The Godfather of Big Wave Surfing Goes Missing at Oahu’s North Shore

Big wave surf legend Alec Cooke never returned from a night session at Oahu's North Shore.
Big wave surf legend Alec Cooke never returned from a night session at Oahu's North Shore.Honolulu Police Department via AP

On October 27, just as dusk fell and a full moon rose, big wave legend Alec Cooke paddled out at Waimea Bay. It was the first good swell of the North Shore season, and Cooke, 59, had been chasing monster waves on the North Shore for over 30 years. He had recently begun surfing at night — a risky move — and on Wednesday, Cooke was reported missing by his girlfriend after he failed to return to his Wailua home. His truck was still parked near Waimea Bay, his dog waiting patiently. Only Cooke and his surfboard were missing.

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Cooke was born in Boston, but grew up in Hawaii and began surfing at an early age. He is believed to be part of the Cooke family, one of the "Big Five" families who owned sugar plantations in Hawaii. An intuitive waterman, albeit with a reckless streak, Cooke competed as a bodysurfer in his early 20s. Over time he began turning his sights to Oahu's big wave sports.

During the 1980s, he was part of a big wave revival that included surfers such as Ken Bradshaw, James Jones, and Peter Cole. Cooke was described at the time as surfing's answer to Evel Knievel, because of his willingness to go for just about any wave, his showmanship, and his ambition. He picked his own nickname, Ace Cool, and once told a Surfer magazine writer, "I don't want to be a member of the big wave club, I want to be chairman of the board."

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Cooke is best known for being one of the first to surf Oahu's Kaena Point, considered at the time to be the outer limit of what was possible to surf. Kaena Point, however, has faded as spots like Mavericks and Jaws have grabbed the spotlight.

Cooke is also credited with being the first to surf the outer reefs at Pipeline after he dropped from a helicopter to ride three massive waves in January 1985. Never one to understate things, Cooke claimed he'd surfed a 35-foot wave that day. "The wave lifted straight up and down underneath me…so steep, in fact, that I couldn't angle down the face. The only way to go was straight down," Cooke later wrote in The Big Drop: Classic Big Wave Surfing Stories.

According to Matt Warshaw's Encyclopedia of Surfing, the reality was closer to 25 feet, but still a remarkable feat. Legendary surf photographer Warren Bolster captured an indelible image of the dwarfed Cooke flying down the massive blue wall. Titled "The Biggest Wave," the image showed up on T-shirts and postcards, becoming an emblem of the North Shore's heady mix of danger and beauty.

This past week marked the unofficial start of the North Shore's big wave season with several days of solid surf. There was a high-surf advisory in effect on Tuesday, an invitation for rhino-chasers like Cooke. Waimea awoke from its summer slumber and wave heights were believed to be in the 25- to 30-foot range when Cooke paddled out.  

In an interview for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Betty Depolito, known as "Banzai Betty," described Cooke as a "wild child" with "a giant heart." On Tuesday, the North Shore's wild child couldn't resist the magnetic pull of a full moon and Waimea's giants. For big wave surfers, risk is an ever-present companion, and the airless world under the water becomes an almost too-familiar place.

"When you're down about 20 or 30 feet, with a 30-foot wave passing overhead, it gets very dark and quiet," Cooke wrote of a hold-down at Kaena Point. "It's like your own little world down there. Yet somehow it's sort of peaceful and serene and warm — kind of like a cross between the womb and the grave."

On Saturday, October 31, the Coast Guard suspended its search for Cooke.

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