I tried surf bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.
They call the North Shore of Oahu "country." Lush dairy farms abut the ocean, and the smells of manure and sugarcane rise from the furrowed fields along the narrow Kam Highway. The North Shore catches the northeast trade winds, which blow in from North America to sway coconut palm fronds and erase footprints on the beach at night, leaving fresh windrows in the sand by morning. In the dark, the whoosh of the trades can be mistaken for the sound of the breaking surf, which rumbles like a distant train. It's the rumble that reminds one: More than country moods, more than warm winds, the North Shore is big waves.
The North Shore lures surfers the way Hollywood lures actresses, their heads full of dreams of glory. The surfers get off the plane in Honolulu in December and, with their boards under their arms, head for the North Shore. There they rent beach houses along the 12 miles from Kawela to Haleiwa, less for the pleasures of oceanfront living than for the utility of it: To check the surf each morning, all they have to do is raise the bamboo blinds. They don't need cars, are indifferent to phones and avoid shoes. They take only night jobs or those with employers who accept the Six-foot Rule: When the surf hits six feet, the employee hits the surf. They may do it at Sunset Beach, with its classic waves; Waimea Bay, with its towering surf; Rocky Point; Velzyland; Off-the-Wall; Pupukea; Gas Chambers; or others. For more than 20 years, North Shore winters have been a rite of surfing. The surfers keep coming back, year after year, in search of the perfect wave. If it exists, it will break somewhere on the North Shore.
Some surfers believe they've already found the perfect wave. They call it the Banzai Pipeline—Banzai for the attitude one must adopt to surf it, and Pipeline for the long, hollow tubes it forms as it breaks. People line the beach just to watch the Pipeline roll in, and they stay until sunset, because it's difficult to turn away. One starts to go but then looks back for just one more wave. On a good day eight-and 10-foot tubes tumble in, hour after hour. The Pipeline's waves erupt just 75 yards from shore, with manes of spindrift that become miniature rainbows and make the surf seem to sizzle like a good fire. On a spectacular day the waves are twice that high and may peel off for 100 yards or more, the disintegration of the curl chasing the formation down the coast. And if a wave "closes out," or collapses, it looks and sounds like an avalanche.
Other waves around the world form tubes—Uluwatu, near Bali, has cleaner curls than the Pipeline does—and waves come bigger. The surf at Sunset—and Waimea and Haleiwa and Kaena, all on the North Shore—is often bigger than at the Pipeline. But no place else has the Pipeline's combination of form and size, and no other wave matches the Pipeline's power in winter. There isn't a significant piece of land in the 2,000 miles between the Aleutians and Oahu, so every North Pacific low-pressure system is felt on the North Shore, which is canted toward that stormy Alaskan archipelago. The tidal wave that killed 159 people on the North Shore in 1946 resulted from an earthquake in the Aleutians.
Because there's no continental shelf around the Hawaiian Islands, ocean swells are untempered as they approach the shore. At the Pipeline, traveling at an open-water speed of 25 mph, they meet a fossilized coral reef a mere 500 yards from land. Oceanographers call this spot the "10-fathom terrace"; it trips the swells, shaping them and causing them to lunge forward until they hit the inside reef, which is only 100 yards offshore and a mere 10 feet below the surface. This second reef curls the swells into the tubes that about 15 seconds later come crashing down—after having provided surfers with the momentum for their ride. The challenge of riding a board while completely enclosed by the tube is what surfing the Pipeline is all about.
"I've surfed the best waves all over the world, and there's nothing as awesome as the Pipeline," says Mark Richards of Australia, the champion professional surfer the last three years. "It completely closes over you and you're inside this huge, green barrel. Water is rushing and gurgling over your head and the whole ocean is shaking. All you can see is a little hole of sunlight at the end of the tube, and you just hold your breath and pray it doesn't close before you get there."
