When Sam Hawk migrated to the North Shore from the oil derricks of Huntington Beach, he dragged along era-defining talent.
By Kevin O'Sullivan
Light / Dark
January 17, 1972, the surf came up overnight out of the west. There was some light wobble in the morning, but previous swells had cleared the sand off the bottom, leaving Pipeline wide open. By midday, the outer reefs started to feather as the energy continued to build. Soon after, Pipe’s takeoff area moved to Second Reef. A foreboding mist hung in the air, as the winds weren’t blowing hard enough to clear the impact zone after each set.
Art Brewer, one of the premier photographers of his era, already had several North Shore winters under his belt by that January day. He had been there for the Swell of the Century in December 1969, when three storm systems converged on Oahu and wreaked havoc on the North Shore, the day big-wave giant Greg Noll paddled into his fabled final wave at maxing Makaha. But he’d never before seen this degree of size and conditions.
“I happened to mosey on down to the beach,” remembers Brewer, “and was blown away. The crowd was very sparse. It was really hard to shoot, but the waves were just insane. And it was Blind Owl [Chapman] and Sam Hawk—they ruled it that day.”
The events of that afternoon became legend. The copious documentation of Huge Monday filled the pages of surf magazines and the frames of surf films for the next few years. It not only made a star of Hawk, but also provided a needed boost to the morale of surfers disconcerted by the narrative slipping out of their control.
While Hawaii remained unchallenged as the spiritual birthplace of surfing, in the 1960s, California’s primacy had become contingent. The regional concentration of surf-related manufacturing and media is not necessarily unique to one country, but the post-war affluence of the US combined with the structural importance of Hollywood in getting the surf “message” out, whatever that message may have been, gave it distinct advantages. The surf craze wasn’t just an isolated retail bonanza, but also originated a unique genre of electrified music as well as a handful of regrettable teen-exploitation flicks.
That early and mid 60s surf fad quickly ran its course, but rather than return to “normal,” the incremental changes that had begun, quietly, cascaded into what became known as the Shortboard Revolution in the late 60s and early 1970s, a radical rethinking of surfboard design that coincided with a noticeable tilt toward the counterculture that was happening mostly in Hawaii and Australia.
Hawk arrived on the scene after the big shake-up, when many of the most well-known and respected surfers who led the pack before the revolution had been left behind. A few—Jeff Hakman, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Jackie Baxter, John Boozer, Billy Hamilton—made the transition seamlessly, if not coming out of it stronger than before. They were Hawk’s immediate predecessors and his mentors, the guys he kept an eye on in the lineup.
But after his performance on Huge Monday, Hawk, too—as a staple in surf magazines and with appearances in most of the surf films of that period—became a luminary of the transition era. He was easily recognizable, with stereotypical surfer good looks, a well-toned physique, and tousled blond hair. His persona was part matador and part rodeo clown, with a combination of classic style and innovative surfing. And, according to surf historian Matt Warshaw, it boosted the morale of Californians who had experienced a crisis of confidence.
“California was deep in the doghouse in the 1970s,” says Warshaw. “Hawk, even though he lived in Hawaii, still felt like ours—a California surfer. You could tell by the hair, the way he walked, the drawly Southern California voice. Whatever pride we had as California surfers back then, about 80 percent of it resided in Hawk’s balls-to-the-wall charge at Pipeline on Huge Monday.”
Hawk was born in South Gate, an industrial city 7 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, in 1950 as the second of three boys. Tom was the eldest and Chris the youngest, the latter born on Sam’s first birthday. Their father worked as a truck driver and in construction, and, during Hawk’s early years, the family moved often around the Gateway Cities region, a cluster of neighborhoods that border Los Angeles and Orange County, before winding up in Huntington Beach. That final move, to within a few miles of the Huntington Beach Pier, would have a significant impact on all three boys.
“My dad brought us to the beach when we were young,” says Hawk. “He said, ‘It’s all yours.’”
Huntington Beach was a sleepy backwater before the discovery of oil in 1921, when the population quadrupled practically overnight. Pumpjacks were as common in backyards as swingsets, and oil derricks towered over the beaches well into the 1980s, when the city shifted its economy toward developing the surf-oriented tourist trade.
