This is an excerpt from a chapter about Darryl “Doggie” Diamond, a California surfer of some repute in 1970s. It is part of a longer project I worked on with his son, a surf-culture historian and legendary presence in his own right, Eric Diamond. This chapter sets the scene for the so-called swell of the century, the result of a massive storm, which Darryl very bravely surfed alone at The Ranch.
The Dog's Camera - A Biographical Narrative Project
Authors' own, unknown surfer at Salt Creek, 2019.
Apollo 12 is on the moon and on the news. Astronaut Pete Conrad is the third human being to step onto earth’s closest satellite. Conrad has a private wager with a journalist that he’ll forgo the script NASA has prepared for his triumphant broadcast back to earth. He steps from the command module and into history with the words, “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!” The announcer needs to explain the joke. Pete Conrad is a considerably shorter man than Neil Armstrong, and the stairs of the lunar module are unforgivingly long for him. Everyone is an astronaut now; it is routine for humans to visit other worlds.
During the launch, lightning strikes Apollo 12–twice. Control loses telemetry readings, but the ships’ systems remain functional. An engineer wonders aloud if the lightning strikes have damaged the exploding bolts that fire the parachutes on the command module. If the parachutes fail, the command module will smash headlong into the ocean upon re-entry, killing the crew on impact. There is no way to know without trying it. A decision is made at Mission Control not to tell the crew of Apollo 12 about this eventuality.
Two days later, the news shows images of the astronauts being pulled from the Pacific after splash-down, east of Samoa. It is November 24, 1969. The weather forecaster makes no mention of a storm front steadily growing in size off the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia.
The storm is voracious; it doubles its size in four days. Near the Aleutian islands, it finds a low-pressure trough. Sliding in, it pauses briefly, steadily brewing into a rabid paroxysm of rain, wind, and salt. It begins cannibalizing other, smaller storms, and, as it feeds, it lurches into an apocalyptic gallop across the North Pacific. By the time the weathermen notice, the tempest commands an impressive two thousand miles of shrieking wind fetch. Cajoled by the high winds, the greatest swell of the century begins its methodical march out of the deep Pacific. The Apollo 12 crew is landing in Texas for a debriefing. Conrad will never collect on the bet.
As if dispatched by the gods, a blitz of heavy swell marches south on the unsuspecting islands of Hawaii, taking the sleepy archipelago by surprise on December 1. Thirty, forty-foot monsters steam in, detonating relentlessly on the North Shore of Oahu. Evacuations are immediately mired as Kam highway floods, and trees, boats, homes are raised and thrown fifty, sixty, one hundred yards inland beneath the angry fists of a boiling sea. It is a red-letter day for the TV newsmen, but no one pays much attention. The radio is broadcasting the results of the first lottery for the Vietnam draft. All young men born between 1944 and 1950 have been entered into a sweepstakes that no one hopes to win. Winners are randomly selected by birthday, drafted, fed, trained, and sent to war. The first to win were born on September 14. Some reports suggest the life expectancy of a soldier under fire in Vietnam is approximately six seconds.
While people flee the angry sea, a small core of legendary watermen chances paddling out at Mākaha, the last place on the North Shore still holding a wave in the onslaught. But the quality of the wave it holds is far beyond anyone’s ability and well beyond the operating limits of their equipment. Out in the water beyond the lineup, big wave hunter Greg Noll sits in stone-faced reckoning with himself, watching row upon row of sodden giants pushing hungrily past him shoreward. The radio has nothing on now but evacuation orders.
The afternoon is waning as Noll finally pairs himself to one of the improbable titans thundering in. The wave is immense by any standards, with more than enough ink to pen another great stanza in Noll’s big-wave legacy. It is fearsome, impossible, legendary, and, by necessity, beyond the scope of human ability. The wave rears, fangs bared. Noll throws himself down the face to meet its challenge. Control loses telemetry, but the mission proceeds. Noll is a free-falling monument to defiance, hurtling into history and quickly, sickeningly, dwarfed by the shadow of the leviathan as he slides down its face. For a moment, they stop time together in a slow-motion dance forever melted into fable and memory. Noll makes the bottom as the storm wave heaves itself over to crush him, and then, suddenly, Greg Noll leaves the script. In the absence of all other moves, he blithely steps off his board into the waiting, thrashing maw of inevitability and folklore. Lightning strikes. The exploding bolts do not fire. There is no parachute. This is no soft splash-down near the waiting chopper. No debriefing in Texas. No luncheon at the White House. But it is another heroic small step for a man.
Noll is an astronaut lost in space, churned by the forces of an unknown, lightless world, without air or direction or hope. And he is drowning; slowly, surely, as you do. He is held down and down and down again, for far, far longer than it takes to die under fire in Vietnam. Lifetimes pass before he reaches the patient feet of Buffalo Keaulana, waiting for The Bull’s body to wash up on the bruised beachhead. Even before he drags himself ashore at Mākaha, Greg Noll has hung up the gloves. He will never slide the giants again; too many savage beatings now, too many calls to the principal’s office. Two years later, he packs up the barrels, the locks, and the stocks and heads for Oregon, leaving behind the kind of legend you can really wag a tongue to. The great era of the longboard watermen closes out as the breathless foam settles on the Battle of Mākaha.
The Siege of California
Having subdued the islands, the storm of the century sets itself against the mainland. California is the target; new fronts open up in the siege: La Jolla, Blacks, Dana, Rincon, Santa Cruz, Oxnard and Ventura, Malibu, the South Bay, all take heavy fire. Two drown, maybe more, some say. Hell and high water are the lead stories on the news.
Santa Barbara gets the best of it. Sculpted by a forgiving Santa Ana wind, immense double and triple overhead steaming walls of water pin the Queen of the Coast to the ropes for a beating that will run for days. Endless rows of granite-faced combers, impeccably turned out, peel off one after another in full battle regalia. It is impossible to look away from the gruesome spectacle as the ocean’s Swiss Guard leads the charge onto the elegantly appointed Rincon point break. Nuuhiwa and Merrick ride faultless twenty-footers on an endless, looping express from the point until their legs burn and their arms are as heavy as bodies, and there is nothing left in them, not even the breath for laughter at their ridiculous good fortune. The Dog is alone, driving north in stoic silence, edging the truck further and further up the Pacific Coast Highway. He has business elsewhere.