My own experience with night surfing is limited to waves that are solidly within the comfort zone of playful size, but there are those who have far more gutsy tales to tell.
One of them is superstar lifesaver and big-wave charger Brian Keaulana. For the last twenty-five years or so, he and his A-list crew have made a tradition of paddling out each New Year’s Eve at their illustrious home break of Makaha on O‘ahu’s west shore, to catch the last wave of the outgoing year and the first wave of the next. The tradition started when he and the late “Queen of Makaha,” Rell Sunn, were looking around for an alternative to the New Year’s ritual of getting wasted and blowing off firecrackers. “The first year, there were just a couple of us,” Brian says. “The second year, there were ten, then fifty. Now everybody goes—my wife, kids, the whole West Side.”
Brian says he and his family have had “thousands” of night-surfing adventures. One particularly memorable exploit took place one night when he and a few of Makaha’s finest decided to go out torch surfing—paddling with one arm and holding a lit torch with the other—when the surf came up big.
From the sound of the surf, they figured the waves were lining up off the point of the bay and breaking at maybe 10 or 12 feet. “But me, I thought I’d go out to the 15-foot peak outside the bowl,” Brian says, “because I’d rather have me get one big wave than the big wave get me.”
So they paddled outside the impact zone to a spot where they could feel familiar boils coming up from holes in the reef. As they debated where the waves were going to come in, “All of a sudden, boom! One big wave went break outside and clean us up,” Brian remembers. “Torches all snuff out, one guy popping up over here, another over there. But all of us was big-wave guys, so we was just laughing. Finally, we just all caught one big white-water together and came in.”
The undisputed mack daddy of all night surfing stories, however, is an often-told legend of how the great North Shore style rider and big-wave pioneer Jock Sutherland supposedly surfed 20-foot monsters at Waimea Bay one moonlit night in 1969, reportedly while tripping on acid. (This was the ’60s, after all.)
Years later, a well-known surfing scribe wrote of being there that night, “watching as wave after wave was taken and mastered, deep snaking board-wakes, Jock himself invisible in the moon shadow under the lip.” Later, according to the story, a piece of Jock’s board washed ashore, rescuers were summoned to no avail, and Jock was given up for dead—until he nonchalantly came walking down the road, having swum in at Pipeline, more than a mile away.
Enthralled by this epic tale, I track down Jock himself, who still lives and surfs on the North Shore, to ask him about that night. Graciously, he says he’d love to tell me all about it—except that none of it actually happened. No riding giant waves under the moon, no rescue call, no Pipeline swim and no acid.
What really happened, Jock tells me, is that he paddled out to Waimea alone late one afternoon thinking it was a do-able 15 to 20 feet, when in fact there were sets coming through every hour or so that were breaking all the way across the bay.
“I rode three or four waves, still in daylight,” he recalls. “Then, just as it was starting to get dark, a huge set came in and I got caught inside. I tried to push my board over the top as I dove under, but it went over the falls and was gone.”
As he struggled in the water, night fell. The massive waves kept breaking farther and farther out, swallowing him in whitewater that eventually carried him toward shore and slammed him on the beach.
“The truth is that I nearly drowned,” he confesses.
“I was just happy to survive.”