The city’s official association with surfing can be traced at least as far back as 1914, when Hawaiian George Freeth gave a demonstration at the pier. But it wasn’t until after WWII that riding waves really took hold. The pier became the focal point of the burgeoning surf culture, with the sandbars on either side of it providing the best waves in town. Gordon Duane opened up his first shop underneath the pier in 1956, and over the years dozens of other shops have followed suit nearby. Unusual for beach towns at the time, Huntington surfers found support from the local municipality, and the West Coast Surfing Championship held its inaugural event at the pier in 1959. It was renamed the United States Surfing Championship four years later and ran annually until 1972, when support for surf contests in general reached its nadir.
The oil boom had largely faded by the time the Hawks arrived, but Huntington still maintained a roughneck quality that distinguished it from other coastal towns. The pier itself, as well as the downtown area behind it, was run down. It had a sense of being “the wrong side of the tracks,” divided in this case by the Santa Ana River from the more upscale Newport Beach. Long before it won the right to proclaim itself “Surf City, USA,” Huntington Beach was known as “The Surf Ghetto.”
But among the scrappy, working-class youths who congregated around the pier were some of the best surfers Southern California has ever produced. The Hawk brothers fit right in, quickly acquiring skills in the water. Like most kids, they started out riding rubber rafts rented by the hour, until Sam saw an old Gordie made of balsa leaning against a brick wall by Ed’s Dairy one day. When no one appeared to claim it, he picked it up and took it home. The brothers painted the board yellow and proceeded to wax its bottom.
“Tom, Chris, and I used to carry it to the beach every day, 3 miles there and 3 miles back,” says Hawk. “Then we decided to hide it in the bushes for a couple months. But someone saw our hiding spot. We came back one day and it was gone.”
Shortly thereafter, Tom got a new three-stringer Gordie for Christmas. As the eldest brother’s skills advanced, he began hanging out with some of the local hotshots, including Baxter, Boozer, and Bobby and Tommy Leonardo. The middle Hawk was soon tagging along.
“They had that attitude,” he says, “and they had big surf knots on their knees. You were the man if you had big surf knots on your knees. That’s who I was looking to, in and out of the water.”
Tom quickly followed Boozer and Baxter over to the North Shore, leaving Hawk behind to go wild. It’s easy to imagine him as a delinquent version of Rick Griffin’s Murphy character, running riot around Huntington Beach. Hawk admits to often stealing from parked cars, among other things.
“That is what all the hula grommets did back then,” he explains, “to get a couple of bucks when we were hungry.”
But he continued to hone his skills in the water, managing to get on Jack Haley’s surf team. And change was in the air. In late 1966 a crew of surfers, greasers, and petty criminals from Orange County coalesced around a shared interest in perennial philosophy and psychedelics, and registered their group, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, as a tax-exempt religious organization. Over the next few years, they would garner international notoriety for their prodigious smuggling operations, close ties to Timothy Leary, and the production and distribution of massive amounts of Orange Sunshine, their infamous “brand” of LSD.
Chuck Mundell, one of the more talented Huntington Beach surfers, was a founding member of the Brotherhood and was responsible for giving the group its name. It was Mundell who introduced The Endless Summer star Mike Hynson to the group, leading to a few of the Red Fin crew being regular participants in some of the “church services” up in Modjeska Canyon.
Sensing that a rudderless Hawk was drifting in a bad direction, Mundell took a fraternal interest in the young surfer and decided it was time to initiate him into another way of being.
“We all laid out in a big circle,” says Hawk on joining Mundell and several dozen others for the first time at Black’s Beach. “We took the sacrament—the Bread of Christ—put it on our tongues, and laid down right on the ground. They said, ‘Just focus on your center.’”
What ensued was both typical of a first experience and impossible to describe. It did, however, have a transformative crossroads effect on Hawk, and possibly on the ocean as well.
“The surf was maybe 2 feet when we laid down,” says Hawk. “When we got up, it was 12 feet. I don’t know what they did, but something happened down there. The guys from the Brotherhood saved me. After that, I got away from all the hateful stuff. I stopped stealing. I really wanted to go to Hawaii, because that’s where Boozer, Baxter, and my brother were.”
Hawk evidently had some good karma coming his way. While still in high school, he managed to attract the attention of his idol, David Nuuhiwa, then widely considered one of the best surfers in the world. Soon they were driving around together in Nuuhiwa’s woody with boards in the back, looking for surf. And shortly before Hawk left for Hawaii, Nuuhiwa took him to the Bing shop and told him to pick out any two surfboards he wanted. “Those are the boards I took to Hawaii,” says Hawk, “a David Nuuhiwa nose rider and a Dick Brewer Pipeliner.”
