Meet The Willis Brothers
Perpetuating The Spirit of Surfing
Milton B Willis MB1
“Respect the Sea”
Michael C Willis MC2
Source: The Ocean Magazine
A strong case can be made for North County’s Willis Brothers, Milton and Michael, are the world’s all around, all time most influential surfers.
It is safe to say no one surfer has spent as much time in the ocean as Milton and Michael combined. Their broad and far reaching contributions to surfing and surfing culture are unequaled by any single surfer in history. World Champion Giant Wave Surfers, awarded big wave rescue specialists, awarded surfing instructors, master surfboard shapers and designers, published authors and ocean safety experts. Enigmatic, charismatic, controversial, legendary, internationally recognized, no one compares.
At 17, Milton and Michael graduated from San Dieguito High School. Michael took a job shaping surfboards for Sunset Surfboards in Encinitas. At the time Sunset Surfboards were considered amongst the very best. Both brothers were privileged to work under master Ed Wright, considered by many to be one of the world’s premier shapers. At the same time, Milton was surfing the North Shore honing his big wave skills at Sunset Beach (pre-leashes).
Not long after, both brothers were living in the islands surfing Sunset and beginning to surf Waimea Bay, Pipeline and the outer reefs. Little did anyone know at the time, but the Willis Brothers would go on to become among the world’s most experienced big wave surfers and ultimately responsible for modern giant wave surfing, along with Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama.
On Jan. 25th 1998, the state of Hawaii called for the very first “Condition Black.” All beaches were declared off limits legally due to extreme high surf. Milton, Michael and a handful of others surfed into history by paddling into the largest waves ever witnessed at Waimea Bay. Three days later on Jan. 28th 1998, the Willis Brothers led the way as the world’s best big wave surfers and lifeguards.
The Quicksilver Eddie Aikau big wave contest officials (cancelled due to waves deemed too big to surf) and thousands of others witnessed the charge into ultra giant waves at outer Log Cabins. There have only been two “Condition Blacks” in Hawaii’s history, this was the second. The Willis Brothers surfed both, first paddling in at Waimea and then towing in at outer Log Cabins. What the world’s best big wave surfers thought impossible, was proven possible by Milton and Michael and giant wave surfing was born. English writer Andy Martin relates the epic story in his iconic book, Stealing the Wave.
In all Maritime history, few if any rescues in giant waves have been more outrageously dangerous than those performed successfully by both brothers. Awarded big wave rescue specialists, Milton and Michael risked their own lives many times to save others. Milton was awarded the prestigious Certificate of Life Saving Merit for successful rescue in extremely hazardous conditions from the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii, for rescues involving giant waves, razor sharp lava and multiple people. Michael snatched Dave Kahanamoku (descendant of Duke Pahoa Kahanamoku) from the jaws of Waimea shore break, saving him from being pummeled. Of all the rescues in Maritime history, none were more dramatic than on a cold Hwaiian winter day when Michael Willis successfully saved Titus Kinimaka’s life. This heroic rescue in 20-foot surf out of the west, the most powerful, included a 10-foot shore pound, surfers Milton Willis, Derrick Doerner, two Tiger sharks over 5,000 lbs. each and a helicopter.
Today, the Willis Brothers continue to share what they have learned from facing the challenges of surfing giant waves through books, essays, radio, television and film. Recently starring in the Ukrainian hit television show “Heads and Tails” (78 million views), Milton and Michael promoted, in addition to surfing and surf culture, world unity and peace. To surf giant waves requires balance, understanding and harmony, three qualities the world needs now.
Through sharing the positive side of surfing by teaching others, the Willis Brothers were awarded the Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence for both 2014 and 2015, with five star ratings across the board for two consecutive years. Perhaps their greatest influence larger than surfing is their campaign to prevent drowning and save lives. The brothers continue to educate and inform others on the proper way to avoid and escape rip currents – The Willis Way.