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Will the World’s Greatest Surfer Please Lie Down?

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He appeared from the mist of a raging Hawaiian swell, paddling in from the horizon at Sunset Beach. He’d thought nothing of swimming into the distant maelstrom to find his lost board, drifting to the outer reefs of Rocky Point and then heading straight out to bypass the brutal current. Surfers braving the 18-foot seas could hardly fathom his arrival, but that was Mike Stewart, defining himself: a man from somewhere else.

This happened years ago, although it could have been yesterday or well into the future—any time during one of the most remarkable careers in surfing history. Argue the terminology if you’d like; make that “bodyboard” distinction for Stewart and separate him from those who stand. Just include him in your conversation about the greatest and most influential wave riders. Otherwise, you are gravely mistaken.

Stewart’s story is one of loyalty and humility. It’s about a revolution at Pipeline and a christening of Teahupoo. It chronicles the most innovative bodysurfer who ever lived, and a man paddling to outer reefs through 30-foot sets with nobody in sight. It’s about originality, competitive dominance, and independent thought, earning legitimate comparisons to Laird Hamilton, Kelly Slater, and George Greenough. It’s about a comeback from financial ruin, with a strong and beautiful family at his side. More than anything, it’s about a true Hawaiian: gentle, softspoken, and kind until certain lines are crossed, at which point a fury is unleashed.

Such a simple man. So many layers. Mike Stewart is a person met in stages, for you couldn’t possibly digest him all at once. At first glance, he might have been a scruffy haole kid cruising Ke Nui Road on a bicycle, or a complete goofball with hilariously choreographed gestures and facial expressions. He might have been hunkered down for hours at a computer, a mad scientist at work. Then again, he might have surfed into daylight from a Pipeline tube he did not make—a notion that bends the mind a little.

One of the most respected men on the North Shore, longtime Pipeline lifeguard and ethereal bodysurfer Mark Cunningham, played an intriguing numbers game. “Take all the Pipeline titles won by Slater, Lopez, Rory Russell, Tom Carroll, Derek Ho, and Andy Irons,” Cunningham said last winter. “Then add up Stewart’s titles.”

The totals: 22 for Stewart—11 on a bodyboard, 11 more as a bodysurfer—and 20 for the others. “We get jaded around the North Shore, but think about what that means,” said Cunningham. “Heat after heat, final after final, win after win. That’s just phenomenal. Deadliest surf spot in the world, and he’s been dancing with it for 25 years. I don’t ever recall him, knock on wood, being carried out of there or even being in dry dock, and that’s just fucking crazy, too. I mean no disrespect to anyone, but Mike’s the most committed guy I’ve ever seen.”

Early 1970s. After school I would catch a ride with my good friend, classmate, and fellow surfer/skater Jeff Pfeffer. His father, Roger, was a commercial diver who would drop us off at different surf spots in Honolulu. This was the catalyst for my life in the surf. When not in the water, it was all about the streets of Nuuanu on our skateboards. Without these outlets, I am sure I would have wound up on the wrong side of society. Photograph by John Baker.

We find Stewart today, as always, just slightly beyond the mainstream. At 43, he lives on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island with his wife, Lisa, and two children. That’s home for Stewart, who spent his formative years in Kona and lived down the road from the creative mastermind of bodyboards, Tom Morey. Together, in that little corner of the world, they shaped a sport—Morey the inventor and Stewart the purveyor, unveiling its potential to the world. The sport flounders as we speak, lacking coolness, magazine exposure, and a true heir to Stewart’s throne. Such a person may not exist, for Stewart didn’t just legitimize the sport in the minds of skeptical surfers, he transcended it.

“I’ve never heard anyone dog Mike for riding a Boogie board,” said Mark Healey, one of the best young watermen in Hawaii and a regular in the Pipeline lineup. “It’s obvious that he’s an alien, compared to everyone else, so no one can say a thing. I’ve heard people say he’s the Laird Hamilton of bodyboarding, which is heavy, but forget that. He’s the Mike Stewart of wave riding, and nobody will ever catch up to him. I think he’s the best all-around wave rider in the world.”

*

It was February 1992, and a spectacular Pipeline contest had just gone down. It was a gorgeous but wicked day, so much so that during the final, a rideable 12-foot set (Island style) passed by with no takers. Vetea David eventually won the day, Stewart anxiously anticipating the moment he could hit the water with his good friend Kainoa McGee. Almost immediately, Stewart established himself some ten yards deeper in the lineup than anyone else.

This was no time to stash my Hi-8 video camera, and on his very first wave, Stewart pulled into a major-league barrel. You’re always waiting for this guy to come out; that’s the essence of his life. This time he didn’t, but I kept the camera rolling. A full five seconds passed from the moment he disappeared. Suddenly there was a dark blur in the curtain behind the lip. Stewart was still in there, pulling an el rollo on a wave that had left him in oblivion. We’re still in the realm of reality at this point—but then Stewart powered his way out through the whitewater, not in retreat but as a flowing, aggressive rider, still in the wave. He looked toward the beach—a rare sort of claim for him, as if to see if anybody checked that out. Then he ducked out the back, a little miracle in his wake.

To a skeptical stand-up surfer, the act may appear little more than a very determined man holding on to a soft flotation device. But that ignores the strategic genius: Stewart’s weighing the risks of a reef slam against the elements of gravity, leverage, momentum, and a very specific pocket of ocean energy. 

“Unbelievable,” Cunningham said recently as he watched the video. “Yeah, I’ve seen him do that. No one else.”

That’s how a sport gets changed. That’s how revelations bury stereotypes. You’re not really thinking “Boogie” or “sponger” when Stewart comes flying across Pipeline’s second reef or carves out surreal images at Jaws. This is a man who combines Darrick Doerner’s fearlessness, Brian Keaulana’s instincts, and the calculated decision-making of a NASCAR driver. The result has made him the unquestioned master of two surfing disciplines. In the early 90s, just as a hot new generation of bodyboarders began to challenge Stewart’s status as a nine-time world champion, he became an unbeatable, dolphin-like presence in the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic.

“We all would have wanted to kill him, too,” said a smiling Cunningham, “if we didn’t have so much respect for him as a man.”

His background is Hawaii to the core. Mike’s grandfather, a naturalized citizen from Canada, arrived in Hawaii in the late 1920s and established a line of drugstores in Honolulu. In 1954, with Waikiki land going for $2.50 a square foot, he set up a pharmacy on the corner of Lewers and Kalakaua. “He wasn’t much into land investment,” says Mike’s father, Bob. “Thought the price was too high, and I guess that was his big mistake. But that was my upbringing, growing up in Town before it got so crowded. As I got older, going to Roosevelt High, I did a fair amount of surfing.”

One Christmas, Bob bought some primitive Boogie board kits, assembled them in a friend’s workshop, and gave them to Mike and his two brothers. “They were all pretty stoked, but Mike hit a home run with his,” said Bob, now 71 and living with his third wife, Ann, in Orange County. “He’d passed me up [in ability] by the time he was ten.I think he’s been surfing ever since.”

The ocean was Mike’s great escape. His parents split up when he was just four years old, and while he got only fleeting glimpses of them together, he came to discover a little part of himself in each. “My mom was a real go-getter,” he says. “Maybe not a risktaker, but she was a golfer, tennis player, and ocean swimmer. Right around the time she had my younger brother, she was getting her scuba-diving license and her pilot’s license.”

“Mike actually wanted to be a jet pilot for a while,” JoAnn recalled. “But one time at the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station, where we used to go watch, they had a wreck. After that, Mike started having nightmares about flying, because they found the cockpit. The guy tried to dig himself out and never made it.

“Not that it put any real fear in him,” she added. “He was never afraid of anything. One time when he was about three years old, he goes, ‘Mom, watch me swim,’ and jumped straight into a pool. Which was great, except he hadn’t learned yet. Sank straight to the bottom.”

Bob was a little bit rowdy, immersing himself in the Oahu drag racing scene (his passion to this day) after growing up as the only white kid in school. “I saw my childhood all over again with Mike,” he said. “He was a small kid, with bright blond hair, and the local kids are pretty hard on towheads. I grew up that way, too. Every day, on the way to school, somebody’s trying to get your lunch money. You learn how to stand up for yourself. It’s not like we’re a bunch of bad dudes, but guess I was a bit of a scrapper in my day. Mike’s the same way.”

Before airs were being done I dreamt about pulling an air 360, figuring if I could ever pull that one move off I would be content. But it seems human nature has a different program—one of unlimited wants. There is always something else, something more, and on we march. Sequence by Rob Brown.