By late 1967, Hawk was on the North Shore, reunited with his brother and the growing contingent of émigrés who had left the surf ghetto behind in exchange for some country living. Hawk was, in fact, still a minor when he moved to the Islands. The North Shore of the late 1960s, mind you, was a fairly lawless place where psychedelics and similar recreations were quite plentiful. Hawk had to reassure his mother that he wouldn’t starve to death, as well as finesse the issue of not graduating school.
His move also happened to coincide with the Shortboard Revolution. Overnight, the boards that Hawk had come over with were obsolete. It was an era of great creative ferment, and serious R&D was taking place in some of the world’s most challenging waves.
While Boozer and Baxter arrived on the North Shore with considerable skills and reputations, and were quickly able to advance to the top ranks at the marquee breaks, the younger Hawk was intimidated by the bigger waves, choosing to quietly advance his surfing on his new, modern equipment at more-secluded spots.
“In 1968 and 1969,” he says, “you’d have to knock on doors to get somebody to go surf with you at Velzyland. At ten o’clock in the morning, there’d be nobody out.”
In 1970, Hawk was staying in a house rented by his friends Phil Hernandez and Tiger Espere, located across from Kammie’s Market. Espere would often drop Hawk off at Velzyland before heading over to Sunset. One day, however, Espere told Hawk to stop surfing Velzyland. It was time to surf Sunset.
“My first time out felt like it was in slow motion,” Hawk says. “I’d drop in and the wave would just zip by me. I’d eat crap and the board would pop up next to me. This was before leashes. I’d say, ‘Oh, God, I have to paddle back out for another set. Then the set would come and I’d go, ‘Shit!’ I’d hear, ‘Get it, Sam!’ So I’d go and eat it again, and the board would pop back up. The whole time I was saying, ‘Damn, I wish that board would go all the way in so I can get the hell out of here!’”
It took a couple of weeks of trial and error to figure it out, but, with Espere’s coaching, Hawk finally got a groove going and began surfing Sunset regularly.
“Then I got brave and wanted to go to Pipeline,” he says.
Hawk knew that even on lesser swells Pipeline demanded respect, so he was ready the day that Boozer and Baxter fetched him for his first go-out at the spot.
“I was high on mescaline the first time I ever surfed it,” says Hawk. “They were too. It was 10-foot-plus, but it seemed a lot bigger than that. They caught a few waves and then one came to me, and I heard them say, ‘Okay, Sam, this one’s yours. Ride it like you own it!’”
He made that wave and paddled back out, ready for the next one. Then he got more waves and took a couple of wipeouts, which, if nothing else, helped keep things in perspective.
“You’re always afraid out there,” explains Hawk. “It’s gnarly, scary. That really helps your thinking. You have to have some fear. It’s not a place to mess around. And I used to wipe out a lot. Guys would sit on the beach and say, ‘Here comes Sam. Get your peanuts, popcorn, your beer. We’re going to see some fantastic wipeouts!’”
Despite this early reputation, Hawk certainly did make his share of waves.
Hawk first met Owl and Gary Chapman, two surfers originally from Newport Beach, when Owl moved into a house where Hawk was living. The Chapmans had ties to Dick Brewer going back to the mainland, and Gary was an important test pilot for Brewer in the earliest days of the revolution. Hawk and Owl often surfed Sunset together, and Hawk soon became interested in getting a board from Brewer.
“Owl said, ‘I can get you a board, but you can’t meet him. He doesn’t want to meet anybody. Just get to the bank, get me your $75, and I will get your board made.’”
Hawk gave Chapman the money and soon had a new Brewer that he tested out at Sunset Beach. When he came in, he encountered the shaper on the beach.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Next time [you can come to me and] I’ll shape your board for free.’”
The relationship developed quickly. Eventually, Hawk shaped a surfboard himself and wanted to know Brewer’s opinion of it.
“He looked at it,” says Hawk, “and said, ‘Do you want to shape for me?’”
Hawk began working for Brewer in a two-story house behind Pipeline, with two rooms for shaping and another dedicated to glassing.
“He taught me everything,” says Hawk. “He was upstairs and I was downstairs. I used to run upstairs and sit in the corner and watch him shape, then run downstairs and try to mimic what he was doing.”
