George Downing was a pioneer in big wave surfing. Born in Honolulu in 1930, he grew up as a waterman. He started surfing Waikiki at age 9. His step father, Wally Froiseth, was an avid well-known surfer and he crafted the boards they rode at the time. These early boards were “Hot Curl” style, carved out of solid planks of redwood… without any fins. In the late 1940’s, Downing met surfboard maker Bob Simmons while on a trip to California. Bob Simmons is considered by many to be the father of the modern surfboard. From Simmons, Downing learned about incorporating balsa, fiberglass, resin and the use of a fin into the making of a surfboard.
Downing put his new found knowledge to work and made his own board for the big waves at Makaha. This was the first board specifically made for big waves. Using what he learned from Bob Simmons, it was made of redwood, balsa, fiberglass and resin. It also had a removable fin in a slot, which was revolutionary in Hawaii. It gave the board new found stability necessary to ride big waves. He named the board “Rocket”.
Downing, along with friends, continued to ride the big waves at Makaha. In 1952 a now iconic picture, of George, Woody Brown and Buzzy Trent surfing a huge wave at Makaha was the first picture the rest of the world would see of a big wave being surfed. Makaha became a mecca for surfers from around the world, to test their skills at big wave surfing. In 1969, Greg Noll rode what was for many years considered the biggest wave ever ridden at Makaha.
The feature photo of this blog post is of an original big wave “gun”, made by George. It is currently on display at the SFO Museum.