Fighting wasn’t a gut-wrenching necessity for Mike. He liked it. He remembers being a “total punk,” ready to fire on someone at the slightest provocation. “I definitely enjoy it. It’s edgy, you know?” said Stewart, whose voice carries a slight pidgin lilt—more so when he gets emotional. “It’s not in my nature to just sit back and let shit happen. I got in tons of fights when I was a kid. Not so much any more.”

(Great story, though: A few years ago, Mike and his dad showed up at the Pomona drag races in Southern California. Mike was on edge, having been stuck in traffic, and when he politely asked the guy in front of him to stop standing up during the action, the guy snapped. Then his father, who looked to weigh about 300 pounds, grabbed Mike by the hair. It wound up being a major brawl, two-on-two. The big guy had Mike down on a bench when Bob got him in a headlock and ripped his head back by the nostrils. “Soon as I got up, I started drilling the guy,” said Mike. “Dad’s like, ‘Hey, Mike, fun, yeah?’ [laughter] As I look back, it was pretty dumb. But pretty classic.”)

J.P. Patterson was a kindred spirit of Mike’s, having been a solitary white face at the notoriously violent Castle High on the east side of Oahu. The two became fast friends and big-wave chargers, traveling around the world on the bodyboarding circuit and sharing wild adventures. “That was just one of the things that made Mike such a tough competitor—he just didn’t give a shit,” Patterson said from his home in California. “One time around ’83, we were down at Big Rock in La Jolla when these four surfers drove into the parking lot. They’re like, ‘Hey, fucking Boogie boarders, you don’t belong here.’ Mike just lost it. ‘You guys wanna fight? Come on, let’s fight.’ Totally calls ’em out. It didn’t look too good, but Mike goes, ‘Watch, they’re not gonna fight.’ And they didn’t. Mike’s a student of psychology; he knows human tendencies. He knows that if you get the mental edge on someone, it’s easy to beat ’em, whether it’s a fight or anything in life.”

If the other guy did happen to be ready, Stewart couldn’t have been happier. “There was this guy at the Wedge one time,” said Stewart. “Big guy, I think he was a water polo player, and he dropped in on me twice. I asked him nice, but he kept doing it. Finally, I paddled right up to him, got about an inch away, and he pushed me. I just lit into him. Punched him as long and as hard as I could. The next day I saw him in the water and just fully called him out again. ‘You want some more?’ He just paddled away. But I’ve got that in me. I go totally psycho. Fuck it, man, I don’t care.”

People hear these stories, having known Stewart for years on a social level, and think it’s some kind of joke. The flip side of Stewart, one that drives deeper to the core, came forth last winter when he stayed at a friend’s North Shore house for several days during the window of the Pipeline bodysurfing contest. Eminently courteous, Stewart condensed his belongings into the least conspicuous corner of the house. He bought dinners, offered market runs, took the family’s 6-year-old daughter out bodyboarding, never lost sight of what he could do for them.

“That’s the real Mike,” said Lisa, his devoted companion of 23 years (they were married in 1996). “Deep down, he’s extremely giving, very loving. He is so overcome by career preoccupations, striving and achieving, he rarely allows that to show.”

Stewart was bodyboarding the Waimea shorebreak some 15 years ago when he noticed a Ford station wagon lodged grotesquely on the rocky western cliff side. Everyone else figured someone had just pushed it off the highway, but Stewart saw it differently and left the water. Making his way closer, he saw a human hand sticking out the window. It was 54-year-old Allen Carter, a Waianae man who had sailed off the highway at high speed the night before, leaving no skid marks. He was in shock with excruciating pain in his chest and other injuries.

“You can only imagine what this guy’s thinking,” Stewart recalled. “He goes over the edge, and now there’s three hours of daylight and still nobody has found him. He’s thinking, shit, I’m gonna die. I don’t think anyone would have done anything. He wasn’t healthy enough to make any noise, and the surf would have drowned it out, anyway.”

That’s the Stewart familiar to Cunningham, Terry Ahue, Mark Dombrowski, and other lifeguards who have worked the Pipeline area extensively over the years. They’ve never seen him in a fight—because he’s never had one on the North Shore. “Never thrown a blow, never received one,” Mike says. “I’m kind of proud of that. I’ve got so much respect for the people here, and for the waves, I try to be humble and respectful in return.”

Stewart says if he ever found himself independently wealthy, he’d become a lifeguard, right there at the Ehukai Beach Park. “That would be the luckiest lifeguard department in the world, to have Mike Stewart on board,” says Cunningham. “He might seem at times to be a little standoffish or calculating, but once you get to know him, you see the incredibly warm, genuine, sensitive side. He’s lived in Hawaii his whole life, and there’s something about the ocean and land and the Hawaiian culture that’s a part of Mike.”

*

He was the phantom. Nobody saw him coming. Bodyboarding had a well defined elite around 1980, the likes of Patterson, Ben Severson, Pat Caldwell, Jack Lindholm, Danny Kim, and Keith Sasaki. If a Hawaiian contest went down in waves of consequence, those were the guys. In a seminal moment at Sandy Beach in ’79, Caldwell performed the first el rollo— climbing to the lip, letting it flip him upside down, then landing in the flats to continue. The move is commonplace today, to the point of being ordinary; back then, it was spectacularly new.

As it turned out, Caldwell had to share the honors. Over on the Big Island, without a single influence beyond his own imagination, Stewart had dreamed up the maneuver on his own. JoAnn had set up residence in Kona, raising three kids as a single mom, and Mike created a paradise out of a very uninviting landscape. “I didn’t see anyone do it before me,” he said. “I was just out surfing by myself with nobody around. I was doing off-the-lips and pulling some airs with these real old boards, just experimenting wildly in these six-foot grinders. I wanted to see what would happen if I went off the lip going the other way.”

As videographer Tom Boyle recalled, “There was something about Mike’s style that was undeniable. Pat’s el rollo was almost effortless looking, whereas Mike’s was more of a through-the-lip barrel roll—kinda scary looking, especially on huge waves. And he perfected this over some of the most shallow, unforgiving reefs in the world. One time on the Big Island I watched him ride a place called Magic Sands, which is nothing more than a jagged rock ledge, shallow water, sea urchins, and hideous lava rocks below. It’s a place where you’d take off on the shoulder just to survive it. But Stewart’s dropping in behind the peak, time after time, so he can get the most possible speed. The manic desire of this guy is unbelievable. He has always ridden as if he cannot fail.”

“If I weren’t surfing, I’d be a stuntman, a race driver, or a mountain climber—something with that life-threatening element. I think it’s healthy to be struck by terror. As humans, I think we’re naturally supposed to confront that feeling.”

Stewart had tried his hand at surfing, and, to this day, he’ll ride stand-up on certain towing sessions (more on that later). He doesn’t denigrate the classic art form in any way. “It’s just that for some reason, it didn’t appeal to me,” he says. “There was something missing. I didn’t like lugging around this big board than can whack you, but it was much more than that. There’s no way a surfer can understand the sense of speed when your head’s at the bottom of a wave—or the true sense of a wave’s size.” 

There was also the lifechanging influence of Tom Morey, who lived in Kona and created the first bodyboard there in 1971. Stewart respectfully approached him, asking if he could just hang out around the shop a little. Eventually, Morey gave the kid some long looks, even pausing to talk design with him. “It wasn’t by accident that the bodyboard was invented in Kona, or that Mike was chosen to be Tom Morey’s apprentice,” Boyle said. “That was completely fate.”

Before long, Stewart’s analytical mind had granted him an entirely new persona. In 1984, he purchased a laptop computer, one of the first available to the mainstream culture, and kept journals of his travels and design theories (he now has his own successful line of bodyboards, Mike Stewart Science). He kept notebooks, active to this day, to capture the ideas careening through his head. “I’ve had the computers and sketchbooks since the beginning of my career,” he says. “I’m always looking for a better way to do something, conceptualize it, refine it.” And as Boyle noted, “That same computer’s in his head when a wave situation is thrown at him. He reacts and creates. Morey once said you have to surf your way through life, and that’s what Mike does.”

Stewart’s official unveiling came in 1981, at the age of 18, when he finished third in a Sandy Beach contest. He went on to take a second at Point Panic, then finished first on a serious, eight-foot day at Sandy Beach, taking off outside at Generals and powering into the heaving shorebreak. “Before long, he started taking home all the trophies, and that really pissed us off at first,” said Patterson. “It disrupted the little coup we had going—myself, Caldwell, and Severson were pretty much dominating it. Now here comes this young punk through the ranks, really putting a damper on what we were doing. We weren’t real happy with the boy from the Big Island.”