On one occasion, Hawk made a board with a flat deck. Pleased with the results after riding it, he went to Brewer.
“I said, ‘Brewer, these flat decks are what’s happening. They are faster.’ A round deck is convex, so it sucks up. It just drags more. When you got on a flat deck, you could feel the air go over the top. Brewer said, ‘Really? Okay, flat decks.’ Bang, flat decks are here. And they’re still here today.”
George Weaver, a young surfer from Newport Beach, had Brewer shape him a board, but was dissatisfied with the rails, which he felt were too hard. So he took the shaped blank to Hawk to make some changes. Weaver specified that he wanted the turned-down rail tucked in on the underside, a detail that worked so well that it was incorporated into future Brewer designs.
It was also Hawk’s association with Brewer that led him to take on the North Shore’s pinnacle wave. While Hawk had overcome his fear of Sunset and Pipeline, there was still Waimea Bay. He first paddled out to the boil on a new 10-foot Brewer gun. Only Peter Cole and one other surfer were out. Brewer had told Hawk before he dove through the shorebreak that if he wanted to surf Waimea, he had to take a really mean wipeout. Hawk did so on his very first wave.
He made it to the flats, but, as he prepared to do his bottom turn, the board kept going straight and he belly flopped, expelling all the air in his lungs. As he got sucked up and over, he managed to poke his head through the wave, getting one good breath and what might well have been his last view of land. Hawk remembers seeing people on the point and thinking about Tommy Lee’s cannonball wipeout from 1962, all the while deciding what position to take before full impact.
“Then it blew me to pieces,” he recalls. “I was married at the time and it blew my wedding ring off, blew this little necklace I was wearing off. I was hanging onto my pants. I was lucky I survived that one.”
When he finally made it to the beach, he found his board in two pieces. He gathered up what was left of it and went straight to Brewer’s house, where the shaper gave him another new gun.
“I never wiped out at Waimea again after that,” says Hawk.
In 1971, Jeff Divine, then just an 18-year-old on assignment, spent his first of many winters on the North Shore. Showing up with Surfer magazine’s famous tripod-mounted 1,000-millimeter Century lens, doors opened up all along the entire 7-mile strip.
Divine wound up sleeping on the floor of a house rented by Danny Calohan and Jim Turner, who had their Plastic Fantastic shaping bays and glassing room next door. Jock Sutherland, Espere, and Brewer would often come around to make boards, and Joseph “Buddy Boy” Kaohi, Dave Garner, Kanaiaupuni, the Chapmans, and Hawk would sometimes drop by for late-night card games, cockfights, and the occasional foray into Honolulu for more citified mischief.
“Sam was a real quiet guy,” says Divine. “He never waved his flag, never put his nose up in the media. In the water, he was smooth but radical. Really classic style, arms out. He did hard bottom turns, almost like Kanaiaupuni. When Sam was out, you knew you’d get good photos. Because of his body language, speed, and positioning, you could get four keepers on one wave, whereas with some surf stars, you’d only get one.”
Divine’s first season on the North Shore was also the year it seemed to all come together for Hawk. He was a protégé of the most celebrated shaper of the era, attracted the attention of the leading photographers of the day, and had joined surfing’s elite. He was invited to be in that year’s Expression Session, a kind of anti-contest that paid participants—24 of the world’s best surfers—$200 to surf a “session,” six surfers at a time. There were no judges and no awards, but there was surf. The opening round took place at beautiful 10-foot Pipeline.
As Hawk remembers it, he was stuffed in the pit a couple of times by a certain legendary Pipe specialist, and shifted his game plan.
“I painted this red dot on my forehead because I knew I was going to go right. I was going to be a Banzai kamikaze!” he says.
“Before Sam,” recalls Divine, “nobody [really] went right. It was considered a closeout, and too dangerous a closeout. But Sam took off on a medium-plus bomb that day and got barreled.”
A few weeks later, on a January morning, Hawk was surfing Rocky Point with Weaver. As the swell got bigger and bigger, the two went down to Pipe to check it out. At first it seemed there was nobody out. The two dominant surfers of the lineup, Gerry Lopez and Rory Russell, were reported to have left the beach with injuries.
“It was huge, and as west as it could ever get,” says Hawk. “It was rolling in sideways, breaking way out in a cloud break. There were two guys far outside. I saw lefts just peeling off to the inside with nobody on them.”
