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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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Then there was Jose Angel, the most fearless if not the most skilled Pipeline surfer. Of Filipino-Chinese ancestry, Angel was an elementary school principal in Waialua, and a semiprofessional boxer and wrestler. He didn't get high on drugs; he got high on nitrogen. He was hooked on scuba diving for black coral, which lies 150 and more feet down.

Angel first came to the North Shore from Santa Cruz, Calif. with Van Dyke in 1955. For the first few years, the Pipeline scared Angel, but then he seemed to change. "He was the guy the photographers started following," says Van Dyke. "There was no limit to what he would go out in. There wasn't a wave he wouldn't take off on. He would wipe out in all of them, and it wasn't with grace or finesse. He had a way of bailing off the board, doing a backflip and falling 20 feet to the trough. People still talk about his wipeouts."

But the years took their toll on Angel. He got the bends numerous times while scuba diving, and it affected him physically. He had marital problems, and they affected him emotionally. He began having a recurring nightmare that he was caged underwater and his mother was a shark trying to eat him. One day in 1976 he went diving off the island of Maui and lost track of the boat and had to swim eight hours and some 13 miles to reach the island of Molokai, where he climbed the cliffs on the shoreline to reach civilization. When he got back to the North Shore, he read an account of his death in a newspaper.

The report was only a few weeks premature. To sink faster, coral divers often jump into the water cradling two heavy rocks like babies. On his final dive the heavily weighted Angel misjudged the depth in the area; what he thought was 250 feet was later measured at 325. His body was never found.

Rick Grigg, 44, now an oceanographer with the University of Hawaii, was with Angel that day, but Grigg doesn't believe Angel was reckless—let alone self-destructive. Grigg feels a shark may have gotten him. He talks of Angel indirectly: "You need people who are willing to push the limits, so others can follow. They make it possible for others to go out there with style. They'll go out on a 30-foot day, take off, slide down the face and wipe out, but some other guy who has the finesse to pull it off will say, 'Hmm, that's possible.' Maybe until then he would have never tried it. He might have sat on the beach thinking about it for the rest of his life."

Most surfers are followers. The Pipeline went untouched for years. After Edwards surfed it, he looked over his shoulder and saw three of his buddies paddling toward the lineup. It's the same today. On a particularly nasty morning the Pipeline may be empty; finally, one surfer will screw up the courage to tackle it. Then there will be a swarm.

Once in a while a surfer like Edwards comes along with the perfect style, just the right blend of easy skill in the water and laid-backness on land. The other surfers want to be just like him. Imitation is the rule in surfing. Equipment manufacturers are aware of this. Virtually all of the pros, stars or not, endorse surfboards and beachwear; their photos are featured in the ads and articles in surfing magazines. The idolatry is almost childlike. Everyone has a mentor, even Edwards, whose guru is an irascible old North Shore character named Flippy Hoffman, who has surfed the 40-foot waves at Kaena Point, or so the story goes.

Gerry Lopez, 33, of mixed Japanese, German and Spanish descent, is considered the best surfer ever to come down the Pipeline. Like no surfer since Edwards, Lopez, who is 5'8" and 140 pounds, has become a cult figure. He's the only surfer to have parlayed the Pipeline into a living, and a handsome one at that. He endorses Pipeline-label clothing, makes promotional surfing expeditions to exotic, tropical spots and recently finished making a movie in Spain—he costarred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. Lopez suspects he was cast because the director, John Milius, is a surfer and wanted a kindred soul around during the six months' shooting.

Rory Russell, who has been surfing the Pipeline half his 28 years and has ridden it as well as anyone over the last half dozen, doesn't shave under his lower lip because Lopez doesn't shave under his. "Gerry Lopez is my idol, my hero and the greatest surfer that ever surfed the Pipeline," says Russell.

Lopez, too, has his idols: the North Shore pioneers. "I look at those guys and think how great they were," he says. "They remind me of the mountain men of the Old West. Those North Shore guys were real water men."

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