Waterspot: David Nuuhiwa, king of the ’60s surfers

Waterspot: David Nuuhiwa, king of the ’60s surfers
David Nuuhiwa at the Moore’s Cancer Center Longboard Invitational. Photo by Chris Ahrens

Hawaii born and raised John John Florence is currently my favorite surfer. Not only is his surfing fast and radical, but stylish in the Hawaiian tradition. There’s only one John John.

Long before JJF was born, however, there was a surfer who expressed similar unique qualities in his wave riding. It was the early 1960s and a young boy named David Nuuhiwa (pronounced “New Wave Uh”) appeared on our radar like an atomic submarine. This occurred in a time long before every star’s acne problem was tracked on social media, and a great surfer could quietly rise without much notice.

Huntington Beach was our local surf spot at the time and it was there we first saw him — long black hair, tall and rail thin, making moves on a surfboard we previously thought impossible. In a time when tube riding was still in its infancy, this kid was getting barreled, turning hard and hanging 10 into infinity. All of this was done without excess movement as he flowed like a cool wave of color toward shore.  Where others had stood tall in our eyes, David toppled all previous heroes.

After that first day, I saw him often, but I had never spoken to him until he introduced himself to me on the beach.

He had recently moved to Huntington Beach from Hawaii, he said in what I would later discover was Pidgin English, something often spoken by those from his island homeland.

It would be a few years before the surf media caught on.

After that, he was ranked among the best surfers in the world and his star began to shine regularly in the pages and on covers of Surfer Magazine.

By 1966 he was the odds-on favorite to win the World Contest in San Diego’s Ocean Beach.

In the years I had watched him, he had never surfed any way but brilliantly.

On that day, however, he somehow failed to catch fire, while Australian Nat Young blazed red hot, and ran away with the title on a smaller surfboard than was common for the time.

The unexpected loss sent David into an experimental phase, and a few years later he reinvented himself on a wide, split-tailed board called the Fish, a shortboard design he would help make famous in the early 1970s.

By the mid ‘70s longboards had fallen out of favor, and it wasn’t until the mid-late ‘70s that David’s greatest mentor, the late Donald Takayama, began building those old-style boards again.

The retro machines did not catch on, however, until David was photographed on one of them.

I can still see him taking off on a red board, running to the nose and hanging 10 in the way that had won our hearts a decade earlier.

Longboarding’s greatest practitioner was back, and surfers like the great Joel Tudor, who had not yet been born, will readily acknowledge their debt to him.

Over the years David and I spoke often, sharing waves and stories of surfers we had known.

We were never really close until the day he invited me to the “Weekend of Champions,” a prison ministry where churchgoers share the gospel with prison inmates.

Of course I was nervous initially, but not in the way I had been decades earlier when the best surfer of my generation introduced himself with a smile and a handshake.

This time I was not so concerned that poorly chosen words might embarrass me in front of America’s best surfer, but that they could prove fatal.

Obviously they didn’t and David and I were left to surf another day.

I still see him around from time to time. Sadly, it’s more often than not at a memorial paddle out for a mutual friend. He is no longer rail thin, and his jet-black hair has turned white.

Many of the young longboarders who see him have no idea who he is, or that they are standing on his shoulders.

I often wish more of them understood that the moves they attempt today would not be possible if he had not been there half a century earlier. 

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