In the years leading up to Stewart’s arrival, only three names mattered in North Shore bodyboarding (and we make the distinction from both kneeboarding and paipo, the finless wooden-plank vehicle that dates well back in time). The first to really attack Pipeline was Lindholm—Jack the Ripper—an iconoclastic sort whose intensely private nature gave way to elegance and courage in the water, mostly in a drop-knee stance. At Waimea and Sunset, the irrepressible Phyllis Dameron consistently rode huge surf (and still does), merrily bouncing across huge faces out of sheer love. Then there was Daniel Kaimi, captured riding second-reef Pipe by filmmakers Chris Bystrom and Scott Dittrich in the early 80s. For those convinced that soft, certain-to-buckle Boogie boards couldn’t handle the big leagues, it was a revelation. “I think Daniel was lucky,” said Boyle, “because while he was going off at Pipe, Mike was at USC (a two-year stint before the surf bug overwhelmed him), Caldwell was at the University of Hawaii, and Lindholm was at Chaminade. A lot of people thought Daniel was the original, but really, all three of those guys were better. They just didn’t have many chances to surf Pipe then.”

Lindholm, Dameron, and Kaimi were all considered novelties, at least in the minds of hard-core North Shore surfers who ridiculed “spongers” at every turn. Stewart’s impact was vastly different. His el rollos at giant Pipeline were so beautifully timed, so perfectly functional, and so terrifying to comprehend, they seemed almost supernatural. Upon first look, one’s reaction was to conclude it simply didn’t happen. Nobody could be that ballsy and precise at the same time. There’s nothing more tedious than a bodyboarding contest in mushy waves, but once the Pipeline event started in 1982, Stewart made an impression that literally changed the face of the North Shore. He looked the part, with his powerful build, winning smile, and natural humility. And while a number of newcomers became proficient in big waves—McGee, Hauoli Reeves, Guilherme Tamega, Brian Wise, Chad Barba, and Kai Santos, to name a few—Stewart launched a career of sheer domination. From ’82 to ’96, including one year it was not held, he won ten of the 14 Pipeline contests, including six straight during his peak years of 1987-’92.

“It’s not that he changed the way people looked at bodyboarding,” said Pete Johnson, who grew up in his dad’s Pipeline house and spent years as a North Shore lifeguard. “He just became an entity of his own. I’ve never run into somebody who doesn’t give Mike full respect as a waterman. Even the hard-core guys who write off bodyboarding always say, ‘Except for Mike Stewart.’”

Stewart became admittedly “addicted” to Pipeline. He moved to the North Shore and rode it every swell, in any conditions—by himself, if that’s what it took. Nobody flinched when Surfer magazine included him in a photo spread entitled “The Gun Club,” right alongside a cast of big-wave riders including Titus Kinimaka, Richard Schmidt, Roger Erickson, and Mark Foo. There was a sequence in December of ’88 when Stewart came flying out of three barrel sections, then effortlessly landed a 360 aerial, prompting Surfer to call it “perhaps the most advanced ten seconds of surfing ever seen, anywhere.”

Last summer I got a tip from Sean Collins about a swell. Four hours later I was on a flight to Tahiti. On the big ones it takes a leap of faith. The idea is that you can ride up there under the lip so long as the lip is lunging forward and you’re underneath it. Sort of the “water staying in the bucket as you swing it around” trick. Photograph by Scott Winer.

“People were calling him the best surfer in the world, and I was fine with that,” says Matt Warshaw, the sport’s leading historian and the editor of Surfer from 1985 through 1990. “I thought it was a great tweak on the definition of surfing. I remember watching on the beach with Derek Hynd on a really raw, gnarly day at Pipeline, very few people out. We were walking back toward Pupukea when we looked back to see Stewart take off on this impossible ten-foot sideshore thing, disappear into this gruesome barrel, fly out the end, do a turn, then throw a huge aerial and land in front of the wave where he rode it to the beach. Nobody else could have ridden that wave anywhere near as well. He was, and still is, a futuristic wave rider. He invented things, rode deeper and longer in the tube than anyone ever had.”

Like all great tube riders, Stewart found solace there. He sensed the slowing of time and made acutely personal observations on one’s survival. The difference was that Stewart, on his soft and finless board, had entirely new avenues at his disposal. “One thing I learned is to ride just inside the lip,” he said in 1988. “At Pipeline it hits so hard, it creates a trough and sends shock waves up the face, trying to push you out of there. That knocks off just about any surfer trying to ride anywhere near there. Plus, when you’re standing, you have to look straight down and you have only your peripheral vision; it’s not your focal point. But there’s a little zone, and if you’re deep enough on a bodyboard, you can get up on that thing and it can squirt you forward. You can be gone for seconds, still traveling, getting little gasps of air.”

As he became increasingly familiar with giant waves, he made other discoveries. “I was always trying to learn more about low-pressure areas when a wave hits,” he recalled. “One time I was out with Cunningham on a huge, 15-foot day at Pipe, and a set wave broke right in front of me. I said, OK, this is it, I’m gonna learn right now if my theory works. What happens is when a wave breaks and pushes down, it also explodes up. As it does that, there’s a low-pressure column between the impact of the lip and the bounce of the whitewater. It’s an area that’s not really affected; you’ve got water coming up underneath you, and the whitewater’s going over you, so there’s a little pocket of safety. So I dove down in front of that wave and, sure enough, I popped right up. It’s not really something you can count on. You have to be in the exact place, which is really hard if you’re at an outer reef with a huge playing field. But a lot of times it’s worse to face a wave that’s steamrolling, having broken a while ago, than something in the impact zone.”

What made Stewart unbeatable was the combination of his analytical nature, his pristine lifestyle (no drugs, maybe one glass of wine a month), and his raw desire. “Part of the lure is confronting my fears,” he said early in his career. “Finding the extreme so I can work right on the edge of it. If I weren’t surfing, I’d be a stuntman, a race driver, or a mountain climber —something with that life-threatening element. I think it’s healthy to be struck by terror. As humans, I think we’re naturally supposed to confront that feeling.”

Darrick Doerner was in the channel, working water patrol for a Pipeline contest some 15 years ago, when he saw the truth. “It was about 12 to 15 feet and here comes Mike into the inside bowl, and as it started to close out, he did a bottom turn and shot straight for the stars. He went 20 feet straight up into the air, reversed it, looked straight down, and then right at me before he headed back down and disappeared. For him to even think of doing that—he’s a lot like Laird that way. That move, and the eye contact, is something I’ll remember the rest of my life.”

Author/surfer Greg Ambrose (Memories of Duke) spent years covering the North Shore scene for the Honolulu Star Bulletin, and he recalls Stewart as “a breath of fresh air. Not to take anything away from guys like Ben, Kainoa, and them, but Mike had the whole package. He could do any damn thing you could imagine in the water, then come in and make really insightful comments. He was such a gentleman, the ultimate Hawaiian ideal. I came across a lot of thugs in surfing, guys who were great by their own acclimation and fellow thugs. The true Hawaiian heroes, they’re the real thing. Mike studied the ocean, ventured into uncharted territory, brought intelligence and innovation to the sport, and let his actions do the talking.”

As if Stewart’s talent and natural aggression weren’t enough to confound his fellow bodyboarders, he gravitated to such fearsome Pipeline enforcers as Johnny Boy Gomes, Marvin Foster, Dane Kealoha, and Mickey Neilsen—not in a conniving, Brownie points kind of way, but because they were kindred spirits. Stewart was a fighter who could go just as ballistic as the next guy. He once spoke of his reverence for Mike Tyson, in the early years, because there was such a “raw, primal” aspect to his fights, and “that’s a side of humanity that’s hidden until a situation gets heavy.”

“Mike had everything he needed to get waves out there,” said Brock Little, who has studied and practiced various forms of combat. “The guy’s a muscle—like Laird’s a muscle. In a funny way, he’s a mini version of Laird—tight, wound up, ready to burst—that same kind of energy. He’ll make up for things on sheer strength alone. I’ve seen him come into the gym to grapple, and he doesn’t even want to lose at that. He just starts going harder and harder.” 

Aside from Pipeline’s notorious heavyweights, Stewart had to negotiate his way through a hierarchy including Ronnie Burns, Max Medeiros, Tony Moniz, and the Ho brothers—and it took him a while to break through. “The first day I went out there in size, around ’79, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said. “I still remember sitting in the channel, watching a ten-foot wave just unload. I was thinking this is God’s country. I’m out here with God.”

