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Thunder From The Sea
Sam Moses
March 08, 1982
Every winter huge swells roll across the Pacific to Oahu to create the Banzai Pipeline—magnificent tunnels of roaring water that are surfing's greatest challenge
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March 08, 1982

Thunder From The Sea

Every winter huge swells roll across the Pacific to Oahu to create the Banzai Pipeline—magnificent tunnels of roaring water that are surfing's greatest challenge

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"What I don't understand is that kids surf the Pipeline for fun now. I mean, we thought it was a death defying deal, and they do it for fun! I'm surprised more people haven't died there. The last time I surfed the Pipeline was 1969. I was glad when I was finally getting too old. I could say, 'I'm not going to risk my life like this anymore.' "

In the late 70s Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans arrived and went crazy at the Pipeline, surfing with an aggressiveness some regulars resented. And with the trepidation barrier broken, the Pipeline was being surfed in droves. Because there isn't room for two surfers on any one pipe, competition for the waves was intense and often unfriendly. Intimidation, both psychological and physical, became a part of surfing the Pipeline.

The toughest and smartest surfer got the waves, the way the biggest pup in a litter gets the bone; in fact, "dog" became the tag for a surfer who stole waves by taking off in front of another. "Idiots were falling out of the sky on top of you," says one surfer, "and it got so if you stole anyone's wave, you'd better be prepared to be worked over." There were even fistfights in the water, the surfers straddling their boards while they duked it out. And there were racial overtones: locals, the euphemism for Polynesian-blooded Hawaiians, versus haoles (pronounced HOWlies, meaning outsiders, or whites, whether Hawaiians or not) versus foreigners. Pipeline feuds contributed to the already sorry North Shore crime rate. The situation saddened the pioneers, who could remember the days when there were enough waves to go around and there still was camaraderie in the water.

But such goings-on weren't inconsistent with the surfers' casual every-man-for-himself approach to life. They have always seen themselves as escapists and mavericks. Timothy Leary, the drug culture guru, once said. "Everything is made of waves, and surfers are mutants, throw-aheads of time," and the surfers liked that. They are fond of saying they are like the waves themselves: No two are the same. But it's not really true; it just seems that way because they're too drifty to get it together.

There's a disdain for competition among surfers, because they see their sport as a sort of free-form artistry. The early surfing events were called expression sessions, with no judges to criticize form and daring. The surfers figured whoever had the most fun was the real winner. It's still considered slightly un-cool to win a contest; at the least, surfers don't take losing very hard.

But they're not without a competitive spirit and they itch for recognition, which creates a problem. Surfers have always been glory hounds. Oh how they love pictures of themselves! Even the coolest of the cool will turn into a hot dog at the sight of a camera. When Edwards first surfed the Pipeline, he was filmed from the beach by moviemaker Bruce Brown, who shot the footage for one of his early surfing films. Surfing Hollow Days, a prelude to his classic The Endless Summer. It wouldn't be impugning Edwards' motives to suggest that the movie camera inspired him to greatness on that historic day.

The first surfer to stand clearly above all the others at the Pipeline was Butch Van Artsdalen, although overall he wasn't nearly the surfer Edwards was. "During my time Butch was really the King of the Pipeline," says Edwards. "He had it all over me because he was self-destructive. I was a chicken, but he had the kamikaze attitude you need to ride the Pipeline."

They called him Black Butch. He liked to bar-fight, and he liked to take direct hits on the head from 20-foot waves—at least, he would surface smiling. He became a Pipeline lifeguard and saved many lives. Unfortunately, his own wasn't one of them. He died in Wahiawa Hospital in 1979 of cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism. He had his friends with him when he went out, smiling, into a hepatic coma, a beer in hand. His ashes were scattered in the Pipeline lineup. A funeral train of 40 surfers on their boards circled the floating ashes and tossed flower leis on the spot.

For a couple of years in the late '60s Jock Sutherland was the undisputed ace of the Pipeline. Raised on the North Shore, Sutherland, a switch-foot, was more than a Pipeline specialist; in fact, he was the first—and probably last—surfer since Edwards to be considered clearly the best in the world. Sutherland was known for dropping acid before he took on the Pipeline, but he was also intelligent and somehow stayed in at least tentative touch with reality. Says his brother-in-law, Mark Cunningham, a Pipeline lifeguard who is probably the best body surfer alive today, "Other guys would lose it for a while, but with Jock it was controlled craziness. He always knew what he was doing."

Sutherland enlisted in the Army in 1969, and after he came back to the North Shore in 1971, he never regained his form. He still lives there. He spent this season in a cast from hip to ankle, after breaking his femur on the rocks at a spot called Jocko's, named after him. He was the first to surf against those rocks.

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