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George Downing



No matter the accomplishments of John Kelly, Fran Heath, Wally Froiseth and even Woody Brown, the hot curl surfer who most influenced later surfers is George Downing. 

(George Downing at Makaha, 1954, courtesy of SURFER magazine)


George Downing has been an innovative board shaper, Waikiki beachboy, mentor, contest director and all-around waterman. A regularfoot surfer from Honolulu, he won the Makaha International in 1954, 1961, and 1965 and has been the longtime competition director of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau event at Waimea Bay.[1] He coached the Hawaiian team to victory in the 1968 World Surfing Championships and set numerous paddling records from 100 yards to one mile.[2] Yet, his impact on our sport is much more than the record might show.

Born in 1930, the son of a marine machinist, George Downing began surfing Waikiki at age nine and spent his teenage years living with hot curl surfer Wally Froiseth.[3]

“Well, I was married to his aunt,” at the time, Wally told me. “I was living down Waikiki. So, one summer, his aunt asked me, ‘Hey, ah, what about if my nephew comes down and stays with us for the summer?’

“The war was on. I got caught at Johnson Island when the war started, then I came back and we got married; ‘42-’43, around there. And Georgie was about – I don’t know – 11-12 years old, whatever it was.

“So, he stayed that summer, but he never left! What happened is, I eventually got divorced from – you know – his aunt. But, he stayed with me all the time. I put him through school, you know, cuz his father and mother kinda had problems. So, he stayed with me and I tried to keep him so he’d graduate. I was willing to put him through college, but he never did want to go. In fact, it was a hell of a time just keeping him in high school.

“So, he just stayed with me and he really wanted to surf. I told him, at that time, ‘If you really want to surf, that’s good. But, you got to be sincere. You gotta do it with your heart and soul, eh? Otherwise, I don’t want to bother. I don’t want to just teach you one year and next year you go and do something else.’ I told him I didn’t have time for that, eh? I wanted to surf too much, myself! Anyway, he stuck with it and eventually he got better than me!”[4]

Wally taught George how to make surfboards and introduced him to Makaha. Along with Russ Takaki, they became the first known surfers to ride Laniakea, on the North Shore of O‘ahu in 1946, and Honolua Bay, on Maui, in 1947.[5]

To earn money, George worked as a deck hand, taking tourists for rides on Woody Brown’s Manu-Kai, co-designed and built with Alfred Kumalae.[6]

When Wally took Downing under his wing, big-wave riding was still in its infancy; “their day trips to Makaha and the North Shore,” wrote surf writer Jason Borte, “were forays into uncharted territory. Downing not only rode monster surf, he became its consummate student, intent on understanding and refining tactics and equipment. His scientific design research helped him create one of the earliest quivers with subtle variations in length, rocker and volume. He also created the first system of changeable fins.”[7]

“George Downing was not only in on many of the earliest forays into big wave riding in the 20th century,” wrote surf writer Christian Beamish, “but also contributed design discoveries that broke the barrier to 20-foot surf and beyond.”[8]

“One of his earliest shaping projects,” continued Beamish, “was to take a redwood plank given to him by ‘Uncle Brownie’ at Waikiki in 1943 and make a more maneuverable ‘hot curl’ design, with help from his friend Froiseth... By changing the vee through the tail section to a semi-round shape, Downing was able to run a flatter bottom forward, and found what he referred to as ‘the board of my dreams.’ Dubbing the board ‘Pepe,’ Downing rode it all over the South and North Shores of Oahu, noting its amazing speed. The lessons he learned in altering the tail section of Pepe would lead to experiments with skegs (including the creation of a fin box) that would transform notions of what was possible on a surfboard.”[9]

“In a time before surf trips even existed,” continued Beamish, George “sailed to California and spent two months in 1947 surfing up and down the coast on his beloved Pepe. An unfortunate collision with the Malibu pier damaged the nose section of the board, but led Downing to learn about new materials called fiberglass and resin from a like-minded designer—the enigmatic Bob Simmons. Upon his return to Hawaii, Downing continued a systematic approach to gaining the knowledge that would allow him and his friends to ride ever-larger surf. He began observing reef structure and early weather charting technology to better understand the effect of swell size and direction. He and buddy Walter Hoffman took turns wearing a face mask while the other would ride past overhead so they could note how the water flowed off the bottom of the boards they rode. His surfing life has been direct and experiential.”[10]

It was somewhere between 1947 and 1949, when George, Wally and Russ Takaki crewed a Transpac sailboat to California where they bought a Model A Ford for $25 and toured Southern California from the Tijuana Sloughs, to WindandSea and Malibu.[11]

