On any given morning, along a strip of beachfront property 37 miles north of downtown Honolulu, every porch, front lawn and tree — and even a crow’s nest — is commandeered by people from all over the globe, staring intently to the northwest. They aren’t whale watching, or waiting for the winter migration of the wandering tattler, or pondering life. They’re scouting the waves of the world-famous surf break known as Banzai Pipeline.
It takes a long time to fully understand Pipeline. It’s the kind of wave that washes over its students in consecutive lessons. “First it intimidates you,” legendary surfer Kelly Slater told The Encyclopedia of Surfing. “Then you find the balls to give it a try. Then you figure it out and grow from the pride that comes with that. Then you get hungry for it.”
When it comes to the North Shore of Oahu, and surfing in general, Pipeline is a cultural locus. The wave is steeped in history and, in terms of hollow, powerful, perfect barrels, is rivaled only by waves like J-Bay, Teahupo’o and Puerto Escondido. Pipeline, or “Pipe” as it’s known to locals, has played a part in producing some of surfing’s biggest names, both old and new, including Andy Irons, Sunny Garcia, Gerry Lopez, Michael Ho, Jamie O’Brien and John John Florence. It is also among the deadliest waves on the planet. A short walk from the beach, a wooden memorial is inscribed with the names of all who have perished there — six of them (Joshua Nakata, Joaquin Velilla, Malik Joyeux, Jon Mozo, Moto Watanabe and Travis Mussleman) since 2000.
Surfers flock here, despite the risk, because, as John John Florence put it, “Pipe is really just that center point of the surfing world.”
That center point is found across the Kamehameha Highway from Sunset Beach Elementary School, along what in 1961 was called Banzai Beach, from which the break gets the first half of its name. (The beach is now called Ehukai Beach Park, after “sea spray” in Hawaiian.) The second half, as the story goes, was coined by surfboard shaper Mike Diffenderfer, who compared the shape of the wave to large pipes used in a nearby construction project.
“There are really many factors that make Pipeline a premier surf spot, but if I had to pick one word to sum it all up, it would be ‘consistency,'” said Jonathan Warren, the lead forecaster at Surfline, who has been forecasting waves at Pipeline for over 10 years. “There are several aspects to that word for Pipe.”
The first is consistent swells from the northwest in close proximity to the island, which are helped by the beach’s wide-open exposure in that direction. But the swells are just one factor. As they move towards shore, the sea floor’s unique shape, or bathymetry, helps to consistently keep the waves’ barrel “open” and surfable rather than “closing out” in a single breaking motion. The beach’s three reefs, arrayed parallel to the shoreline — called First, Second and Third Reefs, in the order that surfers reach them as they paddle out — allow the swell to break at a wide variance of heights. “Once the swell builds to twenty- or twenty-five-foot faces, the waves begin to break out on Third Reef over hundred yards offshore,” said Warren. At around 15 to 18 feet, waves begin to break on Second Reef. The final reef that the swell encounters before it reaches shore is First Reef: the most famous break. This is the zone where nearly all famous photos of Pipeline are taken.
These conditions make for other great waves along the same stretch of beach: Log Cabins, Rock Piles, Off the Wall, Gums and Gas Chambers. None of them holds the same weight as Pipeline.
Pipe has played host to some of competitive surfing’s biggest competitions, including the Volcom Pipe Pro, Vans Triple Crown and Billabong Pipeline Masters. Most surfers have a love-hate relationship with the wave. “Competing at Pipeline can be really easy at times, and things go your way — and at times it can be the hardest wave in the world,” said Jamie O’Brien, who’s recorded a perfect 10.0 score there. “Pipeline is a one-and-only.”
On big days, hundreds gather at the beach to watch some of the best surfers in the world get barreled. “It’s like no other wave in the world because of the crowd,” said John John Florence. The fans flood the beach, sitting on towels, the sand and folding beach chairs. (Don’t even think about bringing a beach umbrella.) O’Brien calls it a “natural amphitheater.” Sometimes, the crowd out in the lineup can be even rowdier than the crowd on the beach. On Pipeline’s biggest days, more than 25 surfers gather shoulder to shoulder. Tensions run high. Though not extremely common, fights have been known to break out among surfers who display a lack of respect in the lineup.
Most everybody knows not to mess with those surfers who live in the houses on the small strip along Ke Nui Road. The first of these “surf houses” lining the beach at Pipeline was built in the 1970s by Gerry Lopez, as a headquarters of sorts for his surf brand, Lightning Bolt. Today, the homes along the row are owned and rented by major surf brands like Volcom, Vans, Billabong and Oakley, and serve as winter HQs for professional surfers who stay there anywhere from three to nine months out of the year. Florence owns a house there, as do O’Brien and Slater.
But Pipeline doesn’t just draw the world’s top surfers from afar. The wave is a breeding ground for greatness, turning groms at Sunset Beach Elementary into the next John John Florence, Andy Irons and Jamie O’Brien. Soon, the next generation, taught on sandbar breaks and small days, will carry the torch. And when they eventually become the next Irons, Florence or O’Brien, they’ll tell everyone that Mother Nature’s magnum opus played more than a small role in their success.