Stewart learned the essence right away: “You need three things to get waves out there. One is a lot of time spent. Next is your ability, letting people know you’re not going to blow the wave. The third is you’ve got to be a tough son of a bitch, because the guys out there are heavy. I’ve seen times when Dane and Johnny Boy came out and just started clocking guys. Pretty psycho. As a bodyboarder, I had to let it be known that I wasn’t taking any shit. You don’t like what I ride? That’s your problem, not mine. Let me show you how I ride it.

“The lineup is still heavy out there,” he went on, “but it’s different in the fact that [the enforcers] aren’t bullies per se, they’re technical fighters. Other guys might surf a little better, but fighting ability and experience tip the scales a bit. Fortunately, the guys in the hierarchy take turns now. It’s Tamayo and Braden and Kainoa [now an excellent stand-up surfer], and Kala, when he comes out, and younger guys like Healey, Randall Paulson, Jaimie O’Brien, Kalani Chapman. They’re respectful of each other and, if you have position and it’s your turn, you go. Every so often there’s a guy, like Kelly [Slater], who can get waves on his ability alone. Sheer talent can do it. Sheer heaviness can do it—like Kai [Garcia]. Hell, he can go out and get any wave he wants. But just in general, if you’re not from Hawaii, you’re pretty much invisible, because you’ve got none of those three things going for you. And that’s how it has to be. People die out there. They die almost every winter. I know it turns people off to see guys punched out or chased from the water, but the consequence demands it. You’re literally dealing with people’s lives.”

Duncan Campbell, the renowned shaper and owner of the Café Haleiwa, was a fixture in the Pipeline lineup during Stewart’s ascent. “You couldn’t deny Mike,” he said. “He had a force field around him. I don’t really know why people didn’t burn him, like they burned other guys; it was something about Mike’s presence, and the fact that he took off so deep guys were mesmerized by it. If someone did happen to drop in—and this still blows my mind—there would be times when Mike’s riding behind the guy, just stuffed and gone, and he’d come out before the surfer. That just reinforces the legend. I was as angry as anyone when bodyboarders started taking over Pipeline in the late 80s, but it’s a strange world Mike lives in. It’s almost like you don’t even include him as a bodyboarder.”

Lisa on Mike: “From the beginning, he kind of molded me into what would be best for him, with my approval,” she says. “I love to see people struggle and make them sweat, and I used my knowledge to keep Mike in condition all year long.” Photograph by Brian Bielmann.

Stewart’s package could not have been more formidable. Out-of-town competitors showed up without a chance of taking him out at Pipeline. He had the talent, the consistency, the passion—and he had an extraordinary partner in Lisa Miller.

Left to her own devices, the Oahu-born Miller would have become one of Hawaii’s leading figures in nutrition, sports medicine, or personal training—perhaps all three. She’s a registered dietician, trained in kickboxing and tai kwon do, and is keenly attuned to the human body as it relates to extreme physical activity. Her career may have been cut short by her love affair with Stewart and subsequent child raising, but she channeled her energy into Mike’s career.

“From the beginning, he kind of molded me into what would be best for him, with my approval,” she says. “I love to see people struggle and make them sweat, and I used my knowledge to keep Mike in condition all year long. If the North Shore season was coming up, I’d try to bulk him up, make him stronger, work on his adrenal glands so he’d learn how to manage anxiety in competitive situations. We’d run up Pupukea mountain, do a bunch of push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups at the top, and once it started getting dark, we’d take turns chasing each other on the way down, as fast as we could—the hunter and the hunted. We’d play a lot with the fear factor, controlling the adrenaline levels and having the body adapt to negative effects. In the summertime I wanted him light and thin, to stay flexible and aerobic in small waves. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. It was so much fun watching him achieve his goals.”

They dated for 13 years, friends all but begging Mike to marry this person. He never had any doubts about the relationship; he just needed time to establish certainty about settling down with a family (they have a five-year-old son, Kaimana, and a two-year-old daughter, Anela). “I can’t even describe what Lisa means to me,” he says. “To me, it’s all her; she’s far more awesome than me. You always hear that the scale is one-to-ten, but it’s one-to-20. There’s ten for the outside, and ten for the inside. And you gotta shoot for the high teens [laughter].”

As for the rest of the bodyboarding community, one could only sympathize. Stewart presided over the sport from his first contests in ’81 through ’92, when he finished a run of six straight world tour titles, and his competitive nature became legendary.

“Everybody says what a radical competitor he is,” said Lisa, “and there’s definitely a primal element in Mike, but when it comes to contests, that viciousness wasn’t part of his basic nature. He didn’t learn how to be nasty until he went over to Kauai for an event in the mid 80s. Up to that point, it was purely about talent. All of a sudden, things got really heavy, guys interfering and blocking him, teaming up to make sure he’d lose. That really hurt him emotionally, having competitors take away your victory strictly on tactics. He got a little mean after that. Figured out a way to rise above it.”

You have to remember that Stewart is the kind of guy who drives over to Third Dip on the west side, hears king-hell enforcer Perry Dane yell out, “No bodyboarders!” and responds, “That’s right—bodyboarder,” bringing a smile from Mr. Dane. To Stewart, going up against a mostly terrified group of bodyboarders was mere child’s play.

“Mike would just school those guys,” said J.P. Patterson, one of the few who would join Stewart in any conditions. “I remember this one heat at Pipeline; five guys were standing behind Mike on the beach, waiting for him to paddle out. He was just wandering around with his fins already on, totally pretending, and then he just bolted for the lineup. And Mike can paddle like there’s no tomorrow. So he gets out, and the other five guys get cleaned up. If somebody in a heat tried to snake Mike, he would get into their heads so badly. He’d just look at ’em and scare the crap out of ’em. That’s the Hawaiian way. You take your knowledge and offer it to other people, and if they don’t take it properly, use it against ’em.”

“See, that’s the thing,” said Stewart. “I always match the level in the water. If someone’s trying to be a dick, I’ll try to smother them. If they’re cool, I’m all for it, I’ll share. Do you lose friendships out there? Absolutely. Ben coined a saying back in the day: No friends in the final. He’d been a friend since the first event I entered, but once we got out in the water he really came after me, and we had a very fierce rivalry.”

Bodysurfing is the most intimate interaction you can have with a wave and the sensations it has to offer. Teahupoo didn’t seem too feasible as a bodysurfing wave at first, but the wave has a lot of energy and can push you right along. On this session my opinion of the place as a bodysurfing wave changed, the majority of the waves proving makeabIe. That’s photographer Ian Stewart, a distant relative I think, with my “bumble bee” housing that we used to shoot most of Fire. Photographs by Scott Winer.

As an outsider, even one enamored with Stewart’s brilliance, it was sad to see the likes of Severson and McGee finishing second so often—even at times when they were at their best. “I never felt it was personal with Mike and me,” said Severson, now a highly respected lifeguard on the west side. “We never told each other to fuck off or anything like that. But sometimes I took it a little past the edge of the rules, to see if he might back down, and, of course, he didn’t. One time at a Pipe contest I was determined to sit the deepest, and Mike kept pushing it and he finally said, ‘What—you going Off the Wall?’ I said, ‘I guess so.’ I wasn’t backing down either.”

“That’s why I loved Mike,” said McGee, now an integral part of the Pipeline enforcement posse. “Because he was the baddest guy in the water. I mean he’s off his rocker. He’s not all there, that’s for damn sure. He’s incredibly competitive in anything he does. He doesn’t really know how to play basketball, but when we used to play on the Sunset school court, he’s literally diving on the gravel to save a ball. This guy, he’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen, outside of literally killing himself. He’s inspired me—not just in my career, but in my life.”

If Mike and Lisa kept to themselves, they were only staying in character. Stewart admits being something of a loner, “And I’m very reclusive myself,” says Lisa. “Even now, it’s very hard for me to share things about him, because I was programmed for so long to not say anything. It might hurt him competitively. You never know what kind of information people are trying to pull out of you.”

On the rare occasions Stewart went down in a contest, “I’d want to run to cover, for months,” said Lisa. “It would be really, really heavy, like a death in the family. He’s a lot mellower now, especially since we’ve had kids, but back then he’d reach the point where he’d punch a hole in the wall or take a big huge bite out of his board. He ate, breathed, and practiced being a champion, and when he failed, it was pretty traumatic.”

Stewart’s Pipeline domination ended in ’93, when Australian Mike Eppelstun won the contest, but few acknowledged it; the contest was held in 3 to 4 foot surf, primarily at Backdoor. The real breakthrough came the following year, when Pipe was thundering on the second reef and a startling number of riders—primarily Tamega, McGee, Paul Tarpley, and Matt Walbrou—went completely psychotic with their tube riding, aerials and el rollos. Tamega won the contest, twice coming out of the barrel on a memorable 12-foot beast, and the raucous cheers on the beach signaled a new day in the sport. And yet, Stewart was victorious the next two years. It wasn’t until 1997, when Australian Steve MacKenzie prevailed on yet another massive day, that the field was cleared for a new generation.

