Peter Cole, somewhere behind his messy desk

This was one of the most enlightening and enjoyable interviews I've every had. Peter threw out names and events that were of legendary status in surfing history. The Duke, Tom Blake, Bob Simmons--all friends and acquaintances of his. He's personally ridden some of the biggest waves ever surfed. Just an amazing man.

After listening to the interview tape, I found that I was a terrible interviewer--sometimes breaking in before Peter finished his thoughts. Still, I think the most of Peter's thoughts and memories came through. Thanks for your patience, Peter.

The interview was conducted during our lunch break on July 20, 1999.


Basic Info
Most Memorable
The Hawaiian Scale
Sunset Beach
Big Wave Riding
Names and Phrases
The Photo

B A S I C    I N F O

HSA: So how old are you?

PC: Iím 68.

HSA: When did you realize that you were hooked for life on surfing?

PC: Well, I started when I was fourteen, but just on paddleboards straight off of Santa Monica. Itís not really surfing, not really standing up on it. And then I didnít get into surfing until the following summer when I was fifteen in Ď45 in Malibu.

HSA: What made you move to Hawaii?

PC: I moved to Hawaii with a contract to work at Punahou (high school) in Ď58.

HSA: The move, was it surf-oriented?

PC: Well, I got a good job opportunity at Punahou to teach there with a contract before I decided to come and the fact that Hawaii had the very best surf in the world was very much a factor in choosing Punahou. If Punahou was somewhere else, I wouldíve stayed where I was because I had a good job.

HSA: You were a math teacher?

PC: Yeah.

HSA: Did you change jobs from a teacher to civil service because of surfing?

PC: The primary motivation for quitting teaching and going to civil service was that when I was teaching at Punahou I was also coaching, assisting with swimming and track. And I just was there all the time and didnít really get away in the afternoons. The only way I could surf was if I get another teacher to swap an afternoon with me in the morning that taught the same subject and to tell my coach, the guy I work with, to take over my job as a coach.

I only could do that occasionally, whereas in the civil service, especially with flexi-time, I always had the afternoon off. Plus I was getting bored as a teacher--I found myself falling asleep.

HSA: Well, you canít just bail to go surfing if thereís a test or whatnot...

PC: You have to be there, and itís such a humbug to get a substitute to take your class.

HSA: So, teaching wasnít fun? Didnít you get satisfaction from it?

PC: Oh, teaching was great. It was a good job, but it didnít lend itself to surfing as much as this job.

M O S T    M E M O R A B L E

HSA: What is your most memorable surfing experience? Maybe a particular ride, session wipeout or emotion?

PC: Probably October Ď69, I got a real good wave at Waimea. And then, I think it was October Ď78, we had big low near the Aleutians that was a real solid big low that was in a perfect position to generate a north-northwest at Sunset that was far and above the best Sunset that anybody that shared that day with any day previously or since. It was just one of those unique days where it was fifteen, possibly bigger, and lined up all the way from Backyards all the way across. Kimo Hollinger paddled over to the point, and then Eddie (Aikau) and I followed him. The three of us were outside of Backyards and we could see the Kuilima Hotel (now the Turtle Bay Hilton) from where we were sitting, we were so far out...

HSA: Hoí man!

PC: ...And I picked up two waves all the way from Backyards all the way through the regular lineup. Those were probably the best two rides Iíve ever had in my life.

HSA: It hasnít ever happened since, huh?

PC: Iíve never had it even close to that. I donít think anybody else has had it close to that either. I lucked out, I was real lucky in that I got two unbelievable waves all the way through.

HSA: Did Kimo and Eddie connect too?

PC: Iím not sure whether they had the luck I had. I had two really choice waves.

HSA: What about that session in Ď69? That mustíve been an intense experience?

PC: Yeah, well that was one of those days where it was small in the morning and just kept climbing. At about 2-3 o-clock we paddled out, and it was maybe fifteen, and it got bigger and bigger. But it was glassy, with a long interval, and it was light offshore winds and it had just the perfect direction, again a little bit north and northwest. Waimea is easiest to ride when its got a little bit of north because it doesnít ledge and come around.

