Much like the iconic surf breaks of Waimea, Sunset, Hale’iwa, and his beloved Pipeline – Derek Ho was a fixture in the North Shore community. His groundbreaking performances, including becoming the first Hawaiian to win the world title, paved the way for a new era of Hawai’’’s champion surfers – including Sunny Garcia, Andy Irons, Carissa Moore, and John John Florence. But perhaps his greatest legacy was his unwavering dedication to his lifelong passion for surfing. A source of great inspiration for surfers of all levels and ages.
Beyond the titles and accolades, it was this commitment to his craft and his love for surfing that resonates deeply with those that knew him well. Despite his exalted status, Uncle Derek had a deep aloha for all, knowing all too well how personal the journey of surfing is for everyone. He always made time to recognize a fellow surfer on their path, living their dream, and staying true to their love. That’s how he lived, and always led by example.
The following are some memories of just a few, of the many, who were there with him along the way, and those who continue to follow his lead.
This wave was during the most amazing swell I’ve ever seen at the Pipeline. It started, if I recall correctly, on September 2, 1991. That day was a solid 10’+ with 30 wave sets and almost no lulls…it was worth your life just trying to paddle out. The next day was 10′-15′ with cleanup sets rolling through from the 2nd reef…luckily it wasn’t quite as consistent as the day before just bigger. Day 3 was about the same and I believe this wave was from then. The lineup outside is indefinite, basically I’d see one go through that looked good then sit on that spot and wait for it to come again. I picked this one up way outside, Derek caught it further in and mushy like those 2nd reef waves are, he dropped low so I crossed over. Thinking he’d want to do another go-behind, I cut down but Derek didn’t take the opening and by then the wave was hitting the inside and starting to run. Derek locked in right under my rail and the lip pitched out over both of us. Most of the time, Pipeline is a one man wave…this time it was friendly to the both of us. I’m gonna miss that boy…we all are.
Hawaiian surfing royalty – Johnny Boy Gomes, Sunny Garcia, Derek Ho, Kaipo Jaquias Photo – Gordinho
Johnny Boy Gomes
Brother Derek, was my brother from another mother. I’ve learned a lot from him, in and out of the water. I still can’t believe it. I miss and love you champ. #derekhoforever
Photo- Tom Servais
He was the most dedicated surfer I ever met, unstoppable. We would be at Pipe, and I’d ask him “Are you going to surf again?” He would say, “Yeah, I’ll be back at 4:30.” And sure enough, he was back at 4:30 on the dot. He’d tell me all the time, “Come on, let’s go J! It’s not going to look like this tomorrow,” or “You’re not gonna get the wave sitting there on the couch.” Big, small, stormy, any conditions, he was on it. Even if it wasn’t that good, something other surfers wouldn’t even give a second look to, it didn’t matter, it didn’t deter him. D was on it.
He had a very special connection with the ocean, that’s for sure. He could, and would, get any wave he wanted, at any spot. But, his favorite was the secret spots. He always wanted to go to some secret spot with just us. And we all know, you better get your waves right away, because D would catch a bunch of waves, then he was out of there hahaha…
He was always helping me out, and encouraging me, with everything. D helped me find sponsors, and always had advice and ideas for my boards and fin placement. He shared his amazing art work on my boards. He always gave me tips in the line up at Pipe. His love for the ocean and desire to help other surfers be their best was just endless. He’s one of my best friends and the master of his craft…
He was just really tough to compete against. He had an uncanny sense of how to place things together. It was almost like the opposite to what I was. I was such a different competitor than what Derek was. Derek was able to piece together a heat really clearly for himself. He had that classic ability to pull something out of nothing and actually see it. He was playing with the wildness of Pipeline. And, that was really a personal journey for him. Then to place yourself within that four man format of competing, which was really tricky. He had a great sense of the ocean, an ability to see more out of things in the water. Derek was such a great tactician, in that regard. He knew Pipeline so well, I had to get a guide from him on many occasions. He pulled me in, in many ways.
And, it even happened at the wave pool in Allentown, Pennsylvania, we had a final in what was the first wave pool event on the tour. I’m talking the complete opposite of Pipeline. And, he brought the same kind of level to it. We had some crazy battles and that was one of the craziest. He just made me so sharp, that was absolutely true from my experience at the time.
The cool thing about Derek, he also bestowed a lot of respect for every competitor. I’d never heard him say anything other than a respectful word for his competitors. That’s what I really liked about Derek, he carried that consistently and never changed.
