An oral history of George Greenough and friends’ mythical session during the massive West Coast swell of ‘69
Greenough’s Mythical Rincon Session
You may think you know Rincon, with its familiar, tapering walls wrapping from Indicator all the way through the Cove, but if you’d been standing on the cobblestones on December 5, 1969, you likely wouldn’t have recognized what you saw. That’s because a swell event like the one that day—the “Swell of the Century,” as it was called at the time—had never happened there before and hasn’t happened since. Massive walls of water crested on the horizon, tripping over bits of bathymetry that had never even created breaking waves before.
Shortboard revolutionary George Greenough had seen reports on the evening news of homes being damaged by the swell on the North Shore of Oahu the day before, and he knew something wicked was approaching. So on the morning of December 5, he grabbed his trusty red spoon and headed down to Rincon. What follows is an oral account of a swell that redefined what was possible at the Queen of the Coast, as told by Greenough and friends Kirk Putnam and Mike Davis.
George Greenough: My paddle out was easy; the swell was just starting to show. Then it hit. Every set was bigger than the last.
Kirk Putnam: We arrived at Rincon at about 1:00 p.m., parking along the highway 200 yards past the Cove. There were cameras and the hero guys were pulling up.
Mike Davis: We pulled up and parked along the seawall at the end of the parking zone filled with rubber neckers. Stu Fredricks and I grabbed our boards and wetsuits and headed for the Point. On the way someone told me they had counted 35 broken boards already. Outside was line after line and it was getting bigger. George was already out, we could see his head bobbing over a wave every now and then so we knew it was possible. After the next set broke, George was the only one out. It was still “setty,” with big lulls and then huge sets of 20 waves or more, appreciably bigger than the last set. We walked around the Indicator, launching off the beach before 2:00 p.m. [Reynolds] Yater told me later that only 12 surfers made it out that afternoon. If you didn’t get out in the first hour of the swell, you couldn’t get out.
GG: The second shift was starting to make its way out on big guns. With the increasing swell I had moved to the outside of the Indicator. After each ride the paddle back took me much further out.
KP: Our Dodge van had a pair of old military binoculars in it so I climbed on top of the van with them. The van was parked far enough down the highway so the houses didn’t block our view of the Indicator. I could see George paddling over sets. He was the farthest outside, surfing some reef or something—i’ve never seen it break there.
MD: None of us rode a wave for the first hour for obvious reasons: not knowing were to sit, how far to ride or how big the next set would be. Every lineup reference point I’ve used was useless because every wave that broke was bigger than any I’d ever surfed before. We’d move out, watching every wave break from behind to see if it closed out. I did see George’s head in or near the impact zone and thought, “What the hell’s he doing in there?” No way I’d ever think about going in there on such a slow moving target. I saw him take one wave that was easily 15 foot, turning at the base as the wave pitched out kicking hard, appearing to free-fall until you realize he’s slid to his knees, grabbed the outside rail and set the inside rail for the ride. While I’d loved to have stuck around to see how it turned out, getting over the wave was far more pressing.
GG: It didn’t take long to figure out, “Don’t take the first good wave of the set.” The paddle back was long and I got caught by one of those multi-wave sets. The board had very little floatation, I could swim down 10 to 15 feet with it to get under a couple of waves that I should have been riding instead of eye-surfing on the paddle back.
MD: We discovered that there is a whole new dimension to the point that is hundreds of yards further out than any of us had ever imagined taking off at outside the Indicator. By 3:30 p.m. the number of heads way outside was down to Renny [Yater], Stu, Miki [Dora] and I, all on Yater Hawaiian guns. I have ridden a lot of waves and I’ve never had to go faster or pump harder to negotiate the vertical walls that day. The rogue sets were roughly 40 minutes apart and turned up the wick a notch or two, adding 4 or 5 feet on top of the last set.
GG: After missing one multi-wave set, paddling back I was onto the big sets coming every 35 to 40 minutes. It was hard to get in the right spot; I was so far out, using high landmarks because of the size of the swell. Spoons don’t paddle well and it would take 4 to 5 waves to get in the right spot. If I used the landmarks from the last set I’d be too far in when the next multi-wave set hit because it was bigger than the last. I picked the best one using a 4/5 take off, taking off at an angle as the wave pitched over me.
