Two years ago I was doing a magazine piece about the surf culture of Hawaii's North Shore. A model named Cindy Crawford had already had her picture taken with the local boys in a Woody van, and somebody had to explain to New York what a wave was. The last surfer I talked with was the most famous of them all, and by far the oldest: George Downing. Downing, then 60, had won every major surf contest in his day. He had been world champion two times. In fact, it was a photograph taken in the late '40s of Downing (with Buzzy Trent and Woody Brown) cascading down a 20-foot roller in his--insane! controlled! casual!--style that brought California surfers, agog, to the islands long before there ever were big-ticket surf contests. And Downing's roots went back even further. He was a fourth-generation white Hawaiian who had been tutored by the legendary watermen: Steamboat Mokuahi, Brownie Barnes and Duke Kahanamoku himself, Olympic star of wave and screen, the man who introduced surfing to California and Australia in the early years of the century.
Standing in Downing's custom surfboard shop and Get Wet! fashion factory in downtown Honolulu, I expected him to be the Clint Eastwood of watermen. For days, Point Break kids young enough to be Downing's grandchildren had been waxing my ears with stories of awesome wipeouts beneath mountains of foam, flaunting their near-death experiences. I asked Downing, who looks more like an anthropology professor than a surf legend, if he had ever himself come close to drowning .
"Oh," said Downing, rolling his hands, "I just know what I can't do, and I don't do it."
That put everybody else into perspective.
"Surfing's simple," he said. "It's a matter of balance."
I wanted to ask him if he was kidding, but he stared me down with a smile--half beach-innocent, half street-tough.
"Come back to Honolulu some time," he added. "I'll teach you how to surf."
WAIKIKI, SPRING 1993, HIGH NOON. IT IS HOT. JAPANESE GIRLS IN BIKINIS flounce into tourist outriggers. New York guys are dumbstruck--by warm water. There are 10,000 wet or sweating people, all within a few sea-kayak strokes of each other. Downing and I walk to the surf. Behind us is the 10-foot municipal statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the patron saint of Waikiki.
Downing's buddies, the last of the original professional beachboys of Honolulu, look me over from behind their blackout sunglasses. They have names like Captain Bob and J. R. They also have potbellies below their still-considerable biceps. They are cordial and menacing at the same time. They grant me respect because I am with Downing. But Downing, since I saw him last, has become a reluctant celebrity.
"I don't want to be on the cover of some magazine. My life is not important. I will talk to you first in the context of saving Waikiki. Then maybe we can surf some."
I nod--I just want to experience an afternoon of simple self-indulgence. I've never been on a surfboard in my life, and learning to surf with Downing promises to be like driving onto the Indianapolis Speedway with Emerson Fittipaldi in the passenger seat, or taking a screen test with Paul Newman coaching lines. But Downing wants to save the oceans.
What he is worried about--outraged by, actually--are five acres of artificial reefs that have been installed in Mamala Bay, about a mile off Waikiki Beach, by a company called Atlantis Submarines. The reefs are composed of an abandoned Navy ship, several airplanes and a steel structure of staggered platforms. This engaging flotsam--baited initially with dry dog food--serves to attract colorful reef fish that can be viewed by tourists who pay nearly $80 each for a submerged drive-by. Though Waikiki enjoys several dozen high-rise hotels ("concrete trees," Downing calls them) and millions of tourists, its waters are not so good at producing coral, and coral is what usually attracts reef fish.
The problem, as Downing sees it, is that where reef fish go, their predators are sure to follow. And those fish, in turn, may lure sharks, some harmless enough, but others not so harmless, such as tiger sharks. Within the last two years, there have been two confirmed tiger shark-bite fatalities--a swimmer near Olowalu, Maui, and a bodyboarder off Oahu's Keaau Beach Park--and another presumed killed when a bodyboarder disappeared off the North Shore. In response, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources organized the Shark Task Force to capture and kill large tiger sharks and keep track of their numbers. Nobody has yet seen a tiger off Waikiki, and no bathers or surfers have been bitten there, but much of Oahu is nervous, especially Downing and the venerable local environmental organization Save Our Surf.
"Waikiki is justly famous as the most peaceful ocean setting on earth," says Downing. "What if some Japanese tourist were to be attacked by a shark? A little $50-million-a-year business like Atlantis Submarines could bring about the downfall of a $5-billion business, the hotels and tourist industry of Honolulu."
And all I want to do is learn to surf.