Surfers are rarely so reckless as to charge into the tubes without watching them a while—mind surfing, they call it. Early of a Pipeline morning they'll squat on the beach, their boards stuck bow-first into the sand. The surfers quietly study the waves—how they break, the time interval between them, the frequency of the sets, the onshore and offshore currents, the riptides, the configuration of the coast that day. And because the currents are so strong at the Pipeline, even getting out to the lineup, the area where the swells begin to curl and the surfers straddle their boards as they wait for rides, can be difficult. There's no channel, so the surfer must wait for a lull between sets to paddle to the lineup. If the lull isn't quite calm enough or it doesn't last, white water will hit the surfer head on and steal his board from under him. Often he must compensate for the current by paddling out diagonally to the lineup. Once there, he may wait 10, 20 even 30 minutes for the wave he wants or can catch. "Outside!" a surfer cries when a big set approaches, the way whalers used to cry "Thar she blows!" Then he flops on the board and paddles as hard and fast as he can, trying to match the wave's speed so they unite gently, like relay runners making a smooth baton pass. He must be at the lip of the wave at the moment it curls. If he's too late, it will roll past him; too early, it will break on top of him.
A wipeout isn't the same as falling from a diving board into a swimming pool. For one thing, because a steep wave sucks the water off the already shallow bottom, the depth in the trough may only be three feet—the Pipeline's greatest danger. For another, the wave will almost certainly come crashing down on the surfer, at a force estimated at 1.4 tons per square foot for a 15-footer. Surfers call the falling lip of a wave the guillotine. It can snap surfboards in two, crack necks, spines and femurs and slam bodies against the coral bottom.
And once a surfer survives the free fall, the guillotine and the coral, then, pinned to the bottom, he faces the scariest part of all: those desperate seconds of black and airless turmoil as the surf thunders over him. Eight or 10 seconds is the longest he'll be held down; it will seem like an eternity. The turbulence scrapes him against the coral, and while his arms protect his head, his torso is churned and whipped, like a rag doll with a fire hose trained on it. After the wave passes, the surfer still isn't home free. When he explodes frantically to the surface, the foam may be too thick for him to get his head into the air. Many are the surfers who have survived the free fall, the guillotine, the contact and the crush, only to suck in a lungful of foam.
The coral at the Pipeline isn't jagged—9,000 years of swirling sand have rounded the edges—but it has craters and nooks that can snatch at limbs and trap bodies. Surfers have been crammed into holes and shoved underneath ledges by the turbulence; disoriented, they lose track of which way is up. That's the Pipeline at its most terrifying. Thus the expression "planted by the Pipe" can almost be literal; the churning water displaces tremendous amounts of sand, which may swirl over anything wedged under a ledge, performing a sort of burial at sea. North Shore surfers whisper about strange disappearances at the Pipeline, and imply that the bodies are still down there.
Though there have been only four documented deaths of Pipeline surfers in the last decade, ghoulish Pipeline stories, many exaggerated, abound. Some are light: the sandbar called Gums, so named after a surfer lost his teeth to it; the legend of the phantom board, found one glassy summer day floating outside the 10-fathom terrace, covered with seaweed, as if its rider had vanished seasons ago. Others are heavy: the 16-year-old whose board washed ashore one night in 1981 and whose mangled body floated ashore two days later; and Shiggy, the popular Peruvian, who went back for one more wave after he had just gotten the best tube of his life. They had to pry his body off the rocks.
Says Steve Pezman, a member of the publishing advisory board of Surfer magazine and a Pipeline watcher for 25 years, "The Pipeline has such a presence; it's so intimidating, so ominous, that it's like cheating nature when you survive. It takes some kind of animal drive to surf it. You've got to want it bad—more than anything else in the world. You just grit your teeth and paddle out into it."
Fred Van Dyke, 52, an English and swimming teacher, has been surfing big waves for 35 years. He listens to the Pipeline at night. His small house, a sort of A-frame on stilts with a sign on the steps that says OLD SURF STAR'S HOME, is on the beach. Van Dyke doesn't surf much anymore, but he remembers. "When the big waves come, they're at 15- to 18-second intervals," he says. "Boom! Shakes your house. Boom! Shakes your house. The humidity is usually high, and you sweat; you sweat all night, through two or three pillowcases. Your whole body's wet. You know you've got to get some sleep, but you can't sleep because you hear that pounding, and you know you've got to meet it in the morning. When you get up you look out there and see those huge curls, and you look for excuses: It's too big, it's too windy, it's too choppy. But you know inside that it can be surfed. So you paddle out, and you're committed. You knew you had to do it.
