January 28, 1998 — A Greg Russ Story
It’s the second day of summer, but while (re)organizing some old paperwork in my study today, I came across something that drew me immediately back to a winter day 25 years ago. The real “Big Wednesday,” January 28, 1998, probably the largest surf I have seen (then or now); and probably the most giant day since the massive swell of 1969. This was the biggest, cleanest, most perfect day of surf I have (or anyone else has) ever seen. The North Shore was 40’ plus (80’ – 100’ faces!) and totally closed out, breaking miles out to sea. Waimea Bay looked like a frothing toilet bowl, washing through from Outside Alligators.
The entire surfing world was at The Bay in preparation for the Eddie Aikau big wave contest — all the pros and invitees and their entourages, as well as thousands of spectators and the Elite (Keaulaunas, DeSotos, Napoleans, Pu’us, et al.) of the Westside (Makaha) contingent included. Everyone was at Waimea Bay and it was obvious (at least to me) that the contest wasn’t going to run — it was too big!
My buddies Blake Reynolds (“The Goleta Goofyfoot”), Edis Begovic,1 Bruce Lenarud, and the notorious Eric Haas split immediately in search of somewhere to surf . . . we ended up at the Kepuhi, the fabled corner of Northwest of Oahu otherwise known as Point Surf Makaha (but that’s another story) . . .2
A couple days later, the cover of the Honolulu Advertiser read: “Surfer Demands Freedom to Take Risks.” I’m quite sure that hadn’t been published before (or for that matter since). The intrepid surfer in question was Greg Russ, one of my friends (a mentor really) and surfing partners, who died a couple years ago down in Pascuales, Mainland Mexico.3 The photo shows him arguing with a lifeguard, whom we’ll call “Curlycue,” at least that’s what I heard some of the guys that worked with him call him (behind his back). Greg and Jungle (an infamous Hawaiian-Filipino underground big-wave rider) were barred that day from attempting to surf giant, mostly closed out Waimea Bay — which, by the afternoon, had “dropped” to a more manageable 25’ - 30’.
The article quotes Russ in relevant part:
I’ve surfed Waimea almost every time it’s broke since 1982. It was 20 to 30 feet and the best I’ve ever seen it! I was studying it like a mathematician; I wasn’t going out to commit suicide. They kept me from what could have been the best surfing of my life - and a chance to win $50,000!
By contrast, Chief lifeguard Jim Howe was quoted as saying:
There’s no question it was risk of imminent death for anyone who went in the water. It would have been morally wrong not to try and prevent people.
While Greg argued with Curlycue and them, Jason Majors slipped into the water off the rocks only to get washed in by a 35’ set. Miraculously he survived. In the words of Owl Chapman:
Jason was sitting 50 yards too deep on the Point and 50 yards too far inside. I thought for sure that he was a Goner a couple of times.
Equally miraculous, neither Jason’s board nor cord (surf leash) broke; and although he failed to actually catch or ride a wave, he made it back to the sand on his own — only to be promptly arrested and taken into custody by Honolulu’s finest (allegedly for “trespassing” and a series of outstanding bench warrants) and shuttled to Cellblock downtown on Beretania Street (I’ve spent a night or two there myself in the cold, cemented bowels beneath HPD Headquarters).
Greg had the last word:
I don’t count on Waimea lifeguards. None of the guys on duty are competent Waimea surfers. They’re not able to deal with big waves as safely as me and my friends. They have their lifeguard shirt on and they did their thing, but that doesn’t cut it in my league. They haven’t paid their dues out there.
The Waimea lifeguards took offense to Greg’s derisive candor. So did the Quicksilver “In Memory of Eddie Aikau” contest director George Downing, a legend in his own right, although a little prickly when it came to “Haole” criticism. The next morning, the day after “Big Wednesday,” dawned wet and rainy and the surf had dropped considerably. Crowds gathered once again at the Bay; but the surf was rather undramatic and slow, less than half the size of the previous day. It was obvious that it wasn’t a day for the big-wave contest; and Downing made the inevitable call to postpone, like he had countless times before in the previous decade.
As Downing held court at the Waimea lifeguard tower — standing regally like a Pope — the lifeguards gathered together and conspired a plan to revenge themselves on Russ, who stood nonchalant to the Sunset/river side of the beach park, alone. Greg didn’t expect what happened next. A few lifeguards (who shall remain nameless for now out of deference to the fact that some of these guys are still working today) moved slyly toward Russ, coming in from behind. The first (a big-muscle steroid guy who was known as more of a boogie boarder than a surfer and was an aspiring Jiu Jitsu “fighter”) lunged at and grabbed Greg’s back, trying to get an arm-lock on his neck.
Greg spun and writhed away in a flash, swung a lightning-fast right hook, and connected with the sneaky aggressor’s left jaw. He went down immediately. Two other lifeguards pounced on Russ and tried to overpower him to no avail. Once more, Greg wiggled loose (the Hawaiian martial art “Lua” has a word for such an evasive move: o’opuola — “like a thrashing eel”), and held his ground — calling the “kooks” out for what they were: “Come! I’ll kick all your asses!” He wasn’t afraid — he was “ready for go!”
Greg breathed power!
As this incident played out, a photographer standing near Downing raised his camera to get a shot of the violent spectacle. Downing pushed the photographer (from behind) with the intention of preventing the photographer from getting a photo (which, of course, would have been damning evidence of the underhanded — and illegal — tactics of the lifeguards dog-pile). Someone grabbed the photographer’s camera. George Downing was in on it and it’s safe to assume he had given the guards his blessing to “mob” Greg.
A standoff ensued. The lifeguards had failed to overtake Greg. Russ was defiant, if not also ready to rumble. The cowardly lifeguards backed off and slinked toward the tower. Somebody next to Downing yelled: “Go back to the Mainland, Haole!” Greg laughed and walked slowly to his car.
Downing was later arrested and charged with something like terroristic threatening of the photographer (who had filed a report with HPD). I’m not sure what happened with all of that later on — probably not much. Yet the point was made clearly enough for anyone (such as myself) present that drizzling, damp morning and otherwise aware of what went down the day before.
Greg Russ was and remains a legend. A courageous iconoclast. And it’s simply too bad he (and Jungle) didn't get a chance to test and prove themselves that afternoon. So it goes . . .
Huelo Hale, Paumalu 2023