The vast majority of people know as little about surfing as the rookie kitchen boy knows about crepes suzette. But it is a very demanding sport physically, one that requires the near-ultimate in timing, balance, and finesse at the professional level, plus endurance in king-size quantities.
Most of the best board riders in the world are currently displaying their skills in Hawaii, where raging winter waves are the site of this year's Triple Crown of Surfing. The competition started Nov. 11 on Oahu's North Shore and continues through Dec. 16. Top professionals, including those from the US mainland, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Peru, and other countries, are competing for more than $80,000 in prize money.
Serious surfers, and not just the pros, buy only custom-made equipment geared to their height and weight. They learn to steer with their feet and body (like the skateboarder) across a ''playing field'' that's constantly changing.
No two waves are ever the same, a situation which forces the surfer to think and make rapid adjustments, sometimes on swells 20 to 25 feet high.
Hawaiian-born Fred Hemmings, a former world champion who is the father of professional surfing, has for the past several years been in the image business of promoting his sport. There is still that lingering undertow (though pretty much eliminated from the public's mind at this point) that most surfers are nomads, beach bums, anti-establishment, or worse.
''Actually surfers are teen-agers, blue-collar workers, and professional people who are well aware of their civic responsibilities,'' Hemmings explained. ''The difference is that they have discovered a spontaneous activity in surfing that is unlike anything they have ever experienced before and it excites them. No wonder they keep coming back for more.
''It takes courage and it takes skill to tackle waves as tall as a house with nothing more substantial under your feet than a moving board,'' Fred continued. ''And while the playing areas of most sports are clearly defined and don't change after the game has started, the moods of the ocean never allow a surfer to take anything for granted.''
Asked what it's like to ride a giant wave until it has run out of the kind of power that can snap a surfboard in half as though it were a twig or throw a man skyward like a sack of laundry, Hemmings replied:
''It is an exhilarating experience - a thrill you get by doing something where you are always right on the lip of danger. It's not for everybody. Wipeouts are frequent in high surf, even among profes-sionals, and a wipeout occurs whenever the rider loses control of his board and is separated from it. Personally I've always thought of a wipeout as when the wave wins and the surfer loses.
''Anyway it's a happening that can turn a surfer upside down and scare him. It's rough on the body and it's important that a surfer know his limitations. But a wipeout is also part of the challenge, and if you accept this part of surfing for what it is, you can learn to deal with it.''
It was Hemmings who started professional surfing 11 years ago, introducing competition at Hawaii's Banzai Pipeline, where the waves are almost always potential Frankensteins. He also created the first pro events for women, the World Cup for men and women, and in 1975 fathered the International Pro Surfing Tour that determines the world champion.
Professional surfing competition is usually judged by a panel of five experts , which uses the same basic criteria for scoring as employed in figure skating, gymnastics, and high diving. Each surfer is judged on his ability to pick the largest wave; ride it the longest distance; and execute his maneuvers at the greatest possible speed. Competitors are given points for what they do. A long ride is 30 seconds, and a perfect score 10 points.
Custom-made fiberglass surfboards weigh about 15 pounds; are 21/2 to 4 inches thick; range from 51/2 to 8 feet in length; and cost approximately $300. They last between one and two years, depending on how often the board is used and how many dings it takes getting to shore.
''Surfing is never going to attract large numbers, because unless you grow up near a beach the opportunity to pursue it simply isn't there,'' Hemmings said. ''There is also the problem of the ocean, which is fickle and often makes you wait days for the size waves you need.''