Waimea Bay on a 5'8": Two surfers rave about the (seemingly) impossible
In 1982 Cheyne Horan had been on the World Tour for six years and was ranked second in the world, yet despite his competitive success Horan was beginning to move away from the cloistered world of pro surfing. By the middle of the decade he was living in a non-traditional commune, practicing yoga daily and militantly maintaining a healthy diet.
But before all that came the surfboard experimentation. With Geoff McCoy in his corner Horan began to probe and push the limits of surfboard design. In the following article Horan and McCoy talk about one of their most audacious yet little known efforts - riding a 5'8" surfboard in 20 foot waves at Waimea Bay. It was a feat that was largely overlooked by the press of the day but has assumed greater significance since the advent of tow surfing.
Geoff McCoy I had the idea of riding a small board in big waves, it was always a fantasy I had but Cheyne was the one that pushed me to go ahead and design a board to accomplish it.
Cheyne Horan 'Small can't be ridden in big waves.' That was the consensus of the general surfing fraternity. At the time I wanted to change surfing's approach and attack on a wave; when people went down I went up, when they went along the bottom I went along the top. So when they said you can only ride long boards in big waves I rode small boards and this is the first one.
Geoff McCoy At that time Cheyne and I were a potent combination; I had the vision, knowledge and skill to design the object and Cheyne had the vision, knowledge, balls and skill to pilot the object. So we went about making it happen.
Cheyne Horan A 5' 8" McCoy Lazor Zap, can you imagine how excited Geoff and I were in the shaping bay? We were about to change the way surfing in big waves was perceived. Geoff put everything into this shape. He spent many hours considering what to design for the mission we were to attempt. It was a whole new experience to design and shape a small board that would perform in big Hawaiian conditions. The board had to perform like no other board had ever done before.
Geoff McCoy I used Sunset and Pipeline as the two extremes for surfboard design and function, as to me they represent the essence of pure energy in the form of waves. Pipeline is a tubular 'round eye' with a steep wall requiring a shorter length board with more bottom curve and a high shoulder, full rail combined with a soft bottom rail to hold water on the steep, hard surface tension walls.
Sunset is the 'almond eye' with a long sloping faces requiring long, drawn out arcs, and you also travel longer distances to surf the wave. This requires a board that has a drawn out planshape and flatter bottom curves with a low shoulder rail.
I had spent many winters on the North Shore studying big wave designs with guys like BK, Reno and Jeff Hakman. I'd formulated designs that were working well for the McCoy team, guys like Larry Blair, Grant Oliver, Mark Warren and Steve Jones, so I felt confident going into the bay to shape this board.
I balanced out the design requirements combining a flatter bottom curve for running long distance, a planshape that would turn short arcs, plus a rail combination of open soft bottom with a lower shoulder off the deck. I got a blank glued up with less rocker, so I could have those longer flatter rocker curves for running speed.
The board was glassed heavy so it had momentum and sat on the water to give it good control in the windy, choppy conditions that it would need to deal with.
Cheyne Horan Geoff decided to use longer, flatter curves in the bottom and a little straighter curves in the planshape. The fin we designed was known as the Finger Fin. It had a very narrow base area with a long extended tip area. This allowed the board to run long arcs because the tip area was deeper in the water. At the same time the narrow stem allowed for easy turning. It was a very successful and practical design for its needs.
Geoff McCoy The main problem with the Finger Fin design was strength, by putting the base area in the tip of the fin it transferred the extra pressure to the tip area. This combined with its narrow shape put the stem and base area under greater pressure causing the base to sometimes break. To offset the problem we made the fin thicker but at high speed the extra thickness would lift the back of the board and cause it to cavitate. The solution would have been to use an aluminium fin but that became too much of a project at the time.
Cheyne Horan Paddling out at an out-of-control Sunset Beach the ultimate test was about to happen with no one out or on the beach. Will it work? Can I catch a wave of this magnitude? Yes I was scared, the waves were hairy and if I were to wipeout I was on my own. After a horrendous days surfing on massive faces with a board that could turn tight and long it became clear to me that small boards could surf big waves. I was convinced after riding Sunset, the next step now was Pipe.
