Issue 14.4: August/September 2011

Legend for a Day

Story by Derek Ferrar
Photos by Dana Edmunds

Team MGM -- Dean Luke, Rick Colletto, Mike Bakos and Derek Ferrar (standing, left to right) -- rode with North Shore luminary Jock Sutherland (seated).
At this point in my surfing life,
it’s mainly about fantasy. I mean, let’s face it: After thirty years of floundering around in the lineup, it’s basically all downhill from here. So I pretend to be the surfer I never was: fantasy big-wave charger, fantasy globe-trotting soul surfer, fantasy crusty local. It’s all in my head. 




Legendary surfer Donald Takayama led Team Rainbow Drive-In to a first-place finish.
So you’d better believe that when a buddy calls and offers me the chance to surf in a friendly charity contest—one that will be televised, no less—I’m all over it like gravy on a loco moco. Pushing fifty, I’d be surfing my first competitive heat. Can you say, fantasy world champ?


Here’s how it works: In the Duke’s Legends Surf Classic, companies that pony up to a scholarship fund get to field a team of four civilian surfers who are paired up with one bona fide surfing legend. Each team gets to surf two, twenty-five-minute heats all alone at Queen’s—Waikiki’s premier surf break, which on any regular “business as zoo-sual” day is a hectic mass of humanity and fiberglass.


The contest is part of Duke’s OceanFest, a week of ocean sports competitions held in Waikiki each August to honor the birthday of the great Hawaiian Olympic swimmer and ambassador of surfing Duke Kahanamoku. Proceeds go to scholarships for promising young athletes in the kind of sports Duke loved.


Companies fielding teams in the Legends contest include the likes of Outrigger Resorts, Hawaiian Airlines, Duke’s restaurant and Oceanic Time Warner Cable, which also broadcasts the contest live on TV and the web. My buddy says there’s a slot open on a team being sponsored by MGM, the storied Hollywood studio, which has remastered the cult 1970 surf flick Pacific Vibrations for their hi-def TV channel and entered the contest as part of the promo.


And Team MGM’s legend? None other than Jock Sutherland, impish icon of surfing’s psychedelic heyday and the standout star of Pacific Vibrations. Never mind world champ, I thought. We’re talking legend for a day! 




Jock Sutherland was a star in the '60s, as famous for his electric Kool-aid antics as his unconventional style in the waves. But neither the world's best surfer of 1969 (according to SURFER magazine's annual poll) nor author Ferrar's radical rippage could save Team MGM, which finished eleventh (of sixteen).
From the start I pretend to take this thing very seriously. For weeks beforehand I go surfing every chance I get. “Sorry, honey,” I tell my incredulous wife. “I have to train.”


On the morning of our first heat, I roll up to Waikiki early, the sun just peeking over Diamond Head. The OceanFest events have already been underway for several days, and their trappings are strung all along the beach: volleyball nets, stacks of surfboards and paddles and a little tent city clustered around the bronze statue of the Duke in front of Queen’s. He glows in the morning light, looking especially regal in a long maile lei.


I check in and receive my first real live “Contestant” badge—and take a moment to savor that. A volunteer explains the feel-good competition format: Everyone must catch at least one wave, and each surfer’s best score is added to the team total. Plus, the low man’s score gets doubled. You know… fantasy rules. I put on my make-believe game face and stroll over to the competitors’ tent like it ain’t no thing. There are chairs, snacks, coolers of drinks and a flat-screen showing the live telecast of the contest. Yep, the Big Time.


I casually check out my fellow competitors milling around—lots of business bellies and bald spots. I’m going to fit in just fine. I’m introduced to my MGM teammates, starting with a friendly local guy named Dean Luke. As a business development manager for Oceanic, Dean is the guy responsible for bringing the broadcast of this contest and other surf events large and small to local cable TV in recent years (digital channel 250, y’all), which has been a huge leap forward for the Island surf scene.


Then there’s Rick Colletto, general manager for the cable company on Maui. Rick tells me he grew up surfing in Santa Cruz and moved to the North Shore in 1972 to live The Dream … and he did just that for twenty years until he finally woke up and got a real job. Rick admits that he hasn’t surfed for a couple of years. “It’s kind of a young man’s sport,” he says wistfully. “You need flexibility, stamina … and most of all, time to chase waves.” Amen to that, brother.


Mike Bakos is an MGM marketing guy who’s come out from LA for the Pacific Vibrations promo. Despite his archetypal Cali beach dude looks, Mike confesses that he, too, doesn’t find much time to surf these days. I start to think I might stand a chance of not being team kook after all.


And then there’s Jock: super wiry and fit at 62, with a teenager’s gleam in his eye. In the era of Woodstock, Jock, who grew up amid the North Shore surf mecca, was a rock star of surfing at its countercultural zenith, given to cryptic utterances and larger-than-life antics. Picture a surfing version of Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady of On the Road and the Merry Pranksters.


Jock was idolized for his quirky surf style—reversing his stance at will, working the era’s new shortboards from every conceivable angle, sideslipping into theretofore unimaginable tube rides. In 1967, at age 19, he won the premier surf contest of the day, the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational at Sunset Beach. In 1969 he was named the world’s best surfrider in SURFER magazine’s annual poll, and the next year SURFER founder John Severson featured Jock in his cinematic ode to surf-freak culture, Pacific Vibrations.


But by the time the movie came out, Jock had vanished from the big-time surfing world, having suddenly up and joined the Army—in part, he says, to escape the growing commercialism of the sport’s nascent professional scene. Since then he has abided as an underground icon, working as a roofer and for the most part living quietly in the family homestead in front of his eponymous North Shore surf break, Jocko’s.