"Once, after a day of surfing with a buddy, we were walking out of the surf and we looked at each other, and he said, 'Wow, this is great.' I said, 'Yeah, this is great. What is it?' He said, 'You know.' And I said, 'Yeah.' It was that we were safe on the beach and had another night to drink beer and go to sleep. That's it. The best part about riding the Pipeline is the end of the day when you're walking up the beach with your board under your arm and you're safe for another day. That's the ultimate thrill. And I'm not the only one that feels that way."
Possibly the best indication of the allure of the Pipeline is that many of its pioneers still live near it; not only Van Dyke, who has the body of a well-muscled teen-ager and plans to live to be 106, but others, all in their 40s and early 50s, like Peter Cole, 51, a computer systems analyst for the federal government in Honolulu. Cole lives on the beach, too. Before wet suits were invented, he and Van Dyke surfed in one-piece long underwear they bought at Goodwill Industries for 25¢. Cole was the one who would look at a monstrous wave and say, "That can be ridden," when everyone else was saying, "No way," and then paddle out and prove it. North Coasters say he can still swim against the rip the way others swim with it.
Many of the young surfers on the North Shore today have never heard of Van Dyke or Cole or the others, nor have they heard the stories of the high times these men had back in the '50s and early '60s. "We all had old panel trucks with mattresses in them," says Van Dyke. "We'd camp at the Pipeline in the trucks, sort of park them behind a dune, but the surf would come up and wash under the trucks, and sometimes in them. So we'd take the mattresses out and get out mosquito nets and climb up into the trees and build a little platform with two-by-fours. We'd sleep up there, and the surf would come up to the trees. You could feel the surge when it went through, feel the whole tree sway. We used to sit up there and watch the tubes at the Pipeline and say, 'Jeez, maybe in 2,000 years guys will be surfing these waves.' We lived in those trucks and the trees for the whole winter of '57, and no one thought of riding a board there."
It didn't take 2,000 years for someone to ride the Pipeline; it was more like four. His name was Phil Edwards. Raised in Oceanside, Calif., Edwards rode his first wave at 10 in 1948, on a spruce board that weighed 75 pounds, to his 98. He had to roll it down the beach because he couldn't carry it. In high school he slept on his surfboard at night, the way boys sleep with things they love, like dogs and footballs. He went surfing every morning and arrived at school breathless and with wet hair. He was the "kid" among the surfers, because in those days they were guys who looked as if they belonged on Muscle Beach. By the time Edwards was 14, he was the best.
Today, at 43, he still looks like a skinny 14-year-old, though he has the well-defined upper body that surfers get from so many hours paddling after waves. His shorts are droopy; his big toes jut through holes in his white socks; his hair, now silvery, is tousled, as though he has just rushed into homeroom from the beach. He uses words like "neat" and "bitchin' " and "radical," and when he's really stoked, his voice breaks like a kid's.
Edwards hasn't surfed regularly in 10 years, but he's still drawn to the ocean. Now he sails catamarans and designs their hulls and foils. "I shape things," he says, describing what he does with an emphasis that gives the impression he would consider it pretentious to call himself a designer. "I am very good at creating shapes. I see shapes in my mind, and I can make them happen." Indeed, in the '60s he shaped a culture.
"See these hairs right here?" says Allan Seymour, 38, a surfer for 24 years. He rubs a finger lightly over a patch high on his cheekbone. "As soon as I was old enough to shave, I didn't shave here because Phil Edwards didn't."
Edwards was never the boldest on a board, just the most beautiful. When he talks about his Pipeline days and North Shore winters, his eyes grow almost misty, and he taps his heart gently with a fist, as if to say, "This is how special those days are to me."
