Aloha, Respect & Wave of Consequence
By W. Knox Richardson
Gunslingers and matadors. Gurus and
wannabees. Beachboys and Hui. Surfers all — all seeking the perfect wave.
Like the Holy Grail, it is an endless dream that eternally haunts both angels
Whipped by a cultural compulsion to extend
man’s domain into the tubular blue depths of Neptune’s wrath, surfers from
around the world materialize at a place where injury to the flesh is expected
and no one earns respect without first conquering this wave of
It matters not how good you are but only how
good you might be, for perfection is fleeting. This is professional surfing
at its zenith. Judged by humans, there may be perfect scores but no perfect
rides. There is only the next heat and the chance — albeit seemingly
unattainable — of catching the perfect wave.
Aloha and welcome to the Rip Curl Pro Pipe
Masters at the Banzai Pipeline.
Known as the world’s most dangerous wave,
“Big Pipe” is seven seconds of cyclonic terror. At least six surfers have lost their lives here.
Most of all it is a theatrical force of nature, a turbulent stage for the
most coveted title in all surfdom — the final jewel in the Vans Triple Crown
of Surfing. Celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2005, the Pipe Masters is the
world’s longest-running pro surfing event and will be played out on Oahu’s
North Shore, Dec. 8 to 20.
During the annual winter pilgrimage to Oahu,
the Banzai Pipeline is Mecca to both Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP)
members and amateur surfers alike. Ocean swells from storms off the Alaskan coast
march over the Bering Sea and down the eastern Pacific to Hawaii. Coral reefs
amplify the wave energy (much like tsunamis) as they close in on the North
Shore. The best waves come from west swells while northerly waves bring chaos
Hawaiian surf legend Gerry Lopez first
opened up the break — then thought to be too dangerous to surf — in the
record winter of 1969. Once he set the standard for “shooting the tube” not
much else mattered in surfing. The rest would soon be history.
The pro riders that come here live up to the
competition’s name. The victors are truly masters of the Pipe, reaching the
pinnacle of their profession and, like the high priests of ancient Egypt, are
endowed with the soul of their craft. Legendary names like Gerry Lopez, Derek
and Michael Ho, Tom Carroll, Mark Richards, Dane Kealoha, Andy and Bruce Irons
and Kelly Slater are all past Pipe Masters champions.
The Pipeline has become the ultimate measure
of a surfer’s core — his heart, his mettle, his character and his soul.
Unlike any other sport — or for that matter any human endeavor requiring
skills, determination, expertise and fortitude — surfing and surfers demand
one thing and one thing only.
In a age where poker players share purses in
the millions and teenage golfers get as much in endorsements before their first
pro tournaments, hundreds of surfers descend on the Pipeline — Ground Zero —
risking life and limb for first-place prize money of less than $40,000. From
this place of honor, this hallowed arena of death or glory, comes the ultimate
paycheck — the respect of their peers.
What does respect mean to those who not only
survive but also defeat the competition, earning their place in the Pipeline
For Jamie O’Brien, also known as Jamie O,
the 22-year-old reigning 2004 Pipe Masters Champion, respect is central to
making professional surfing his life’s mission.
“In Hawaii, respect is also respect for
aloha, showing respect for land and the ocean. In the water, it means not
dropping in on another’s wave, showing respect for others means paying your
dues before you take on this wave of consequence.”
O’Brien should know, literally having
grown up at the Pipeline, his oceanfront house directly fronting the famous
wave. O’Brien might be compared with a young Tiger Woods. At age six, with two
years already in the water, Jamie O told his dad surfing was what he wanted to
do with his life, and after only four appearances in the Pipe Masters, he earned
his due last year.
Thirty years earlier, Jeff Crawford, a
little known surfer from the east coast of United States dropped in on the Pipe
Masters and earned the respect of locals and surfing celebrities alike.
Crawford, now 53, lives a few doors down the
beach from the Pipe near Rocky Point, a favorite surf spot for him still.
Crawford said, “You don’t get respect by
not giving respect.” He added, “But when I first got here, I was shown much
respect and aloha.”
The Banzai Pipeline is not just for
professionals. It is often the most crowded surf spot on Oahu, and perhaps the
world, during the Big Pipe months. Surfers of all nationalities and experience
appear at the Pipe to try their luck like high rollers drawn to the no-limit
crap tables of Las Vegas.
This is where the Pipeline’s informal
pecking order surfaces — a caste system really — and if not played out
correctly could cost a surfer a lot more than just a plane ticket home.
Should someone with just a couple years of
experience surf the Pipe?
“No way,” O’Brien flatly stated,
surprised by naivety of the question. But it isn’t just inexperience with
waves, it is also the lack of respect shown by such neophytes.
“They’re all amped up and need to mellow
out a bit and wait their turn,” he warned.
“You could get in bad with Pipeline Posse,
the Wolfpack, or even the Hui. You don’t want that.” His eyes expressed an
unspoken admonition — if you get what I mean, he seemed to say.
