One of the things I liked about George Downing is that he didn’t look or play the part of the big-wave flyboy. Riding huge surf was never theater for Downing, like it was for Buzzy Trent or Mark Foo or Laird Hamilton. Downing did it, loved it, viewed the whole thing as a science and a discipline so multifaceted that you could pour a lifetime into it—but he looked like a beat cop from a Frank Capra movie and understood that riding waves was not in any way comparable to battle or space travel or what have you. I mean, Downing’s favorite big-wave board was named “Pinky.”
Trent’s your guy if you think big-wave riding pairs best with flexed biceps and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. George stalked the same huge waves as Buzzy, lived for the rush and the excitement, but drove home afterwards, showered off, and had a nice dinner with his wife and kids. It spoke well of Trent that he always deferred to Downing. Downing of course deferred to Wally Froiseth, in much the same way a devoted son defers to his father. But Wally in turn pointed back to George. Everybody who really knew what was happening in 1950s big-wave surfing knew that Downing, the quiet one, was the true master. How fitting that he made one last quiet, graceful exit, in his sleep, last week, at age 87.
Click here for a short video tribute. Click here to read a timeline of Downing’s life, written by George himself, and never before published. And click here to see Downing manhandle a 75-pound finless hot curl at Haleiwa in 1968, park that beast in the sand, then paddle back out and tear it up his new baby-gun pintail.
In other EOS postings, here’s a short History of Surfing chapter on the early days of Tracks magazine, and here’s my Top 10 list of the most advanced wave-riders of all time, promoted by my undying fascination with Merv Larson. If you think this list is flawed, and want to add a name or two, go for it. But one name in, one name out. In other words, if you want to add Michael Peterson and Buttons, you gotta bump two names off.
I’ve got a Bells Beach post lined up for History of Surfing, but not sure beyond that where this next week is going to go. Thinking about a Glen Winton edit, but need to check and see if I’m holding enough footage. Something will turn up, it always does!
Thanks everybody, and I’ll be back in your inbox next week.
[Photos: John Severson, Clarence Maki, John Severson]