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The Money Motive

Gerry Lopez  /  December 14, 2022  /  6 Min Read

Gerry Lopez recalls surfing O‘ahu’s Waimea Bay for the biggest contest purse ever offered (at the time), circa 1974.

Surfing for prize money makes surfers take chances they might not take on just a regular surf day. Here, Barry Kanaiaupuni is about to take a licking and, at this moment, probably knows it.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt comes from Gerry Lopez’s memoir Surf Is Where You Find It. Originally published in 2008, it was recently relaunched and redesigned with new photos. Timed with the release of a new documentary, The Yin & Yang of Gerry Lopez, produced by legendary surfer and skateboarder Stacy Peralta, the reissue features 41 stories and over 170 photos, plus forewords by Rob Machado and The Surfer’s Journal founder Steve Pezman.

All photos by Steve Wilkings, captions courtesy of Gerry Lopez

Bud Browne was swimming out at the edge of the impact zone filming from the water. He and I were good friends. He saw me, smiled, and said, “Nice wave.”

Bud was known as the “Barracuda” because he moved like one through the water. He was sixty years old, but I didn’t have a second thought about him being out here in these giant waves. Later on that day, he would find himself caught inside by a big set and take the pounding of his life. Afterward he would comment in his usual deadpan way, “I’m getting too old for this.” That would be the last time he shot from the water at the bay.

I got back to the lineup and asked Reno [Abellira] how his wave was.

“Good,” he said. “But we need to catch bigger ones.”

Oh boy, I thought, I guess that is what a guy has to do to win. A few more sets came. They were about the same size as the previous ones, and we both got a few more rides. Finally, what looked like a bigger set approached and we both got ready for it. This time I went for the first one, but it was a lot bigger than my first wave, and it jacked up so fast I barely had time to hit the brakes and pull back. I managed to keep myself from getting sucked over, but when I turned around and saw the next one, I almost had a heart attack.

In front of me was the biggest wave I had ever seen in my life, and I was not in a good spot to avoid it. Reno was paddling hard to catch it and I was paddling even harder to avoid it. He was paddling down as I paddled up; as we passed we looked right into each other’s eyes. Reno stood up and I could see the thick lip right behind him. I was pretty far up the face, but there was no way I was going to paddle through the top of the wave; it was already throwing out. I got off my board and shoved it as hard as I could straight up through the lip.

It was an enormous wave, but desperation must have worked in my favor. I saw my board penetrate the top of the wave just before I dove under and swam through to the other side. I was never so happy to see my red gun waiting for me. There were only these two waves in the set, so I had time to calm my rapidly beating heart and catch my breath.

Reno paddled back and had this really intense look in his eye. I knew without asking that it was a result of the huge wave he had just caught. The big sets were a solid five to six feet bigger than the regular eighteen- to twenty-foot waves. The next set we saw looked even bigger than that. Reno and I watched as all the regulars who were a little farther outside and deeper than us moved out as the set approached. We looked at each other and without a word, lay down, and started paddling hard for the outside.

The Money Motive

Reno Abellira taking the drop on a winning wave, while I shove hard and pray my board makes it over the top.

When we paddled over the top of the waves in front, we saw that this was a huge set. The first wave stood up outside of us and it was at least ten feet bigger than the largest ones we’d seen so far. No one wanted these waves, and because everyone saw them coming, we started paddling outside early and no one got caught. But the sensation of paddling over a wave this big left a feeling down in the pit of my stomach that I had never felt before. I guess it had to do with the thought of what one of these waves could do to me if I got caught inside. Everyone, including the Waimea regulars, just got out of the way of that set and let the waves roll through unchallenged.

They were the biggest waves that Reno and I had ever seen up close. Even now I remember the look that he had in his eyes. I realized that he really wanted to catch one of those waves. I understood that that’s what we needed to do if we wanted to win this surf contest, but I wondered if I had it in me to launch myself into something that big.

We had a few moments to think about it, but soon we could see the next set coming our way, and it looked like another giant one. We both took a few deep breaths and got ready for it. It was big, not quite as big as the one we just paddled over, but much bigger than the waves we had caught so far. The first one was perfect, and I saw Reno wanted to make a move for it. I paddled over the top to see what was behind while he stroked hard to catch the wave and was gone.

The next wave was considerably bigger than anything I had ever ridden, but I was in position, it was clean, and I didn’t give it a second thought. I turned and paddled as hard as I could. I felt the wave lift, I had it, I was in early, and I leaped to my feet. I crouched down feeling the board start to drop. I was stoked; everything looked and felt good as I began my descent.

The next thing I knew, the bottom dropped out of the wave and I free-fell into space. “Oh shit!” That good feeling I had a moment before was long gone and I knew I was in deep trouble. I fell about a third of the way down the wave still standing on my surfboard—at least ten or twelve feet. The first thing to touch the wave again was the nose of my board. It buried and flipped me off headfirst. That turned out to be a good thing because I had enough momentum built up that I managed to penetrate into the face of the wave instead of skipping off and ending up down in the pit.

The Money Motive

The 1974 Smirnoff contest at Waimea Bay offered the biggest purse ever in professional surfing at the time—I probably wasn’t thinking about the money when I took off, but I know I’m hoping the wipeout won’t be as bad as this photo makes it look.

I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to dive through the wave and come out the back. What looked like the worst wipeout of my career ended up as nothing. I was behind the wave, safe and sound. I took a few deep breaths before swimming in after my board. The next heat was paddling out in the channel. When I swam by, they all looked at me and asked how I survived getting pitched by that set wave. I laughed and told them it was no big deal. They just shook their heads and paddled by, trying to prepare themselves should the same thing happen to them.

When I got to the beach, Grubby Clark was waiting for me with my surfboard.

“What did you do that for?” he asked.

Everyone around saw me get pitched on one of the biggest waves and assumed the wipeout was horrendous. I didn’t tell them how lucky I was to dive through the wave.

Grubby turned around and announced, “It was the money motive—the money motive made him do it. Nothing else could have made him try to catch that wave.”

I didn’t advance through the heat but actually that was a relief. Reno made the finals, continued his strong performance, and went on to win the event.

Afterward we left the beach and went to eat a big Thanksgiving dinner. All the while, Grubby was telling anyone who would listen: “The money motive made him do it.”

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