Cover Story

Image: Sean Davey

It's hard to tell only one story about Pipeline. As bodysurfing legend and 18-year Pipe lifeguard Mark Cunningham puts it, 'There are thousands of people who have a relationship with Pipeline whether they live there or surf there.' The common denominator is commitment: the surfers to their dream, the lifeguards to their watch, the community to its watery monument and the wave's perpetual dialogue with the natural elements that create it. So, in the spirit of keeping New Year's resolutions, may the wave's undying allure be a testament to the power of commitment.


Cover image for Jan 3, 2007

It’s 11am on the Thursday before Christmas, and Pipeline is going off. A northwest swell deposits waves in the solid 6- to 8-foot range with the occasional 10- to 12-foot set, and trades are blowing at 10 miles per hour. As the walls of water march shoreward, they deliver surfing’s most captivating promise: long, hollow barrels that chop like a guillotine less than 200 yards from shore. ‘Tis the season, indeed.

People talk about Pipe in superlatives–the best, the most challenging, the most famous. What makes it a wave of such mythical proportions? Is it its existential duality–left or right, beauty or beast, life or death? Or is it the collective experience of those who make its acquaintance?

Pipe breaks ideally on a west swell, when the shorebound wave refracts onto the shallow reef and the displaced water unleashes its fury. A north swell shifts sand onto the reef, changing its contour and consequently causing the wave to slam shut in a cascade of whitewater. But sometimes when one door closes, another one opens. A northwest swell also unlocks Backdoor, Pipeline’s other half, which can peel even faster and longer to the right.

Either direction, a successful barrel ride goes to the surfer who can make the late drop, crank a sharp bottom turn and hold his line undaunted by the intense foamball swirling behind him. When the waves exceed 10 to 12 feet, the second and third (outer) reefs begin breaking, and as North Shore bodysurfer Chris Robinson once described–‘it goes from being pure fun to pure fun punctuated by absolute terror.’

In a community where people reference surf spots rather than street names, Pipeline’s one of the most illustrious addresses around. (Winter rentals go for more than $10,000 a month.) Call it home court advantage–nobody reads the wave’s personalities better than its neighbors, from the name most associated with Pipeline, Gerry Lopez, to present-day Pipe prodigy Jamie O’Brien.

‘There’s Sunset Beach Elementary, there’s Kam Highway, and then you have this watery Parthenon in the midst of it all. It’s just right there,’ says North Shore lifeguard lieutenant John Hoogsteden. ‘It’s so easily accessible yet so difficult to attain. There are only a few people who have the place really wired.’

‘We talk about Pipeline like it’s an object or a thing. It’s not. It’s a living part of the community,’ adds Cunningham. He wonders how many of today’s fame- or fortune-seeking pros would dedicate themselves to the wave the way the local surfers have. ‘Before the surf boom, you were here because you loved surfing–the free ride on liquid energy–and you would find a way to make ends meet. There were guys who saw this place, realized it was the most amazing place in the world and said ‘We’re going to make a go of it here.”

Jeff Johnson was one of those guys. The unsung waterman moved his family to Pipeline in the ’60s along with surfing greats Peter Cole, Fred Van Dyke and Warren Harlow.

‘When it gets big and perfect out there, it’s so mesmerizing, I have a hard time getting anything done. If I had a nickel for every hour I’ve put in here watching it, well, I would have a lot of nickels,’ Johnson says. ‘The best thing about it is that when we built our house here my three sons would always want to come straight home from any college vacations, and they’ve all liked it so much that they’ve ended up living nearby. I really enjoy having everybody around, the grandkids and all that.’

Proving ground

In his seminal guide Beaches of O’ahu, beach expert and former Honolulu deputy fire chief and lifeguard John Clark writes that Banzai Pipeline got its name in December 1961 when surf filmmaker Bruce Brown and California surfers Phil Edwards and Mike Diffenderfer were scouting out surf sites on the North Shore. Edwards, establishing himself as one of Pipeline’s pioneers, caught some waves there, and the three guys took the cue from an open trench that had been dug for an underground pipeline repair along Kamehameha Highway. They combined it with the name of the beach that fronted the wave–Banzai Beach (coined by WWII military personnel)–and so was born the Banzai Pipeline. The wave made its media debut in Brown’s fourth surf film, Surfing Hollow Days.

‘I think God loves
surfers. A lot morepeople should be resting in peace.’

Now, 45 years later, it has a beer, movies, and, well, a posse named after it. It hosts half a dozen contests each year, including the Pipeline Masters, the third jewel of the Triple Crown of Surfing and the longest-running event in professional surfing (36 years). When it comes to Pipe, the line between commemoration and commercialization is probably as thin as the one between triumph and terror.

As the wave’s popularity snowballed, so did the number of guys in the lineup. Professional surfers get paid for their images that get printed in the magazines and consequently, they can’t pass up the photo op.

