Surf historian on the death of a Hawaiian who "knew all the secrets."
On Monday, the great Hawaiian surfer, shaper, pioneer of board design and big-wave surfing, George Downing, died at home in East Oahu. Read his obit here.
I knew a little about George. He was the contest director for The Eddie. Could handle a planer and had the surfboard biz Downing Hawaii. Was one of the first guys to push ’emselves in big Hawaiian waves. One kid won the Eddie, another made it to the finals of the Pipe Masters.
For a little perspective, I got Matt Warshaw, surf historian, met Downing a few times, onto the keys.
BeachGrit: Son of a bitch, that fifties big-wave era is almost gone. George Downing. Yeah, he was old, but he’s taking a piece of the sport with him. Pioneered some of the heavier spots on the North Shore, was heavily into surfboard designand so on, yes?
Warshaw: If you ask Billy Kemper and Shane Dorian who their main big-wave surfing influence was, then ask THOSE guys who their main influence was, and so on and so on, at the end of the line you end up with Buzzy Trent and George Downing. They started big-wave surfing, along with Wally Froiseth. And Buzzy absolutely bowed down to George. George was the master. He was the first to go all-in. Downing put a fin on the hot curl board and invented the big-wave gun. He was the first surfer of note to geek out on weather maps and swell forecasting. He invented the pin-drop bailout. And he had a beautiful, smooth, high-line style. Downing was quiet, smart, ambitious, creative, and kindly, but in a powerful mafioso-don way. He had a lot of juice.
Born and raised in Hawaii?
Yes. I’m not sure what happened when he was a kid, but I believe George was pretty much raised by his uncle, Wally Froiseth.
If you ask Billy Kemper and Shane Dorian who their main big-wave surfing influence was, then ask THOSE guys who their main influence was, and so on and so on, at the end of the line you end up with Buzzy Trent and George Downing. They started big-wave surfing, along with Wally Froiseth. And Buzzy absolutely bowed down to George. George was the master.
Y’ever get to talk to him?
A few times. He was great friends with Steve and Debbee Pezman, and when I lived in San Clemente I’d drop by their house often, and when Downing was in California he’d stay in the guest room. I was nervous around him, but he was always friendly. Watchful guy, kind of reserved, dry sense of humor. We faxed back and forth a couple times when I was doing Encyclopedia of Surfing. He’d never done a profile piece in a surf magazine. There was no information out there about him, or very little. It took some convincing from Pezman to get him to play along with EOS, and he make me sign a agreement that the biographic information he gave me would only be used in that book. But once we got that out of the way, he was right into it. Answered all the questions, came through in a big way.
How did he end up being called The Guru?
Downing just knew more about surfing than anybody, or surfing in Hawaii at least, and if you knew how to approach him he was really open about sharing his knowledge.
Tell me about his relationship with Waimea Bay. Pioneer, first. And, later, Eddie contest director.
No, I don’t think George liked surfing Waimea. Or rather, he didn’t like it near as much as Makaha, which was his heart and soul. Downing was a finesse surfer, he was slender and kind of slippery with his line. Waimea was better suited for Greg Noll; big, thick, grunty guys. Waimea, you want to be a sledgehammer. Makaha, at size, you want to be an arrow, like George. For the Quik contest, though, Waimea was the right call. Waimea was Eddie’s wave, and it breaks more often, and the spectating is better there than Makaha. George wasn’t all that stoked to surf it, but he knew Waimea was what Quik needed for the event.
You can even credit him with the removable fin. True?
True. The other bit was, he had these templates from the 1950s that were magic, and when Barton Lynch won the world title he was riding a board George made him, from those same templates.
He asked Nat Young not to include him in his History of Surfing. What happened there? Was he a salty bastard?
In the early editions of Nat’s “History of Surfing,” Nat had this brief Afterward saying that Downing asked to be left out of the book. Nat complied — which is like doing a book on NBA centers and leaving out Bill Russell. Was Downing a salty bastard? He had a temper, and didn’t suffer fools. I’m guessing in his younger days he was a scrapper, and a good one, but none of that as far as I know carried into adulthood. George had an almost visible aura of power, though. When Vince Collier died, people were calling him the Godfather. But George was the godfather. Wise, helpful, generous; a guy who’d seen it all, done it all, knew all the secrets, could get things done. There isn’t a replacement for George Downing.
George Downing, 1930 – 2018 from ENCYCLOPEDIA of SURFING on Vimeo.