In Ret­ro­spect

An oral his­tory of Ge­orge Gree­nough and friends’ myth­i­cal ses­sion dur­ing the mas­sive West Coast swell of ‘69

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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.

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