The call comes in a little after ten o’clock on a quiet night. It catches the Uber driver napping, pulled over in his Jeep in the car park at Huntington Cliffs.
But he quickly sizes up the situation: three guys at Duke’s, just a matter of minutes down Pacific Coast Highway, wanting a ride out to some condos in Lake Forest. It means he can call it a night after he drops them off. So he whistles a little tune as he makes smart time into downtown Huntington Beach and pulls into the Duke’s parking lot, next to the pier.
The riders pile in, all of them a bit younger than the driver. They’re happy drunks, though a little worse for wear.
“Hey, man, what’s your name?” says one from the back, slurring a little. The man up front in the passenger seat is already on the nod.
“I’m David,” says the driver, a lilt in his tone. “My name is on the booking on your phone.” He doesn’t really want to engage all the way to the 405 and on the journey beyond, but being pleasant is his nature. “You guys have a good night?”
“Sure as shit did,” says the guy in back, nudging his dozing partner. “We don’t get a pass too often, but we have a hoot when we do. So cool to sit in the bar with a mai tai, looking at the pier and remembering all them times we used to shoot that mother. Hear what I’m sayin’, Dave? We used to line it up and surf right through that damn thing. Crazy shit. Anyway, I’m Ron.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ron,” says David.
As they pull up at a stoplight on Brookhurst, the driver turns to greet his passenger.
“Man, you look familiar,” says Ron. “You ever surf, Dave?”
“Yeah, a little. Not so much these days.”
“You ever compete?”
“A little. A long time ago, man.”
Ron studies the white mane atop the driver’s head, the firm line of his jaw. A penny drops. He leans forward and prods the driver on the shoulder.
“Dude, I know who you are. You’re David Nuuhiwa! David fuckin’ Nuuhiwa, best goddamn noserider the world’s ever seen. God fuckin’ dammit, that’s you. Right?”
The driver offers a half-smile into the rearview mirror and nods.
“Yep, that’s me. Like I said, it was a long time ago.”
David Nuuhiwa, 73, a half-century ago the most charismatic surf star on the planet, turns onto the 405 headed south and hits the gas. It’s late and he wants to go home. But he keeps smiling and chuckling at the jokes from the back, because he likes that too.
Such a scene was commonplace during Nuuhiwa’s brief career as a rideshare driver.
“You know, most of it was pretty fun,” he says. “Guys would recognize me and want to get photos when we got to the airport. The other drivers would be like, “If he’s so famous, why’s he driving an Uber?”
It seems like a fair question. Back when I was a teenaged goofyfoot growing up in mid-century Australia, Nuuhiwa seemed almost beyond famous. He won most everything he went in and even things that he didn’t, like the Surfer Poll and, especially, the respect of the kids at every beach.
“The young David Nuuhiwa seemed to float in a rarified realm all his own. Physically elegant and contained, tall and lean, he exuded a kind of royal aura. In the water, he often perched in supreme isolation at the front tip of his surfboard, orchestrating each subtle nuance of a perfect ride from this impossible position—often for 5, 10, 15 seconds at a time. On the face, he incarnated something mysterious and sublime, operating in a zone that was so far beyond the ordinary that he both defied and defined the limits of possibility. It was like a deal had been made with the devil.”
California’s most perceptive and erudite observer of the 1960s and early 70s surf scene, Drew Kampion, penned those words in a much later retrospective for Surfer magazine, in an issue that ranked the 50 greatest surfers of all time, with Nuuhiwa coming in 31st.
But when it comes to putting Nuuhiwa into context, at the time when it truly mattered, Kampion was far more conflicted than he was all those years later.
Because by 1966, when the entire surf industry and media regarded the lanky Japanese-Hawaiian kid who had charged through the junior ranks by defying gravity with graceful and extended noserides as a shoo-in for the next world title, Kampion had already embraced internationalism. Its name? Nat Young.
That’s a shorthand way to describe a complex issue that defined David Nuuhiwa’s ascendancy to the top of surfing’s pile, just two years after he’d started making a mark in the junior ranks, which itself was only a couple of years after he’d arrived in California from Oahu as an unknown and uncertain teenager—just turned 13—with a squint and funny teeth. The issue at hand was, ultimately, what type of surfing constituted “good” surfing in a competitive world where money might be involved?
