Felipe Pomar: On winning world titles, riding tsunami, and surfing until 100
Felipe Pomar recently spent a month travelling up and down the east coast of Australia. He was here as part of a World Surfing Reserves goodwill mission celebrating the announcement of the Gold Coast as a World Surfing Reserve and educating surfers about Peru's extensive surf history - a history that's been largely overlooked.
Much of the tour involved demonstrations of Peruvian caballito surfing - which you can read about here - though Felipe also found time simply to surf. Thankfully he also had time to sit down with Swellnet and recount a few of the more memorable events from an extensive, and as yet unfinished, surfing life.
Swellnet would like to thank Andrew McKinnon for arranging the interview.
Swellnet: I'd like to go back to 1965 when you were crowned the world surfing champion. The competition was held at Punta Rocas in Peru. Who did you surf against in the final?
Felipe Pomar: OK, in the finals it was Nat Young and Ken Adler from Australia, from Hawaii it was Fred Hemmings, Paul Strauch and George Downing, and from California it was Mickey Munoz and Mike Doyle.
At the time California and Hawaii were the centres of the surfing world with Australia coming on strong. Peru was a smaller surfing nation. How did everyone else react to a Peruvian world champion?
Well, interestingly enough, in the 1950s a lot of the top Hawaiian surfers were travelling to Peru for competition every year. Then in '60 or '61 John Severson came down and then in '62 Bob Pike, Mike Diffenderfer and Jose Angel. Many other people came down to Peru and we had a different competition where it was, like, a paddling event, and small wave event, and a big wave event. There was about a dozen events all of which gave points to crown an all round champion and the all round champion came out to be another Peruvian by the name of Hector Velarde.
Felipe Pomar in 1965
That competition was called a world championship in the media. So in the early 60s Peru was also coming on pretty strong. We had the Hawaiians coming for several years and the Peruvians took on the interest in big waves and so Peru had a very strong, solid ten year period starting around the early 60s.
What happened to that momentum?
In about 1970 there was a military coup. There was a change of government by force and the general that took control was very much anti-surfing. It was a leftist, socialist military takeover and they felt that the Peruvian elite were the people who were involved in surfing because of Club Waikiki, so they were totally down on surfing. They also...well, they turned the country upside-down and it's taken thirty to forty years for Peru to start coming back as a surfing nation.
You live in Hawaii now. Is that why you moved?
No, I had moved to Hawaii in 1963. I had spent two winters in Hawaii before the 1965 contest, and I had never surfed Punta Rocas before. Because Punta Rocas got discovered by Peter Troy and a Peruvian by the name of Mota - that was his nickname. They used to hold a big wave contest at Kon Tiki, which is a big wave spot near Punta Rocas. Then in 1964 when I was already in Hawaii they were holding a competition at Kon Tiki and Peter Troy and Mota decided that because they couldn’t surf where the contest was being held they'd paddle across to this wave that's never been surfed before and all of a sudden everyone realised that that was a great wave and it was easy to see the surfers. The other one was very far away and not a good contest wave.
This is leading us to one of the more bizarre events in your life. You're famous for many things but perhaps most famous for being one of the only surfers to have ridden a tsunami and survived. What year was that?
I believe that was 1974.
And it was yourself and Piti Block?
Correct. It was me and Piti.
And you were back in Peru at the time?
Yes, we had reason to believe that a wave in Peru called Pico Alto got as big or bigger than Waimea and so I was looking to find as big of a wave as I could find and I was hoping Pico Alto would break while I was there and Piti and I were praying for it.
Were you at Pico Alto at the time the tsunami hit?
No, Piti's house was maybe a mile from Pico Alto, and we had got up early in the morning and we had run along the beach side, as we did every morning. We'd run past to look at it and run back and decide if we were going to surf and where.
Surfing Waimea Bay in 1968
And where did you end up surfing that day?
We ended up at Piti's house. You know after running we ran back and the surf was maybe shoulder to head high which in Peru is considered flat. So we looked at it and it was flat and we wondered if we should go out or if we should we not.
We were training for big waves so we said, “Well, let's just go for a surf and catch some shoulder high waves.”
So we put on our wetsuits and we had our boards under our arms and we came out on the boardwalk looking out at the surf and all of sudden Piti started screaming. I had known Piti for...well, he was the guy who turned me onto Club Waikiki about ten years previous, and he was a race car driver and a surfer and I'd never heard him scream.
