Sports active: Surf wars

Modern surfing is a global affair, but 30 years ago a surfer wasn't worth his board wax if he couldn't mix it with the legends of Hawaii's Waimea Bay. So when old-school values clashed with a cocky new breed, says Andy Martin, it kick-started an epic rivalry
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The Independent Online
A 10-foot day at Sunset: western swell, clean and glassy, And only a dozen guys out. A well-formed set comes through, maybe slightly bigger than the norm. A few people look at it, but only one man paddles for the lead wave, confidently, with an air of calm authority. Muscular, with long hair and bushy beard, Ken Bradshaw could pass for Charlton Heston playing Moses and looks as if he could part the waters, not just ride them.

Just then another man races out of the pack - younger, smaller, lighter, Asian, more a Bruce Lee in shorts - goes streaking past Bradshaw on his inside and steals the wave right from under his nose. Bradshaw pulls back in amazement. Who is this guy dropping in on me? When the younger man paddles back out and sits up on his board, scanning the horizon for his next ride, Bradshaw goes over to him, grabs his board and flips it over. Beyond rage, coolly, methodically, he rips off each of the three fins. "Somebody needed to teach you a lesson," he mutters.

Mark Foo looks at Bradshaw open-mouthed. It is the winter of 1980. Thus begins the duel between Bradshaw and Foo, the Old Guard and the Young Gun, that will be dangerously played out over more than a decade on the legendary North Shore of Hawaii.

Bradshaw was born in Texas in 1953. His father - ex-Special Forces, disciplinarian, local mayor - had Ken's brilliant football career all mapped out. But in 1968, at the height of the summer of love and the revolt against the Vietnam war, Bradshaw and his board vamoosed. On the bus going south along the West Coast he stared out at all the perfect waves like a youthful kleptomaniac looking through the window at Harrods. But he soon outgrew California.

It wasn't until the late Fifties that Greg Noll and others broke the taboo at the great U-shaped bay of Waimea, on the North Shore of Oahu. The North Shore is to big waves what New York is to tall buildings. But for the next three decades Waimea Bay remained, beyond dispute, the Empire State and Coliseum of big-wave surfing, the ultimate arena.

When Bradshaw arrived there in the early Seventies, Eddie Aikau, native Hawaiian, Waimea lifeguard and guardian, smiled on Bradshaw and called him "Brother Brad". When Aikau disappeared at sea on a doomed rescue mission in 1978, Bradshaw was poised to take his place. He took Waimea by force. He bullied 20ft-plus monsters into submission. He was undisputed numero uno and a monster of machismo. He would bite chunks out of the boards of surfers who got in his way. A photograph showed him eating nails.

Foo was born in Singapore in 1958, the son of a Chinese mother and American father. Mark was aged 10 when his family spent a year in Hawaii and he fell in love with the waves. He threw terrible tantrums when they had to move back to the mainland. Based in Maryland, the kid talked his parents into driving him the three hours to the nearest East Coast beach every weekend.

He won a place at the University of Hawaii, where he dedicated himself full-time to the study of surfing. He tried his hand at the smaller waves of the new-born pro circuit, but he only really felt comfortable in big waves. The bigger they were, the cooler and more laser-like he became. "Every day I wake up I pray it's 20 feet," he said to me.

Foo was a karate kid among heavyweight pugilists. He didn't set out to do battle with 30ft waves, he danced with them: he finessed them. Foo scorned the older generation who ran surfing as a closed shop. And he had media presence: his own surfing column, a radio show, television broadcasts, appearances in feature films. He was the first on the North Shore to acquire a mobile phone, then a second, cracking real-estate deals and transmitting surf reports without ever leaving the beach. Bradshaw, who worked his way up as a bouncer and board-shaper, condemned his "lack of respect". Two-phones Foo was just a performer, a careerist, a glory-hunter. "No photos, no Foo."