The Pipeline Posse is a 10-year-old,
well-intentioned group of local surfers who maintain the peace on the Pipe using
the spirit of aloha and patience as tools to keep tempers from flaring. The
Wolfpack are some of the same regulars at the Pipe who sometimes help “enforce
the rules of engagement,” one local observer said. The Hui, which date back to
the mid-1970s, is a high caste of well-established surf locals who in the past
have escalated matters — on both land and sea — when an “outsider”
didn’t show respect or attempted to drop in on the wrong wave.
“Today there is more aloha in the water
than in years before,” said Crawford, observing a well-ordered group of
surfers waiting uncomplainingly for their turn at the Pipe.
“Surfing has suffered from the original
image given it by gunslingers, greasers and hodaddies in the early 60s,”
Crawford noted. “Like outlaw motorcycle gangs, surfers sometimes disrespected
themselves off the field more often than in the water. But it is getting
Along with his year-old Labrador Retriever
back on the beach, Jamie O smiles easily, a soft-spoken and seemingly content
person; he is where he’s meant to be. In conversation, his active eyes dart
about between people and the sea. Nothing escapes his attention. Passersby toss
greetings and aloha his way as a matter of routine. He is respected — of that
there is no doubt. The money is nice, he said, but clearly his ambitions lie
“My win for me means my dream came true. I
can reach my goals; I already did it.”
There are obstacles, though, not
withstanding the man-made rules of right-of-wave. In surfing the basic laws of
physics also apply — no two objects can occupy the same space at the same
O’Brien hadn’t surfed this day. He
pulled his shirt up over his lower back to reveal a skin-colored patch hiding
five fresh staple stitches, the result of a run-in with a water-born
photographer and his camera the day before.
Several times in a single hour O’Brien was
obliged to display this battle wound so as to explain his conspicuous absence
from a reasonably surfable west swell.
Surfing like any extreme sport is inherently
dangerous. The danger is often manageable yet all too often unpredictable. In
the Pipe Masters, dozens of participants have fallen prey to razor-sharp coral
reefs that wait in silence a few feet beneath the tubular waves.
Injuries here are the norm. Surfers display
their respective cuts, abrasions and broken bones like medals of valor. Serious
injury at the Pipeline Masters is expected, so much so that only the most
heinous wounds draw much attention from crowds, lifeguards or medics.
“There is a 100 percent chance of being
injured at some point if you surf the Pipe,” said Roman “Tarawa” Jones, a
Californian surfer visiting the North Shore for the third time since 1999.
Turning his left leg outward, he revealed a zipper-looking scar left two years
earlier by a deep gash along his calf.
“I got this beauty right there,”
pointing toward the second of the three reefs at Pipeline some 100 yards from
During or before the Pipe Masters, injuries
have taken their toll on top professionals as well as visitors. A few years ago,
local iconic hero and multi-past Masters winner Derek Ho hit a reef and suffered
a head injury; he nearly drowned. Top contender Taj Burrow smashed up against
some coral and was out of the contest. That same year, Floridian Cory Lopez
bashed his nose in against a flying board and unhappily left the field.
Injuries and potential death can give one
pause to ponder the philosophical side of the sport. Anyone who has risked all
for the sake of a thrill knows what it means to seek oneself and inner peace
through the process.
Past Pipe Masters champion Gerry Lopez, the
guru-godfather of the Banzai Pipeline, once said in an interview the “soul of
surfing is internal, just like the soul in each of us.”
“The older we get the more we layer over
our souls with beliefs … that make it hard for you to access it, but it’s
Decades ago, surfers would hunt down unknown
breaks seeking the soul of the wave for a communion with nature. It was called
Soul surfing at the Pipe Masters may mean a
combination of respect, aloha, catching a wave of consequence, and perhaps a
pinch of perfection.
“When I won the Masters it was in poor
conditions. But I had the best wave,” Jeff Crawford said. “In any event, the
rider who catches the best wave usually wins.”
Was that perfection?
Jodi Young, the hard-working veteran media
director for the Vans Triple Crown competition, herself a former ASP surfer,
said, “I think perfection in surfing exists in just the same way that the
perfect wave exists: for a very brief moment in time, and that makes for half of
the addiction. When you witness a perfect score in surfing, as we have done on
very special days at Pipeline, it’s when the elements of nature and the timing
and brilliant skill of a great surfer coincide in one brief moment.”
Yet the march to seek the perfect wave goes
on and on. At the Pipeline perfection may last for just a moment, like the
split-second when a golfer makes contact with the ball that results in a hole in
one. It is only this moment surfers seek, not the resulting score.
“Once a surfer attains that flash of
perfection, he has ignited a drive to hunt it down again, and I do believe that
is why surfing overtakes your life and endures for your lifetime, because it
really is an addiction once you’ve tasted the thrill,” Young reflected.
“The beauty of it is that the thrill is
relative to your own skill level. You can find your own perfection no matter
what level you’re at.”