By the mid 60s, there were still only three centers of influence in the surfing world: California, Hawaii, and Australia. Although all kinds of surfing were possible in each of these destinations, even on the logs of the day, the reality was that California was the home of small-wave performance, Hawaii was the home of big-wave performance, and Australia existed somewhere in the middle. There was, of course, cross-pollination. From the early 60s, young Hawaiian hot-doggers like Donald Takayama had moved to the US mainland to make money in the shaping bays while the leading Australian surfers had begun making pilgrimages to Hawaii, where Midget Farrelly became the first non-Hawaiian to win at Makaha, in 1962.
In 1965, while Takayama was helping his young protégé, fast developing as a noseriding genius, to get sponsorship deals in California, Australia’s Robert “Nat” Young, about six months older than Nuuhiwa, finished second to Felipe Pomar at the surfing world titles in solid waves at Punta Rocas, Peru. Though this was the first real indication that the Sydney-based Young might be a surfer for all occasions, it barely flickered onto the self-obsessed California radar.
Instead, as the Australian surfing elite started working on fundamental design changes that would make their formerly clunky boards adaptable to a variety of conditions, and as those in Hawaii started to rethink the big-wave gun, California’s major players started to mass produce current models to keep up with exploding demand, fueled by the Beach Boys and the rising leisure culture. Rather than reinvent the dynamics of a surfboard, Californian manufacturers focused on one aspect of aesthetic upon which to base their new and booming sales: perching on the nose of a surfboard, which quickly came to stand at the apex of surfing achievement.
While the origins of the maneuver that had overtaken its parent are somewhat disputed—one theory is that Rabbit Kekai pioneered nose work on the hot curl board at Waikiki in the 1940s; another contends that Dale Velzy first hung five toes, then ten, then heels, at Manhattan Beach in the early 1950s—a couple of decades later, it had come to mean everything, at least in California. And no one did it better at that time—perhaps hasn’t since—than young David Nuuhiwa.
When you consider how famous David Kealohalani Nuuhiwa III would become in a small but expanding cultural bubble, it comes as a surprise to discover he is by no means the most famous person in his lineage, which can be traced back many generations. Nuuhiwa’s grandfather, David Kiaaina Nuuhiwa I, born on Kauai in 1900, was a well-respected Navy tugboat captain who fathered ten children and had 41 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren before dying at Waianae in 1987. But it was to be Nuuhiwa’s father, David Kawaikoolihilihi Nuuhiwa II, also born on Kauai, on the Hanalei River in 1925, who would attain heights of achievement that few sons could hope to live up to.
The mythology paints him as a humble, fun-loving Waikiki beach boy, following in the wake of the Kahanamoku brothers—surfing, paddling, looking for fast romance every time a Matson cruiser docked in Honolulu Harbor. The reality is that from a very young age he was fearsomely dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in the martial arts, competing around the world after World War II, a rare recipient of the red belt in karate and the only American ever to achieve the rank of 12th dan.
Known in the martial-arts world as Professor David Nuuhiwa, and in the surf world as Uncle David, he parlayed his hero recognition in the martial-arts community into a crucial role mentoring youth in Native Hawaiian culture and martial arts, known as lua. By 1959, when Hawaii achieved statehood, Uncle David’s stature was such that he was chosen to be Statehood King at the annual Aloha Week street parade in Honolulu. In later life he would return to his surfing roots and bless events held at Huntington Beach.
David Nuuhiwa III was born on July 23, 1948, in Honolulu, a second child for the Nuuhiwas. While his older brother had been adopted at birth in traditional Hawaiian custom, the younger Nuuhiwa was almost immediately unofficially adopted by the Waikiki beach boy family, which included several of his father’s siblings. Whether they were related or not, baby David was always surrounded by aunties and uncles—an extended family that became even more important when his mother died unexpectedly in 1952. Throughout his formative years, he was passed from family to family when his father’s martial-arts obligations called him away.
