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A Graying Surfer’s Love Affair

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

So where does he go, this big-wave pioneer, when his hair thins out and his scalp turns pink in the hot sun; this demigod of Waimea and the Pipeline, when the salt air pits the brass of his surfing trophies; this golden North Shore lad of 35 winters ago, now that youngsters forget his name and jeer him when he paddles out?

Where? Well, remember, his mother told him you can only ride the waves so far.

He is introduced as Rick, which registers nothing. He climbs into a pug-faced, spherical one-person research submarine resting on its shipboard launch pad. Sweat drips off his nose and fogs his eyeglasses as he fingers switches according to the cockpit checklist. Finally, technicians bolt the hatch, and a crane swings the capsule over the stern. Man and machine splash into the sea and disappear into the deep channel off Maui. Only then someone remarks that Rick, the PhD with a wattle throat, used to be Ricky.

If you were young and lived on the West Coast back during the birth of the surf culture, the name Ricky Grigg goes off like a grenade in the memory. Ricky Grigg, first on the outer break at Hawaii’s Pipeline, his arms shooting skyward like a dancer’s. Ricky Grigg, the gladiator with his scythe-like bottom turns at Waimea Bay as 30 feet of water, cratered and wind-blown, gathers ominously over his head. Ricky Grigg at Oahu’s Sunset Beach, tucked down and shooting out of a closing wave like a cannonball.

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Then, Feb. 1, 1967, with Sunset breaking 18 feet and hollow, Grigg, the smiling 29-year-old in the Aloha shirt, accepts a handshake and a tribute from surfing’s eminence, Duke Kahanamoku. Ten breathtaking rides that day won Grigg first place at the Duke Invitational. No prize money back then. Big waves were ridden for glory alone, and Ricky Grigg’s glory that day was to be champion of all.

“Ricky,” The Duke said, “you really understand the ocean.”

Where does the graying surfer go? Rick Grigg, 63, traveled barely a mile. From the moody surface to the tranquillity deep below.

That’s the distance of a life absorbed in the sea.

Discovered That Hawaii Is Drowning

Richard W. Grigg discovered that Hawaii is drowning. The Earth is eating its own.

Just off the Big Island of Hawaii, a hot spot in the planet’s crust leaks molten rock. As the great Pacific lithospheric plate moves across this deep-sea volcanic vent at a rate of 4 inches a year, lumps of belching lava grow into mountains and rise up from the sea floor. Eventually, they break the surface and become islands. A new one is being created right now. It’s 12,500 feet tall and has been named Loihi. But the summit is still 3,000 feet down and will not emerge from the water for perhaps 50,000 years, give or take.

And the other end of the Hawaiian chain? The islands are subsiding back into the water, their reefs dead, their summits crumbling away. In time, they vanish, driven back down into the molten core of the Earth as the Pacific plate grinds underneath the continent of Asia.

Grigg mounted a five-year expedition in the 1970s to study the 4,000-mile chain. Using ships and airplanes and submersibles and teams of researchers, he helped piece together our understanding of this colossal conveyor belt that produces and then destroys the mountains of the mid-Pacific; he listened to his mother.

“The ocean is the medium of my life. Has been since I was born,” he says.

It is a place to play and study, an urge and a passion, mind and matter. He speaks not from a single frame of reference, but usually two. He wanted to surf; Mom wanted him in college. “Duality” is a word he frequently uses.

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In the morning, he sits at his laboratory desk and clicks his computer for the surf report; in the afternoon he dances over the waves off Diamond Head on his windsurfer and ruminates about his research dives to 3,000 feet, where beds of precious corals grow like gemstones. At his house overlooking the sea on the outskirts of Honolulu, his Duke Invitational trophy is displayed near a dried tree of gold coral--a species he discovered. In his lab, he counts the annual rings in slabs of reef corals to decipher the life history of the islands. At home, 14 surfboards hang from patio rafters, his own life history.

“Surfing started me on an endless pursuit of knowledge about the sea. It builds on itself. The more you know, the more questions you can ask.”

Surfers call the elders among themselves watermen. There is no higher tribute. On the campus of the University of Hawaii, Richard Grigg has the title, professor of oceanography. For the waterman, there is nothing so exalted.

Became a Popularizer of the Sea

When Jacques Cousteau faded from the public eye in the 1980s, the sea was left without a popularizer.

These days few people from the ocean realm, explorers and surfers alike, are much known except by their own. Bob Ballard has something of a following. He is the treasure hunter and leader of the expedition that found the Titanic at 12,460 feet in the Atlantic. Underwater adventurer Sylvia Earle, “her deepness,” is included on lists of notable conservationists. Sometimes surfing champions gain a foothold on celebrity too, but usually only in coastal communities.