Geoff McCoy I knew with what I had shaped that this same design would ride both Sunset and Waimea because both waves had big open faces with long distances to travel, but Pipeline was such a different requirement with steep, vertical walls. But I kinda still felt confident it would surf Pipe good.
Cheyne Horan One cloudy, windy afternoon Pipe was 10-12 foot and barreling with only a few guys out. I knew the take off spot and I got in relatively easy, dropping in vertically on edge and making it. After a few it felt like a beachbreak so I started to try and hit the lip. One wave I went up inside the corner of a tube and rode on the roof almost upside down and turned and flew onto the face - it was insane. Gerry Lopez was paddling out and saw it happen, he later said it was "the most radical turn he'd ever seen out here."
Geoff McCoy If you view old footage of those times, to me it is blatantly obvious that Cheyne was a superior surfer riding superior designed equipment. Surfboards that could go places other designs were not getting to. It was a great time. It was an age of innovation for both the top designers and surfers.
Cheyne Horan This was an amazing achievement for the design and also for myself as it was generally thought that you do not ride the same design board at Sunset and at Pipeline. They are completely different waves that up till then required totally different board designs - this was mind blowing stuff!
I wanted to keep going, taking it to the limit and beyond, so the next challenge was even greater. I felt like I was making fresh imprints on the planet, pushing surfing's limits to the max, being right where I wanted to be so I paddled out at 20 foot Waimea Bay on this 5' 8". I felt like it could be done, riding Waimea on the smallest board ever.
I sat right in the take off zone and the local Hawaiians were very supportive, they would say 'here comes a set' and watch intently to see if I could even catch a wave. I was sitting right on the ledge and dropping in just under the lip, riding down the face like it was a 3 foot wave. Going down the wave felt like I was going along a wave, I would turn a few feet one way then back, or I'd get in a valley, a crevice, while going down the face and stay in it riding the valley like a small wave. I was having some great rides, including one where I nearly went off the lip and did a radical snap in the pocket.
It was overwhelming stuff. I found it hard to believe what we had achieved on this amazingly designed 5'8". The Hawaiian's that assisted me were blown away and stoked and it was a talking point for quite a while on the North Shore that winter. I felt like I had climbed Mt. Everest without oxygen!
However the skeptics and powerbrokers of the day kept trying to discredit most everything we had done preferring to focus on any small negative aspect they could find rather than credit the sense of adventure Geoff was designing for and my own groundbreaking achievements.
Geoff McCoy To both of us the whole experience was an amazing accomplishment as we broke ground that had never been attempted or probably even thought of previously. Yet the combination of myself and Cheyne was so potent that the power brokers controlling surfing at the time saw us as a major threat to their self interests and proceeded to condemn and ridicule everything we were doing. We must have got up their noses for stepping outta the norm and thinking outside the box.
If you look in their history of surfing, that is the history of surfing as portrayed by the Big 3 and the media they pay for, it's like we - me and Cheyne - never existed at all and to this day the controlled surfing media refuses to acknowledge my new advanced designs and Cheyne's amazing big wave tow in achievements which are truly mind blowing.
Cheyne Horan Breaking the moulds and challenging traditions always ruffles the feathers of the establishment. They said we were crazy trying to design and ride small boards in big waves yet here we are some thirty years later and that's exactly what tow in surfing is proving works. When we were doing it back then we always figured we were way ahead of our time. Fact is, Geoff still is.
Geoff McCoy It's an irony that today's big wave tow boards are also very short, which as I said confirms our achievement regardless of the biased but influential few who did their utmost to cry us down at the time. Those highly opinionated and mostly ignorant fools now stand tall condoning the use of small boards in big surf as if they know what they are talking about. An overabundance of ego, ignorance and jealousy is not a good combination as time has proven.
Swellnet would like to give special thanks to Marc Atkinson, Damion Fuller from the Board Collector, Laurie Baker and of course Cheyne and Geoff for making this article possible.