“Oh, it was great,” he says, laughing, “but there were too many of ’em! I just had too many families. It was a different way to grow up, but the Hawaii way, you know. [This was] when it was still all cottages. I’d ride my bike down to the beach, and I started paipo boarding at 5 years old at the wall down there, skimboarding and surfing. My Uncle Stanley told me I’d never be as good as he was. So I went, ‘Uh, okay.’ He had an 11-foot balsa board shaped like a gun. It weighed about 40 pounds, but I’d drag it to the beach by the nose and put it in the water and just go. As a little kid, I rode the hell out of that board, and ended up stripping it down and reshaping it into a pig shape with some help from the older guys.”
On Oahu’s South Shore, back in the early Malibu surfboard era, there were basically two surfing tribes, or “pods,” as Nuuhiwa refers to them now.
“I was part of the pod at Queens,” he says, “with Barry Kanaiaupuni and Keone Downing. Keone’s dad, George, used to run the beach service down there, and I’d often take out Keone’s little balsa board, which was about 5-foot-4, so I got familiar with riding shortboards and longboards, even way back then. There was another pod of surfers at Ala Moana, and Donald Takayama was one of the main guys in that. Donald was making his own boards very early, and it was cool to see what he was shaping—narrow square tails and different stuff.”
There were other early influences too, as author Paul Holmes wrote in Longboard magazine in 1994: “When Dale Velzy brought the first foam and fiberglass boards to Hawaii for use as rentals, David got to ride one and, he says, breaking into a sly laugh, ‘I was hooked on foam boards from then on. And I started winning…’”
Holmes also notes, “The kids from town made occasional visits to Makaha for surf meets, camping out in tents along the beach for a few days under the watchful eye of another ‘uncle’—Buffalo Keaulana. It was during one of these trips, for the Makaha International, that David first saw California hot-doggers like Dewey Weber, Hobie Alter, and Butch Van Artsdalen…and what he saw them doing mirrored the surfing style he’d developed growing up in Waikiki. In retrospect this seems like no surprise—the Californians were merely re-importing influences they’d picked up surfing, or watching other surfers who’d been in Hawaii. But the fact that the Californians were doing it somehow vindicated the young Nuuhiwa’s style: ‘I didn’t know. I was innocent. I had no consciousness—it was just the way I surfed,’ he says, recalling the vivid impression made on him by seeing Van Artsdalen riding switchfoot, walking the board, doing spinners, and hanging heels. When Bruce Brown shot the footage of a young skinny kid doing just that at Makaha for his movie Slippery When Wet, David Nuuhiwa had taken off on his ride to stardom.”
By 1961, Nuuhiwa was considered the hottest menehune on the South Shore and proved it by easily winning that year’s Waikiki boys’ division. He was surfing even better in the spring of ’62 and was the favorite to take the title again, but alarming news on the home front caused him to lose focus, and he finished second.
His father had found a new love in the form of Lillian Gishi, a paramedic and martial-arts student who’d already attained a tenth-degree black belt and was more than a match for David Sr. in terms of commitment. They decided to marry, and, to pursue greater opportunities for employment and to spread the gospel of lua, the family was to move to California later in the year.
“I wasn’t too happy when I was told we were moving to California,” Nuuhiwa recalls, “but I had to go with the program because he was my dad. While we were getting set up in California, I had to go stay with my Uncle Jonah in San Jose, and it was so cold. He took me surfing at Pedro Point without a wetsuit and I nearly froze, man. But moving to California was good for my dad because he got a job teaching martial arts at the police academy, and later he worked for Walt Disney at Disneyland and we lived in Anaheim. I was about 13 by then, and where I went to school all the kids were into the Beach Boys. They all looked the part, but none of them actually surfed.”
Increasingly isolated at school, Nuuhiwa took to hitching rides on weekends to Newport Beach, where he hooked up with a young surfer named Chuck Ray, who had a part-time job cleaning the foam dust out of Dale Velzy’s surfboard factory. Although Velzy had no recollection of having met “the kid” in Hawaii, he took a shine to him and let him ride shop boards very much like the first foam Velzy that Nuuhiwa had tried a year or so earlier. He soon was being noticed up and down the coast.
Shortly thereafter, when he and Ray went up to the South Bay for a juniors’ contest, Nuuhiwa was reunited with Takayama, who was working for Dewey Weber and lived right across the street from the factory. Soon, Nuuhiwa had virtually moved out of his family home and was dividing his time between Takayama’s couch and the Hermosa house of his new surf buddy, Dru Harrison. He then got a part-time job glossing for Weber when Dick Graham’s International Surfing magazine made him “Personality of the Month.”
