The venerable Peter Van Zandt Cole passed away several months ago on February 5 (2022) at his home on the beach surrounded by his loving family after a long, illustrious life. This past year or so has been marked by the loss of many of the great surfing pioneers of big wave riding, notably including Dick Brewer, Paul Gebauer, Joe Quigg, and Greg Noll — each and all of whom were both contemporaries and friends of Peter. Like them, Peter deserves a distinguished place right at the top of the rank order of the North Shore surfing pantheon. He was one of a kind and his passing marks the end of a grand, now bygone era.
Peter was born in 1930 in Los Angeles to Marie and Cornelius Cole II, a stockbroker from a prominent family in Beverly Hills. His mother didn’t know she had twins in her womb, so when Peter popped out after Cornelius (“Corny”) III, it was an unexpected surprise. Corny and Peter were followed ten years later by Schuyler (“Lucky”), in that they felt “Lucky” to have such an unanticipated gift late in life. Thereafter, the Cole family moved from San Marino to San Vicente Blvd. near State Beach in Santa Monica, where the boys would frolic in the shorebreak.
Peter and Corny were introduced to surfing in 1945 by their neighbor, friend, and mentor Buzzy Trent, who, along with Kit Horn, took the Coles up the Coast Highway to the halcyon, unspoiled environs of Malibu. It was a magical time. At first, Corny and Peter shared a surfboard they found that had been abandoned by a WWII veteran, which they buried in the sand for safekeeping between surf sessions: “it was so heavy that Corny and I had to carry it to the water together.” It took Peter a few weeks to learn how to catch a wave without pearling, but, in between swims to the beach, he got the hang of it.
Not long after, Peter got his first custom surfboard — a hollow redwood plank: “it only weighed 50lbs.!” — from a scruffy, opinionated, somewhat surly loner named Bob Simmons,often referred to as “surfing’s only true genius” and one of the primary architects (along with Joe Quigg) of the modern surfboard. Peter was hooked and his love affair with the ocean and wave-riding was consummated at Malibu, where the soft, perfectly foiled point waves cultivated an easy-going style. Along with his brothers, Corny and Lucky, friends like Buzzy, Joe Quigg, Matt Kivlin, Tom Zahn, Simmons, and a cocky kid named Ricky Grigg, the beginnings of modern surfing took root. Peter was on his way to an inevitable destiny: the glory of Paumalu.
After graduating from Stanford with a degree in Art (minor in Math), Peter followed his friend Fred Van Dyke from Santa Cruz (where they surfed the big, cold waves of Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point together in the mid 1950s) to Honolulu. There, he took a job along with Van Dyke at an old prep school called Punahou. Like his surfing contemporaries Fred Van Dyke, Jose Angel, and, later, Ricky Grigg, Peter was an educator. At Punahou — former students include a who’s who of surfing history: Fred Hemmings, Paul Strauch, Jeff Hakman, Gerry Lopez, James Jones, and Jimmy Blears, among other surfing luminaries — Peter taught algebra. And he made the long commute each day from Country to Town, often in a convoy, along with Van Dyke and a fledgling Jeff Hakman.Peter remembered:
It could be a really bad drive, particularly if the weather was poor or there was
an accident. The traffic would just pile up about five or six miles the Country
side of Pearl City; and we’d be sitting there bumper to bumper, Fred wearing
his gas mask. Sometimes there’d be three or four carloads of us and we knew
a shortcut through the sugar cane fields. It was just a dirt track and we’d be
hurtling along in a convoy. There was a chain across the track about halfway
along, and the passenger in the first car would jump out and hold it up while
all the cars went through, then jump back into the last car. You can imagine all
this happening at a million miles an hour coming home on those winter
afternoons when there was big surf!
Although loved and respected by his students — Lopez declares “Peter was a sweet, kind, thoughtful man”; Hakman proclaims “Mr. Cole was my favorite teacher” — Peter lamented that he was a “screw up teacher, I always get more chalk on me than the chalkboard.”Ever the pragmatist with an eye for the next swell, he became frustrated with the long commutes and missing water time, so Peter quit Punahou and, in 1966, started as a systems analyst with the U.S. Naval Pacific Command, a job which crucially afforded him the flexibility of afternoons free to surf.