So you know...he was pointing out to sea while he was screaming and I was looking at him wondering what's got into him. He kept pointing and I looked at where he was pointing and there's an island there, the island almost connects to the coast and goes out about three-quarters of a mile to sea. On that island there were people doing very strange movements. That's what he was pointing at and then I saw these people on top of the island doing this dance.
And the next thing I knew there was this incredible noise, it sounded like a jet engine was right behind us or like a train was rushing by, and then after the noise the ground started shaking. Piti and I were the only people on the beach, there was nobody else on the beach. Then when the streets started shaking he ran off. I ran off behind him, he turned a corner and I stopped and asked myself, “Where can I to run to?”
You have to imagine, the ground was shaking and the walls were shaking and my friend was gone so I thought, “OK, it's an earthquake. How do people get hurt in earthquakes?” And so I looked up to make sure no buildings were above me, and I had seen pictures of the ground opening up so I decided to hold onto my surfboard so if the ground opened up beneath me I could bridge it.
And you know, the ground kept shaking and some walls started falling, and as the walls fell a big cloud of dust would go up in the air and I kept telling myself to relax, that it's just an earthquake and it'll be over soon.
But the walls kept falling and the ground kept shaking and I started wondering if it was more than just an earthquake. I wondered what could it be if it was more than an earthquake. And pretty soon I thought...well, maybe it's the end of the world! I was convinced it became the end of the world!
But then the shaking stopped....and when it stopped I went to look for my friend. I turned the corner, bobbed down and wondered where he was. And he was standing in the middle of the street. I asked him, “Where where you running to? Why would you run?”
And he said that when he was young he was told to either stand beneath a doorway or run to the middle of the street. So he ran to the middle of the street.
So now we were walking together back to his house, shaken up, and he says we cant go back to Lima – the capital, about an hour away. I asked why, and he says well because in the last big earthquake in 1938 Lima was destroyed and there were fires everywhere.
I said, “OK, we cant got to Lima.”
So he asks, “What should we do?”
And we had our wetsuits on and our surfboards under our arm, so my immediate answer to that question was “Let's go surfing.”
Well of course!
I expected him to say we can't go surfing but he said OK. And when he said OK I thought, “Wow, we've been waiting for big waves, well that earthquake must generate some big waves and he's willing to go out with me.”
So I thought about how big the waves could be, because the earthquake lasted a minute and fifty seconds, which is extremely long, to try and determine how big a tsunami it could generate.
I had lived in Hawaii for about ten years and I had heard a lot of tsunami alerts and none of them had generated anything impressive. You know there had been some, a few inches here, a few feet there, and so in my mind I thought it could generate ten foot waves...or maybe it could even generate twenty foot waves. I had already surfed twenty foot waves and I figured, you know, what an opportunity, and he's willing to come out with me.
So off you went...
Yeah, so off we went. We paddled out and no sooner had we got out that Piti paddles up to me and says he wants to go in. I told him we'd just got out. “Why would you want to go in?” I said. And he said, “Well, I just caught a little wave and it held me under longer than I've ever been held under in my life. So I want to go in.”
“Well,” I said, “at least let's catch a wave in.”
So now we're sitting there waiting for a wave and he says there's a strong current pulling us out to sea and I think, “That's not good. Perhaps we better paddle in.” But now, as we're paddling in, I happened to look sideways at the island that I mentioned earlier and since I had something to look at I realise that I'm paddling towards shore but I'm going backwards out to sea. So I started paddling as hard as I could...and I was still going backwards.
I then sat up for just a few seconds and I was going backwards so fast that there was no sense in paddling anymore. So I sat on my board and started doing some deep breathing because I knew I'd have to make some important decisions soon and I wanted to make the right ones.
So anyway, we got sucked out in no time to beyond the island, probably a mile out to sea I would guess, and there were boils coming off the bottom of the ocean. A mile out to sea!
There was also chop and it wasn’t a foot or two in size, the chop was six to ten feet in size and it didn't have the regular pattern. It had no pattern. Chop was coming at us from every direction while these boils were coming off the bottom. It was like the ocean had gone crazy and was doing things it never usually does.
However, the thing that impressed me the most was that when we got sucked out and I looked at the landmass. In Hawaii, when you look at the landmass, it ends. It's an island. But this was endless coast to the right and to the left, and inland I saw coastline and then mountains and some bigger mountains and then bigger mountains still. It was this big landmass and we were being sucked away from it which made me feel very, very insignificant.
So now I really started looking at the possibility of how big the tsunami was going to be. When I was on land I though, who knows, maybe ten to twenty feet, but now that were getting sucked out to sea and the ocean was acting crazy I revisited that thought and I realised I had no idea how big a tsunami could be. Under the circumstances I thought it could be a hundred feet....and I realised we were in deep trouble.