"I went there for the first time when I was still in high school, at Christmas vacation," he says. "My mommy put me on a plane—this was before jets—and said, 'If you're not back in three weeks I'm coming over to get you.' On my second day there I hitchhiked out to the North Shore. It was fabulous. I went there every winter after that.
"Hardly anyone surfed the North Shore then, and none of us knew anything about the Pipeline. All we did was mind-surf it. We thought that if you got crushed by one of those tubes you'd die for sure. We didn't know that the bottom was a much worse enemy. Nobody knew. Somebody would say, 'Let's go out there and ride that,' and he'd get, 'Oh, no, no, you'll get killed doing that.'
"The Pipeline is a geographic anomaly. It's a spectacle of nature. That reef is radical. Those waves haven't seen a thing shallower than a mile deep for 2,000 miles, and they come blasting into that coral wall and the top of the ocean just flops off. The result is a beautiful, beautiful wave. If God designed a wave for surfers, he couldn't do any better than the Pipeline."
Excited now, Edwards jumps up in the opulent house in Capistrano Beach, Calif. where he's house-sitting. He snaps into his surfing stance, gesturing at the modest waves beyond the window, pretending the wall behind him is a wave. He gingerly feels the wall with his fingertips to assure himself it isn't closing out on him. He rearranges his feet on the imaginary board, moving lightly, as if the floor will heave him off if the shift is too sudden. "I may have been the first on the Pipeline, but I was just a stylist and was sort of hanging on for dear life," he says. "There were a lot better surfers at the Pipeline than me, and most of them were goofy-foots. They'd stand with their right foot forward, like this, which is a big advantage at the Pipeline because the wave breaks to the left. That way they're looking right at the wave and can see what it's doing. A regular-foot like me has to surf with his back to the wave at the Pipeline."
That first ride in 1961 was historic, but not spectacular. The boards were much longer then—about 10 feet compared to the current seven-footers used at the Pipeline—which made turning difficult and getting tubed all but impossible. What Edwards did was make the wave: paddle out, take off down its face, turn in and ride it to the beach. Some surfers suggest Edwards' wasn't even the first ride there; after all, when Captain Cook "discovered" the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 he was greeted by surfing natives on huge teak boards. There are even Polynesian surfers immortalized by petroglyphs in lava rocks near the Pipeline. Who's to say that none of them ever surfed the Pipeline?
Says Edwards, "For 20 years people have been saying to me, 'You weren't the first. Some ancient Hawaiian king probably rode it on a log centuries ago, naaaa-naaaa.' Well,——them; I was the first. I dragged a bunch of guys down there that day. I wanted somebody to hold my hand; I admit it. They all had the chance. They were all tougher guys than me. I don't claim to be a macho man, but I did it and they didn't, so there.
"I had an experience recently that made me realize how much that day is still with me. I walked into this store, and a guy ahead of me just let these double doors slam in my face. He was kind of burly, had a beard, you know—Mr. Tough Guy. I just thought, 'Oh brother, one of those.' Then I thought, 'You're not so tough. I was the first guy to ride the Pipeline.'
"What I don't understand is that kids surf the Pipeline for fun now. I mean, we thought it was a death defying deal, and they do it for fun! I'm surprised more people haven't died there. The last time I surfed the Pipeline was 1969. I was glad when I was finally getting too old. I could say, 'I'm not going to risk my life like this anymore.' "
In the late 70s Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans arrived and went crazy at the Pipeline, surfing with an aggressiveness some regulars resented. And with the trepidation barrier broken, the Pipeline was being surfed in droves. Because there isn't room for two surfers on any one pipe, competition for the waves was intense and often unfriendly. Intimidation, both psychological and physical, became a part of surfing the Pipeline.
