His father was a Waikiki beach boy and a high-level martial artist—a rare recipient of the Red Belt in Karate and the only American ever to achieve the rank of 12th Dan. David was riding a surfboard almost as soon as he could walk. After his mother died when he was four, he spent his early years in the care of various relatives before migrating to California in 1961, where he joined fellow Island transplants Donald Takayama and Harold Iggy in the South Bay area. There, the lanky Hawaiian quietly became an underground surfing sensation—an almost occult presence on the coast, a preternaturally gifted surfer rumored to be the best young talent in the state, and then, before long, perhaps the greatest surfer the world had known.
The young David Nuuhiwa seemed to float in a rarified realm all his own. Physically elegant and contained, tall and lean, he exuded a kind of royal aura. In the water, he often perched in supreme isolation at the front tip of his surfboard, orchestrating each subtle nuance of a perfect ride from this impossible position—often for 5, 10, 15 seconds at a time. On the face, he incarnated something mysterious and sublime, operating in a zone that was so far beyond the ordinary that he both defied and defined the limits of possibility. It was like a deal had been made with the devil. In those days, his superiority (especially in performing the sport’s ultimate maneuver, the noseride) was so universally acknowledged, he was accepted as the heir-apparent to whatever throne surfing might have to offer.
After back-to-back victories in the junior division of the United States Surfing Championships (’65 and ’66), David was the odds-on favorite to take the World Title in San Diego—any alternative was unthinkable. So it was an astonishing defeat when he was eliminated in a six-man semifinal heat, possibly defeated by a stomach flu rather than his competitors. The late-round loss denied David the opportunity to meet his much-anticipated rival, Nat Young, in the Final. In fact, David was nowhere in sight when Nat Young rewrote the future of surfing in Ocean Beach by breezing through the Final on “Magic Sam,” thus ushering in the shortboard revolution. In the same stroke, David Nuuhiwa’s moment for greatness had passed.
True to his nature, he kept his poise and persevered—even as he was made to play the human pylon for a sport that was turning a new corner. David paid more dues as he transitioned from long noseriders to small swallows. Yet he surfed more heats and won more trophies. He navigated the cultural vortices between Electric Ladyland and Huntington Beach, and, always willing to reinvent himself on the level of his art, he won the 1971 U.S. Surfing Championships surfing with a tri-fin surfboard almost a decade before the Thruster. He finished fourth at the same event the following year, after interrupting a hot final heat to paddle an injured pigeon to shore on the nose of his board.
Finally, in October of 1972, David Nuuhiwa found himself back in Ocean Beach in the final heat of a World Surfing Championships. That morning his favorite surfboard (now a lightweight little fish, which had been stolen a couple of days earlier) was hanging from the pier, hacked and impaled on a butcher knife, with an inscription that read: “Good luck David.” Nuuhiwa persevered, ultimately coming runner-up on another board. Some thought he won. He deserved to. —Drew Kampion