Once established on the North Shore, Peter started a family, among the first of the so-called “Coast Haoles” to settle in the remote, rural environs of Sunset Beach. He married a beautiful Hawaiian woman named Eno from Haleiwa, who had a daughter, Kaulana, from a previous marriage. Peter and Eno had a son, Ka’aina, who now lives on the Big Island of Hawaii. That marriage ended in divorce some years later. Peter then met Sally (née Martin) through a colleague at Punahou (Sally’s brother, Rogers Martin ) and the two fell in love. Sally and Peter married, built a house on the sand at Rocky Point in 1972, and had a son, Peter, the following year. A few years after that, Douglass was born.
Peter had a sense of civic virtue and was engaged with matters important to him. He was a leader of the North Shore community at the forefront of issues like education (he spearheaded the initiative to establish Sunset Beach Elementary School) and environmental conservation, founder of the Oahu Chapter of The Surfrider Foundation, the Save Sunset Beach coalition (which evolved into the North Shore Community Land Trust), and Save Our Surf with his friend John Kelly. “Peter’s legacy in surfing and conservation will live on through the protected coastal and ocean areas that he fought so hard to conserve; and by those who are following in his footsteps to protect Oahu’s ocean, waves, and beaches,” The Surfrider Foundation stated in a recent post on its website. As longtime North Shore resident and Sunset Beach stalwart Craig “Owl” Chapman puts it: “Peter was the voice of the North Shore that they heard in Town at the Capitol. Peter was our voice.”
Moreover, Peter was the voice of underground local surfers, the residents of Sunset Beach who worked, raised families, and loved surfing Paumalu. Peter forcefully, consistently, and persuasively spoke truth and justice to the various, shifting powers that be in local government as well as the nascent “surf industry” and associated pro surfing competitions. Contest Director Randy Rarick, one of Peter’s lifelong friends and erstwhile foils, fondly recalls a time during the World Cup event (“Billabong Pro”) at Sunset during the Triple Crown of Surfing in 1989, when there was a man-on-man heat (only two competitors in the water at a time). Randy related that:
Peter came storming into the judges’ area absolutely fuming! I was sitting there
with Al Hunt [head of the Association of Surfing Professionals] and Peter
raved on how it was an egregious waste of waves for only two guys to be out there
when the locals should have the right to surf where they live. As he made his case,
a set poured through the lineup — easy 10’-12’ perfect West Peaks — and,
low and behold, most of the waves went unridden. I just shook my head and said to
Al: “He’s right.” And that was the end of man-on-man heats at Sunset Beach. We
didn’t always agree or see eye to eye; but I respected Peter and valued his input. He
always defended what he believed in.
Peter explained to me that pro contests had permits only for the beach concession and that “no one has the right to tell you to leave the ocean.” The rule of law! The Magna Carta! I loved it! In such regard, Peter gave me both motivation and confidence to paddle out (at Sunset or Waimea — I paddled out to The Bay during the Eddie Aikau Contest with my friend Eric Haas in the early 2000s to the dismay of the Water Patrol) at 4 p.m. regardless of whether the contest was over or not knowing full well that I had the law — and Peter — on my side! We shared a playful, resolute rebelliousness that I will always treasure. Peter knew his place and taught me mine.
Under Peter’s tutelage with support from the local community, he helped to preserve the rural, residential, recreational integrity of the North Shore and keep commercial development at bay. To this day, every time I look to the arboreal bluffs above Sunset and Pupukea (where I often ride my mountain bike on a labyrinth of quiet wooded trails), I feel deep gratitude for what Peter saved from becoming a suburban wasteland of track homes and golf courses.
I admired Peter a great deal, although I kind of lost touch with him the past 15 or 20 years. Even though we live less than a mile down the beach from each other, him at Rocky Point on the sand, me at Sunset Point, Backyards, I haven’t seen him in the water surfing since the early 2000s, after he had a botched shoulder surgery that damaged his brachial plexus nerve, which impaired his ability to paddle a surfboard. His sight (Peter was blind in one eye, the result of a surfing accident in the early ‘70s — when he swam into the fin on his surfboard racing against Ricky Grigg at Sunset) and age had already made surfing more of a challenge and hazard anyway. Over the course of the last ten years or so, we’d cross paths occasionally when I’d bump into him walking the dog with his wife Sally, reminding me of his presence and depth. So went the gradual twilight of an extraordinary surfing life. It happens in one way or another to everyone, even and especially the greats. I’ve seen it before and will see it again. It’s the seasonal way of nature. Indeed, I recall Peter saying with a self-deprecating laugh: “We all start out as kooks; and we all end up kooks.”