Missing, though, are those who can express a unified view of the sea--the Carl Sagans of the water part of our planet. If you tell someone you are studying the ocean, or writing about the ocean, they invariably reply, “What part of the ocean?” It seems we overlook the example of the ocean itself, where a tendril of spray whipped aloft by a typhoon off Okinawa becomes a droplet in a jet-stream cloud that falls on a vineyard in Bordeaux to lodge in a grape. Later, when it is squeezed and put in a bottle and passes through you, it’s homing instinct will carry it back to the sea.

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To illustrate, Grigg grabs a pad of paper. That’s how he talks, with a pencil. He begins: Suppose you are rejected by someone you love. He draws a dot for the person you love. Then he puts a circle around it to symbolize the barrier that keeps you away. Then another dot outside the circle. That is you. Love is a handy analogy because Grigg views his relationship with the ocean as one long affair. Then he explains his drawing by borrowing from an Edwin Markham poem, because Grigg also talks in poems:

She drew a circle that shut me out/Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had wit to win/We drew a circle that took her in.

Grigg draws a larger circle, big enough to encompass both dots. There. He grins. You’re no longer outside. Keep drawing circles and take more in. Ride the surf. Then draw the circle out 5,000 miles to learn how waves are born in the winds of storms and travel across the fetch of the sea. Lose your footing and feel a big wave smash you against the jagged coral on the bottom. Draw the circle big enough to ponder the life of the reef. Draw it bigger and take in 70 million years of reef building and reef dying. Draw it large enough to carry you beyond the reefs, down into the eternal darkness of the greater part of the planet.

Do this for a half-century. This is the enlightenment professor Grigg teaches. The universe of the ocean.

“I remember once in the 1970s. In the morning, I was aboard ship and we were doing submersible dives to 1,200 feet. In the afternoon, I raced home and grabbed my board. It was Sunset Beach. I was looking behind me as the waves were coming in. I was looking down, thinking about a quarter-mile below. It was a connected world, one to the other. I could feel the depth of the ocean. I could feel its power.

“The physical and the cerebral joined. Without having to contend with anything but the natural world, I was contained within it.”

One must draw very large circles to comprehend the ocean. To do less is to misunderstand our place in the scheme.

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“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth,” said the writer Arthur C. Clarke, “when clearly it is Ocean.”

*

Ricky Grigg grew up in Mary Pickford’s old house on the Santa Monica boardwalk. His parents had divorced; his grandfather grubstaked Ricky and his mother $7,000 for the run-down mansion. Muscle Beach was his frontyard, the Pacific Ocean the neighborhood. The postwar American dream of carefree pleasures swirled contagiously around him. He was skinny and freckled and waterlogged. The lifeguards called him a seal, and he became their mascot.

He would run down the beach with an open pillow case, filling it with air and jumping into the shore break, riding the air pillow like a surf mat. In 1948, he was one of the first to have a surfboard shorter than nine feet. The man who shaped it from solid balsa called the 11-year-old “a wild and happy kid.” Grigg explored the breakwater and, with a pair of goggles, dove for lobsters, which he sold on the boardwalk. He could hold his breath three minutes. He won the first Catalina-to-Manhattan Beach paddleboard race. He spent the summer at Waikiki when he was 16, returning to surf Malibu with hot-dog moves never seen in California. He carved the waves with the likes of Buzzy Trent, Dewey Weber, Mickey Dora and Lance Carson--Founding Fathers of the surf culture.

The future blew in and announced itself on Jan. 10, 1953. A storm hurled monster waves against the Southern California coast. Surfers grabbed their telephones. Where were waves this big rideable? Answer: Up toward Santa Barbara at a place called Rincon. Woodies and pickup trucks and convertibles caravaned up Highway 1 full of surfboards, teenage adrenaline and white knuckles. The Malibu boys had never seen anything like these 20-foot thunder-boomers peeling off the point. It scared Grigg silly. But he looked around in the water and saw he wasn’t as scared as everyone else, and it gave him confidence. Oh, how he ripped that day.

“It was like discovering your destiny,” he says. Eventually the experience would draw him to Hawaii, beyond Waikiki to the barely explored North Shore of Oahu where the winter surf broke bigger still.

Of course there was duality to contend with. His mother had not raised a beach bum. And her guidance would send him to Stanford for a degree in biology, then on to the University of Hawaii for a master’s, and eventually to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego for his doctorate.

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For a decade, he would be featured as a star in the surf magazines. In 1968, he was ranked the No. 1 big wave rider in the world. Life magazine did a spread on him. On the cover of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine in March 1969, he was portrayed as a bespectacled Clark Kent who at Scripps devised a scientific method for predicting surf from weather maps, a theory he would later confirm by changing costume and paddling out to ride these waves just as they arrived.