It was just building and building, and we were surfing and surfing, and Jose (Angel) got an unbelievable wave. And it was one of those few times when I penetrated towards the point further than I normally would sit and I got off on a wave that was just... it just was so much better and bigger than anything that Iíd ever ridden. Iíve had as big waves, but I didnít make Ďem--this wave I made. So I was hooting and hollering afterwards.

HSA: Has Waimea changed? Has the contour of the bottom changed so that it doesnít break the same now?

PC: I think the sand is shifting in the middle. See what happened was, in Ď56 or Ď57, they pulled the sand out of Waimea Bay to put in the Ala Moana Shopping Center. So that Dillingham company, they grabbed the sand and moved that over into building Ala Moana. In doing that, they made it a lot deeper in the middle. If you look at the pictures before Ď55/í56 the diving rock is on sand. And the sand is going straight across--thereís no definition of an inlet. And the waves, when they broke, they broke straight across. So it was almost like a shorebreak situation.

Whatís happening now is over time, the sand is shifting back to where it was before. So, weíre getting a more natural thing. Because when humans interfere they change things. So I think weíre getting back to where itís more ledgy and more closed out. We used to be able to get out with no problem, and now, anytime itís over eighteen feet, you gotta really time it to get out.

T H E    H A W A I I A N    S C A L E

HSA: Were you guys the ones who started sandbagging wave heights, creating the current "Hawaiian Scale"?

PC: You know the guy that started this, underestimating waves, probably was this guy, Bob Simmons.

HSA: The guy who drowned?

PC: Yeah, yeah. And I grew up with him, and he was sort of my guru. Myself, Buzzy (Trent) and a whole bunch of us followed him around. And he was always for the bigger waves, more than anything else. And youíd get real excited about some wave you got, and heíd always say it was only five feet.

HSA: Hahaha!!!

PC: But actually, I donít think weíre underestimating waves. I think weíre overestimating them. Nowadays they call it face. A face is twenty bodies overhead, I mean theyíre just absurd statements. Then they talk about measuring the back which you donít ride. But if you think about it, if the wave is like that (raises hand a couple of feet over the desk) and body is here (animates a manís height with thumb and index finger) and you count the bodies up, thatís probably the only way you can estimate the wave. I donít know what theyíre doing when theyíre measuring the face; I donít know what theyíre talking about because if you take the body, even this thing that they call fifty foot, it you took the body and figured heís crouched down and you count him up, you canít get much more than thirty-five-forty feet out of it. I donít know what theyíre measuring on that guy, Taylor Knox. I donít know what theyíre measuring, but theyíre smoking something.

But I think it (Hawín scale) was probably a sort of a thing that we carried over from Simmons. Simmons did two things in his surfing characteristics that I sort of followed and liked. And that was he always waited for the better waves. He wasnít a quantity freak. He just sat there and waited and waited and waited. Sometimes heíd wait and not get a wave and have to paddle in at dark...

HSA: Just like you at Sunset the other time ...

PC: But, he also tended to underscale the size of the wave, probably because he had some scientific reason. He was a scientist and maybe measured the thing differently.

HSA: It actually relates pretty closely to open ocean swell size.

PC: If you take it like this (paper emulating a breaking wave) and youíre looking right on it, youíll get a certain measurement (counting bodies vertically). But you take that (same paper) and you do it this way (higher vantage point, counting bodies flat on face of wave) youíll see what happens--youíll get more bodies up because youíre looking down. And heís out onto the wave so youíre getting a false pretense. If you take a picture at the heiau (the old Hawaiian religious area) up on the mountain, above Waimea Bay), you can make a twenty foot wave look forty feet.

Now, the trouble with the helicopter is theyíre above the guy and it flattens out. But there are ideal locations on the beach to get a good picture.

HSA: I think Bernie (Baker) got a good picture of Brock (Little during the Ď90 Eddie Aikau contest)...