“There is a red hot noserider currently showing the surfers in the Los Angeles South Bay area how it’s done,” the magazine gushed. “His noserides are spectacular and his turns and cutbacks are a thing of beauty. Best of all is his sense of balance. Few people can maneuver through a wave while standing on the nose like he does.”
As Nuuhiwa started making junior finals wherever he competed, the top US junior, Corky Carroll, began to notice “this tall, skinny kid with straggly hair and bad teeth.”
“I spent a summer on the South Shore when I was pretty young, and that was when I first met David,” says Carroll, “but I didn’t know anything about him, really. Then, back on the mainland, I was at a little club comp in the South Bay and he was there. At the time, I was the emerging junior, and this guy shows up and I see there’s a hole in the plan! This would be 1964. He started showing up at events. We were intensely competitive in the water, but never on the beach. But, you know, if it was a 3-foot left on a beachbreak, you didn’t want to draw him in your heat.”
Until Carroll took an early off-ramp into the senior ranks, he and Nuuhiwa, two goofyfoots, became the archrivals of Californian surfing.
“He was just so good,” says Carroll, “so fluid and so great on the nose. He was the best noserider of our time. I don’t think anyone is going to dispute that. It seemed like almost every weekend we were in a final against each other. The point of difference between us got down to his stylish noseriding, and he was the better surfer when it came to that. The fact that he was a better noserider didn’t bother me. He was just better than everyone!”
Around this time, the enigmatic but height-deprived Takayama became a bigger influence on Nuuhiwa’s rising star.
“Dru Harrison and I would go and hang out [at Weber’s], and everyone thought I was Donald’s little brother,” Nuuhiwa says. “We were both dark with long hair, but I was already way taller than him. He never grew up! [Laughs.] Through hanging with Donald, a guy called Larry Felker, who shaped for Weber and all of the big guys, gave us both one of his boards to ride, really good Dewey Weber noseriders. We just rode the hell out of them from South Bay to Malibu and back.”
In the summer of 1965, surfing entrepreneur and innovator Tom Morey staged the world’s first specialist noseriding event, the Tom Morey Invitational, at Ventura, in which competitors were scored for how long they spent on the tip. It also happened to be the first surfing event to offer prize money, outdoing the Laguna Sportswear Masters, held two months earlier, which had offered prizes including a car and a motorbike. The 24 invitees, all of them from California, paid a $50 entry fee, which helped subsidize the $1,500 purse.
The first Morey Invitational attracted few spectators, but included some exciting clashes between the leading surfers, with Carroll just edging out Nuuhiwa in the goofyfoot division, and diminutive and super-lightweight Mickey Muñoz beating Mike Hynson by seven-tenths of a second in the main event. (Years later, Morey would claim he’d bungled the tabulation and that Hynson had actually won.)
“I beat David at Ventura because I had the better board,” recalls Carroll, “a Hobie concave noserider developed by Hobie, Mickey Muñoz, and Phil Edwards. That was really the difference between us. But there was also a difference in David: He’d got remodeled! The teeth were fixed, the hair was groomed—man, he had a look you couldn’t miss.”
While the teenager being touted as the “world’s best noserider” didn’t exactly light up the Ventura Fairgrounds on the day, one astute observer saw beyond the new look to appreciate the technical mastery Nuuhiwa brought to his surfing.
Bing Copeland, a former lifeguard, had by then established his Bing brand as one of the top surfboard manufacturers in California. And, by that summer, the brands were looking for a competitive edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace. They found it in what International Surfing dubbed “The Signature Model Era” on the cover of its December 1965 issue. Inside, Takayama is seen in a group shot, standing behind a seated Bing, just barely visible next to his model, resplendent and oh, so corporate in a business tie and jacket, like the rest of them. By the time the magazine hit the stands, however, Nuuhiwa had won the junior division of the US Championships at Huntington Beach, riding a Takayama model, and Takayama, being a true mentor, was pressuring his boss to produce a Nuuhiwa model.
