Oahu’s fabled North Shore has become known over the past decade as the “surfing capitol of the world,” where diehard adrenaline junkies tempt fate to catch (or be eaten by) massive, 20-40 foot waves and the world’s best surfers gather annually, bringing the Billabong, Vans, Volcom, and other “surf” houses to life. Every winter the Swell arrives, waking up the infamous Banzai Pipeline—the best and most dangerous wave on the planet—and bringing with it the throngs of surfers and their fans.
The surf culture has always held a sort of mystique for me, perhaps because I was raised in a culture that was so opposite (think combines, hay bales, and cornfields.) When I lived in Folly Beach, SC I started learning how to surf, and I was stoked when I moved to Hawaii to continue to improve my skills (which were very lacking)… until I accidentally ran over a local brah on my surf board at Queen’s (a popular surf break in Waikiki) and encountered my first gnarly dose of localism. (Take-away points to remember next time you find yourself paddling out to a surf break in Hawaii: local brah’s can be very territorial about their waves. Don’t steal, stay out of their way, and most definitely never run over one unless you want to learn how to cuss someone out in a colorful mixture of pigeon and english.)
I decided it was safer for everyone involved if I catch waves through my camera lens rather than on my surfboard. But I am still as enamored as ever with the sport and the waves… especially the really big ones. I am absolutely mesmerized every time, no matter how many hours I spend on the beach staring at the churning surf. I love that moment when it just starts to curl — this moment.
So much anticipation as the invisible force behind it pushes it up, up, up, and then it crests—majestically, gracefully—the churning foam at its head and the seamless, delicately arched turquoise of its face as it tumbles over and down, crashing to the shore with a thunder that still ricochets through my ears hours later.
When I realized that I would be on Oahu for work shoots recently at the same time as the Billabong Pipe Masters surf competition, as well as the Women’s Pipe Invitational, I was ecstatic. I’d never seen the Pipeline at her best before, as this is my first full winter season in the islands, and everyone was going to be there — the best of the best, and everyone else. Kelly Slater, Gabriel Medina, Mick Fanning, Julian Wilson, Adrian Buchan, Bethany Hamilton (for the women’s invitational) etc…and me.
The Billabong Pipe Masters began in 1970, and every winter draws the 45 best male ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) surfers to Oahu’s North Shore to compete at the Banzai Pipeline for a share in $425,000.
I snuck up to the North Shore for a few hours in-between other shoots, joining the throngs on the beach to watch the Pipeline do her thing and the incredibly talented individuals create a beautiful sort of art as they surfed over and through her masterpiece of a wave, a dance that was as mesmerizing and alluring as the mystique of the ocean.
I wanted to play hookie from the rest of my weekend and spend the entirety of it sitting there in the sand, but yet again, other adventures were waiting and as the sun neared the horizon I had to pull myself away to journey on.