The toughest and smartest surfer got the waves, the way the biggest pup in a litter gets the bone; in fact, "dog" became the tag for a surfer who stole waves by taking off in front of another. "Idiots were falling out of the sky on top of you," says one surfer, "and it got so if you stole anyone's wave, you'd better be prepared to be worked over." There were even fistfights in the water, the surfers straddling their boards while they duked it out. And there were racial overtones: locals, the euphemism for Polynesian-blooded Hawaiians, versus haoles (pronounced HOWlies, meaning outsiders, or whites, whether Hawaiians or not) versus foreigners. Pipeline feuds contributed to the already sorry North Shore crime rate. The situation saddened the pioneers, who could remember the days when there were enough waves to go around and there still was camaraderie in the water.
But such goings-on weren't inconsistent with the surfers' casual every-man-for-himself approach to life. They have always seen themselves as escapists and mavericks. Timothy Leary, the drug culture guru, once said. "Everything is made of waves, and surfers are mutants, throw-aheads of time," and the surfers liked that. They are fond of saying they are like the waves themselves: No two are the same. But it's not really true; it just seems that way because they're too drifty to get it together.
There's a disdain for competition among surfers, because they see their sport as a sort of free-form artistry. The early surfing events were called expression sessions, with no judges to criticize form and daring. The surfers figured whoever had the most fun was the real winner. It's still considered slightly un-cool to win a contest; at the least, surfers don't take losing very hard.
But they're not without a competitive spirit and they itch for recognition, which creates a problem. Surfers have always been glory hounds. Oh how they love pictures of themselves! Even the coolest of the cool will turn into a hot dog at the sight of a camera. When Edwards first surfed the Pipeline, he was filmed from the beach by moviemaker Bruce Brown, who shot the footage for one of his early surfing films. Surfing Hollow Days, a prelude to his classic The Endless Summer. It wouldn't be impugning Edwards' motives to suggest that the movie camera inspired him to greatness on that historic day.
The first surfer to stand clearly above all the others at the Pipeline was Butch Van Artsdalen, although overall he wasn't nearly the surfer Edwards was. "During my time Butch was really the King of the Pipeline," says Edwards. "He had it all over me because he was self-destructive. I was a chicken, but he had the kamikaze attitude you need to ride the Pipeline."
They called him Black Butch. He liked to bar-fight, and he liked to take direct hits on the head from 20-foot waves—at least, he would surface smiling. He became a Pipeline lifeguard and saved many lives. Unfortunately, his own wasn't one of them. He died in Wahiawa Hospital in 1979 of cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism. He had his friends with him when he went out, smiling, into a hepatic coma, a beer in hand. His ashes were scattered in the Pipeline lineup. A funeral train of 40 surfers on their boards circled the floating ashes and tossed flower leis on the spot.
For a couple of years in the late '60s Jock Sutherland was the undisputed ace of the Pipeline. Raised on the North Shore, Sutherland, a switch-foot, was more than a Pipeline specialist; in fact, he was the first—and probably last—surfer since Edwards to be considered clearly the best in the world. Sutherland was known for dropping acid before he took on the Pipeline, but he was also intelligent and somehow stayed in at least tentative touch with reality. Says his brother-in-law, Mark Cunningham, a Pipeline lifeguard who is probably the best body surfer alive today, "Other guys would lose it for a while, but with Jock it was controlled craziness. He always knew what he was doing."
Sutherland enlisted in the Army in 1969, and after he came back to the North Shore in 1971, he never regained his form. He still lives there. He spent this season in a cast from hip to ankle, after breaking his femur on the rocks at a spot called Jocko's, named after him. He was the first to surf against those rocks.
Then there was Jose Angel, the most fearless if not the most skilled Pipeline surfer. Of Filipino-Chinese ancestry, Angel was an elementary school principal in Waialua, and a semiprofessional boxer and wrestler. He didn't get high on drugs; he got high on nitrogen. He was hooked on scuba diving for black coral, which lies 150 and more feet down.
Angel first came to the North Shore from Santa Cruz, Calif. with Van Dyke in 1955. For the first few years, the Pipeline scared Angel, but then he seemed to change. "He was the guy the photographers started following," says Van Dyke. "There was no limit to what he would go out in. There wasn't a wave he wouldn't take off on. He would wipe out in all of them, and it wasn't with grace or finesse. He had a way of bailing off the board, doing a backflip and falling 20 feet to the trough. People still talk about his wipeouts."
