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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.