J. R. brings over the board I will be using, a knockoff of one that Downing designed 30 years before, and plants it deep in the sand. It's a classic axe, easy to learn on, long and thick enough to float an elephant in a riptide, let alone me.
"J. R., I think Steve is going to be a friend of ours," says Downing. "If not, well, he won't show his face on this beach again. Remember what happened to Captain Cook." (I recall that Cook was bashed to death by locals on a nearby island after his welcome wore out.)
"George," I say, "I went out on the submarine ride this morning to see if there were any sharks, and there was one. I've got to be fair."
"Screw fairness!" Downing shouts, then he smiles. "In life there is no purgatory. There is heaven and there is hell. Nothing in between. You be fair in whatever you write, but you lean a little bit, to our side. Remember Captain Cook."
J. R. smiles like Mr. Schmee. And all I want to do is surf.
"Surfing!" snaps Downing. "Catching a wave is like--anybody can do it. But riding a wave, that's like making love. You caress the wave. Take its pulse. Learn its personality."
I guess the lesson has begun. But no, Downing leans against the big upright board.
"There was this girl in the old days--she was beautiful--and she would tattoo your name on the inside of her thigh if she enjoyed making love to you, like 'George Was Here.' Her thighs had all these stenciled notes." He laughs. "And she would shout out of the window of the bus as she passed down Kalakaua Avenue, 'George, you're the best! He's the best! Everybody! It's George!' And I'd be so embarrassed; I was just a kid. She wasn't no whore, she was just cool."
Downing stares hard at me in the glaring sun.
"These artificial reefs are a direct threat to my way of life, you understand. I don't take kindly to that. I'm a metaphor."
A metaphor. The man is calling himself a metaphor, and we haven't even gotten wet yet.
"OK," says Downing. "Surfing. It's simple."
He sets the big board down on the sand, lies along the length of it and tells me that the proper form is to scoot up six inches from the end. When I stand up, my hands shouldn't be placed too far in front of my shoulders or too far behind. As he stands to demonstrate, a small crowd gathers. Myself, I feel a little out of place. I feel like a bald, pasty, middle-aged haole with a paunch. I get the feeling Downing never feels out of place here. Of course, Waikiki is his living room.
"Keep it simple," he says. "That's the point."
"Casual," says Downing, who is the King of Casual.
TERRY O'HALLORAN, THE SPOKESMAN FOR ATLANTIS SUBMARINES, DOES not view Downing casually.
"What do you think of George Downing's opposition to your artificial reefs?" I ask him.
"George is one of the grand masters of surfing in Hawaii and deserves a lot of credit for that."
"But what do you think of him?"
"I just told you."
O'Halloran sighs, and I feel sorry for him. Downing is to Hawaii what Jack Nicholson is to Hollywood. How do you fight a folk legend? The last time Downing testified before a committee of state legislators against underwater fish-feeding and artificial reefs in general, he read a poem that he had composed the night before, in English and Hawaiian. Television stations covered his testimony.
"Obviously, we have a different opinion from Downing," says O'Halloran. "We term artificial reefs 'reef enhancement.' In the past, pesticides and other pollutants were allowed to essentially kill the environment off Waikiki. Our reefs bring back marine life. Already coral five to six inches high is growing on our sunken ship. The ocean is now claiming these structures. We feel that is desirable. We are an example of eco-tourism. Our submarines are electric and non-polluting. You can't throw trash out the portholes. We educate our passengers that this is a special marine environment that needs a lot of protection."
Atlantis has 200 employees and carries 225,000 passengers a year. The basic rate is $79 a head. Schoolchildren pay $18, Hawaiian residents, $48. Aquatic tourism, as it is called, is growing at time when Oahu's hotel occupancy is falling. Save Our Surf would like the reefs to be moved far from Waikiki, but their location so close to the hotels is what makes the operation easily profitable.
O'Halloran believes "an atmosphere of fear" exists because of the tiger shark attacks off the North Shore and Maui. "This is a long way from us. The task force has caught some 50 tigers off the North Shore, but none near our reefs. The nets off Waikiki give no evidence there are tigers here, which is not to say we don't have sharks in these waters. But it is not as if the reefs attracted them."
O'Halloran says the company voluntarily stopped luring the fish with dog food at the request of the Department of Land and Natural Resources late last year. He stresses: "From January to now, we've seen sharks only 25% of the time. The most common type is a whitetip reef or blacktip shark. We've never seen a tiger shark out there."