George built his first glassed, all-balsa pintail in 1951. Dubbing it “The Rocket,” it featured a fin box with moveable fin. The fin box was of redwood, where the wooden fin could be wedged in and moved foreward or aft. Using a trial and error approach, he determined the correct setting and glassed it into permanent position. He later explained that the use of fiberglass made an even bigger contribution when used for attaching fins because it spread the load of the fin torque across the greater bottom area, allowing for deeper fins and greater maneuverability.[12]

On this 10-footer, Downing was able to ride bigger waves than anybody before him and “by the mid-50’s he and Froiseth, along with Woody Brown and Californian-born surfers Walter Hoffman and Buzzy Trent, had cracked the 20-foot barrier at Makaha.” Going even bigger, “Downing, Trent and Froiseth were the standout riders on a glassy Makaha afternoon on January 13, 1958, when the waves were roaring in at 30 foot.”[13]

“Hot curls were difficult to get started (paddling),” Downing remembered of the redwood boards that preceded the balsa, “but once you got going, you’d really move along. Down the line you’d go fast. Your limitations were that once you got locked into it, you could just ease down and back up again and still maintain a lot of forward momentum. In ‘51 when I built my first glassed balsa with a much flatter bottom and with a skeg... the only thing it allowed me to do different was I could go for the top and trim down a lot easier, and the transition to getting back on the rail again was real quick, you had enough forward speed and you could climb back up into the hook. Whereas on the redwood hot curl board, once you’d drop, you’d have a hard time coming back up. The board just wanted to stay there.”[14]

While at Makaha, Downing developed a patent dismount. “George’s technique of bailing off the tail of the board,” commented Peter Cole, “diminished any chance of being hit by the board.”[15]

“If you say there were a hundred surfers here in the state [by this time],” Downing said of the hot curl guys, “only a fraction of those people were like these guys who had the interest, had the brotherhood with each other. They looked out for one another; they had this feeling of togetherness. This is the kind of energy that made the hot curl... it was during that period that Wally, Fran, Kelly and I were into exploring the other sides of the island. We surfed all the other shores looking for more size and power. The bigger the face we could find to ride on those boards, the greater (the unwetted surface and therefore) the freedom we had on them.”[16]

Skegs – aka “fins” – had finally caught on, “allowing surfboards to be much shorter and lighter.”[17]

I once mentioned to Woody Brown that it seemed like it took a long time for the skeg to catch on. “Yeah,” he admitted. “In fact, I didn’t want a skeg. I rebelled against it. We had shaped boards so they wouldn’t slide ass, you know. And I said, ‘What the hell do you want a skeg for?’

“‘Oh,’ they said, ‘It makes it better.’ So, I rode a board with a skeg on it and it didn’t seem to make a difference. So, then George Downing and I made a super board for big waves at Makaha. We had learned to flatten out the rumps a bit. See, you have to have a vee. If you don’t have a skeg, you gotta have a vee or a round tail and then it won’t slide ass. That holds it. But, the shallower you make the vee, the faster it is! The trouble is, you flatten the vee, then it gets loose and then it wants to slide ass.

“So, we made one with a pretty flat back end, with little curves on the sides. And so Georgie said, ‘I’ll make a slot, so we can put a skeg in or take it out. We can try it and see the difference.’ So, we went Makaha. They were about 15 foot peaks that day. He went out there without the skeg, first, and he rode it. It rode beautiful; fine, oh, just no trouble at all. Georgie came in and said, ‘Well, let’s put the skeg in and just try it, anyway. See the difference. See what it’s about.’ So, he puts the skeg in and went back out.

“It looked like he was riding the same, but he came back in and said, ‘Hey, Woody, it’s much better with a skeg.’ So, from that point on, he started putting skegs on ‘em. I asked, ‘How is it better?’ He said, ‘Well, it’s not any faster, but it’s more solid and you can turn it real easy with a skeg,’ which we couldn’t do before. Our boards were real stiff turning.

“That was the only trouble with the old boards. They were fast – my boards were faster ‘n hell – but, oh, you couldn’t turn it. I couldn’t use my boards in small waves, with other guys out, cuz I’d just mow everybody down. Once I set it in at just kind of an angle like that, I couldn’t turn. All I could do was drop down or climb up a little bit. But, as far as turning, I couldn’t turn it. So, you couldn’t ride small waves with it. But, it had the speed on the big waves! Man, I could get across where nobody could get across! Which sounds right. Nobody wants to get caught in 20 feet of white water.”[18]

Surf writer Matt Warshaw wrote that Downing “made a study of surfing, analyzing weather maps to better understand swell formation, snorkeling over reefs on windless days to learn how their topography affected the surf, calculating wave intervals, observing wind patterns and ocean currents, and absorbing all there was to know about surfboard theory and construction.”[19]

“All of Downing’s research and theories made him peerless in the water,” wrote Jason Borte. “Before him, survival was the only mission, but his speed-driven bottom turns and arcs at huge Makaha redefined what was possible. Inspired by images of Downing and Froiseth, among others, the first wave of Californians made their assault on the Islands.”[20]