Stewart’s approach has been compared to Greenough’s in terms of the impact both men have had on the wider surfing world. Greenough was closely connected to Bob McTavish in the shortboard revolution, and Stewart now works with McTavish as a salaried designer.

In a way, the sport never recovered. There are no mainstream bodyboarding magazines in the U.S. today, sponsorship is almost non-existent, and the surf media couldn’t care less. “Guys are still out there going off,” said the 34-year-old McGee, who made the transition to stand-up surfing five years ago, “but nobody’s paddling out to the peak and demanding the respect like Mike did. The sport is dying in the States, man. We don’t have the support from major corporations. It’s all about Australia now.”

Stewart agreed, in part, pointing to such young Aussie chargers as Ryan Hardy and Damian King, and the severe challenges presented by The Box, Cyclops, Shark Island, and other “slab” waves down under. “But we’ve got some really progressive riders in Hawaii—Jeff Hubbard, Spencer Skipper, Jarrett Lau, and a bunch of hungry groms,” he said. “From the outside, it looks like the sport has gone backward, but I think it’s going forward, big time. The level of riding is way higher than it used to be, and we’ve gotten rid of all the bullshit— companies interested for the wrong reasons, magazines putting all the emphasis on fashion. Guys are doing it now because they love it, pure and simple. If surfers look down on it, well, that’s just ignorance. I guess we’re threatening their experience. People don’t like it if you’re not doing something exactly like them.”

Rick Williams, who spends most of his lifeguarding hours at Pipeline, saw so much of Stewart that it changed his life. “On certain days [on breaks] I’ll take a bodyboard out there, and that’s because of Mike,” he said. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I ride one. I take pride in being versatile. Yesterday, I took that board out. Today I went bodysurfing. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll surf Sunset or Haleiwa. Best of all worlds. Having fun—that’s all that matters.”

Stewart’s approach has been compared to Greenough’s in terms of the impact both men have had on the wider surfing world, despite their non-traditional wave-riding craft. Greenough was closely connected to Bob McTavish in the shortboard revolution, and Stewart now works with McTavish as a salaried designer, expanding his concepts well beyond bodyboarding. There are obvious links to the innovative surfing of Greenough and Stewart, and the secretive nature of each. Even more remarkably, Stewart has become the world’s leading practitioner of filming from within the tube—surpassing even the great Don King (a friend and mentor) in that way.

Kite Boat Concept: The idea is to utilize computer-controlled flight patterns that are derived from tensions on the kite lines. Conceivably this could be scaled up to ocean-going freighters. 3D models by Mike Stewart.

Stewart did some filming for Boyle’s videos in the late 80s, but his real breakthrough came on the set of Blue Crush in 2000. Stewart was asked to shoot Pipeline from the extreme danger zone, and his work was so professional a number of his shots were used in the film. That led to many more projects, including work for NBC, the North Shore reality television show, and the film The Big Bounce, leading to Stewart designing his own housing and specialized camera. He’s holding sensational footage from the bowels of Teahupoo and actually has plans to ride behind someone—he’s picturing Doerner—while filming inside that treacherous break.

“It’s a whole new world, what he’s doing,” said Duncan Campbell. “The standard in-the-water shots have cameras fixed to a board. Mike’s hand-held stuff gives you a real examination of life inside the tube through his eyes. You get the feeling of that energy. We all know there’s something going on in there— the sound, the slowing of time, some sort of quantum-physical thing where Einstein’s relativity is being warped. Amazingly, Mike has captured the real-time experience of someone in the tube.”

“I think Mike could make a good living doing water photography alone,” said Brian Keaulana, who has worked as a stunt coordinator on countless Hollywood films and employs Stewart at every opportunity. “How’s this story: A few years back we were filming a commercial on a North Shore outer reef, easy 20 feet, where Mike had to track behind my brother. So Rusty drops in and throws this huge cutback, and when Mike hit the wake, he bounced so radically that he lost everything—camera in one direction, his bodyboard the other. Mike was just flying through the air, spread eagle. Just as I started going, ‘Oh, my God,’ Mike snatches the camera out of mid-air with one hand and grabs his bodyboard with the other. Then he lands, everything back together, and keeps going. I tell people that and they’re like, ‘No way.’ But it doesn’t matter, I was there.”

When first asked about Stewart, the well-traveled Bernie Baker thought it over and concluded, “If I had to choose a posse for a long-distance surf adventure, I’d put Mike in there with Brian Keaulana, Brock Little, Keone Downing, Brian Pacheco, and Ken Bradshaw. Of course, there are more guys than that, but it’s a start. What Mike brings is an attitude, a vision that’s going to be different from the rest of the guys. And you need guys like that. In the end you need to eat, you need to feel safe, and you need to laugh.” 

Later, though, Baker became a bit more esoteric. “If Greenough were to have had a child, I guess it was Stewart.”

*

The film is called Fire, at least for the moment, and it has been years in the making. In partnership with Scott Carter, whose 1996 video The Inside remains the definitive statement on bodyboarding, Stewart hopes to capture his career and his philosophy in a single project—without words. Its images are striking and thought provoking, even in unfinished form it won an award at the 2005 Cinema Paradise Film Festival in Honolulu.

The message, says Stewart, “is for people to tune in to the impact that their surroundings have on them. Society is constantly bombarding you with inadequacies and ego trips. Just turn on the TV; look at any magazine, any advertisement. They don’t show you normal people. It’s always super-trim women and buffed-out guys. It’s a big machine that preys upon your vanity, and there’s no filter on that, from society to your mind. Consequently, people put their focus on all the wrong things. They subscribe to this constant push for fame and fortune.

“I know it’s hypocritical for me to say that, because early in my career, I became a whore to all that and got a lot of coverage. But I’d like to believe I always thought creatively, and I think people could do a lot more of that—use their own instincts and imagination to solve problems instead of subscribing to what’s going on in the world. Don’t buy into all the hype. Find out in your heart what you want to do. Get rid of the things that are holding you back. And that can apply to anything, not just surfing. The message is universal.”

Against a backdrop of disturbing footage reflecting the ravages of “progress,” the film shows Stewart at his best, at spots around the world. The film remains incomplete, but the centerpiece is likely to be Stewart’s performance at Teahupoo on September 11, 2005, a day widely known for Shane Dorian’s well documented “wave of a lifetime.” It was huge, it was perfect, and before Dorian or anyone else hit the water, Stewart was out there alone.

Not everyone is able to experience a wave. Fire sets out in part to share that connection or feeling we have with the ocean—the core of our spirit as wave riders—with at least a glimpse of the ultimate experience this life has to offer: what it’s like to be in a pit at Teahupoo, Backdoor, or Pipe. Sequence by Ian Stewart.

Only a few surfers can even relate to Stewart’s history at Teahupoo. On a PSAA sponsored trip to Tahiti in 1989, he and bodyboarder Chris Tennberg hitched a ride on a Zodiac to explore the coastline. Stewart had seen the place a few years before but in unrideable conditions. Now he was beholding perfect, empty, six-foot waves. Stewart remembers being overwhelmed by the barrels, the gorgeous mountainside, and the sunset—absolutely the most ideal conditions he’d ever come across. “Chris was heavy into Christianity and was always trying to convert me,” Stewart recalled. “I told him, ‘To me, this is heaven right now. I’m living it.’ I know it had been surfed before, but some of the guys in Tahiti told me I was the first Westerner to catch a wave there.”

There was another day, a few years later, that Stewart called a “milestone.” The place was roping at 15-foot plus, just full-insanity large. He drove to the end of the road and paddled out merely to watch Teahupoo at its meanest, but the more he studied the empty waves, the more manageable they looked. “This was way before anybody towed the place,” he said. “It’s the kind of scene we’ll never see again. Once I got up my courage, I got some bombs and came out. It was mystical, beyond description; I was just sitting there by myself, laughing hysterically. It was not even real.”

Carter said he and Stewart had been waiting five years for the September ’05 swell. “When we first got out there, it was just Mike,” he said. “He paddled out alone. He was the only human being hurling himself headfirst into the beast—and on a 15-foot day, that’s fuckin’ gnarly. Not one surfer tried to paddle; eventually it was 12 tow teams and Mike. It was hard for him to get waves, but I’ve got a couple on video, just falling out of the sky, holding his edge, getting to the bottom and making it out. On one wave he tried a roll, if you can even imagine that at Teahupoo. The snowball just annihilated him. He hit the bottom and ripped up his elbows bad. Goes, ‘How’s that for ya, Scotty?’”

