Showdown at Sunset Cliffs

A super session decided by the peer-review process.

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One summer, Jackie Baxter, Skip Frye, and I were shooting the shit while standing at the edge of the dirt road running along the beach at San Onofre when Jackie asked Skip if he remembered something they participated in back in the mid 1960s.

As Jackie recounted it, he, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Skip, Mike Hynson, and Herbie Fletcher were standing together at one of the ocean paths at Sunset Cliffs, staring at extraordinarily good surf with not a soul out. As it would happen, all five were giving voice to severe anxiety pangs while watching, as none had brought their boards along. Except, that is, one Hynson Red Fin—an extremely respectable design of that period—that one of them had left in the back of one of their cars.

So, with only the one board in play, Hynson—or maybe it was Skip, Jackie couldn’t remember for sure—proposed a scheme that they quickly refined and, surprisingly, all agreed to. The five would lag pebbles from a fair distance at a small circle drawn in the dirt. The closest to the stone marking center would go first, next-closest would go second, and so on. In that order, each would paddle out and ride a single wave in any manner or style—no holds barred. The four left on the beach would observe and grade each effort.

The object of each surfer was to ride a wave to such an extent that it not only exceeded the rides of the other four, but that any criticism or debate of that ride would reveal an obvious sign of personal insecurity from one of the viewers. Perhaps difficult to achieve with this group, but doable nonetheless. The winner would get one hour to continue surfing that board in those perfect empty waves while the rest of them were required to sit and watch.

The concept of this impromptu challenge between that particular handful of tip-top surfers, all of whom happened to be at the pinnacle of their surfing lives at that very moment, was rather apropos. As those on the beach watched the first two sensational efforts, they began to realize that they—and the whole deal they had cooked up—were undoubtedly involved in a once-in-a-lifetime coincidence of factors unlikely to ever happen again. Jackie recalled everyone’s rides as being totally off the Richter, each in some way different than the others.

Just think: Kanaiaupuni, Hynson, Frye, Fletcher, and Baxter, all with their individual self-esteem on the line, participating in that entirely fabricated circumstance. Gracefully, Baxter couldn’t recall who actually won. Or perhaps he was only being modest, since he was the one who remembered the occurrence in the first place.

As we walked on, I told Jackie that I hoped he didn’t mind, but I had to write the story down. He just laughed.

[Feature image: Hynson pictured on a Red Fin at San Miguel in 1965, the same period as the surf-off, certainly making a case for himself in trim alone. Photograph by Ron Stoner]