Ricky Grigg, 1937-2014

Last known interview with the Sunset master and Oceanography professor

| posted on May 22, 2014

Ricky Grigg, big-wave maestro and Professor of Oceanography, passed away yesterday. He was 77.

Grigg was a standout in the early North Shore teeth-cutting scene of the late ’50s and early ’60s, before he took the plunge into academia; he earned a bachelor’s degree from Stanford, a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii, and a PhD from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Grigg then settled into a nice long career as a professor in the University of Hawaii’s Oceanography Department, a post he began in 1970, and in which he focused much of his research on coral reef formation. He continued to surf near his home on Oahu well into his 70s. Aloha, Ricky.

Matt Warshaw spoke with Grigg back in February about the ’66 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational, a contest Grigg won easily, surprising the field. The transcript of that chat follows:

The waves were huge for the ’66 Duke (which was actually held in early 1967, but is called the ’66 Duke because another Duke event was held that December…it’s confusing). Maxing west-northwest long-period Sunset. Hollow sections, trades blowing, but not too hard. Some big, dark, cave-like tubes. Greg Noll called it “the best day of the year; maybe the best day I’ve ever seen at Sunset.” Not everyone’s cup of tea, of course. Two Duke competitors haired out. Rusty Miller took gas in his prelim heat and broke his leg.

Going into the event, Grigg was a question mark, possibly an underdog. He was 30 years old, which in 1966 was ancient for a wave-rider. He’d been among the first great surfers at Sunset, probably the first great surfer in fact, swooping up and down those big open-ocean waves in the late ’50s and early ’60s when everybody else was gunning straight for the channel. Then Grigg suddenly checked out of the whole thing. Went back to school. When he got his Duke invitation, Grigg was in San Diego, at Scripps, hitting the oceanography books, cranking on a PhD. Stepped off the plane the day before the contest (looking “pale and bookish,” according to SURFER), having not surfed the North Shore in two years.

He paddled out calmly. Spent the first 40 minutes getting loose, putting up mid-range scores, along with one or two keepers (each surfer’s best five waves counted in their scoreline), then paddled 50 yards, 100 yards, more, out past the other guys, to a section of the reef that North Shore vet and Duke director Fred van Dyke had long thought of the “Ricky Grigg peak.” Kahuna smiled, and over the next 30 minutes sent him a pair of flawless hard-west set waves. Grigg nailed ‘em both. Up and riding for 10 seconds before he hissed by the rest of the finalists, on his way to connecting a series of hollow inside sections. Won the thing going away. Nobody was close.

It was the best contest of the decade, and the highlight of Grigg’s career, and I couldn’t wait to talk to him about it. —Matt Warshaw

You didn’t surf in the first Duke contest, the year before, in 1965. How come?

I was already at Scripps, and I had a final exam that week, so I couldn’t make it over. Plus I was just so under the gun with school for awhile there. The Scripps people were always saying things like, “You gotta really commit here, or don’t do it at all. No screwing around; no surfing Sunset Beach.” So for a couple years I kinda of dropped out of the sport.

You hadn’t surfed the North Shore for two years before you won the contest. And they held the thing on the very first day of the waiting period. You guys have any idea the surf was going to be good when you woke up that morning?

No. We left the hotel, loaded into a bus, drove across the island, and didn’t know a thing about the waves until we rolled over the hill there, heading down toward Haleiwa, and could see could all the whitewater at Avalanche. Everyone on the bus just started screaming.

The surf was good all day, but really pumped for the final.

Oh gosh, it was good. Fifteen-to-eighteen on the face, a little bigger maybe. About as big as Sunset gets.

At one point in the final you just paddled way past the other guys and sat out there and waited for those giant West Peak sets.

I caught one way way out there, and actually went left on it for a quite a ways, fading. Brought it back around and went right just about where everybody was sitting and waiting to take off. I’d ridden the wave for about 200 yards by the time I got to those guys.

The interference rule wasn’t really a deal back then. Anybody try and drop in?

No, it was a pretty polite bunch of guys. On that wave, at least.

You and Greg Noll were the two guys in the final with the most Sunset experience. But you actually had a lot more; you lived in Hawaii for a long time, and Greg just came over in the winter.

I knew the place so well. Partly because I dove the bottom all the time. And I had all kinds of different lineup markers. I knew Sunset like the back of my hand. The hardest thing, at that size, when you go way outside and wait for a big West Peak wave, is just catching the thing, because there’s more wind on the face out there.

There was no prize money the year you won?

No money. Two years later there was. Thousand bucks, winner take all. Mike Doyle won and got a bowlful of cash. I took second and got a handshake.

Everybody was so stoked on the Duke contest, because it was well-organized, and so nice and streamlined. It just looked so much better than the Makaha contest, which had grown into this huge creaky event. Did you surf in the Makaha contests as well as the Duke contests?

I think I surfed in one or two. I never did real well. The way they judged the Makaha contest was mostly on length of ride, and that really bugged me, mostly because Peter Cole could paddle so much faster than I could, so he was always in position for the best waves.

Peter won the thing one year. 

He did. He was my roommate. We were great friends. And after that Makaha contest, he came home and put the trophy right over my bed.

You were really one of the more clean-cut surfers of the time.

I was a big square, yes.

That signature “arms up” move you had, that pose you liked to strike now and then—where did that come from?

I went to Hawaii in 1953, when I was 16, and surfed Queens every day. There was a kid there named Alan Gomes; Baby Alan, everybody called him. He was the guy who did that first, who threw his hands over his head. I loved it. I just copied him, and took it back to Malibu, and it became such a hot item there. Lance Carson, and all those guys, they copied it from me. Even on the land, you know, it was just something you would do while you were standing there, maybe watching somebody else surf. Or anytime, really. It was just a “surfer” thing to do.

Sort of a matador deal, too.

Yes. Buzzy Trent used to take me to the Tijuana, to the bullfights, and after each fight, if the matador did a good job, you know, he’d stand there and look at the crowd and throw his arms and head back, arch his body. And it just looked so cool! It just seemed like something that ought to be done on a surfboard.

But you were the only one doing it in bigger waves.

I liked how it looked, and I liked how it felt. It got you to focus up at the very top of the wave, right above you. It made you look in a direction you don’t normally look.

  • Sam

    Legend

  • Vincent Goetz

    One of the greats, a very classy guy…

  • Bill Lane

    Rick was a friend and never acted like a surf star. Always had style. I first met him on the North Shore surfing at Sunset.
    I surfed with him regularly in town at “Old Mans” [in front of the Outrigger/Elks Club]
    I last saw him at Randy Rarick’s last surf auction and he was in great spirits.
    He will be missed.

  • Spider

    He was our idol in the early sixties. In awe of his accomplishments through his life. As Sam said, a true legend!

  • leebert

    I warmly remember seeing him take off one of the largest waves to crown the La Jolla Cove in the late ’60s (between 20-25 feet). A lot of surfer kids back then looked up to and admire him. He also worked with Scripps Oceanography in the area too.