“Just after the Morey noseriding contest,” says Copeland, “Donald came into my shop with the idea of doing a DT model Bing board. At the same time, he brought David in to ride for us. David rode the Takayama model for the first six months or so, then Donald suggested we make a Nuuhiwa Noseriding Model. I remember asking Donald if that wouldn’t interfere with his DT model, and he said it wouldn’t be a problem. So, together, Donald and I designed the DN Noserider.”
“Bing said he’d make me a board that would noseride much better than what I’d been riding at Ventura,” says Nuuhiwa. “He said he’d give me a deal of ten bucks for every board sold, and he said, ‘We’re gonna sell a lot!’ That was the beginning of the David Nuuhiwa Noseriding Model, which is one of the world’s best-selling surfboards.”
And with his new sponsor, his new look, his preternatural talent, and California’s need to pump out signature-model boards—with the most important dynamic in their design being weight distribution to allow for max time up front—came one of the era’s most iconic shapes.
The Nuuhiwa Noseriding Model, designed by Takayama and Bing with input from Nuuhiwa, featured a teardrop concave under the nose, an innovative deep and upright fin with a broad tip, and extra tail lift added to the bottom rocker. It worked like a charm and it sold like stink, pushed along by Bing’s progressive advertising and by the flood of publicity Nuuhiwa was attracting as the new messiah of nose work.
“The Takayama and Nuuhiwa models were the very first ‘model’ boards we ever made,” says Copeland. “Of course, eventually the Noserider way overtook the Takayama model. It pissed Donald off, and he moved on to Jacobs.”
But there were other developments in the larger surfing world, outside of noseriding-focused California, that would have an immense effect on both the culture and the young phenom.
Just as Nuuhiwa was developing his signature model, 17-year-old Jeff Hakman sent shock waves through the surfing world in December 1965 when he won the inaugural Duke Kahanamoku Invitational in chunky, difficult conditions at Sunset Beach. Although he and
Nuuhiwa were the same age, pint-sized Hakman was built more along Takayama’s lines, and his path to surfing stardom was the direct inverse of Nuuhiwa’s, transplanting from California to Hawaii at around the same time that Nuuhiwa was moving to California.
On the other side of the Pacific, Australians Young and Bob McTavish were leading a push into more-functional, close-to-the-curl surfing—a movement dubbed the “New Era” by the Australian surf media. Both Carroll and Nuuhiwa had an inkling of what was going on, Nuuhiwa as a junior member of the US team sent to Peru for the 1965 ISF World Titles, where Young powered into second place in big waves behind local boy Pomar, and Carroll having seen Young at the Makaha International.
Still, the diminutive Hakman’s victory at Sunset did nothing to halt the progress of the noseriding phenomenon, at least not in California. And neither Nuuhiwa nor Carroll, at that point, saw Young as a real threat to what they were doing.
“The last time I’d seen [Young] was maybe a year before, at Makaha,” says Carroll. “I knew he was a great surfer, but I didn’t know what he’d moved on to since then. That kind of came as a shock to all of us [later].”
“We were in Peru together,” says Nuuhiwa of the Australian, “and from the first time I saw him, I regarded him as one of the best surfers I’d ever seen. He surfed a lot different to the way we surfed. I thought he was definitely capable of winning a world title, but I didn’t see that happening in California.”
Meanwhile, 1966 was a banner year for Nuuhiwa. In addition to winning a number of junior events, his Bing model was selling up a storm and providing him with a sizable cash flow.
“It gave me the freedom to move around with a bit of money in my pocket,” he says, “and I went through a bunch of cars.”
He was also fêted everywhere he went. In his last summer as a junior, he took his second consecutive junior title at the US Championships at Huntington Beach, sealing the victory with a spectacular soul-arch noseride immortalized by a thousand cameras. Later in the year, the Surfer Poll voted him number-one surfer in the world, and Nuuhiwa celebrated by driving his purple Porsche 911, bought with his Bing royalties, to the awards night accompanied by a glamorous blonde.
“David’s royalties were fairly significant for a teenager,” says Copeland, “so I suggested paying him half the royalty and banking the other half, with the idea he would be able to buy a house after a few years. Well, that didn’t sit well with David. He had his heart set on buying a Porsche and painting it purple. I really don’t have exact numbers, but I would guess David was receiving about two grand a month during the summer months, which was pretty good money in the mid 60s. Especially for a kid, when all he had to do was surf and stand in a few ads!”
