Rusty Miller has a surfing resume that very few surfers come even close to matching. He was the top ranked surfer in the USA in 1965, he was a four-time invitee to complete at the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational contest in Hawaii, he was one of the world’s most highly regarded big wave riders in the 60’s and he was reputed to be the first surfer to paddle out at the legendary Bali break of Uluwatu (vision of his exploits in monstrous Ulu’s waves in the classic surf film “Morning of the Earth” are amongst the most revered pieces of celluloid in surf culture). With his experience and surfing record I always knew that Rusty would have a great story to add to my “Waves of Pain” story collection and, while sharing a morning coffee with him at a Byron Bay café, I put the request to him.
I explained the “Waves of Pain” concept to Rusty suggesting that I was looking for stories to counter the exaggerated “best wave, best day, best break,” stories that are so prevalent in surfing and that I just wanted to know about one of his worst days at the beach. His response, “Geez… that’s a bit negative,” made me think that I was about to get a big knock back. While I was blurting out an appropriate response, (something along the lines of “in the interest of balance, Rusty… the rich tapestry of experience… blah, blah, blah,”) Rusty had been sorting through his enormous cerebral filing system of special memories and stopped me in my tracks with a suggestion that he had something that would fit the bill perfectly. He then told me this story.
Things were about to turn nasty
Back in the sixties, few surfing contests carried anywhere near the same prestige as the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational. Surfed at the hallowed big wave surfing grounds of Sunset Beach and presided over by the “father of modern surfing”, Duke Kahanamoku, the “Duke” contest was only open to an invited handful of the world’s best surfers (initially twenty-four surfers, then expanded to thirty-six competitors after the initial event). Rusty Miller was invited to the inaugural contest in 1965 and then again in ‘66, ‘67 and ‘68. Rusty explained that while all of these events were held in big, good quality surf, the ‘67 event was extra special for the truly great waves it served up. Best of all, from his point of view, he was surfing the beautiful waves at the very top of his game. He even dared to hope that he would not only make the final but possibly win the whole shooting match! The preliminary heats and semi-final heats on the Saturday went to plan with Rusty demonstrating his best big-wave skills to the crowds on the beach, to his fellow top-ranked surfers and to the television documentary crews filming on the beach. On successfully winning a spot in the eight-man final for the next day Rusty had no inkling, whatsoever, that things were about to turn decidedly nasty!
Sunday morning found Miller and his fellow finalists having a warm-up surf in the pumping Sunset Beach conditions. Only hours before he was due to paddle out for the final of the “Duke Kahanamoku Invitational” he took off late on a large set wave. As his board rocketed almost vertically down the face, he felt his feet separate from the deck of the board. “Well that’s not a good feeling”, he thought to himself, but moments later his feet reconnected with the deck in what seemed like perfect position and alignment. For a brief moment he must have felt that he was going to pull off the impossible and save the wave but the speed and force with which his feet reconnected to the deck (after having free-fallen for some distance) caused his legs and torso to twist awkwardly beneath him causing him to fall. The large wave crashed over the top of him in a gnarly wipe-out. That wasn’t the worst of it. The moment Rusty bobbed back to the surface outrageous pain told him that something was seriously wrong with his leg. He managed to get back to the beach unaided where he was helped up the sand, into a car and off to hospital. There would be no final for Rusty Miller in this year’s Duke Kahanamoku Invitational. Hospital x-rays revealed a twisting fracture to his fibula!
“One minute you are in heaven…”
As Rusty says, “That’s Hawaii for you… one minute you are in heaven… the next moment you are in hell!” Things had changed so quickly. He had been surfing so well that he knew that he had been in with a chance of winning probably the biggest contest in the world, and now, he would not even be competing in the final. Now he would be enjoying the final as a late-arriving spectator flopped down on the sand with his leg trussed up in a plaster cast.
Just to make matters worse, the waves the ocean gods had conjured for the final were even bigger and better than the fantastic ones he had surfed on the day before. Rusty knew that the waves were perfectly suited to his style and that he would have had the time of his life ripping in a Sunset Beach swell that had his name written all over it.
A description of the achievements and exploits of Duke Kahanamoku could fill half a dozen books and cannot be attempted here other than to say the multiple Olympic gold medal winning swimmer introduced the sport of surfing to practically every continent on the planet and, additionally, played a significant role in promoting the sport’s unique “aloha” spirit and culture. As such, it is hardly surprising that one of the premier surfing tournaments in the world during the 60’s, 70’s and part of the 80’s was named after him. Before he died in 1968, Kahanamoku was the guest of honour at all the “Duke Invitational” events where he would present a golden trophy (a statue of himself) to the Champion.
Ultimate photo opportunity
When Rusty Miller arrived back at Sunset Beach, after his painful visit to the hospital, to watch someone else crowned “The Duke” champion, he couldn’t have been more thrilled when he was placed at the side of Kahanamoku on the beach to watch the surf-off. Many years later he still treasures the photograph, taken by surf photographer Tim McCullough, of Rusty sitting next to Duke Kahanamoku on the beach and suggests, without a moment’s hesitation, that if he had to choose between experiencing that photo opportunity with the great Duke Kahanamoku on the beach and surfing in the final of “The Duke” contest he would most likely go with the former! So, things didn’t turn out so disastrous after all!
This story is Rusty Miller’s philosophy lesson to me. In surfing, the very worst moments in your surfing experience can rapidly transform into your very best! Rusty Miller. A bloke who has had lots of bad experiences in the surf… along with so many very good ones… knows that, often, in the world of surfing, you don’t have to explore your most horrendous moments too deeply to discover a remarkable silver lining.
All black and white images taken by famed surf photographer, Tim McCullough. Thanks Tim, for granting permission to use the fantastic photographs! More of Tim’s work can be found at the link below.
Rusty Miller now lives in Byron Bay where he publishes a local area guide book, publishes surfing photography books and partners with his daughter, Taylor, in teaching surfing. Here is his link.