Watching the Pe’ahi Challenge go down at Jaws last year, you couldn’t help but be impressed by the guts and skill of the competitors. And it certainly helped that the World Surf League outdid itself with slick camera work and some truly breathtaking angles.

But me, I switched it off and went and rode some two-foot mushburgers instead, thereby missing my old pal Dave Kalama’s stint as guest commentator, which was apparently the real highlight of a day full of them. Yeah, I know, they’re putting their lives on the line and this is the thanks they get. I’m sorry Billy, Greg, Mark, Makua, Shane et al, please don’t take it personally. Put the best of the best out at massive Chopes or Cloudbreak and you can’t drag me away, but the super-sized air drop stuff just doesn’t do it for me.

Maybe it’s got something to do with my personal cowardice as a surfer (which is well known!), but more likely it goes back to my first years as a surf scribe, covering those long ago winters on The Rock for this august publication. PT took me out at Sunset on a day that was way beyond my comfort zone, but I managed to slide a couple of sly ones between sets and feel slightly less than a complete fool. On the gigantic days that people still talk about, however, I was reduced to watching specks on the horizon from the relative comfort of Bernie Baker’s verandah or the clifftop or the beach park at the Bay.

It was frequently impossible to identify who was on a wave, unless you could spot a trademark move, like Reno’s low centre of gravity bottom turn, or Hakman’s surf chimp drops, or Terry Fitz’s beautifully precise full-rail cutback, or PT’s soul arch, and a bit later, Simon’s carve and MR’s seagull swoop. I would watch it for hours, but the bigger it got, the more boring it became. At 15-foot Pipe or 18-foot Sunset or 25-foot Waimea, you needed a weirdo out there. Of course, you could argue that anyone that surfs 25-foot Waimea is by definition a weirdo, but there were some super weirdos who would paddle out nonchalantly and make my day.

Like Owl Chapman, who was blind as a bat and couldn’t see what he was taking off on, but usually managed to make the drop and strike a hood ornament pose until he was blasted off his board. Then there was our own Paul Neilsen, who specialised in surfing huge waves while burdened with a massive hangover.

Along with brother Rick, Neilsen spent most nights during the Hawaiian winter seasons of the early 1970s disco-ducking from one Waikiki club to the next, often appearing bleary-eyed and still in last night’s aloha shirt and puka shell necklace to check the surf at Sunset. A quiet chunder after the first couple of waves, and he’d be right. He was certainly right in 1972, when he charged all season and took out the world’s richest purse in the Smirnoff at macking Sunset, most of which he put on the bar that night.

Neilsen’s buddy Bruce Raymond was another who could light up the line-up on huge days. He was a party animal too (“sometimes I’d wake up and my brain would feel like a dirty ashtray”, he told me in a 1977 Tracks interview), but working as a firey during his teen years alongside Barry “Magoo” McGuigan, a lifelong yoga devotee, Bruce had also learnt to centre himself, to breathe correctly and to face harrowing situations with calm. This was probably why, when he heard that Big Wednesday movie director John Milius was offering $200 for a stunt double to freefall down the face at big Waimea, Bruce was the first to put his hand up.

The shoot was held on not quite the biggest day I ever saw at the Bay, but it was definitely top 10. Hollywood had claimed the Bay, with more choppers overhead than in the famous surf scene in Apocalypse Now (another Milius triumph). Bruce just paddled out purposefully, waited forever for a set – the right set, containing the exact right wave – and streaked into it late, allowing the offshore wind to feather his Brewer in the lip just long enough.

There were audible groans on the clifftop as he fell out of the lip and bounced along the face before being flung into the washing machine. It was ugly, but it was perfect. The head finally bobbed up, somewhere down near Pinballs, he managed a few weak strokes and was flung ashore in the pounding shorebreak. Bruce staggered up to Command HQ, chucked his gun on the grass and held out his hand for the cash.

“That was great,” said the unit director. “Almost perfect. I think we can get it with just one more take.” •