The final day of the 2013 Pipe Masters and Triple Crown of Surfing on Oahu’s North Shore was a really special day. It was, in one word, surreal. In two- holy s#*t! In more words- stunningly beautiful, enormous, ominous waves in short sets, ridden by a gathering of the world’s best, vetted pro surfers, who are absolutely not in the business of disappointing- themselves or fans.
One couldn’t have asked for a friendlier crowd of spectators, despite numbering in the thousands Saturday December 14- a real testament to how much the Hawaii-born sport is not just respected but embraced by its people to this day.
For me, the day began in Waikiki, where I caught the bus to the North Shore at the mall. Knowing that a new NW swell had arrived overnight bringing 10-to-15-footers at Pipeline, it was imperative that I get an early start and, sure enough- it being a weekend, and with the final day of heats sure to be “on”- the empty bus instantly filled to standing room only.
Two plus hours of travel seemed like an eternity. And the return trip took three hours, given the let out. I will never take that North Shore bus again; it’s too damn long of a ride, even if it did pay off in spades. Word to the wise: Rent a car or, better yet, carpool.
We cut through the lush Ko’olau Mountain Range on the Pali [highway], meandered through Kaneohe on the east shore passing Chinaman’s Hat (a lone, conical offshore island named for its appearance), went up and around Oahu’s northernmost point and passed the shanty shacks and humblest of homes that have dotted the pricey North Shore for decades.
Unfortunately, with just 15 minutes to goal, yours truly had to pee so badly that if I didn’t get off the bus, I was going to cause my parts real, structural damage. So, at the Turtle Bay Resort stop, I got off and headed for the nearest trees to relieve myself. Hey, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. What I didn’t notice was that another woman was in the same boat, and on my tail so, needless to say, we squatted and winged it the rest of the way together.
Twenty minutes later, we hopped on another bus and soon arrived at Pipeline, where traffic was a single-lane claustrof#*k in both directions, and cars and vans were angularly parked like sardines on the roadsides, to fit as many as possible. North Shore residents and advocates of “Keep[ing] The Country Country” draw their line with this very kind of public invasion. They argue there’s simply no infrastructure to support further development without an accompanying increase in traffic impacting natural resources. It’s pretty obvious.
My travel buddy had been to Pipe before, because her boyfriend was one of the in-water surf photographers, so she led the way to the beach access path. While I was focusing on my footing and navigating through the foot-deep, churned-up sand, I was totally unaware of what I’d see when it things opened up. And, man, did it ever!
At the end of the access, I looked up and, Boom! My eyes widened like saucers to the sight of 180 degrees of the biggest, longest, bluest waves I’d ever laid eyes on. “Holy s#*t!” I said out loud. I’m talking goosebumps. This is what I’d been missing. Travel buddy probably thought I was a cave dweller instead of Kama’aina.
Spectators sat 30 people deep for a quarter of a mile of the beach. Not knowing the etiquette for sitting down and essentially creating the next front row, I asked a group if we could set up in front of them. “Sure. Just don’t stand up,” as they pointed to folks standing up at shoreline, shamelessly blocking everyone’s view on the ground. “Got it! Thanks.”
The sky was clear, it was 80 degrees, and a closer-than-normal sun, it seemed, reflected off sea spray at each end of the beach from the sheer force, with which these monster waves crashed onshore. It was freaking dreamy. I could stare at this every day, and lot of folks do, including John John Florence- Hawaii’s local favorite- who allegedly lives on just the other side of the event tents. Pipeline IS his backyard, and he was already in the water. What timing!
Florence caught a big ‘un, did a cutback and went airborne at the end just to dig in and showboat. We ate it up, and he brought us all to our feet. His score had him in first place. It was looking like Kelly Slater would get his wish to go up against Florence after all. This was definitely the place to be.
Each surfer’s drop looked like they were literally falling in slow motion, but the actual rides were near-instantaneous, heart-pounding. No binoculars needed but, if you blink, you miss it. I’m no expert, but the waves (height is measured in Hawaii by the front face) looked like 10-15 feet, glassy. You’d see the deep, marine blue wall of water form, heighten, crest, and then just unleash into super long barrels, not all of them rideable. Then, not more than 10 seconds later, another would form right behind it. Crash. I heard a testimonial from someone who’s seen 50-foot waves at Pipeline that swallow up the entire beach, sound just like a jet engine when they crash, and actually reach the road, requiring closure. If you’re paying attention, it doesn’t take long at all to get a sense of I better get ready to pick up and move my stuff when this one washes in. A few times, the announcers had to ask wading kids to get out of the water.
Photographers and videographers were everywhere, armed with those big, fuzzy microphones. I hate being in the lens, but there was no escaping it. The call booth was also nearby and announced from a megaphone, loud and clear, who had priority and each surfer’s score.
Not 30 minutes later, Kelly Slater was up. Guy got swarmed just trying to get in the water, but he looked like he expected it, has proven himself to be a pretty good sport. He was up against Joel Parkinson at that point, but I was lucky enough to see rides from Sebastian Zietz and Mick Fanning, as well. My knowledge of particular surfers is limited to around 10 but hardly diminishes my appreciation for their mastery and the dangers.
Slater, emerged from one after another 50-to-100-foot-long tubes that got so tight at the end, you never expected him to make it out. Oh, but he did, and the applause he commanded was just as rousing as what Florence got. On one wave, Slater duped the announcers, who were saying there was no way he could emerge. But, he sure as hell did, it was awesome, and he scored a perfect “10” from all three judges. You gotta give Slater this: He knows how to work a crowd.
Heat after heat came and went, I made a few more acquaintances and, four hours later, made the executive decision to head home. Right before the final heat between Slater and Florence. I know what you’re thinking, Why?! Eh, at a certain point, I get it and need to vamoose, particularly from massive crowds. Plus, I wanted to get head start on the traffic headed back to town.
In the end, Slater won, and Florence came in second.
Slater said this:
“It was spectacular. To have all these people, all these fans, all this build-up- on a weekend, with the best waves we’ve had all year, perfect Pipeline and south waves- I mean, you couldn’t have written a better script. It was a great day.”
If you haven’t yet been to one of the three arms of North Shore competitions that comprise the Triple Crown of Surfing, you have 10 months to plan. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful and an event you will not forget.
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Written by Purna Nemani, a Wave Tribe friend and awesome human being living in Hawaii.