He starred in the film “Surfari.” He was hired to teach actress Yvette Mimieux to surf for a TV episode, except he couldn’t teach Hollywood that a surfer needs a more substantial bikini top in a wipeout. In Tahiti, he crewed on the famed sailing schooner Wanderer, until he got drunk and was booted off for disrupting the sleep of the captain, actor Sterling Hayden. With astronaut Scott Carpenter, he spent a year on a Navy diving team. The training culminated with an experiment that put Grigg and other aquanauts in an inner-space station 205 feet deep for six weeks off La Jolla to see how humans survived under crushing pressure.

Drawn to beautiful women because of their power--he is honest about it--he married three times, and is a father and grandfather.

“The keyword at the center of this is freedom,” he says now, sipping beer on the patio of his hillside Honolulu home, with Koko Head visible to the east, Diamond Head to the west and 3,000 miles of purple-blue Pacific in front. He wears swim trunks, exposing legs that are a fraction short, built for balance. “Not total freedom. Because we need security; we need to bond and love and to be loved. But the undoing of most men is the lack to dare.”

Colored Coral Lured Him Into the Deep

Polished, it looks like stone; underwater it appears to be a plant; close-up it is revealed as a colony of animals--precious coral has gripped the human imagination for centuries. Paleolithic man gathered pieces cast upon the beach by storms and shaped them into adornment. Ancient Greeks attributed the tint of red coral to the blood of Medusa.

Today, the red, pink, ruby, black and gold corals are the forestry of the sea, still sought for jewelry and carvings. They lured Rick Grigg into the deep, just as waves enticed him to the water. He has studied them for 40 years and ranks among the world’s experts.

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Unlike the slow-growing bedrock corals of tropical reefs, precious corals create forests of shrubby, fan-like “trees,” actually colonies of polyps, that cling to the rock bottom and grow up to 2 1/2 inches a year. In Hawaii, black coral trees begin at depths of 160-200 feet, beyond the reach of recreational scuba divers. Others live in the eternal darkness five times deeper.

Coral jewelry carries a stigma in some consumer circles. Indiscriminate bottom dragging with nets has ravaged too much of the sea floor.

It need not be this way. Since 1958, Hawaiian scuba divers have harvested black coral selectively, tree by tree. For a while, Grigg dove commercially for coral; his research forms the basis of Hawaii’s harvest quotas; his wife, Maria, works in the showroom of a coral jewelry manufacturer.

More recently, Grigg has given encouragement to a Honolulu company experimenting with advanced submersibles to harvest red corals and the strangely lustrous gold coral that Grigg discovered in 1971. A necklace of marble-sized red coral beads commands more than $50,000 retail.

“Fishing, and the resources of the ocean? They can and should be used by mankind. We can profit from them. That’s an ethical proposition,” Grigg says. “The question is how. The answer is we should use these resources in a sustainable fashion. And in that, there is complexity. . . .”

In 1992, Grigg delivered a provocative keynote speech to his fellow coral reef scientists. He took a swipe at Jacques Cousteau and mounted an all-out attack on doomsday prophets of the environmental movement. He titled it, “Truth Versus the Cassandra Syndrome.”

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That Grigg himself is a Cassandra of the first order is beside the point. He insists that scientific alarmists must plant themselves on firm ground, so to speak, or lose their credibility.

Grigg noted that in 1971 Cousteau predicted “there would not be any fish remaining to take out of the sea” within a decade. Similarly, scientists a generation ago forecast the demise of coral reefs in the Pacific. This was because of the sudden spread of coral-eating starfish, suspected to be the result of a human-induced environmental imbalance. “A disaster unparalleled in the history of mankind,” one study warned.

Neither Cousteau nor the starfish researchers proved right, or even close to right. “False Cassandras,” Grigg called them.

Today, environmentalists still forecast disaster for the oceans because of overfishing, pollution and climate change. In the long run, they may be correct. Particularly if today’s natural systems are regarded as the proper order of things. But Grigg quarrels, sometimes to the point of name-calling, with the priorities of some environmentalists and the manner in which they frame arguments.

Overfishing, for example, has reduced some fish populations but not wiped out any species. “It’s not been a biological disaster, but an economic disaster for fishermen. That doesn’t excuse it, but we have to understand what it is,” he says. And global warming? Increasing ocean temperatures may damage reefs, yes. But polar ice packs may subsequently melt, which would be a boon to coral reefs over time. That’s not a call to bring it on, but only to recognize the true nature of nature’s balance.

“The doomsday environmentalists insist that nothing change, that change is bad,” Grigg continues. “But the world is constantly changing and always has been. We have to understand that, and the impact of our actions on this moving target. We have to be truthful about it. That’s the basis of setting our priorities.”