“Late in the day, Poto talked Garrett McNamara into getting Mike on the tow rope,” said Carter. “That’s when I started losing it. An IMAX crew had been filming the whole day, but right then they packed it up, saying shit like, ‘Well, it’s Boogiewoogie time, we’d better go in.’ I was ready to throw blows with those guys. I mean, I’m a bodyboarder, OK? And it’s like a racial thing—not the color of your skin, but the shape of your board. They’re yelling out, ‘Get a real board!’ Meanwhile, Mike’s been out there manning it for 11 hours, and with all those surfers getting big dough to be towed in, Mike’s doing it only through his heart and soul. He’s got a relationship with that wave that few will ever know. So he gets towed in, gets the biggest pit of his life, and gets spit out—heaviest thing I’ve ever seen. Best thing ever in our sport.”

Which is saying something, considering what Stewart pulled off at Peahi (Jaws) some eight years before. 

In a spur-of-the-moment call, Stewart was summoned to the filming of In God’s Hands along with Brock Little and Brian Keaulana. Confusion reigned at the Maliko Gulch launching spot that morning, so much that Stewart was nearly left standing at the altar. There was a ton of skepticism about a bodyboarder riding the place, and if it hadn’t been for Rush Randle—perhaps the least strident of all the “Strapped” crew—Stewart might not have found his 20-minute jet ski ride to the break.

“Yeah, but you have to remember,” said Little, “those guys were skeptical of everyone. Mike was just another guy from Oahu that they really didn’t want to have come over. They still don’t want to share.”

“It wasn’t a real warm welcome,” Stewart said. “I think a lot of those guys were like, oh, shit, what’s this guy getting into? And to a large degree, they were right—that wave is pretty insane. But I had the session of my life. It was just us: Laird, Kalama, Darrick, Brock, Brian, Victor [Lopez], a couple other skis, and that was it. We did it, we left, and the place was empty.”

Sandy Beach is always a quick, radical, and intense ride that requires a loose, spontaneous approach. For this reason it has been a mecca for the fin-wearing tribe. Soft and slippery, quick, skeg-less boards with rails that can be interchangeably engaged or disengaged for traction, are well suited. Unique lines can result that open entirely new perspectives/sensations. Photograph by Briann Bielmann.

Doerner had broken the tube-riding barrier at Jaws a year earlier, with Laird in hot pursuit, but the notion remained somewhat taboo. “Up to that point, you didn’t see a lot of tubes being ridden or even attempted,” Stewart said. “But Brock went fuckin’ crazy and this was before life vests. He was just maddoggin’ it.” Stewart, meanwhile, picked off what remain the largest waves ever ridden by a bodyboarder, easily 60 feet on the face, one of which found him in the biggest barrel of his life. “I thought I was doomed,” he said. “But for me, whenever you see that curve in the ocean and a tube’s setting up, it doesn’t matter how big it is, there’s only one path to take. I couldn’t believe I came out of that thing.”

(Asked about a lasting memory of his good friend Stewart, Kainoa McGee replied, “Have you seen the footage from Jaws? I don’t think I need to say more than that. Over there doing spins and getting barreled? What was he thinking?”)

In the wake of that session, reports circulated that the “Strapped” guys were giving Stewart a bad time, at least among themselves. “No, that’s blown way out of proportion,” says Kalama. “Mike did really well, he’s 100 percent legit. It’s not like we expected to suddenly see a whole bunch of bodyboarders—and we haven’t. Like, never.”

“I just remember him bouncing down those waves,” said Doerner. “The whole time he’s landing, then flying. Landing, then flying. I don’t know how his back could stand that kind of pounding. He was the ping-pong ball going down a thousand stairs.”

As Hamilton recalls it, “Without us, Mike would never have had the chance to ride waves at Jaws. Our reaction was that we’d love to watch, if that’s what you want to do. I knew who he was, an unbelievably talented guy, the Michael Jordan of his sport, and he showed why. Mike never ceases to amaze us, doing something spectacular that hadn’t been done before. I notice he hasn’t been back since, though. Maybe it was more than he wanted.”

It wasn’t the wave, said Stewart, but the scene. “Nothing against any of those guys. I’ve got the utmost respect for all of them,” he said. “The place is just a spectacle now. I went back one more time, super crowded, just a nightmare. It was everything I hate about surfing. Skis all over the place, guys dropping in, coming from here and there, crazy, out of control. And I felt like I was part of the problem, just by being there. I’m over it. I don’t see going back until something changes.”

*

In truth, it’s not like Stewart to follow anyone’s path. This is a man who, guided by surf forecaster Sean Collins, literally followed a summer swell around the Pacific in 1996. It wasn’t planned, not at first, but after surfing consecutive days in Tahiti and Hawaii (howling, eight-foot Maalaea), Stewart flew to California for an explosive Wedge session. He moved on to the Channel Islands and wound up in Alaska where he hired a pilot to fly across Yakitat Bay and rode waves thickened by runoff from a nearby glacier.

“What I really admired about that,” said Ambrose after interviewing Stewart, “is that he didn’t just ride those waves, he noticed that the swell had certain characteristics, a distinct fingerprint from its source of origin to its dying gasp on the shores of Alaska. He’s like the ancient Hawaiians that way, watching and reading the elements. What an epic voyage.”

Stewart’s idea of satisfaction is paddling or towing Oahu’s outer reefs with Little or Mike Pietsch, a cousin of Lisa’s. Among other things, this is what separates him from every other bodyboarder. “It’s one thing for guys to hang around Pipeline and get photographed,” said Randy Rarick, “but Mike goes out into huge waves in the middle of nowhere, and he does it routinely. Sort of a Todd Chesser kind of spirit. Honestly, if you took away the cameras and the coverage, how many of these guys would go away?”

Most of Stewart’s sessions are right out of the textbook: clean and flawless. He has no size limit, saying he has yet to see a rideable wave he didn’t want. When things do go wrong, that’s when Stewart separates himself from all but a few surfers in the world. Keoni Watson recalled a session at Himalayas when a giant set began feathering on the horizon, “and Stewart just started hooting. Ross [Williams] and I are totally silent, paddling as hard as we can, and Mike’s all, ‘Whoo-hoo!’ It’s like he was wanting to get caught inside.”

Little called Stewart “the best possible guy you could have as a tow partner. When we first went out there, we were a total comedy act, just making one mistake after another—and we loved it. Hey, if the ski broke down, we’d just swim in. If something went wrong with one of us, no problem. One time the two of us just got crushed at Himalayas, both in the impact zone, the ski tumbling in on its own, and we were giggling at ourselves. We almost looked for that kind of situation. Makes it a better adventure.”

You often meet the wave from where you are at mentally—sometimes passive, others more active. Sometimes you just feel like hitting it. Of course it’s always nice to land on something relatively soft. Sequence by Brian Bielmann.

Brock has yet to catch Stewart’s stand-up act, but Pietsch sees it often—“and it’s pretty cool,” he says. “The thing about Mike is that he always responds to the conditions. On a lot of tow days the chop is so bad, he’s just bouncing like crazy on his board, especially on the flats before takeoff. And most of the outer reefs on Oahu have a slope, they’re not perfect barrels like Teahupoo. So he’ll put the straps on. He’s goofy-foot, like I am, and he pretty much only surfs when we’re towing now. I know people haven’t seen him, but he can do it well. For him, it’s whatever makes it more fun.”

Stewart has been through every conceivable circumstance on the outer reefs. He’s been out there in growing darkness, having to decide whether to get over that approaching set or just let it crush him, to get closer to shore. He has been held underwater so long his body went limp, simply shut down, as if preparing for a stage closer to death. He’s been in situations where if he did drown, “Nobody would have found me for another couple of days.” He has heard very experienced big-wave surfers shouting in terror. But there was one particular session, during the 1990 Eddie Aikau contest, that left an indelible memory.

It was a solid 25 feet that day, with 30-foot sets and stiff, southeasterly offshores. In typical Stewart fashion, he paddled out to Himalayas alone. He found just one other surfer in the lineup: Joe Lazar, proprietor of Haleiwa Joe’s and one of those quiet, underground chargers so prevalent on the North Shore. Lazar swung around for a bomb, “and he’s paddling in early, but you can only paddle so fast,” Stewart recalled. “In those winds, the whole top of the lip was getting blown off and the spray was just raining—saltwater rain. He got stuck up in the lip, leaned forward and started to get down the thing, but then the tail lifted off and he started flying, literally, in this air pocket at the top. I’m not exaggerating—he traveled at least 20 to 30 yards like a hang glider, just a magic carpet ride before the wind caught him and blew him out the back. I never saw that before, but I think there’s something to that. I don’t know how, but in the future, surfers will be capitalizing on that. They’ll be flying, but they’ll be staying in the wave.”

