Stab Magazine | Saying Goodbye To The First Surfer To Turn A Board
661 Views

Saying Goodbye To The First Surfer To Turn A Board

“I knew my destination when I was 12-years old. And I’m following that, and I’ve never doubted what my purpose was,”—George Downing, 1930-2018

Words by stab

Few people have made such a profound impact on surfing as George Downing, who peacefully slipped from this world in his sleep on Monday.

He was 87 years old.

Downing will be greatly missed, but he’s not gone. He was the rare breed of surfer that lives on in every wave ridden.

“I knew my destination when I was 12-years old. And I’m following that, and I’ve never doubted what my purpose was,” he said in 2012.

“Let me ask you this: do you know where your spirit is?” challenged Downing. “To connect to this, it takes a tremendous amount of effort, because you have to get rid of all the distractions. It’s pure thought, see. You can’t have anything interfere with it.”

Throughout his life, Downing remained true to his purpose. Growing up on the sands of Waikiki, he started surfing at the ripe old age of nine. By the 1940s, when Fran Heath, Wally Froiseth, John Kelly, and Woody Brown were literally taking hatchets to their redwood planks and carving the first Hot Curls, Downing was the young protégé that made the remarkable transition from going straight towards shore in the white water, to drawing a line on an open face— actually riding the wave’s face.

Today, we take that for granted, of course. Our boards have become highly tuned micro machines and some of the best performances are done above the lip. But without Downing and crew developing the Hot Curl, and his inclination to head for the open face, who knows where we’d be right now.

“Hot curls were difficult to get started (paddling),” recalled Downing. “But once you got going, you’d really move along. Down the line you’d go fast. Your limitations were that once you got locked into it, you could just ease down and back up again and still maintain a lot of forward momentum.”

As Downing and company refined their boards and got their lines wired around Town, they looked to expand their horizons.

“Makaha came into play after [John] Kelly camped there on a dive trip and returned home raving about the surf. Makaha Point became the new frontier and George an eager explorer,” reads the family history at DowningSurf.com.

With the big-wave universe just starting to come into perspective, Downing continued to innovate. In ’51 he took one of his balsa planks and carved a “slot” in the bottom, creating the first-ever fin box. He called the board “The Rocket.”

https://www.youtube.com/embed/UvhpqU3WdDc

“In the early days I didn’t know quite where the optimum place was to position my fin,” explained Downing. “I couldn’t keep glassing my fin on, then remove it, and reglass it…that was a pain in the ass. So, I began thinking of some way I could attach my fin to my board without having to glass it on. Knowing about sailboats and the different wood used for sailboat construction, I made the first fin box out of wood with a groove in it so you could take the fin in and out, plus it would enable me to experiment with different size fins.”

Downing wielded his athletic prowess and engineering intellect mightily. He won the ’54 Makaha International Surfing Championship—the first major contest in the sport’s history. He ran it back in ’61 and ’65.

Downing also showed up in some of the early surf movies, including Cat on a Hot Foam Board (1959), Cavalcade of Surf (1962) and Gun Ho! (1963), as well as a feature spot on Duke Kahanamoku’s 1968 CBS special, World of Surfing.

As boards (and fins) improved, the attention turned from the westside of Oahu to the unridden realm along the North Shore. Downing always preferred the longer lines at Makaha to the short drops at Waimea, but that’s not to say he didn’t have a hand in what was going on there at the time.

In 1985, Downing became contest director for the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau.

“The Bay calls the day,” he would famously say in regards to the requirement that Waimea be at least 20-foot to hold the contest.

Downing and The Eddie would usher in a new era of high profile big-wave surfing, creating the foundation for other events at places like Mavericks and Jaws, as well as the Big Wave World Tour.  

The reach of Downing’s life is simply too expansive to summarize here. He was a surfing champion, a surfboard craftsman, a pioneer, a businessman, a teacher, an environmentalist, an explorer, a thinker, an innovator, a friend, a father, and Uncle to so many surfers, especially in the Islands.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/e4PUxWU8hJo

Through it all, Downing remained true to who he was. For the most part, he didn’t grant interviews or deal to much with the press.

“I’m kind of a private person,” explained Downing. “Not because I think I’m special, it’s just that we all have that private part of us that we want to keep private.”

Deeply spiritual in his own way, from the first waves he rode when he was nine all the way until he left this world, the ocean was always his sanctuary.

“Thank god people take the time for meditation, or to go up in the forest. This is what I found in the ocean,” said Downing. “I was totally a peace out there. I could go out there and just watch it, you know. Just watch it, be out there, spend hours, hours, and be at total peace.”

Comments

Comments are a Stab Premium feature. Gotta join to talk shop.

Already a member? Sign In

Want to join? Sign Up

Advertisement

Most Recent

Stab Podcast: An Event We Passionately Debated For The Past 12 Months

Feedback from the WSL Finals, slaps of justice, and a Russian SUP parade.

Sep 17, 2021

5:59

Joyride Board Test: The LSD Hammer

Amateur surfer rides Noa Deane's prized step-up at Kirra and The Box.

Sep 17, 2021

20:40

Red Bull No Contest, Mexico: A Surfer’s Guide To Scoring Like A Local In Southern Mexico

Inside Barra de la Cruz culture with Mateus Herdy and Rio Waida.

Sep 16, 2021

Fourteen World Titles Worth Of Wisdom, Unpacked

What we learned from listening closely to Mick and Kelly during the WSL Finals.

Sep 16, 2021

5:03

Watch: Jack Robinson Wastes No Parts Of The Buffalo

Five minutes from Western Australia's finest.

Sep 16, 2021

The Connection Between Growing Up Poor And Going On To Win World Titles

“The wealthier a town gets, the fewer really good surfers you’ll find in the water.”

Sep 15, 2021

WSL Finals Review: “I Don’t Condone (Most) Crimes, But A Helicopter And A Giant Magnet Would Make For One Incredible Heist”

Lowers was an absolute shit-show yesterday. A report from the ground.

Sep 15, 2021

Filipe Toledo May Or May Not Be The Ultimate Surfer

Episode 7 is a wrap, find out who's advancing to tomorrow's finale.

Sep 15, 2021

10 Questions With S.U.R.F. Winner Jake ‘Money Making Machine’ Vincent

How did Vinny blow his 10 G’s?

Sep 15, 2021

Carissa Moore and Gabriel Medina Are Your 2021 World Champions Of Surfing

As it should be.

Sep 14, 2021

A King Amongst Medinas: Inside Gabriel’s World Title Winning 2021

How a former South Sydney demolition man helped mastermind Gabriel Medina's Title campaign.

Sep 14, 2021

2021 WSL Finals: Live Coverage And Updates

Leave the best comment, win a free surfboard.

Sep 14, 2021

The Best WSL Event You Never Heard Of

No electricity. No running water. No wifi and no pins dropped. The Namakwa Challenge was…

Sep 14, 2021

This Is What Happens When You Steal Surfboards In Portugal

"The best type of punishment for them is not by the law."

Sep 13, 2021

Where Are Wavepools Taking Us?

Spunk-riddled cesspools or gladiatorial entertainment venues that benefit surf culture?

Sep 13, 2021

Don’t Talk To Strangers 

The Misc: On nodding terms. 

Sep 12, 2021

Everything You Never Knew You Wanted To Know About Surfing In The Great Lakes

A Michigan-born surfer returns home and breaks it down.

Sep 11, 2021

Exclusive: Kelly Slater Reveals His WSL Finals Favorites

"I hope ____ takes it because he put in the work, but my gut says…

Sep 11, 2021
Advertisement