The age of surfing’s megastar had thus begun. For Nuuhiwa, all that needed to fall into place was to be crowned world champion. And to the California-centric industry and media, the belief was that it would happen that very same year, in the fall, at the 1966 World Surfing Championships, held in San Diego.
Young and his entourage arrived in town just ahead of the start of the weeklong contest, and by the first day of competition the Australian had yet to officially meet Nuuhiwa. With the first round called on in a 4- to 6-foot left-hand beachbreak at Mission Beach Jetty, Young searched the car park to meet his nemesis, but heard that Nuuhiwa’s heat was already in the water, and caught a sight that left an impression.
“Hurrying across to the sea wall,” Young wrote in his 1998 autobiography, Nat’s Nat and That’s That, “I sat down and looked out to sea where I was treated to one of the most amazing sights I’d ever witnessed in surfing. David moved like a cat and paddled with a style very similar to my own…and did he look impressive—even before he rode a wave. Dropping in…David carved a smooth forehand turn up into the hook, then with precise, delicate steps, perched way up on the tip.…I thought he was never going to back off the nose.…He was amazing, and by far the best noserider I’d ever seen.”
Nuuhiwa won the first round by a significant margin, looking unstoppable. But unlike previous world-title events, this one was to be decided over three self-contained rounds, with the best cumulative scores winning. When the contest moved to a smaller right at Ocean Beach for Round Two, Young was in his element, while Nuuhiwa, fighting off a flu bug, lost early and couldn’t recover his lead in Round Three.
“They had this deal where the boards you checked in with were the only ones you could ride in the contest,” says Carroll, who finished in third place behind Young and Jock Sutherland. “You couldn’t change boards. Nat’s board wasn’t that much smaller than ours, but it was a different style of board, with thinner rails, and worked for his big cutbacks and fast tail turns. I remember watching him that first day when I beat him on 6-foot lefts, but he was surfing really good. Later, on smaller rights at Ocean Beach, he was just working it. I really liked the way he was surfing and I could see that [his] whole approach was better than ours. He won the contest hands down.”
Young’s win on the new-look surfboard he called “Sam” sent the Australian media into paroxysms of hyperbole, and it was later generally accepted as being the catalyst for what would become known as the Shortboard Revolution the following year. But in
California, the Nuuhiwa Noseriding Model kept flying out the door at Bing’s, despite Nuuhiwa’s lowly 12th place against the world’s best.
“I jumped behind the wheel of the Camaro [first prize in the world titles was a gold Chevrolet Camaro convertible] and thrashed it non-stop to Las Vegas and the weekend party with David Nuuhiwa,” Young recalled in his book. “David was the only person I’d seen surf at my level at the World Championships; I wanted to get close to talk about our different paths in surfing—and to try to get him off his 10-foot-six log.”
Young and Sam did seem to have an influence on what Nuuhiwa put under his feet, though it came in increments. In early 1967, Bing introduced the Nuuhiwa Lightweight Model, a shorter, thinner, lighter, more responsive version of the Noseriding Model. Of course, it was still essentially a noserider, but clever marketing was Bing Copeland’s forte, and Nuuhiwa boards now sold in double volume, making David’s pockets even fuller. Yet Nuuhiwa, like the times, was destined to change course completely.
“All in all, I liked both Donald and David,” says Copeland, “and we got along well for the most part. David stayed on for a year or two, but you have to remember these were the hippie years, and pot and other drugs were influencing the surfing culture. I believe David felt we were a little too establishment and not soulful enough, so he moved on.”
Despite his placing in San Diego, Nuuhiwa certainly resonated with surfers up and down the California coast, with International Surfing naming him “world’s best surfer” for the second consecutive year in 1967.
But for everything standing on the tip had done for him, he quickly and seamlessly switched track with the times. In 1968, Nuuhiwa Mark II began to emerge. Flicking his muscle memory a decade back, Nuuhiwa recalled Keone Downing’s 5’4″ balsa board and how he’d zipped it all over the face. He stepped onto the new shortboard like he’d never left it to poise, cat-like, on the nose. And it helped usher in a whole new era.
