I first became aware of Howard Benedict in the mid 1970s. He was a dentist and I heard that he surfed a little. Later I found that he surfed more than a little and was a phenomenal big-wave rider that would fly to Puerto Escondido during the summer’s biggest swells to ride the famed Mexican pipeline. Of course he never told this; I never heard him brag about any of his many accomplishments. Not long after my first meeting him, I began seeing Howard in the lineup. He was friendly surfer who had that far away look of someone whose focus was always on the horizon. I think it’s what they call the thousand-yard stare, only more pleasant and present. And, more focused.Dentistry was his job. He made a good living from it and he was good at it. The ocean, on the other hand, was a calling to him, a vocation and a place he seemed more comfortable in than anywhere else. And while I was riding the local swells, feeling brave on the biggest days at Swami’s, Howard’s far off vision came into focus on waves more than three times larger than those I hesitated into. He was riding places like Todos Santos Island, where he dropped in on some of the biggest waves on the coast. A true adrenaline addict, you’d never know it by his calm demeanor in the surf. And while he loved big surf, he didn’t mind it going flat. It was then that he enjoyed his other love, free diving, going deep and spearing the biggest fish you could find, including a world-record 102 pound wahoo that he shot in Mexico and is featured in the book, Blue Water Hunting. There were other fish and other waves.
Nevertheless, he found adventure even in his tame home breaks near Encinitas. There’s a now famous story that has been verified by Surf Ride owner, Bill Bernard about Howard and a whale. I heard this one several years ago from Benedict himself. He tells of how he saw a whale, cruising near shore at the break known as Pipes. Never one to pass up a once in a lifetime opportunity, Howard ditched his board and climbed aboard, for the ride of his life. The whale took him out quickly, in waters that only Howard and other deep-water mammals are familiar with. Needing to swim deeper into the ocean, the whale flicked its tail and sent his passenger sailing.
Howard took early retirement from his dental practice and spent much of his time deep in Baja where he continued to surf and dive. When back in Encinitas, he would race his boat out to Todos, whenever the big north swells hit. One such swell was in the window and Howard was ready to charge, riding the biggest wave on the biggest day of the year, something that many estimate was in excess of 30 feet. The ocean has no limits, but we all do, even legendary watermen. The wave hit him hard and drove him deep. So deep that he didn’t surface until he was in calm water, where he was found floating face down. Howard was revived, but the minutes of oxygen deprivation took their toll and, eventually his life. But it never took his great heart and the memory we forever hold of him.
On March 3, a fraction of those who had been touched by this gentle waterman gathered to scatter Howard Benedict’s remains at Pipe’s, not far from where he gathered many lobster, speared halibut and became one of the only people ever to ride a whale. As with all of us, it was the whale’s pleasure to be Howard Benedict’s companion, even if it was just for too short a while.