PC: That was from the heiau.

HSA: Heiau. I was at the contest working there.

PC: That was the biggest wave Iíve ever seen attempted.

HSA: Was that bigger than yours?

PC: Oh yeah. Iím sure it was bigger. I think it was in the 30ís. The one I had was maybe twenty-five. The one I had was very similar to one that Darrick Doerner had. I didnít get the picture of the one I had in October Ď69, but I had a good wave in Ď67 or something, the day that Eddie got a real big one, I got a big one. And they took pictures of that, and they took pictures of Darrickís and put Ďem next to each other and they looked very similar. And that wave was very similar, as I remember it, but it wasnít as big.

HSA: Darrickís one was on Superbowl Sunday or something, a black-and-white shot?

PC: Yeah, that was a beautiful wave.

S U N S E T    B E A C H

HSA: Ok, what is it about Sunset Beach that draws you there?

PC: Thatís all I surf, right there.

HSA: You donít even surf in Town during the summer?

PC: No. And the only reason I like Sunset is that itís always been my favorite spot, and probably the reason that I like it the most is because itís so difficult. Itís a challenge, and you can have good days and bad days. But when you get a good wave, itís never boring, itís always got variety, every wave is different from the previous one.

These places like Jeffreyís Bay, Rincon, G-Land and everything else--and Pipeline falls into this category--every wave is the same. Waimea is the same thing--every wave is the same. The thing that makes Sunset real neat is because every direction swell, and even within the same direction swell, every wave is different. So thereís a judgment factor thrown in there, that, to me is a very important part of surfing. It gets sometimes lost, judging the waves, picking the waves, and the thing at Sunset too, is that you always have the time to think about what youíre going to do. You take a wave and turn, you can figure out where youíre turning, you can figure out when you want to come back up. It gives you a lot of time to think about what you are doing.

Iíve always been too uncoordinated, too tall, and on too big a board to take a fast, Pipeline-type thing and do very well with it. Where at Sunset, it lends itself to the way I like to surf, which is more methodical, and more time to think about, and I can make up for my uncoordination, lack of balance and everything else. So, to me itís always been my favorite spot. Itís the most consistent spot. It gets every direction. I donít like the west, but itís still good even on a west. Itís always breaking. It has the best wind conditions. And itís got the power you want. And itís got the whole package. And it doesnít have the media after it. It doesnít have the hype. It doesnít have the floaters. You donít see too much floaters at Sunset. It doesnít get the cameras on the beach. In fact, back when the cameras lined up one time we walked down and told them they werenít allowed to shoot, and they had to go down to Pipeline or Backdoor and that they were in the wrong place.

B I G    W A V E    R I D I N G

HSA: Hahaha! Ok, how do you feel about the resurgence in big-wave riding?

PC: I think the resurgence right now isnít so much in riding big waves, as it is the new way of riding big waves, which is the tow-ins. The tow-ins just brought the thing out into the limelight.

HSA: Actually, it kinda died off in the Ď80ís, I thought...

PC: Well, it was real big in the late-50ís and the early-60ís, it was real big. And then, we had a stretch there where nobody cared about big-wave riding. You could hardly ever find a camera at Waimea or anything else, from about Ď65 to all the way through the Ď80ís. It was high-performance, small boards, all over the place was high performance. Even at Sunset it was turning. And the real big waves became "not the focus."

And then all of a sudden, individuals got involved, who were trying to bring the focus back on big-wave riding. I donít know whether it was self-promoters, or what, and it started to come back with the Mark Foo thing (other names mentioned). They started to elevate it a little bit. That was probably in Ď82/í83 it started to come back up pretty big. Thereís always been a little bit here and there.

And then Mavericks opened it up so that you didnít have just Hawaii. And the Todos and Margaret River. Thereís a place in Spain that has some real big waves--Guittary (?) gets big wave. Probably the reason for opening it up is more locations so that you spread it out over a larger crowd.