“David’s stance widened when he went to the shortboard,” says 1976 world professional champion Peter “PT” Townend, who idolized Nuuhiwa long before he met him in 1972, “with kind of a bow-legged stance. That’s not what he looked like on a longboard. When we first saw it in footage from the 1971 Expression Session at Pipe, it was a shock, but his moves were still incredible. His flow was the thing. He could just link waves together beautifully.”
The other point of difference in Mark II was that Nuuhiwa looked and acted like a rock star. This didn’t happen overnight, but beginning in 1967’s Summer of Love, he began to dress and act out an era fantasy that fast became a reality. Surfing and surfboards were still front and center—he won the US Championships in ’68—but style was becoming more important than substance. Not that there was any shortage of substances.
“There was a bit of a transition going on,” he says. “I was hanging out with Mike Hynson and another guy who ran a lot of the big rock shows all over California. In fact, for a while, I was living with this guy who looked just like Jim Morrison, and he knew all these guys because he booked them for his shows. So we’d hang out with them. The next thing you know, I’m looking like them! [Laughs.] I had the whole thing going on, and I just thought, ‘Why the hell not? Just go for it.’”
“He had the girlfriend, an equestrian champion or something, and she had this white Jag with a board rack and David would drive it to contests and get out looking like the surf rock star to the max,” says Carroll. “He was like Mick Jagger. David got a lot of bad raps for stuff like that, but he was a good guy. In order to excel at sports, you have to have confidence, and a lot of times that can be construed as having a big ego. But if you don’t think you’re good enough to win, you won’t. Yeah, David had the swagger and the whole thing going on, but those were the times. It was all psychedelia and Hendrix and beads and flowers in your hair. Like anybody, there’s some dark stuff tucked away, but he was always friendly and kind to me, and I’ve always liked and respected him.”
In 1970, a chance encounter with Jimi Hendrix’s manager led to the great guitarist becoming more than just a role model.
“I was hanging out in La Jolla, and Mike Hynson and I were experimenting with new kinds of surfboards with completely different rail lines. Mike gets a call from some guy who wants to make a movie called Rainbow Bridge, and the next thing [we know] Jimi Hendrix’s manager, Michael Jeffery, is sitting in the house. I went, ‘Wow, this thing is for real.’”
Jeffery and his director, Chuck Wein, who had worked with Andy Warhol, envisioned Rainbow Bridge as “a kind of space-age Candid Camera. We’re going to shoot a lot of film and just see what comes out of it.” Wein also said that he saw it as an “antidote to Easy Rider, showing the positive side of the youth movement.” This positive statement involved Wein inviting “outrageous people to portray themselves…they included dope smugglers, priests and nuns, acidheads, gays, groupies, environmentalists, and a group who claimed to be from Venus” to film on Maui. In addition, psychedelic surfers would ride through cinematic rainbows, and Hendrix would perform live on a mountaintop for the extraordinary ones. Nuuhiwa was the first surfer invited.
“Hynson had made me these low-rail boards that people laughed at in the beginning,” he says, “but they went great—so fast.”
Rainbow Surfboards was a short-lived shop established by Hynson and Johnny Gale, both members of Laguna Beach’s Brotherhood of Eternal Love, in La Jolla in 1969. By the time of the Rainbow Bridge Maui trip, in 1970, and despite many dope-induced eccentricities and trippy airbrushes, Hynson’s Rainbow shapes were getting very close to redefining the shortboard with a down rail that would lead directly to the modern tucked-under rail. Nuuhiwa mentions testing sessions at Maalaea that were important in terms of surfboard design, but not in the wacko context of the film, and most landed on the cutting-room floor.
“Rainbow Bridge was this kind of cult movie about spaceships and whatnot,” he says, “and I didn’t want anything to do with that part. I said I’d just do the surfing and not get involved with the rest. And Jimi was a bit the same. He was the best guitar player in the world and he just wanted to do the music—none of the other bullshit. I hung out with him during the movie.”
As you would. Hendrix was dead two months later.
Rainbow Bridge premiered at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood in the fall of 1971 and was universally panned. One critic commented that it was “so drug-addled, pseudo-mystical, and stuffed with narcissistic, self-important onscreen hippies, that the only hope of saving it was to put Hendrix on celluloid.” But even a 17-minute on-stage climax from the great man wasn’t enough. Jeffery and Wein took career-damaging hits, though Nuuhiwa emerged unscathed and looking wilder than ever. It was during that period on Maui that Nuuhiwa filmed many of his clips for Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman’s era-defining surf films.
