Surfing made Fred Van Dyke‘s life. And, as he says with a shrug and a remorseful chuckle, surfing ruined his life. Of the many things I love and admire about Van Dyke, his ability to live comfortably with his own contradictions is near the top of the list, next to his relentless honesty, and a humaneness that you can warm your hands by.
Van Dyke was 75 years old when I interviewed him, in 2005, at his small but well-appointed house in Lanikai, on the east side of Oahu. We didn’t shoot the shit much. Van Dyke isn’t big on banter. He wants to engage, to connect. There are always big things to talk about. At that time, after a lifetime of exemplary fitness, Van Dyke was having health issues. His balance was off. His memory, especially when trying to recall anything recent, was spotty. On the other hand, Van Dyke was more at peace with himself then he’d ever been. Retired, happily married, spending half the year at his second house in Montana, fishing and hiking and soaking up the Big Sky. Peter Cole and Ricky Grigg, both lifelong friends of Van Dyke’s, told me they’d never seen him in better spirits. When I visited, Fred approached the subject of his own happiness in a manner that was typically offbeat and forthright. For the past 28 years, he told me not long after we sat down, he’d been seeing a psychologist. “Great guy. He’s opened up my life a million times. I just had an appointment yesterday, and he said, ‘Fred, you’ve made it. You don’t need me anymore; you’re in good shape.’”
Van Dyke was born and raised in San Francisco, and moved to Hawaii in 1955, at age 25, to surf big waves. Bright, handsome and educated, he quickly got a teaching job at Punahou School, which he held for over 30 years. In the late ’50s he took John Severson’s surf movies on the road. A few years later he ran the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational. In 1965, Van Dyke dropped a quote for the ages in the ear of a Life magazine reporter, saying that “most big-wave riders are latent homosexuals.” In the Freudian sense, Van Dyke later explained, a bit desperately. Big-wave surfers didn’t necessarily want to have sex with other men, but they were in a state of arrested development where the only thing that mattered was the company and opinion of other men. But the niceties were lost. Van Dyke had called the entire big-wave fellowship a bunch of pansies. That’s what stuck. To absurdity-loving surfers of a certain age, myself included, it’s still one of the funniest episodes in surf history.
You took shit for that “latent homosexual” remark for years.
Years and years. I’m still taking shit for it!
Do you regret saying it?
[Long pause] I’ll always try and get at the truth, and that’s what I was trying to do with the interview. But yeah, I do regret it. It didn’t come out the way I intended. Plus I was just being kind of a know-it-all. I meant what I said, but I overstepped. I should have said “latent adolescents” instead of “latent homosexuals.” That would have saved me a lot of hassle.
Have you always been kind of an anti-establishment guy?
Sure. Starting, probably, with religion. I was raised a very strict Catholic, went to a really strict Catholic school, and I was disciplined constantly—sometimes way beyond what was called for. Once I started thinking for myself, the first thing I did was throw out everything I learned from the church.
When was this?
Late teens, around there. I was confused about a few things when I started college, and didn’t know where to go, so I thought, “Well, I’ll go to the bishop.” So in I go, and I ask him these really deep important questions about where my life was heading, and what was I supposed to do—all these things that were really bothering me. After I was finished the bishop sits back and looks at me, and says “Faith, son. You must have faith.” That’s it. I go “Thank you, Father,” got up and left and thought to myself, “Screw this. No more religion.”
Years later, when you were teaching at Punahou, didn’t you mix it up a bit with the administration there?
I was popular with the students. Kids flocked to get in my classes. But no, the administration didn’t like me all that much. And they weren’t totally wrong. Teaching never really felt like a career to me. Surfing was my career. Teaching was just a way to support my surfing, and a way to cover up the fact that I was basically addicted to riding waves. It was sort of like “Hey, everything’s fine! Look at me, I have a respectable job!” So I enjoyed teaching, but could have lived without it. And I cut work all the time; whenever the surf was good. It got brought up at meetings a number of times. “Do we really want to keep this guy?” But they couldn’t fire me because I was so popular with the kids and their parents. The administration ended up just having to live with me.
How did you end up running the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational?
