The surfing world is lamenting the loss of a legend today. Derek Ho, 1993 world champion and multiple winner of both the Triple Crown and Pipe Masters titles, died unexpectedly of a heart attack over the weekend.    

Derek was always was the Hawaiian contender in a golden era of surfing. The diminutive goofy-footer with the Chinese heritage and the cheeky, mustache-crested smile was a genuine presence on the world tour in the 80s. Derek carved out a place in history amongst surfing titans like Tom Carroll, Tom Curren, Martin Potter, Gary Elkerton, Barton Lynch, Damian Hardman, and Mark Occhilupo. In a decade defined by a constant battle for points and the spotlight, Derek capped the 80s with a runner-up finish in the 1989 title race, the same year Martin Potter blitzed the field.

At 5’4” and 65kg ringing wet, Derek was never going to match the power of his peers on tour. Regular sparring partner, Tom Carroll wasn’t much taller than Derek but one of TC’s famed quads was the size of both Derek’s spindly legs.

Derek had to fashion an act that enabled him to match his more pumped-up contemporaries. In small waves, he relied on a light-footed, stylish approach that was more precise than the attack of his power-hound rivals. Meanwhile, in big waves he was all limp-limbed nonchalance; at Pipe, he put a contemporary spin on the Lopez legacy – graceful minimalism and perfectly chosen lines as a means of mastering the most challenging wave in the world. The more elegant interpretation of Hawaiian waves saw him win two Pipe Masters titles and four Triple Crowns.

Two Pipe masters messing around. Derek Ho, on the inside, with Gerry Lopez at Pipeline. Photo: Bill Romerhaus

Barton Lynch joined the Pro tour around the same time as Derek in the early 80s and remembers the rivalry they all enjoyed. “I knew of Derek Ho before I met Derek Ho and from the time I first met him it was pretty much on, being goofys was part of it … whether it was Tom Carroll or Mark Occhiluppo or Damian Hardman or Derek Ho there was a rivalry because everyone was after the same thing and the fantastic part of it was that we all got a bit. Occ got one (world title) and Tom got two, and Derek got one and Damian got two and Pottz got one… they got spread around in our generation more than any other generation and that’s because our generation was the most competitive generation… Most of the time there were six to ten contenders in our day.”

Courtesy of his friendship with Michael Ho, Martin Potter knew Derek well before they both became pro tour rivals. “Mike was always one of those guys who use to take me under his wing," recalled Potter when Tracks spoke to him over the phone."The year I had that semi-final with Mike at Pipeline, after that I stayed at the Ho household every year I was in Hawaii. I use to hang out with Derek quite a bit… We were sort of like little brothers to Mike…”

Derek Ho was formidable in big and small waves. Pictured here (bottom of screen) in the final against Tom Carroll, in an early wave pool event at Allentown, Pennsylvania.

While they met several times in contest settings, Pottz recalls a separate occasion to summarize Ho’s competitive fervour. “He was a competitive little guy. He had a big set of cajones and a big heart – never backed down to a challenge. I remember a trip to Tavarua in the mid 80s with Derek and Mike Stuart. Derek and I played 23 games of ping-pong straight and he beat me 12-11.”    

Although a titan of the 80s, Derek’s career peak came in 1993 when he won the world title. He did it in classic Hawaiian style, coming into the Pipe Masters as an outside chance and then claiming the world crown and the Pipe Masters on the same day.  

The title victory carried some weight because Ho had triumphed over a young and imperious Kelly Slater. Slater had claimed his first world title the year before, in 1992, and was expected to be untouchable. In hindsight the significance of Derek’s win becomes more apparent, given Slater won five more titles in a row after 1993. “For me it gives that world title more credibility to be able to take one off Slater,” insisted Martin Potter.

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My heart is broken, I have no words.i love you guys. @t_ho_tata @makoa_ho @kianaho_ @xococoho @cocom4debarrelkilla

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Despite his decorated career, Derek arguably never received the level of recognition he deserved.  Given surfing’s Hawaiian roots, more could have been made of his role as Hawaii’s first-ever world champion. However, at the time the surfing world was in awe of the Slater juggernaut, and, although he wasn’t the boastful type, Ho admitted to feeling that he had been unfairly left in the shadows. Perhaps now that he has passed more will be made of his legacy. “You wondered why it had taken so long for a Hawaiian to win a world title,” reflects Martin Potter. “but for Derek to do it was super sweet… he basically led the way for the Hawaiians. He gave the Hawaiians that hope and that sense that ‘I can do this as well’.”

After winning the world title Derek slipped down the ratings and eventually off tour, but continued to be a regular fixture on the North Shore. During the season which just passed the 55-year-old was still a stand-out at Pipe, relying on experience, positioning and perfect lines to find the hollow treasures amidst Pipe’s multitude of booby-traps.

Barton Lynch, who survived his own heart attack six years ago, and has been based in Hawaii for several months, felt fortunate to have enjoyed more than half a dozen sessions with Derek in recent weeks, and witness him take on Pipe over the winter. “Whatever goals he set out to achieve he certainly must have surpassed them, particularly given what he was doing out at Pipeline in his mid-50s. He’s the man… In the last six weeks, we got to surf together quite a bit and hang out together and have that kinship between each other…”


For a generation of surfers who were ruthlessly competitive during their professional years, many of the real friendships were solidified in the time after the tour when the guards could come down and there were shared experiences to reflect on. “Derek and I spent a lot of time together in the late 90s and early 2000’s,” recalls Barton. “We hung out and surfed most days and spent some long nights up at his place bearing our souls and singing songs and hanging out … those bonds last an age and I’m just so hurt.”

A couple of years ago I personally had the good fortune to enjoy a couple of sessions with Derek. At Rocky Point I marveled as he made an effortless glide across chunky walls that cannon-balled along the reef in a fast-growing swell. It was like watching a cat tip-toe across the top edge of a thin, wooden fence. Over at Sunset, on a mid-size day, he and brother, Michael, traded waves like a couple of kids playing in a backyard where they knew every ditch and divot. As Michael and Derek chipped in from way outside, went doubles and crisscrossed through the lineup, wearing huge grins, the pack felt like they were being treated to a little performance by the former world champion and his evergreen, older brother. It was also a telling reminder that surfing was all about an unadulterated commitment to fun. Even if you were a world champ, nothing beat a few waves with your bro’ at a wave you knew well.

Derek’s Ho’s death by heart-attack a couple of days ago was undeniably unexpected and premature. He leaves behind a wake of sadness for a Ho family, including Michael, Mason, and Coco, who have increasingly become the flag-bearers for what it means to commit to a surfing life. Despite their mourning, the Ho’s can take solace in the fact that ‘Uncle Derek ‘ definitely gave life a good nudge – he soared high amongst surfing giants and eventually became the best of the best, before bailing on the tour to ride formidable North Shore waves with grace and poise until his time was up. Barton Lynch does a good job of eulogizing his long-time friend and former rival.    

“People will outlive him in years and days on earth but not in achievement, not in the utilisation of the time and not in living by your own rules – living what you believe and being true to yourself and having that courage to live like that... Derek Ho was anything but a herd animal, he lived by his way right to the grave.   I’m so happy for him that he got to live his dreams and that he got to achieve what he achieved that he got to do what he did and to leave the mark that he did… ”