And then I think also the equipment and the knowledge and the improvement in the larger numbers.

HSA: Has the equipment really improved you think?

PC: Oh yeah.

HSA: But itís the same size waves they are catching now...

PC: Yeah, but we were wiping out half the time. We were having a hard time.

Pat Curren made a good gun for Waimea, but it didnít do well at Sunset. I had a real good board for Sunset, but it was just hanging in there at Waimea. But I only had one board--Iíve always stuck to one board. So, what you got for Sunset didnít work well for Waimea.

But I think the real big thing right now is the tow-in.

HSA: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

PC: I think itís great, but itís not the same sport. Thereís no comparison between trying to paddle into a big wave and get towed into a big wave. Getting towed into a big wave, the scare is after youíre in there. But itís probably more dangerous because your into much bigger waves and youíre relying on the capability on the guy thatís pulling you. And there are a lot of guys that are really accomplished, and there are a lot of guys who are starting to get big names who are not. I think weíre going to see some drownings.

HSA: How do you feel about being thought of as a big-wave surf hero?

PC: Oh, I think itís great. My ego loves it.

HSA: Do you get pestered a lot?

PC: No, nobody. Actually, very few people know who the hell I am. Except for people who read, and most surfers donít read. Some of the young people, they donít have any idea.

HSA: I thought it would be the opposite way--I thought you were shying away from the limelight.

PC: Well, I donít chase it. But if somebody comes around like yourself, Iím happy to oblige.

HSA: Arenít you going to write a book? All your contemporaries have?

PC: I know. Thatís one of the reasons why I donít.

N A M E S    A N D    P H R A S E S

HSA: Now, Iím going to rattle off some names and phrases. Tell me a little bit about these things: Greg Noll--overhyped?

PC: Oh, Greg Noll is as gutty as anybody Iíve ever known. And the thing a lot of people donít realize about Greg was a really good hotdog surfer. Agile, young, hotdog performance surfer before he ever became a big-wave surfer.

There were three guys on the coast before Miki Dora and Phil Edwards came into the scene. This would be in the late-forties. You see, Miki Dora and Phil Edwards didnít get into it until the fifties--they started, but they really didnít get accomplished. But in the late-forties, there were three young guys that were the best on the coast. Greg Noll was at Manhattan Beach, Ricky Grigg was at Santa Monica and Malibu, and Buzzy Bent, not Trent, was the kid at Windansea. And then there was this kid named Viking that was pretty good. I donít know his real name, but he was pretty good at San Onofre. Then right after that came Miki Dora, Phil Edwards and all those guys.

Now, when he (Noll) got heavier, when he was riding all that big stuff, he was weighing in at 260 pounds--he was a big guy. And when youíre a big guy like that, youíre agility on a small board on a small wave is going to be less.

HSA: Were you there at Makaha...?

PC: Not the day that he got that real big one.

HSA: Okay, how about Ricky Grigg? Wasnít there a rift at one time?

PC: Oh, weíre still good friends. There was a rift, oh yeah, because he put an editorial in the Advertiser (newspaper); it was totally ridiculous, saying that we (Save Sunset Beach group) lacked integrity, and he mentioned my name. It bugged a lot of people.

But actually, some people contend that heís kinda disenchanted with the North Shore Ďcause everytime he goes out there he feels bad vibes. Heís not as popular as he was before.

HSA: I havenít read his book yet, but I heard that he said that the Obayashi project shouldnít be pulled down for the wrong reasons and that the environmental studies were flawed and that the current runoff is already contributing to problems with the reef.

How about this statement: "One 25-footer is better than a hundred 18-footers, so why bother with them?"

PC: Waimea at 15-18í is kind of a lousy wave. Itís got a little bit of a drop, and has no wall at all. But once it gets over 18í, it starts getting to be a better wave. When it gets 25í, thatís the ultimate. Now, I donít even go out on the 18í days.

HSA: I was going to ask you whether you regret saying it, because itís pretty funny.

PC: Well that was a long time ago--I was about 58 or so. But I was charging that time.