On the short catamaran ride from the dock in front of the Hilton to the white Atlantis submarine over the artificial reefs, I read a company brochure: "Climb aboard and you're set for a once-in-a-lifetime journey through Hawaii's natural undersea world. Come face to face with puhi , Hawaii's feared moray eels. See why humuhumunukunukuapua'a , is nicknamed the 'Picasso fish.' Witness the docile behavior of manta rays and the circling nature of the awesome shark!"
All the 60 or so passengers are Japanese, except for me. We are shown to our seats by smiling guides in white uniforms. The slow descent is strangely thrilling. The air is pressurized; there are no bumps or ah-oo-gahs, and finally we are smoothing along the sandy bottom like a squid.
A blacktip shark soon fins over to the porthole. His name, says the guide, is Nigel. Nigel is about five feet long, not the sort of guest you would invite over for crab cocktails but a critter I have swum within yards of several times while scuba diving off neighboring islands.
Downing cites evidence that blacktips are responsible for many shark bites off Florida, while the Atlantis guide assures me that Nigel and his pals are harmless. Save Our Surf reported that at a Shark Task Force meeting last year, oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau stated that creating a situation that attracts large numbers of fish and their predators close to shore was a disaster waiting to happen.
FINALLY, WE'VE GOTTEN OFF THE BEACH AND INTO THE WATER, DOWNING and I, and we are conducting a sort of mid-ocean interview. No "awesome sharks" beneath our surfboards at the moment. The waves are about six feet. This piece of ocean--called Queen's break, a quarter-mile out from Waikiki's midpoint--is like an exclusive blue country club. There are only a few surfers here, and some of them seem recognizable from ABC's "Wide World of Sports." All look highly competent, with one exception.
They wave to Downing from their boards. A Hawaiian woman in her early 30s paddles close. "What is this, George? Legends' day at Queen's?"
Downing nods, then barks commands at me: "Turn around! Don't try to stand up. I'll push you. Go!"
There is no time to be afraid. I'm lying on the board, rocketing along like a freight-train that's jumped the tracks. But speed creates its own stability. I want to die. From the corner of my eye, I can see the woman. She is carving the face of the wave with her much smaller modern board, climbing the foam, pirouetting, whapping the nose first right then left. She drives right over to me, and over the roar of the curl she says: "Good." Then she disappears like a dolphin.
It takes me minutes to paddle back out to Downing.
"What did you do wrong?" he asks.
"I got scared?"
"No. You did great. But what don't you do on the freeway?"
I ponder the question.
"You don't drive the wrong way. Paddling back, you went through the surf line, the other surfers who are waiting for their waves. That's not good. That makes some people mad."
In other words, if I hadn't been with Downing when I did what I just did at Queen's break, definitely a locals-only kind of place, I would have been pummeled to mango meat.
"What a day!" says Downing, to take the edge off. "I learned everything I know here. I owe everything to this beach."
When he was 14, after his family broke up, George used to sleep under the palms in front of the Duke statue. He was a street kid on the most beautiful street in the world, Waikiki.
Of course, he says, he was a good kid, polite to everybody: beachcombers, whores and millionaires. A famous waterman--which in old Honolulu meant a professional beachboy who could paddle, surf, fish, play the ukulele and romance the tourists with equal "casual"--took George under his wing. This was Steamboat Mokuahi. Steamboat had a friendly fishing rivalry going with Judge James Steiner. Judge Steiner owned three mansions where the 45-story Hyatt Waikiki now stands, cutting off our view of the soaring razor mountains behind. But Steiner was not as accomplished an angler as Steamboat. He couldn't cast his line as far. One day, the judge took George aside and said: "George, maybe you could figure out a way to get my line out farther than Steamboat's."
So, every day about sunset, when Steiner and Steamboat fished, George just happened to take out his board. When he walked by the judge, he would pick up the hook between his toes and tow the line out as he paddled to Queen's. The judge suddenly started to catch more bonefish than Steamboat.
One day, Uncle Benny, a cabby who ran all the professional girls on this part of the beach, took George aside.
"You know, for some reason, Judge Steiner likes you. You should ask him to let you sleep in one of his houses."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, George, every night you're sleeping on the beach. Across the street, the judge owns three houses. Ask him."
George did. The judge said: "Sure, George, but you keep my lawns in order."
