| posted on September 19, 2012

Mike Todd, Black's Beach. Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

Author’s note: The following blog concerns unheralded and/or lesser-known surfing performances. Please feel free to add your own yarns in the comment section below.

I quizzed a friend the other day about the North Shore.

“What’s the gnarliest thing you saw while you lived there?” I asked.

He didn’t hesitate. My friend relayed a story about a huge day—one of those massive swells that are too big for Sunset and too small for proper Waimea. The kind of day when no one paddles out between V-Land and the Bay.

On the afternoon in question, however, my friend was surprised to see a lone surfer casually walk down from Backyards with a big board under his arm, and then even more surprised to see him paddle out at Sunset Beach.

If you’ve ever seen a giant, semi-closed-out, 15- to 18-foot Northwest swell at Sunset, you know what this means: a horrific maelstrom mind-fuck of a lineup, with random closeouts, gigantic lefts where the rights should be, rip currents moving faster than you can paddle, and the occasional inside triple-up for good measure.

My idea of hell, actually.

So as my friend was telling this story, I was trying to guess who the surfer was. It had to be some sort of North Shore psycho, I speculated, so I was thinking along the lines of a Bradshaw or a Doerner or a Clarke-Jones.

My friend carried on with the story and told me that even more impressive than the guy sacking-up and paddling out was that this guy proceeded to rip the living snot out of huge Sunset… for hours…by himself.

Then he finally coughed up the guy’s name: Tom Curren.

This was definitely unexpected. Not that I have ever doubted Tom’s surfing, it’s just that you don’t really hear stuff like this. You hear plenty of stories of Tom Curren ripping, but not many about Tom and huge waves.

This got me thinking about great performances that go undocumented and often untold. Stories that are, at most, only relayed around campfires. That are tucked away in the water-logged brains of lifelong surfers.

This story also reminded me of a big-wave performance that I had witnessed myself. A significant moment that went mostly underappreciated, on a huge morning at Black’s Beach.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a truly big day at Black’s, but it’s intimidating to say the least: no appreciable channel, an indecipherable lineup, and out-of-nowhere rogue waves to catch you inside. When a really big groundswell hits the underwater canyon at Black’s, it speeds up, dredges out, and super-sizes the swell. Over the last 30 years, I have seen about a dozen of these gigantic days—days with legitimate faces of 20 feet or more. And almost without exception, the best, biggest waves go unridden.

In a selfish kind of way, these unridden waves are frustrating to a photographer like myself. When you see a Hawaiian-sized, 12-foot wave drain from the Road to the Landslide, you just wish someone could catch the beast and get a long, Mack-truck-sized barrel. But then you realize that it would take a highly improbable skill set: a fearless, goofyfooted big-wave surfer with underwater canyon experience and the talent of a professional shortboarder.

Somebody like Mike Todd.

With due respect to all the brave, talented surfers that have tackled giant Black’s, in my opinion no one has come close to what Mike Todd did there in the span of two sessions. On two separate mornings a few years apart, Mike used the expertise he had honed from charging Puerto Escondido and ripping on Tour to decode the Black’s lineup and slay huge canyon waves more consummately than anyone I have seen before…by far.

And on Mikey’s second swipe at big Black’s, it happened: he chased down a huge rogue peak, made the super-late drop, pulled up high, got his big board pumping, stood tall in a huge, dry cavern, and then came flying out. It was easily the biggest, best tube ride I have ever seen at Black’s. Outside of Maverick’s, it was one of the best big-wave barrels ever successfully ridden on the West Coast.

Huge claims aside, what’s interesting to note about Mikey’s wave is that it went mostly unnoticed. This was because in a span of about 30 minutes, Adam Desposito had a dramatic wipeout on a solid 12-footer, Dylan Slater caught what some people cite as the biggest wave ever photographed in Southern California, about a dozen surfers had the worst caught-inside experiences of their lives, and the entire beach became one salty cauldron of white water and mist.

In this flurry of activity and haze, Mike’s accomplishment was kind of lost.

But not on me.

I saw what you did, Mikey.

  • George

    this is really frustrating….so many superlatives and so little perspective from someone that i thought had it.

    those days were actually well documented days and a quick youtube search will verify it. how many days has Blacks been equally as grunty but without the focus of the lens upon it. for the guys who love going out there when its like that and have had to read about how mike todd got the best barell ever out there this is kinda insulting…yeah he fuxxing and there arent many days like that but there have been equally as many days with equally as good barells as you cite that just went unoticed cause it wasnt quite as perfect looking from the gliderport…..luckily blacks will take care of itself and after a hyped swell or two we will have wont have to deal with all the cool dudes getting the glory shots and speedbumps getting caught inside and in our way and we can have the place to ourselves again

  • Skibz

    George, did you really just say that?

  • Jo

    I try to picture Mike’s face and state of mind when he drove back through urban sprawl, minutes after being out there and riding that wave. In Puerto you kind of just stay there and have a beer or two and take it in. In Indo same or the jungle is real.

    No doubt many more mysto sessions out there.

