The day a seventeen-year-old South African kid went over the ledge and became a legend.
It took a while for Martin Potter to openly admit that he fled the North Shore of Oahu in 1981 because he was scared. There was a giant swell forecast to smash the North Shore, and Pottz, who was 16 at the time, wanted none of it. After one of the most auspicious debuts in the history of pro surfing, Martin Potter ran away.
The fear on the North Shore can become overwhelming. One year while hanging with a bunch of QS surfers all crammed into a small unit, I witnessed this kind of paralysing fear. A massive swell was forecast, and all of the crew were still in the event at Sunset.
When the forecast came through, some were calm, but others were totally rattled. It was going to be a proper 10-foot at Sunset, with bigger sets. One young gentleman declared that he wanted fuck-all to do with it, and would not be paddling out at Sunset. Some were surprised and there was some ragging among the crew, but it was fair enough. He was overwhelmed with anxiety about Sunset at 10-foot because, quite simply, it is terrifying.
(Short story – he didn’t paddle out, he flew home chagrined, and gave up a professional surfing career a little later.)
Pottz was on a plane home before the swell hit in 1981, but he had made his debut with some massive wins that year and had a taste of the heady world of professional surfing. He liked it. He wanted to own it, and he was determined to come back stronger and braver.
The following year was déjà vu for so, many including Pottz. He now wanted to prove himself to the world, and that opportunity came to him in the semi-finals of the 1982 Pipe Masters. Up against Michael Ho, Pottz was confronted by a wave that struck the fear of death in him. It was a huge peak that broke on second reef, and Michael knew that it was the wave that was going to be the heat winner. Ho glanced at Pottz like he wasn’t even there, and that little bit of indifference was the spark that ignited Martin’s desire to charge.
There was a chip shot, but when a massive 12-foot wall of water moves over second reef and sets to implode over the inside reef, chip shots are not game-changers. As a 17-year-old, Pottz was still skinny and kind of small. For him to paddle into that wave was a biblical ask. No one thought he would go, and no one knew at that stage, that he had it in him.
Unbelievably, Pottz went. He made the drop and stood up in a heaving cathedral of a tube. He navigated the barrel, did a half-claim, and attempted a cutback, as the beach erupted. It was a defining moment for our sport and a pivotal moment for Pottz. A single wave slingshot him into another sphere of surfing.
The wave won him the respect of the Hawaiian people, and the rest of the surfers on tour. There were many of his peers who probably wouldn’t have gone on that wave. It was a beast.
In his biopic ‘Strange Desires’, Pottz spells out that moment. “There comes a time in everyone’s life when you’ve got to put all your feelings and emotions aside, and just go, and if you can’t do that, then it’s going to take you a long time to get respect,” he said. “If I had let that wave go, it would have taken me another two or three years to get that level of respect on tour.”
“It was like a 30-footer for him,” recalled Mike Tomson. That he lost in the next heat, a tied result surf-off was quickly forgotten. “It was a wave that will never be forgotten by the people who saw it,” said Mark Richards.
It would take Pottz seven more years to win his world title in 1989, but when the moment came to the 17-year-old in 1982, he seized it and changed the course of professional surfing forever.
Martin Potter - Strange Desires
The wave comes in at 6:40 on the clock, but the whole movie is pretty epic to watch. If you have 22 minutes, it’s worth a relook.