Lured in by a cover of a Beach Boy’s album, Buzzy Kerbox was introduced to the life of surfing at an early age. Born far away from his favorite backdoor barrel in a city called Indianapolis, his family made the move to Hawaii when he was 10.
From then on, surfing became a major part of his life. Three years after catching his first wave in the Kailua shorebreak, he started competing in surfing contests. Michael Ho and Larry Bertelmann were his friendly rivals in those days. Together, all three helped shape the future of professional surfing in Hawaii.
The desire to surf the best waves in the world led him to create a career doing what he loves the most. At 17, he won the Smirnoff Amateur surfing title held at Sunset Beach, and was then invited to surf in the pro event. There he made it to the semifinals, held in twenty five foot waves at Waimea Bay. “The contest kind of backfired on me because I couldn’t surf in amateur contests anymore, and at that time there wasn’t an organized professional circuit, just a few special events,” he says.
This was the Shaun Thompson era, when he had won the Gunston 500 in South Africa, five years in a row. “It was my dream to fly over there and beat him,” he says. “I made it to the finals and picked up fourth place. Shaun took first place, but I was very happy with my results.”
A professional surfing tour was set up to showcase the world’s best, and Buzzy was there from the beginning. The first year the IPS circuit went off, he ranked tenth. “It was great having surfing events set up all over the world, but it was really difficult to obtain sponsorship in those days,” he says. “Local Motion stepped up and provided boards and money for travel.” Buzzy’s legendary pro surfing career lasted seven years, reaching sixth place in the world in 1978.
Through surfing, his career began to branch out in other directions. Renowned fashion photographer Bruce Weber flew him to New York to model for Vogue magazine, and with the international exposure, many opportunities followed. Polo, Salem cigarettes, Smirnoff vodka, and Sunkist are just a few of the companies he has done modeling for. At one point he even found himself jumping off a 50 foot waterfall for a Mountain Dew commercial.
Buzzy and Laird Hamilton pioneered tow-in surfing. “I was living on Oahu getting tired of the crowds,” he says. “I realized the potential of the outer reef. Laird and I took turns towing each other behind my Zodiac.” The first really big wave he caught was a 25 footer. He had to straighten out and take it on the head. “We weren’t using straps then, we were just riding our guns,” he says. “It was an all new experience and really fun. After the first big day, we were able to see the potential of big wave surfing.
Buzzy chose not to be a part of the strap team business. “I’m friends with and surf with all those guys, I just did not want to get involved with the business end of it,” he says.
I could sense some disappointment in the tone of his voice when I asked him about the movie In God’s Hands.
“I met with the director, but by that time they had already locked in the actors,” he says. “I was definitely irritated because here was a sport I helped to pioneer and they were making a movie about tow-in surfing in my backyard and I’m not a part of it.” The directors did, however, go to Buzzy when they needed the big wipeout shot that nobody else wanted anything to do with.
A few months ago, Kelly Slater came to Maui to challenge Pe`ahi with the help of Buzzy and Victor Lopez. “Kelly didn’t really have that great of an experience, he wasn’t really prepared,” he says. “Victor and I did the best we could, yet the other guys out there were not interested in helping him. He caught a lot of waves, yet was very irritated with the situation.”
At 41, Buzzy spends much of his time paddling and long-boarding to keep in shape. He competes in the 32 mile Catalina paddleboard race in California, and placed third the last two years. When he’s not competing in pro longboard events that come to the islands, he’s home in Haiku with wife and two sons.
Buzzy Kerbox has made a positive contribution to the sport of surfing, adapting well with the times and growing stronger with age. He can relax in the comfort of knowing he has traveled the world and surfed all the places he dreamt about as a kid.
This story originally ran in MauiTime’s April 14, 1998 issue.
Photos: Peter Sterling