But the years took their toll on Angel. He got the bends numerous times while scuba diving, and it affected him physically. He had marital problems, and they affected him emotionally. He began having a recurring nightmare that he was caged underwater and his mother was a shark trying to eat him. One day in 1976 he went diving off the island of Maui and lost track of the boat and had to swim eight hours and some 13 miles to reach the island of Molokai, where he climbed the cliffs on the shoreline to reach civilization. When he got back to the North Shore, he read an account of his death in a newspaper.
The report was only a few weeks premature. To sink faster, coral divers often jump into the water cradling two heavy rocks like babies. On his final dive the heavily weighted Angel misjudged the depth in the area; what he thought was 250 feet was later measured at 325. His body was never found.
Rick Grigg, 44, now an oceanographer with the University of Hawaii, was with Angel that day, but Grigg doesn't believe Angel was reckless—let alone self-destructive. Grigg feels a shark may have gotten him. He talks of Angel indirectly: "You need people who are willing to push the limits, so others can follow. They make it possible for others to go out there with style. They'll go out on a 30-foot day, take off, slide down the face and wipe out, but some other guy who has the finesse to pull it off will say, 'Hmm, that's possible.' Maybe until then he would have never tried it. He might have sat on the beach thinking about it for the rest of his life."
Most surfers are followers. The Pipeline went untouched for years. After Edwards surfed it, he looked over his shoulder and saw three of his buddies paddling toward the lineup. It's the same today. On a particularly nasty morning the Pipeline may be empty; finally, one surfer will screw up the courage to tackle it. Then there will be a swarm.
Once in a while a surfer like Edwards comes along with the perfect style, just the right blend of easy skill in the water and laid-backness on land. The other surfers want to be just like him. Imitation is the rule in surfing. Equipment manufacturers are aware of this. Virtually all of the pros, stars or not, endorse surfboards and beachwear; their photos are featured in the ads and articles in surfing magazines. The idolatry is almost childlike. Everyone has a mentor, even Edwards, whose guru is an irascible old North Shore character named Flippy Hoffman, who has surfed the 40-foot waves at Kaena Point, or so the story goes.
Gerry Lopez, 33, of mixed Japanese, German and Spanish descent, is considered the best surfer ever to come down the Pipeline. Like no surfer since Edwards, Lopez, who is 5'8" and 140 pounds, has become a cult figure. He's the only surfer to have parlayed the Pipeline into a living, and a handsome one at that. He endorses Pipeline-label clothing, makes promotional surfing expeditions to exotic, tropical spots and recently finished making a movie in Spain—he costarred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. Lopez suspects he was cast because the director, John Milius, is a surfer and wanted a kindred soul around during the six months' shooting.
Rory Russell, who has been surfing the Pipeline half his 28 years and has ridden it as well as anyone over the last half dozen, doesn't shave under his lower lip because Lopez doesn't shave under his. "Gerry Lopez is my idol, my hero and the greatest surfer that ever surfed the Pipeline," says Russell.
Lopez, too, has his idols: the North Shore pioneers. "I look at those guys and think how great they were," he says. "They remind me of the mountain men of the Old West. Those North Shore guys were real water men."
But Lopez isn't a follower. He's one of the few remaining surfers to whom the pastime is still more of an art than a sport. A native of Honolulu, he moved from the North Shore to Maui in 1974 to escape the crowd—surfers, in particular. "I've never seen so many people on the beach," he said recently upon observing a relative handful. His appearances at the Pipeline have been spotty since 1975, but he hasn't really left it. He's part owner of a three-story cedar house smack-dab on the Pipeline; the two rooms on the second floor are his. "I can always come back here on special days and get a few waves," Lopez says. "That's really all I need now. That seems like enough."
Lopez, a goofy-foot, is the only surfer ever to make the Pipeline look easy. Never the most radical, he's still the best when the tubes are 10 to 12 feet and perfect. He has a remarkable ability to stay cool in the pocket. He has been filmed inside long tubes casually wiping the spray from his eyes. "The faster I go out there, the slower things seem to happen," he says.
