This is the world of big wave surfers, the daredevil fringe of an already madcap sport. Alec Cooke was one of the biggest risk-takers of them all, a longtime surfer with a stuntman’s sense of adventure — and a showboat’s out-sized ego.
“I didn’t want to be a member of the big wave riders club,” Cooke once said. “I wanted to be chairman of the board.”
Cooke, better known among surfers as “Ace Cool,” has been missing since Tuesday afternoon, according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser. He left his home around 4 p.m. to catch 25- and 30-foot waves off the famous north shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu and never returned. His truck was found parked near the beach, his dog and keys still inside. Only his surfboard was missing.
Now, the Coast Guard, police and emergency rescuers are scouring the shoreline for the missing man, a 59-year-old with scraggly, chin-length hair and the weathered face of a man who spent his entire life soaked in sea spray and sunlight.
Though he’s older now, and has largely aged out of the spotlight, Cooke was a celebrity of big wave riding’s revival in the 1980s. In 1983, when “Surfer” magazine published a prominent and somewhat pugnacious piece titled “Whatever Happened to Big-Wave Riding?” Cooke was included in the story.
The article portrayed big wave surfers — people who rode waves of 25 feet or more — as “gladiators of the sea” and “fighter jocks who went surfing.”
“What happened?” the article’s author, Leonard Brady, asked. “Will lavender be the board color of the ’80s? Have surfers turned into candyasses?”
As if determined to prove Brady wrong, that was the same year Cooke declared he would take up the “Kaena Point Challenge,” according to “The Big Drop: Classic Big Wave Surfing Stories.”
At the time, Kaena Point was the “final frontier in big wave surfing,” writer Matt Warshaw says in the “Encyclopedia of Surfing.” The waves there got as high as 50 feet — and Cooke wanted to be on top of one of them.
Alec Cooke was a Boston-born, Hawaii-raised surfing stalwart who got his first board at the age of six, according to his “Encyclopedia of Surfing” entry. He body-surfed competitively in his teens and early 20s, then set his sights on bigger waves.
Unlike most other big wave riders, who tend to be withdrawn and taciturn, Cooke had a penchant for the outrageous — and for outrageous boasts.
“He told me he wanted to be known as the Evil Knievel of surfing,” said surfing photographer Warren Bolster. “My admonishments to tone it down fell on deaf ears.”
Bolster was there for Cooke’s most famous stunt — a dangerous and very nearly deadly assault on Kaena Point in January 1985. As massive waves crashed over the reefs just off the westernmost tip of Oahu, Cooke skimmed over them in a helicopter. When Cooke found his spot, he dropped out of the aircraft and settled on his surfboard. Then he waited for the right wave to come.
When it did, Cooke barely had a choice in the matter.
“Whether I wanted that wave or not, it wanted me,” he recalled in “The Big Drop: Classic Big Wave Surfing Stories.” “I scratched like a dog, cranking up the sheer liquid wall.”
The wall was so steep there was nothing to do but ride straight down it. The wave carried him more than a mile.
Bolster, the photographer, caught the moment on film and turned it into an iconic postcard: Cooke and his board dwarfed by the wall of blue, its white crest curving just over his head. The caption, in soft white script, reads: “The Biggest Wave.”
But Cooke wasn’t done yet. He stayed out in the surf, waiting for bigger and better swells to come by.
The wind and water beat at him, wearing him out. At one point, an unrideable wave came rolling through and Cooke had to duck deep below the surface to avoid being tossed around like laundry in a washing machine.
“When you’re down 20 or 30 feet with a 30-foot wave passing overhead, it gets very dark and quiet,” Cooke wrote. “It’s like your own little world down there … an eerie and hostile place somewhere between a black hole and the Twilight Zone.”
But he felt peaceful down there too, he added. “Like a cross between the womb and the grave.” It very nearly became the latter. At one point, Cooke was pinned 50 feet below the surface by a massive wave. He estimated he spent two breathless minutes below the surface before he finally popped back up.
Bolster, who had photographed hundreds of surfing competitions, called Cooke’s performance that day “the heaviest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Rides like Cooke’s were thrilling, but dangerous. At least four famous surfers have died in the wild waters off Oahu, and several others have died elsewhere.
“They are virtual kamikaze pilots, baited by swells the size of two-story condominiums and rides that can last one minute at a time,” the New York Times wrote of big wave riders in 1994. Mark Foo, one of big wave surfing’s most famous personalities, had died in the famous Maverick’s waves at Half Moon Bay, Calif., just a few days before. Already surfers were paddling back out toward the deadly swells.
Men like Foo and Cooke ran their lives around waves — when they heard about a storm, they’d jump in a plane and fly right into it, even if it was halfway around the world. In an article for Tracks Magazine, Foo compared the sensation to space travel.
“How can you describe the feeling of looking into a 30-foot tube, like a hole in the ocean?” he wrote. “How do I convey the sights, sounds and sensations that just a handful of humans out of the billions of humans past, present and future will ever experience? What’s it like to walk on the moon, Mr. Armstrong?”
Like most daredevils in dangerous sports — BASE jumpers, deep sea divers — big wave surfers don’t claim to have a death wish. But Cooke acknowledged death as a possibility. It occurred to him that day at Kaena Point in 1985, as his consciousness flickered in the roiling water beneath a 50-footer.
“I was beyond the black zone and into the void itself,” he wrote of the experience. “I could feel the pressure from the depth.”
He waited for the turbulence overhead to subside. Meanwhile, his lungs screamed for air. “Is there air in heaven?” he thought. And then, “Is there surf in heaven?”