And, of course, surfing. “If more than a week goes by when I don’t surf, my brain dries up,” he tells me. 




Ben Aipa, in trunks custom designed for the Outrigger Hotels men's team by team member Sig Zane.
The blast of an air horn marks the start of the first twenty-five-minute heat. First in the water is a team from Hilton Grand Vacations, with classic Sunset Beach charger Ken Bradshaw as their legend. They show a lot of flash on the waist-high waves, with fin-first takeoffs, helicopter spins, Quasimodo crouches and even the venerable “dying cockroach” move, where the surfer lies on his back and wiggles his arms and legs in the air like he just caught a faceful of Raid.


OK, so maybe I’m a little out of my league after all.


After the heat I catch up with the cockroach guy, a burly marketing exec named Sean, and ask what surfing in this event means to him. “Simple,” he says. “It’s a chance for us businesspeople who are surfers to be around our heroes from when we were kids and get out from behind our desks for twenty-five minutes of pure bliss at Queen’s.”


That’s a mantra that I hear over and over: The best thing about the contest is “getting to surf Queen’s with just four other people … duh!”


We check in with the beach marshal and get our color-coded competition jerseys. As I pull on my assigned popsicle-green wetshirt, still soggy from its occupant in the previous heat, I peruse the judging criteria taped to a tent pole. As with “real” contests, the judges will be looking for “speed, power, flow and commitment in the most critical part of wave.” But I have a more basic strategy: Don’t fall off. And as we make our way to the water’s edge, my wife offers another: “Keep your pants up.” Thanks, coach.


I’m a little surprised at how jittery I am as we paddle out and bob on the sideline while the team from Wahoo’s restaurant finishes up its heat. Huffing and puffing a bit as we arrive, Rick observes that “apparently, sitting in your office does nothing for your paddling.”


Jock has a good time heckling the Wahoo’s crew. “Smile!” he calls. “You’re on TV!” Looking back at the judges’ scaffold, we can hear the drone of the announcers’ patter but can’t quite make out what they’re saying. Somewhere up on the tower, the unblinking eyes of the cameras are on us. For a fantasy, this is getting a little too real.


As time ticks toward the start of our heat, Jock gives us a pep talk of sorts. “You can’t sit and expect the waves to come to you like you somehow deserve it,” he offers sagely. “You’ve got to really go after them and talk to them, and say, ‘Please come here, waves.’ Try to connect with their mana, then do the flashiest moves you can think of.”


Then the horn blasts and it’s game on. The swell has gotten a little more consistent just in time for our heat—chesthigh, peeling faces: trademark Queen’s. Dean is the first one to his feet, swooping backside along a sweet little nugget. Then Jock is off and riding—forward, backward, spinning around … whatever. As I drop into my first wave with Jock egging me on, I feel like I’m in Tron or something—sucked through to the other side of the computer screen on which I‘ve watched so many surf contests. The wave quickly closes out; not much of a ride, but at least I didn’t fall off … and my pants stayed up.


Once I get a few waves under my belt, I start to relax and take more chances. On my best ride I manage a little head-dip mini-tube and some decent turns. But, man, fantasy me is ripping!


As one wave comes in, Jock yells at me to take off in front of him so we can attempt a “go-behind” crossover. As we trim along, he calls, “Now cut back, and I’ll go up high above you!” I do as the legend bids, but the wave runs out of steam and Jock dives off at the top. To this day my friends give me heat for having “dropped in” on Jock Sutherland. But go ask Jock—he’ll back me up.


All too soon a siren signals the impending end of our heat. As time runs out, Dean and I catch a wave together and high-five, just like Kelly Slater and Rob Machado did in a famous surfing moment at Pipeline. Real classy like. I leave the water feeling not totally ashamed, so for me it’s a big win. The judges give my best ride five out of ten points—halfway perfect! 




21st century legend (and former world longboard champion) Bonga Perkins.
In our second heat my big-star moment comes when I catch a set wave and crank a hard top turn right in front of a water photographer. In my mind I’m already visualizing how the magazine cover will look. But in my body I wipe out. Luckily, I redeem myself on another wave and up my personal best to 6.5— just cracking the judges’ “very good” range. In the end we finish eleventh out of sixteen; not great, but not a total washout either—especially considering that the winning team, Rainbow Drive-In, is stacked with former top pros. My thirst for fantasy thus slaked at least for the moment, I ask Jock what it feels like to be a legend for real.


“I don’t really consider myself a legend, but apparently a lot of people do,” he says with characteristic understatement, “and that’s OK with me if it provides a forum to talk about how surfing can help people get back in touch with the ocean and the land in our overly materialistic and technological society. But to me the real legends are people like the Duke and the early bigwave riders from the 1940s and ’50s.”


I ask what surfing in the Duke’s Legends Surf Classic contest means to him. “Having had the honor to meet Duke and be in the water with him—and still surfing that same water today … his aloha spirit lives on,” he says reflectively. “And being part of this event honoring him is just a real ‘shaka’ feeling.” 




As we’re getting ready to leave the beach, my wife hands me her cellphone. It’s my mom, who’s been watching the webcast in upstate New York. “You were fabulous!” she gushes. At least I’m a legend to someone. 


The 2011 Duke’s OceanFest events run from Wed. Aug. 24 (Duke’s birthday) through Sun. Aug. 28. The Legends Surf Classic runs from the 24th to the 26th.