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Grigg’s own agenda, his Cassandra call, is human population. That is this old surfer’s doomsday issue: The whole elaborate tapestry of modern conservationist causes shields us from facing the one that counts most. In the end, nothing else will matter if humans cannot control their numbers and the consequent demands they place on this water planet.

Other organisms will survive. But, he says, glumly, “our species has every reason to worry.”

*

Back in the channel between Hawaiian Islands, Grigg has descended to 300 feet. Once again, he has reason to ponder the ocean’s duality. Up on the surface, the breeze scrubs the air clean and fresh. Vistas are boundless, and the mind can wander. Down here, alone in a Deepworker research submersible, the air tastes fabricated. He can barely move his arms and feet. The rest of him is strapped claustrophobically to a seat. He peers into the cobalt water through a Plexiglas bubble. Then the tiny steel encasement around him whispers in his ear: trouble.

For one thing, water is rising in the submersible. There is not supposed to be water inside. It sloshes over his socks. His heart beats faster. His instruments tell him more is wrong. The percentage of oxygen in his breathing air is rising inexplicably. If it climbs too high, oxygen becomes explosive. Then the slightest spark from his soggy electronics would detonate him like a depth charge. He tries to make an adjustment and mistakenly turns off the volume on his two-way radio. Now he has lost contact with the support ship above.

He aims his joystick for the surface. A crane swings him aboard. The hatch is opened. His eyes are wide.

So many close calls.

They took his spleen out when he was 11: speared by his surfboard in a wipeout at Santa Monica. Earning money for college, he was temporarily blinded from the bends when he ran out of air diving for black coral at 190 feet: The lever that was supposed to safeguard a reserve supply had somehow opened. There are cavities in the bones of his legs made by bubbles of high-pressure gas, the result of his Navy deep-dive experiments. At age 51, he broke his neck: hurled off the lip of a three-story wave at Waimea Bay. He was knocked unconscious scuba diving at 70 feet off La Jolla: slapped by a sea monster. But, good news that time. He managed to get a close-up photograph and sold it to Life for $4,000. It was the first underwater picture of a gray whale.

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In a memoir recently published in Hawaii and now being revised for mainland distribution, “Big Surf, Deep Dives and the Islands,” Grigg reflects on danger and its seduction of the waterman:

“I think we all looked over that edge into the abyss, into the darkness from which there could be no return, many times. . . . To do this was both humbling and empowering. Every time I came close to drowning, I felt both emotions: unimportance and exuberance for life.”

Sometimes there is pain almost as bad as injury or mishap. Three years ago he paddled out at Waimea for the last time. This cramped, half-circle bay on the North Shore holds more mystique than anywhere in big-wave surfing, and Ricky Grigg holds founder’s stake. In the lineup, teenage boys taunted him: Get out of here old man! He could have surfed here with their grandfathers. Except if he had, these boys would have been raised better.

“Surfing to me is something that came from the kings, quiet, sensitive, great oceangoing people. Not this. I’d been riding this place for almost 40 years. It was so sad. I wasn’t angry, just so sad. I paddled in and said, that’s that for Waimea.”

Over the years, Grigg has pulled back elsewhere. Not all the way, not even close, but some. It is always an imprecise calculation between enough adventure and too much, but one that Grigg pencils out from time to time. A PhD may not prove you are smart, but it surely suggests you are not stupid. How much of life should you risk to make sure you haven’t quit living it?

“Our reach should always exceed our grasp.” It’s a Robert Browning line he borrowed from one of his long-ago college professors and turned into a motto. Maybe it’s a reminder too.

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*

So where do they go, these golden boys of the golden age of waves?

One of them is said to walk along a highway in the Hawaiian countryside each day, his head down as if daydreaming. You might see another at Honolulu’s Outrigger Club lunching with the business elite. One is host at his restaurant by the waterfront. Two drowned young. Some didn’t listen to their mothers and faded from our awareness.

And Ricky Grigg? On those afternoons when the trade winds blow strong enough to send garbage cans rolling down the street, you might find him just off the lagoon east of Diamond Head, jitterbugging across the water on his patched-up windsurfer with that old try-to-keep-up-with-me grin. Or when the south swell perks up, look for him on his longboard at the outer breaks of Waikiki, where locals still mix it up with the gremmies on those long, slow, perfect, straight-edged curls.

Or think of him in the years ahead, out in the middle of the Pacific at French Frigate Shoals or some other of Earth’s inner spaces where no explorer has yet ventured. Grigg has applied for a long-term grant to retrace his old expedition from one end of the Hawaiian chain to the other. Only this time, he wants to peer into the deeper reaches too, a finale to his research career.

A line from a Robert Service poem comes to mind:

The waves tell of ocean spaces/Of hearts that are wild and brave. . . .

Or as Ricky Grigg puts it, “Just keep surfing. It’s good for the soul.”

*

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue assisted with this story.

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