Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk

In May of 1963, as the surf craze swept the U.S. and popular images of surfers tempted newcomers into the water in the days before wetsuits were common, LIFE magazine had a message its readers:  Surfing was fun but it wasn’t all fun and games. It was also dangerous, especially when it came to the waves  off the North Shore of Oahu.

The magazine explained to unfamiliar readers how the sport worked there: “The men who ride the big ones in Hawaii actually ski down the shoulder of a wave away from the curl… They call the first breathtaking schuss ‘taking the drop.’ Their boards accelerate up to 35 mph so rapidly that they kick up waves like speedboats. And a merciless mauling awaits the unfortunate who doesn’t complete his ride. He is driven downward by the appalling maelstrom, tossed around, sucked back down and frequently, after fighting up for a desperate gulp of air, hammered down again by the next wave.”

And yet a brave group of surfers sought out the big waves anyway, for what LIFE called the “peril and ecstasy” of the sport’s toughest waves. Enabled by new innovations in balsa wood surfboards that had opened new vistas to surfers in the 1940s, the surfers  returned again and again, despite the risks.

Looking at these photos by George Silk, it’s not hard to see what drew the surfers back to the water. Some experienced, what surfer Fred Van Dyke described to Silk as, “the greatest feeling the world.”

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

Nick Beck of Honolulu caught a wave on his light board.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

A pair of riders, cutting frothy furrows in the wall of a wild 18-footer, seemed headed on a collision course at Sunset Beach.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

Surfer Rick Grigg riding large waves at Banzai Beach.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

A teenage girl rode the surf, 1963.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

Hawaii, 1963.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

Preston Leavey, paddling frantically to get on a wave and begin his ride. A camera, was bolted to the front of the board and recorded the glitter of refracted light from the spray.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

Before riding in on great waves surfers had to fight their way out past foaming barriers.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

At Sunset Beach, a surfer rode a thundering 15-footer.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

Hawaii surfers, 1963.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

Hawaii surfers, 1963.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

Joe Kaohi maneuvered desperately to cling to his board as he tried to ride into the tunnel of a wave at Banzai Beach.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in Hawaii, 1963.

Hawaii surfer, 1963.

George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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