Downing is modest about his design contributions:

“I think we have been deprived of the opportunity to see the Hawaiian race in its fulfillment,” emphasized Downing, “to where we also could get involved in it. It’s only through certain things that we did, that we even got a glimpse of what they had going. One example would be the Hawaiian ideas on the canoes. Every time that we’d get to a place where we’d think that our ingenuity had given us some kind of unique knowledge, we would find that they had already been there before us, they knew exactly, and we were just trailing, hanging on the tail of something that had already been developed.”[21]

In 1954, the Makaha International Surfing Championship became “the first major surfing event in the sport’s modern history. George was the first Men’s Champion and then the first repeat winner in years 1961 and 1965. He traveled to Peru in 1955 as a surfing emissary, winning their Championship and establishing life-long relationships with hard-playing, wealthy Peruvian surfers. In all facets of his life in the ocean: paddleboard racing, canoe paddling and surfing, surfing big waves and small, instructing, renting surfboards, sailing and diving, George has always been known as calculating, thoughtful, and strategic in studying and understanding the forces he is dealing with before coming up with a tactic to win with. This knowledge he’s passed down to his children and now grandchildren. In addition to his unique big wave-riding prowess, all through the war and post-war period, George won the Diamond Head paddleboard races, becoming a standard bearer for that skill, and the fastest paddleboard racer in all distance categories who… still happens to hold the record for the 100-yard sprint.”[22]

In 1960, George took over operation of the Waikiki Beach Center, serving tourists with rentals and lessons.[23] He later created “the venerable Downing Surfboards,” wrote Christian Beamish, “which his son Keone continues, and has worked to prevent the corporatization of the Waikiki beach concessions.”[24]

Downing was named contest director for the Quicksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau contest in 1985.[25] He subsequently created the format for the contest at Waimea Bay, “showcasing the rebirth of big wave riding and offering the biggest winner’s check in surfing history. The unique event protocol of not being held in less than 20’ conditions causes it to happen with unpredictable frequency, which lends each actual competition added gravitas. George has steered The Eddie through the normal entanglements which he has as skillfully navigated as he once did the channel at Laniakea, knowing that the rip current there runs out underneath the incoming waves, thus you must not dive down, stay in the white water to get in. At least several times each season George makes the on-or-off call that itself causes ripples around the world. From November through February, he remains focused on the swell buoys. On mornings pregnant with possibility, he and his pickup truck can be found in the gray of first light, overlooking the Bay, with George keenly confirming his diagnosis so as to make the early call that is necessary either way. The event that George has nurtured for over two-and-a-half decades has helped reestablish the preeminence of riding big waves within the surfing culture.”[26]

“Longtime friend, Steve Pezman, noted, ‘Downing is very analytical in his surfing. He thinks about what’s going to happen and how he’s going to play the game. George combines athletic skills with innate and acquired knowledge of surfboard design.’”[27]

Waimea Bay, on O‘ahu’s North Shore became the new capital of big-wave surfing in the 1950s. Because “Downing preferred the long walls of Makaha,” wrote Matt Warshaw, “to the short but explosive drops at Waimea – where the cameras were – his profile in the sport was lower than it might have been… Downing was the last of the great upright surfers, dropping to a modified crouch when necessary, but preferring to ride in a straight-backed, low-shoulder, palms down stance. He was the stylistic link between the pose-and-go Waikiki surfers of the prewar era and the kinetic high-performance riders of the ‘60s.”[28]

“He has been referred to the world’s most-knowledgeable surfers as ‘the teacher,’” continued Warshaw. “’60s big-wave rider Ricky Grigg called him ‘the guru.’ Downing mentored dozens of top Hawaiian surfers over the decades, including Joey Cabell, Reno Abellira, and Michael Ho. He worked as a Waikiki beachboy from the early ‘40s to the late ‘70s, giving surf lessons, coaching outrigger canoe teams, and running a beach concession stand.”[29]

From a tiny office in the back of Downing Hawaii, the family store his son Keone manages, “The Governor” (as Keone calls him) conducts behind-the-scenes campaigns to preserve Hawaii’s most treasured beaches, reefs and surf breaks that are continually under threat of “development.” In this role, also, George has appointed himself as a protector to special friends vulnerable to land sharks.[30]

Even with all his activity and influence in the sport and culture of surfing, George has kept himself as a private individual. Amazingly, he had not been profiled or interviewed at length in the surf media until 2011’s video documentary The Still Point. This lack of attention has been due more to his aloofness than a lapse on the part of surf writers and documentarians. Matt Warshaw gave this example: “A note on the final page of Australian Nat Young’s 1983 History of Surfing notes that ‘George Downing has been omitted [from this book] at his request, although he has played a significant part in the sport.’”[31]

I remember when I interviewed Wally Froiseth in the mid-1990s. I once suggested to him that I might interview George. Wally indicated that I’d be wasting my time. He wouldn’t be interviewed. For that lucky person who is able to gain George’s confidence and writes about him at length, that person would make a major contribution to surfing’s history and the Downing legacy.