But Lopez has taken his lumps. His board once gave him two black eyes, and another time he was unable to walk for two weeks because his tailbone was cracked after a free fall that ended in two feet of water in the trough. He laughs at the notion that he's the alltime king of the Pipeline. "The king of the Pipeline is the wave," he says. "The best anyone can do is survive it."
But that's exactly it: What makes Lopez different from the other Mr. Pipelines is that he got away with it. Says Edwards, "I know Gerry. I see him all the time, and we don't even talk about that place. But he must have some secret. He doesn't seem to me like any foolhardy daredevil. I think he must have figured out something nobody else ever knew."
Lopez chuckles at that notion. "The whole trick is catching the wave at the right place at the right moment," he says. "It sets up the whole ride. If I've figured out anything different, that's it. It seemed obvious to me. It's just a matter of being in touch with it. There's virtually an 'X' out there in the water to tell you where to catch the wave. I paddle around, and when I see a swell coming, I go right for the X. The wave and I meet right there, and I take off and catch it, while the other guys turn and see that I'm gone and just say, 'That——.'
"But what really makes the difference," he adds, "is learning to stay away from the waves that can hurt you."
One Sunday last December, the swells at the Pipeline were rising higher than the horizon. White-caps rolled over the outside reef, and by the time the waves reached the lineup they were inconsistent and threatening. Lopez sat in the living room of his apartment in the three-story house—called the Pipeline Hilton by surfers—with one eye on the Bengals-49ers game on television and the other on the sea. Occasionally he would walk to the balcony and peer between the coconut palms at the surf. No one was in the lineup, but surfers were crouched on the beach, watching and waiting.
All morning no one dared to go out. Lopez continued to watch football, lying on the couch, so relaxed that every breeze from the balcony threatened to roll him onto the floor. He smoked a joint, only passingly interested in the game, and never took his eyes off the waves for more than a minute or so. Finally, one surfer went into the water; three others followed. "Cannon fodder," Lopez muttered. "I might have thought about going out 10 years ago, but no way now. I wouldn't even consider it. I can wait. There will be a better day. I don't need to take those chances. I don't go for the 50-50s anymore. The 75-25s O.K., but not the 50-50s."
If it had mattered to Lopez to prove that he was still Mr. Pipeline, he would have been first out there, of course. How they would have talked about that; how that would have perpetuated his reputation. But perfect surfers don't have the same competitive drive that most other athletes do. What makes Lopez surf-idol material is that he has just the right amount of indifference and just the right amount of esthetic awareness. It wouldn't have looked neat to surf those imperfect waves.
There had been a lot of commotion that week because of the Masters, a professional contest held at the Pipeline each December for the past 10 years and one of the events on the International Pro Surfing circuit. Though he has won the event twice, Lopez hadn't entered this time. The idea of surfing whatever waves broke on the day chosen by some promoter displeased him; besides, he wasn't really interested in having his surfing judged. Late on the afternoon before the Masters, he watched some of the pros and semipros, as well as a few hot young local surfers, riding the Pipe. The waves were mellow six-footers. Mind-surfers squatted in the sand, their erect boards casting long shadows in the low sun. There were a few empty green beer bottles and rusty cans strewn about the beach. An old yellow Lab stalked a piece of driftwood. A girl wearing a bikini that could have fit inside a walnut shell high-stepped in the soft sand. Coconut palms leaned toward the ocean, their roots exposed by the storm tides. There was a pile of decaying palm fronds and two broken surfboards, like snapped jousting poles.
Lopez came down from the patio of the Pipeline Hilton wearing a red wetsuit vest, his signature surfboard under his arm. "Got to get one good ride before the sun goes down," he said, trotting toward the surf. He paddled out to the lineup and caught a small wave as a warmup. He got tubed on his second ride, the only surfer to catch a tube in nearly an hour, but his board popped out of the white water without him when the tube closed out. "Lopez!" someone shouted from the beach, pointing toward him as he swam after it.
