It’s late September 1999 and a massive South Pacific swell is bearing down on Puerto Escondido.

Along the shoreline of the fabled Playa Zicatela, the onslaught has carved the soft sand into a series of miniature cliffs. Atop their peaks, spectators stare out towards the horizon. Between long, marauding clean-up sets surfers can occasionally be seen falling from the sky on huge chunks of foam and fibreglass – guinea pig gladiators at the world’s first big wave longboard barrel riding event. 

Up on the beach, the competitors are huddled in the meagre shade offered by a scaffolding marquee. Trepidation hangs thick in the tropical air. All around are strewn longboards, mostly high-performance shapes typical of era; three-finned with wide, rockered-out noses. Among them is the odd 60s-style semi-gun, including a Timmy Patterson belonging to reigning world champ Joel Tudor. 

But Joel is not going out. 

“The waves were coming up real heavy,” recalls Hawaiian Bonga Perkins, Tudor’s longtime competitive rival, who was eagerly anticipating a matchup, “and Joel just tapped out. He said, ‘Pfft, I ain’t going out there.’” 

Now Tudor was no slouch in big tubes, with several Hawaiian seasons already under his belt. But shifting, triple overhead Puerto peaks on your backhand? Now that was a whole different beast. One competitor had already ended up in the hospital. Another had burst their eardrum. Plenty more had broken their boards and had to be rescued. 

“So I said to Joel if you’re wimping out,” continues Bonga, “you should give me your board!” He chuckles heartily at the memory. “And Joel said, it’s yours, take it!”

25 years later, that board still hangs proudly in Bonga’s garage on the North Shore, a fond memento from the most intense longboard event of all time.

Kanoa Dhalin hits the ejector button. Photo: Jim Russi

 

Despite bursting an eardrum in the earlier rounds Darren Ledingham strapped on a Gath and got back out there. Photo: Jim Russi

In the intervening decades, the culture has come an awfully long way. Guided by Tudor and his contemporaries, longboarding has morphed into an almost singular celebration of its 60’s So-Cal and Sydney roots. Boards are mostly heavy, flat and single-finned. The focus is on footwork, involvement-style carves and nose rides. Barrelling waves are still on the menu for a few of today’s logging elite, but now the onus is on selecting the right craft to ride them and that right craft is never a longboard. 

Back in the 90’s, an entirely different mindset pervaded. Its driving force was an obsessive dedication to seeing just how far a longboard could be pushed, both in terms of manoeuvres and ocean conditions. In many ways, the event at Puerto in ‘99 was the crescendo of that movement and while the orchestra featured many talented players, it only came about thanks to one very ambitious composer.

Angel Salinas was born in Puerto Escondido in 1966 and grew up riding bits of broken board left behind by travelling surfers. He began with his brothers at the town’s sheltered beaches, before working his way over to the whomping peaks of Playa Zicatela.

Playa Zicatela in the early 80s. Photo: Jenny Brost

It was like a jungle back then,” he says of the spot, “no roads, no houses on the beach, just just a tangle of thorn bushes.” In the lineup, crowds were sparse and the waves often perfect. Soon enough, Angel became well acquainted with their spooling interiors, scratching in on big days, as everyone did back then, on narrow, pintailed guns.

His transition to longboards was not an ideological grandstand – that would come later – but rather a practical choice. Following a particularly brutal wipeout, or ‘Zicatela massage’ as Angel affectionately calls it, he was left with a shoulder wrenched clean from its socket. The doctor’s orders were unequivocal: you’ve got to stop packing Puerto cones. It was an unthinkable suggestion for the 20-something charger. So instead, he sought a way to ease the strain of paddling and gain early enough entry to avoid any perilous air-drops. It was the early ‘90s and in Puerto at least, longboards were only ever seen under the arm of leathery Americans, usually on their way to the mellow point just south of town. 

The first time Angel grabbed one and paddled out at Zicatela, the other locals were sure he’d gone loco. “Everyone told me it was impossible, they said: ‘No, no, no, don’t do it.’” 

But he shrugged off his detractors, and his dodgy shoulder, put his head down and went. “I started when it was one metre, then two metres, three metres, four,” he says emphatically, “And finally, I was surfing on 10-meter swells. Every wave pulling in the tube, and making it, no mistakes!” And so it was that Mex Pipe’s longboard population exploded from naught to one. 