Recharged, he also was ready to give it one last shot at capping his stellar surfing career with a world title.
While the 1972 World Surfing Championships, held in San Diego, has been described as a “Peruvian snowstorm so severe that it nearly buried competitive surfing,” in truth, California surfing had already moved on from the beach megaphones and the colored jerseys. “It was just no fun anymore,” says Carroll.
Both he and Nuuhiwa had briefly joined forces with shaper Steve Walden at the ill-fated Dyno Surfboards in Huntington Beach, where Nuuhiwa was designing and riding adventurous twin-fins that evolved into a version of the swallowtail fish. And it was with a fleet of those boards that he pulled into the underground car park, in the Jag, of the San Diego Travelodge.
“He was the epitome of a rock star, no question about it,” says Townend. “He had it all going on.”
What he also had going on was a major resentment from the local surfing fraternity. Kneeboarder and shaper Steve Lis had been working on a version of the fish design for years, and the San Diego surf community felt usurped by the Dyno fish on his behalf. On the first morning of the contest, Nuuhiwa discovered that one of his fishes had been stolen. On the last morning of the contest, early risers were shocked to find the board broken in two and dangling from the pier, emblazoned with the message, “Good luck, Dave.”
It was going to take more than vandalism to stop Nuuhiwa as he steamrolled the tiny waves. Midway through the final, he had it in the bag. Then, with only moments on the clock, Hawaii’s Jim Blears got the longest ride of the heat, from the pier to the sand. While that made it more interesting, no one expected it to change the results.
When they were announced, however, it was Blears first, Nuuhiwa second, Townend third. According to Nuuhiwa, Blears was dumbfounded, his first words upon his official victory being, “No, you won it, David!”
But he hadn’t, and he wouldn’t.
Although he was to make a few bizarre comebacks during the pro era in Florida—riding a longboard in a shortboard event—and then become a fixture during the early part of the longboard revival in the 80s and 90s, Nuuhiwa was destined to join that elite club of great surfers never to have won a world title. And yet that sells his contributions—and his place within surfing today—much too short.
Nuuhiwa, a kid descended from Waikiki beach boy lineage, came to master and embody an entire surfing ethos, one distinctly
Californian, as one of the first legitimate surfing professionals and stars. While that style of surfing was, at the time, cast as outdated as quickly as Nuuhiwa had come on, he then successfully made the transition downward in size and forward in surfing’s new era of progression while most of his big-board peers were left behind. And he did it with an indelible swagger that was mythmaking. The crux of Nuuhiwa, in sum, was that he made an art of it all.
Ironically, nearly 50 years later, surfing has in many ways rounded back to where Nuuhiwa started with it, to the aesthetic of which he was undoubtedly the finest.
“Nuuhiwa absolutely captured the peak of longboard surfing,” wrote acolyte Joel Tudor in Surf Book. “He was the embodiment of the pinnacle of surfing in that period. Even compared to the noseriding that’s going on today—and I think it’s at the highest point it’s ever been—if you look back at the old film footage, David’s still untouchable. He was originating all of that stuff. Everything we do now came from him—the weighting, the lifting of feet, he was the man. Totally inspirational. In the shortboard world today, no one looks to guys from earlier eras for inspiration. But if you ask a 12-year-old longboard kid who Nuuhiwa is, they can tell you all about him. We’re all just emulating his grace on the front half.”
While he might be revered and heavily imitated by today’s loggers, Nuuhiwa, though, just got on with life. He married the lovely Jan, had a son named Kai, joined the Teamsters “to get a good pension,” worked trade shows around the convention centers, surfed when he could, helped out friends and charities, and, recently, drove an Uber for a while, just for the hell of it. “I like experiencing new things,” he says with a chuckle.
He doesn’t care who’s winning on the WSL—“They all surf the same”—and although he catches up with old friends like Chuck Ray, PT, Chuy Madrigal, and others in the Huntington crew for cocktails at El Ranchito or the Boathouse, they rarely talk surf.
“Surfing gave me a hell of a lot,” Nuuhiwa says, “and I’ve got no regrets about any of that. But there’s a whole other world out there too.”