"He knew Sunset and Waimea the way Kelly Slater knows Backdoor."
The iconic, legendary, sorta immortal big-wave surfer, Peter Cole, winner of the Makaha International in 1958, has died at his North Shore home, surrounded by his wife Sally and his kid, Peter Jnr, aged ninety-one.
Ol Pete wasn’t in the best of health, no one is as they approach one hundred, and on Feb 6, just as Kelly Slater was winning the Pipe contest aged fifty, Cole’s heart gave out and he died in his sleep.
“We all felt so fortunate to share this last stage of his life with him and when he had a last surge of awareness and energy Thursday night, we were able to enjoy his gracious charm and intelligent humor one last time,” Pete Jnr said.
I tuned in with Matt Warshaw, surf historian, to help comprehend the importance of Peter Cole’s long life.
Surfing just lost of the greats, wouldn’t y’say? Of course, most of us tuned in to the Pipe contest wouldn’t have known who the hell he was. So, tell me, tell us, who was Peter Cole and why did he matter?
Peter was one of those bright-eyed gung-ho California kids who dropped everything and moved to the North Shore right out of college, in the late 1950s. Fred Van Dyke and Ricky Grigg did the same. Buzzy Trent went a few years earlier.
You write in the EOS that his “analytic mind told him big-wave danger was overstated, he soon gained a reputation as one of the sport’s boldest riders.” You ever talk to him about that or did he expand on his thesis?
Peter was an incredible swimmer, a college champion, and he knew almost from the moment he arrived in Hawaii that he could swim his way out of just about any situation. Plus he put in so many hours out there, for so many years. He knew Sunset and Waimea the way Kelly knows Backdoor.
Pretty ironic he was blinded in one eye by his surfboard. You know the story?
I don’t know the story, no. But looking at photos of Peter today, I noticed again that one of his front teeth was dead, too, so he took a couple to the face for sure.
Is it true he taught Gerry Lopez and Jeff Hakman when he was a teacher at Punahou School? Do you know if he was a kind teacher or prone to using the lash?
Peter at some point, maybe 30 years ago, was locking horns with Ricky Grigg about something having to do with a North Shore development project. I forget the details. Other than that, I think maybe Peter was the single most beloved surfer in Hawaii apart from Duke and Rell Sunn. Like, admired, and respected across the board. I don’t know what he was like as a teacher, though. Fred Van Dyke, I think, was the guy who brought the flair to the classroom. Peter didn’t have the same gift for drama, like Fred. But I’d bet he was a first-rate teacher nonetheless.
He last hit Waimea in 1995 when he was sixty-five, but he was still scooping peaks at Sunset well into the two thousands, yeah? I like his take that you have to have a rich life outside of surfing or else you’ll drift away from your obsession.
I was just reading Peter’s EOS page and here’s the quote. “Those of my generation who dedicated all their time to surfing aren’t in the lineup anymore. For a surfer to ride into old age, it’s important that surfing be nothing more than a recreational activity. It should never be a person’s entire life.” I can’t remember if it was Peter or Ricky who gave laid this one other bit of knowledge on me, about aging. I’m almost sure it was Peter. The quote was something like, “At a certain point, the only way to keep surfing as you get older is to accept the fact that each year you will be a bigger kook than you were the year before.” Which sounds easy, right? I was still a good surfer when he told me that, and figured no problem, I’ll do as Peter says when the time comes. But when I started to get worse, I could not do it. That’s more or less when I stopped surfing. Peter truly did not give a shit how well he was riding, or at least not during the last 40 or so years of his active surfing life. He just wanted to be out there, at Sunset, in the middle of it all, and hopefully ride a couple. To back up what he said, above—because Peter had other things going on in his life, always, he never fell out of love with surfing. The whole thing. Paddling out, shooting the shit with Bradshaw or whoever else he was sitting next to in the lineup, riding waves, eating it, swimming in for his board. Peter did that, and loved it, till he couldn’t do it any longer. Greg Noll gave up. Buzzy Trent gave up. Fred Van Dyke pretty much gave up. Peter and Ricky Grigg went the distance, and I think in a way the surfing experience meant more to them in the later stages of their lives than it did during their heyday.
What can surfers drifting into middle and late age take from Peter Cole’s life?
Have a life outside of surfing. Don’t be a bigger kook than you have to be, but embrace the fact that your skills will crumble as you get older. I agree with everybody who calls bullshit on the “Best surfer is the one having the most fun” mantra. Until you hit 60 or thereabouts, at which point the mantra is god’s own truth.
(Subscribe to Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing here.)