(Right) An artistic interpretation of Rincon when the “Swell of the Century” arrived in December of 1969. Illustration by PUTNAM
KP: So I’m up there watching George. It’s mid afternoon and the swell is just building and building. I could see where he was. There were other guys way outside, but George was the furthest out surfing where no one had ever seen waves break before. Finally I caught a glimpse of him surfing; I couldn’t see the continuous ride with the surf this big, I could only see the top of the waves. I’m talking about a 20-footplus wave. It wasn’t like seeing him at Governments on a 6- to 8-foot day. It was just a whole other realm of what he was doing. I saw his track ripping across the top of the wave, turning down and doing figure-8 carves and then I would lose him. Then he would pop up again 100 yards down the line going into another figure 8, starting off the top. Just think of the distance covered by each turn. There was an unmakeable section between where George was surfing and the rest of the crew. That’s where George pulled out. When we left around 4:00 p.m., George was 500 yards further out than the rest of the crew catching waves 10 feet bigger.
GG: Last wave I had a shot at making the closeout section. On the other side of this section was the take off for the run into the Cove. Got a fair way through it then pulled out where it closed out—very long paddle back. Close to sunset, just getting to the take-off, I was caught inside by an even bigger set. I dove deep under one wave and then swam through the top of the next—too far out to catch the one after it.
MD: I was the last one out and caught the biggest wave just before sunset. The rest of the crew saw it from the cars parked above the Cove. I landed in the corner with cheers and horns honking. When I arrived at the fire I got a handshake from Renny Yater. GG: After sunset, with plenty of light, I spot the next multi-wave set on the way. Moving further out to get in the right spot I caught the sixth or seventh wave—this set was the biggest yet. I can remember cutting back, the board’s rail only penetrating about 2 inches. Nearing the unmakeable section I got high, trimming for maximum speed. This wave was bigger than the last. I thought I could drive right through—no way. The bottom dropped out, I pulled into the tube and kept going as long as possible. The longer I could keep going, the more energy it threw over me and the bigger the chance the board and I would be blown out the back. Reaching the surface after the wave I did a 360-degree rotation looking for the board—nothing. Second rotation, there it was 15 feet away. Looking toward the beach I thought I would be down toward the Cove but I was way out off the Indicator. I had been dragged in a fair bit, and I could see the next wave coming—it was throwing out one-and-a-half times its height, scary looking, the lip really thick bearing down on me. I pulled the plug and dove to the bottom, which was cobble rock. Big roar from the cobble rolling along the bottom as the wave passed over me, dragging me backwards. Same thing for the wave after it, but the drag back was not as bad. The third wave I swam through—this was the last big wave of the set. I wasn’t sure where the take-off for the Cove was. There was no one out. There was a section on the Cove side that looked makeable so I took landmarks at the end off the unmakeable section. I camped on it, waiting for the next multi-wave set. Getting late, well after sunset, I was stressing about getting stuck out there in the dark and getting cold. With the light fading I switched landmarks to ones with lights, thinking if the next multi-wave set didn’t show in the next 5 minutes, I would paddle in and take the next rideable wave in. There was still some light in the west when I spotted the next multiwave set. It broke a little further out and was bigger than the last, line after line running down toward me as I moved further out to meet it. A set that big would push a 4- to 5-foot surge in so I let the first 4 or 5 waves go to come in on top of the surge. I was watching the wave that I caught running down toward me; it was breaking further out where the others had closed out and looked possibly makeable from the very outside Indicator. I didn’t know if a wave this big would closeout or hold up. Get it, off the bottom, get high and go. Reaching the outside of the Cove there was a lot of traffic headed west on the Freeway. The reflection from the headlights showed me the curve of the wave face as I cut back. Well into the Cove, last cut back, turned hard left in front of the white water, proned out and landed by the seawall.
MD: Changed and strapping the boards on the car, Stu and I watched what I thought at first was a wounded seal but turned out to be George emerging from the white water in the shimmering glow of the headlights from the cars coming down the hill below where we were parked. He removed his flippers without looking up and padded back up the point melting into the darkness. If he’d ridden any wave after mine it had to have been bigger yet again.
GG: I had a big shock when landing by the seawall looking around on the beach there was nobody there. Walking back toward the Indicator I’ll never forget the deep rumble of the surf.