Hawk didn’t need any more motivation. He grabbed his board and paddled for the horizon.
“There were other guys that got waves that day,” says Art Brewer, “but Sam got the biggest and the baddest of them. Sam wasn’t known so much for big surf like that, but that day at Pipeline he put his signature on it. He made history.”
His performance at Pipeline on Huge Monday—along with Chapman, James Jones, and a couple of others—was unprecedented, anticipating the much-celebrated “Backside Attack” that came to Pipeline a few years later.
“It took Shaun and Michael Tomson combined,” says Warshaw, “to finally better Hawk’s mark at Pipeline.”
Few events and experiences could ever match the intensity of those early years on the North Shore. While Hawk’s story didn’t end in 1972, much of what followed seems anticlimactic in comparison.
Hawk had been a direct beneficiary of the shake-up that happened during the transition from longboards to shortboards. A couple of years later, another shift occurred that, though having little to do with equipment, had a profound effect on the culture: the professionalization of surfing. It was a movement that, despite the involvement of Randy Rarick and Fred Hemmings, was largely perceived as an Australian and South African phenomenon. What played out was a struggle for the soul of surfing, with the Hawaiians and Californians arrayed on one side and the Australians and South Africans on the other. In the end, “soul surfing” lost the heat.
It’s hard to imagine a bigger, better announcement that a new generation had arrived than the packaging of the Backside Attack at Pipeline during the winter of 1975/76. Like Huge Monday before it, it provided content for the surfing media for years to come. It was a brilliant marketing tool for the handful of surfers who identified with it, and it laid the foundation for bona fide legends like Shaun and Michael Tomson, Rabbit
Bartholomew, Peter Townend, and Ian Cairns. Bill Delaney’s 1977 film Free Ride confirmed at 24 frames per second what the magazines had already shown: a new generation had arrived, and the older generation was slowly fading away. Or they just left. But that doesn’t mean Hawk and his peers went unnoticed by the later arrivals.
“Sam was the hottest surfer on the North Shore in 1972 and 1973,” says 1977 world champion Shaun Tomson. “When I think of his surfing, I think of free-flowing rhythm synthesized with raw power. He had charisma, this flashiness, and a radical approach that was similar to Barry Kanaiaupuni. A true power surfer. BK was the Hawaiian god and Sam was the California god—just very pure. With his free-flowing blond hair and the way he held his arms, he embodied the archetypal surfer of his era. Sammy was very versatile. He could surf Rocky Point, Sunset, and Pipeline. He had more versatility than anyone except Reno Abellira. He could translate his style into many different kinds of waves. If you look at the evolution in the 70s, you have this progression from Sammy, Fitzy, Owl, Lopez, Reno. Then this big shift in 1975 with the contests and professional surfing.”
Hawk did enter a few events—and made the finals in big contests on the North Shore—but, for the most part, his heart was not in competition. By the end of the 70s, practically all of the media attention was focused on the new competitors—and the proliferation of surf brands hawking the lifestyle that came along with them.
Hawk continued to shape boards on his own, with his market mostly in Japan. He spent less time on the North Shore and quietly slipped out of the conversation.
Hawk’s later trajectory is a familiar one, and includes a period of substance abuse followed by recovery. Throughout this time, however, there were moments when Hawk’s will, condition, and experience asserted themselves, including inter-island paddling adventures with Tom Stone and, famously, serving as Cheyne Horan’s tow partner during the massive run of North Shore swells in 1998.
Around the turn of the millennium, Hawk went quiet again, remaining somewhat of a mystery until he resurfaced in Huntington Beach in the summer of 2018, when he shaped a handful of surfboards. A year later, he was inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame. He’s still shaping boards today, working out of a small bay on Oahu.
Reflecting on the era, Shaun Tomson remains respectful of his predecessors like Hawk, attributing to them their importance in the natural progression of each generation building upon the achievements of the one that went before it—an awareness that every individual occupies a place on a longer, more important timeline.
“They certainly had the great, pure backside surfing at Pipeline down. Their equipment wasn’t as sophisticated as ours, and ours wasn’t as sophisticated as what came after us. There was an end of something and a beginning. For guys like Sammy, it was an end. We went down one path, he went down another. But, at the end of the day, we were all part of that evolution. We all, especially Sammy, put our brick in the wall.”