§ § §
When I got to the North Shore in 1988 and first paddled out at Paumalu, Sunset Beach, I had the fortuitous opportunity — indeed the privilege and pleasure — of surfing with and learning from many of the greats of surfing, especially those that led the charge into big waves at Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay decades before in the 1950s and ‘60s. Right at the top of the hierarchy was Peter Cole, who at the time wasn’t much older than I am now. It was evident that Peter was recognized and admired by everyone as the unquestioned and otherwise unassuming Patriarch of Paumalu.
Every afternoon, like clockwork, sometime after two or so, Peter would amble down Ke Nui Road in his white T-shirt, red shorts, and yellow gun under his arm to Paumalu, where he’d check in with the lifeguards at Tower #25, stash his slippers, and paddle out to the lineup. Customarily, one and all would cheer his arrival, a charming daily occurrence. No one else got that kind of ovation, then or now, that’s for sure. Once in the lineup, Peter assumed his place furthest outside on the peak — pole position — and waited for the sets. No one challenged him for waves; he got whatever he wanted.
Peter was a powerful swimmer who never wore a leash, so when he wiped out or lost his board, he swam. At 6’4” tall with massive hands and feet, he moved through the water like Aquaman! At Stanford, he’d been “All-American” and, according to his brother Lucky, only missed making the U.S. Olympic Team by a fraction of second. Peter was probably the strongest swimmer in the water. He made it look both easy and fun.
That left a deep impression on me: I learned that an authentic Sunset Beach surfer doesn’t wear a “goon cord” and swims. Each and every swim like a deposit in the bank. I loved and embraced that truth. Honest, committed surfing without any accoutrements made one strong, confident, and comfortable in the ocean. “I refuse to wear a leash,” he said, “So I swim all the time.” His lifelong friend (and rival) Ricky Grigg —another one of my Paumalu mentors — who grew up with Peter in Santa Monica and came to Oahu around the same time recalled when they first surfed Sunset Beach together in 1958:
My first day out was with Peter, who also had just arrived from California . . .
On that first day, Peter and I were out at Sunset, where it was 6 to 8 feet and
about as big as I could handle. Late in the day, a few 10- to 12-foot, eye-popping
sets came in. Later that winter, Peter and I would surf 12-to-15 foot waves with
impunity, putting in six to eight hours in the water. Peter once made nineteen
swims for his board (no leashes) in one day! And I was right behind him with
seventeen. By the end of the year, we were in top shape.
Peter was very kind, generous, and patient with me, a young college student and aspiring novitiate full of hopes, piss, and vinegar. I spent countless hours and a couple decades surfing with him, talking story, absorbing the insights, knowledge, and wisdom, all of which deepened and enhanced the experience for me in a myriad of ways. Peter exemplified to me what was possible in a surfing life. Unlike most others, who had made radical, rather short-sighted sacrifices and compromises in order to fulfill or maintain their devotion to (or obsession with) the ocean and seemed, at least to me, dysfunctional or stunted, Peter enjoyed a full, rich, balanced existence. He was calm, thoughtful, and relaxed, always with an easy smile, where others appeared stressed and strained. When it came to waves, he sought quality not quantity, reflecting that “it’s not how many waves you got; it’s how many good ones.”
Surfing was purely recreation for Peter — serious play, to be sure — but he had a life beyond surfing. Even though he won the 1958 Makaha International surf meet (and literally hung his trophy over Ricky’s bed to remind him who won — Ricky got second place) and surfed in the 1965 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational, Peter wasn’t much for contests or so-called “pro surfing.” Peter was rather occupied with a happy, healthy family; a beautiful home on the beach; painting and artistic hobbies; and a career. Surfing was icing on the cake. Aware of his good fortune and the wise choices he made, Peter practiced what he preached in terms of having a certain coherence within a diversity of interests in life that kept him engaged and enriched — family, education, career, and community service — with the essential ingredients of sustaining stoke.
