Vince Collier carves a line with his board in the first round of the 1989 O’Neill Coldwater Classic. (Dan Coyro/Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Surfers tend to be spiritual folks. That’s why many worldwide thought it more than a coincidence when two of their greats died within hours of each other this month, two very different men of two very different lifestyles.

One was Californian Vince Collier, who died March 4 of cardiac arrest at 57 in Oaxaca, Mexico, after riding waves at El Mojon beach. He knew Mexican surf well. He often rode “the Mexican Pipeline,” the globally respected and oft-feared “tubes” off Puerto Escondido. He was known as the “Godfather of Santa Cruz,” his California home town and surfing base. He was also one of the first to “charge” the extreme waves at Mavericks, a surfing location outside Pillar Point Harbor in northern California.

The other surf legend had virtually the opposite image and reputation. George Downing of Hawaii was a classic big-wave surfer and designer of “the Rocket” big-wave board. He died March 5 at his home in east Oahu at 87, according to his family. The cause was not disclosed.

Born in Honolulu and nicknamed “the teacher” or “the guru,” Mr. Downing was old-school and considered the waves he rode a power greater than himself. He dedicated his life to surfing, designing boards, studying techniques and becoming a historian of the sport.

As for Mr. Collier, friends recalled his violent temper. He liked to keep the wannabes out of his way, they said, and strangers occasionally felt the front edge of his board when waves that spoke to him were approaching.

He was often described as “the hit man” or “the enforcer.” It helped that he was “built like a pit bull,” as one colleague said. He could be a menace in the surf and out, known for his confessed fondness for drugs, his biker backup and his usually accurate, even when drunk, punches.


George Downing, left, and Fred Hemmings, a competitive surfer, in the 1960s. (Fred Hemmings Collection/Surfing Heritage & Culture Center)

“His style was aggressive and soft at the same time, powerful and volatile,” according to surf photographer Chris Klopf, a longtime friend. “It was best to keep out of his way in the water or on land unless you were his friend. But he was always there for his friends, considered a big brother by many of them.”

Those Santa Cruz friends included top surfers Darryl “Flea” Virostko, the late Shawn “Barney” Barron and Jason “Ratboy” Collins.

“He was larger than life,” Collins told the San Jose Mercury News, not only because Mr. Collier weighed in at 220 pounds. “If you ran into him, you probably wouldn’t forget that. If you had a bad run-in with him, you definitely wouldn’t forget that.”

At Mavericks, waves can routinely crest at over 25 feet and top out at over 60 feet because of a break caused by an unusually shaped underwater rock formation. Mr. Collier rode those waves regularly, including the left-handers that have been described as “a short-lived explosion of hell and spitfire.” Many big-wave surfers have died there, including Sion Milosky of Hawaii in 2011 and the Singapore-born Mark Foo, who grew up in Hawaii and died at Mavericks in 1994.

Another fellow surfer and friend of Mr. Collier, Steve Nichols, wrote in an email to surf buddies: “Vince placed first in a major southern California surf contest, burning them all. After his acceptance speech they took his title away — because he dissed the sponsorship, in the inimitable VC style.”

Mr. Collier’s reputation was enhanced when he starred in the 2010 surf documentary “The Westsiders,” written and directed by Josh Pomer, which showed that Mr. Collier’s surf crew was more like a gang, street fighters from broken homes, on drugs, for whom surfing became their release, their religion.

Mr. Downing’s reputation could not have been more different. He was a protege of his mentor Duke Kahanamoku, the man who popularized the ancient Hawaiian practice of surfing and helped turn it into a global sport. Like the Duke, Mr. Downing embodied Hawaii on and off the board, embodying the spirit of aloha — love, affection, peace, compassion and mercy.

He was one of the first to ride the terrifying 30-foot waves at Makaha, on Oahu. Matt Warshaw, creator of “The Encyclopedia of Surfing,” said Mr. Downing was a huge influence on young surfers in Hawaii and beyond and invented the first board with a removable fin, in 1950. He had started out on a “Hot Curl” redwood board with no fin.

“He made a study of surfing,” Warshaw wrote, “analyzing weather maps to better understand swell formation, snorkeling over reefs on waveless 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.”

“Perhaps his greatest feat,” Warshaw added in a tribute to Mr. Downing, “was creating the Quiksilver event in memory of Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay, arguably one of the world’s most famous big-wave contests that he oversaw for nearly 30 years. Surfing certainly has its cynical side these days. But George Downing will forever be remembered as one of the sport’s good guys.”

George Downing and Vince Collier — two Americans divided, yet united, by an ocean.