Honolulu Lite. Extra.
Charles Memminger

Sunday, April 10, 2005

This historic photo of a Makaha wave ran on the front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on Nov. 27, 1953.


A 1953 photograph is credited for
being the catalyst for big-wave
riding as we know it

For the last 15 or 20 years I've had a beat-up old black-and-white photograph hanging in my office that shows three guys sliding down a big wave at Makaha. The photo's pockmarked with little rusted bits of silver oxide and the matting is stained with what looks like water spots and rat droppings. The frame is a tacky gray wooden thing that must have cost all of 45 cents back in the day.

There's a little cut-out in the matting with a miniature front page of the Nov. 27, 1953, Honolulu Star-Bulletin showing the Makaha photo perched above the headline "Pusan Fire Routs 300,000."

It looks like a hastily, and, not to mention, badly assembled exhibit for a photography show, but I've always loved the thing. I saved it from a Dumpster back in the early '80s when the Star-Bulletin newsroom was being redecorated and photos like this one -- which had been hanging on the newsroom walls for 30 years -- were unceremoniously discarded.

So you can imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that my old battered Makaha photo is an original print of one of the most important photographs in the history of surfing. It literally spawned the modern era of big-wave riding. That's pretty amazing considering that, up until this point, its major significance to me is that I was a fetus when the photo was taken.

IT TOOK A movie called "Riding Giants" to tell the world of the Makaha photo's importance. The surprise-blockbuster documentary by filmmaker Stacy Peralta traces the history of surfing from its earliest days in Hawaii to the California wave gold rush, to the first time anyone attempted to ride Waimea Bay, and right up to Laird Hamilton and his fearless friends pioneering tow-in surfing in the monster waves of Jaws on Maui.

"Riding Giants" makes the case that all big-wave riders today can trace their lineage directly back to this photo taken by freelance photographer and beach boy Thomas "Scoop" Tsuzuki in 1953.

Surfing was big in California by that time, heavily influenced by Hawaiian surfing. There were grass shacks on L.A. beaches and surfers wore aloha shirts. But when Scoop's photo ran in newspapers on the mainland, the history of surfing was changed.

"On a winter morning of 1953 another Hawaii import landed like a bomb on the front porch of California," is the way Peralta puts it in the "Riding Giants."

University of Hawaii oceanographer Ricky Grigg, one of the original big-wave boys, remembers that day.

"I was a 14-year-old paper boy delivering papers in Santa Monica -- it was the Evening Outlook -- and I got to work that afternoon and I looked at the front page and there was Buzzy Trent, George Downing and Wally Froiseth coming down the face of what looks like a 30-foot wave," Grigg says.

According to the movie, "This simple image sent shockwaves through California's emerging surf culture, triggering the first migration of West Coast surfers to the Hawaiian Islands."

Francis Tsuzuki, 87, holds the famous Makaha surfing photo taken by his "little brother" Thomas "Scoop" Tsuzuki.

ALTHOUGH NOT AS historically significant as, say, when the Hawaiians first landed in Hawaii (how lucky was that?) it's still pretty awesome that because Scoop Tsuzuki happened to be standing on the point at Makaha that day, some people are riding 60-foot waves today.

I always wanted to be a big-wave surfer, but it was against my religion. (I'm a devout coward.) But like me, a lot of people apparently get a vicarious thrill out of watching big-wave riding because "Riding Giants" blew away its cinematic competition and was chosen to open the Sundance Film Festival last year.

I talked to Peralta, jet-lagged after returning from the film's opening in Australia recently.

"Not only were we invited to Sundance," he said, "but we were the first documentary to show on opening night."

The audience was so stoked with the movie that Greg Noll (aka "The Bull"), the guy who tamed Waimea Bay, got a standing ovation by the wine-sipping Robert Redford crowd.

That was pretty heady stuff for Peralta, who began life as a skinny skateboard rat and surfer on the wrong side of the pier. But he's no stranger to surprises. His film "Dogtown and Z-Boys," documenting the early days of skateboarding, when he and his buddies first had the (insane) idea of riding in empty swimming pools, is a classic.

He next set out to document the history of big-wave surfing and needed a yowza moment to explain the transition from Gidget to gigantic. Scoop's Makaha photo was it. There's something about the photo that makes grown men goofy.

"What's remarkable about the photo is that it's alluring and magical," Peralta said.

Surfer magazine "global editor" Sam George, co-producer of "Riding Giants," said he was taken by "sparkling warmth of it."

Purple prose aside, the key thing, according to George, is that it was the biggest wave ever photographed being ridden. At first, people didn't believe it. But there it was.

SADLY, little is known about Scoop Tsuzuki. I contacted his two "little" brothers, Francis and Clarence, both in their 80s.

Francis, 87, remembers that his brother, who passed away several years ago, was a beach boy who surfed Waikiki and took photos when not working for their father in the hauling business.

"He was a quiet person," he said.

I took my old photo to Francis' house on Kaneohe Bay and his eyes lighted up on seeing it.

"Gee," he said. "So that's it."

When Francis held the framed Makaha photo in his hands I got chicken skin. I felt a direct connection from this humble man to another humble man, Scoop Tsuzuki, who, because of his quiet love of the ocean and photography, changed the course of surfing history.

When I dropped off the film of Francis with the famous photo at the photo shop, the clerk told me I should have the Makaha photo cleaned up and remounted. I said, no. I like the story it tells just the way it is now.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards, appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. E-mail cmemminger@starbulletin.com

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