Perhaps it will happen sooner than anyone thinks. Perhaps it will be Stewart doing the flying. He tends to be the one who leads.

*

One sparkling day at Pipeline a few years back, Kelly Slater got the signature wave. He was bodysurfing. Gliding out of the barrel, he whipped himself onto the sandbar and rode it all the way to the sand. It was the week of the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, and a lot of other top surfers—including Rob Machado and Tom Curren—were showing off their versatility. As they gathered around the master, Mark Cunningham, one sensed an elite celebration of the purest wave-riding art form.

Amazingly, there was one more elevator stop to the penthouse. That is Stewart’s domain, a level all its own. Even Cunningham finds it somewhat otherworldly. In a stunning redux of his bodyboarding supremacy, there are many exceptional bodysurfers around the world—and then there’s Mike Stewart.

“He’s the ultimate world champion in two of the most under-appreciated, financially-destitute sports in the world. How frustrating is that? I only have to deal with bodysurfing; he’s got both of them. OK, so Mike’s twice the loser that I am. I feel better”

Mark Cunningham

Starting in 1991, when he entered the contest on a lark and took home the trophy, Stewart began a run of ten Pipeline titles, including seven during a nine-year stretch. When sets up to 15 feet hammered the reef in 1997 and ’02 (they’ll hold this event in anything), Stewart was particularly comfortable. The last two years have brought new and popular winners (Todd Sells and Steve Kapela), but there has been no change in the hierarchy

“When Mike doesn’t win,” said Sells, “it just makes you think of how great he was all those years. He’s head and shoulders above the rest of us, I’m certain of that. He does things the rest of us are only dreaming of.” (Stewart’s 11th Pipe title came in the 2005 event sponsored by the North Shore lifeguards.)

They’re a strange lot, the Pipeline bodysurfers. They come out of the woodwork on just the right days if they can squeeze in a shoulder among the annoying horde of bodyboarders. You can’t imagine a better sight than Don King, Abe Lerner, or Barry Holt so perfectly slotted on Hawaii’s most dangerous wave. The contests bring out the best in Larry Russo, Chris Robinson, Pete Johnson, Fred Asmus, James Duca, the Malloys, Wedge guys, international guys, and the remarkable Judith Sheridan, who takes a nice Hawaiian break from her triple-overhead sessions at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. They’ve all imitated Cunningham at some point, although no one has ever matched the sheer beauty of his performance.

“Mark is always my inspiration,” said Stewart, and as he spoke, there was Cunningham bodysurfing across his chest (T-shirt artistry from the film Broke Down Melody). “He rode Pipeline the way it’s meant to be ridden, and no one else was doing that—just climbing, dropping, accelerating, driving, making it—taking advantage of it, really. I try to do those things, but he’s just a natural.”

Stewart has joined Cunningham in the realm of distinct maneuvers and speed changes at Pipeline, but he has taken the art one step further. Long known for his back-from-the-dead bodyboarding feats, throwing 360 rolls inside the tube and coming out into the whitewater, Stewart somehow manages to pull it off as a bodysurfer—and he does it routinely, as if requiring little effort at all.

“What was that all about?” marveled Keoni Watson, himself a first-rate bodysurfer, as he watched one of Stewart’s rides during the 2006 Pipeline contest.

“Freaky Boy,” said Cunningham.

“You can’t tell me he didn’t smuggle a McDonald’s tray out there,” said Watson. “There’s no way that was humanly possible.”

A few bodysurfers, including Holt and Severson, have unveiled the maneuver over the years. But as far anyone can recall, no one but Stewart did it in the Pipeline contest for 12 years until Kai Santos nailed one in 2006. “It’s not like there’s a pack of young, progressive bodysurfers coming on,” said Lerner. “But nobody comes close to Mike on that move. I can do a barrel roll inside the wave, but Mike gets out of there and somehow keeps going, still planing. It’s unreal.”

Bodyboards are amazing tube-riding craft. You can basically go from top speed—and that’s pretty quick on a skeg-less craft—to a complete stop or anywhere in between at will. And, yes, you can even drag your cooler to the beach on them. This was the 9/11 swell: The gray shirt got retired a couple waves after this one when a roll attempt went awry and sent me into the reef. I had to use a different shirt for the plane ride home on this trip. Photograph by Rob Brown.

It’s typical of Stewart that he can’t quite remember when he first practiced or unveiled the move. “It might have just occurred to me in a wave one day,” he said. “I’m so accustomed to aiming for that part of the wave, working with the lip, I think I just said, ‘I’m going up there now.’ It wasn’t really premeditated. It just seemed like a natural place to go. You have to really be aware of where you are. Wrong part of the wave, you get beat and go straight to the bottom.”

J.P. Patterson recalled Stewart surveying the North Shore stretch at Ke Iki, perhaps the most terrifying big-wave shorebreak in the world, and deciding to bodysurf it “at 10 to 15 feet Hawaiian—without fins.” He has launched takeoffs from the second reef at Pipeline and one day hopes to continue into the inside, power into the barrel, and come out. (“Without the crowds, I think I would have done it by now.”) He even bodysurfed Teahupoo at a solid ten feet in the summer of 2005. “Sheet glass, no skis, no surfers, no egos, just Mike and the wave,” said Carter, who captured a couple of rides on film. “A bunch of guys saw Mike ditch his board and just paddled in to watch. He was bottom turning off these waves, making it through, getting pushed out by these giant foam balls. I have no idea how. It was phenomenal.”

If the aficionados around theNorth Shore are lucky, Stewart and Cunningham will be dueling it out in the Pipeline contest for years to come. It’s the ultimate rivalry of contrast, a little like watching the frenetic Rusty Keaulana against the mellow Joel Tudor in a longboarding contest, except for the rewards. There aren’t any. Prize money: zero. Magazine coverage: none. Chance of the results getting into the next morning’s Honolulu Advertiser: bleak. Perhaps in a day or two.

“Suddenly it’s dawning on me—poor Mike,” Cunningham said with a smile. “He’s the ultimate world champion in two of the most under-appreciated, financially-destitute sports in the world. How frustrating is that? I only have to deal with bodysurfing; he’s got both of them. OK, so Mike’s twice the loser that I am. I feel better now.”

*

The look has changed, considerably. Once the dashing kid with the bright blond hair, Stewart is now a studious-looking fellow with a beard and receding hairline. There are signs of wear and experience on his face, and not merely from his extremist lifestyle. Adulthood has brought episodes that hastened his maturity and tested his will as a survivor.

Shortly after the birth of his baby, Anela, two years ago, Mike was propped up on a bed at home, marveling at the sight of his sleeping wife and kids when the phone rang. It was a doctor at Queens Hospital, informing the family that Anela’s blood tests revealed a staph infection, and please bring her back immediately. “Hours turned into days,” he recalled. “Tests kept coming back positive. Here she’s a week old, and they’re sticking needles into her, trying to find a vein. It was the worst thing that could ever happen, two weeks of not knowing if she was going to make it. She’s fine now; she’s a full firecracker. But that was so humbling…there’s no describing the love I have for this little baby.”

Mike doesn’t see much of his father, and in the fall of 2001 it took a tragedy to bring them closer together. Bob Stewart had married Ann, his high school sweetheart, the two of them finally connecting some 30 years after graduation. Ann had a single child, Rob Jordan, and he was working in a 108th-floor office when the World Trade Center buildings went down. Bob was watching on television, thinking back to his childhood on Oahu when Pearl Harbor was attacked “and all the adults were out of control.” He called on Mike for a dose of pure compassion. “Mike was a very comforting presence to Ann, and he continues to be,” said Bob. “He’s got a pretty big heart. He really stands up in a situation like that.”

As the bodyboarding craze took off, Stewart could not have foreseen the impending crash. He was one of the few surfers making a decent living, and when the Mattel company bought Kransco (housing Morey Boogie™) in March 1994, Stewart signed a five-year, $350,000 deal. He and Lisa built their dream house on the Big Island, a three-story hexagonal shape overlooking the ocean on the Hamakua cliffs. They had lived in it for two years—nothing but clear sailing ahead. And yet, things weren’t quite right. The Mattel people had the toy thing down, but they couldn’t keep up with Mike’s demand for equipment. They were spending crazy money, but in all the wrong places, not truly understanding the market. Small fissures developed in the relationship. The last thing Stewart wanted was to come off as some cocky kid, “but I’ve never been one to let things go,” he said. It’s a long and convoluted story, but in essence, Mattel unloaded its entire sports division and voided Stewart’s contract. He hired a lawyer but wound up spending a fortune in a game he couldn’t win. In a downright vindictive move, Mattel gathered up hundreds of signature Stewart boards and sold them for dirtcheap prices at places like Costco and Wal-Mart, essentially killing the market.