I figured our best chance was to cross that bay, which was maybe a mile-and-a- half or two miles across, that we had to paddle to the old big wave spot called Kon Tiki, which was on the other side of the bay. If we get to Kon Tiki and get a wave we can catch it four-fifths of the way to shore and then paddle the last stretch. So I told Piti we're gonna paddle across the bay, we're gonna catch a wave and we're gonna paddle in.
So we started paddling across, and of course I keep looking at the horizon because now I expect a hundred foot wave. But fortunately no hundred foot wave came and we got closer and closer to Kon Tiki and finally we got close enough. I told Piti the plan was to paddle straight into the impact zone and catch the first whitewater we see and then we'll see each other on the beach. He said OK.
I was a little bit ahead of him and paddled into the impact zone and all of a sudden there was wave there and I caught it and the first thing I do is...you know, I jump to my feet and make a bottom turn. And then I had this thought, “What are you doing?” I said, “You're not supposed to be surfing. This is survival. Just get to the beach.” But my immediate thought was that I may never make it to the beach. That this may be the last wave I ever catch. “Enjoy it,” I said to myself.
Was it well-shaped, Felipe?
Yes, it was wonderful. A perfect wave in every way. I still don’t know how big it was. It was as big as a house, probably a two storey house, but I was worried about the hundred foot wave so to me this was an easy ride out of the ocean.
How far did you ride it?
That wave eventually turned into whitewater and I rode it almost all the way to the beach. As I paddled to the beach something off to my right took my attention and what it was was a boat, a fishing boat that was flying through the air. A wave had pitched the boat through the air and it had impacted a cliff and it turned it into little pieces of wood. It was like a comic book. There was no more fishing boat.
I thought, “Don't even think about that, just get to the beach. Think about it later.” So I got on the beach and looked around. My friend Piti was about forty feet away paddling in, which doesn't sound like much but I had seen all sorts of unusual things happen during the last hour that I just hoped he could make it. Finally he did, and when he did we started dancing together and patting each other on the back. We were so happy to be on solid ground.
Its an amazing story Felipe...
Yeah, but it still wasn't quite over. When we were dancing I noticed the ocean receding even further and at the other side of the beach was this big fence spreading a hundred feet in each direction and the fence was ten feet tall. So all of a sudden I said run and we had to run to get around the fence 'cause we had no way of knowing how or when the ocean was going to come back again.
And that's my tidal wave story.
It's incredible. You spoke a lot about training for big waves at the beginning of that story, and that's what you've done living in Hawaii. Whereabouts in Hawaii do you live?
I'm living on ********** but I'd rather you called it an outer island.
Ha ha ha...OK, well I wont ask what your local wave is then.
Very good. It is one of the best waves in the islands.
How old are you now Felipe?
I turned 72 in November.
Felipe surfing recently near his home in Hawaii
We've just come through a bumper El Nino Hawaiian season. Did you get out in the water much?
I got out every day with a few exceptions, mostly when there were no surfers and they were towing in.
And what was the biggest wave that you rode this season?
You mean in my life?
No, just this season.
Well everybody measures differently. Let's just say it was the day they were gonna hold the Eddie and they didn't hold it because it wasn't going to be big enough for enough hours or something. I surfed that day and got some big ones.
The thing about the wave where I live is that it doesn't get tall as Waimea but it is just as challenging because it is very long and you cant drop down, you have to ride high or you’ve got no chance of making the wave. So it's not a tall wave like Waimea but its a very long and challenging wave.
To be surfing such large waves at 72 years old you must look after yourself. What do you do besides surfing?
Well there's two interesting points there. Number one: society has it wrong. It tells us that once we get to a certain age that we cant do things anymore. That's not correct. If you take good care of yourself and you stay active you can do it far longer then people realise, and because I love surfing and I want to maintain the lifestyle I have, Ive become a health coach and I'm learning everything I can to allow me to continue doing what I love – surfing big waves.
That includes nutrition?
Of course. It's a little bit complicated, but nutrition and exercise are two of the main points but then theres also supplements and vitamins and a lot of scientific discoveries happening very fast. With a little luck a lot of people alive today will be able to live beyond one hundred years and perhaps into several hundred year.
And surfing all that time?
Well, I have a goal which I will do my best to attain - I hope to be surfing at 100. That's my goal. It'll be up to other people to go beyond that.
All the best with your goal Felipe.