January 18 1985: in the afternoon, the Bay jacks up from 15 to 25 feet and keeps on getting bigger. A perfect opportunity to settle old scores. Bradshaw is out, all alone. He gets caught inside by a 30-footer, loses his board, and he has to swim for it. He stays close to the rocks at the east end and makes a dash for shore, but the rip steers him towards Coffin Corner at the west end. He swims out to the lineup and around and tries again and fails again. Now he is on his third circuit of the bay, already an epic of sheer endurance and grit. Nearing exhaustion, he hugs the rocks once more and puts his head down and makes a last desperate lunge for shore. Which is when Foo, Alec Cooke and James Jones paddle out.

Cooke and Jones have to be rescued by helicopter. The bay has become unrideable. But Foo waves the chopper away. A wave twice the size of the other sets closes out across the whole bay. Foo dives under it. When he comes up, there is another huge set bearing down on him. He doesn't have the breath to sit this one out underwater, so he turns round and paddles as if his life depended on it. The wave comes up under him and he takes off, but as he leaps to his feet the wave turns concave, like the sting of a scorpion, and hollows out. Foo goes over the ledge anyway. Suddenly he is flying like an angel.

"The Unridden Realm": that was Foo's attention-grabbing headline. After surviving the heaviest laundering of his career, he wrote up his 35ft wave as a "date with destiny". "To die surfing a monster wave," Foo said to me, in a premonition of his own death, "that would be the ultimate way to go." Bradshaw was caustic. "Foo didn't actually ride the damn thing," he snorted. It was just falling with style. Plus hype.

The 1986 Quiksilver In Memory Of Eddie Aikau contest, held only in 20ft- plus conditions at Waimea, was the scene of their next shoot-out. Aikau was a former lifeguard and big-wave icon, who had died at sea on a rescue in 1978. In the end victory - and a cheque for $50,000 - was formally awarded to Clyde Aikau, brother of Eddie. But the next edition of Surfer splashed Foo over the front cover with the caption, "How to win at Waimea".

Meanwhile, Bradshaw had set his sights on higher things. When he paddled out at the bay he would keep on going, towards outer reef breaks like Outside Alligators and Outside Log Cabins, with even bigger waves on offer. Foo followed. But he wanted to use a boat to get out there or a helicopter, whereas Bradshaw, a purist, insisted on paddling. The two men still differed in style, but the early Nineties saw a kind of rapprochement.

In 1994, just before Christmas, they fly to San Francisco. Bradshaw has been surfing newly discovered Mavericks in northern California, cold and grey, and has persuaded Foo to come along too on the strength of a rumoured giant swell. On the flight, the old rivals agree to join forces and buy a jet ski and become a "tow-in" team, aiming at waves far beyond the size attainable by paddling.

Foo takes off on a wave between 15 and 18 feet. The mesmerising footage of his last moments at Mavericks shows him falling, being dragged up inside the wave, looped over, and then flung down and stomped on. Bradshaw spots the fragments of Foo's board in the photographers' boat. Two hours later Foo is found dangling upside down in the water, still leashed to a remnant of his broken board. Mavericks hits the big time.

When I heard the news, I couldn't believe it. I thought he was immortal, I said, on the phone to Hawaii. "He is immortal," Michael Willis, Foo's shaper, replied. "Foo blows Elvis and James Dean clean away." Now Foo is preserved in a state of youthful celluloid perfection, forever 36. His death was like a tombstone that marked the end of the classical phase of big-wave surfing. Waimea continues to serve up big days, but now it is seen as too crowded, almost too small.

On 28 January 1998 at Outside Log Cabins, Ken Bradshaw towed into a wave estimated at over 70 feet that many reckon to be the biggest ever ridden. After 30 winters on the North Shore, he is still living close to Sunset, still waiting for an all-erasing swell. Something like an apocalypse.

Andy Martin's new column, `Surf spot', starts in Sports active next week