As well as longboarding, Angel took to wearing a Mexican wrestling mask in the surf as a way to celebrate the local culture. Photo: Rubén Piña

At almost exactly the same time, four thousand miles across the Pacific, Bonga Perkins’ big board barrel odyssey was just getting underway. 

“I grew up in Waikiki riding heavy single fins,” he says, “but I always knew there was more out there. When I turned 17 I got my own car, went out to the North Shore and never turned back.” 

His goal had always been to surf Pipe on his longboard. “I just figured, I ride it all over the place, so why not Pipeline,” he says. More than that, he wanted to make a distinctive mark on the sport. “I thought If I could set myself apart from all of the other longboarders,” he says, “I might have something.”

Unlike Angel, Bonga was blessed with a few high-calibre role models. 

“As well as guys like Herbie Fletcher, I remember a local heavy called Leonard Drago who’d sometimes be out on his single fin charging,” he recalls. “He was built like a fire hydrant, took shit from no one and just loved to go Backdoor. To me he was like the Dane Kealoha of longboarding at the time. Kind of unheard of, very low key, but definitely a presence that demanded attention.” 

“When I was a kid, paddling out on my longboard,” Bonga continues, “some of the boys kind of wrote me off, but when Leonard saw me he was all smiles.” 

After years on parallel trajectories, in November 1998, Angel and Bonga’s paths finally crossed. Earlier that summer, Oxbow had hosted the World Masters in Puerto Escondido, including an expression session for local surfers. They’d been so impressed with Angel’s approach, that they’d offered him a wildcard to the Oxbow World Longboard Championship in Fuerteventura. 

From almost the minute he arrived, he began touting the majesty of his home break to the other competitors.

“I told the guys if they want to surf real waves, they are welcome to come to Puerto Escondido, we have great barrels, good people and it’s offshore every morning!” 

“I showed them pictures,” he continues, “and told them: I have a dream, of you pulling into this tube and everyone on the beach is going crazy.”

“You come and I will promise to make a great event.”

His plan, so far as he had one, was to pull everything together with just the help of a few friends and sponsor the competition with his surf shop, Central Surf. That meant stumping up the prize purse from his own pocket. While many would baulk at the risks involved, Angel 

was blinkered by the drive to show the world what Puerto had to offer and dispel what he saw as the corrosive myth that longboarding was just for the lazy, the old and the small wave enthusiast. 

“I was all about it,” says Bonga. “After being on tour for a few years, surfing waist-high beach breaks, going up and down, nose riding, I just wanted to stand there and get barrelled.”

“There was about five of us from Hawaii who were all on the same level. Our attitude was: we know this place can pump. We’ve seen it, we’ve heard about it. So let’s go down there and surf our heads off.” 

Joining them were an eclectic mix of invitees from Australia, California, Brazil and South Africa. Among the field of 24, there was just one woman – the appropriately nicknamed Kim ‘Danger Women’ Hamrock. According to her, the organisers asked ten guys if they should invite a member of the fairer sex. Nine said no, but one said yes and put her name forward.

“I don’t even know who that was,” she says, “and I don’t know whether to praise him or curse him!”

“I never wanted to surf Puerto Escondido, but how could I not represent women’s surfing at that level?” 

In September of ‘99 Angel spotted a swell and made some calls. 48 hours later, a cavalcade of taxis, piled high with longboard coffin bags began rolling into town. It was on. Angel’s dream was about to become reality. 

Hawaiian Kanoa Dahlin on his way to the final. Photo Jim Russi

You’d need a hardbound anthology to tell all the stories that unfolded throughout that week. Suffice to say, it was everything you’d imagine might happen when a group of surfers are united with waves that push them right to their limits. Heroics, hideous wipeouts and camaraderie loom large in the tales, punctuated by some of the most incredible longboarding anyone had ever seen.

For Bonga though, tragedy struck early. While out free surfing one afternoon, he popped up in the whitewash to find a bather in a state of panic. The man had been ripped from the shallows, fully clothed with a snorkel on his head and pinned to the inside by six-foot closeouts. Bonga put him on his board and scrambled for the horizon, but they didn’t make it out before the next set. Half a dozen beatdowns followed. By the time Bonga got back to the guy, he was floating face down. 

“He died in my arms,” he recounts solemnly, “and I was swimming out in the ocean with him for about 45 minutes until a fishing boat picked us up. It was really heavy.”

Understandably, the incident took its toll. 

“I think I mentally checked myself out of the event after that,” Bonga says. “When I surfed my heat, I got good waves but the fire and the push wasn’t there.”