‘Their sponsors tell them to go out and get the meanest, deepest, gnarliest barrel. They’re getting paid to risk their lives taking unnecessary chances,’ says lifeguard Rick Williams, a 25-year veteran at ‘Ehukai’s Tower 26. He regularly sees surfers taking off on waves that otherwise would be considered undesirable. ‘It’s sad that money has taken over common sense and regard for personal safety.’

On an epic day at Pipe, there can be more than 70 surfers in the lineup, and every one of them wants to get barreled. But in an arena where mistakes–even if they’re unintentional–have serious consequences, some kind of order is imperative. Kala Alexander and the Wolfpak, Braden Dias and the Pipeline Posse, Kai Garcia and the Hawaiian Water Patrol and the boys from Da Hui: On land, their loose associations overlap; in the water their circles converge into a peer-regulated pecking order. At Pipeline, they are the law.

‘It’s the Hollywood of the beach. Everybody’s watching. It can make or break your career,’ says Wolfpak leader Kala Alexander, explaining why there’s so much vanity and aggression in the lineup. He says the Wolfpak encourages the kind of respect he learned growing up on Kaua’i. It’s a polite deference to those whose unwritten next-in-line quotient (loosely determined by unique surfing variables like proximity to the peak, time put in at the break–at Pipe, often measured in years, wave count, etc.) is higher than yours.

‘It can smash you and give you the worst day of your life. I don’t want to see anybody get hurt out there. Maybe you’re in over your head. Maybe you need to paddle in,’ he continues.

The Pipeline watchdog breaks it down like this: ‘You don’t drop in on anybody, you wait your turn. You have to give everyone respect. The older guys come first. Whoever’s in the spot, that’s whose name is going to be yelled. If the wave goes to Marcus, and the whole crew’s yelling ‘Marcus,’ and your name is not Marcus, you better not be going on that wave.’

He says it’s not about intimidation, but a way to manage people who try to get more than their share.

The Pipeline Posse is also there to keep the peace. ‘When it comes down to it, we are all just trying to watch out for each other and keep Pipeline a safer wave to surf–instead of a dangerous free-for-all with bodies flying all over the place and blade-like boards spearing people,’ says intrepid Pipe surfer Flynn Novak, one of the group’s principal members.

‘To really commit to a wave at Pipe you basically have to turn all instincts off and go crazy for those few seconds, because if you were still in touch with your natural instincts in those crucial moments of commitment, your brain would tell you ‘Hell, no!’ and you’d either not catch the wave or hesitate at the top and get sucked over in the lip,’ he explains.

‘Sometimes when you’re hustling for position on a wave you don’t really want, that’s when the hesitation comes into play and it’ll mess you up–or it could actually save your life. There’s a huge mental barrier but a very fine line between success and catastrophe when we’re surfing Pipeline,’ Novak continues. ‘And that’s the main reason a lot of people who are out there shouldn’t be–simply because they aren’t mentally ready. It’s like they want a wave, but they don’t really want a wave out there, and that’s when dangerous situations usually occur.’

‘It’s all about commitment, every step of the way. Any bit of hesitation, you’re going to get cracks,’ adds Alexander. ‘The time for fooling around is not right there. You have to give it everything you’ve got and go. That’s just the way it is. You have to go. You have to give yourself the chance to make it.’

On guard

Tower 26 isn’t where it used to be. The same weather pattern that heaped 43 consecutive days of rain on O’ahu last spring blocked the groundswells that usually restore the sand removed by the winter surf in front of the tower at ‘Ehukai Beach Park. So the lifeguards moved their perch 20 yards westward so it wouldn’t get washed out to sea.

‘There’s Sunset Beach Elementary, there’s Kam Highway, and then you have this watery Parthenon in the midst of it all.’

‘Everything’s just a little unusual this year. The beach has been totally reconfigured by Mother Nature,’ explains Pipe guard Rick Williams. He and his tower mates Johnny Angel and Tom Jenny know too well that Mother Nature always has the last word.

There have only been a few good days at Pipe so far this season, prompting Novak to call it ‘a Rocky Point winter’ in honor of the nearby smaller waves he’s recognized for boosting off of. To his father Walt, also a North Shore surfer, it’s a relief that the waves that ‘heave like miscreants of nature like acre-thick hydro-ogres headed for hard coral,’ as he once wrote in Surfing magazine, aren’t rearing their ugly heads. For the friends and relatives of Pipe chargers, when west swells rise, so do anxiety levels.

‘The real danger is going over the falls, hitting your head and going unconscious,’ Williams says, describing the impossible volume of water compressed at the impact zone and the reef crevices and lava spikes just a few feet below.

Tahitian big wave surfer Malik Joyeux and resident water photographer Jon Mozo both drowned at Pipeline in 2005, two shocking accidents that showed even the most seasoned watermen are at risk.

‘People see videos of Kelly Slater and Andy Irons ripping [Pipe] apart. They make it look easy,’ adds lieutenant lifeguard Pat Kelly. He also warns ‘the whole reef gets bombarded’ along the stretch of beach from Rock Piles to Rocky Point, advising extra caution at spots the lifeguards can’t see.