“Tom Morey knew what was going on,” said Stewart. “He was so bummed out over the whole deal, he changed his name to Y for a while. No Tom, just Y. He told me, ‘Mike, you’d better hurry up, there’s only so many other letters in the alphabet.’”

I don’t know if the Jaws crew is going to read this but if they do: Thank you! I ended up getting the biggest barrel of my life on this wave and a tube vision I will never forget. Photograph by Erik Aeder.

Stewart was in Australia for a contest when he began the long road back. “I just said life’s too short for this. I’m done dealing with these kinds of people. I don’t care if I lose my house, fuck it; it’s not about the money. That was a huge turning point for me. I won the event down there, got back, put my house on the market, just started from scratch, basically. That was a pretty heavy transition, to go in the hole like that. Between the Mattel thing, the lawyer, and my mortgage payments, I lost it all.”

Lisa recalled their being “prisoners” to that house, so badly did they want to keep it. “I was juggling five credit cards to pay the mortgage. We were selling CDs on the Internet just to make some money. We had no hot water for a year. I mean we were really struggling. But once we let go of that negative vibe, everything changed. It opened the doors for Mike to be free-minded again.”

Thanks to a variety of income—his photography, his board manufacturing, his work with McTavish, some help from family and friends—Stewart worked years to remove his debt. They had originally owned two properties on the island, and they bought the other one outright to house the family. “It’s hard for me in a way,” he said while visiting friends on the North Shore. “I’m so used to just waking up right on the beach; this is the first time in 20 years I don’t have a place out here that I’m renting. I basically can’t afford it. But I’ve got things in control, financially, and I have a really supportive wife. She’s all, hey—if the swell’s cranking, go. She knows I’ll be grumpy if I don’t. I’ll chase swells on the other islands, surf Pipe when it’s good, travel to Tahiti when it’s good, just be on it for the swells. Plus, I’ve got two unreal kids. Things are awesome. It’s a really good time in my life right now.”

Not long after that interview ended, Stewart had withdrawn into a private world, lost in his computer. It’s a place of wondrous discovery, packed with designs, theories, and ideas. Asked for a look inside, Stewart unveiled his own inventions for surf craft, wetsuits, tow sleds, canoes, fins, waterproof zippers, seat belts, kite-powered boats, bicycles, furniture—that seemed only the half of it. The whole presentation was so proficient in 3-D modeling that it seemed to have emerged from some modernist graphics seminar.

Later that night, Stewart attended a party including many of the top performers from the Pipeline bodysurfing contest. He mingled some, told a few jokes, but his mind seemed to be elsewhere. “I see that so often,” Lisa said the next day. “He can become so focused on developing and creating, it’s like a prison. He’ll stay up until one or two at night, be up at five, and all the waking hours he’s constantly trying to mold or create something. He never relaxes, even when he’s sleeping. It seems like he’s intensely trying to figure out something in his dreams. Even at parties, he’s intense. I’m like, ‘Yoo-hoo! Come back.’”

There’s no telling what might free Stewart from that prison—a swell, a spear-fishing expedition, special moments with his kids, or perhaps something totally unexpected, like a friendship bordering on the bizarre. If anything sums up Stewart’s outlook toward life, it’s the saga of one Markus Broyles.

Now in his fifties, Broyles was a Malibu surfer of the Darrick Doerner/JoJo Perrin generation, excelling on the rights of Trancas Point and Point Dume. The son of a preacher and eccentric by nature, he spent nine years living in a beach shack he built from the residue of high tide. An old acquaintance noted quite fondly that Broyles “lived in his own strange world, with its own strange rules.”

If that paddle looks like a cutting implement it’s because it is. When I asked Marcus why he has a knife-sharp metal tip on his paddle, he gestured with it and hollered “To chop up sharks!” Except for the inherent hazard, it was actually quite an ingenious design as the lower tip drained the water away while paddling. My wife, who took this photo, might have second thoughts about our trip after seeing all this explained. Photograph by Lisa Stewart.

Broyles moved to the Big Island in 1986 and never looked back, making a living through his construction work, koa wood sculpture, and abalone carving. In the meantime, he was acting upon a lifetime obsession with ancient weaponry. He built them, collected them, and stashed them in key places in case of a crisis. Stewart barely knew him when, some five years ago, Broyles asked if he’d like to join him on a kayak trip deep into the remote Big Island valleys. “The guy invites me up to his shack, and it’s like eight miles up a dirt road—way out in the boonies,” said Stewart. “He’s got a big scar across his nose, looks totally gnarly, talks really loud, has sort of an amped-out-of-his-mind vibe about him. Every day he’s collecting 200-pound rocks, just manhandling them into his truck and building some kind of pyramid with ’em. He shows me this medieval crossbow he made. Then he busts out two throwing axes he made from truck springs, and this giant stiletto sword. My heart’s just pounding. I’m thinking, this guy’s out there. I could just get chopped to pieces up here, you know?”

Looking past the weirdness, Stewart decided to go along. The notion seemed edgy as hell but with some promise. “I don’t know what it was, I just saw something in him,” said Stewart. As time went on, Stewart learned that Broyles had been building weapons, art, and unique surf equipment since he was a kid. His “tenacious personality,” as he describes it, stemmed from a rare case of hypertrophic organs—particularly his lungs and heart, large enough for two men. It gave him titanic endurance, the ability to lift staggering amounts of weight or stay down nearly five minutes on a free dive. Although Broyles said he’d trained all his life in survival techniques, he’d never hurt anyone. It was the art of weaponry that captivated him. Turned loose in the Hawaiian wild, there were no limits to his creativity.

So Stewart joined Broyles on that kayak trip and a number of adventures on a Big Island coastline that discourages surfing at every turn. One stormy afternoon, Mike jumped off a pile of rocks to launch a 30-minute paddle to a break with no beach. Broyles, who lives up the coast, would be heading down a distant cliff and meeting him there. “There are stories of shark attacks in the area,” said Stewart. “When the waves hit these huge boulders in the water, you’ll be cruising along and all of a sudden it just boils up in front of you, just scary as hell. Every so often you get the feeling you’re being watched, or you’re gonna get eaten. This day it was raining so hard, with all these fresh piles of rock that had come down the cliff, if you had to go in there, you could just get buried and no one would ever know. It’s trippy to see how your mind works in situations like that.”

With their session under way in solid eight-foot conditions, an undergunned Broyles lost his board. He could always rockhop with the best of them, but this task seemed impossible. “See ya later, Mike!” he yelled. “Gotta swim to the beach. No fuckin’ way I’m goin’ in there.” Stewart wouldn’t hear of it. He went straight in, using his fins and board as shields against the razor-sharp rocks. “Somehow he gets a hold of my board, and as he’s heading back out, the set of the day lands on his head,” said Broyles. “He pulls that off, too. My board’s all beat to shit, wasn’t even worth it, but that’s Mike. He felt it was worth the trouble, and totally rescued me.

“This guy deserves to be in some epic movie, man,” said Broyles. “He’s a team player, he’s innovative, he’s funnier than shit—he’s like being on the crew of Monty Python. He’s a fucking planet, a whole surfing industry unto himself. He’s made some financial timing errors, but he’s hopeful, not a predator. He keeps all his woes and tragedies to himself. Me, I’m like a bloodstain on the wall that can’t get cleaned, a hairball that the cat can’t cough up. Wherever the horizon is in life, I’m fucking out there, man, and Mike comes out to meet me. That is a precious, lovely quality.”

In those few words, Mad Markus captured a legend. Beyond all the accolades and accomplishments, Mike Stewart’s life speaks to the power of an open mind.

I have always cherished solo sessions. The time when you are stripped from everything but the experience of the moment, a time when you can truly connect to that energy of the ocean, its spirit. One of my favorite travels was with photographer Aaron Loyd. We chased a hurricane swell into the deserts of Mexico and scored sick waves, secluded lineups, and I found an Indian arrowhead. Photograph by Aaron Loyd.

[Feature image: Pipe on a very glassy spring morning. After years and years of riding the place, I find my memory of the rides has become blurred in a sort of intoxicated stupor. This was one of those rare sessions that actually stands out in my mind. The photographer, Dan Russo, is another pipe charger.]