Early Days – The Makaha International
Decades before the first ASP world surfing champion was crowned on the beach at Pipeline, the Makaha International occupied the center of the competitive surfing universe. A huge cash purse played no part in luring the world’s greatest surf athletes. In fact there was no money at all. Instead, this event boasted Makaha, a perfect right-hand peeler that was the focal point of Hawaiian surfing at that time (the North Shore was still too wild). Surfers simply wanted to ride that wave and compete against legendary Hawaiian watermen in a contest that valued style and length of ride among the judging criteria. The winners were golden and they list like a scroll of surfing royalty: George Downing, Rabbit Kekai, Wally Froiseth, Buffalo Keaulana, Peter Cole, Jamma Kekai and Joey Cabell.
A win was a ticket to eternal surfing fame. The trophy was a bonus.
Organized by the Waikiki Surf Club and Wai’anae Lions Club, the first Makaha International was scheduled for the winter of 1953-54 but the waves never showed. The following winter, perfect 6-10 foot surf wiped away the previous year’s bummer and sparked what most consider the groundwork for the future of professional surfing. Although there were other surf contests in California and Australia in the 1940’s and early 50’s, the Makaha International melded competition, athletics, and the spectacle that is surfing like no other contest. The Makaha International transcended simple competition. It was a true happening with throngs of spectators packing the then raw and isolated Westside stage with surfing, paddling races, and a flowering of Aloha.
What began with a field of 100 mostly local surfers grew to some 500 truly international competitors and by the 1960’s the event garnered TV coverage and global exposure (but still no money). Viewers of ABC’s Wide World of Sports marveled at surfers riding 9-12 foot wooden boards along Hawaii’s exotic and dangerous waves. Contest organizers were invited to Peru and Australia to organize similar events, and professional surfing was born. By 1973, the Makaha International had run its course, losing its affiliation with the Waikiki Surf Club and billing itself as an amateur event, but all who participated during its glory days, agree that it was something special. No one guessed it was only the beginning.