As the youngest in a group of World War II-era surfers that included John Kelly, Wally Froiseth, and Fran Heath, George Downing was not only in on many of the earliest forays into big wave riding in the 20th century, but also contributed design discoveries that broke the barrier to 20-foot surf and beyond.
One of his earliest shaping projects was to take a redwood plank given to him by “Uncle Brownie” at Waikiki in 1943 and make a more maneuverable “hot curl” design, with help from his friend Froiseth who first explored the concept in 1935. By changing the vee through the tail section to a semi-round shape, Downing was able to run a flatter bottom forward, and found what he referred to as “the board of my dreams.” Dubbing the board “Pepe,” Downing rode it all over the South and North Shores of Oahu, noting its amazing speed. The lessons he learned in altering the tail section of Pepe would lead to experiments with skegs (including the creation of a fin box) that would transform notions of what was possible on a surfboard.
In a time before surf trips even existed, he sailed to California and spent two months in 1947 surfing up and down the coast on his beloved Pepe. An unfortunate collision with the Malibu pier damaged the nose section of the board, but led Downing to learn about new materials called fiberglass and resin from a like-minded designer—the enigmatic Bob Simmons. Upon his return to Hawaii, Downing continued a systematic approach to gaining the knowledge that would allow he and his friends to ride ever-larger surf. He began observing reef structure and early weather charting technology to better understand the effect of swell size and direction. He and buddy Walter Hoffman took turns wearing a face mask while the other would ride past overhead so they could note how the water flowed off the bottom of the boards they rode. His surfing life has been direct and experiential.
As a businessman George Downing created the venerable Downing Surfboards, which his son Keone continues, and has worked to prevent the corporatization of the Waikiki beach concessions. Downing’s surfing accomplishments include winning the Makaha International in ’51, ’61, and ’65, as well as numerous paddleboard races. Many years the Director of the prestigious big-wave event at Waimea Bay in memory of Eddie Aikau, Downing has shouldered responsibility for making the call on the right, true 20-foot day to hold the contest. Longtime friend, Steve Pezman, notes, “Downing is very analytical in his surfing. He thinks about what’s going to happen and how he’s going to play the game. George combines athletic skills with innate and acquired knowledge of surfboard design.”
George Downing stands among the founders of our pursuit, as he and a select few approached the problem of riding big waves in a time when there was no reward beyond the satisfaction of the act itself. —Christian Beamish