For the rest of the afternoon he caught ride after ride, many of them tubes. He caught many more waves than the others. One of his tube rides was so long and thrilling he must have heard harpsichord music inside it. It threatened to close out on him two or three times, but he tucked like a downhill skier and sped on, his form blurry through the clear wall of water, and was spit back into daylight the instant the wave crumbled. The sun, veiled by one last tube, set behind Kaena Point, but the surfers stayed out until the moon rose and lit up the sandbar under them. Later that week, when the moon was full, they would be surfing at 1 a.m.
The preliminary heats for the Masters, which eventually would be won by Australian pro Simon Anderson, had been held earlier in the week. The waves had been gnarly eight-to 10-footers, from the northwest, particularly dangerous conditions, because they broke directly on top of the reef and northwest swells tend to close out all at once. The toll was heavy that day: One surfer cut his head, and another gashed his knee on the reef; one Australian needed 150 stitches after the nose of his board struck him on his forehead, and a local Pipeline specialist broke an ankle.
The last of those victims is the epitome of the Pipeline surfer. Bruce Hansel moved to the North Shore four years ago, when he was 23. He had started surfing at nine in Florida, and he grew up reading about the Pipeline in surfing magazines—and idolizing Lopez ("He's an inspiration to us all"). During his high school years Hansel would drive to North Carolina with his surfboard to spend the summer at Cape Hatteras, which has the biggest waves in the East. He was also a goofy-foot, which further made him Pipeline material. "The only contest I ever really wanted to be in was the Masters," he said from an easy chair in his house on the beach. He was positioned so he could look out at the ocean. There was a jug of water and two kumquats on the end table at his elbow and a stereo speaker pointed at each ear. Hansel gazed down at his left leg, stretched before him and supported on bolsters from a couch. It was encased in a cast from thigh to toe. "It's always been my dream to surf the Pipeline and make it into the Masters," he said.
The Masters is an invitational, and his first year on the North Shore, 1977, Hansel was just another unknown from the East. Still, he lobbied his way into a slot as an alternate, which meant he was seeded somewhere about 50th, but didn't get into the field. It was the same the next year. In 1979 he was again an alternate, but this time he was allowed to participate. He was eliminated in his first heat. He was a non-participating alternate in 1980, but in 1981, after four years on the North Shore, he was recognized as a Pipeline regular and for the first time was invited as a full-fledged Masters contestant.
He opened his scrapbook and turned it to a page with a photo clipped from the National Enquirer of him taking off on a 15-foot wave. "That was the kind of wave that got me in the preliminaries," he said.
It was a 25-minute heat, and the surfers were to be judged on their three best rides. Hansel's first ride had been modest, but a good opener. His second had taken him all the way to the shore, and he was stoked as he paddled back out, knowing there were only a few minutes remaining in the heat but that a good ride would advance him. "There it came, a big set," he said. "I saw the wave I wanted. I might have let it go by, but being a contest I had to take it. It wasn't a very pretty wave; it was an ugly one, in fact, but I was still happy. I said, 'Yay, this is it, this is my big chance.' On the takeoff I really felt like this was what my life had been all about."
His turn down the face of the wave was a split second too slow. Said a fellow surfer, who watched from the water, "He hesitated, and he was done."
When the guillotine hit him, Hansel was hammered into his board like a nail into a two-by-four. The impact broke his ankle in three places. It required two pins in his ankle and two in his fibula to patch him up. "When I got out of surgery, I found out I'd gotten second in the heat because the wipeout was worth some points," he said. "Sitting in the hospital bed for the next two days, I kept thinking how close I'd been to making it."
At Hansel's plaster-covered foot was a wildly painted surfboard, which he had airbrushed himself. He airbrushes boards for a living at his small shop near Sunset Beach. "I'm very fortunate," he says. "I've got two art forms: surfing at the Pipeline and airbrushing. For the next few months I'll just concentrate on the one." By spring he hopes to be back on his board.
Says Fred Van Dyke, "Fame and fortune at the Pipeline. That's what lures a lot of kids out there, and they end up getting drilled." Bruce Hansel fared better than many.