The Swell of ’69

Story by Sharon Dymmel. Photo by Sunset Suzy Stewart

Every winter the surf gets huge in Hawai‘i. But from December 1 through 4 of 1969, Mother Nature delivered some of the most spectacular and terrifying waves ever seen in the Islands. It was—and remains—“the swell of the century,” and it led to one of the most important moments in surfing history.

Just four months earlier Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Despite that technological achievement, weather satellites and warning systems were in their infancy, so few knew about the three storms merging into a superstorm in the Northern Pacific. On O‘ahu the sun was out with barely a breath of wind, so when the waves hit the North Shore, they caught everyone by surprise.

The swell began building on a Monday. By Tuesday the waves had grown to thundering giants. “My family and I were eating dinner on our deck right by the water at Keiki Beach,” recalls Trevor Sifton, who was then six years old. “The waves were smashing up against the house. One huge wave hit so hard my father said, ‘That’s it! We’re leaving!’ Driving away we watched a wall of water wrap around our bungalow and smash through our living room.” Heading down Kamehameha Highway, Sifton watched in horror as people were washed off their feet by a foamy soup of smashed houses, uprooted foliage and downed telephone poles.

“I was living on the point at Laniākea,” remembers pioneering big-wave surfer Randy Rarick. “It was about 11 p.m. on December 2 when I heard the civil defense patrol come around with bullhorns … telling people to evacuate.” In true surfer fashion, Rarick checked the waves. “All I could see was the mist because the surf was so huge it was throwing all this water up in the air. Then the air cleared just in time for me to see an eight-foot wall of white-water roll across Kam Highway. Another wave broke over the rock wall that surrounded our backyard, and suddenly I was standing in two to three feet of water. I woke up my friend and said, ‘I think maybe we better get out of here!’”

In Hale‘iwa, Surf N Sea’s entire building was pushed inches off its foundation. “There were two sturdy palm trees on either side of the building,” recalls owner Joe Green. “So we took a metal chain, strapped it around both trunks and across the front of the building to keep it from floating away.” Boats in Hale‘iwa Harbor were dragged a hundred yards inland. By morning the high-water mark was thirty-eight feet above sea level, sixty homes had been damaged or destroyed and two people had died.

At 2 a.m. Thursday, Greg Noll woke to what he thought were tanks rumbling down the streets. “The whole house was shaking, dishes rattling in the sink.” By morning the waves were even bigger than they’d been the day before. Noll took one look at the sixty-footers at Waimea and pronounced them unrideable. He headed for Mākaha around Ka‘ena Point, the northwestern tip of O‘ahu, unsure whether the dirt road would last long enough to get him there. “I drove with my door open just in case the road crumbled underneath me and I had to bail out. When I made it through, I looked behind me and watched the thing falling into the ocean. I think I might have been the last car ever to drive around that point.”

At Mākaha, Noll watched the massive walls for two or three hours, he says, before paddling out. He dropped down the face of a thirty-five-foot monster and made it to the bottom, where an avalanche of water buried him. He lost his surfboard and nearly his life. It took Noll half an hour to reach shore, but he’d achieved something no surfer had before. “I’d been surfing twenty years and I just had such drive,” he says. “I always wanted to ride a bigger wave. But after that it was like the pressure was off. I went away with the feeling that there was never going to be another wave like that.”

Almost fifty years have passed, and “there have been some pretty big swells since then,” says Rarick, “but nothing like 1969.” HH