Photo – Brian Bielmann
Our relationship started from his brother Mike, because I was doing boards for Mike. Derek wasn’t even on the radar. He was just a kid, but he was surfing – and surfing really good. I remember Mike said, ‘Hey, I want you to make a board for Derek.’ I made him a board, it was a 6’8” double-wing swallow. It’s unbelievable. I remember that. I can barely remember what I ate for dinner the night before, but certain things stick out in your memory. I remember seeing Derek riding it for the first time. It was out at Pipe, more of a playful day, and they’re getting some barrels and doing turns. Mike told me he was going to be there and Derek was going to have the board. I got myself down to the beach to watch them catch a couple of waves. I remember Derek on this wave, on the 6’8,” and you know, he’s a small guy. He came out of a little barrel, and was in the really steep part of the wave, and he just laid it out, extending his body. Just carved this turn. And I’m going, “Whoa, Hey, this kid’s surf’s really good!” He had great style and he knew how to use the rail. He was the next generation. I kept making him boards and the rest is history.
The last project we were working on together, we were reproducing some of his iconic Pipe boards back from the Island Classics days. I have the original order forms with all the details, the actual templates I used, the measurements, rocker, measurements, thicknesses, nose, and tail. I’ve kept them over the years and in their designated folders. So, I gave him the choice of which one to reproduce. He says, “I want my 7’6” Pipe Masters board, with the green rails.” He gave me the dimensions and everything amd I’m going, “How do you remember that? Are you sure? I don’t remember doing any green rail boards for you.”
I pulled open the folder and there’s literally a couple hundred orders in there and I’m going through it, going through the 7’6”s, we did so many 7’6”s for him, and I’m going through the years and there’s a 7’6.” It’s got green rails. I pull it out, and it’s the original order. And, he says, ‘See? There it is. I told you.’”
We reproduced that board and I handshaped it with him. Like he always did, he was looking over my shoulder, making sure everything was right. Derek knew exactly what he wanted. He’d literally be over my shoulder, making sure his fins were in the right place, the angles were right, and the rails were foiled enough – everything.
There was that late season swell at Pipe last spring. He gets that one crazy wave where he takes off late, does a big soul arch, and it looks like he’s gonna fall back. The spit blows out, and it looks like it might’ve helped get back up on his feet.
That was the board.
Photo – Tomer Servais
I met uncle Derek when I was like 16 or 17. I had a chance to surf in the Bells Juniors Contest, and I hitchhiked to the gas station to get some ice cream and he pulled up with my brother. I don’t even think he was aware I was Shane’s brother at first. But, he got out right away and was super welcoming.
Someone of that stature can be pretty intimidating. But, it was his aloha and warmth, that overtook the intimidation factor. He was a very major influence in guiding me, and just accepting me for who I was. We ended up hanging out the rest of the trip.
Then coming in as a young kid to the heavy waters of Hawai’i, the guidance and acceptance he showed was so true and pure. But, It was all up to us. They could show you and teach you, but, at the end of the day it was, let’s see it, grab your board and when the waves are good, you gotta surf.
He really led by example in that aspect, of just staying dedicated to what you love, throughout it all.
Photo – Mike Latronic
It’s interesting to know somebody as your father’s friend, as a six year old child, just starting to surf, and [Derek] already being somewhat of a professional, and then becoming the Pipe Master, World Champion – all of these things – but then still surfing with him through those years as a little kid, then growing up and becoming an adult.
When you’re watching Derek, you’re seeing people do stuff that nobody’s ever done for his age; When you’re watching Michael, you’re seeing people do things that they don’t do at that age. It’s never been done. This is a first for that age division. They’re making it possible for Kelly Slater to do what he’s done; for me to do what I’ve done… for everybody, you know? Cause if you look at their lineage, the only person I know that’s older, that still does it is my dad. And if you talk to Michael Ho about my dad, he’s been a huge inspiration to Michael in his life. And, that’s what we have to look up to. Those are our elders and that’s who we’re going to try and carry the torch for and make them proud so when Derek is resting in heaven, he knows that his tribe’s down here still doing his work ‘cause that’s what we’re here to do – to surf and have fun.
Photo – Brent Bielmann
My earliest memory of Derek was the Pipe Masters, those waves, and watching that on TV before I was even considering surfing Pipeline. The way he won that event, it was absolutely amazing. Those waves hold up today, they’d be straight up tens. I kind of always felt like all pipeline waves are kind of compared to those. And he did that in a heat, over and over again, throughout the course of a day with a ton of pressure on him. Whenever I’d see or talk to Derek, I’d always just think back to that. My first impressions as a kid seeing that performance.
It’s pretty rare that you get that deep of a genuine love for surfing and that amount of talent at the same time. A lot of guys, they get a little burnout, they feel like they’ve been there, done that, or they’ve just surfed so much and made it a job for so long – it kind of can take the passion out of it. But, Derek and Mike, they never lost the passion. I think either one of those guys surf more in two months than I do in a year, probably.
Pipeline is not going to be the same place without Uncle D in the lineup, that’s for sure. It feels like the end of an era. He contributed so much to Hawaiian surfing, being the first Hawaiian world champ, his Pipeline performances, and setting the bar for performance at his age. Those kinds of humans don’t come around very often. And, those are some big shoes to fill out there. I don’t know if they will ever be filled.
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