Riding into the Sunset: A Tribute to Peter V.Z. Cole
Updated: Mar 14
By Stuart Coleman. Originally published in North Shore News, March 2022.
Peter Cole was not only a pioneer of big-wave surfing on Oahu’s North Shore, but he became an inspiring environmental activist and community leader. As a founder of the Surfrider Foundation’s Oahu Chapter, Peter confronted powerful developers on the North Shore the same way he took on huge waves at Sunset—with sheer commitment and without fear of the consequences. Peter’s mantra was Keep the Country Country, and he and his extended ‘ohana helped preserve the North Shore from overdevelopment.
Peter’s lifelong love affair with the ocean started in Southern California, where he grew up learning to surf with his twin brother Cornelius and icons like Buzzy Trent at Santa Monica. While attending Stanford, he started surfing at Steamer’s Lane with his buddy Fred Van Dyke. He also became a championship swimmer, tried out for the Olympics and just missed making the American team by fractions of a second.
Peter eventually moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where Fred Van Dyke had helped him land a job at Punahou School. They both built homes on the North Shore, started families and commuted to town through the cane fields. Peter taught upperlevel math to students and future icons like Gerry Lopez and Jeff Hackman. Gerry recalls Peter giving a talk at chapel and telling the students how he had seen God in the barrel of a tube while surfing at Sunset Beach!
Peter later lost the use of his right eye during a surfing accident at Sunset, but that didn’t slow down his surfing one bit. Surfing into his late 70’s, Peter continued charging at Sunset on his big yellow board, flying down the heavy waves in his white t-shirt.
I first met Peter and Fred while I was writing Eddie Would Go, and they took me under their wing. They told me great stories about the North Shore, Eddie Aikau and their early days at Punahou School. Fred shared funny anecdotes about cutting school to go surfing when the waves at Waimea were almost 40 feet. As a math teacher, Peter said he came up with a formula for determining the accuracy of Fred’s tall tales: add up everything he said, divide by two and subtract one. Fred teased him back, saying you couldn’t trust Peter because he was halfblind so the waves always looked half their size. Their banter always made me laugh!
As the co-founder of Surfrider’s Oahu Chapter, Peter continued the legacy of John Kelly’s Save Our Surf (SOS) and mentored generations of young surfers and activists like me. Under Peter’s guidance and with the support of many community leaders, we helped preserve Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay and Haleiwa from major commercial developments. We will always be grateful for his humble leadership, kolohe sense of humor and pure love of the ocean, waves and beaches.
I remember the magical evening when we were finally able to pay tribute to Peter and the extended Cole ‘ohana at Surfrider’s John Kelly Awards Party at Waimea Bay. We presented him with the Lifetime Achievement Award, and he received a standing ovation. The Lifetime Achievement Award was fitting because he led an amazing life, he had a good time and he was rewarded for his many achievements! What more could anyone ask for? Peter Cole went big, and now he is finally home, riding those Sunset waves and maybe even seeing God in the eye of the tube? RIP, Peter, RIP.