    I once found a good sand bar out of heavy closeouts one evening. It was chunky from the onshores. Next morning was clean and still there was this right hander section through the closeouts. The rip was huge. The rights were coming in nonstop, elongating tunnels from 2 to 4 meters. I caught a few, going straight, not quite catching my edge to pull in. I’d be yelling each time. A fisherman walking on the beach might have seen me then but thats it. I finally caught a great set wave and pulled in. I only remember being inside a brown cave a long moment. The curve of the curtain was thick and it was wild to see the sun again. One of my best, unseen.

    Minutes later, strong grin attached to my face, I walked past one of the little restaurants and had a bunch of school girls chat me up. I felt like a happy dog. I drowned in one of the girls smiles. I didnt know however, that the girl I was kind of seeing then was working at the restaurant across, watching me the whole time from behind.

  • Gerrie Warner

    In the late 60’s Trestels was still Marine training camp and closed to the general public but there was something called Fishing Pass which you flashed at the gate in order to access the beach area. . Long story but we managed to actually steal one from the windshield of a convertable with the top down (yes you read that correctly!) at the showers near what is now called “Lowers”. – ‘Nother long story zip to late afternoon – me and my buddy had enjoyed two sessions of shoulder to head high surf that day (interupted once by training Marines and a officer that checked our “credentials”. Near sundown we notice somone way outside paddeling into the line-up from the north and I figure one last short sundown session would be fun. I paddeled out – the paddler was David Nuuhiwa and we surfed till it got REAL dark ………..

  • Lei

    That’s the beauty of surfing. It’s all for yourself, it can be frustrating, but it’s always worth it. I Love this story.

  • patrick mcauliffe

    George, your such a Nor-Cal douche. Relax you 5mm warf rat –

  • Ty

    Alomost 15 years ago when I was just learning how to surf I came to my favorite local spot. It was a cold summer day, thick marine layer. One of those summer days you can’t even see the waves. My friend and I paddled out into the fog expecting horrible surf. When we finially got out to the break we saw, what in my eyes at the time was pefect overhead waves with only one other guy out. That guy just so happend to be Taylor Knox. He has always been one of my favorite surfers. On this day I might have caught a hand full of waves. It was above my skill level at the time. So I pretty much just sat and watched Taylor get spit out of countless barrels then put his board on rail harder than I have ever witnessed in my life. For me at the time it was like watching a super hero come to life. Since that day I have seen all kinds of pro surfers with my own eyes, but not one has come close to watching that session as a kid. The funny thing is we could have easily just gone home assuming it would have been a waste of time to surf, and missed out on a life changing experience. I think that is when I really caught the surfing bug, and thought to myself….One day I want to surf like that!

  • s4p

    Paddled out once w/ a buddy of mine on a pretty big and gnarly day at the beach… Just myself and my bud…. Great session… Walking back to my car, random brother in a truck who was checking the surf stopped to compliment me on our waves… totally unexpected but it was nice to have shared it with someone besides ourselves…

  • Ed

    Sat here in New Zealand reading this article. I have to say that people like George seem the exact polar opposite to what surfing is about over here. We get SO much great swell, and still everyone is relaxed and friendly. It would appear that you are due for a large heart attack in the near future. I’m sure your Dr will prescribe an immediate stop to all surf related activities in the vain hope it might save you from yourself. Pleas Never come to NZ and experience our laid back culture and epic waves, just in case your angryness and generally bad attitude rub off on anyone and begins to spread like a disease. Many thanks.

  • Sean Kelley

    George- you don’t sound like a “cool dude” There are plenty of photographers and surfers that dont have the luxury of living near the shore that travel to these places to imbibe that are respectful to the beach and the locals.To the point, I think Gilley was just sharing a great experience with the rest of us and giving a shout out to Mike Todd.

  • george

    I read some of these comments and tried to re-read what I wrote to see where I went wrong…I think that I may have explained myself poorly. I then thought about misconception and think I may have read Gileys piece wrong too so I re read that as well. I guess what I was trying to say is that there are soo many unsung surf sessions that have gone down at blacks, and spots around the word, but the way this piece was written this makes it sound like Mikes experience was the pinnacle. This goes against the whole idea of unsung….we cannot know what we dont know. So maybe Mikes session is a good example of an unsung surf session but we can never know what happened when we weren’t looking. To imply Mikes wave was the best of these unknown moments is shortsided…. I like to think that Giley just communicated things the wrong way and wanted to say something just in case he lost focus for a second….his writing has certainly helped me to do the same.

    I get bored surfing alone and enjoy the camraderie of my friends who i like to surf challenging waves with, I give waves to older guys and groms and when I get snaked by locals I keep my mouth shut and smile. How this viewpoint makes me unfit to surf in NZ or a grumpy norcal loc i cant really say…..

  • Ian Gibson

    Cool Story, Hansel.

  • Evan

    “Dylan Slater caught what some people cite as the biggest wave ever photographed in Southern California.”

    Does anyone know where we can see this photograph? Link?