So now George is sleeping in the basement of a mansion on Waikiki. He has to keep his buddies off the lawn, but no coconuts are falling on his head, and Judge Steiner is a good man to know, for a 14-year-old street kid in Honolulu.
George is learning. Everything. But surfing first. One afternoon he shows up late for his ukulele lesson with Brownie Barnes and the other beachboys. Brownie takes him aside, and George thinks he's in for it. But Brownie says: "George, the boys and I have decided that you will be our world champion."
George is speechless.
"Come here," says Brownie, who takes the youngster to his beach "locker," the public racks where even today rows of humongous classic surfboards stand, and hands George his own competition redwood board. George has never owned a board worth more than $5 and it took him weeks to pay for that one.
George is close to tears now. But in 1954, and again in 1955, he does become the world surfing champion.
"THESE PEOPLE, THE ARTIFICIAL REEF PEOPLE," SAYS DOWNING, SITTING cross-legged on his board as the waves rumble under us, "they do what they do for money, not for the ocean, not for the people. They have no aloha."
In Downing's mouth, the word aloha is not just the name of an airline. Aloha, to him, is the kindness of strangers who helped out a homeless street kid long ago. Aloha is what Honolulu is or was or should be all about. Aloha is love, and if you don't get that, get off da beach, haole!
"It's like this," says Downing, all the while cocking an eye for the next good wave. "The people who work in these hotels"--he sweeps a hand across the skyscraper run of Waikiki, between Diamond Head and the airport--"they don't make much money. They used to live on the beach. Now they live in housing projects an hour's drive from town, in traffic. And you want to take away their ocean?" Downing's smile ends, and instantly. "The old people who grew up here will be sad. The young people will see them grieving. They will become bitter, and this is not a good situation."
Downing shrugs and doesn't bring up one current consequence of such bitterness: the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which is starting to burn like cane fire, shore side. Ethnic Hawaiians are talking of taking back the nation that the haoles stole from Queen Lili'uokalani in 1895. Revolution or restitution.
"You know," Downing says, "when a wave hits the shore, it doesn't stop. The energy of that wave keeps going all the way through the island, through the ocean on the other side, around the world, until a new wave is formed from the old. Don't mess . . . ."--he grabs the nose of my board, which was pointing out to sea, and turns it around, interrupting himself. "Take this wave; it's a good one. Stand up. Remember what I told you. Don't think!" I paddle like a madman, and Downing shouts after me: "Don't mess with the aloha!"
I manage to scramble to my feet, adopting an inelegant forward lean. It's like perching on a heavy-load washing machine with the lid open, but I soon notice that Captain Bob is riding alongside, holding a camera in one hand and, for balance, occasionally poking a broken canoe paddle into the swell with the other. While I wobble for dear life, Captain Bob snaps clear picture after clear picture.
SO I GOT TO BE A WAVE RIDER. WHEN ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS LEARN TO surf. I don't know if the luminaries on the waves at Queen's were a setup; perhaps Downing asked them to drop by. I wonder about it. He made sure I had the time of my life and got the pictures to prove it.
After our last wave, we walked down Waikiki to the New Otani Hotel, where moneyed locals hang out because it has the best sunset. And on the beach outside, we just happened to run into Rick Bernstein, the 6-foot-3 swimmer who started the whole concern about the new reefs. Bernstein is a hatha yoga teacher who swims a mile along Waikiki every day. One day he got to thinking, stroking along offshore where the water is very deep and very blue, that he didn't like worrying while he swam that a shark might get him, a shark attracted to Waikiki by artificial reefs for tourists. Back on shore, he called Downing: "George, we got a problem with Waikiki."
Downing said: "I'll be right over."
And over drinks at the Otani, we ran into Whitney Anderson, a now-retired state representative who knew of Downing's push for two bills in the Legislature to ban artificial reefs and the feeding of fish by dive-tour operators. (The bills were tabled, but a resolution was passed calling for a two-year moratorium on building artificial reefs off Waikiki and for a study on the reefs and how they relate to attracting sharks.)
Perhaps what we're talking about here is a paradox. Old beachboys like Downing leave nothing to chance, because they believe so strongly in coincidence. Coincidence has taken them off the beach, made them rich, made them famous. The wave hits the shore, travels around the world and becomes the wave again.
"I hate competition," says Downing when he drops me off at the airport. "I hate to see anyone lose, in love, in business, in sport. On the other hand, I know a thing or two about winning."
I wonder how long there will be artificial reefs off Waikiki.