HSA: Alright, next question. Do you think that technology has enhanced or detracted from the surfing experience with respect to, say the Internet and the available weather information and forecasting?

PC: Well, to me, I think the leash is the worst thing that ever happened?

HSA: You use a leash now?

PC: No, I refuse to use a leash. So I swim all the time. The thing that the leash has done is its brought up this quantity mindset. Bradshawís always telling me how many waves he got. But to me itís not how many waves you got; itís how many good waves you got.

So the leash is kind of got it where guys are out there that donít know how to swim and if the leash breaks then theyíre in trouble. And itís gotten to the point where guys are taking off in a position where if they didnít have the leash, they wouldnít be there because theyíd be swimming 99% of the time Ďcause theyíd be far in, so theyíd be able to get a lot of waves. But then when it turns out that you got that primo wave coming, theyíre all inside of you and you canít go because theyíre underneath and all around you. To me the leash has ruined surfing.

The Internet has just opened it up so that you canít sneak out on a day without having hundreds of guys already knowing about it. So that sort of ruined that part of it.

HSA: What about the tow-in deal?

PC: The tow-ins are fine as long as they do it only in places where they canít paddle into waves. But once they start towing into places where you can legitimately paddle in like Hammerheads or Alligators, then you got problems. And Avalanche--they shouldnít be jetskiing there. The rules should be: if a surfer can go out there and ride it, they shouldnít jetski, in my opinion.

HSA: Are they infringing now? I thought there was a pretty good understanding here.

PC: Thereís a lot of overlap at Phantoms. You had a lot of guys riding Phantoms a lot before tow-ins. And now they canít even go out there.

HSA: How about board design and technology?

PC: Board design is always going to get better. Except the foam is weak and you break boards all the time.

HSA: When are we going to get something new, something stronger?

PC: Well, thatís what Patagonia is trying to push--a stronger material. So that might come about.


HSA: Do you like surfing now more than ever?

PC: I think Iíve always liked it. This last winter I was very frustrated--I felt like I had a really bad year. Iím not sure whether its I just got older or the surf was lousy or the crowd got to me. But I can only count the good waves I got last year on one hand.

But when I get a good one I enjoy it even more. Stoked to be still doing it.

HSA: Any final words of wisdom youíd like to share to the world?

PC: I donít know if I have any wisdom to share... My only feeling is that all this media and all this sponsoring and all these kids that are going to be pro surfers--the thing that I think theyíve got to get a little bit of reality check in there. It is important that they think about other things. That umbrella of time in your life when you can get a sponsor is really short. And when you havenít got the sponsor anymore, what are you going to do? You got to have something more in life than surfing.

So to me I think education is important. And the irony of the whole thing is that Ricky and I are probably of the older group surfing more than anybody. And weíre the two that have jobs. If you actually analyze it, the guys that surfed with us donít surf anymore--they donít surf the North Shore.

HSA: So you think your education has extended your surfing career?

PC: I think the fact that we had an outlet besides surfing, that it made it so that surfing was recreational. Also, when we got worse, we accepted it, where a lot of guys got worse, they quit. I think thatís the reason why most people quit is they got to where they werenít doing very well and they didnít like it.

So I think having a triple life--you have your family, something that motivates you in your brain, and you have surfing as a recreation--will allow you to do it a lot longer. The Sunset Beach surfing crowd is pretty much a recreational crowd. They all have jobs and thatís why the afternoon gets crowded. And theyíre a much older group--itís sort of the San Onofre of the North Shore.

HSA: Thank you very much Peter!

T H E    P H O T O

At the end of the interview, Peter humbly asked whether I needed any photos. He drew out his wallet, one with a dilapidated "Save Sunset Beach' sticker hanging on, and pulled out a faded black and white picture of himself on a huge Waimea Bay wave (the big one he got in '67). To me, this image is better than any high rez color slide could ever be--because it's obviously precious to him.

Peter Cole, Waimea Bay, circa 1967