George Downing appeared in a small number of surf movies from the 1950s and 1960s, including Surf (1958), Cat on a Hot Foam Board (1959), Cavalcade of Surf (1962) and Gun Ho! (1963). He was also featured on Duke Kahanamoku’s World of Surfing, a 1968 CBS special.

George Downing interview, The Still Point, 2011, part 1:

George Downing interview, The Still Point, 2011, part 2:






[1] Warshaw, Matt. EOS, at:  http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/entries/downing-george, viewed 28 January 2016.
[2] “George Downing enters the Surfers’ Hall of Fame,” SurferToday.com, 22 June 2011, at http://www.surfertoday.com/surfing/5758-george-downing-enters-the-surfers-hall-of-fame, viewed 29 January 2016.
[3] Warshaw, Matt. EOS, at:  http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/entries/downing-george, viewed 28 January 2016.
[4] Gault-Williams. Interview with Wally Froiseth, April 3, 1996.
[5] Warshaw, Matt. EOS, at:  http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/entries/downing-george, viewed 28 January 2016.
[6] DowningSurf.com, http://www.downingsurf.com/?page_id=45, viewed 28 January 2016.
[7] Borte, Jason. Bio of George Downing for Surfline.com, October 2000.
[8] Beamish, Christian. “SURFER Celebrates the 50 Greatest Surfers of All Time,” posted July 22, 2010 at http://www.surfermag.com/features/number_42_george_downing/ - Downing #42
[9] Beamish, Christian. “SURFER Celebrates the 50 Greatest Surfers of All Time,” posted July 22, 2010 at http://www.surfermag.com/features/number_42_george_downing/ - Downing #42
[10] Beamish, Christian. “SURFER Celebrates the 50 Greatest Surfers of All Time,” posted July 22, 2010 at http://www.surfermag.com/features/number_42_george_downing/ - Downing #42. Beamish has the year as 1947, but various years are cited by different people. Most sources have it as 1948.
[11] DowningSurf.com, http://www.downingsurf.com/?page_id=45, viewed 28 January 2016.
[12] DowningSurf.com, http://www.downingsurf.com/?page_id=45, viewed 28 January 2016.
[13] Warshaw, Matt. EOS, at:  http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/entries/downing-george, viewed 28 January 2016. Matt has the year of “The Rocket” as 1950.
[14] Stecyk, C.R.  “Hot Curl,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 3, Number 2, Summer 1994, pp. 67-68. George Downing quoted.
[15] Browne, Bud. Surfing The 50’s, a videotape of the best of his 1950s surf films, ©1994. Peter Cole’s testimony.
[16] Stecyk, and Pezman, 1994, p. 69.
[17] Marcus, 1993, p. 99.
[18] Gault-Williams. Interview with Woody Brown, November 22, 1994.
[19] Warshaw, Matt. EOS, at:  http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/entries/downing-george, viewed 28 January 2016.
[20] Borte, Jason. Bio of George Downing for Surfline.com, October 2000.
[21] Stecyk, “Hot Curl,” The Surfer’s Journal, Summer 1994, p. 68. George Downing.
[22] DowningSurf.com, http://www.downingsurf.com/?page_id=45, viewed 28 January 2016.
[23] DowningSurf.com, http://www.downingsurf.com/?page_id=45, viewed 28 January 2016.
[24] Beamish, Christian. “SURFER Celebrates the 50 Greatest Surfers of All Time,” posted July 22, 2010 at http://www.surfermag.com/features/number_42_george_downing/ - Downing #42. Steve Pezman quoted.
[25] Warshaw, Matt. EOS, at:  http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/entries/downing-george, viewed 28 January 2016.
[26] DowningSurf.com, http://www.downingsurf.com/?page_id=45, viewed 28 January 2016.
[27] Beamish, Christian. “SURFER Celebrates the 50 Greatest Surfers of All Time,” posted July 22, 2010 at http://www.surfermag.com/features/number_42_george_downing/ - Downing #42. Steve Pezman quoted.
[28] Warshaw, Matt. EOS, at:  http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/entries/downing-george, viewed 28 January 2016.
[29] Warshaw, Matt. EOS, at:  http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/entries/downing-george, viewed 28 January 2016.
[30] DowningSurf.com, http://www.downingsurf.com/?page_id=45, viewed 28 January 2016.
[31] DowningSurf.com, http://www.downingsurf.com/?page_id=45, viewed 28 January 2016.

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