Before the money, there was Makaha
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
O'ahu's North Shore was not always the mecca of surfing.
Long before the Triple Crown of Surfing, when waves at Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline were still being discovered, there was Makaha.
Fifty winters ago, Hawai'i's first major surfing competition called the International Surfing Championships at Makaha was staged on O'ahu's West Shore.
"Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Makaha was THE place, no question," said Randy Rarick, who is the executive director of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. "You could probably say that Makaha laid the groundwork for future contests, not just in Hawai'i, but around the world."
Now, professional surfing competitions are held annually in Hawai'i. The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing a series of three contests staged on O'ahu's North Shore offers more than $650,000 in prize money.
The "Makaha International" never offered any prize money, and that contributed to its demise.
Yet for about 15 years, it was considered the most popular and prestigious contest in the world. It eventually faded away when the contest scene drifted to the North Shore, but the memories remain.
"It wasn't just a contest, it was an event," said George Downing, the first Makaha International surfing champion. "When the surf was big, we surfed. When the surf was small, we had paddling relays, tandem surfing and other activities. There was always something for the people to watch."
And people came out in droves.
Even though Makaha was mostly an undeveloped area at the time, the pristine beach and spectacular waves lured surfers.
"I remember when there wasn't even a paved road to get out there," said 83-year-old Wally Froiseth, one of the Makaha surfing pioneers. "But it was such a good wave, and nobody else would be out there, so we went for it."
Froiseth and other members of the famous Waikiki Surf Club organized the first International Surfing Championships at Makaha, along with the Wai'anae Lions Club.
John Lind, president of the Waikiki Surf Club at the time, said he got the idea for the Makaha meet after watching a similar contest succeed in Long Beach, Calif., in the 1940s.
"Everybody liked to come to Hawai'i to surf, so it made sense to try and get something big going," said Lind, 90. "It wasn't just a last-minute thing. We spent a lot of time planning the whole thing."
The first Makaha meet was scheduled for the winter of 1953-54, but waves did not cooperate, and so no surfing champion was crowned. Paddling races and tandem-surfing shows were put on instead. It also gave the organizers another year to plan.
The following winter in January 1955 waves reached heights of 6 to 10 feet, and Downing prevailed over a field of about 100 surfers, mostly from Hawai'i.
Within a few years, more than 500 surfers from around the world were participating in the contest in front of weekend crowds estimated between 10,000 and 15,000.
Rabbit Kekai, who won the third Makaha International, said: "The first year, it was pretty big and had a lot of people. But by the second, third year, it was unbelievable. If you didn't go out early, you got stuck in the traffic for three or four hours."
Rarick missed his heat in the junior division one year because he was, indeed, stuck in traffic.
"Makaha Beach itself was different then," he said. "It was a huge beach a lot of it has eroded over the years. But the people would just pack in there."
Coincidence or not, construction of homes and apartments started in Makaha Valley around the same time.
"One thing the contest did was create a cohesiveness in that community," Downing said.
By the fourth year, surfers from Australia and Peru were entering the Makaha International and inviting the Hawai'i surfers to help them organize similar contests in their home countries. In some ways, it was the start of a world tour.
"The concept of professional surfing wasn't around yet," Lind said. "So a lot of it was based on reciprocation and cooperation."
With no concept of prize money, the surfers received trophies and immeasurable prestige.
"If you won Makaha, you were the biggest thing in surfing for the year," Rarick said. "I don't think there's anything that compares to it now because there are so many contests. But back then, Makaha was it."
The list of early champions is like a surfing Hall of Fame roll call: George Downing, Rabbit Kekai, Wally Froiseth, Buffalo Keaulana, Peter Cole, Jamma Kekai and Joey Cabell.
It wasn't long before national television discovered the event.
By the early 1960s, ABC's Wide World of Sports was televising the Makaha International. At the time long before cable television it was considered a huge deal.
"You have to remember, this was surfing," said Downing, 73. "This wasn't football or basketball. I'm pretty sure it was the first surfing event to be covered like that on television, so to get a national audience for it made it even more prestigious."
Makaha's famous waves contributed to the prestige. Over the years of the contest, the competition was held in waves ranging anywhere from 2 to 25 feet.
"I would say that's where I made a name for myself," said Rabbit Kekai, who is 83 and still recognized internationally for his surfing ability both then and now. "There were some years when it was really big and we surfed it like nothing. And, of course, we didn't have the equipment like now."
In the 1950s, the competitors rode long surfboards carved out of wood. Most boards were between 9 and 12 feet long, and weighed between 25 and 50 pounds, depending on the type of wood.
By comparison, modern professional surfers ride boards that are between 6 and 8 feet long, and weigh less than 5 pounds.
What's more, the old wooden boards did not have skegs, so the surfers had to steer with their feet.
"You can not compare then and now," Rabbit Kekai said. "It's a different style."
By the early 1970s, surfing was evolving at a fast pace, and the Makaha International got left behind.
Today, there are many theories about the event's demise.
"Everybody gives a different answer as to why it stopped, and there probably are different reasons," Lind said.
One reason revolves around the shift to the North Shore. By the mid-1960s, North Shore waves became the rage, and the contest focus moved there.
Another reason revolves around the increasing modern-day hurdles, such as securing permits and sponsorship.
"Times were different," said Buffalo Keaulana, one of Makaha's most famous residents and surfers. "Back then, we just used to call a couple of our friends and we would dig out our own parking lot on the side of the road never have to deal with the permits and all that. It would be nice to have a contest like that again at Makaha, but I don't think so. Too many hassles."
Still another reason revolves around the concept of professional surfing. By the mid-1960s, other contests started offering prize money, something the Makaha International never did.
"We stayed true," Lind said. "It was more about surfing than making money."
By the early 1970s, many of the world's best surfers were no longer entering the Makaha International.
In 1973, the Waikiki Surf Club officially dropped its affiliation with the event. The following year, the Makaha International advertised itself as "a contest for amateur surfers," and most of the entries were in the youth divisions.
In any case, the significance of the Makaha International is apparently not lost. A program that cost 50 cents during the 10th annual Makaha International in 1962 sold for $450 last year at a surf auction.
"It's too bad it ended, but the people who were around back then know how big of a thing it was," Rabbit Kekai said. "That was the first big contest in Hawai'i. All these other contests you see now is because of what went on back then at Makaha."
Reach Dayton Morinaga at firstname.lastname@example.org or 535-8101.