According to the Division of Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services, there were 1,083 minor first aid assists, 66 first aid assists, 49 rescues and 2 drownings at ‘Ehukai Beach Park in 2005. The beach had an annual attendance of 357,462.

Williams estimates the ‘Ehukai guards make an average of 25 rescues each winter. ‘Half those people might have been able to make it back on their own, but the rest of them would have died.’

He says there are certain times–weekends, holidays–and certain behavior that the lifeguards monitor extra closely: ‘What’s the color of their skin, are they dragging a cooler of beer with them, do they have a Wham-O bodyboard or shoe fins? Those are the guys you talk to right away.’

And what does he say? ‘This is not a day for beginners.’ Then he’ll suggest an alternative place to go. Diplomatically, he’ll add, ‘For your own safety. And you’ll have more fun. You go out here and you might die.’

Cunningham emphasizes that Pipe surfers are experts, conditioned by training and years of experience. Thinking on it, he continues, ‘It says something about the overall fitness level of the surfers that more of these athletes don’t get hurt. It’s amazing. Guys are just getting rag-dolled and dragged along the bottom.

‘I think God loves surfers,’ he says. ‘A lot more people should be resting in peace.’

Endless winter

from top to bottom: Kala Alexander,
Flynn Novak, Jamie O’Brien, John John
Florence, Braden Dias, Gerry Lopez,
Mike Stewart, Derek Ho
photos: Sean Davey

Maybe it’s the negatively charged ions, maybe it’s being enveloped in the arms of Mother Ocean, the primordial source of life, maybe it’s the sensation of being propelled by nature. Surfers will tell you that surfing’s adrenaline rush exceeds any artificial high and the payoff is instant. For the guys who get the big barrels at Pipe it’s the same effect, but exponentially greater.

Ask any of its devotees: 10-time Pipeline bodysurfing champion and nine-time bodyboarding world champion Mike Stewart; multiple-Pipe Masters champions Derek Ho, Tom Carroll, Kelly Slater and Andy Irons; a long list of underground chargers including Braden Dias, Tamayo Perry, Marcus Hickman and Jason Frederico; up-and-coming backyard groms like John John Florence.

While young surfers like Jamie O’Brien attempt maneuvers and antics that were unthinkable 10 years ago (for fun, he and his buddies paddled into 6-foot Pipe on an inflatable trampoline), they still look to the veterans for discipline and soul.

‘They set the pace because they had so much style,’ O’Brien says about Gerry Lopez and inaugural Pipe Master Jeff Hakman. ‘You gotta have style when you surf Pipe. It’s a stylish kind of wave.’

What’s his style? He pauses. ‘Weird,’ he says. ‘I fit into the wave.’

And he’s not just talking about the roomy stand-up barrels. ‘I surf Pipe from one to 20 feet,’ he says earnestly. ‘It’s the best wave in the world.’

Mythologically hewn, Pipeline represents the eternal dawn of opportunity: It takes those who commit on an incredible ride before spitting them out, spilling to shore and receding back into the sea for yet another go.

‘To get that big barrel at Pipeline remains one of those ultimate challenges,’ Hoogsteden offers. ‘Dreams, goals, ambitions–Pipeline crystallizes all of that.’

The shape of things to come

When Pipe is firing, surfers arrive before dawn. Their anticipation hovers in the pervading sea spray, the namesake of the beach park–‘Ehukai–that the churning wave calls home. All day long, majestic peaks bow to the green hillside of its stationary mauka neighbor, Pupukea Paumalu. Backlit in the late afternoon, the waves turn a shimmering, translucent green, their lips tinted gold by the sun before it dips behind the distant silhouette of Ka’ena Point.

Stripped of its outer adornments, Pipeline’s cylindrical beauty is also a product of its environment. Here are some observations reported by James R. Walker in a 1974 University of Hawai’i James K.K. Look Laboratory of Oceanograpic Engineering study titled ‘Recreational Surf Parameters’:

• The site is located at the base of an extensive underwater ridge that points toward the northwest for approximately a mile.

• Reef slope: From 40 to 20 feet, 1:100; from 20 to 10 feet, the bottom becomes very regular and smooth, as if it were sand-blasted, on a 1:20 slope; shallower than 10 feet, the reef becomes broken with spikes of coral and large holes. (The holes are sand-filled during most of the year, but the large waves annually erode several hundred feet of the beach, exposing the spikes.)

• Channel: 35 feet deep, 1,000 feet long (seaward) and 600 feet wide

• Currents: A strong, wave-induced longshore current flows toward the east in the breaker zone; a rip current exists 800 feet toward the west and a smaller one 600 feet toward the east.

• Velocity: On 12-foot surf, 32 feet per second

• Peel angle: On 12-foot surf, 40 to 45 degrees (Pipeline is believed to have one of the most acute peel angles which can be ridden for its size.)

*Special thanks to Dore Minatodani at the Hawaiian Collection, University of Hawai’i at Manoa Library for her assistance