The film tells the story of three young friends whose passion in life is surfing. The friends include: Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), a self-destructive type who has a devil-may-care attitude; Jack Barlowe (William Katt), the calm and responsible one of the bunch; and Leroy "The Masochist" Smith (Gary Busey), whose nickname tells a lot about his personality.
Their surfing lives are traced from the summer of 1962 to their attempts of dodging the Vietnam War draft in 1965, and to the end of their innocence in 1968 when one of their friends is killed in Vietnam. The three make the difficult transition to adulthood with parties, surf trips, marriage, and the war.
The friends reunite years later after Barlowe has served time in Vietnam for the "Great Swell of '74." With this reunion the transitions in their lives becomes the end point of what the 1960s meant to so many as they see that the times have changed and what was once a time of innocence is forever gone.