Kimo McVay, Duke’s manager, put the contest together, and needed somebody to run it. He asked Peter [Cole] first, and when Peter refused, he asked me. I said okay, but only if we do it on my terms. So the Duke event ended up being really different from all the other contests at the time. Smaller, better surf, great media coverage. It was a great contest, as contests go.
But you aren’t really a big fan of surf competition in general.
No, not at all. Contests, most of them, are totally ridiculous. Ludicrous. There’s enough competition happening out in the water just on a day-to-day basis. I remember this day at Sunset, probably in the late ‘50s, all of us were out there, Peter and Buzzy [Trent] and Ricky [Grigg], the whole gang. Fantastic surf all afternoon. And at the end of the day, we walked up the beach, and we all looked at Ricky. It was his day. We all knew it. There’s your winner.
What was the high point of your surfing life?
The first time I rode a 20-footer at Makaha. Without a doubt. It was my first winter over here, and at that point I really had no business being out in big surf, but I was just so determined to do it. And the very first wave I caught that morning was a 20-footer, and I shot down to the bottom, looked up, tried to climb back into the pocket, then just got buried. It was the most memorable wipeout of my life, because I really seriously didn’t think I was going to come up. When I finally did make it to the surface, my whole life had changed. That really was the wave of my life. I was screaming, out of my head, all the way to the beach. I caught five waves that day, all 20-footers, and wiped out on all of them. And I loved it. It was the biggest thrill of my life, and I spent the next 30 years trying to recapture the feeling.
Surfing pretty much took over your life, you said?
Totally. Completely. When the surf was up, I didn’t think about anything else. I just wanted to surf all day, go home, eat dinner, sleep, and do it again the next day. I didn’t think I’d ever quit riding big waves. Ever. Jose Angel and I used to sit out in front of my house and talk about how long we could keep going for. And I said, “Jose, we can probably do this until we’re 70.” And Jose said, “No, longer. I’m never going to quit.” That’s what we believed. And we surfed accordingly. But meanwhile, I didn’t think about my wife [Van Dyke was married twice before Joan], my kids, my work—none of it mattered. I didn’t care about anything. If I found out the surf was good and I’d missed it, it would ruin my whole week. The whole thing was selfish as hell. And I’m not selfish by nature. I wasn’t selfish when the surf was flat.
Did you think of it in those terms at the time?
No, it was just who I was. It was all I wanted. In a lot of ways, it was wonderful. I loved being that devoted to something. For years and years, it was fulfilling. But then it wasn’t.
Was it that obvious? Like, all of a sudden it wasn’t fulfilling?
No, no, no. Not at all. It took me forever to realize that my life was really screwed up.
Greg Noll and Buzzy Trent pretty much quit cold turkey. You kind of phased out.
I was downshifting out of the big-wave things for years, but I was still surfing pretty much all the time right up until I married Joan [in 1985].
As far as big waves go, what I like to do now is rent a car in San Francisco and drive north up Highway One during winter, along the coast. I love looking at huge waves still. But I have no desire whatsoever to be out there.
Peter Cole still rides big waves.
Peter is just a completely different animal. He’s a phenomenon. No fear out there, where I was pretty much always terrified. I mean, he was an All-American swimmer. He has size 13 feet! He has swim fins for feet! He can’t drown.
Ricky Grigg said you were the bravest big-wave surfer of all, because your fear level was higher than anybody else’s.
I forced myself into big wave riding at the point of a gun! (Laughs). I was a big-wave rider who couldn’t swim worth a damn. I was out there mostly for reasons having to do with proving to myself and everybody else that I was a man. Ricky, Peter, Buzzy and the rest—yeah, they enjoyed it a lot more than I did. Any time the surf was big, the happiest moment for me was afterwards, walking up the beach toward my car.
Do you surf these days?
I’ve got two boards in the backyard, and sometimes, by myself, I’ll walk down there. It has nothing to do anymore with if the waves are good or not. If I catch one wave I’m happy. If there’s no surf, I’ll just paddle, and that makes me happy too. Mostly what I do now is bodysurf. That’s how I started, when I was a kid, in San Francisco. Swimming in the ocean—that was always my real joy, anyway.