From the ages of 12 to 18, I had so many bizarre moments with all those guys from the 60s. I was just a kid competing against them, but I wasn’t an easy beat. If they fucked around, I’d get ’em. And some of them were assholes because they felt threatened.
But David had been such a star through- out his whole childhood that he took me under his wing, just like how Donald Takayama looked after him. In fact, in the summer of ’88, David took me to Malibu for the first time, along with Donald and my parents. We watched Five Summer Stories in his motorhome in the parking lot.
David gave me so much advice on foot placement and where to stand on certain parts of the wave. When I’d be in a heat, David and Donald would be on the beach, pointing where to sit and which waves to go on. When we were just hanging out, they’d say, “Hey, don’t act like that, dude.” They really put what to do and what not to do right in front of my face. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. But now I’m the same age David was at that time, and I try to pay it forward to the kids I’m around.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t understand his wide stance on a fish. One day I was smoking a joint with Jackie Baxter and he was like, “Whoa…you don’t get it! Only a year before David showed up on a fish, we were all on huge, clunky surfboards. Seeing David on a fish was like watching an alien go down the line; he was going so much faster than everyone else. That kind of progression doesn’t happen overnight, but it did for him. So when you watch that footage, appreciate that David’s surfing threw everyone for a loop, rather than trying to understand the style.”
David lived through such a golden era in California, I can see how he’d get burned out, especially with the crowds. But he’s still the guy. He still loves it and still shreds. He just needs to be motivated to paddle out. David has that untouchable Hawaiian style that will still be relevant when they look back on surfing 2,000 years from now. It’s a style that comes with his birthright. It can’t be emulated.
I’ll never forget a session where David and Jock Sutherland were surfing this little left just south of the contest zone, right outside the boundary. They were both on Nuuhiwa Noseriders. One of the boards had a checkered nose and a broken-off fin; there was maybe 4 inches of the fin left glassed to the board.
They kept trading off that board, kind of dueling each other on it. Noseriders need a pretty deep fin to work, but it didn’t hold them back at all. The board went faster because of the lessened drag, and it was side-sliding, too. But they were using that to their advantage. I’m kind of a minimal fin guy, so maybe that’s why I remember this session so clearly. The surfing, though, was just incredible. They were putting on a show, man. No one on the beach was paying attention to the contest. All eyes were on David and Jock.
My dad, being a longboarder, had all the classic MacGillivray-Freeman movies. At 13, I was watching David in Free and Easy and The Sunshine Sea. He was in his late teens in those films, so his surfing gave me something to shoot for even though the ceiling seemed so high. I’d watch him do fin-first takeoffs, hang ten, do all of his one-footed stuff—then I’d try to do it the next day.
His surfing also felt like it was relative, because he was surfing classic boards in Huntington and I was surfing them down in Newport. He made riding a longboard at faster beachbreaks seem feasible, as opposed to where all the hot contemporary longboarders were coming from, like the slower reefs in San Diego and points like Malibu.
When I started going on surf trips in my later teens, I realized longboards aren’t easy to travel with and aren’t always conducive to certain spots. So I retraced how David went from riding longboards to smaller boards, because he made that transition seamlessly.
As I got older, I started seeing David at the beach. He’s pretty easy to spot with that big head of hair. I would trip, just starstruck.
David would sometimes show up to contests with a brand new-board, one he’d never even ridden before. Usually you’d want to ride a board you’ve felt out, but he could ride anything.
He’d also arrive at the events wearing a fur coat and driving a Rolls-Royce with his board strapped to the top. He reminded me of the basketball player Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who was playing for the New York Knicks at that time. Both Clyde and David made flamboyant statements with their cars and clothes, but their talent in their respective fields did the actual talking.
The first time I met David, at the 1966 World Championships, I was immediately amazed that someone could surf like he did. He stood on the nose for what seemed like forever. They published a sequence of his legendary noseride from that contest in Surfer, and I don’t think it’s been topped—still probably the longest one that’s been made. So while I was always impressed with David’s surfing, I was even more impressed with him as a person.
In 1969, my new wife and I were on a flight to Hawaii from California for a MacGillivray-Freeman shoot. David was on the flight too, and came rushing onto the plane wearing a big corsage of flowers. As he passed us on the aisle, he stopped at our seats, took off his corsage, and gave the flowers to my wife.
I got to see David last year at San Onofre. We rode waves and had a bonfire on the beach. He’s still the same, doing really stylish things in the water and on land.
We took David, Nat Young, Robert August, and Mark Martinson to Maui in the summer of 1969 to film The Sunshine Sea. We all stayed in a small condo near Kaanapali. It was tight quarters. People slept on the floor and on sofas. Mark, Nat, and Robert were like a comedy trio act. They had David, Jim Freeman, and I rolling on the floor the entire two-week trip. It was great seeing David, with his big mane of black hair, kick back and have a good time while being paid to surf with his friends.
In the evenings over cocktails, David would reflect on his early days in Hawaii. During those conversations, I sensed an intensity in him that was different from most surfers. He spent a lot of time thinking about riding waves. There was endless talk of surfboard curves, fin shapes, and materials. Since these surfers had been around the world, they had a real perspective on everything that was happening with design.
I also noticed that each felt in control of their destiny—independent spirits with their own ideas, ability, and popularity to push surfing in any direction they wished. David was serious about surfing growing as a professional sport, so he could make a living from it. Everyone was shocked that he had such depth, because he rarely showed it, being so shy.
In 1977, after my partner, Jim Freeman, died in a helicopter crash, David and his girlfriend came by our office to see how I was doing. We sat in our courtyard and talked for an hour about our experiences with Jim. It was a kind gesture, and helped with my grief. I’ve always admired David, but never more so than in that moment.
When it comes to riding waves, David is the most ballet-like surfer I’ve ever filmed. When he’d step to the nose, each foot would lift off the board, almost like Baryshnikov. At that time, we were experimenting with new slow-motion photography at 200 frames per second or above to enable the audience to see the balance, strength, and multidimensional movements in good surfing. For non-surfing viewers, it’s imperative to slow all that down for them to really appreciate the skills surfers possess. David illustrated this better than anyone.
[Excerpted from TSJ 31.1’s “Virtuoso: The Dark and Graceful Swagger of David Nuuhiwa” by Phil Jarratt. Click here to get your copy]
[Feature image by Leo Hetzel. Sequence by Ron Stoner]