Those of my generation who dedicated all their time to surfing aren’t in the
lineup anymore. For a surfer to ride into old age, it’s important that surfing be
nothing more than a recreational activity. It should never be a person’s entire
life. You should have something [other than surfing] that motivates you in your
brain . . . I think education is important [in order] to have an outlet besides
surfing. And when you get worse, accept it; whereas a lot of guys get worse, they
quit. So, I think having of having a Triple Life — you have family, something that
motivates you, and you have surfing as recreation — will allow you to do it a lot
I took note, to be sure, especially when it came to balancing a full-on commitment to surfing Sunset Beach with the myriad challenges of education, family, and work. He set an example that effectively laid a blueprint or template for my own life. As I navigated a path, Peter subtly encouraged me to return to graduate school after I finished college, as well as supporting me in making the decision to start teaching at Kahuku High School, Sunset Beach Elementary School (which he established in the early 1970s), and Ka’a’awa Elementary School (where I substituted in his wife, Sally’s, class).
Like the big blue waves on the outside reefs that seemed so remote and foreboding at first, Peter showed by example what was not only possible, but achievable and within reach — which is more than half the challenge. Once one knows it can be done, that it can be grasped, getting there isn’t half so hard, whether it be surfing, education, family, or work. I felt assured of confidence and ease in negotiating the veritable minefields of my 20s in no small part due to Peter’s sage guidance and encouragement. The limits of possibility expanded for me.
Peter simply demonstrated that one could have it all, in a manner of speaking: surf every day, an interesting job, thriving family, self-respect, health, and happiness. Not to mention being an admired leader in the community, protecting the recreational, residential integrity of life on the North Shore. Aristotle calls it Eudaimonia, which is often translated as “human flourishing,” but which can be more precisely expressed in terms of “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” A Hawaiian woman I know and respect from Makaha avers: “Peter Cole was Hawaiian in my book. He exemplified the grace and true values that we all were raised to follow.” Pono — Righteous! His life was a work of art.
We surfed Sunset and Waimea together for years. Both the first time I stroked out to Sunset and The Bay, Peter was there sitting on the outside waiting for a set wave. It seemed perfectly natural while it was happening, although I realize now in retrospect how wildly fortunate I was to share the lineup and learn intimately from one of the true pioneers — along with the likes of Ricky Grigg, Dick Brewer, Flippy Hoffman, Felipe Pomar, Jim Blattau, Jim Soutar, Jimmy Blears, Butch Ukauka, Owl Chapman, Roger Erickson, Jack Reeves, Bill Sickler, Randy Rarick, James Jones, and many others who represent the pantheon of surfing greats who, each and all, loved and admired Peter above all others. He was our favorite and remains so.
Once asked about “the best day ever” at Sunset Beach, Peter recalled a pristine fall day in October — “October 4 to be exact” — in 1976. Long before surf forecasts, Peter was the man when it came to predicting swells, for he had intimate knowledge of the science of meteorology and the source, such as the fabled “Kamchatka Low.”
It was a freak swell from a storm way up there, almost into Russia, with very
high winds. It had perfect direction, a North-Northwest, with long lines and
solid 15’ waves. Kimo [Hollinger] was watching Outside Backyards and decided
to paddle over there, so Eddie [Aikau] and I joined him. We were so far out,
we could see Turtle Bay to the North. I got a wave from Backyards all the way
through the channel. Never slowed down! You know, I’ve never had a wave
even close to equaling that . . . I was high for two weeks! That’s the thing about
Sunset. Just one good wave, and the drudgery of life doesn’t seem so bad.
There’s a fuzzy old photo I took over 30 years ago (circa 1989) with the Olympus OM-1 my father gave me when I graduated from high school. This photo captures the essence of what Paumalu represents to me then and now: Sunset Beach, Tower #25, in all its subtle, nuanced glory. Left to Right are James “Booby” Jones (Peter’s former student at Punahou — one of the greatest big-wave riders of all time) and Flippy Hoffman on the sand (with Flippy filling Booby’s ear with something sardonic), Peter Cole on the tower stairs, those big hands gently grasping the rail, speaking casually with lifeguards Darrick Doerner and Jimmy Blears (another former student from Punahou and 1972 World Champion surfer) seated on the stairs . . . . Owl standing next to me, his elbow in my ribs, out of the frame . . .