Instead of retreating into the shade, Bonga opted to spend the rest of the event paddling around out the back with his swimfins and board, looking out for his fellow competitors and anyone else who might need his help. By the time the week was out, he’d saved the lives of at least three bathers swept off the beach. His actions were emblematic of the brotherhood that defined the whole affair. 

“That’s what was really special to me,” says Beau Young, “because for those last couple of days it didn’t matter who you were and how many big waves you’d surfed. Everyone was nervous, because it was borderline out of control, and that life and death element just brought us all together.” 

“There were no lifeguards or jetskis or water safety,” adds Bonga, “so we all just had to keep an eye on each other. At a break like Puerto man, your best friend is the guy surfing next to you.” 

The semi-finalists. Photo: Jim Russi

In two intense semi-final matchups, Hawaiian Lance Ho’okano faced fellow countryman Kanoa Dahlin, while Australian Beau Young took on Duane DeSoto. Ultimately, it was Dahlin and Young who clinched their spots in the man-on-man final.

With the impact zone deemed impassable, a fishing boat took the pair out from the harbour and dropped them off in the lineup. Beau snuck a wave early and pulled in for a short tube. Kanoa did his best to line up on a closeout. Then a huge set caught the pair inside. The Hawaiian was dragged violently backwards over the falls. The Aussie dived deep. Both emerged, shaken, without their boards. From the loudspeaker on the beach, they were told to swim back to the boat.  

“If I’d been 10 feet further inside, I don’t think I would have survived it in all honesty,” recounts Beau. “Once we got to shore, I kissed the sand. It was kind of a life-changing surf moment for me. At the time my grandmother was still alive. I called her and told her how much I loved her.”

Up the beach, a spectator found half of Beau’s board. “That was the heaviest thing I’ve ever ridden,” he said – “volan cloth, triple cedar stringer, super thick glass job, and that wave still shattered it into three pieces.”

Embracing on the sand, the men agreed to split the prize money and call it a draw. 

“There were no winners in that final,” says Beau, “we weren’t going back out.”

 

Boards like the ones ridden that day have long since disappeared from the lineup at Playa Zicatela. After ‘99, the event returned 4 more times, hosting many more great barrel rides, but nothing quite of the magnitude seen that first year. But each time it did, its influence seemed to fade a little. While there’d been an initial uptick in locals giving longboards a go out there, by ‘04 this crew had mostly traded them for something else. The cost of constantly snapping expensive mals was a contributing factor, as was the fact the wave had become more of a shorebreak, thanks to building developments on the beach. Most of all though, it was the global shift in culture, led by the traditionalists’ edict deeming longboarding a head-high and under pursuit. 

Despite this apparent dead-end, Angel is certain of the significance the chapter played in the evolution of the break. 

“A lot of ideas about what boards people should ride came from those competitions,” he says. “Everyone saw how easy we caught the waves, pulled into the tube and made it. Before that everyone was using regular guns, like potato chips, but soon after people started putting more meat on the rails and the nose, much more thickness and more length.”

Indeed, the typical board for an XXL day now measures at least 9’6. “That was because of us,” says Angel. 

Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker utilising some serious board volume during the 2017 Puerto Escondido big wave event. Photo: Edwin Morales // WSL

Beau and Bonga still ride their longboard guns when the surf gets big and both are hopeful for a wider resurgence. Just in the same way as the traditional longboard movement has found joy drawing on design concepts from the ‘60s, Beau believes dipping back into big wave history could yield similar results. 

“Riding longboards in heavy waves is a tip of the hat to our forefathers and foremothers,” he explains. “Whether it’s six foot or double that, there’s a comfort factor in the glide and flow. It’s obvious they worked. Just watch old footage of Jeff Hakman at Sunset, Buffalo Kealana at Makaha and Pat Curren’s lines at 15-foot Waimea!”  

‘But is the fact they worked then enough reason to keep riding them now?’ I ask.

“The point of longboarding is that it’s a perpetuation of history,” says Beau, “It’s not future-driven like tennis or golf.”

“I don’t mind hitting tennis balls,” he clarifies, “but I’m not going to use a wooden racket. Whereas, I think it’s tremendously special to ride boards that are essentially period pieces with a few tweaks. That’s the beauty of longboarding.” 

“It’s the whole reason I do it – to feel what people have always felt.” 

Kano Dahlin, feeling it. Photo: Jim Russi