood in the big-wave pantheon. "I figured I was the best," Jones states about halfway through a plain-spoken SURFER essay called "Thanksgiving Day '74 Revisited." And in case we missed it, he reiterates a few paragraphs later, saying "I had reached the top of the ladder." The question here is: how do we choose to remember a really talented and accomplished but sort of unlikable figure? What happens to that person's place in surf history? Jones probably was the most progressive big-wave rider of the 1970s, with a bottom turn that could cut gems and peerless switchfoot skills, plus courage and ambition enough to become Waimea's first tuberider. Bad luck that he peaked in a decade when high-end big-wave riding had fallen so out of favor—the '74 Smirnoff contest and Jones' tuberiding breakthrough two years later were the only two newsworthy Waimea events of the 1970s—but then it's not like the surf press turned a blind eye: he got the interviews and cover shots, a poster or two, and accolades aplenty for his '72 and '76 Duke victories. Yet over the years, Jones has often come off as ungracious or petulant ("I had caught the biggest wave ever attempted," he claimed—falsely—in his Smirnoff piece, "but nobody cared"), and his reputation has suffered. History is written by winners, as the adage goes. But Jones is a lesson in what can happen to a dissatisfied winner, as he complained his way to a place in surf history that is actually smaller than he deserves.
In 1986, 12 years after the big Smirnoff event at Waimea, Quiksilver USA made surf history of a different kind by becoming the sport's first publicly traded company. Quiksilver's rise to universal surf-industry domination, before and after its NYSE launch, has been masterful. Continents have been spanned. New markets identified, targeted and conquered. The surfing timeline itself has to some degree been routed through Quiksilver territory: their King of the Groms contest series and Young Guns videos look to the future, while the Quiksilver Masters event and the company-backed Mr. Sunset: the Jeff Hakman Story biography are respectful bows to the sport's forbears.
But hold on. Why would a hip and still-expanding surf company be interested in the past? Because history equals authenticity. It adds weight and ballast. Surfing still has a nouveau riche unease with its newly-elevated place in the cultural hierarchy, an uncertainty not so much about its legitimacy but about the appearance of legitimacy, and history lends a bit of gravitas. History can itself be a commodity, in fact, like a championship-winning team rider or a good in-house ad design team, and while Quiksilver-branded surfers and events have already produced an enormous amount of surf history over the past 30 years, it doesn't hurt to add a bit more.
This is why it was probably inevitable that Quiksilver would sooner or later brush up against the 1974 Smirnoff contest. But it took a while. In 1984, two years months before Quiksilver went public, the company sponsored a surf contest in honor of Hawaii's Eddie Aikau, the celebrated big-wave master and Waimea lifeguard who died in a boating accident in 1978. The first "Eddie" was held in middling double-overhead waves at Sunset, and was immediately forgotten. Quiksilver then smartly repositioned the contest as the first "big-wave specialty" event, moved it to its permanent home at Waimea, and the 1986 version, with Eddie's younger brother Clyde hitting the surfing sentimental high note of all time by placing first—riding Eddie's old board, no less—was a hit.
Contest rules stated that surf for the Eddie had to be 20' or bigger, and clean, and conditions for the next three years didn't meet the standard. Big-wave riding was meanwhile resurrected as the sport's highest, noblest calling, the way it had been in the late 1950s and '60s. The promotional opportunity here didn't go unnoticed, and in 1990 Quiksilver raised the Eddie's first-place prizemoney from $5,000 to $55,000—the biggest-ever surf contest award up to that point. The company also gave the event a punchy four-syllable slogan: Eddie Would Go.
Back to the slogan in a moment. First I have to rethink what I just said about James Jones being the kingpin of 1970s big-wave surfing, because Eddie Aikau, natural-born manchild Waimea phenomenon when he made his Bay debut in '66, had Jones' measure in the '70s. Not as a technician maybe, but absolutely on style points. Aikau pushing over the Waimea cornice in that bowlegged high-noon gunslinger stance, black hair waving behind those broad deep-brown shoulders—surfing doesn't get any cooler. Sport doesn't get any cooler. And Quiksilver was about to ride Eddie Aikau's legend as smoothly as Aikau rode Waimea. Eddie Would Go. Eddie would charge when it was 20, 25, 30 feet. A perfect big-wave epigram—an invitation and challenge to the Quiksilver-Eddie competitors (all of whom would go as well) that quickly became a winking bit of surf-world secret code. We know who Eddie is, and what he would go on. You guys, you non-surfers, do not. White-on-black "Eddie Would Go" bumper stickers were distributed by the tens of thousands and turned up on cars from Honolulu to LA to New York to London to Hong Kong. Knock-off stickers are still available online for three bucks plus shipping. The contest itself— formally and awkwardly known as the Quicksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational—became the surf world's most prestigious surfing event, which in turn bumped up demand for the stickers.
And from there it's just a short jump to Eddie Would Go, the Aikau biography; Eddie Would Go, the theatrical production; and Eddie Would Go, the Melbourne punk band. The slogan outgrew the contest, and probably even Eddie himself. It's definitely outgrown history. That's my take, at least, after reading "Because Eddie Said So," the latest article on the 1974 Smirnoff, published in SURFER's 2005 "Legends and Lore" issue.
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Here's how it went down the morning of the '74 Smirnoff, according to SURFER: Waimea Bay, horrifying closeout set, event postponed, nervous gaggle of pros wondering what's going to happen next. So far, so good. But now things take a turn. Event director Fred Hemmings gathers the contestants together and says they're going to do this democratically. He put a question to the group: "Who's ready to go?"
Nothing. Silence. A few low-hung heads.
"Then," SURFER tells us, "everyone turned to Eddie Aikau, the de facto spiritual leader of the group. Eddie was the first to mutter any words when he said, 'I'll go.' The rest is history."
So there it is. The beginning. Eddie would go. He said it. When SURFER claims that ours is a culture of storytellers, not historians, I think what they mean is that their version of an event like the Smirnoff is better than what you'd hear from some beetle-browed, back-sore historian. Maybe they're right.
But I'll offer a small corrective nonetheless.
Eddie Aikau was a gentle monster of big-wave surfing, a Waimea emperor, a straight-up full-blooded surfing immortal. Highest honors. What he wasn't, on Thanksgiving Day, 1974, was a contestant in the Smirnoff Pro-Am. Aikau bombed out in the prelims a week earlier, in sideshore eight-footers at Sunset Beach. Eddie would go. Hell yes he would. But credit where credit is due. "Eddie Would Go" came straight from Quiksilver's corporate headquarters, in Costa Mesa, not Eddie Aikau standing on the beach at Waimea.
The rest is marketing.
[Photos: Jeff Divine, Drew Kampion]