Peter and Flippy were the true pioneers of it all — among the first “Coast Haoles” to see, ride, and conquer the wild surf of the North Shore in the ‘50s, settle there to put down roots, build homes, and raise families. Blears and Booby were Kama’aina locals from Town, among the most outstanding surfers of their generation if not all time. And “Double D” (Darrick) was a certified badass, the best at The Bay at the time (this was before the Tow Revolution, which he spearheaded with Laird) and one of the leashless Masters of Paumalu. But Peter was the Patriarch, the unquestioned leader, voice of reason and authority amidst the cacophony. These were the GODS of the North Shore.
It was just another day and I was just a kid on the sidelines learning the ropes — from the finest. I observed, listened, and learned plenty from these Old Salts, most especially Peter. For a moment, it seemed like it would always be this way. Yet, time and experience taught me otherwise. It’s a bittersweet existential lesson. Everything, everyone fades away sooner or later. Time destroys it all. The tide rises and falls. So, too, the sun. “We all start out as kooks; and we all end up kooks.” Full circle. Today, I regret to admit that the lineup at Paumalu is devoid of the depth and breadth of character and talent that used to populate her waters. I doubt that there will ever again be such men; but I can still see their faces, hear their voices, feel their Mana.
So it goes. As Jerry Garcia said in regard to loss and transition: “Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened.” Aloha ‘Oe, Peter! See you on the Outside Peak on the Other Side. Mahalo Nui Loa!
Huelo Hale, Paumalu 2022
“The first guy I ever saw surf the place [Sunset Beach] was Bob Simmons,” said Mike Diffenderfer. “I remember him pedaling up to Sunset on his bicycle, carrying this huge surfboard on his back, and surfing it alone.”
Cf. Joe Quigg, Bob Simmons, and the advent of modern surfboard design at Malibu, SEE:
SEE Photo below listing “World Surfing Greats” by region (“Northern” & “Southern California”) in O. B. Patterson’s 1960 classic, “Surf-Riding: It’s Thrills And Techniques.” Peter and Corny are identified; as are Joe Quigg, Jim Blattau, Ricky “Gregg,” Bob Simmons, “Buzzie” Trent, Bob Shepard . . and others: Phil Edwards, Dale Velzy, Bing Copeland, and a mysterious “Mickey Shapen” (aka: Miki Chapin / Miki Dora).
As a math teacher, Peter said he came up with a formula for determining the accuracy of Van Dyke’s tall surfing tales: “add up everything he said, divide by two and subtract one.” Fred teased Peter in return with the assertion that one couldn’t trust Peter’s tales either because he was half-blind, so the waves always looked half their size.
Lopez recalls Peter delivering a sermon at the Punahou Chapel where he revealed to students that he saw “God in the barrel” of a tuberide at Sunset Beach.
On big waves and the difference between Waimea and Sunset, Peter said (in 1979) something that I can relate to now as relevant: “The giant waves still aren’t getting ridden. There’s too many people and the swells have been too inconsistent. There’s that whole crew out there that won’t hesitate, it’s just that they’re moving around too much. They’re all more capable than those in the past. Put only them out there and it’d be a hell of a day at Waimea, without the obstacle course . . . Fifteen-foot Waimea is crummy, 18’ is mediocre, 20’ plus and you get the thrill and the wall! Sunset is better at 8’ than Waimea is at 15’, so why go after the lousy ones?”
You are the only writer of surf musings that I will read.
These past few years have been trying; losing so many of our elders.
Beautiful remembrance and fortunate one to be in the midst of this.
What a beautiful remembrance, and tribute to your friend and mentor. Peter personified, and possessed all the qualities of what a true waterman is. He was more than a great surfer, but a devoted family man and community leader. The surf world, and those that call Paumalu home, have truly lost an icon. You were blessed and privileged to know Mr. Cole, and now you are tasked of carrying the torch with the place you both call home, Paumalu. His knowledge and wisdom that he passed on to you will serve you well. I wish I could be there at his farewell, but will be in spirit. Aloha Peter 🌺