“Nobody went to the North Shore.”
Until the 1930s, modern surfing in Hawaiʻi was focused at Waikīkī; there the waves were smaller. Then, in 1937, Wally Froiseth and John Kelly, reportedly on a school trip, witnessed the large break at Mākaha and later surfed its waves. They were later joined by George Downing and others.
Riding at an angle to the wave, rather than the straight to shore technique, on the new “hot curl” board, with narrower tails and V-hulled boards, allowed them to ride in a sharper angle than anyone else.
Mākaha became the birthplace of big wave surfing. Even before Oʻahu’s North Shore, Mākaha was ‘the’ place for surfing – especially big-wave surfing.
In January 1955, the first Mākaha International Surfing Championships was held and for the next decade was considered the unofficial world championships of surfing.
“We were the first ones to go (to the North Shore.) Wally and John Kelly told me, they said, ‘Oh, there at (Sunset Beach,) there’s big waves over there.’” (Quotes in this summary are from an account by Woody Brown in Legendary Surfers.)
On December 22, 1943, Woody Brown and a young friend named Dickie Cross paddled out at Sunset on a rising swell. Up to this time, Sunset had rarely been ridden.
“Oh well, it’s winter time. There’s no surf in Waikiki at all, see. So, we got bored. You know how surfers get. Oh, let’s go over there and try over there. That’s how we got over there and got caught, because the waves were 20 feet.”
“Well, that wasn’t too bad, because there was a channel going out, see. The only thing is, when I looked from the shore, I could see the water dancing in the channel … the waves are piling in the bay from both sides, causing this narrow channel going out.”
“There were 20 foot waves breaking on each side. We went out to catch these waves and slide toward the channel. The only trouble was, the surf was on the way up. We didn’t know that. It was the biggest surf they’d had in years and years, see, and it was on the way up.”
“So, we got caught out there! It kept getting bigger and bigger and, finally, we were sitting in this deep hole where the surf was breaking on two sides and coming into the channel. The channel opened up into this big deep area where we were and the surf would break on two sides”.
“Then, all of a sudden, way outside in the blue water, a half mile out from where we were – and we were out a half mile from shore – way out in the blue water this tremendous wave came all the way down the coast, from one end to the other.”
“It feathered and broke out there! We thought, ‘Oh boy, so long, pal. This is the end. … 20 feet of white water, eh? Rolling in and just before it got to us, it hit this deep hole and the white water just backed-up. The huge swell came through, but didn’t break.”
“Oh, boy! Scared the hell out of us! Well, there was a set of about 5 or 6 waves like that. So, after the set went by, we said, ‘Hey, let’s get the hell inside. What are we doing out here? This is no place to be! Let’s get in!’”
“You have to be very careful of these channels. When the waves get big, the rip current just pours out of there, out of the bay. You can’t get in. Anyway, we didn’t know what to do.”
“So, finally, we decided, ‘Well, there was only one thing to do. We gotta wait until that huge set goes by’ … ‘then, we’ll paddle like hell to get outside of ’em and then paddle down the coast and come in at Waimea.
“By the time we got there, it kept getting bigger and bigger. It went up on the Haleiwa restaurant and it wiped out the road at Sunset. It was the biggest surf they’d had in years and we were stuck out there.”
“Then what I was afraid might happen did happen. In other words, a set came where we were — a big, tremendous set. Boy, outside of us there was just a step ladder a far as you could see, going uphill.”
“(W)e had agreed we’d go out in the middle of the bay, where it was safe, and sit there and watch the sets go by and see what it looked like. Then we could judge where to get in and what.”
“But, no! (Cross) starts cutting in, and I hollered at him, ‘Hey, hey, don’t go in there. Let’s go out in the middle!’ “‘Nah!’ ” “He just wouldn’t pay any attention.”
“So, he was going in and I would see him go up over these swells and come back out off the top. The next one would come and he’d disappear and then I’d see him come up over the top and it looked like he was trying to catch ’em.”
“I told him, ‘Come out, come out!’ It sounded like he said, ‘I can’t, Woody, I’m too tired.’ That’s what it sounded like. But then, he started swimming out towards me, so I started paddling in to catch him to pick him up on my board.”
“Well, you know, at a time like that, in that kind of big waves… you’re watching outside all the time … So, I’m paddling in and one eye’s out there and one eye’s on him to pick him up.”
“All of a sudden, his eyes see the darn mountains coming way outside in the blue water, just piling one on top of another, way out there. I turned around and started paddling outside for all I’m worth”.
“I started looking for Dickie, cuz he’s been inside of me. Oh, boy. I hollered and called and looked, swam around, and there was no more Dickie anywhere. It’s getting dark, now, too! The sun’s just about setting.”
“So, I’m swimming and I think, ‘Well, I’m gonna die, anyway, so I might just as well try to swim in, because, what the hell, I’m dead, anyway, if I’m gonna float around out here.'”
“I’ll swim out to the middle of the bay and I’ll wait and watch the big sets go by and after a big set goes by, then I just try swimming and hope to God I can get in far enough that when another big set comes in I’ll be where it isn’t so big and strong.”
“And that’s what I did. I was just lucky when the first one came. I’m watching it come, bigger and higher and higher and it broke way outside, maybe 4-5 hundred yards outside of me. I said, ‘Well, maybe I got a chance.’”
“So, I figured, ‘Man, if I lived through this one, I got a chance!’ Cuz each one, I’m getting washed in, eh? So, each time I dove a little less deep and I saw it was washing me in.”
“So, they washed me up on the beach. I was so weak, I couldn’t stand up. I crawled out on my hands and knees and these army guys came running down.”
“The first thing I said to them was, ‘Where’s the other guy?’ They said, ‘Oh, we never saw him after he got wrapped up in that first big wave.’”
“If he got ‘wrapped up’ meant that he was up in the curl, right? How else would you express it? So, I figured he tried to bodysurf in.” (Legendary Surfers)
Census records show Dickie Cross (born in 1925) was son of William and Annie Cross who emigrated from England in 1902. His father was a brick mason; they lived in Waikiki on Prince Edward Street, about a block mauka of what is now the Hyatt Regency.
Honolulu-born Dickie, along with older brother Jack, was a fixture on the Waikiki surfing and paddleboard-racing scene in the late-1930s and early-40s. While still in middle school, the two boys made a sailing canoe in their backyard, and sailed it, alone, from Waikiki to Molokai, a distance of 40 miles.
Cross’s death contributed greatly to what California big-wave rider Greg Noll later described as the ‘Waimea taboo’ – a general fear that kept surfers from riding the break until 1957.
As part of the Sunshine Freestyle Surfabout, there is the Dick Cross Memorial Distance Paddle that sends surfers on their boards from Carmel River Beach, around Carmel Point, California, all the way to the judges’ stands at Eighth and Scenic. Top paddlers do the distance in about 15-minutes.