The Panther — El Niño 1997-98
A memory of a great ride (and board) with Owl
Craig “Owl” Chapman has probably ridden more set waves at Waimea Bay than anyone in history. Here’s Owl and I at the Bay during the epic El Niño winter season 1997-98. That season was truly historic and marks the highwater mark (pun intended) for my generation, the biggest, best, most consistent winter of surf since the storied winter of 1969 (the year I was born). To this day, almost 25 years later, I haven’t seen another season of big, perfect surf like it. Nothing in memory, observation, or experience compares or even comes close.
This session at big, beautiful Waimea Bay was in February (I think) and at this point there had been so many giant clean days it was mind boggling. I felt very familiar, often comfortable and playful, in huge waves of serious consequence after all these endless swells. And my board (the Panther — an 11’7” three stringer single fin pintail1) that Owl shaped me the summer before simply enhanced my confidence and ability.
Owl was in his late 40s and although not in his prime, he could still ride the best, biggest swells with style and flare, as this photo attests. I clearly remember this set wave coming toward us and standing tall, we just swung, put our heads down, pulled hard, and went together without a word. As we came over the ledge, I also remember thinking that Owl (on his classic 12’ Brewer Gun) was “cutting the corner” a bit — he had always admonished me: “don’t cut the corner!” — while I ran it straight into the trough (the hole). I guess he was giving me a little room.
As we made the transition into the flats at full hull speed (easy 45 mph or more), Owl punched it hard and threw an absolutely beautiful bottom turn (notice the “S-turn” track), showering and blinding me with his spray off his 12 feet of rail for an instant or two — and then he shot to the top of this behemoth and kicked out the back of the wave. I’ve learned a lot surfing behind Owl, watching him close. He’s a master.
Whereas I glided across this Big Blue Wave halfway across the Bay, beyond the lifeguard tower, hit a fade all the way back to the beach, and rode through the shore-break up on to the sand . . . It felt pretty good standing there on the sand with my gun watching Waimea lined across the outside in all her glory with 20’ plus waves exploding a half mile out and cauldrons of white-water and rip filling the inside of the Bay.
Owl has this photo (with me cropped out!) hanging in his shaping room to this day. I don’t care that I’m cropped out, it’s kind of a compliment really. We both know the truth. And I’m stoked he’s proud of this shot — he’s ripping! In any case, how many surfers get to ride a 20’ wave together with their shaper, who happens to be one of the greatest big wave surfers of all time? Not many, I’ll tell you that.
Huelo Hale, Paumalu 2022
I still have and ride this beautiful gun. Here are a few photos of me with/on The Panther.
Funny true story: Owl shaped it during the summer of 1997 from a 12’2” Clark Foam Brewer plug. It was a lot of work; he probably tooled on that blank for a few weeks and walked several miles of laps around it, mowing and sanding foam to its final, foiled perfection. Master Glasser Jack Reeves laminated it with one of his exquisite “acid splashes” (with the resin tinted with three colors: orange, yellow, and white. It looked like a solar flare) with the small, understated Brewer Lei laminates and a Surfboards Hawaii laminate on the clear deck, near the tail. Once it was finished and awaiting me to retrieve it from Jack’s shop at Paumalu, Owl coveted this board so much that he simply couldn’t resist or restrain himself, so he grabbed my board and took it for himself. Mind you, this isn’t the first or last time Owl has done such a thing (or in this case attempted) before or since. Owl knows a winner/keeper when he sees it. Anyway, I show up in early September to collect my board and pay Jack. I’m all: “Where’s my board?!” Jack: “Owl took it. Now pay me.” Talk about double jeopardy. That stung! So I went to Owl’s place down the road at the Chung’s ahupua’a across from Sunset and there it is — The Panther (Owl and I always named our boards) — standing in the living room with its high ceilings. Apparently, Owl wanted to admire his latest acquisition. He looked at me slyly, kind of testing me, and said: “How you like my new board?” I protested, of course, and pointed out that not only was this my board, but I had paid for it, and, furthermore, my name was on the stringer! Owl prevaricated, as usual, and there was a bit of a debate, perhaps a scuffle as I grabbed this cherry gun (he’d already waxed it and ridden it at solid Sunset the day before) and split out the backdoor through the kitchen. Somehow, I managed to hold on to The Panther in the ensuing decades and have ridden more giant, perfect waves at Waimea Bay, Phantoms Outer Reef, Point Surf Makaha (Kepuhi), and giant Paumalu (Second & Third Reef Sunset) than I can count, much less remember. Owl still thinks it’s his board. Maybe it’s ours . . .